On James Emanuel’s Whole Grain

Copyright © by Neil Hester, 12/8/07


Lovely Lady Reading, WHOLE GRAIN


Holds it in her arms,

close, close, as if she feeds it,

flushed when she reads it.

                                                -James Emanuel


  So ends the one-page Preface, brief and concise, for Emanuel, unlike so many poets, does not need a list of awards and accomplishments to justify his worth as a poet; instead, his worth as a poet is justified by – believe it or not – his poetry. And yet, this is rarer than one would think in a time rife with poor writers, and poor critics to match, for, instead of sifting for gold, critics are inclined to shovel dirt and rocks into a homogenous pile and paint it gold with worthless praise.

  Ah, but to think of the overall state of poetry is not our purpose here! Let us enjoy what Emanuel has created; Whole Grain is an excellent compilation of poetry, one replete with words that are not present merely to fill a page, but to enliven it. In contrast to most collections of poetry, Whole Grain is sorted by subject matter instead of chronology. Poems written in 1960 are pages away from poems written in 1980, but the difference is negligible to nonexistent; James’ poems are uniformly well-wrought. Each section begins with a haiku, and the book is sprinkled with occasional illustrations.

  Also important is Emanuel’s skill in both formal and free verse; he is a master in both forms. In formal verse, the flow of his words is not negatively affected by the strict nature of the form, and in free verse, his rhythms and enjambment are purposeful and smart, something severely lacking in most free verse. However, a reviewer can say little and prove nothing without the help of the artist in question:


Sonnet For A Writer


Far rather would I search my chaff for grain

And cease at last with hunger in my soul,

Than suck the polished wheat another brain

Refurbished till it shone, by art's control.

To stray across my own mind's half-hewn stone

And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast

A fragment of our common self, my own,

Excels the mimicry of sages past.

Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,

Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,

And feel suffusion with more glorious light,

Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.

Far better to create one living line

Than learn a hundred sunk in fame's recline.


  The lines do not strain to fit the form, and the phrases are fresh; although the main message in this poem is fairly simple, the beautiful language with which Emanuel’s point is made draws the reader in. “To stray across my mind’s half-hewn stone/And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast/A fragment of our common self, my own,/Excels the mimicry of sages past.” is far more interesting than simply saying “Write originally”, and the interest does not stem from difficult words or obscure allusions; James uses typical words in an atypical way to create great poetry that is self-contained. Granted, he does make allusions in some poems, but the purpose is not to grandstand, as some poets (such as Eliot) are guilty of doing.

  One of the major defining aspects of Emanuel’s body of poetry is the presence of poems that use a child-like tone to drive home a point. A couple examples:


Daniel Is Six


When Daniel is six

all people should know it:

the trees show it,

the winds blow it;

nothing will be quite the same:

even Daniel’s very name

will stretch and seem to make a sound

every time he writes it down

or squeezes it into the air

or combs it through his changing hair.


He was five

and will be seven.

There is nothing under heaven

more of miracle than that

except that Daniel one day sat

upon his bed and combed his hair

and dreamed of what was changing there.


A Small Discovery



Where do giants go to cry?


To the hills

Behind the thunder?

Or to the waterfall?

I wonder.


(Giants cry.

I know they do.

Do they wait

Till nighttime too?)


  Poems like these catch the reader off-guard; the effectiveness of these poems, simple and short, is enormous. In particular, the brief preparation for the last two lines of “A Small Discovery” gives them enormous emotional force, and reveals the sort of compassion that can only be well-presented through a child. And yet, poems like these would be immediately rejected by most critics; they do not fit into any of the typical niches of modern poetry, and their utter lucidity and straightforwardness would be (incorrectly) recognized by most critics as a lacking of meaning.

  As mentioned earlier, Emanuel also writes a great deal in free verse:


To Martin, to Luther, to King


To Martin––

no carpenter’s son;

yet, in his father’s house,

without a single nail to drive

he built a separate room,

its stairway of books

his first mountain to climb.


To Martin Luther––

this Black one no grim-lipped, monkish man;

yet the church door in old Wittenberg

with Ninety-Five stitches in its face

lurched, with features not more changed

than stricken Alabama’s

when Martin and his aching marchers

drove their singing nail

through jailhouse-courthouse steel

to pierce the arrogant law.


To this natural King––

no silks and purple on his back––

just royal burlap, denim, cotton;

to this new John Henry

building a tabernacle for the world:

drilling love up the mountain,

driving the steel, the message, through,

dying with the hammer in his hands.


  Once again, Emanuel’s language is plain, but full of original phrases: “royal burlap”, “singing nail”, and “drilling love up”, to name a few. The line breaks are good, and analogies are scattered throughout the poem (especially the carpentry theme); “single nail” becomes “singing nail”, “its stairway of books,/his first mountain to climb” hints at another mountain, which appears in the last stanza, and the hammer in the last line completes the running theme. In a poem dedicated to Martin Luther King, Emanuel portrays him admirably, without becoming overly sentimental or trite.

  The above excerpts are only a small portion of the riches contained in Whole Grain. Poets, new and old, have much to learn from the Emanuel’s verse; more importantly, however, readers have something to enjoy and cherish, for Emanuel captures life in words with all the excitement of a child cupping for fireflies– and there are few things rarer than that.


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