Sunday 8 March 2015

08/03/2015: Dust Bowl by Langston Hughes

The land wants me to come back
To a handful of dust in autumn,
To a raindrop
In the palm of my hand
In spring.
The land wants me to come back
To a broken song in October,
To a snowbird on the wing.
The land wants me to come back.

This is my first time reading Hughes, I went through four poems. This one stood out because it used a familiar phrase: the 'a handful of dust' from the Waste Land. It was immediately surprising to see a black poet from the other side of the Atlantic appropriating a line from that poem, a poem that I love but simultaneously can't help but read as a work of cultural imperialism. Whilst Eliot’s ‘handful of dust’ is a inevitable ruin, the fall of cultured civilisation, Hughes attaches it to a season (‘autumn’). It becomes instead a symbol of hardship imposed on the narrator by the ‘land’ itself and part of a natural, recurring cycle. The poem raises up manual labour to the level of Eliot’s canonical art by assimilating his phrases (accommodating them, much like Eliot’s own collage-style poetry), opening up the canon but simultaneously showing us that poetry is not on some kind of decline because of this process.

Not sure what I make of the ‘snowbird on the wing’. That might be the puzzle for next time I read the poem. I'll come back to it, that's the point of this scrapbook.

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