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Peace, O My Rebel Heart

I volunteered to write about Dead Poets Remembrance Day without knowing much about it, or about poetry, really. I consulted the Dead Poets Society of America’s website for recommendations on observing the holiday. The one I found most appealing was “gather with friends at a poet’s grave.” I’ll take any excuse to visit a cemetery and indulge my love of history and navel gazing. I can stand over a person’s grave and think, “He had a story of a life, and now here he is, at the end of that story.” A grave is like a period capping a run-on sentence, only the period extends until Earth explodes.

I decided on a peaceful afternoon of grave-gawking. I just had to figure out which poet to visit. Several parameters narrowed down my search: the poet had to be 1.) buried on my home turf, Queens, 2.) in a cemetery I had yet to visit, 3.) someone whose work I was largely unfamiliar with (that did not help the narrowing), and 4.) someone whose work was in the public domain (so I could quote and analyze their poems in this here piece).

Scanning the various Wikipedia and Find-A-Grave entries for Queens’ cemeteries, I came upon an ideal (and ideally located) subject: Claude McKay, a major figure of the Harlem Renaissance. I (web) researched McKay’s life and printed out several of his poems to read over the grave. All I needed then was a friend. I sent a text message to my writing/drinking partner, Nick: “Want to go to a cemetery with me this weekend?” He was intrigued enough to agree, the fool, and the following Saturday we took the 7 train out to the boneyard.

McKay is buried in Calvary Cemetery, one of those sprawling, mid-1800s burial grounds where one can track historical trends in tombstone decoration just by glancing over the landscape. It’s divided into three main sections: First Calvary, Second Calvary, and Third Calvary. Saying their names aloud briefly transports me into a John Ford Western. McKay is buried in Second Calvary; to reach it, we had to walk through Third Calvary and cross beneath the Brooklyn-Queens Expressway.

Entering the cemetery, the noise and bustle of the city ceased at the gates, with only the distant whoosh of traffic penetrating. There were few people aside from ourselves, and most of them were joggers. (I never would have thought to go jogging through a cemetery, but it’s the perfect place for it, and not just for the motivation.) When we first entered, we talked about the inane things we normally discuss, but as we continued along, our conversation bent toward tombstones with rich histories, hundred-year-old photographs, commemorations of those killed in battle.

McKay’s grave is located in Section 42 of the Second Calvery. Once we found the section, we moved closer to the tombstones and saw numbers and letters etched in the corners, the cemetery’s organization system to help people find specific graves within the massive site. Being in closer physical proximity to the deceased made us quieter, more hushed and respectful. It’s easier to whistle through a graveyard when the dead aren’t directly underfoot.

We followed the numbers and found McKay in the northeastern part of Section 42, beneath the shade of a few trees and near the border of the cemetery itself; we could easily see a New York City Department of Sanitation building across the street, traffic driving by as everyday life continued outside the cemetery walls. Most of the graves around him have upright headstones, but his is a flat marker raised a couple inches off the ground, making his spot stick out by not sticking out. Some pilgrim before us had left a stone on the marker to pay his or her respects.

Nick and I stood over the grave. Now that we were here, we felt a certain earnestness that didn’t rest easily on our shoulders. We are children of The Simpsons, prone to sarcasm and cynicism; paying respect to a man long-dead and honoring what he had done in life over his very grave, required us to feel things we don’t normally feel in each other’s company. I felt an awkwardness in the air, one I didn’t examine closely because, Good Lord, that would require us to talk about it.

I moved things forward by lecturing a bit on McKay’s life—born in Jamaica, immigrated to the United States as a young man, wrote poetry mostly in his early career before turning to novels. He was a gay black communist (Though later in life, when he changed his politics and converted to Catholicism, he claimed to have never officially joined the party.), and his best-known poems burn with angry passion toward America’s racist, exploitive society.

Then I shut up and we started reading his poems aloud. Before each one, I sheepishly glanced around to see if anyone were in earshot. There was no good reason why I should have felt embarrassed, but I often feel that way whenever I do something out of the ordinary in public. (I’m from the Midwest.)

We started with his most famous poem, “If We Must Die,” which is a defiant shout against white racist violence, but written in a way that anyone can co-opt it (problematically?) into their own struggle.

If we must die—let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
If we must die—oh, let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
Oh, Kinsmen! We must meet the common foe;
Though far outnumbered, let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

What strikes me about the poem is that it takes the racist notions of blacks as animalistic or less-than-human and turns them back onto whites, who are “mad and hungry dogs,” “monsters,” and a “murderous, cowardly pack.” It is also a damned effective troop-rallying speech, the language stirring the blood, especially when read aloud. (Go ahead; try it.) Nick highlighted the “And for their thousand blows deal one deathblow!” line, which is a fantastic image.

We followed this with “To the White Fiends,” another response to white racist violence. I chose this one to read because it’s one of McKay’s most famous poems, and because I thought (hoped?) two white guys reading it aloud at the grave of its black author would say something about America, although I didn’t know what, and I still don’t.

Think ye I am not fiend and savage too?
         Think ye I could not arm me with a gun
         And shoot down ten of you for every one
Of my black brothers murdered, burnt by you?
Be not deceived, for every deed ye do
         I could match—out-match: am I not Africa’s son,
         Black of that black land where black deeds are done?

