Multitudes: Poems Selected & New

Multitudes: Poems Selected & New

by Afaa Michael Weaver

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The poems of Multitudes comprise an African-American opera of towering ambition and scope: there are arias and recitatives, whispers and shouts, growls and coos, formal interludes and symphonic improvisation, all set within a revelatory social and cultural context.

It is difficult to speak of a poet like Weaver, whose gift is large, lush, and


The poems of Multitudes comprise an African-American opera of towering ambition and scope: there are arias and recitatives, whispers and shouts, growls and coos, formal interludes and symphonic improvisation, all set within a revelatory social and cultural context.

It is difficult to speak of a poet like Weaver, whose gift is large, lush, and expansive. The difficulty is multiplied when considering a Selected Poems, where the magnitude and range of the poet's accomplishments are fully displayed. One could spend a good deal of time merely on the works of lyrical intensity, such as Weaver's series of poems "Lamentations" which explores the painful permutations of a father's illness and a mother's death. One could marvel over the compressed emotion this series somehow manages to contain and, in the end, to release in the reader.

But this would be to ignore the sharply etched portrait poems, such as "Sub Shop Girl," "Bootleg Whiskey," and "Walnut Cinema." It would not fully explain the straightforward narrative power of poems like "The Robe," in which a young boy is cruelly shown his place in the sexual hierarchy of grown women. And it would give no hint of the poet's ability to compose such recent, experimentally daring poems as "Mojo Momba," "Piggly Wiggly," and the breathtakingly associative "A Composition for White Critics . . . " which, among its many effects, brilliantly satirizes "postmodern" literary ethos.

And to speak of any individual poems would not capture the extent of Weaver's operatic accomplishment in Multitudes. Weaver is a poet of rare grace, power, and honesty. His work will be read simply because the poetry is superb.

Finally, this is a book that embodies the fraught matter of African-American masculinity, in a way that a thousand essays could not begin to match. Multitudes is a clear window into the soul of the African-American male. In this sense it possesses an ambitious, manifest social value that contemporary poetry can rarely claim. Weaver's Selected will be read for the pleasures of its poetry, yes. But it will also be valued for the urgent illumination it provides into one of the central issues of our country and our time.

Afaa Michael Weaver (b. Michael S. Weav

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
The poems of this sixth collection vary from near-religious ekphrases on Marc Chagall paintings (from Stations in a Dream) to the poet's not exactly sensitive "Mojo Mamba" ("My johnson got a reputation"). If most of the poems don't reflect such poles of subject matter and diction--tending much more toward the former--the possibility of having them together seems to be the point here. Having put in 15 years of factory work before earning a B.A. and M.F.A., Weaver now holds an endowed chair at Boston's Simmons College. Many of the poems are well-constructed free-verse autobiographies, delving into the speaker's misspent youth, conditions on the steel mill floor, or simply describing "The Poet Reclining" or "Going to Church with C.W." Together, they describe a late '60s-early '70s coming of age and intellectual awakening, one that culminates in a series of "Lamentations" and in the book's final poem, from a section of new work. "Composition for White Critics Who Think African American Poets Cannot Work in Contexts of Pure Concerns for Language ," (its full title clocks in at 60 words) is dedicated to Jorie Graham, and attempts to parody the long-lined style and circumlocution of her recent books: "such/ burdens as being less than an adult require the synthesis of forms, this grove of pointed hedges where all time/ changes and gain or you lose or you understand there is no death." While the book as a whole is not quite a successful challenge to the literary powers-that-be, Weaver's stories of hardship and joy ring clear and true. (July) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.|
Library Journal
Weaver (Timber and Prayer) is quite possibly the most highly touted unknown poet working today (witness an introduction by Arnold Rapersad and blurbs from Amiri Baraka and Sonia Sanchez). Five previous volumes of poetry have passed almost in obscurity and are mostly out-of-print. Just as those faithful to his work have witnessed his name change (with earlier books, he was Michael S. Weaver), readers watch as, during the 15 years this volume spans, his acceptance of growing up black in America turns into African American pride. Compare, for example, the early lyric "A Young Aristocracy," (where the poet finally appreciates those fathers who labored 16-hour shifts for "the grand feeling of buying a new row home") with the recent poem, "Enemies," (in which he quotes a co-worker: "Nigger is not really/ a person's color. A nigger cannot be a person." The only place these poems disappoint is in some of his newest work, where the spirit of play overshadows sensitivity. Highly recommended.--Rochelle Ratner, formerly with Soho Weekly News, NY Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.\

