Saturday, December 17, 2005

Split-Gut Song: Jean Toomer and the Poetics of Modernity. By Karen Jackson Ford. (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2005. Pp. x + 205, notes, works cited. Cloth, $35.00)

In this critical work, Karen Jackson Ford re-examines Jean Toomer's work, including his seminal collection Cane, a book which helped spark the Harlem renaissance. Composed of short stories, vignettes and poetry, Cane is, in part, a critique of the dissolution of African American culture and traditions caused by the migration North after the civil war. Ford examines the culture split between the South of yesterday and the North of tomorrow, looking at Toomer's use of various thematic elements such as song and natural versus urbane imagery to mimic the changes in African American culture. Ford also touches on Toomer's desire to hold on to the vanishing traditions of African American culture and bridge the gap between past and present.

The bulk of Ford's book is devoted to Cane, following its three parts: section one, which portrays a vivid, almost idealized African American culture in the South. In section two, as African Americans move North, they lose their culture. Song is replaced with liquor, urban hopelessness and alienation. The middle class world of jazz and theatre cannot save them. Toomer is critical of jazz as being a "whitewashed" (p.99) version of earlier musics. Ford argues here that Toomer used form to mimic message. Poetry disappears, replaced by prose and free verse. The forms invoked in section one (field calls, spirituals) are distorted and corrupted in section two, much like Toomer feared African American culture was in danger of becoming corrupted by middle class values. The soul of an African American woman is re-imagined in one story as a stray dog that must sleep in a vestibule because the woman won't let it in. And only in dreams do these misplaced denizens remember their history, their culture, in the south. Part three has no poetry. It tells the story of Ralph Kabnis, a displaced Northerner teaching in Georgia. Kabnis yearns to be a poet, as many of Toomer's characters do, but all poetry does for him is hint at unattainable beauty. Instead of an idealized South, Kabnis is faced with the reality of lynching, and how can poetry combat this? In Cane, finally the message seems to be that sometimes poetry fails us. But the death of poetry, Ford argues, is also the death of a romanticized image of the south.

This is a complex work and Ford does a splendid job of tackling its intricacies in precise and interesting detail. Her interpretations of Toomer's imagery, form and overall intent are smart and engaging. Ford argues that Toomer was trying to grab on to the disappearing culture of a people who had already lost so much. The new culture being made in the North was balanced on a razor's edge between the desperation of African Americans not finding the new lives they'd hoped for in the North and still facing oppression in the South. According to Ford, Toomer disdained middle class pretensions and portrayed those who pursued the middle class life in negative ways. Toomer saw this burgeoning culture as being ashamed of its roots. Though the South had been the home of slavery it was also that much closer to the original bloodlines of African Americans. Toomer spoke of Cane as being an elegy. He didn't believe traditional African American culture could survive and, Ford argues, he didn't hold out much hope for the culture of the twenties.

After Cane, Toomer didn't publish much. He perused different avenues of spirituality and fell out with his peers. His later work was seen as didactic and lacked the lyricism of Cane. Regardless, this was a momentous book with an interesting take on a period often overlooked. It is well worth Ford's attentions.
-Originally published in The Arkansas Review

No comments: