Review by Brad Haas


Melvin B. Tolson
University of Virgina Press, 1999
paperback $18.95

   When I was told of a 'black modernist', I couldn't believe it. It was difficult to imagine Eliot, Pound and Wyndham Lewis with a black poet in London or Paris in the teens and twenties. My instinct was correct. Melvin B. Tolson wrote much later, from the late 1940s (when he made several appearances in mainstream periodicals such as PoetryChicago)) to his death in 1966. Those who referred me to him said he was wonderful, that he should be included - rightfully - in a modernist course. Why then, in an age of historical and literary revisionism, when minorities - ignored in their own time - are 'rediscovered', had I not heard of Tolson before the spring of this year? According to Rita Dove's introduction to Virginia's edition of "Harlem Gallery" and Other Poems, both white and African-American writers shunned Tolson. When Tolson uttered 'I will visit a land unvisited by Mr. Eliot', he embarked on a modernist project that utilized his own culture as the premise. The result, Harlem Gallery, Book 1 (all completed of a projected 5), was as Dove points out, immediately controversial. White poets praised Tolson, but 'in his place', as a Negro, placing him, his subject matter, and ultimately the poem itself outside of the modernist mainstream. Black writers in the burgeoning Black Arts movement did the opposite, claiming that his modernist technique was not reflective of the reality of African-Americans, that it was written to placate the white academics. The tragedy, as Dove writes, was that, 'in the controversy over racial loyalties and author's intent, few bothered to read Harlem Gallery. Its virtuoso use of folktale and street jive was forgotten as soon as the reader stumbled across a reference to "a mute swan not at Coole." The poem - and its story - got lost in the crossfire'.

   I opened the book soon after its purchase at a restaurant while waiting for my meal. What I was able to skim during that short duration excited me, as providing a missing link in the modernist epoch:

                                      Hideho Heights 
                         and I, like the brims of old hats, 
              slouched at a sepulchered table in the Zulu Club. 
                      Frog Legs Lux and his Indigo Combo 
                  spoke with tongues that sent their devotees 
                                    out of this world!
It had energy, sound, rhythm; it was undoubtedly black, yet something about 'sepulchered' went beyond that cultural context to suggest others. In only a few lines, out of context, I felt jazz in the mix, a sound no white modernists had utilized to this effect.

   What Tolson writes may not reflect an African-American reality. His odd array of characters such as the Curator and the fantastic Hideho Heights do not ring true, but they do live, in ultra-color, more alive in a way, as grotesque as they are, in that they are ART. Tolson comments on society, not through realism, but through the creation of something that feeds on reality: he allows his creativity, his eye, and his energetic ear to take over, and what results is transcendent rather than reflective. We could replace Satchmo's name with Tolson's in one of Hideho's speeches:

                                          Old Satchmo's 
                   gravelly voice and tapping foot and crazy notes 
                                      set my soul on fire. 
                                            If I climbed 
                         the seventy-seven steps of the Seventh 
                 Heaven, Satchmo's high C would carry me higher! 
                      Are you hip to this, Harlem?  Are you hip? 
                           On Judgment Day, Gabriel will say 
                                  after he blows his horn: 
                    "I'd be the greatest trumpeter in the Universe, 
                         if old Satchmo had never been born!"
It is refreshing, in a literary age so bent on forcibly reshaping the canon, that the revisionists finally got round to Tolson, someone indeed worthy of being re-discovered. Go to your bookstore (and if they don't have a copy on the shelves, complain), skip the early poems for the moment, and turn to somewhere in the middle of the 150 page 'Harlem Gallery'. Sample it, listen to its music, and you may well head to the cash register with it in your hand.