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On Casely-Hayford's Poetry

Maureen Honey

The eroticism found in verse of the 1920s not only made visible the hunger of Black women for unrestricted, self-defining experience, but also brought to the surface feelings for women that had been couched previously in platonic language. After World War I, women's verse began to explore the forbidden territory of explicit sexual attraction. Only two female writers from this era have been identified as feeling passionate attraction to other women: Alice Dunbar-Nelson and Angelina Weld Crimké. Gloria Hull brought to light both Dunbar-Nelson's diary entries concerning her attachments to women and Grimké's overtly lesbian unpublished poetry. There are others, however, who went beyond the veiled lesbianism of Grimké's published work and Dunbar-Nelson's poetic silence on the subject.

Gladys May Casely Hayford's "Rainy Season Love Song," for instance, is addressed to a woman referred to as "my love" in the first stanza. The persona of the poem describes making love to this figure in a rainstorm that shares the speaker's desire. Rain kisses her "everywhere," flows between her breasts, while lightning and thunder move inside her body. The speaker kisses her beloved's "dusky throat," feels electricity wherever she touches, and, finally, lies in her lover's arms. While not as overtly sexual, Hayford's "The Serving Girl" creates a similarly erotic milieu as the speaker describes an encounter with the woman of the title, who brings fish "peppered, and golden fried for me" along with palm wine "that carelessly slips / From the sleeping palm tree's honeyed lips." The poem then ends with a provocative question: "But who can guess, or even surmise / The countless things she served with her eyes?"

From Shadowed Dreams: Women’s Poetry of the Harlem Renaissance. Ed. Maureen Honey. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1989. Copyright © 1989 by Rutgers University Press.

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