On James Emanuel’s Poems

Copyright © by Whinza Ndoro, 11/14/07


  Any experience can be turned into art, and great art at that, if you learn to clarify, translate then craft it against the modulation of certain abundant silences. In his Whole Grain, Collected Poems 1958-1989, James A. Emanuel attests to this dictum in poem after lively poem, that future generations (as some now have luckily noted) see will rival the best of Rilke, Stevens, Frost, Hayden, Plath, (Judith) Wright and Hikmet.

  Employing in it the incisive, insightful snapshot of the haiku, to segue the differing array of subject matter as well as themes, he delves into a dazzling and unlikely multifold of lyrical expression which topically range from his Blackness abroad as in America, encounters with racism without that preachy blowhorn of Black as victim, the grains, the tensions and slight observations that tear and foothold all our relationships, how he became and practices his poetry and devilishly delightful but very male-orientated, but no lesser literary, even of an old man as he fingers a girlie magazine. Perhaps, the same man who scans Ass On The Beach In Spain, a poem which by title alone, nowadays, would be deemed politically incorrect to publish regards of its manly merits.

  Now, obviously this is only a sampling, but no poet, great or otherwise, Black or White, American or international has ever written poems, as Emanuel has, that can be regarded too as ‘cool and hip,’ and this is not in the MTVed version of the phrase, or current dross of antics and gimmicks given to semantics by today’s spoken word artists, who ironically would learn how the formal stylistic groundings of many a great poet—again Plath, Frost, and that hawk of a man Jeffers, add but don’t detract to their ‘art’. Furthermore, what confidently thrusts Emanuel striding opus into that rare strata of greatness is how freshingly topical and timeless many poems read, albeit twenty and more years have since lapsed. And while modern poetry has had a curveball ridding itself of the straitjacket that serious literary matters can’t be confronted seriously while congruently comical, again Emanuel counters this fallacy, as he deftly walks a tightrope between dramatic and comedic effect characteristic of a Woody Allen at his zenith, and if we strictly considered poets, only the British poet, Stevie Smith has gazed this brow, but sparingly. Note this nugget, typical of a Emanuel’s poem in An Old French Dog, Barking:


A stylist tourist stopped

to English her pity.

“Ooooh, you babykins,”

She sighed; “him such a big, bad dog!”  


  Or consider this opener as a prepubescent girl is considered against her close kinship, or is it intimate (father/boyfriend?-daughter) relationship with Her Diary:


“I’ll tell Mr. D. about it,”

She’d say, to send us on our way,

unclarify a private thrill,

unshare a thinwalled pain.

At home, she’d ink it in

while Mr. D. handsome in her need,

waited sail and shore.


  Beyond the scope of this review, aside from the aforementioned, so much more can be garnered from this collection, but only reading it in its entirety will pleasantly surmise, but lastly and most noteworthy, James A. Emanuel has given us permanent poems (The Death Of Such A One, After The Poetry Reading, Black, Three Chores, One Country Day, to mention a few amongst so many others) that are new things in themselves, in that they have the characteristic arc of the short story, while defiantly poetic in liquid poise. And this stylistic innovation bears the mark of not only a great American poet, but also an international one, who sadly the world has yet to take further note, although treed in this peculiar game.


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