During my master’s, I was besotted with the poet Robert Hayden. I read every one of his poems, all his prose, the critical biography on him, and the few scholarly articles available. I still think he is the most under-appreciated of great American poets.
Hayden’s work had an enormous impact on me. He moved deftly between dialect and difficult image, between history and allusion, between the intimately personal and the disillusioned political. I adored him then, and I still do.
This poem is one of my favourites, ‘A Ballad of Remembrance.’ It speaks deeply to this Buddhist & Unitarian. Of place, of heritage, of the taste of words as rich as chocolate, melting on the tongue.
A bit longer than the other poems I’ve shared to date, it will seduce you if you’ll let it. As Hayden does.
Here’s Robert Hayden’s ‘A Ballad of Remembrance’:
A Ballad of Remembrance
Quadroon mermaids, Afro angels, black saints
balanced upon the switchblades of that air
and sang. Tight streets unfolding to tile eye
like fans of corrosion and elegiac lace
crackled whit their singing: Shadow of time. Shadow of blood.
Shadow, echoed the Zulu king, dangling
from a cluster of balloons. Blood,
whined the gun-metal priestess, floating
over the courtyard where dead men diced.
What will you have? she inquired, the sallow vendeuse
of prepared tarnishes and jokes of nacre and ormolu,
what but those gleamings, oldrose graces,
manners like scented gloves? Contrived ghosts
rapped to metronome clack of lavalieres.
Contrived illuminations riding a threat
of river, masked Negroes wearing chameleon
satins gaudy now as a fortuneteller’s
dream of disaster, lighted the crazy flopping
dance of love and hate among joys, rejections.
Accommodate, muttered the Zulu king,
toad on a throne of glaucous poison jewels.
Love, chimed the saints and the angels and the mermaids.
Hate, shrieked tine gun-metal priestess
from her spiked bellcollar curved like a fleur-de-lis:
As well have a talon as a finger, a muzzle as a mouth,
as well have a hollow as a heart. And she pinwheeled
away in coruscations of laughter, scattering
those others before her like foil stars.
But the dance continued—now among metaphorical
doors, coffee cups floating poised
hysterias, decors of illusion; now among
mazurka dolls offering death’s-heads
of cocaine roses and real violets.
Then you arrived, meditative, ironic,
richly human; and your presence was shore where I rested
released from tile hoodoo of that dance, where I spoke
with my true voice again.
And therefore this is not only a ballad of remembrance
for the down-South arcane city with death
in its jaws like gold teeth and archaic cusswords;
not only a token for the troubled generous friends
held in the fists of that schizoid city like flowers,
but also, Mark Van Doren,
a poem of remembrance, a gift, a souvenir for you.