This poem is a beautiful reflection on identity and compassion that highlights the nuance and intricacies of race and culture that can never be fully understood by those who do not experience it first hand. From the opening alone it shows that although this is about a young white boy’s understanding of race, it is first and foremost about the history embedded in a culture that is not his own.
It is broken into two stanzas, each of which tell a distinct story that together form a larger narrative on an understanding, or lack thereof, of black culture in America. The first stanza builds this narrative through a historical lens of pre- and post-Reconstruction Era America that highlights the exploitation of the black man, and his longing for a better life, which is predominantly expressed through the medium of music. All this is clear through the first lines: “In the song it is still / jump down / turn around / pick a bale of cotton,” and that theme of music stays with the poem as it enters its second stanza.
The second follows a young white boy who doesn’t understand the weight and history behind those songs of longing that he listens to. The poem takes a turn away from its heavy and historical voice to one that feels deeply personal. It presents the idea that, in spite of this lack of understanding of the history and importance of this music in the context of race, this music remains. It resonated with me as a reader. As the only male on editing team on Levitate and a white man at that, this idea that there is an inescapable distance between my understanding of racism, both historically and present-day, and the true weight that it carries throughout an entire culture is something that I have thought about many times. As a growing poet I want to do justice by these ideas, and to hear that despite whether or not the young boy understands that “the white band around his neck,” was a knife scar, or “what it was / to pick a bale of / cotton and drag the bag to the scale / to be cheated and smile back as if not knowing that,” that weight remains, “and it is ‘Goodnight, Irene’ forever.”
We looked at these poems under five different criteria throughout the editorial process, and those are diction, form, cohesion, accessibility and lastly, purpose. For me this poem epitomizes that value of purpose. I could sit here all day and talk about how it uses those other four criteria to great effect, but at the forefront of this poem is an overwhelming sense of purpose, and a purpose it executes immaculately. When I brought it to the table with my co-editors, worried whether I only felt a purpose because it resonated with me, the entire table of editors agreed almost immediately that this poem deserved a spot in the magazine. I didn’t just think it was strong because it resonated with me; it resonated with me because it was so very strong. I aspire to write something holding anything close to an echo of the purpose and weight behind this poem, and I am proud to have it be published in this year’s issue of Levitate.
Jamie Lind, co-poetry team leader, is a Chicago-born poet who is proud of his new role in constructing a literary magazine. He looks forward to finding work that inspires him both as a reader and a writer.