Shopping Cart



Day 11

Cane by Jean Toomer

"Kabnis," section 5

August 13, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts

Night, soft belly of a pregnant Negress, throbs evenly against the torso of the South. Night throbs a womb-song to the South. Cane- and cotton-fields, pine forests, cypress swamps, sawmills, and factories are fecund at her touch. Night’s womb-song sets them singing. Night winds are the breathing of the unborn child whose calm throbbing in the belly of a Negress sets them somnolently singing. Hear their song.

This ode figures the night as a pregnant black woman, inevitably recalling up the vicious lynching mentioned earlier. The "calm throbbing" of the "unborn child" is the command that draws songs out of "cane- and cotton-fields, pine forests, cypress swamps and sawmills and factories." If at first one could read this list as an atmospheric litany of Southern scenes the meaning unfurls when you consider that these are the economic engines of the South. The breathing of the unborn child - the child of the fiction Mame Lamkins, the historical Mary Turner - is sacrificed to this machine. Meanwhile the fecundity of black woman was the literal economic driver under the rape culture of forced pregnancy within plantation economy (America's chief innovation of the plantation system compared to South America and the Caribbean was that wealth in the form of human chattel was bred, not imported). And the rape of black women by their enslavers was another song sung at night.

White-man’s land. / Niggers, sing. / Burn, bear black children / Till poor rivers bring / Rest, and sweet glory / In Camp Ground.

The song cruelly juxtaposes the brutal existence of racial subjugation with the small comfort offered by religion: eventual "rest, and sweet glory". As in earlier verses, it feels like Toomer combines two opposing strains of black folk expression: the clear, cold realism of a blues with the deferred, expectant hope of the spirituals.

Sempter’s streets are vacant and still.

Again, Toomer draws an intricate scene. From Kabnis's room, to Halsey's parlor to the wheelwright shop, we've had these detailed, almost documentary, descriptive passages.

Slave boy whom some Christian mistress taught to read the Bible. Black man who saw Jesus in the ricefields, and began preaching to his people. Moses- and Christ-words used for songs. Dead blind father of a muted folk who feel their way upward to a life that crushes or absorbs them. (Speak, Father!) Suppose your eyes could see, old man. (The years hold hands. O Sing!) Suppose your lips...

As before, the narration is so close to Lewis's point of view. It slips from his direct speech, to exposition that feels like it could be his inner monologue... here the narrator / Lewis riff on Father John's possible origins...

Except for the twisted line of her mouth when she smiles or laughs, there is about her no suggestion of the life she’s been through.

Where the histories and backstories of other figures, told in detail or flashes, often inform characterization, with Stella we first glimpse her only through the slightest gesture.

Lewis, seated now so that his eyes rest upon the old man, merges with his source and lets the pain and beauty of the South meet him there. White faces, pain-pollen, settle downward through a cane-sweet mist and touch the ovaries of yellow flowers. Cotton-bolls bloom, droop. Black roots twist in a parched red soil beneath a blazing sky. Magnolias, fragrant, a trifle futile, lovely, far off...

Lewis locates so much, too much, in the body of Father John. Not his own personhood, but the whole history of the South.

Stella: Usall is brought up t hate sin worse than death—

And now Stella's story, or her attempt to tell it. She is immediately thwarted by Kabnis, enacting in dialogue something that has happened throughout the book. As she attempts to bear witness to what seems like her own experience of hypocrisy in a world divided into sinners and saints, Kabnis interrupts her. "Oh, I know your story." He paints in broad strokes a cliche of a woman used and abandoned, before trying to turn the conversation back to himself. He is stopped by Halsey.

Lewis: The old man as symbol, flesh, and spirit of the past, what do think he would say if he could see you?

Lewis is inside the story and outside of it, speaking aloud its themes. When he moves between withdrawing from the revelry and then holding the others in his gaze, it's as if he is writing the scene.

An besides, he aint my past. My ancestors were Southern blue-bloods—

Lewis: And black.

Kabnis: Aint much difference between blue an black.

Lewis: Enough to draw a denial from you. Cant hold them, can you? Master; slave. Soil; and the overarching heavens. Dusk; dawn. They fight and bastardize you. The sun tint of your cheeks, flame of the great season’s multi-colored leaves, tarnished, burned. Split, shredded: easily burned. No use.

In this exchange with Kabnis, Lewis cuts to the heart of the other man's conflict. Kabnis "cant hold" the parts of him that oppose each other, so he is of "no use."

Stella: I aint got nothin f y, mister. Taint no use t look at me.

Stella's moment of refusal opens up what comes next—her attempt to make meaning. She addresses herself to Lewis, whose difference (queerness) she juxtaposes to other men in her life: her father who reminds her of silent Father John, the white man who raped her mother; Halsey as an inconstant lover: "boars an kids an fools—thats all I've known."

Theres lots I want t ask y, Lewis. Been askin y t come around. Couldnt get y. Cant get in much tnight. (He glances at the others. His mind fastens on Kabnis.) Say, tell me this, whats on your mind t say on that feller there? Kabnis’ name. One queer bird ought t know another, seems like t me.

Halsey also addresses himself to Lewis. What is it about Lewis's presence that provokes this? Interestingly Lewis responds to none of it. His queerness is a mirror causing the characters to contemplate themselves.

An as f you, youre all right f choppin things from blocks of wood. I was good at that th day I ducked th cradle. An since then, I’ve been shapin words after a design that branded here. Know whats here? M soul. Ever heard o that? Th hell y have. Been shapin words t fit m soul. Never told y that before, did I? Thought I couldnt talk. I’ll tell y. I’ve been shapin words; ah, but sometimes theyre beautiful an golden an have a taste that makes them fine t roll over with y tongue. Your tongue aint fit f nothin but t roll an lick hog-meat.

In this drunken monologue, Kabnis declares himself a poet of sorts. And for all his bluster, perhaps confirming Lewis's earlier assessment: of "no use" in the current setting, under the circumstances.

Th form thats burned int my soul is some twisted awful thing that crept in from a dream, a godam nightmare, an wont stay still unless I feed it. An it lives on words. Not beautiful words. God Almighty no. Misshapen, split-gut, tortured, twisted words.

Perhaps this is one explanation for why Kabnis has stayed in Sempter County, even after he was fired from the school. He feeds on everything around him: "This whole damn bloated purple country feeds it cause its goin down t hell in a holy avalanche of words."

Kabnis curses his circumstance—the place and its people—even as he depends on them. He is a parasite, he gives nothing, but feeds. That he describes this in terms of a "form" makes me think about the relationship between artists and their sources. But Kabnis is an artist without a form—he does not offer anything back to the world. And to recall language that Lewis uses earlier: "life has given him in excess of what he can receive."

Lewis finds himself completely cut out. The glowing within him subsides. It is followed by a dead chill. Kabnis, Carrie, Stella, Halsey, Cora, the old man, the cellar, and the work-shop, the southern town descend upon him. Their pain is too intense. He cannot stand it. He bolts from the table. Leaps up the stairs. Plunges through the work-shop and out into the night.

As the others perform a choreography of drunkenness, sex, submission, jealousy, control, Lewis flees. He has been silent, not even referred to in the narration, through these declamations of Stella, Halsey and Kabnis. It is the last we see of him. He is completely outside. His mirror-gaze, showing everyone to themselves is cracked. He has seen too much.

Sign up for A Public Space's Newsletter