Margaret Danner: Ethereal Strength

Margaret DannerMargaret Danner (1915-1984) began winning poetry awards in the eighth grade.  In 1945 she won second prize in the Poetry Workshop Award at Northwestern, and went on to win such awards as a John Hay Whitney Fellowship (1951), the Harriet Tubman Award (1956), and the Native Chicago Literary Prize (1960).  In 1953 Poetry published a series of her poems, and in 1956 she became the first Black to become assistant editor of the prestigious magazine.  She was also Wayne State’s Poet in Residence, a post she acquired after moving to Detroit in 1959 to be part of the “Detroit Group” of artists and writers.  There she got a local pastor to lend her an empty parish house and founded Boone House, a cultural center for writers, artists, and musicians.

Danner claimed close personal and working relationships with the likes of Margaret Burroughs, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Langston Hughes, to whom she wrote in 1945: “My life as a poet looks very bleak to me now…Only last night I read one of mine and was told it was elusive, ethereal, etc.  Not much help for my people in that sort of verse.”  But her style—certainly elusive and ethereal—caught on as she learned to tune it to carry strong messages—albeit “quirky,” as I say below—about social justice and pride in African American and African culture.  She became one of the beloved figures of the Negro Renaissance, and even in the midst of the Black Arts Movement she was revered for her support of that younger generation of writers whose expressions were more direct and blunt than hers, and certainly not as ethereal.

Poem Counterpoem by Margaret Danner and Dudley RandallOne of her biggest supporters was the great poet Dudley Randall, one of the central figures of the Detroit Group.  Together they published Poem Counterpoem (1966), wherein she and Randall wrote alternating pairs of poems on similar themes.  The wonderful “Beautiful? You Are the Most,” for Josephine Baker, comes from this collection, and I included it in my book Black Writing from Chicago, one of several works referencing Josephine Baker throughout the volume.  For Baker was a liminal, in-between figure, both lionized and desired for her obvious beauty and talent, yet also held at a distance because she was also obviously black.  Did our desire humanize her or animalize us, or was it animal of us to dehumanize her?  Or is what we think of as animal really more human, and humanizing, than we are?  The cat imagery in her Josephine Baker poem explores this wonderfully—and dangerously:

This sweet little kitten’s soft purr
nearly matches your cheek
in its grain, its contour, but this meek
little kitten, when its mittens unsheathe, cannot match
your lightning-like scratch.
if this cat had the vision
would the ice in its blood
let it probe to the sore,
slit an incision,
and pour in this balm
that you pour?

She “dedicated” this poem “To Josephine Baker’s stage appearance and her all nations adoptions.”

Danner wrote from odd angles about our dehumanization of Blackness and especially of African culture in general.  Her dedication to that culture brought her a grant from the American Society of African Culture, and the Whitney Fellowship mentioned above allowed her to travel there.  African images filled many of her later poems.  “The Bells of Benin,” “The Christmas Soiree and the Missing Object of African Art,” and “To A Nigerian Student of Metallurgy” are among the best of these poems, as is “These Beasts and the Benin Bronze,” which comes from the oddly titled Impressions of African Art Forms in the Poetry of Margaret Danner (1961).   I also included this poem in Black Writing from Chicago, a poem which opens with an allusion to Chicagoan Dave Garaway’s monkey:

Dave Garroway’s Mr. J. Fred Muggs often thumps
quite a rhythmical thump with his feet,
doesn’t he?  Sometimes he seems pretty clever.

But irrespective of his Fauntleroy and other neat
and obviously dear apparel, have you ever
wondered whether he, if his very life

depended on it, could take a stave from a barrel
and curve a small, smooth, round stick?

It then proceeds to ask tongue-in-cheek questions about whether animals can produce art.  They can’t.  So why do we dehumanize the Africans of Benin, whose artists have produced something so obviously artful as the Benin Bronzes.  Danner’s poetry is noted for a quirkiness and conversational style that suddenly gives way—with beautiful complexity, and often delicately—to insights into the nature of art and our human, humanizing, need for it.

Go to a list of Black Writers written about on this site.


