Amiri Baraka, “Legacy”

Legacy (from Poetry)
Amiri Baraka

(For Blues People)

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night. Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee. Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black. Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

Comment:

Exiled in one’s own country, perpetually moving from edge to edge, how is a legacy possible?

Baraka begins homeless, wandering in poverty:

In the south, sleeping against
the drugstore, growling under
the trucks and stoves, stumbling
through and over the cluttered eyes
of early mysterious night.

Only “early mysterious night” conveys any majesty or romance. Otherwise, the south disowns blues people: they sleep and moan on the streets, their stumbling only witnessed by stars beginning to emerge.

“Sleeping against the drugstore,” “growling under the trucks and stoves,” “stumbling through and over the cluttered eyes” brings to mind another tale of wandering and homelessness. In Seamus Heaney’s “Shifting Brilliancies,” a wanderer/poet is almost dazzled by the beauty of it all before being brought back to earth, confronted with poverty and misery. The first stanza of Heaney’s poem:

Shifting brilliancies. Then winter light
In a doorway, and on the stone doorstep
A beggar shivering in silhouette.

The difference between Heaney and Baraka in one regard instructs. Heaney separates his speaker/poet from the beggar, and the rest of his poem attempts to bridge that separation, trying to find the truly human between mystical wandering and unjust circumstance. Baraka, on the other hand, identifies with “blues people.” They are truly his. Baraka’s poem, to be sure, almost convinces us otherwise:

…Frowning
drunk waving moving a hand or lash.
Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting
a hand rest in shadows. Squatting
to drink or pee.

“Frowning drunk waving moving a hand or lash” presents a pathetic, broken alcoholic. His lack of self-control progresses from euphoria to confusion and finally exhaustion: “Dancing kneeling reaching out, letting a hand rest in shadows.” A more fundamental confusion underlies all this, as the lack of dignity pushes him to lay waste where he eats, “squatting to drink or pee.” It all seems a far remove from poetic reflection, the comfort of writing, words remembered.

But Baraka identifies the alcoholic’s journey with his own:

Stretching to climb
pulling themselves onto horses near
where there was sea (the old songs
lead you to believe). Riding out
from this town, to another, where
it is also black.

The blues people have failures, ambitions, and dreams, just like the poet. They imagine, putting themselves into a western, “stretching to climb pulling themselves onto horses near where there was sea.” Not just any western, the western, from one coast to another in the New World. This is an epic journey, one which must be sung, one in which they believe. “The old songs lead you to believe.” He joins them singing everywhere they go, “riding out from this town, to another, where it is also black.”

Is he their legacy? Only inasmuch as he is a son of the blues people. The songs he sings are truly theirs, as he works exclusively at night:

…Down a road
where people are asleep. Towards
the moon or the shadows of houses.
Towards the songs’ pretended sea.

The poet and the wandering blues people are one, but can be differentiated. Those riding horses believe the old songs, but then there’s the issue of the songs themselves. At some point, he is alone, journeying “down a road where people are asleep.” I read this as everyone else being asleep. He does as they do, but it means something slightly different for each. Both chase dreams, “towards the moon or the shadows of houses,” working in darkness. The poet, however, only works in darkness. “Towards the songs’ pretended sea” is a fiction he recalls and composes himself. For the other blues people, it is what they will make real. This is their new world.

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