Poetry Explorer- Classic Contemporary Poetry, HARLEM, by WILLIAM ROSE BENET

Poetry Explorer

Classic and Contemporary Poetry

HARLEM, by             Poet's Biography
First Line: I want to sing harlem on an ebony flute
Last Line: "rest, and dream, my dark delight!"
Subject(s): African Americans - Song & Music; Harlem (new York City); Music & Musicians

I want to sing Harlem on an ebony flute
While trap-drums ruffle to a crash and blare,
With a clear note
From the sylvan throat
Of a clarinet -- of a clarinet!
God and brute, black god and brute
Grinning, brooding in the murk air,
Moons of flame and suns of jet,
Hurricane joy and dumb despair.

Vermilion, black and peacock-blue,
Pink, plum-purple, zig-zag green, --
I want to sing Harlem with a paint-box, too,
Shaking out color like a tambourine, --
Want a red
Like furious fire;
Want a black
Like midnight mire;
Want a gold
Like golden wire;
Want a silver
Like Heaven entire
And God a-playing at His own front door
On a slide-trombone with a conical bore!

Those buildings lean, those buildings lean,
They sway and shuffle to the streets between!
Fly-drumming drones, and drums make trouble.
(Crushed ruffs, long rolls, single and double!)
Wild with the riot of wood and brass
The blues and the peart high yallers pass
While cow-bell, buzz-rattle, piccolo squeal
Clank and riot through a wild-eyed reel.
Xylophones, bells, and the weird kazoo
Drown the trumpets and the tubas, too,
Drown out the tuba with a field-hand song
Patting juba to a dinner-gong,
And the saxophone sets steel and stone
Jigging into tune with a grinding groan. . . .

O roll Jo'dan, Jo'dan roll!
Swing dat gal -- O mah soul!
A-all up and down de whole Creation
Still dreamin' ob de ole plantation;
Young folks play in de sun all day, --
(Possum, pone, an' de cane, an' de cotton!)
Hey, mah rabbit's foot! Ghos's go 'way!
(Good times dah am not fo'gotten!)
Rozzum on de bow! Come seben, come 'leben!
Gwine ter fly
All ober God's hebben!

But I want to sing Harlem. . . .
I want to sing Harlem soft and south,
Her dusky day with a rose in its mouth,
Her noon of the Islands of the Seas,
Her flaunting fruits from the Caribbees
Where palm-leaves wave from stucco walls
And street and square hear mellow calls
And meridian sun is blazing down
On the chalk-white glare of a tropic town.
Orange and bougainvillea red
Flame from scarf and turbaned head,
Purple -- paw-paw-yellow -- vie
From basket-bearers swaying by;
A hot breeze blows,
Tossed water flows
From fountains white in the patios;
Like a flaming bloom each negress goes. . . .
What the Indies dream all Harlem knows.

Yet I want to tell of Harlem as a tale is told
By a bleary wizard mouldering-old
Mumbling his beard to a ruined moon,
Moaning along in a sing-song croon.
For noise and color in a hurricane
Pass to a drip of silvery rain;
The moon spills gold on Harlem River,
The ripples gleam like coins a-quiver;
Burnt on the night in Dahomey bronze
The moon is a god through banyan fronds
A-flutter in ghostly jungle-glades.
Flares and fades
All violence from this moon-filled mere;
Only grief and calm are here. . . .

No! Fetish, charm and exorcism
Float like smoke from a black abysm,
Thicken like smoke from eastward rolled.
Land of Ophir, Land of Gold,
Land of half the earth a-prowl,
Of mottled shield and assegai,
Kraals and jungles dark and foul,
Sluggish rivers half a stye,
Moon-dawn on that Afric night,
(All the country crazed with light)
Darkness breathing deep and dense
Thick with death and pestilence! . . .

Then fades, and flares, and fades once more
That black volcano on a haunted shore
Where writhing shadows wail and sob.
Faint, more faint, the war-drums throb,
Great Zulu Tshaka's war-drums spent
In the gloom of a lost dark continent. . . .

So I want to sing minor, wailing low
And full of all the grief I know,
The grief I know;
O, I want to sing Harlem quaint and sad
And full of all the trouble I've had,
The trouble I've had. . . .

But the buildings quiver and dance like mad.
Walls of windows, walls of doors,
Delicatessens, clothing-stores,
Drug-store, pool-room, turn them loose
On the Ringtail, Florida and Beal Street Blues;
Antillean flats take up the dance
In a crack-a-knuckle, crack-a-knuckle shuffling trance;
They reel,
They roll,
They sway across my soul;
They summon the shoes of the East to come,
The clown brass-band, the Indian drum,
The one-stringed bow, the antelope horn,
The bamboo whistle to wail forlorn,
The weird marimba of Zululand
To shudder and strum beneath my hand!

And I want to sing Harlem. . . .
O I want to sing Harlem wild alive
In Nineteen Hundred Twenty-Five;
The Negro City, the dream-book town,
Metropolis of black and brown;
Number-gambling round the clock,
Bones and razors on every block,
Coon-can raging, thirst assuaging,
Egypt-rouged and all-engaging,
Drinking, dancing on till day,
Swarming to church or cabaret,
Whirlwind-gay with leopard power,
Rolling eyes in a Holy Ghost shower,
Lazing, laughing 'long the street,
Stepping high, stepping high,
Shaken with the shuffles from head to feet, --
Mansions in the sky!

No, fold your wings, fantastical things!
For I want to sing Harlem. . . .
I want to sing Harlem as a dead man sings
Low in the mould, so low, so low
Only the nails of his coffin know;
Safe and sound, safe and sound,
Shovelled six foot underground,
Locked in the loam for strange rebirth,
Pressed to the breast of his Mammy Earth. . . .

O does she croon, "O dark delight,
O you my panther proud by night,
My lashing tiger painted bright,
My Paradise Bird, my Mournin' Dove,
Parading, moaning of your love;
O my sun-blind eagle sailing,
My harp of winds and seas a-wailing.
My groping mole-like slumberous soul,
My awful patience deep in dole, --
O you my quickening, you my birth
Of richest beauty, wildest mirth,
My pulse through whom my whole creation's
Swayed to the breathing of my breast,
Whipped up to the carol of the constellations,
On all my urges nourished best, --
O child of the wild, of the womb of night,
Rest, and dream, my dark delight!"

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