So I lie, who find no peace/Night or day, no slight release, Major Jackson recited in the midst of channeling Countee Cullen through one of Cullen’s most recognizable poems, “Heritage.” The tribute to the late poet, buried within earshot, had just begun and already Cullen’s anxious words seemed to give everyone seated in the pastel-walled building inside the Woodlawn Cemetery a sense of calm.
Yet Do I Marvel: A Tribute to Countee Cullen was co-sponsored by the Woodlawn Conservatory and the Poetry Society of America. The setting, a sprawling green vestige of old New York surrounded by downtrodden asphalt and concrete, was a pleasant surprise on a sweltering Saturday afternoon. Woodlawn is a veiled NYC jewel open to anyone who takes the uptown 4 train to the last stop. It’s also the final resting place of Miles Davis, Duke Ellington, Herman Melville, Irving Berlin, Celia Cruz, Joseph Pulitzer and many other NYC-based artists, in addition to Countee Cullen.
Cullen, introduced to the crowd by poet and University of Vermont professor Jackson (who edited Countee Cullen: Collected Poems), was an integral yet not universally renowned figure during the Harlem Renaissance because of his complex views on how to reconcile racial injustice and artistic and cultural integration. Celebrated contemporary poets Robin Coste Lewis and Rowan Ricardo Phillips joined Jackson in reciting and interpreting some of their favorite Cullen selections.
The Dewitt Clinton High School educated poet’s equally complicated sexuality, that left much room for interpretation, came to light as Lewis read “For One Who Gayly Sowed His Oates” through a crooked smile: My days were a thing for me to live,/For others to deplore;/I took of life all it could give:/Rind, inner fruit, and core.
Perhaps the most poignant moment of the afternoon came when Phillips, without looking down at his book once, almost daring the audience to lose his gaze and blink, recited “Incident” with a stinging inflection and painfully timed pauses: I saw the whole … of Baltimore/… From May until December,/Of all the things … that happened there/That’s all … that I … remember.
The event successfully alternated between readings and powerful musical interludes. The spine-tingling harmonies came courtesy of mezzo-soprano Alicia Hall Moran, of Broadway's 2012 Tony-award-winning The Gershwins' Porgy & Bess, and guitarist/composer Brandon Ross. (Moran also performed at the Poetry Society’s tribute to Lucille Clifton at CUNY in February.) Hall’s entrancing and deliberate gait across the pulpit as she serenaded the crowd made the event feel like a proper homecoming for Cullen and a fitting tribute to a rhyme that death did not end.
Kimberly Reyes received her MA from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in May and is heading to Chicago as the recipient of the Poetry Foundation’s exclusive Columbia University Fellowship. Her work has appeared in Entertainment Weekly, Time.com, The New York Post, The Village Voice, Alternative Press, ESPN the Magazine, Honey Magazine, Jane Magazine and for the Associated Press.