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Climbing Bryan’s Mountain, 2014

Always something new on Bryan’s Mountain.  In 2012 there was the agave bloom.  Last year I wrote about someone using red rocks to make a large “Trinity” or “Bonham” or “Borromean Rings” formation right next to Bryan’s tree.  Here’s a view of how that looked last year:

"Borromean Rings" on Bell Rock in Sedona, AZ

And here’s the view this year:

Missing "Trinity Rings" on Bell Rock in Sedona, AZ

The formation is gone.  I think I see more red rocks scattered around—perhaps the remains of the formation?—but it’s impossible to tell, really, and the small knob they were on is completely clear.  I had not expected it to still be there this year.  When I saw it was not, I thought immediately of the Tibetian Buddhist ritual of creating intricate Sand Mandalamandalas from colored sand.  They take days, sometimes weeks, to build.  As a sign of the impermanence of all things, however, they are usually deconstructed within hours, sometimes minutes, after completion.  They are blown away, or, more often, ritually disassembled—images and patterns brushed away in specific order, sand collected in specific piles before being ceremonially taken away to, say, a river and poured in, returning the grains to nature.

Bryan’s tree still looks good, but searching the ground beneath its branches where we spread some of his ashes I could see none of them for the first time since we placed them there in January 2007.   I had been surprised to be able to see them when we returned that summer.  I had been more surprised to see them, though fewer, the following summer, as I kept seeing them, though fewer, in the summers of 2009, 2010, 2011, and 2012.  Last summer I still saw them, though now just a very few, so I was not surprised to find them gone, at least to eyes looking into the shadows of tree branches,  when I first climbed up the mountain this year.  It was not a sad thing.  I thought again about the Buddhist sand mandalas.  I thought of the seven and half years I had had to be surprised by the quiet persistence of ashes.

Bryan's tree on Bell Rock in Sedona, AZFor many reasons I have been thinking for weeks about what I said when we spread his ashes those years ago.  I will have to go back to the video I took to get the exact words.  I was panning my old camera around, trying to capture the magnificence of the view—and failing, of course—and remember spontaneously saying something like, “My son, may the beauty of this place be one with the beauty of your spirit as long as the earth endures.”  That I did not see the ashes anymore does not change that sentiment, nor the years I had to be Bryan’s Dad.  Impermanence, all, including the earth and these stunning red rocks.

So one thing new this year has been things that aren’t there. Usually, I meet people wanting to talk, ask questions, share their joy at climbing the mountain and taking in the views.  That’s also been absent so far.  Plenty of people around, just no conversation.  It’s ok, as are the absences and the perception of impermanence.  We move towards decline, but towards certain increases as well.  I look forward to climbing up to Bryan’s tree with the grand kids some day not too far away, for example, and my slowing pace should match their small legs fairly well.  None of them will have ever met him in the flesh, but will perhaps be able to catch some of his spirit up there.


Go to the Lead Post in the Climbing Bryan’s Mountain series.

Go to the main page for Emmanuel House, our family organization started as a living memorial to Bryan.  It works to help lift the working poor out of poverty through home ownership and education.

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July 4th, But No Ray Charles

Cover of Ray Charles' A Message from the PeopleThe Video Below shows a few moments of the crowds at Naperville, Illinois’, Ribfest on July 4, 2014, and some of the fireworks which followed.  I did the video so that at the end I could put a few seconds of a song that was not played.  For the first time in years—maybe decades—Ray Charles’ iconic version of “America the Beautiful” wasn’t played on the radio stream synched with the fireworks.  The song usually accompanied slower, more reflective seconds of the show sandwiched between the general bombast, but this year it was all uptempo—Van Halen’s “Jump,” etc, lyrics like “Do a little dance, make a little love, get down tonight,” etc.  Not entirely inappropriate, but we wished for something a little deeper, a nod to America beyond, say, Tom Petty’s “American Girl.”  A new radio station streamed the accompanying music this year.  ”It’s probably a Clear Channel station out of New York,” a friend and music insider I was with said after shaking his head at the exclusion of the Ray Charles classic.  ”They don’t know tradition.  They do anything silly thing they want,” he lamented.

There are several patriotic songs I can do without, but Charles’ version of “America” isn’t one of them.  Whenever the song is played now, nine times out of ten it’s this version.  It ended Charles’ significant 1972 album A Message from the People.  He begins his version not with the song’s first verse, but its second: “Oh, Beautiful, for heroes proved / In liberating strife, / Who more than self their country loved, / And mercy more than life.”  For several reasons—including the album’s cover pictured above—we know that those heroes he wanted to honor foremost were the heroes of the Civil Rights Movement.

This year marks the 50th Anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act, so we missed Ray Charles’ “America” at least twice as much this time.

Soon I’ll post something about that anniversary, along with a video lecture on Ray Charles, as well as reviews of his albums The Genius Hits the Road and A Message from the People.  For now, enjoy the show, and the few seconds of “America” at the end.

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