Day 1Cane by Jean Toomer
"Karintha" to "Georgia Dusk"
August 3, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Karintha, at twelve, was a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live.
In this opening vignette, as throughout the book, it is hard to speak of Toomer's women as heroines. The title character is at the center of things, but her centrality depends on what happens to her at least as much as what she does. The world acting upon her (through desire), she is shaped from a young age by having been an object of desire. Her actions upon the world depend on the very narrow scope, her ability to direct the desire of men: "Karintha smiles, and indulges them when she is in the mood for it. She has contempt for them. Karintha is a woman. Young men run stills to make her money. Young men go to the big cities and run on the road. Young men go away to college. They all want to bring her money."
A portrait of Karintha emerges, but not exactly by description: "Karintha, at twelve, was a wild flash that told the other folks just what it was to live." Who she is, what she is, remains elusive even as Toomer appears to be engaged in an act of oblique portrait. Her beauty is invoked, and what she "makes" men do. But somehow we are at a remove. There is a limit to what we know and can know of her.
Her skin is like dusk,
O cant you see it,
Her skin is like dusk,
When the sun goes down.
Here, suddenly, the first intervention of verse. The change, of temperature, of tone, texture, viewpoint. What can the verse say that the prose cannot? And who is speaking (in each mode)?
Certain lines emphasize what the narrator knows about the place, its geography, and how things happen there: "Its pyramidal sawdust pile smouldered. It is a year before one completely burns." This is interesting since Toomer spent only a season in Georgia, as a substitute principal at a black industrial college, the autumn of 1921.
Later, the verse appears as commentary. And therefore, as chorus? Again, who is speaking? The verse has a collective voice, different than that of the narrator.
The line "Karintha is a woman" repeats as a refrain in the prose. The prose retaining a song structure... the number of times it is invoked veers toward insistence. She is a woman and "has been married many times" and "has a child." And by the last lines we learn that she is twenty.
It is a ballad. And the singer Gil Scott-Heron thought so too. The lyrics of his song "Karintha" are lifted from this piece and from a later vignette, "Becky." I heard this song many years ago from my father's record collection but had forgotten it until a friend recently shared it with me...
Reading this I realize how the agricultural act of reaping has passed almost completely into figurative language. Even farmers rarely speak of reaping. So the opening image of a Black reaper first carries us beyond its actuality. From the start we think of death. But it is not figurative. It is literally a black man, enacting the labor of harvest with the traditional, ancient tool.
The sonic element of this labor: the rhythm of the scythe, slicing through weeds, joined by the percussive sound made when the blade is sharpened—honed—another term we use almost exclusively as metaphor. This brings to mind Toomer's declaration that Cane documented a song that was fading. Besides the actual songs, the rhythm and timbre of life lived close to the land form a sonic landscape that would also be left behind as "The folk-spirit was walking in to die on the modern desert." This closeness is emphasized by the very point of view of this poem: the death of the field rat, "his belly close to ground."
And always it feels important to note the position of the speaker: what he sees, what he knows. From where does he stand to take in this scene, the reapers, the sounds and the death of the rat. Is he of them, working among them, or observing from a near distance?
NOVEMBER COTTON FLOWER
Boll-weevil’s coming, and the winter’s cold,
Made cotton-stalks look rusty, seasons old,
And cotton, scarce as any southern snow,
Was vanishing; the branch, so pinched and slow
The story of the boll-weevil as an actor in the Great Migration is a complicated one. But it happens that Toomer was on the scene during the harvest season of 1921 during what was reportedly the starkest decline in Georgia's history. The state had produced on average from 1.5 to 2.0 million bales a year between 1915 and 1920. In 1921, less than 800,000 bales were harvested.
The artist Jacob Lawrence depicted the damage from the boll weevil as part of his paintings that comprise The Migration Series. Panel 9 is captioned "They left because the boll weevil had ravaged the cotton crop."
Old folks were startled, and it soon assumed
This seems to gesture toward the coming migration. Death, the change of the climate. And again a tension between figuration and just plain description.
dead birds were found
In wells a hundred feet below the ground—
This could be an omen or just a very real indicator that life is untenable.
The Bible flaps its leaves with an aimless rustle on her mound.
We enter this story through its end. The tableau of the open Bible with its pages blowing on a collapsed house begins and ends Becky's tale.
