Black Cherries – Brief Poems by Richard Wright

wright1928Richard Wright (1908-1960), one of the early forceful and eloquent spokesmen for black Americans, author of Native Son and Black Boy, was also a poet and one who deserves, in my opinion, a wider readership. After the success of  Native Son, Wright moved to France in 1947.  He left America as he found he could no longer tolerate the racism he experienced there. Although married to a white woman and living in New York, he was unable to buy an apartment as a black man. He grew to hate the stares he and his family received on the streets and the manner in which he was still called “boy” by some shopkeepers. So he moved permanently to France and settled in Paris. After becoming a French citizen in 1947, he never again returned to the United States. He escaped the daily humiliations of living with American apartheid, made friends with French writers like Sartre and Camus, and followed from a distance the controversy that continued to swirl about his reputation in the United States.

In the nineteen-fifties Wright continued to travel through Europe, Asia, and Africa. He contracted amoebic dysentery on a visit to Africa in 1957, and despite various treatments, his health deteriorated over the next three years. He died in Paris on November 28, 1960, of a heart attack at the age of 52. During the last 18 months of his life, Wright discovered haiku. From the summer of 1959 until his death in late 1960, he studied the form and wrote, according to his editor, 4,000 poems. In 1998 Haiku: This Other World was published with a introduction by his daughter, Julia. In 2012 this was reprinted as Haiku: The Last Poems of Richard Wright.

Richard Wright and Haiku

Richard Wright was first introduced to the Japanese form by a young South African who loved haiku and who loaned him the four volumes of Haiku by R. H. Blyth, a detailed study and commentary of the genre. During the final months of his life, he was constantly composing haiku, always carrying his special binder with him wherever he went. According to his daughter Julia, Wright wrote his haiku obsessively — in bed, in cafes, in restaurants, in both Paris and in Le Moulin d’ Anduve, a writing community in the French countryside. In Paris, he transferred his poems, written on paper napkins, to sheets of paper and then hung them up on long metal rods and strung them across his dingy studio to examine. She describes his poems as “self-developed antidotes against illness, and that breaking down words into syllables matched the shortness of his breath.” Fighting the illness which often made him bedridden and deeply upset by the recent death of his mother, Ella, he continued, as his daughter says “to spin these poems of light out of the gathering darkness.”

Julia Wright also writes about her father’s reconnection with the natural world. She says that decades earlier in his thirties he “had written . . . how much he disliked the countryside because it reminded him of the physical hunger” he had known as a poor African American in the rural Mississippi of his childhood. Writing haiku not only allowed him to find discipline and distraction from “the volcanic experience of mourning” but also helped him accept “the difficult beauty of the earth in which his mother would be laid to rest.” As she eloquently explains, “A form of poetry which links seasons of the soul with nature’s cycle of moods enabled hm to reach out to the black boy part of himself still stranded in a South that continued to live in his dreams.”

Many contemporary American haiku writers take a dim view of Richard Wright’s work seeing a failure in him to understand the formalities and the scope of the form. One, however, Lee Gurga, takes a more benign view when he argues that Wright will continue to have readers “because in his haiku he faces directly the very human problems of loneliness and exile, and helps give each of us the hope needed to go on in this world for another day. . . . Because of Wright’s simplicity and accessibility . . . he will be the door through which many people will enter American haiku. Haiku has been called ‘an open door that looks shut.’ I believe Wright will open that door for many people. That Wright clearly understood that it was not the door to our ordinary world is indicated by the title he chose for his collection, This Other World.”

Whether his poems are genuine haiku or whether they are better designated, in the subtitle he gave to his original manuscript, Projections in the Haiku Manner, I leave to others to argue. Instead I offer a brief selection of what I feel are his best brief poems.

 

blackcherrysr

Brief Poems by Richard Wright

I am nobody:
A red sinking autumn sun
Took my name away.

***

With a twitching nose
A dog reads a telegram
On a wet tree trunk.

***

A falling petal
Strikes one floating on a pond
And they both sink.

***

In a misty rain
A butterfly is riding
The tail of a cow.

***

A nude fat woman
Stands over a kitchen stove,
Tasting applesauce.

***

The indentation
Made by her head on the pillow:
A heavy snowfall.

***

At slow intervals
The hospital’s lights wink out
In the summer rain.

***

Did somebody call?
Looking over my shoulder:
Massive spring mountains.

 

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Heaps of black cherries
glittering with drops of rain
in the evening sun.

***

The green cockleburs
caught in the thick wooly hair
of the black boy

***

An autumn sunset:
A buzzard sails slowly past,
Not flapping its wings.

***

A freezing morning:
I left a bit of my skin
on the broomstick.

***

The Christmas season:
a whore is painting her lips
larger than they are.

***

Upon crunching snow,
Childless mothers are searching
For cash customers.

***

Burning out its time
and timing its own burning
one lonely candle.

***

Their watching faces,
as I walk the autumn road
make me a traveler.

 

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In a dank basement
A rotting sack of barley
Swells with sprouting grain.

***

Whitecaps on the bay:
A broken signboard banging
In the April wind.

***

In a drizzling rain,
In a flower shop’s doorway,
A girl sells herself.

***

From these warm spring days,
I can still see her sad face
In its last autumn.

***

From the cherry tree
To the roof of the red barn,
A cloud of sparrows flew.

***

This autumn evening
Is full of an empty sky
And one empty road.

***

From across the lake,
Past the black winter trees,
Faint sounds of a flute.

***

With indignation
A little girl spanks her doll, –
The sound of spring rain.

 

 

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On winter mornings
The candle shows faint markings
Of the teeth of rats.

***

As the sun goes down,
a green melon splits open
And juice trickles out.

***

A wounded sparrow
Sinks in clear cold lake water,
Its eyes still open.

***

Amidst the flowers
A China clock is ticking
In the dead man’s room.

***

Little boys tossing
Stones at a guilty scarecrow
In a snowy field.

***

Standing patiently,
The horse grants the snowflakes
A home on his back.

***
The sudden thunder
Startles the magnolias
To a deeper white.

***

While she undresses,
A spring moon touches her breasts
For seven seconds.

***

While plucking the goose,
A feather flew wildly off
To look for snowflakes.

***

Why did this spring wood
Grow so silent when I came?
What was happening?

 

blackcherrysr

 

LINKS

The Terebess Asia Online (TAO) page for Richard Wright containing a large selection of his haiku and some essays.

An interesting article on Richard Wright’s haiku on the Hub Pages site.

Robert Hass discusses 5 haiku by Richard Wright in The Washington Post.

Lee Gurga’s essay Richard Wrights’s Place in American Haiku.

 

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