Poem Themes •
Random Poem •
The Rating of Poets • The Rating of Poems
Poem by Countee Cullen
The Shroud of Color
”Lord, being dark,” I said, ”I cannot bear The further touch of earth, the scented air; Lord, being dark, forewilled to that despair My color shrouds me in, I am as dirt Beneath my brother’s heel; there is a hurt In all the simple joys which to a child Are sweet; they are contaminate, defiled By truths of wrongs the childish vision fails To see; too great a cost this birth entails. I strangle in this yoke drawn tighter than The worth of bearing it, just to be man. I am not brave enough to pay the price In full; I lack the strength to sacrifice I who have burned my hands upon a star, And climbed high hills at dawn to view the far Illimitable wonderments of earth, For whom all cups have dripped the wine of mirth, For whom the sea has strained her honeyed throat Till all the world was sea, and I a boat Unmoored, on what strange quest I willed to float; Who wore a many-colored coat of dreams, Thy gift, O Lord--I whom sun-dabbled streams Have washed, whose bare brown thighs have held the sun Incarcerate until his course was run, I who considered man a high-perfected Glass where loveliness could lie reflected, Now that I sway athwart Truth’s deep abyss, Denuding man for what he was and is, Shall breath and being so inveigle me That I can damn my dreams to hell, and be Content, each new-born day, anew to see The steaming crimson vintage of my youth Incarnadine the altar-slab of Truth? Or hast Thou, Lord, somewhere I cannot see, A lamb imprisoned in a bush for me? Not so?Then let me render one by one Thy gifts, while still they shine; some little sun Yet gilds these thighs; my coat, albeit worn, Still hold its colors fast; albeit torn. My heart will laugh a little yet, if I May win of Thee this grace, Lord:on this high And sacrificial hill ’twixt earth and sky, To dream still pure all that I loved, and die. There is no other way to keep secure My wild chimeras, grave-locked against the lure Of Truth, the small hard teeth of worms, yet less Envenomed than the mouth of Truth, will bless Them into dust and happy nothingness. Lord, Thou art God; and I, Lord, what am I But dust?With dust my place.Lord, let me die.” Across earth’s warm, palpitating crust I flung my body in embrace; I thrust My mouth into the grass and sucked the dew, Then gave it back in tears my anguish drew; So hard I pressed against the ground, I felt The smallest sandgrain like a knife, and smelt The next year’s flowering; all this to speed My body’s dissolution, fain to feed The worms.And so I groaned, and spent my strength Until, all passion spent, I lay full length And quivered like a flayed and bleeding thing. So lay till lifted on a great black wing That had no mate nor flesh-apparent trunk To hamper it; with me all time had sunk Into oblivion; when I awoke The wing hung poised above two cliffs that broke The bowels of the earth in twain, and cleft The seas apart.Below, above, to left, To right, I saw what no man saw before: Earth, hell, and heaven; sinew, vein, and core. All things that swim or walk or creep or fly, All things that live and hunger, faint and die, Were made majestic then and magnified By sight so clearly purged and deified. The smallest bug that crawls was taller than A tree, the mustard seed loomed like a man. The earth that writhes eternally with pain Of birth, and woe of taking back her slain, Laid bare her teeming bosom to my sight, And all was struggle, gasping breath, and fight. A blind worm here dug tunnels to the light, And there a seed, racked with heroic pain, Thrust eager tentacles to sun and rain: It climbed; it died; the old love conquered me To weep the blossom it would never be. But here a bud won light; it burst and flowered Into a rose whose beauty challenged, ”Coward!” There was no thing alive save only I That held life in contempt and longed to die. And still I writhed and moaned, ”The curse, the curse, Than animated death, can death be worse?” ”Dark child of sorrow, mine no less, what art Of mine can make thee see and play thy part? The key to all strange things is in thy heart.” What voice was this that coursed like liquid fire Along my flesh, and turned my hair to wire? I raised my burning eyes, beheld a field All multitudinous with carnal yield, A grim ensanguined mead whereon I saw Evolve the ancient