Crazy-quilt patches of somber and giddy sound formed the literal fabric of my tender world.
I grew up in homes where the verbal jam session was a floating and usually festive fixture. Clusters of people were forever talking with one another, telling stories, shar-ing experiences, observations, jokes, riddles, conundrums, and swapping lies. Our talk was musical. The old folks often quoted scripture, and we all mimicked the voices and gestures of others, marbling the fat of our utterance with lean strips of proverbial wisdom: “A dog that’ll carry a bone will bring you one.” Much later 1 would become aware of the Kenyan proverb that goes, “Talking with one another is loving one another.” For then it was enough to take delight in the pictures and emotions that flooded my imagination as I went about learning, by ear and by heart, the nature of the world that lay beyond my childhood walls and fields.
I used to curl up on floor pallets in a corner or in warmly quilted beds with the door ajar and, while pretending to be asleep, listen to the grown folks carry on into the night by kerosene lamplight — with crickets or rain or wind in the background — way back up in rural Pachuta, Mississippi, and other distant settings.
Language and its stitched-together patterns of sound and beat and melody and pitch was real for me. Those crazy-quilt patches of bright and somber and giddy sound formed the literal fabric of my tender world. They were to be taken every bit as seriously as the very tree stump by the side of the dust road winding into town, that stately chinaberry stump where Uncle John, my maternal grandfather’s brother, boasted that he’d once seen a hair-raising haint trot past one autumn long ago, hundreds of midnights before I was born. “He was ridin on a moon-white steed,” said Uncle John, “and he was dose to me as you sittin from me now. Old Jack seen it too, like to sked him half to death. Rared back, commence to buckin and jeckin so bad 1 got gooseflesh!”
But I knew Old Jack. He was still alive, and he was Uncle John's favorite riding mule. And I knew what Papa, my grandfather, meant when he’d haul off and say in the dead of winter, “I’m tireda hurryin down there to see bout John’s mules. Only thing John’s mules sufferin from is the miss-meal colic.”
It was all as clear and mysteriously evident as lightning bugs pinpointing the summer-starved nights, winking out their starry morsels of code.
My cousin Jesse and the other kids even held long discussions about this. That was probably the way fireflies talked with one another. We figured there had to be some luminous cipher involved that was none of people’s business. All the same, we spent hours trying to break the lightning bug
code, that is, when we weren’t dashing around trapping them in Mason jars to make our own special flashlights. The rise and fall of locust choirs on sizzling afternoons was equally magnetizing. Locusts, in fact, provided the background music for a signal incident that buzzes through my memory circuits to this day.
I’d just finished feeding the chickens and was resting on the edge of the back porch, lazily scrawling letters in the yard dirt with a prized stick, when an old, raggedy, smiling hobo appeared out of nowhere. He wore a faded, floppy straw hat and was carrying a burlap croaker sack. I stood, startled, and looked at once to see what Claude was going to do. Claude was our sleek, black farm dog whose jet, keen nose usually picked up everything. But Claude didn’t stir; he didn’t let out so much as a low growl. That tattered stranger, armed with nothing but a grin, crouched at the porch steps where Claude had been dozing and, nodding a friendly “Hi do?" in my direction, patted the dog on his tick-tortured head just as gently as anyone in the family might have done.
Mama, my grandmother, was coming from her garden with an apronful of fresh-cut okra, snap beans, and green tomatoes. I could see she was as puzzled as I was. Nevertheless, she put on a smile, walked around to where we were, and she and the hobo exchanged pleasantries. He wasn’t asking for a handout or odd jobs to do; he was only passing through and had somehow lost his way. Mama, her gold tooth fittings flashing in the late sunlight, patiently rerouted him, invited him to pluck a few figs and gather some pecans, then sent him on his way. He seemed harmless enough. But when he was gone, she studied Claude and looked at me, then stepped into the shadows of the porch. Narrowing her lucent brown eyes, she said, “I do believe that old rascal musta hoodoo'd that dog.” She said this low under her breath, just loud enough for me to hear. “Hoodoo!” I said. I must’ve been seven, maybe eight, and I’d heard the term, but never from her lips until now. Its meaning had long been hidden from me. “What’s hoodoo. Mama?”
“Hoodoo?” she repeated with a slow smirk that wasn’t easy to read. “Aw, that’s a kinda magic, whatchacall conjure. You burn^candles, you mix these powders, get a holt to a locka somebody’s hair or a piece of they clothes, say these words over and over. It’s magic, but it’s the devil’s magic. See, Cod got his magic and the devil got his. Myself, I don’t like to be foolin with them hoodoo people, never did.”
“Well, how come you say that man done hoodoo’d Claude?”