Product Details

Sarabande Books
Publication date:
Edition description:
1 ED
Product dimensions:
6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 0.50(d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One


I have seen lines on a paper
turn four-lane highways to roads
snaking through clusters of pine,
raise foot-high grass in medians,
pull the tongues of people to a drawl,
tighten the air and fill it with honey,
put the hands of women on their hips,
stand them in peanut fields with straw hats,
slow the paces of men to a crawl and sit
them on the gas pumps of one-room stores,
scratch belligerence in the eyes of whites.
I have gone South in summer nights,
watching the sun rise haughty and oppressive.
I have felt God tinker with man's differences,
moving through our quartered spaces,
making strangers of the same flesh and blood.

Water Song

In the house that has died,
the dead come down wooden stairs at noon,
puffing the cotton curtain, a cramped bunch
of light pressing down step by step burning,
stopping at the dining room, sitting on
plastic table covers, circling the window,
then they jet through the empty mansion
chasing each other, embracing the empty space
where Granddaddy's picture was kept until
the fall from grace, the deaths in the water,
the water of the lake all around the house,
holding the life still there at siege,
jealous mirrors bobbing on small waves
that swallow and fill the lungs with screaming.

    No man knows his time, but his time is appointed.

The slipshod mules with boxheads and flies,
collar and reins worn to brown frazzle and fiber,
darkened and hardened corn scattered in feed bins,
an empty smokehouse with padlock opened and rusted,
covered outhouse dumps sinking, the old house
flapping its open door back and forth admitting,
garden patch aside going broke under weeds and snakes,
the back porch where we bathed and pinched the girls,
a Victorian mansion of wood and tin and screens,
its skin thinning, its bones going hollow and ashen,
its mind blossoming out and over the farm, growing.
Down the path behind the corncrib there is still
the crack of bushes beneath his feet, fallen pine
branches snapping under the crush of his hands,
the restless moan of the mules bemoaning his call,
his call away, the intonation of angels in his ears,
coming down to turn the home into an ugly wailing,
there is still the flailing of arms in lake water,
armies of people in the abandoned home, discarnate.

    The dead come back to old folk in the country to talk.

An empty swirl of leaves, empty but for the ghosts,
has fallen in through the window, swirling on the floor,
bronze, yellow-gold, black, crisp as paper,
popping up and down on gray, painted floors,
the lives take hold and breathe in the decay,
travelling down the hallway where Grandma slept,
gushed by sudden air into the living room where
summer visitors from up north slept and whispered,
back into the kitchen against the hard iron legs
of the stove, they dance and shout echoes,
a shudder in the house and they are gone back,
following evening rays back to the sun, sucking
back to the moon at night, instant glitter
on the roof, then nothing but dull tin and
the evening gossip of angels when the lake
slaps a wet tongue on muddy banks and steep falls.

    In the twinkling of an eye, in the twinkling of an eye.

Homemade brooms of straw, bundles wrapped in twine,
skirting the wooden floor, scraping the rough finish,
hands dipped into white, metal washbasins, cupped
in prayer, rubbing against faces grimy with oil,
headless chickens tied to upturned poles, flapping
their wings in anger, feathers filling the yard,
hogs grunting over slop, sleeping in their food,
a pair of hands operating the udder of the cow,
raw milk spraying against the bucket in squirts,
bowl upon bowl of hot vegetables toted to the table,
potbellied stove churning an inferno of wood,
in the house that has died and is decaying,
there is laughter, prayer, singing, cursing,
the blare of radios, inordinate snoring from a farmer
who sang his own eulogy as he walked to the lake,
sirens like Egyptian handmaidens over the deepest
move of waves, Canaan in the splashing of catfish,
in the house that has died and is decaying, a shell
of a place where people no longer live in flesh.

