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Best Famous Countee Cullen Poems

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by Countee Cullen | |

Incident

 Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee;
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small, And he was no whit bigger, And so I smiled, but he poked out His tongue, and called me, "Nigger.
" I saw the whole of Balimore From May until December; Of all the things that happened there That's all that I remember.


by Countee Cullen | |

Heritage

 What is Africa to me:
Copper sun or scarlet sea,
Jungle star or jungle track,
Strong bronzed men, or regal black
Women from whose loins I sprang
When the birds of Eden sang?
One three centuries removed
From the scenes his fathers loved,
Spicy grove, cinnamon tree,
What is Africa to me?

So I lie, who all day long
Want no sound except the song
Sung by wild barbaric birds
Goading massive jungle herds,
Juggernauts of flesh that pass
Trampling tall defiant grass
Where young forest lovers lie,
Plighting troth beneath the sky.
So I lie, who always hear, Though I cram against my ear Both my thumbs, and keep them there, Great drums throbbing through the air.
So I lie, whose fount of pride, Dear distress, and joy allied, Is my somber flesh and skin, With the dark blood dammed within Like great pulsing tides of wine That, I fear, must burst the fine Channels of the chafing net Where they surge and foam and fret.
Africa?A book one thumbs Listlessly, till slumber comes.
Unremembered are her bats Circling through the night, her cats Crouching in the river reeds, Stalking gentle flesh that feeds By the river brink; no more Does the bugle-throated roar Cry that monarch claws have leapt From the scabbards where they slept.
Silver snakes that once a year Doff the lovely coats you wear, Seek no covert in your fear Lest a mortal eye should see; What's your nakedness to me? Here no leprous flowers rear Fierce corollas in the air; Here no bodies sleek and wet, Dripping mingled rain and sweat, Tread the savage measures of Jungle boys and girls in love.
What is last year's snow to me, Last year's anything?The tree Budding yearly must forget How its past arose or set­­ Bough and blossom, flower, fruit, Even what shy bird with mute Wonder at her travail there, Meekly labored in its hair.
One three centuries removed From the scenes his fathers loved, Spicy grove, cinnamon tree, What is Africa to me? So I lie, who find no peace Night or day, no slight release From the unremittent beat Made by cruel padded feet Walking through my body's street.
Up and down they go, and back, Treading out a jungle track.
So I lie, who never quite Safely sleep from rain at night-- I can never rest at all When the rain begins to fall; Like a soul gone mad with pain I must match its weird refrain; Ever must I twist and squirm, Writhing like a baited worm, While its primal measures drip Through my body, crying, "Strip! Doff this new exuberance.
Come and dance the Lover's Dance!" In an old remembered way Rain works on me night and day.
Quaint, outlandish heathen gods Black men fashion out of rods, Clay, and brittle bits of stone, In a likeness like their own, My conversion came high-priced; I belong to Jesus Christ, Preacher of humility; Heathen gods are naught to me.
Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, So I make an idle boast; Jesus of the twice-turned cheek, Lamb of God, although I speak With my mouth thus, in my heart Do I play a double part.
Ever at Thy glowing altar Must my heart grow sick and falter, Wishing He I served were black, Thinking then it would not lack Precedent of pain to guide it, Let who would or might deride it; Surely then this flesh would know Yours had borne a kindred woe.
Lord, I fashion dark gods, too, Daring even to give You Dark despairing features where, Crowned with dark rebellious hair, Patience wavers just so much as Mortal grief compels, while touches Quick and hot, of anger, rise To smitten cheek and weary eyes.
Lord, forgive me if my need Sometimes shapes a human creed.
All day long and all night through, One thing only must I do: Quench my pride and cool my blood, Lest I perish in the flood.
Lest a hidden ember set Timber that I thought was wet Burning like the dryest flax, Melting like the merest wax, Lest the grave restore its dead.
Not yet has my heart or head In the least way realized They and I are civilized.


by Countee Cullen | |

To Certain Critics

 Then call me traitor if you must, 
Shout reason and default! 
Say I betray a sacred trust 
Aching beyond this vault.
I'll bear your censure as your praise, For never shall the clan Confine my singing to its ways Beyond the ways of man.
No racial option narrows grief, Pain is not patriot, And sorrow plaits her dismal leaf For all as lief as not.
With blind sheep groping every hill, Searching an oriflamme, How shall the shpherd heart then thrill To only the darker lamb?


by Countee Cullen | |

The Wise

 Dead men are wisest, for they know
How far the roots of flowers go,
How long a seed must rot to grow.
Dead men alone bear frost and rain On throbless heart and heatless brain, And feel no stir of joy or pain.
Dead men alone are satiate; They sleep and dream and have no weight, To curb their rest, of love or hate.
Strange, men should flee their company, Or think me strange who long to be Wrapped in their cool immunity.


