Let me continue in our celebration of National Poetry Month. Yes, but.
Though some of my international readers may not suspect this, others of you may wonder how I’m doing after another incident were someone in my metropolitan area was killed in a government incident that seems unnecessary and unjust. I’d describe my overall reaction as numbed thought, and I’ll leave it at that. It’s not that I don’t have thoughts, but in our instantaneous world, thousands have already written and there’s no scarcity of takes — if you need anyone to supply a template or echo for your own response, you can have that in abundance.
I continue because I think there’s still a shortage of what poetry and music can bring to us. Poetry, like many tweets or blog posts, can make arguments, present hot takes of their authors; but it also can work differently, it can take an attentive reader or listener and by attracting them and presenting something to pay attention to, allow its audience to form their own changes in perception.
Today’s piece, “Reapers” by pioneering Afro-American Modernist Jean Toomer attempts that. In his 1923 book-length work Cane, where this poem first appeared, Toomer presents such things, moments and situations that ask for that response from its readers. That’s an inefficient process. How many will read, how many will really read in that extension where we accept the task of creating a whole-hearted response to what the author presents? Some things work on one, quick, reading. We may already believe we know, we agree. A brief amen is all that is called for. Other work may just seem slight to our moods and perception, and we skip any deeper step. Today’s poem is called “Reapers,” but I think here of the Christian parable of the sower.
“Reapers” presents two rural scenes. In the first, harvesting or mowing is being accomplished as it had been done for millennia with the reapers being people with scythes. With intent they ready their blades, sharpening the edges with abrasive stone honing blocks. Toomer presents the scything that follows as silent music, a rhythmic swinging represented with precise meter and one pair of perfect end-rhymes followed by another pair of perfect rhymes that are in themselves near-rhymes to the first pair.
In the second scene we are taken to an era particular to Jean Toomer’s time. The mower, the reaper, is a mechanical machine drawn by horses,* the immediate ancestor to our present engine-driven farm machinery. That machinery was likely not as silent, but instead of presenting the clank of its mechanism, Toomer auditorily zooms in on the squealing sound of a “field rat” picked up and wounded in its belly by the mechanical, systematic blades of the horse-drawn mower.
“I see the blade, blood-stained, continue cutting…” a small version of the horse-drawn cutter in Toomer’s poem
This poem is easy to see as a pair with another we’ve presented here, a poem by Robert Frost, “Mowing.” Here’s a link to the text of Toomer’s “Reapers,” and here’s a link to the text of Frost’s poem. In Frost’s poem, the reaper with the hand-swung whispering scythe scares another animal, a plausibly Edenic snake. Toomer’s rat is not so lucky. Did Frost’s reaper, working like the scythe wielders in the first half of Toomer’s poem, stop their motion and take their poet’s eye, recorder, and projector to the escaping snake? In Toomer’s further observation he asks us to see and hear the horses and more directly the machinery of the mechanical mower that has no such observation, and the horse’s driver is intent on operating them, not the work itself. They do not stop, it’s not their design, they continue, cutting, blood-stained.
I will not write a post here about systematic racism. It’s a term with some value of conciseness, and from that, the easiness of easy rejection or restatement. The term has one mooted objection for example: that it’s not even racism — which to any extent that’s true doesn’t make it better, it makes it worse. Ethnic prejudices leading to evil acts are as old as recorded history, likely as old as the first bone scythes and then metal, beaten, plowshares — but Toomer’s poem asks us to watch its successor: a colder mechanized blade of efficient expectations and ways of doing.
A player gadget to hear my performance of Toomer’s “Reapers” in my modest acoustic guitar setting may appear below. If you don’t see a player, this highlighted hyperlink will open a tab or window to play it too.
*My father, born around the time of Cane, late in his life wanted to make clear to me that he’d driven horse-drawn farm machinery in his youth. He did this late enough in my own life that I heard him, and thought, and think, about what he was trying to present to me in that.