Countee Cullen: poems from “The Black Christ” (1929) and “Color” (1925)

Illustration from 1929 by Charles Cullen for the epic poem The Black Christ written by Countee Cullen 1903 to 1946

Poems from The Black Christ and Other Poems (1929) by Countee Cullen (1903-1946)
. . .
Little Sonnet to Little Friends
Let me not the proud of heart condemn
Me that I mould my ways to hers,
Groping for healing in a hem
No wind of passion ever stirs;
Nor let them sweetly pity me
When I am out of sound and sight;
They waste their time and energy;
No mares encumber me at night.
Always a trifle fond and strange,
And some have said a bit bizarre,
Say, “Here’s the sun,” I would not change
It for my dead and burnt-out star.
Shine as it will, I have no doubt
Some day the sun, too, may go out.
. . .
I think an impulse stronger than my mind
May some day grasp a knife, unloose a vial,
Or with a little leaden ball unbind
The cords that tie me to the rank and file.
My hands grow quarrelsome with bitterness,
And darkly bent upon the final fray;
Night with its stars upon a grave seems less
Indecent than the too complacent day.
God knows I would be kind, let live, speak fair,
Requite an honest debt with more than just,
And love for Christ’s dear sake these shapes that wear
A pride that had its genesis in dust,–
The meek are promised much in a book I know
But one grows weary turning cheek to blow.

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the poem Minutely Hurt_1929

Minutely Hurt
Since I was minutely hurt,
Giant griefs and woes
Only find me staunchly girt
Against all other blows.
Once an atom cracks the heart
All is done and said;
Poison, steel, and fiery dart
May then be buffeted.
. . .

Pity me, I said;
But you cried, Pity you;
And suddenly I saw
Higher than my own grief grew.
I saw a tree of woe so tall,
So deeply boughed with grief,
That matched with it my bitter plant
Was dwarfed into a leaf.
. . .
Song in Spite of Myself
Never love with all your heart,
It only ends in aching;
And bit by bit to the smallest part
That organ will be breaking.
Never love with all your mind,
It only ends in fretting;
In musing on sweet joys behind,
Too poignant for forgetting.
Never love with all your soul,
For such there is no ending,
Though a mind that frets may find control,
And a shattered heart find mending.
Give but a grain of the heart’s rich seed,
Confine some under cover,
And when love goes, bid him God-speed.
And find another lover.
. . .
One Day I Told My Love
One day I told my love my heart,
Disclosed it out and in;
I let her read the ill-writ chart
Small with virtue, big with sin.
I took it from the hidden socket
Where it was wont to grieve;
“I’ll turn it,” I said, “into a locket,
Or a bright band for your sleeve.”
I let her hold the naked thing
No one had seen before;
And had she willed, her hand might wring
It dry and drop it to the floor.
It was a gentle thing she did,
The wisest and the best;
“The proper place for a heart,” she said
“Is back in the sheltering breast.”
. . .
Black Majesty
(After reading John W. Vandercook’s chronicle of sable glory)
These men were kings, albeit they were black,
Christophe and Dessalines and L’Ouverture;
Their majesty has made me turn my back
Upon a plaint I once shaped to endure.
These men were black, I say, but they were crowned
And purple-clad, however brief their time.
Stifle your agony; let grief be drowned;
We know joy had a day once and a clime.
Dark gutter-snipe, black sprawler-in-the-mud,
A thing men did a man may do again.
What answer filters through your sluggish blood
To these dark ghosts who knew so bright a reign?
“Lo, I am dark, but comely,” Sheba sings.
“And we were black,” three shades reply, “but kings.”

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the 1929 poem Song of Praise by Countee Cullen
Song of Praise
Who lies with his milk-white maiden,
Bound in the length of her pale gold hair,
Cooled by her lips with the cold kiss laden,
He lies, but he loves not there.
Who lies with his nut-brown maiden,
Bruised to the bone by her sin-black hair,
Warmed with the wine that her full lips trade in,
He lies, and his love lies there.

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the epic poem "The Black Christ" by Countee Cullen

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the epic poem “The Black Christ” by Countee Cullen

Illustration by Charles Cullen for the 1929 epic poem The Black Christ by Countee CullenCharles Cullen illustration for The Black Christ_1929.     .     .

Four poems from Countee Cullen’s Color (1925)

“I’ll tell him, when he comes,” she said,
“Body and baggage, to go,
Though the night be darker than my hair,
And the ground be hard with snow.”
But when he came with his gay black head
Thrown back, and his lips apart,
She flipped a light hair from his coat,
And sobbed against his heart.
. . .
She gave her body for my meat,
Her soul to be my wine,
And prayed that I be made complete
In sunlight and starshine.
With such abandoned grace she gave
Of all that passion taught her,
She never knew her tidal wave
Cast bread on stagnant water.
. . .
Bread and Wine
From death of star to new star’s birth,
This ache of limb, this throb of head,
This sweaty shop, this smell of earth,
For this we pray, “Give daily bread.”
Then tenuous with dreams the night,
The feel of soft brown hands in mine,
Strength from your lips for one more fight:
Bread’s not so dry when dipped in wine.
. . .
I fast and pray and go to church,
And put my penny in,
But God’s not fooled by such slight tricks,
And I’m not saved from sin.
I cannot hide from Him the gods
That revel in my heart,
Nor can I find an easy word
To tell them to depart:
God’s alabaster turrets gleam
Too high for me to win,
Unless He turns His face and lets
Me bring my own gods in.

. . . . .