“Cause that dog ain’t got no business layin up and lettin that Negro pet him like that. Didn’t bark, didn’t even budge hardly.”
“But how could the man put a hoodoo on him if he hadn’t even seen Claude before?”
“That’s what we don’t know. He coulda slipped round here one night while we was sleep and sprinkled around some goofer dust. Mighta even had some in his hand or up his sleeve just now for all we know.”
“But, Mama, wouldn’t we’da heard him sneakin round the house here at night?” “Don’t know that either. Them kinda folks know all this low-down stuff; that’s all they study. The man coulda run up on Claude back there in the woods someplace and hoodoo’d him then.”
“But why would he wanna hoodoo Claude in the first place?"'
Mama trained her gaze on the chickens and the chicken coop and said, “Can’t answer that neither, but I can tell you one thing. If I hear any kinda devilment goin on in the night, y’aU’ll hear me shootin my pistol.”
This was the same woman who moaned and hummed and sang spirituals all day long while she worked and who taught me table blessings and the beautiful 23rd Psalm. It was in such settings that poetry began for me. Perhaps it is children who understand poetry best. I know for certain that, unlike most people, I never outgrew the need for magic or the curative powers of language. The quiescent greenness of those pastures in which I pictured myself lying down is more vivid than ever, and I can see the shapes of cloud and sky reflected in those still waters. I do not take John lightly when he declares, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.” Even now in the Nuclear Era, when we’re constantly only a microchip blip away from graceless extinction, even at a time when the functions of poetry have been denigrated and trivialized, when post-literate societies largely regard poetic expression as a mere amusement. at best, I’ve come to view Creation itself as the actualized speech of the Divine, the un-nameable, dreamlike essence of some marvelous cosmic presence. Sustained and intensive personal experience and involvement with language has opened both my ears and eyes to the magnitude of the Word and its power to transmute perception and consciousness; reality, if you will.
Such lofty realizations have never been uncommon among traditional preliterate peoples, nor among the so-called civilized. Hindu, Taoist, Judeo-Christian, Buddhist, and Islamic cosmologies abound with them. Leslie Silko opens Ceremony, her fecund novel about Indian life on a New Mexico reservation, with a poem that begins, “Tsiits’tsi’nako, Thought-Woman is sitting in her room/ and whatever she thinks about/ appears.” And in his moving book, Eskimo Realities, the humanist anthropologist and filmmaker Edmund Carpenter notes, “In Eskimo the word ‘to make poetry’ is the word ‘to breathe’; both are derivatives of anerca— the soul, that which is eternal, the breath of life. A poem is words infused with breath of spirit. ‘Let me breathe of it,’ says the poet-maker and then begins, ‘I have put my poem in order on the threshold of my tongue.’ ”
It took me quite some time to learn how poetry has always functioned and flourished among all peoples in all times and places, customarily as a natural component of song, dance, work, play, prophecy, healing, exorcism, ceremony, ritual, or communal worship. It was the printing press, among other innovations — to say nothing of altered notions about the place of the individual in the scheme of things — that helped change the way we think about poetry and the Word. Long before the printed word and stuffy ideas about literature turned up in my life, and certainly long before I became the willing ward of schoolteachers, I was sleeping with words. I fondled and sniffed and placed my ear to their secret meanings. I soaked up the silences between syllables, tested them, tasted the saltiness or sweetness of them, and stared off into their bottomless eyes and down their dark, rosy throats. In a world innocent of ABCs, I dreamed in word-pictures and word-objects and word-feelings. And, like most children who live poetry all day long, I disappeared in between the spaces words made. It is this early enchantment with electrifying speech that abides with me still, in spite of the literature industry, in spite of poet-careerists and their ambitions, and quite in spite of the poetry scene itself.
“I always knew you were gonna be strange,” Mama reminded me. She lived to be 100 years and 6 months, a tough and beautiful little country woman whose light-drenched eyes could still see clean through me. My father’s long gone from this world, and my mother has slipped away too. I’ve wandered and rambled from Mississippi to Michigan to California; all over this country, all over the world. And for a long time Mama was still there, telling me things I needed to hear. “Always knew you were gonna be strange. From the time you could babble, you had your own way of talkin and understanding. We would put you on the floor with a funny-book or a magazine while you was still a baby, and you’d start turning pages and feelin on ’em and drift right off into some other world. Never would cry hardly. Long as you had them books to look at, you was happy. I never seen anything like it.”
All my life I’ve been trying to hold onto and expand the joyous purity of those early moments and the magical talk that nourished it. Word by word, line by line, season upon season, poetry keeps teaching me that the only time there is is now.
Reprinted by permission of the Ecco Press, from Drowning in the Sea of Love: Musical Memoir by Al Young, Ecco Press, 1995.