fundamental law Of tooth and talon, fist and nail and claw. There with the force of living, hostile hills Whose clash the hemmed-in vale with clamor fills, With greater din contended fierce majestic wills Of beast with beast, of man with man, in strife For love of what my heart despised, for life That unto me at dawn was now a prayer For night, at night a bloody heart-wrung tear For day again; for this, these groans From tangled flesh and interlocked bones. And no thing died that did not give A testimony that it longed to live. Man, strange composite blend of brute and god, Pushed on, nor backward glanced where last he trod: He seemed to mount a misty ladder flung Pendant from a cloud, yet never gained a rung But at his feet another tugged and clung. My heart was still a pool of bitterness, Would yield nought else, nought else confess. I spoke (although no form was there To see, I knew an ear was there to hear), ”Well, let them fight; they can whose flesh is fair.” Crisp lightning flashed; a wave of thunder shook My wing; a pause, and then a speaking, ”Look.” I scarce dared trust my ears or eyes for awe Of what they heard, and dread of what they saw; For, privileged beyond degree, this flesh Beheld God and His heaven in the mesh Of Lucifer’s revolt, saw Lucifer Glow like the sun, and like a dulcimer I heard his sin-sweet voice break on the yell Of God’s great warriors:Gabriel, Saint Clair and Michael, Israfel and Raphael. And strange it was to see God with His back Against a wall, to see Christ hew and hack Till Lucifer, pressed by the mighty pair, And losing inch by inch, clawed at the air With fevered wings; then, lost beyond repair, He tricked a mass of stars into his hair; He filled his hands with stars, crying as he fell, ”A star’s a star although it burns in hell.” So God was left to His divinity, Omnipotent at that most costly fee. There was a lesson here, but still the clod In me was sycophant unto the rod, And cried, ”Why mock me thus?Am I a god?” ”One trial more:this failing, then I give You leave to die; no further need to live.” Now suddenly a strange wild music smote A chord long impotent in me; a note Of jungles, primitive and subtle, throbbed Against my echoing breast, and tom-toms sobbed In every pulse-beat of my frame.The din A hollow log bound with a python’s skin Can make wrought every nerve to ecstasy, And I was wind and sky again, and sea, And all sweet things that flourish, being free. Till all at once the music changed its key. And now it was of bitterness and death, The cry the lash extorts, the broken breath Of liberty enchained; and yet there ran Through all a harmony of faith in man, A knowledge all would end as it began. All sights and sounds and aspects of my race Accompanied this melody, kept pace With it; with music all their hopes and hates Were charged, not to be downed by all the fates. And somehow it was borne upon my brain How being dark, and living through the pain Of it, is courage more than angels have.I knew What storms and tumults lashed the tree that grew This body that I was, this cringing I That feared to contemplate a changing sky, This that I grovelled, whining, ”Let me die,” While others struggled in Life’s abattoir. The cries of all dark people near or far Were billowed over me, a mighty surge Of suffering in which my puny grief must merge And lose itself; I had no further claim to urge For death; in shame I raised my dust-grimed head, And though my lips moved not, God knew I said, ”Lord, not for what I saw in flesh or bone Of fairer men; not raised on faith alone; Lord, I will live persuaded by mine own. I cannot play the recreant to these; My spirit has come home, that sailed the doubtful seas.” With the whiz of a sword that severs space, The wing dropped down at a dizzy pace, And flung me on my hill flat on my face; Flat on my face I lay defying pain, Glad of the blood in my smallest vein, And in my hands I clutched a loyal dream, Still spitting fire, bright twist and coil and gleam, And chiseled like a hound’s white tooth. ”Oh, I will match you yet,” I cried, ”to truth.” Right glad I was to stoop to what I once had spurned. Glad even unto tears; I laughed aloud; I turned Upon my back, and though the tears for joy would run, My sight was clear; I looked and saw the rising sun.
Countee Cullen's other poems:
English Poetry. E-mail firstname.lastname@example.org