On "Street Lamps in Early Spring"
"What do I care for morning," asks Helene Johnson, "For the glare of the rising sun . . . ? / . . . Give me the beauty of evening, / The cool consummation of night." The preference for nighttime over day expressed in Johnson's poem is marked in women's poetry and served a variety of functions. One of these was to assert the primacy of Blackness in a world that favored white things. Quieter, calmer, less dramatic than the day, night was, nevertheless, an essential force in life, the contemplation of which brought serenity to a restless, discontented spirit. Gwendolyn Bennett's Imagist portrait, "Street Lamps in Early Spring," is typical in its elegiac tone: . . .
Overlooked by the insensitive, the beauty of Blackness and femaleness is here brought from the background to center stage and admired for its steady, subtle force.
Bennett's poem captures another aspect of night's usefulness as an image for Black women. Night is said to draw over her face a veil "shimmering fine as floating dew." Cast as a goddess whose features are hidden, night stands for the masked self, obscured by the fears and projected fantasies of gazers with the power to define. Although night is veiled in mystery, she escapes the distorted, negative images of those who fail to see her clearly. Self-assured, she parades through poetry of the twenties with regal grace. The donning of a mask for self-protection, then, does not forever submerge the vital, beautiful person underneath, who possesses powers unrecognized by the world.
Not only a vibrant woman of great spirit who rules her domain wisely, night offers respite from the daily struggle to survive, for in a dark world, Blackness cannot be used as a marker of difference. Since there is no need to dissemble, the poet can come alive in her presence.
From Shadowed Dreams. Ed. Maureen Honey, New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers University Press.
Like many of their female contemporaries, both Bennett and Johnson were drawn to what might be called the "nightwoman" poemsimply, a poem in which night and woman are rendered in terms of each other. Bennett's "Street Lamps in Early Spring" suggests the genre's appeal for the Harlem Renaissance woman poet.
Night wears a garment
All velvet soft, all violet blue . . .
And over her face she draws a veil
As shimmering fine as floating dew . . .
And here and there
In the black of her hair
The subtle hands of Night
Move slowly with their gem-starred light.
The first, most important characteristic of the nightwoman is her sheer scale. Larger than life, the center of her world, even the matrix of that world itself, her position bears certain key resemblances to that of the bourgeois Negro Womanbut without the strains of "exaltedness." Their differences are built into the particular cultural register that each inhabits: iconic status can provide the Negro Woman with only the protections and power attendant on the commodification she has undergone; by contrast, metaphoric status lends the Night Woman the magnificence and the imperturbable stillness of poetryas well as the greater remove of metaphor itself.
Intrinsic to the figure of night is, of course, the elevation of darkness to a world on its own terms; indeed, the night has a persistent presence in renaissance poetry as a point of reference for black legitimacy, as in Langston Hughes's "Proem": "I am a Negro: / Black as the night is black, / Black like the depths of my Africa." But the autonomous night has a special felicity for women writers, one which Bennett here exploits fully. The night is larger than life, metaphorically magnificent, but simultaneously veiled; prominent, powerful, yet unavailable to prying eyes; ubiquitously "public" yet private unto herself. Even beyond resolving what is a central contradiction of bourgeois Negro womanhood, the nightwoman eradicates a second, culturally imposed contradiction between black skin and genteel womanhood: in the metaphoric context of the nightwoman poem, darkness is intrinsic to (modest, demurei.e., bourgeois) femininity. . . .
Johnson's "What Do I Care for Morning" explores the potential of the nightwoman metaphor within a more ambitious ideological framework. Contrary to convention, night is here explicitly contrasted with day, as the title suggests, while day itself is rejected as the disorderly realm of aggressive and disjointed activity.
What do I care for morning,
For a shivering aspen tree,
For sun flowers and sumac
What do I care for morning,
For the glare of the rising sun,
For a sparrow's noisy prating,
For another day begun?
When the speaker chooses night, as she inevitably must, it is for the calm unity that emanates from that domain's central organizing presence, the moon.
Give me the beauty of evening,
The cool consummation of night,
And the moon like a love-sick lady,
Listless and wan and white.
Give me a little valley
Huddled beside a hill,
Like a monk in a monastery,
Safe and contented and still,
Give me the white road glistening,
A strand of the pale moon's hair,
And the tall hemlocks towering
Dark as the moon is fair.
In drawing day into the comparative shadow of night, Johnson invites certain oppositions: between industry and love, drive and contentment, desire and satiety. We can hear in this structure of values strong echoes of the (by 1926) long-standing argument among black and, increasingly, white intellectuals that African America had soulful qualities badly needed by the grasping, frenetic world of white capitalism. The poem's final lines feed into this contrast of the ancient race with the hard, youthful one.
Oh what do I care for morning,
Naked and newly born
Night is here, yielding and tender
What do I care for dawn!
To the extent that the night is, indeed, identified with African America, the function of the metaphoric woman is significant. At the center of her world, she provides the magnetic charge from which comes orderand eros. Here the affective positioning of the speaker is significant, for whereas more or less straightforward identification is implied by the nightwoman lyric in its simpler forms, in this instance the speaker claims a place for herself as a woman distinct from the metaphor. She accomplishes this through a declaration of her desire. Having begun by asserting in broad terms the superior attractions of the night over the day, she finishes with a fairly precise articulation of the possibilities for intimacy each offers her. The "naked and newly born" morning asks her to be mother to the child who goes forth to strive with the rest of the striving world. This scenario leaves her behind and redundant, as, indeed, the dominant culture traditionally relegates the African American woman to its forgotten domestic and psychological spaces to do its drudgery. The "yielding and tender" night, by contrast, is the omnipotent mother of pre-Oedipal plenitude, the mother who is the world, and the invitation is to the "cool consummation" of "safe[ty]," "content[ment]," and "still[ness]." This language of adult sexuality signals the speaker's choice as a conscious return to a culturally sanctioned state: though premised on infant pleasure, this is the world of courtly love and monastic life, as well as the beauty and allusiveness of poetry itself. Indeed, morning has no trace of culture to its credit, only raw nature untouched by poetry. Johnson's poem thus extends the reach of the nightwoman metaphor to encompass culture itself, newly defined as feminine and African American.
Making Love Modern: The Intimate Worlds of New York's Literary Women. New York: Oxford UP, 1998. Copyright © 1998 by Oxford UP.
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