Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Countee Cullen and "A Birch" to Katherine:
A gift of two poets on Inauguration Day

Arriving back home late Sunday from a weekend trip, I was greeted with a copy of this book in my mailbox: Color, by Countee Cullen (Harper & Brothers, NY, 1925).

Cullen was a central figure in the Harlem Renaissance of the 1920s, an explosion of black literary and artistic creativity comprising a cultural and social movement within the African-American community.

When I purchased the book more than a week ago, the significance of its probable delivery date was lost on me. I was busy preparing for a book show and was interested in the book for two reasons, and resale was not one of them.

One, I remember stumbling onto Cullen's writing in one of my college literature anthology texts. I had no recollection of having studied Cullen's work in the classroom or on my own. Those bloated Norton anthologies are packed with so much literature, that a professor can only hope to skim off a representative sampling of the intended theme of the collection (American literature of the twentieth century, British literature to 1800, etc.).

I recall thumbing through a twentieth century anthology many years later, mid-90s maybe, and really liking what I found in the several poems that made up the Countee Cullen section. I do remember wondering why I had never heard of him before. So when I saw this book for sale online, I decided to buy it and get reacquainted with his work. I knew he was a fine wordsmith and I would enjoy new discoveries in his art.

The second reason for the purchase was the mention of some items lurking inside the covers waiting to be discovered and explored. The book's description included a bookplate and a poem handwritten on the front endpaper to "Katherine" from another poet, H. Campbell Scarlett (a literary name if ever there was one!). Mr. Scarlett's obituary was also included. All that sounded like a story, maybe even a mystery, waiting to be unraveled. Certainly, I knew I would explore it here in this format.

I have not been disappointed with either the content or the artifacts of the original owner. This book arrived a few days in advance of Inauguration Day, and today America has its first African-American president. In honor of this historic event and in deference to President Obama's theme of unity, here's an offering of Countee Cullen's writing from Color:
For Donald Duff

Locked arm in arm they cross the way,
The black boy and the white,
The golden splendor of the day,
The sable pride of night.

From lowered blinds the dark folk stare,
And here the fair folk talk,
Indignant that these two should dare
In unison to walk.

Oblivious to look and word
They pass and see no wonder
That lightning brilliant as a sword
Should blaze the path of thunder.
I expected such writing, but the real prize in this book is what was preserved in it by the book's owner, Katherine. Her... what... lover, admirer, friend... H. Campbell Scarlett wrote the poem and is described in the obits as a writer and a teacher. That he aspired to write poetry is evident. That he ever ascended to a higher stage than book inscriptions is not. Doesn't mean he didn't--I just can't find any hint of evidence to support it. But he summoned his poetic muse to express his feelings to Katherine and Katherine apparently was moved enough by his feelings, his friendship, or his love to keep it for what I would suspect was the rest of her life. Here is Scarlett's heartfelt attempt to compare Katherine's beauty to that of a birch tree against a deep blue sky:
A Birch
To Katherine

The trunk, cream white picked out in black
The leaves part green, part touched with golden brown
A birch, etched 'gainst the sky's deep azure blue
By this, dear one, shall I remember you.

A birch, all gold and white and black and green,
A birch, caressed and teased by every passing wind
A birch, as lovely as these words would be
By this, dear one, do thou remember me.
On the facing page are two clippings of the poet's obituary. I am intrigued by the bread crumbs of a life or lives left behind in books. Just a trace of something--a poem, an obit, an inscription, a photo--can create an event, a story, or an entire life around that something.

Certainly, more questions than answers exist. Questions that come immediately to mind are: Why this book for a gift? Why the birch tree for a metaphor? And what exactly is the metaphor? And if the two were lovers, why was that love unrequited, as evidenced by the fact that Scarlett died unmarried and without children? There is no way to know the answers to these questions, but that's okay--I have my own.

This was a teenage romance. Scarlett's obits list his age at death as 55. The date of the obits is May 17, 1965, which means Scarlett was born about 1910. This book by Countee Cullen, Color, was published in 1925. This particular copy is an early reprint, likely within a few years. That makes Scarlett somewhere around 16 or 17 when he wrote to Katherine, who was part black, part white... and there's the the birch tree metaphor--the black and white skin of the tree. That's also a scandal within the Scarlett family. Campbell was survived by by his father, who is listed in the obits as a judge, which, in the 1920s, most assuredly makes him and son Campbell white. The judge's re-election could not withstand an interracial dating scandal in his family and so young Campbell was forbidden to see the light-skinned black girl he was so smitten with. He had the heart of a poet, but the firm hand of the judge overruled his emotions. And Katherine never forgot her young poet and the gift of his feelings inscribed in a book by an exciting young African-American poet. Katherine kept the gift of two poets close to her and when Campbell died some 30 years later, she felt moved to leave another scrap of Campbell's life, symbolic closure perhaps, and, in effect, her own feelings toward a young man whose love could not overcome the social conventions and restrictions of the day. A sad ending.

Of course, I could be way off base here and probably am. But however else the story might have unfolded, I'm sure it's not near as interesting as my version.

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