But the Almighty from the darkness drew
         My soul and said: Even thou shalt be a light
Awhile to burn on the benighted earth,
         Thy dusky face I set among the white
For thee to prove thyself of highest worth;
         Before the world is swallowed up in night,
To show thy little lamp; go forth, go forth!

This poem has an interesting turn halfway through. The beginning is another great emotion-stirrer in the vein of “If We Must Die,” a warning to his foe. The back half transitions into “I could destroy you, but I’m better than that—literally chosen by God, in fact—so I’m above all that.” It loses some momentum, yet gains more depth.

I picked “The Tired Worker” next because the line: “Peace, O my rebel heart” is inscribed on McKay’s gravestone.

O whisper, O my soul!—the afternoon
Is waning into evening—whisper soft!
Peace, O my rebel heart! for soon the moon
From out its misty veil will swing aloft!
Be patient, weary body, soon the night
Will wrap thee gently in her sable sheet,
And with a leaden sigh thou wilt invite
To rest thy tired hands and aching feet.
The wretched day was theirs, the night is mine;
Come, tender sleep, and fold me to thy breast.
But what steals out the gray clouds red like wine?
O dawn! O dreaded dawn! O let me rest!
Weary my veins, my brain, my life,—have pity!
No! Once again the hard, the ugly city.

I like this poem because it effectively makes me feel the worker’s tiredness, and I don’t like it for the same reason. Favorite line: “The wretched day was theirs, the night is mine.”

It was here that we began to get a deeper sense of the existence-as-conflict theme embedded within McKay’s words. In this poem, for example, the natural world is a beautiful place (with the moon and its “misty veil,” the night’s “sable sheet,” and “gray clouds red like wine”), but humanity constructs “the hard, the ugly” cities that conflict with nature and result in weary, unnatural lives. In the next poem, “To a Poet,” one’s yearning for recognition is in conflict with what’s typically celebrated by society.

There is a lovely noise about your name,
         Above the shoutings of the city clear,
More than a moment’s merriment, whose claim
         Will greater grow with every mellowed year.

The people will not bear you down the street,
         Dancing to the strong rhythm of your words,
The modern kings will throttle you to greet
         The piping voice of artificial birds.

But the rare lonely spirits, even mine,
         Who love the immortal music of all days,
Will see the glory of your trailing line,
         The bedded beauty of your haunting lays.

The language and rhythm here feels gentler, more languid, but it’s still a wise warning wrapped within consolation: If you’re a poet, you won’t be celebrated in your own time, only years down the road by the select few, “the rare lonely spirits.”

The next poem we read was “America,” because, well, America.

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate,
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet, as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

“I love this cultured hell that tests my youth.” Damn, that’s good.

My first instinct in reading this poem was: I can relate. I assumed it’s communicating that feeling of using rage as a kind of energy, as a motivator and propeller that can be useful when channeled in healthy directions. I often feel that way about New York City; I’m easily irritated by my fellow humanity (whistling, humming, man-spreading, walking too slowly), and because I don’t want to seem like a crazy person, I bottle that irritation up. It makes me feel alive in ways that are probably not healthy.

But in re-reading and analyzing, I realized my instincts are wrong (and self-centered, naturally). America is the one doing all the hating, and McKay is responding to that hate, taking strength from it. Using the word “hate” instead of a societal problem like “racism” or “capitalist exploitation” also makes the negative more visceral. For me, “hate” has a physicality to it, a sensation of my insides racking apart. The second half has another transition into more cold-eyed calculation, an estimation of America’s potential that she may or may not achieve in the future.

Nick described the poems overall as having a palpable sense of ‘the world is a great place but not for me,’ and nowhere was that more in evidence than in “On Broadway,” a poem with a jaunty momentum that is ultimately dashed.

About me young careless feet
Linger along the garish street;
         Above, a hundred shouting signs
Shed down their bright fantastic glow
         Upon the merry crowd and lines
Of moving carriages below.
Oh wonderful is Broadway—only
My heart, my heart is lonely.

Desire naked, linked with Passion,
Goes strutting by in brazen fashion;
         From playhouse, cabaret and inn
The rainbow lights of Broadway blaze
         All gay without, all glad within;
As in a dream I stand and gaze
At Broadway, shining Broadway—only
My heart, my heart is lonely.

I knew what the last poem would be as soon as I saw the title: “When I Have Passed Away.”

When I have passed away and am forgotten,
And no one living can recall my face,
When under alien sod my bones lie rotten
With not a tree or stone to mark the place;

Perchance a pensive youth, with passion burning,
For olden verse that smacks of love and wine,
The musty pages of old volumes turning,
May light upon a little song of mine,

And he may softly hum the tune and wonder
Who wrote the verses in the long ago;
Or he may sit him down awhile to ponder
Upon the simple words that touch him so.

Nick and I made our way out of the cemetery after that, pausing every so often to examine a tombstone. Back onto the main thoroughfares, we became less hushed, our voices growing louder, and soon enough we were making each other laugh, happy to once again ignore our mortality for as long as we could, yet not without a cloud of new understanding draped around us, making us see the city in a new light.

JUSTIN MUSCHONG is a writer based in Astoria, Queens. His work has appeared in Resource Magazine, Newtown Literary, Crate Literary Magazine, The Vignette Review, Atticus Review, and Maudlin House. He is currently at work on his first novel, a very silly comedy, and he tweets inanity at @JustinMuschong.

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