This review is about 3 printed pages long.
In Indigo Moor’s ambitious and fine first collection of poetry, only the theatrical section titles (e.g. “Call to Stage,” which opens the volume) come off as a bit grandiose, raising or lowering the boom on the reader, clattering the loops along curtain rods as the brocaded, perhaps patched cloths part. This is the only obvious touch about so subtle yet genuine a book. But this flourish does announce a trend: the language will be highly wrought in places: not too different an approach from John Donne’s as intimated by Coleridge (“Meaning’s press and screw”); the tone and style will undulate from direct speech to high artifice and back. Yet the book’s overall purpose stays clear.
Indigo Moor, of Sacramento, California but originally from North Carolina, is intent in this book on exploring the African-American experience, some of it his, more of it emanating from, and written to re-embrace, the larger region of his birth. It would be unfair to say, as I might have said, that Tap-Root “transcends the politics of race” (cozily defusing phrase!), for that is not exactly what the book attempts. But the book, while its language has bite, is remarkably un-bitter, even if “sweet” is not the word, either, for the overall tone.
Okay: bittersweet, I guess we must say at last. But read the following excerpt, the conclusion from “Tilling the Soil,” itself a poem of “Diary excerpts,” for the poet’s texturing style:
Beneath the sun’s anger, May
is a wilted field; tobacco leaves
have dusted to wind.
The bare stalks are stunted
and resentful. The house wilts
beneath the bank’s anger.
Ghosts squat in the bowl over the mantle.
Twist the hair around their limbs. Run their
fingers through our severed locks and chant:
March turns May.
We hold all our ghosts in
the trembling of our hands.
And really, what ever changes.”
(As my copy of the book mentions a few typos and other corrections to be made for a second printing, I’ll suggest that “mantel,” rather than “mantle,” is the word needed. But few such solecisms occur.) “Tilling the Soil” typifies the book’s coherent, grammatically forthright, yet associative and cryptic approach to language: history is in these lyrics, but often that history is uttered in ghostly, almost runic phrases, clauses, and sentences that might represent the whole African-American race thinking, dreaming, meditating through its problems.
In “Tilling the Soil,” an unspecified landscape in one of the Carolinas is the setting for the speaker’s reminiscences of a childhood passed under love, absence, and menace. The caprices of the weather and the state of the tobacco crop are crucial to the boy who has become the adult speaker, as well as to his mother, and her sister; the father, for unknown reasons, is gone, but the boy sneaks meaningful glances at “The darkening circle of her empty / ring finger, a bad weather sign.” We are left uncertain about some of the family’s particulars (whether they are sharecroppers or outright owners of their troubled house, for instance); but that the house is in trouble, we are left without doubt: the speaker notes that “The house wilts / beneath the bank’s anger.”
It’s remarkable to read a poetry collection so comprehensive in its racial geography yet so sparing in accusations of racist culpability, leveled fingers pointing at white persons in blame or shaming. A case in point is this same poem, where the bank, presumably a white establishment, may be angry, yet the banker is not present in person.
As I write this, I’ve been glancing through Harold Bloom’s Hamlet: Poem Unlimited, which demonstrates that the Shakespeare play contains many more, and more subtle, references to theater and play-acting than in the famous “Mousetrap.” And it occurs to me that Tap-Root’s “stage manager,” not unlike the celebrated one in Our Town, is the central intelligence of the book, his mind possessed of an emotional depth equal to his most feeling characters’, but necessarily of a much more comprehensive intellectual range and historical acumen, just as Hamlet (a stand-in for his creator) outdoes even the admirable Horatio.
And, once this is realized, the scope of the collection is within grasp: we learn much about the black experience in the South, at times through truly credible channelings of historical figures: Ma Rainey, Charles Mingus, Robert Johnson; a particular affection for jazz, quite knowing, is evident. But the near-anonymity of such persons as “Ezra,” “Eli,” and “John” has the paradoxical effect, not of lessening these characters, but of putting them on an equal eminence with the famous: they, too, should be historic, the writer implies. Such hinted protestations, unlike the actress of Gertrude’s scorn, never protest too much; but the protests, and the eerie quiet they emanate, go ghostly onto the record.
Thus, what the writer insinuates is finally calming and disturbing at once: this is the world we’ve inherited, so let’s be up and contending with it. And as soon as we understand the way the framework couches the message, we can enjoy the beautiful particulars: a work song (“Rail Song”) reminds us of the recent (apparently successful) search for the actual prototype of John Henry; in any case, the song rings terrifically authentic. There are also small beauties with acid implications:
Solstice: The Parting
Summer, no less love
for fat Sol’s tooth-grins and lies,
reaches for his hat.
And, though this is the more consoling opening note, not the elegiac chime that closes the last page, the first stanza of “Back Through the Storm Door” is lucid, lilting yet direct:
I left the South broken, a busted wing
and a crooked eye. Still, I wake mornings
with the taste of honeysuckle on my tongue.
Such a delicate flavor will yield (in poems like “Metal”) to the harsher taste of “brandished / bottles of raw whiskey in cars that growled / deep, their bellies low to the ground.” Make no mistake: in Indigo Moor’s Tap-Root, there is sufficient variety to educate every palate.