Day 6Cane by Jean Toomer
"Box Seat" to "Harvest"
August 8, 2022 by Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts
Shake your curled wool-blossoms, nigger. Open your liver lips to the lean, white spring. Stir the root-life of a withered people. Call them from their houses, and teach them to dream.
Toomer's derogatory language again—what are we to do with a narrator who frames the story with such commands by way of setting a scene? I struggle to identify what feels like a layer of irony in the degrading imagery. But at the same time, the injunction to "stir the root-life of a withered people" doesn't feel ironic at all, it feels in keeping with Toomer's consistent take on the spiritual life of black people. But it feels important that "n----r" in one paragraph turns to "Negroes" in the next. So he has made a conscious decision here... to what end?
I want to keep track of these houses: they are "shy girls;" they contain the "withered people" who must be taught to dream; they are "virginal"'; their "soft-girl eyes" touch Dan Moore as he walks; he tries to sing to them but can't.
Once he enters Mrs. Pribby's house, where Muriel lives, he finds that it is "a sharp-edged, massed metallic house. Bolted."
Later, when he is inside, "Dan feels the pressure of the house... shift to Muriel."
Later still, in the theater, "the seats are bolted hoses"
In the theater, "the house" returns more colloquially to describe the action of the audience: "the house roars," "the house wants more"... but the "soft girl-eyes" return.
This image of the house is connected to the madness of Rhobert, who has a house on his head. But here the houses are quiet witnesses, telegraphing the judgmental propriety of Mrs. Pribby, the landlady.
Because Toomer draws out this figure of the house, weaving and iterating the imagery across the story, there is a strange effect of toggling between realism and abstraction. You have to tumble along on language, as disoriented as the characters.
Dan: Break in. Get an ax and smash in. Smash in their faces. I’ll show em. Break into an engine-house, steal a thousand horse-power fire truck. Smash in with the truck. I’ll show em. Grab an ax and brain em. Cut em up. Jack the Ripper. Baboon from the zoo. And then the cops come. “No, I aint a baboon. I aint Jack the Ripper. I’m a poor man out of work. Take your hands off me, you bull-necked bears. Look into my eyes. I am Dan Moore. I was born in a canefield. The hands of Jesus touched me. I am come to a sick world to heal it. Only the other day, a dope fiend brushed against me— Dont laugh, you mighty, juicy, meat-hook men. Give me your fingers and I will peel them as if they were ripe bananas.”
Dan's interior speech throughout (and later, a few instances of Muriel's) is rendered as playscript. These intrusive thoughts transcribe his encounters in a world—veering between the matter of fact and the violently fantastic. And he confronts himself as the violent fantasy he inspires in others.
Lets dont mention that.
We never learn what it is that Muriel has suffered that Dan wishes to console her about. She adamantly shuts down the conversation, "Whats the use?" She shifts to superficial talk, the show at the theater. Her brief interior monologue also shuts us out of this terrain. Bolted.
A sharp rap on the newspaper in the rear room cuts between them. The rap is like cool thick glass between them. Dan is hot on one side. Muriel, hot on the other. They straighten. Gaze fearfully at one another. Neither moves. A clock in the rear room, in the rear room, the rear room, strikes eight. Eight slow, cool sounds. Bernice. Muriel fastens on her image. She smooths her dress. She adjusts her skirt. She becomes prim and cool. Rising, she skirts Dan as if to keep the glass between them. Dan, gyrating nervously above the easy swing of his limbs, follows her to the parlor door. Muriel retreats before him till she reaches the landing of the steps that lead upstairs. She smiles at him. Dan sees his face in the hall mirror.
After the intense physical confrontation, with Dan on the verge of overpowering Muriel, how odd that Mrs. Pribby can call the scene to order with "sharp rap on the newspaper." What follows reads like the script scenario of a surrealist movie, the immediate emotional and physical crisis changing suddenly to controlled gesture and stark juxtaposition of their bodies.
A soil-soaked fragrance comes from her. Through the cement floor her strong roots sink down. They spread under the asphalt streets. Dreaming, the streets roll over on their bellies, and suck their glossy health from them. Her strong roots sink down and spread under the river and disappear in blood-lines that waver south. Her roots shoot down. Dan’s hands follow them. Roots throb. Dan’s heart beats violently. He places his palms upon the earth to cool them. Earth throbs. Dan’s heart beats violently. He sees all the people in the house rush to the walls to listen to the rumble. A new-world
Notable here how the quickly the narrator moves from describing the scene (the theater, the patrons) to this marvelous language of the woman sinking roots into the floor, and then somehow recruits Dan into this tableau: "Her roots shoot down. Dan's hands follow them." The boundary between Dan's visions and distortions and that of the present world (via the consciousness of the narrator) is porous.
With "Harvest Song" we are back in the South, in the field. But the energy of the earlier songs has shifted. Here sings a reaper beat down, unable to complete the harvest, whose harvest cannot feed him. This is not just the fatigue of agricultural labor. Life on the land is no longer sustaining. This reaper is apart from others who work the field, he cannot hear their songs. What has changed?