Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Jean Toomer's "Cane"

It is impossible to discuss Cane, by Jean Toomer, without belly-flopping into contradictions. Cane is often considered the key text of the Harlem Renaissance, the book that started the game. Yet Toomer himself was, it was said, only one-eighth African-American. Cane never resigned himself to being black, or to being white; yet his book is predicated on a need to explore the dimensions, potentialities, distractions, frustrations, and contradictions of blackness in America (or, more specifically, blackness in the post-bellum South.) Many heralded Cane as the beginning of a great literary career (much in the manner that Emerson heralded Whitman); yet no sooner had Toomer created a new, hybridized, multi-cultural approach to literature, that expanded cultural and formal parameters whilst maintaining a grasp of humanity, then he abandoned this approach and retreated into a sterile pseudo-spirituality. To be fair, I have not read the "spiritualized" texts that Toomer concocted post-Cane; but there seems to be a uniform agreement that they do not achieve the diversity or cultural importance that Cane does. Cane is a book which crosses generic boundaries; there are poems, short stories, brief character sketches that incorporate many of the devices of prose-poetry, and all in a voice that walks a fine line between exuberance, wistfulness, and exquisite sorrow. I thought it might be interesting to try to parse a few of the poems in Cane. This is Reapers:

Black reapers with the sound of steel on stones
Are sharpening scythes. I see them place the hones
In their hip-pockets as a thing that's done,
And start their silent swinging, one by one.
Black horses drive a mower through the weeds,
And there, a field rat, startled, squealing bleeds.
His belly close to ground. I see the blade,
Blood-stained, continue cutting weeds and shade.

The juxtaposition of heroic, rhyming couplets, a la Pope or Dryden, with the subject being addressed makes a bizarre contrast: poverty, manual labor, and a synecdochic rat bleeding. It can be taken as an extension of the work done by Phillis Wheatley, who also used Neo-Classical formality to deal with issues of race, hierarchy, and injustice. Yet Toomer's own position in this poem is ambiguous; there is little "I", nor is there any editorializing to give a sense of how Toomer feels about what he is documenting. The only thing the "I" does here is to "see." As reductive as that sounds, the visual aspects of this poem (scythes, hones, hip-pockets, black horses) are strong enough to make the poem compelling, without a protagonist. The implied metaphoric comparisons between the reapers and the horses (both are black) are obvious; these are men that have been reduced to working in the field like beasts. Yet this poem was scribed long after the American Civil War had ended; thus, what seems like slavery is not exactly that. There was clearly a discrepancy between the political reality (blacks having been emancipated) and the social reality (blacks still forced to do manual labor in the South.) This contradiction is merely the tip of the iceberg; Cane is waist-deep in such contradictions, which carry over into the North as well. A sonnet follows this poem, entitled November Cotton Flower, also written in rhyming couplets:

Boll-weevil's coming, and the winter's cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow,
Failed in its function as the autumn rake;
Drouth fighting soil had caused the soil to take
All water from the streams; dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground--
Such was the season when the flower bloomed.
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
Significance. Superstition saw
Something it had never seen before:
Brown eyes that loved without a trace of fear,
Beauty so sudden for that time of year.

I read this poem as an extended metaphor relating to the condition of both blacks in the South, and the South in general. The South, as seen in Cane, has a moribund quality, a sense of lost grandeur, decayed beauty, abraded prosperity. As it appears here, the South is in its November, teetering on the brink of extinction. Of course, this is not literal extinction; no one is going to wipe the South off of the American map; but extinction in the sense that the South, as a region, is no longer a force to be reckoned with. Once the Civil War had "put the South down," the hauteur of Southerners was forced into a kind of permanent retreat. The November cotton flower is here connected metonymically with blacks in the South, who are now able to "love without a trace of fear," who live out yet another contradiction by growing and developing owing specifically to the South's general decline. Faulkner writes about the force of the past holding Southern whites back, binding and gagging them; Toomer assays the new freedoms that blacks have gained. The cotton-stalks that look rusty could be the old ways (including slavery), and vanishing cotton reinforces this; "dead birds" show the general stagnance of the South as a region, and could also possibly refer to Southern belles, white women.

Again, these poems need to be seen in the context of Cane, as an entirety, for them to have their full impact. Cane hovers between these two poles, between the decay of the old and the force of the new, and demonstrates how normal people learn to assimilate this contradiction. "Dead birds" in November Cotton Flower is reinforced by the character sketches that Toomer makes of women, like Fern and Becky. For its time, Cane was a very openly sexual book, and Toomer pictured the South as an eroticized realm. We also get a sense of urban America from some of the short stories, but if Cane has an essence, it is in the small Southern towns which Toomer himself made a pilgrimage to before he wrote this book, and that he apparently never returned to again.

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