11 Poems by Helene Johnson

Helene Johnson, Harlem Renaissance poet

Helene Johnson (July 7, 1906 – July 7, 1995), an American poet associated with the Harlem Renaissance, was born in Boston and raised in Brookline, Massachusetts.

Her poems explore themes of gender and racial politics of the era in which she wrote, primarily in the late 1920s. Following are 11 of Helene Johnson’s poems, worth reflecting on and reconsidering.

“Bottled” and “Ah My Race” are arguably her most famous poems. “Bottled” needs an introduction and context, without which it can be misconstrued. It was first published in 1927 in the May issue of Vanity Fair. Katherine R. Lynes in Project Muse offers much insight into the story behind the poem:


“In ‘Bottled,’ Johnson puts authentic and inauthentic into dialogue when she puts an imagined African jungle into a poem set on the real streets of New York City. The speaker of the poem admires the (imagined) cultural adornments and proud dancing of a man in the streets of Harlem.

The speaker reports that he dances to jazz, American music that has some of its roots in Africa but is not in and of itself wholly African; she also imagines this man as he would be if he were in Africa.

He functions as a cultural object in the poem, a cultural object with contested authenticities. Johnson’s use of a mixture of cultural tropes reveals her awareness of and attentiveness to theories of cultural relativism.” 

Read the rest of her analysis at Project Muse.

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Bottled

Upstairs on the third floor
Of the 135th Street library
In Harlem, I saw a little
Bottle of sand, brown sand
Just like the kids make pies
Out of down at the beach.
But the label said: “This
Sand was taken from the Sahara desert. ”
Imagine that! The Sahara desert!
Some bozo’s been all the way to Africa to get some sand.
And yesterday on Seventh Avenue
I saw a darky dressed fit to kill
In yellow gloves and swallow tail coat
And swirling a cane. And everyone
Was laughing at him. Me too,
At first, till I saw his face
When he stopped to hear a
Organ grinder grind out some jazz.
Boy! You should a seen that darky’s face!
It just shone. Gee, he was happy!
And he began to dance. No
Charleston or Black Bottom for him.
No sir. He danced just as dignified
And slow. No, not slow either.
Dignified and proud! You couldn’t
Call it slow, not with all the
Cuttin’ up he did. You would a died to see him.
The crowd kept yellin’ but he didn’t hear,
Just kept on dancin’ and twirlin’ that cane
And yellin’ out loud every once in a while.
I know the crowd thought he was coo-coo.
But say, I was where I could see his face,
And somehow, I could see him dancin’ in a jungle,
A real honest-to-cripe jungle, and he wouldn’t have on them
Trick clothes — those yaller shoes and yaller gloves
And swallow-tail coat. He wouldn’t have on nothing.
And he wouldn’t be carrying no cane.
He’d be carrying a spear with a sharp fine point
Like the bayonets we had “over there.”
And the end of it would be dipped in some kind of
Hoo-doo poison. And he’d be dancin’ black and naked and gleaming.
And he’d have rings in his ears and on his nose
And bracelets and necklaces of elephants’ teeth.
Gee, I bet he’d be beautiful then all right.
No one would laugh at him then, I bet.
Say! That man that took that sand from the Sahara desert
And put it in a little bottle on a shelf in the library,
That’s what they done to this shine, ain’t it? Bottled him.
Trick shoes, trick coat, trick cane, trick everything — all glass —
But inside —
Gee, that poor shine!

. . . . . . . . . .

The Sandman

He catches dust o’ dreams to carry in his sack,
The dust a falling star leaves shining in its track,
He walks the milky-way, then down the dark-staired skies,
His tinkling footsteps hush the world with lullabies.
And when he reaches you, his fragrant gentle hands
Fill deep your drowsy eyes with fairy golden sands.

. . . . . . . . . .

Sonnet to a Negro in Harlem

You are disdainful and magnificant—
Your perfect body and your pompous gait,
Your dark eyes flashing solemnly with hate,
Small wonder that you are incompetent
To imitate those whom you so despise—
Your shoulders towering high above the throng,
Your head thrown back in rich, barbaric song,
Palm trees and mangoes stretched before your eyes.
Let others toil and sweat for labor’s sake
And wring from grasping hands their need of gold.
Why urge ahead your supercilious feet?
Scorn will efface each footprint that you make.
I love your laughter arrogant and bold.
You are too splendid for this city street.

. . . . . . . . . .

A Missionary Brings a Young Native to America

All day she heard the mad stampede of feet
Push by her in a thick unbroken haste.
A thousand unknown terrors of the street
Caught at her timid heart, and she could taste
The city of grit upon her tongue. She felt
A steel-spiked wave of brick and light submerge
Her mind in cold immensity. A belt
Of alien tenets choked the songs that surged
Within her when alone each night she knelt
At prayer. And as the moon grew large and white
Above the roof, afraid that she would scream
Aloud her young abandon to the night,
She mumbled Latin litanies and dream
Unholy dreams while waiting for the light.

. . . . . . . . . .

