On "The Black Finger"
Gloria T. Hull
Grimké's poetry accords very closely with her theoretical description of how she writes. Being expressions of the moment, her poems are usually brief. They present the scene or thought as swiftly as possible in sharp, concrete images, and then abandon it. This trait causes critics (like Robert Kerlin, for example) to compare her with the imagists. However, Grimké cannot usually refrain from comment, and thus violates the suggestive objectivity that is a part of their creed. Her poem "The Black Finger" is an excellent case in point. Here is its middle section:
Slim and still,
Against a gold, gold sky,
A straight cypress.
A black finger
Those seven lines have the haiku-like, symbolic compression that the imagists prized. However, the poem consists of three additional lines--a beginning statement, "I have just seen a beautiful thing," and two closing questions, "Why, beautiful, still finger are you black? / And why are you pointing upwards?"--which alter considerably its tone and effect by making attitude and meaning too explicit.
From Color, Sex, and Poetry: Three Women Writers of the Harlem Renaissance. Copyright © 1987 by Gloria T. Hull.
The use of trees in these poems is common, for trees are stationary, as women are immobilized by confining roles. Symbolic of paralysis, they can nevertheless be viewed positively. In Grimké's "The Black Finger," a tree's silhouette is highlighted by sunset: "I have just seen a most beautiful thing: / Slim and still, / Against a gold, gold sky A straight, black cypress / Sensitive / Exquisite / A black finger / Pointing upwards." Leading the eye toward a vast, open space where the soul can soar, the tree in this poem can, in some sense, stand for the miraculous survival of Black aspiration as the poet ends by asking: "Why, beautiful still finger, are you black? / And why are you pointing upwards?" Helene Johnson employs the same metaphor in "'Trees at Night" where she draws an image of vibrant wonder crystallized by the interplay of light and shadow on a moonlit night: "Slim sentinels / Stretching lacy arms / About a slumbrous moon; / Black quivering / Silhouettes, / Tremulous, / . . . And printed 'gainst the sky-- / The trembling beauty / Of an urgent pine." It is the silhouette of the tree that attracts the poet's eye, the intricate pattern of branches against a sky, the stillness of a solid trunk anchored by sure roots and pushing against the force of gravity. The trunk's rich brownness is starkly highlighted in silhouette, devoid of obscuring foliage and beautiful in its hardy survival of harsh conditions. The poetic tree transcends its condition of immobility to stand for quiet endurance, pride, dignity, and aspiration. Like women, it has a delicate beauty under the toughness that enables it to survive.
From Shadowed Dreams: Womens Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Maureen Honey. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers.
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