The Poet in the Mirror
Belair Edison Neighborhood
Belair Edison Neighborhood
"Play it Again, Sam..."
If you're thinking about the film Casablanca, that's not surprising. At least in my generation, that reference is well known. What you may not know is that my personal reference this time is to Sam Cornish, the Poet, who passed away recently. He was in the year of his eighty-third birthday. He was a native son of Baltimore. He was a friend.
This morning I got up thinking about Sam and poetry and friendship among poets. A kind of bottom line came to me. If you value the friendship of a poet, you inevitably come to think of how much you value the person of the poet, or the work of the poet. As poets, are we our work? Or are we more than our work. Of course, we are more than our work, you might say.
Baltimore is a large city with a small town consciousness. It is so close to Washington D.C. that it suffers from a certain neglect. D.C. has its permanence, but it also has a population that comes and goes. It is the city that is the seat of the nation and has to always remind the nation's government that it is a city. Baltimore has its neighborhoods, its seafood, Eubie Blake, Babe Ruth, Dunbar High School...but with all its love and personal feeling, it can feel like a city that you have to leave.
Sam Cornish left when he was a younger man. When I was sixteen years old in 1968, Sam was thirty-two and very much committed to being his poet self. I was graduating from Baltimore Polytechnic in engineering, and was a year away from seeing the poet in the mirror.
Some fifteen years into talking with the poet in the mirror, I was thirty years old. Baltimore's small town consciousness felt like a confining sameness when I was working in factories there, much of it on the edge of the harbor. In 1982, I decided to take a day trip to New York to see the old Schomburg and the public library around the corner, where Hughes, Cullen and other Harlem Renaissance figures once walked and talked. It brought poetry closer to me, or so I thought.
The poetry is everywhere. It is rooted inside us, and connected to the outside of us. However, it is not all that we are, or at least that's my not so humble opinion. When we feel like the stakes are high, and we want more than ever to be at a certain level of recognition, then poetry can seem like everything. What happens when we step back from ourselves and look at each other as people who are poets, as opposed to poets who are people?
I came back to Baltimore renewed and wrote an op-ed piece for the Baltimore Afro-American newspaper about my trip to New York. It was about me needing to feel connected to a piece of history.
by Kim Hairston for Baltimore Sun
When my book The Government of Nature won the Kingsley Tufts, Sam was excited, as excited as I was when he was named Boston's first Poet Laureate. We talked on the phone. He thought the book should be a double hitter by also winning either the National Book Award or the Pulitzer. It didn't happen that way, but the conversation was important to our friendship. When a friend passes away, I instantly miss the ability to talk to them by phone. When I last spoke with Sam by phone, I had just moved into the Cream Hill neighborhood in northwest Connecticut. Grief lives in such absences.
This morning Kristen and I did our usual spiritual reading and added some poetry. I read Countee Cullen and Jean Toomer to her. She asked me to read "Fern Hill" for her. We also recited the first section of "Song of Myself." It's what we do. It's how we celebrate the fact of being in love, alive together as two poets and writers, as life partners on the road to happy destiny. It's a space where we cherish our friendship and the friendships we have with other people, some of whom are poets.
I wish Kristen could have met Sam and his wife Florella. I wish I could call him now and ask him to review this before I push the post button. I wish...I wish...I wish.
Then I hear the poet in the mirror saying, "Click your heels three times and know you are always in Baltimore."
Copyright©2018Afaa M. Weaver
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