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Cane (Jean Toomer)

Long, 100 page, poem in three main parts. Each consists of a mixture of prose narrative (the first two parts have subtitles, often but not always naming women that appear in them) and lineated poems. The first part is set in the – rural – south, to the music of work songs, the second in the – urban – north with a more upbeat jazzy feel, and the third part (‘Kabnis’, named after a character that Toomer identified as himself) returns to the south with a more immediately harder and authoritative form, perhaps derived from increased concision.

It was published in 1923, and was an important part of the “Harlem Renaissance”. One noteworthy quality of the prose was – I felt – the way that the first section treats its women with puzzlement (Louisa thinks “Where were they, these people? She’d sing, and perhaps they’d come out and join her. Perhaps Tom Burwell would come”, as Tom is being murdered by a mob for jealousy killing another of her lovers), whereas in the second the desire of men is more opaque, and the women are called “Dicties”, slang “referring to educated, middle class Afro-Americans who behave… snobbish”. Perhaps the lineated poems can seen as a commentary on these sex roles.

The last section definitely seems to enact narrative and symbolic closure, as the repeating use of ‘song’ becomes ‘soul’ and a peripheral character claims that ‘sin’ is the “lies. O… th white folks… when they made th Bible lie”. It closes with an image of the sun rising for sexual love and consummation.

There is still the indeterminacy of whether “Jesus” is a lie or lied about. Part of the first section titled ‘Esther’ ends with a man, Barlo, whom Esther has spent much of her life obsessed with, recognizing her from a religious fit or trance he underwent when she was a child; at this point Esther suddenly finds Barlo repulsive, and she leaves him and her pursuit of him ,”steps out. There is no air, no street, and the town has completely disappeared”.

It’s shape / music is not immediately appealing, and its closure frustrated what was a sense of importance for the just mentioned scene and its universality.

However, there are moments to enjoy independent of those narrative tensions, such as the gradually more self conscious use of rich diction, the poetic / universal feel to some of the later lineated poems, and the sense of impermanent / threatened beauty in lives and ways of life (which his letters remarked on), especially the interplay of characters coming to terms with racism: “I came back to tell you, brother, that white faces are the petals of roses. That dark faces are petals of dusk. That I am going out to gather petals” (Bona and Paul).