Reading a Poem by Rudolph Lewis at Winter Solstice
Good readings are sometimes governed by iconoclasm, the smashing of established gestures of decoding. A reader just walks out of the prison built by guardians of culture; she or he discards mindcuffs and explores; he or she discovers the wilderness is more intellectual than the glacial chambers in palaces of wisdom, the prisons of correctness. Despite probable errors of misreading, the reader’s sense of being independent is rewarding.
When I first read the typescript of Rudolph Lewis’s Mockingbirds at Jerusalem, I felt that I was discovering traces of unbridled creativity. The most important features of his craft and craftsmanship were derived from paying more attention to life rhythms than to treatises on prosody and monographs on how to write a poem. The bane of much contemporary poetry is disingenuous professionalism. What does it profit a poet to achieve technical brilliance without fire? Lewis has mastered fire and artistry.
After reading the published version of Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (Pikesville, MD: Black Academy Press, 2014), I have rediscovered “Defying Raging Night,” one of several touchstones in the book. Lewis has the discipline needed to write such fresh, engaging villanelles as “The Thrill Is Gone: A Blues Villanelle” and “Get Up Dead Man: Blues Villanelle #2.” I am attracted more, however, his playing a riff on the formality of the villanelle by invoking the blues in “Defying Raging Night.” The poem is a defiant tribute to Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” a tribute that confirms the rightness of Thomas’s general imperatives to resist the inevitable by displacing them with specific, burning recognitions from African American blues ethos. Thomas inspires. Lewis empowers. Lewis demonstrates that fixed poetic structures can be unfixed to one’s advantage.
Lewis’s achievement in this poem depends on cultural literacy, a reader’s ability to grasp allusions: “in ancient cypress swamps” ---James Weldon Johnson; “ringing insect sounds affirmed” ---Richard Wright; “I’ve known black wonders”---Langston Hughes. Place names evoke knowledge of African geography and scenes of ethnic language creation as well as genocide—Bukavu, Lake Kivu, Goma, Grand Marché, and Kongo. A genuine reading of “Defying Raging Night” absorbs a reader, uniting her or him with the lyric persona as a Middle Passage survivor who can know “black wonder soothing enough to/write letters in hope of a Mockingbird spring.”
The poems in Mockingbirds at Jerusalem are aesthetic tools for building something positive and as yet unknown during winter in America. Read. Use the tools Rudolph Lewis has given us to increase our collective ability to resist ignorant armies that clash in raging night. Read. Build critical independence.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. December 21, 2014