by Countee Cullen | |

The Shroud of Color

 "Lord, being dark," I said, "I cannot bear
The further touch of earth, the scented air;
Lord, being dark, forewilled to that despair
My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt
Beneath my brother's heel; there is a hurt
In all the simple joys which to a child
Are sweet; they are contaminate, defiled
By truths of wrongs the childish vision fails
To see; too great a cost this birth entails.
I strangle in this yoke drawn tighter than The worth of bearing it, just to be man.
I am not brave enough to pay the price In full; I lack the strength to sacrifice I who have burned my hands upon a star, And climbed high hills at dawn to view the far Illimitable wonderments of earth, For whom all cups have dripped the wine of mirth, For whom the sea has strained her honeyed throat Till all the world was sea, and I a boat Unmoored, on what strange quest I willed to float; Who wore a many-colored coat of dreams, Thy gift, O Lord--I whom sun-dabbled streams Have washed, whose bare brown thighs have held the sun Incarcerate until his course was run, I who considered man a high-perfected Glass where loveliness could lie reflected, Now that I sway athwart Truth's deep abyss, Denuding man for what he was and is, Shall breath and being so inveigle me That I can damn my dreams to hell, and be Content, each new-born day, anew to see The steaming crimson vintage of my youth Incarnadine the altar-slab of Truth? Or hast Thou, Lord, somewhere I cannot see, A lamb imprisoned in a bush for me? Not so?Then let me render one by one Thy gifts, while still they shine; some little sun Yet gilds these thighs; my coat, albeit worn, Still hold its colors fast; albeit torn.
My heart will laugh a little yet, if I May win of Thee this grace, Lord:on this high And sacrificial hill 'twixt earth and sky, To dream still pure all that I loved, and die.
There is no other way to keep secure My wild chimeras, grave-locked against the lure Of Truth, the small hard teeth of worms, yet less Envenomed than the mouth of Truth, will bless Them into dust and happy nothingness.
Lord, Thou art God; and I, Lord, what am I But dust?With dust my place.
Lord, let me die.
" Across earth's warm, palpitating crust I flung my body in embrace; I thrust My mouth into the grass and sucked the dew, Then gave it back in tears my anguish drew; So hard I pressed against the ground, I felt The smallest sandgrain like a knife, and smelt The next year's flowering; all this to speed My body's dissolution, fain to feed The worms.
And so I groaned, and spent my strength Until, all passion spent, I lay full length And quivered like a flayed and bleeding thing.
So lay till lifted on a great black wing That had no mate nor flesh-apparent trunk To hamper it; with me all time had sunk Into oblivion; when I awoke The wing hung poised above two cliffs that broke The bowels of the earth in twain, and cleft The seas apart.
Below, above, to left, To right, I saw what no man saw before: Earth, hell, and heaven; sinew, vein, and core.
All things that swim or walk or creep or fly, All things that live and hunger, faint and die, Were made majestic then and magnified By sight so clearly purged and deified.
The smallest bug that crawls was taller than A tree, the mustard seed loomed like a man.
The earth that writhes eternally with pain Of birth, and woe of taking back her slain, Laid bare her teeming bosom to my sight, And all was struggle, gasping breath, and fight.
A blind worm here dug tunnels to the light, And there a seed, racked with heroic pain, Thrust eager tentacles to sun and rain: It climbed; it died; the old love conquered me To weep the blossom it would never be.
But here a bud won light; it burst and flowered Into a rose whose beauty challenged, "Coward!" There was no thing alive save only I That held life in contempt and longed to die.
And still I writhed and moaned, "The curse, the curse, Than animated death, can death be worse?" "Dark child of sorrow, mine no less, what art Of mine can make thee see and play thy part? The key to all strange things is in thy heart.
" What voice was this that coursed like liquid fire Along my flesh, and turned my hair to wire? I raised my burning eyes, beheld a field All multitudinous with carnal yield, A grim ensanguined mead whereon I saw Evolve the ancient fundamental law Of tooth and talon, fist and nail and claw.
There with the force of living, hostile hills Whose clash the hemmed-in vale with clamor fills, With greater din contended fierce majestic wills Of beast with beast, of man with man, in strife For love of what my heart despised, for life That unto me at dawn was now a prayer For night, at night a bloody heart-wrung tear For day again; for this, these groans From tangled flesh and interlocked bones.
And no thing died that did not give A testimony that it longed to live.
Man, strange composite blend of brute and god, Pushed on, nor backward glanced where last he trod: He seemed to mount a misty ladder flung Pendant from a cloud, yet never gained a rung But at his feet another tugged and clung.
My heart was still a pool of bitterness, Would yield nought else, nought else confess.
I spoke (although no form was there To see, I knew an ear was there to hear), "Well, let them fight; they can whose flesh is fair.
" Crisp lightning flashed; a wave of thunder shook My wing; a pause, and then a speaking, "Look.
" I scarce dared trust my ears or eyes for awe Of what they heard, and dread of what they saw; For, privileged beyond degree, this flesh Beheld God and His heaven in the mesh Of Lucifer's revolt, saw Lucifer Glow like the sun, and like a dulcimer I heard his sin-sweet voice break on the yell Of God's great warriors:Gabriel, Saint Clair and Michael, Israfel and Raphael.
And strange it was to see God with His back Against a wall, to see Christ hew and hack Till Lucifer, pressed by the mighty pair, And losing inch by inch, clawed at the air With fevered wings; then, lost beyond repair, He tricked a mass of stars into his hair; He filled his hands with stars, crying as he fell, "A star's a star although it burns in hell.
" So God was left to His divinity, Omnipotent at that most costly fee.
There was a lesson here, but still the clod In me was sycophant unto the rod, And cried, "Why mock me thus?Am I a god?" "One trial more:this failing, then I give You leave to die; no further need to live.
" Now suddenly a strange wild music smote A chord long impotent in me; a note Of jungles, primitive and subtle, throbbed Against my echoing breast, and tom-toms sobbed In every pulse-beat of my frame.
The din A hollow log bound with a python's skin Can make wrought every nerve to ecstasy, And I was wind and sky again, and sea, And all sweet things that flourish, being free.
Till all at once the music changed its key.
And now it was of bitterness and death, The cry the lash extorts, the broken breath Of liberty enchained; and yet there ran Through all a harmony of faith in man, A knowledge all would end as it began.
All sights and sounds and aspects of my race Accompanied this melody, kept pace With it; with music all their hopes and hates Were charged, not to be downed by all the fates.
And somehow it was borne upon my brain How being dark, and living through the pain Of it, is courage more than angels have.
I knew What storms and tumults lashed the tree that grew This body that I was, this cringing I That feared to contemplate a changing sky, This that I grovelled, whining, "Let me die," While others struggled in Life's abattoir.
The cries of all dark people near or far Were billowed over me, a mighty surge Of suffering in which my puny grief must merge And lose itself; I had no further claim to urge For death; in shame I raised my dust-grimed head, And though my lips moved not, God knew I said, "Lord, not for what I saw in flesh or bone Of fairer men; not raised on faith alone; Lord, I will live persuaded by mine own.
I cannot play the recreant to these; My spirit has come home, that sailed the doubtful seas.
" With the whiz of a sword that severs space, The wing dropped down at a dizzy pace, And flung me on my hill flat on my face; Flat on my face I lay defying pain, Glad of the blood in my smallest vein, And in my hands I clutched a loyal dream, Still spitting fire, bright twist and coil and gleam, And chiseled like a hound's white tooth.
"Oh, I will match you yet," I cried, "to truth.
" Right glad I was to stoop to what I once had spurned.
Glad even unto tears; I laughed aloud; I turned Upon my back, and though the tears for joy would run, My sight was clear; I looked and saw the rising sun.


