Strange’s exquisitely observed poems take us into two Bearden landscapes, rural and urban.
Strange has published poems and essays in numerous journals and anthologies in the U.S. and abroad—most recently in Black Imagination (curated by Natasha Marin, 2020), Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (edited by Joanne V. Gabbin and Lauren Alleyne, 2019), and Bearden’s Odyssey: Poets Respond to the Art of Romare Bearden (edited by Kwame Dawes and Matthew Shenoda, 2016). She has also created sonic and visual art-based works for museum and gallery exhibitions in New York, Boston, Oakland, Seattle, and Atlanta, and her collaborations with composers have been performed by the International Contemporary Ensemble, the American Modern Ensemble, and The Dream Unfinished Orchestra, among others. Her honors include the Barnard Women Poets’ Prize (for her poetry collection, Ash), the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award, and a 2018 Lifetime Achievement Award from the Georgia Writers’ Association. She teaches writing at Spelman College.
Romare Bearden, Mecklenburg County, Daybreak Express
after Mecklenburg County, Daybreak Express
“You could tell not only what train it was but also who the engineer was
by the sound of the whistle.” – Romare Bearden
He wails Hey, baby! trailing off in a moan
What train that is, whose whistle, she remembers
What claimed him, more than even he remembers
Still life with melon and model’s wistful pose—
Classic odalisque. He mirrored her repose
In drawings—teasing, indifferent, her every mood
Tracing her lines, sweet language of her moods
She’d slip through that blue that mimics a window
She’s left him free there beyond her window
His memories stir each time the train goes by
In his mind’s eye she’s there, waving goodbye
Sifting through pages he left behind and more
His sketches won’t mark their hours anymore
He wails Hey, baby! trailing his love that moans
Note: The poem is a duplex—a poetic form created by Jericho Brown that melds elements of the sonnet, the ghazal, and the blues.
Romare Bearden, Uptown Manhattan Skyline: Storm Approaching
after Uptown Manhattan Skyline: Storm Approaching
“In those days some of the best playgrounds were on the rooftops.”
– Romare Bearden
1. The Women
On weekends, laundry snaps on the line—
and if we can we linger over this small
measure of our work. When the wind loosens
a sock from its wooden pin, we might
watch it drift six floors down to the alley.
We don’t know why the sight makes
us want to cry, or, rather, makes us tender.
Something about the past and present getting
mixed up…our part in it. All these women
in Harlem and back home, the constancy and heft
of us, domestic as history, as wisdom…yet
each of our stories pulsing, and flaring
at times like those thunderclouds.
Families are our labor, cities too…though
only mopped floors render our footprints here.
We came up from the Carolinas—unyoked ourselves
from less yielding country—into this patch of sky.
Rooftops are higher than steeples, some
with chimneys and cisterns marking distance
across these buildings that huddle and jostle
like boats moored at port. There’s respite in a room
bordered by air that can be stirred to desire.
Come Sunday, that same straw basket filled
with the wash can carry our picnic pleasure.
The clothes flap like bright birds in a frisky breeze.
2. The Children
On Saturdays we are let onto the roof.
Today, there’s bright, pastel quiet. In the clouds,
greenish stirrings, like pea soup with ham in the pot.
The storm is coming from far off still,
although it seems to hover over us.
Our voices wing out to meet it.
We are the captains here…and this hulk
of brick and many windows holds us,
same as the ground our parents call "back home,"
but with edges that fall away and touch the sky.
We are children and keep at our play.
What do we know….
Our mothers say there is danger,
yet we see adventure, and more,
an endless world above us, hear only
the loudest sounds of the streets—sirens
or honking from metal things that can’t break
up our games or crack our bones up here.
Also, our neighbors are blobs of color,
buoys bopping or rushing along
the sidewalks in streams. Laundry flaps
like bright flags on our mast. The air
moves as it wants, and is all ours,
although we don’t own it so much as the birds do….
We laugh, opening our mouths to it—and to whatever
gravy the storm will make of these clumps overhead.
We hunger, too, for music that rises
from below—piano and trumpet notes drifting
into our rooms late at night, lingering
at the borders of our sleep, or sometimes
shutting a door, as if to guard our dreaming,
or keep inside memories of our life
down South—how the rain could drench—
cleaning us a second time—
but would carry off mostly the tiniest things.
So come, storm, wash our deck,
then leave us that light hiding behind your back.
Sharan Strange reading her poems at the High Museum's Bearden exhibition.