    Death holds no fear for folk who are Christians.

Grandma sits on the back porch in a metal glider,
riding silently back and forth, cobwebs in the corner,
her spittoon from a Campbell's soup can
by her foot, through the door comes a sucking
energy like a giant, empty heart with open arms.
She goes again back into the mist of it
with all of them, all the blood of the farm
that has gone to the water and all the plethora
of death, all the endless ways of leaving
in the air over the farm, among the million
blades of grass pushing up, in the clearings
between the pines, a harsh crackle from CB radios,
an ambulance starting up from the lake weighed
by a sudden journey to Canaan, through and past
the lake. The life slips free over the fields.

    I will be back in the by and by. Dying ain't forever.

In the house that has died,
the dead come down wooden stairs at midnight,
soft feet like cotton shuffling to the front porch,
sitting down to dangle over the edge, examining
the picnic table where children ate watermelon.
Granddaddy sits in his corner, napping, sleeping
in the nest of a big, empty heart, a sucking energy,
a song like Egyptian handmaidens over the lake,
the dark, moving silence around this world.

A Young Aristocracy

On their weekends off from the mills,
my father and uncles drove their new cars
to Turner's Station, the mill smokestacks
in the distance, their lungs still feeling
the scratch of the soot they took for air—
in three- and two-piece suits with big shoes,
their Virginia and Carolina ways in a big city.
My mother and her sisters sat on the porches,
in white dresses with ankle socks and patent
leather like dark images of the Andrews Sisters.
Every day on time and some sixteen-hour shifts
paid for the cars, the suits, the promises,
the grand feeling of buying a new row home.
It was the best the world would give then
to its best workers, blacks, browns, high-yellows
from the South. It took us children thirty years
to believe it. Now we are grateful.

A Photograph of Negro Mania

Sitting on cracked and peeling marble steps,
riding in worn-out limousines hanging over the chassis,
struggling up city street hills waddling with
sweating backs, exposed to overeating and ads and ads and ads,
fist-sized hearts imprisoned, sentenced to beating
through uncharted miles of untoned and suicidal flesh
             whispering, "Lord."
Whispering "Lord" over and over, turning fish in pans,
beating the rising dough, filling pie shells, feeding
starving masses flashing through alleys past richochets
of bullets, standing on swollen ankles, radios crackling
             with morning spirituals.
Stages with mohair suits and precision dancing,
artistic genius with classic starvation setting jazz
to geometric progression, sages in African zoot suits
with saxophones, the lead given to bass players when the leader
falls in a pool of sweat, vibraphones beat with blinding
flurries of minute and hairy tongs, the songs, the greatest
             burp of childlike people.
On trains with cardboard suitcases filled
with fried chicken, potato salads making greasy eyes
on the sides, peeping Southern eyes on the passengers, the North
whipping past the windows in a blur of trees, coming in 1902,
1943, 1960 and before there was ever a clock or civil rights
worker to count them, coming in pre-Columbian trinkets
to lie in Cuba in shallow graves and the bottomless hells
             of the Smithsonian and cultural indignance.
Thirty million of them whooping and dancing on the head of a pin,
under the eye of Jesus, their preachers the epitome of Saturday
night conmanship, their mahogany elegance a tune in four-four,
the haphazard zazen of classical Bach and heathen jungle drums
             suddenly becoming percussion.
Unashamed, unashamed, unfree and brought up right,
respecting the smooth glow of moonshine and stars,
the striking stink of rubbing alcohol cooling their grandmother's
heels in her winters, the Beatitudes and poison ivy in vacations
in the hell of the South.
Sitting quietly, still as pre-storm summer air,
taking Kool-Aid popsicles, frozen custard, melted Hershey's,
turning fried eggs in grease of old bacon, frying cornbread,
bending our skin-shiny heads saying evening politely to the age
             and darkening white shadows.
Up the one-lane highways through the Carolinas and Virginia,
bouncing on shifting droplids of Chevrolet pickups,
turning paper fans for four hours on Sundays, eyes peeled back
at the boredom, occasional possessions doing foot stomps
in the aisle, the Holy Ghost descending on a church where bootleggers
sell in the woods, where wet mouths chew gum and love notes,
             up through gates to heaven's where.
In another spring, renewed, full of insight, humbled,
blackness is something revered falling on unwilling hearts
like the veil of night—this misery, these smiles unsummoned
in the alleys, rusted Cadillacs, fish frys, church dinners,
dark bars, shooting dice and drinking wine, dying, falling out,
             making a grand appeal to life.