by Countee Cullen | |

The Loss of Love

 All through an empty place I go,
And find her not in any room;
The candles and the lamps I light
Go down before a wind of gloom.
Thick-spraddled lies the dust about, A fit, sad place to write her name Or draw her face the way she looked That legendary night she came.
The old house crumbles bit by bit; Each day I hear the ominous thud That says another rent is there For winds to pierce and storms to flood.
My orchards groan and sag with fruit; Where, Indian-wise, the bees go round; I let it rot upon the bough; I eat what falls upon the ground.
The heavy cows go laboring In agony with clotted teats; My hands are slack; my blood is cold; I marvel that my heart still beats.
I have no will to weep or sing, No least desire to pray or curse; The loss of love is a terrible thing; They lie who say that death is worse.


by Countee Cullen | |

Fruit of the Flower

 My father is a quiet man
With sober, steady ways;
For simile, a folded fan;
His nights are like his days.
My mother's life is puritan, No hint of cavalier, A pool so calm you're sure it can Have little depth to fear.
And yet my father's eyes can boast How full his life has been; There haunts them yet the languid ghost Of some still sacred sin.
And though my mother chants of God, And of the mystic river, I've seen a bit of checkered sod Set all her flesh aquiver.
Why should he deem it pure mischance A son of his is fain To do a naked tribal dance Each time he hears the rain? Why should she think it devil's art That all my songs should be Of love and lovers, broken heart, And wild sweet agony? Who plants a seed begets a bud, Extract of that same root; Why marvel at the hectic blood That flushes this wild fruit?


by Countee Cullen | |

For A Poet

 I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold;
Where long will cling the lips of the moth,
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth;
I hide no hate; I am not even wroth
Who found the earth's breath so keen and cold;
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth,
And laid them away in a box of gold.


by Countee Cullen | |

For A Lady I Know

 She even thinks that up in heaven
Her class lies late and snores

While poor black cherubs rise at seven
To do celestial chores.


by Countee Cullen | |

A Brown Girl Dead

 With two white roses on her breasts, 
White candles at head and feet, 
Dark Madonna of the grave she rests; 
Lord Death has found her sweet.
Her mother pawned her wedding ring To lay her out in white; She'd be so proud she'd dance and sing to see herself tonight.