Common, God-forsaken, insane white shameless wench, said the white folks’ mouths. Her eyes were sunken, her neck stringy, her breasts fallen, till then. Taking their words, they filled her, like a bubble rising—then she broke. Mouth setting in a twist that held her eyes, harsh, vacant, staring... Who gave it to her? Low-down nigger with no self-respect, said the black folks’ mouths. She wouldnt tell. Poor Catholic poor-white crazy woman, said the black folks’ mouths. White folks and black folks built her cabin, fed her and her growing baby, prayed secretly to God who’d put His cross upon her and cast her out.
With Becky we have another female character we can't see completely. She is shown through how others see her: simultaneously rejecting and pitying her for transgressing the policed sexual color line; for madness (for how the two would have been understood to combine). But the judgments from white and black folks alike eventually converge around care, such that Toomer sketches, in just a few strokes, the complexity of racial intimacy and coexistence in the deep South.
Becky's sons leave town crying: “Godam the white folks; godam the n-----s.” One wonders if Toomer is speaking through their mouths, given his struggle to conform to the requirements of a racialized identity.
At times it seems like the land is telling the story: the house, "a single room held down to earth... by a leaning chimney." The pine trees are witnesses: "The pines whispered to Jesus" and "only the pines know."
This sent me looking to the archive of recorded work songs about cotton, there are so many; often enshrining the myth of the happy toiling Negro (see the popular "Pick a bale of cotton"). Even this one collected by the Lomaxes in 1939 Texas is plaintive but not existential. Toomer's version is different—combining the elements of a song describing the act of labor while also, through its rhythms, driving the action. But it is interrupted by a concern that the repetitive elements of the others make available only in tones. Melded to the work song is the genre of songs about the revelation: the ultimate transformation, liberation and transcendence that accompanies death.
Cotton bales are the fleecy way
Weary sinner’s bare feet trod,
Softly, softly to the throne of God,
We aint agwine t wait until th Judgment Day!
The cotton picker who won't wait until Judgment Day may be tantamount to a statement of revolution.
Though Toomer wrote "I heard folk-songs from the lips of Negro peasants," his was not a documentary mission like that of the Lomaxes or his contemporary Hurston, who pursued her own song collecting journeys in the later 1920s in an anthropological mode. I suspect Toomer wouldn't have the same impulse to preserve. Instead his transcription offers what was sung aloud, and what was intimated between the notes.
Toomer's encounter of the folk songs during his time in Georgia as the scion of a mulatto elite brings to mind Du Bois's earlier exploration of music, which he writes about in "The Sorrow Songs.
I leave the men around the stove to follow her with my eyes down the red dust road.
Again, we can sense the narrator, what he sees, what he knows, as a conduit of our attention
Maybe she feels my gaze, perhaps she expects it.
And what she sees, what she knows.
The sun is hammered to a band of gold. Pine-needles, like mazda, are brilliantly aglow...
Beginning with "the sun is hammered to a band of gold," "Carma" includes an extraordinary parenthetical passage, a work of scene-setting and spatial storytelling that functions cinematically, proceeding by deft montage. Images accrue from earlier passages: pine needles, sawdust. Perhaps these motifs serve to orient us in the midst of a text that is increasingly disorienting. "Time and space have no meaning in a canefield."
Here also, is another orientation: "The Dixie Pike has grown from a goat path in Africa." One of a few passages where Toomer invokes African origins...
After the long paragraph, as if a stage direction, "Night."
And then, another song.
SONG OF THE SON
O land and soil, red soil and sweet-gum tree,
So scant of grass, so profligate of pines,
Now just before an epoch’s sun declines
Thy son, in time, I have returned to thee,
Thy son, I have in time returned to thee.
This would seem to be an ars poetica, in which Toomer most clearly states his position in relation to this place, this time.
And his work of transmutation "one plum was saved for me, one seed becomes / an everlasting song, a singing tree."
In time, for though the sun is setting on
A song-lit race of slaves, it has not set;
Though late, O soil, it is not too late yet
To catch thy plaintive soul, leaving, soon gone,
Leaving, to catch thy plaintive soul soon gone.
This echoes his later statement, describing Cane as a "swan song." It seems important to question his insistence on fixing the South, and what he saw during his brief encounter there, in amber. The impulse is totalizing.