The Road

Ah, little road all whirry in the breeze,
A leaping clay hill lost among the trees,
The bleeding note of rapture streaming thrush
Caught in a drowsy hush
And stretched out in a single singing line of dusky song.
Ah little road, brown as my race is brown,
Your trodden beauty like our trodden pride,
Dust of the dust, they must not bruise you down.
Rise to one brimming golden, spilling cry!

. . . . . . . . . . .

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Metamorphism

Is this the sea?
This calm emotionless bosom,
Serene as the heart of a converted Magdalene ––
Or this?
This lisping, lulling murmur of soft waters
Kissing a white beached shore with tremulous lips;
Blue rivulets of sky gurgling deliciously
O’er pale smooth-stones ––
This too?
This sudden birth of unrestrained splendour,
Tugging with turbulent force at Neptune’s leash;
This passionate abandon,
This strange tempestuous soliloquy of Nature,
All these –– the sea?

 

. . . . . . . . . .

Poem

Little brown boy,
Slim, dark, big-eyed,
Crooning love songs to your banjo
Down at the Lafayerre —
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
High sort of and a bit to one side,
Like a prince, a jazz prince. And I love
Your eyes flashing, and your hands,
And your patent-leathered feet,
And your shoulders jerking the jig-wa.
And I love your teeth flashing,
And the way your hair shines in the spotlight
Like it was the real stuff.
Gee, brown boy, I loves you all over.
I’m glad I’m a jig. I’m glad I can
Understand your dancin’ and your
Singin’, and feel all the happiness
And joy and don’t care in you.
Gee, boy, when you sing, I can close my ears
And hear tom-toms just as plain.
Listen to me, will you, what do I know
About tom-toms? But I like the word, sort of,
Don’t you? It belongs to us.
Gee, boy, I love the way you hold your head,
And the way you sing, and dance,
And everything.
Say, I think you’re wonderful. You’re
Allright with me,
You are.

. . . . . . . . . .

A Southern Road

Yolk-colored tongue
Parched beneath a burning sky,
A lazy little tune
Hummed up the crest of some
Soft sloping hill.
One streaming line of beauty
Flowering by a forest
Pregnant with tears.
A hidden nest for beauty
Idly flung my God
In one lonely lingering hour
Before the Sabbath.
A blue-fruited black gum,
Like a tall predella,
Bears a dangling figure,—
Sacrificial dower to the raff, Swinging alone,
A solemn, tortured shadow in the air.

 
. . . . . . . . . .
 

Fulfillment

To climb a hill that hungers for the sky,
To dig my hands wrist deep in pregnant earth,
To watch a young bird, veering, learn to fly,
To give a still, stark poem shining birth.

. . . . . . . . . .

Ah My Race

Ah my race,
Hungry race,
Throbbing and young —
Ah, my race,
Wonder race,
Sobbing with song,
Ah, my race,
Careless in mirth
Ah, my veiled race,
Fumbling in birth.

. . . . . . . . . .

He’s About 22, I’m 63

He’s about 22. I’m 63
A pity! He’s so pretty!
He runs up the stairs.
I climb step by step.
We’ve never really met, and yet
If I could stop him, what would I say?
“How’s my young man today?”
Absurd! He’d give the sweet unspecial smile
You give a sweet unspecial child.
At most, some gingham word.

He’s slightly effete, completely elite,
His grace unsurpassed, a young prince at mass.
My cardiac wheezing is frantic and panting.
He’s enchanting!

Why was he born so late,
And I so soon?

A turn of chance
The nearest happenstance,
But move, if you’re that
Upset.

Then I won’t know if I fit,
Whether to sit back and
Sit, or quit altogether.
To wit.

Do I have it, or is it gone?
Do I still belong? Can I bluff?
Suppose he turns schoolboy-tough?
Oh, it’s all too much!

Look, get his name from the mailbox
And see if he’s in the book.

Well, it won’t hurt to look.
Here it is.

Then phone. If he’s divine,
He’s probably at home, a “want-to-be-alone”

My God, he is home!
6D? 6C.

I’m so sorry but my zipper’s caught,
With my hair in it.

Yes, it is ridiculous,
But would you? For just a minute?

Come in. The doors unlocked.
God! He glows! And even younger than I thought.

You knew all that before.
You’re becoming a bore.

But how can I reach him?

Teach him, then beseech him.

He seems a little scattered.

How does it really matter? At 22, at 63,
Any eccentricity?

But will it all be left to me?
Certainly.
That’s the idea.
Breathe heavily
(Asthma with rhythm)

You mean, a mini-cataclysm?

Yes. More or less.
Relax. It isn’t worth the
Sweat. Don’t forget, its luck, not skill.

He’s virile?

Puerile.

How droll.
But better droll than cold, and no reason for
distress. Last night
You had far less.

You’re right.
Last night the futile-victory
The lonely ecstasy
The peakless summit
The remote spasm
The chasm, the gap,
the hi without the hoe.

Tonight I might not touch the sky
But I’ll be on tippy-toe.

So,
Burgeoning 22,
Ripening 63,
Enjoying your buoyancy.
Whisper triumphantly,
“Merci, Merci.”

(Or less jubilantly, “Mercy!”)

 

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