James Baldwin, “Untitled”

Untitled (from Poetry)
James Baldwin

 Lord,
            when you send the rain
            think about it, please,
            a little?
    Do
            not get carried away
            by the sound of falling water,
            the marvelous light
            on the falling water.
     I
            am beneath that water.
            It falls with great force
            and the light
Blinds
            me to the light.

Comment:

In the last two posts, I began meditating on age and maturity. As it is only a beginning, we’re finding lots of things that could be wise or insightful, but we can’t be entirely sure yet how or when they apply to people or situations. Regarding Gerard Manley Hopkins’ “Heaven-Haven,” I wondered how dismissal can come dressed as admiration. Some people can express awe at someone else being a nun, and not even bother to think about the level of humility, commitment, and reflection involved. It takes a lot of guts to commit to a genuine reflection, a genuine thought, and there are many who don’t really appreciate the courage others have. In Amiri Baraka, “Snake Eyes,” I turned my attention to the immense guilt one can feel for letting one’s idols waste away. Those who shape us we invest with divine authority, and that very authority we use as an excuse for neglecting their humanity. This is about the young failing to reach out to the old (I’m definitely guilty of this), but it isn’t hard to notice a somewhat parallel issue, and turn one’s gaze to those who would rather watch television for 12 hours straight than reach out to someone.

If you’re not reading James Baldwin while browsing your timeline or newsfeed, you’re missing out. There are many voices that speak of the unspeakable, that bear witness to the transformation of people into tools of the damned. Baldwin’s “A Letter to My Nephew” does not simply speak as they do, but cries. As it cries, it reveals itself the product of wrestling not just with yourself, not only the world, but the very source of any judgement at all:

One can be–indeed, one must strive to become–tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death, for this is what most of mankind has been best at since we have heard of war; remember, I said most of mankind, but it is not permissible that the authors of devastation should also be innocent. It is the innocence which constitutes the crime.

You could summarize these lines as “man has been warlike, and since he is so warlike, innocence is not only impossible but hypocritical,” but you’d miss the whole point in doing so. Baldwin struggles, in these words, to articulate a moral value for his nephew: What should he become? Not simply hard, able to take pain, but “tough and philosophical concerning destruction and death,” able to not break down when seeing the lifeless, beaten, broken bodies which merely wanted equality. He must realize that “mankind has been best” at death, at killing. That to speak love is not only radical, but will result in humiliation and ostracism. In other words: you’ll be seen by those who deny you rights as weak, seen by those who have become brothers-in-arms as traitors. Moreover, those who deny rights especially have become comfortable in a notion of innocence. Innocence, then, is not merely hypocritical, but accepting of the violence of division and conquest, an approval of the maintenance of that conquest.

This is James Baldwin. Ignore him, fine, but don’t tell me later you weren’t warned. His prose breathes the fire of Pentecostal preachers who know the Day of the Lord is like a thief in the night.

In this short poem, Baldwin admonishes God Himself. There’s too much rain, too much life:

 Lord,
            when you send the rain
            think about it, please,
            a little?

Think about the rain you send. Think about what you’re doing. Are you a mother desperately stuffing her child full of food, hoping that will result in her being loved? Are you the child, playing gardener, throwing seeds and water everywhere, visiting hourly to see if anything’s grown? God as Creator is playful, manic – indeed, a line of commentary on the Book of Job holds that God was so in love with creating that, in essence, He just keeps creating. With so much love, he creates His adversary. Something similar is happening in this poem, I suspect:

    Do
            not get carried away
            by the sound of falling water,
            the marvelous light
            on the falling water.

God and Baldwin agree that the sound of falling water is glorious. It carries one away, carries even the Creator away. The light, even more so. It is “marvelous,” it speaks marvels. This poem holds a radical suggestion: maybe all God does is let water fall. All He can do, after Creation, is open the sluices of the firmament of Heaven, and let what was once everything out. All He can do, after the Flood, is not do that again. All God can do is love, and by extension, not overwhelm what He’s created with love:

     I
              am beneath that water.
              It falls with great force
              and the light
Blinds
              me to the light.

It sounds strange to complain about being loved, but our all-too-human experience understands exactly of what Baldwin speaks. “The light blinds me to the light” makes perfect sense. In continuing the theme of the last two posts, we know getting older can involve being dismissive of others’ choices, or having great guilt because we didn’t even regard when we could. Baldwin reminds us that too much love is sometimes no love, that being in love with love only goes so far. Parents who wonder what they can give children who are estranged think too much of giving and not listening. They only hear themselves, the echoes of their feeling of love. Obsessive lovers do the same, failing to set boundaries. There are no easy answers, of course: if you don’t try to show someone they’re loved, you’ve failed because you haven’t done anything. But we’re a bit prone to go to extremes in doing, as opposed to exercising moderation, exercising openness.

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