In celebration of National Poetry Month, we at the Writer’s Center have been spotlighting the work of Poet Lore contributors. This final installment includes a brief Q&A with author Samiya Bashir about “John Henry’s First Real Swing—” from her sonnet sequence entitled "Coronagraphy" (Poet Lore 107 3/4). Visit Poet Lore's Facebook page for the republication of Bashir's entire sonnet sequence.
|Photo Credit: Samiya Bashir.|
JOHN HENRY’S FIRST REAL SWING—
BY SAMIYA BASHIR
I stood hungry near dead and the man said
my hammer’d give us shelter keep us fed.
That’s what he said. But instead I was drove
up these craggy mountain roads. I was gave
another hammer and a crust of bread
and not-enough slop to anger my plate.
I ate what I could. I practiced on wood.
I split rocks as the nights stretched long. I chipped
blocks of ice when I couldn’t sleep. Couldn’t
keep—listen—whether it kills me later
or now I’m gone. I know how. I know why.
I got these forty pounds of fire-bolt the
color of sorrow smoked eyes that I lift
and drop. Lift and drop. Lift and drop. Lift and—
Sarah Katz: "John Henry's First Real Swing—" is one of a crown of sonnets about the relationship between "John Henry," a railroad worker, and his wife "Polly Ann." These characters appear in a supposedly "tall tale" about two people freed from slavery after the civil war, and the story centers on John Henry's desire as a steel driver to "beat" the strength of the steam-powered drill.
I'm drawn to the way this sonnet underscores the moment of the "real swing" into steel with that m-dash following the final line, and the way the following sonnet, "Polly Ann Has An Ordinary Day" shifts the balance away from the intensity of this image. Why did you make this choice?
Samiya Bashir: Stuck: something here about black folks—all of us no matter our gender, our shade, our size—finding ourselves together-and-apart in a cycle of oppression that fits us all a bit differently. Throughout these poems, John Henry and Polly Ann find themselves in quicksand of like origin. Their experience is unique to each of them, but both are being pulled under.
Notice: an aberrant incandescence wobble back and forth between and within them. Polly Ann is the tougher of the two in many ways no matter that John Henry is physically stronger. Both show off sharp foresight.
Wonder: can/will any foresight save them/us? Polly Ann opens the final sonnet with what might be read as echo, reformed and differently born: “I can tell our futures too. Listen here — ” She might/may/must be read as something entirely else too.
Feel: all of that difference. John Henry’s perspective is overpowering and close-up, hot and large compared to Polly Ann’s. He is legend, as you note, and she is footnote.
But: and here the form itself serves as coronagraph progressively eclipsing the direct light of legend, blinding as that can be, so we may see all that stands alongside.
Balance: must necessarily shift for us to see and embody. Beside the glare of “tall tale,” real lives are at stake. Polly Ann’s life is real. Her concerns are real—pedestrian-seeming even—but that’s life.
“Lift and drop. Lift and drop. Lift and — ” one finds fewer songs written about the moments after the dash. That’s what we celebrate, too. When resolved into chore, into overcoming; when focused into the longtime scale of life after loss (after loss) we more clearly see so much of what we fight to protect, of what and how we survive, of what we work to change in order to better fit our bodies and our spirits.
Samiya Bashir’s books of poetry, Field Theories (forthcoming), Gospel, and Where the Apple Falls, and anthologies, including Role Call: A Generational Anthology of Social & Political Black Literature & Art, exist. Sometimes she makes poems of dirt. Sometimes zeros and ones. Sometimes variously rendered text. Sometimes light. She lives in Portland, Oregon, with a magic cat who shares her obsessions with trees and blackbirds and occasionally crashes her classes and poetry salons at Reed College.