Cornelius Eady, Poetry of Compassion and Truth

Cornelius Eady at St ClementsCornelius Eady is the author of eight books of poetry, including Hardheaded Weather: New and Selected Poems (Putnam, April 2008). His second book, Victims of the Latest Dance Craze, won the Lamont Prize from the Academy of American Poets in 1985. The Gathering of My Name  was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize in 1991. Brutal Imagination was a 2001 finalist for the National Book Award.

His theater work includes the play, “Brutal Imagination,” based on the Susan Smith story of her children being kidnapped by an African-American man. He collaborated with Diedre Murray on the libretto for the opera, “Running Man,” a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama in 1999.

In 1996 he co-founded Cave Canem with Toi Derricotte, a summer workshop/retreat for African American poets. He has taught at the University of Missouri and SUNY Stonybrook, Southampton, New York.

I first met Cornelius at a reading of Home Planet News in 1980. In the audience, willowy Patricia Fillingham, a poet from suburban New Jersey, had found a home away from home on the New York poetry scene. With her Warthog Press, she published Breathe: An Anti-Smoking Anthology of poems, cartoons and songs, edited by Shel Horowitz, and Kartunes, a collection of poems by Cornelius Eady. I believe Kartunes was Cornelius’ first published book of poetry.

That fall, poets and actors performing poetry caravanned through the Poetry Festival. Cornelius Eady and Shelley Messing taped some of these events, as part of their work making audiotapes of poets for WBAI around the city. Always amiable, Cornelius was generous with his time and helped promote other poets.

Nocerino&EadyFlyer

Cornelius Eady and another poet, Kathryn Nocerino, appeared together at the Poetry Festival at St. Clement’s, 423 West 46th Street, NYC, several times between 1979 and 1983. One reading was on December 21, 1981. At one of these readings, in the large sanctuary and theater space upstairs in the church, I photographed Cornelius with his portable microphone. Tall and thin, he swayed like bamboo while he read. His poetry is compassionate with an edge that cuts into and through veils of ignorance. He fuses music with language about race, social issues, family, and love.

You can read more about him along with some of his poems at the Poetry Foundation.

 

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The Old Man Sings

Sea Grapes Jetty Park
(You may sing this as a round)

Over sand flats the Old Man raves
sunlight cresting on waves
the truth is out along the borders
roving the island seeking new quarters
full of unrest, full of solace

A twisted morass bars his way
black thistle, buckthorn, and palm
rife with full-throated glory songs
roam above his outstretched arms
full of unrest, full of solace

Plundering triumphant cries of raptors
rhapsody of warblers and wrens
weave around him as he traces
the hammock’s periphery in rapture
full of unrest, full of solace

From the magic circle the echo
of a willet’s scream: will it, will it
and the royal terns’ call to arms
lure him into the echo of time
full of unrest, full of solace

The Old Man cups his ears to capture
the final alarm, the eternal song
a siren call of infinite pathos
in the flooding and the flowing out
full of life, full of death

Branches scrape above him adagio
but there is no way into, no path
through the mystifying terrain
until he cries out in a crescendo
full of death, full of life

Copyright 1998 by Mary Clark

The original poem appeared in Waterways magazine, Vol. 30, No. 11, May 2010; and Jimson Weed, Volume 30, New Series Vol. 14, No. 2, Fall 2011. In this version, the ending has been slightly revised.