To the Vietnam Vet

It must have been like a funhouse,
walking the high cliffs under rock apes,
dodging the large stones they tossed down,
lifting the black death to shoo them,
when the women were as cheap as cigarettes,
dutiful, lasting as long as the dollars.
In the jungle night must have felt like
the plumage of a giant peacock around you,
a billion eyes still as pursed lips on
your arms. I remember this when I approach
your house on foot, peeking under cedar
bushes for feet other than the slanting trunk,
taking cover under the first lamplight.
When you peek from your window smeared with
paint, I know it is you and not the black
patriot sleeping in shit with dead men,
remembering Martha & The Vandellas,
afraid to call out to soldiers who
declared it was not your war. Strange
thing when they fire vets from jobs because
they remember, because they stand still
for a moment like sailors tied to a mast,
weathering the storm of phantoms. Stranger
still that I must write a hundred songs
for your unpainted army because I want
you all to believe I understand.

South African Communion

It is not difficult to feel compassion
for the workers in South Africa that stand
in half-mile lines waiting to board buses,
down the dirt roads of shanty towns to mines
and auto factories, the hats with headlights
passing ore up to the bosses, tight-lipped
and fervently religious with their usurpation
of God. At night in South Baltimore we take
excursions from company property to the bars
downstreet, the convenience stores in the heart
of white condolences. The faces we meet, the blank
smiles, the beckoning fists, the yells are
grandchildren of laws that did not allow blacks
to set dusty foot on white pavement past nightfall,
did not allow excursions, the woolly growths to be
called afros, or brown fingers grasping books—
nothing pretentious and black but the night itself.
It is not difficult to understand greed here
where freedom has been harvested, cut and laid aside
to die, when a whole other paradise was carved
from theft. The whole arrangement comes clear.
It's the times I look down and see the dark brown,
veiny hands beneath white frowns, or the scowering
shadows of neon lights from 7-11's and police
sirens, when a waitress would rather not touch my hands
with the change, when a cop calls me boy when I'm thirty,
when people force laughter over clenched knives. It's just
a joke and not very difficult to feel compassion
for the workers in South Africa standing mute in predawn,
hustling to houses of relatives and friends at night
with passes underlined with photos, tossing stones
at personnel carriers. It's easy travelling the streets
of Baltimore, searching the shadows for psychotic cops,
clutching the passport licenses to drive and be seen,
against the impregnable shadows of the moon over
             the hatred.

A Life in a Steel Mill

My father is proud of his life making pipes,
his small row home, his five children, his peace,
two week vacations he took in summertime,
hauling us in his '54 Ford to Lawrenceville,
his wife throwing her arm around him.
He likes to think he was able to pay for good times,
crab feasts in public parks, Saturday drinks
with my uncles while his wife cooked hot soup.
He is as steady as a mountain at rest,
in movement he has the force of an inland river.
He believes in the Resurrection and good bourbon.
He is grateful for the life work has afforded.
My father is a burning sun, an oracle of flesh,
the damp crush of morning dew on naked feet,
a crack and screech of wooden wagons in tobacco,
a host of empty echoes like thunder in caverns
of steel mills, the clatter of his buddies
at a roadside bar coming in town from work.
My father is a son of the ten thousand things.
My father is hickory, tears I have never seen
come through buds in springtime to become leaves.
My mother in her death is the wind and rain.

What People are saying about this

Alicia Ostriker
Afaa Michael Weaver is a poet of angels and demons. His roots are wide and deep, going back to writers of mystical and devotional poetry like Traherne or the early Blake, and conjoined with, at times, the moods (though not the rhythms) of blues. There is an even, slow pacing in his poems that feels like wisdom. I love the truth and purity in the lines of his poetry.

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