In 1947, in Castries, St. Lucia, composing the poem1 that he will use as the invocation of his first book, soon to be published with funds given to him by his schoolteacher mother, a 17-year-old black man has a laundry list of requests:
Inspire modesty by means of nightly verses,
Defer hands that construct a selfish end
By rope; disintegrate all that perverse is
In arms that circumscribe the private friend.
Render those faithful whom we least suspect
Of friendship: and those whom we know betray,
May they confirm our better judgment. Wreck
Maps for our murder, but our iron hate
Make secure as telegraph poles are strict.
Provoke the nervous beams near foreign lovers,
Our ultimate disaster make circumspect,
Strengthen the fraud that white and black are brothers,
Give us the wisdom that does not expect
More from ourselves than we expect of others.
“Inspire…,” “defer…,” “disintegrate…,” “wreck…,” “provoke…”—the sonnet names a catalog of need. But the request I find most moving, and most puzzling, is the poet’s call to his muse to “Strengthen the fraud that black and white are brothers.” Why should a poet sing more, or better, because a fraud grows stronger? Isn’t truth beauty, and beauty truth? And which muse is this poet seeking to invoke? Thalia, muse of comedy, is familiar with fraud. But Melpomene, muse of tragedy, might strengthen this particular fraud, so long associated with loss and death. Perhaps the poet calls out to Calliope, muse of epic, to bolster a fraud that has such scope? The poem evinces that the poet is a fast learner. His life will confirm that, even as a young man, he knew how crucial is the relation between invocation and vocation.
In 1989, after a year and a half in Boston, my wife agrees to let me quit my day job to write. For four months I stand in a bay window overlooking a street in the nearly gentrified South End, my forehead at rest against the casing, my breath fogging the sash. I am a slow learner. It’s 9:40 a.m., and I have deliberately invoked no one. Poetry, I believe, is supposed to come to me without my asking for help. No one has taught me any better.
Peripheral visions: Two boys and two girls, barely teenagers, walk—no, they strut—north on Worcester Street. One boy wears a black leather jacket emblazoned breast and back with images of billiard’s eight ball. He’s anxious to impress his girl, the one in the purple scarf. A blade flashes, then its owner dances. Once, twice, he plunges the blade into the tires of parked cars he passes. Three tires, four… is she his girl, after all? She refuses to take notice of his courage. Four tires, five! By six, the other boy is cackling and spinning at Eight Ball’s triumphs by deflation. The victim cars slouch a little toward their driver’s sides, as if a boy with a switchblade had the authority to order them, “At ease.”
Maybe Eight Ball slashes 10 tires. Maybe the other boy’s girl kisses Eight Ball’s girl in the street. I don’t know because I have run to call the police. By the time I have been connected to the dispatcher, I am back at the window, cordless receiver at my ear. The four members of the urban gang that rules Worcester street turn the corner and head west on Columbus; the number eight dissolves into the brickwork at the corner. When the dispatcher has taken my name, my address, and my story, she puts me on hold. When she returns, she instructs me to stay on the line, please, and asks me if I am willing to go out to the street to speak with a patrol officer in person. I am willing, I say, but I am also amazed, because my peripheral vision tells me that a squad car has pulled up, its red and blue lights flashing. As I cross the landing, headed toward the stairs, the dispatcher signs off: “An officer will speak with you now.”
One step off my stoop, feedback crashes into my ear: I am too close to the radio the officer is using to talk to me, so I switch the phone off. Officer steps from the squad car and joins me on the curb. A tiny microphone is clipped to one arm of his sunglasses, but he’s not using it. Officer takes my name and my address. “Are you willing to take a look around?” he asks. Invoking no one, I climb into the back seat. No one presses down on the back of my head as I duck in, like on TV.
The squad car rolls forward. As it turns west on Columbus, Officer says he’s got a few places he’d like me to check out. It has not been five minutes since I first saw the blade. He makes the siren chirp twice as we cross Massachusetts Avenue against the light, and guns the engine in what seems an unnecessary display of his—now it’s our—power. In seconds, we pull up along the north side of Columbus, just west of New York Pizza.
One cop has a hand on this suspect’s head to keep it down, but the suspect struggles to turn back toward the squad car, to see who’s in the back seat, to see who might ID him.
“Is that the one?” Officer asks, pointing. Against an unused storefront fall the silhouettes of two policemen, one white man, one black man. One cop stands back with his right hand on the butt of his pistol; the other pats down a suspect, searching for weapons. Based on my call, they have detained a young black man who wears a dark brown leather jacket. His feet and hands are spread as far apart as they could possibly be; this suspect’s limbs and torso draw an X on the whitewashed bricks of the storefront, and the shadow of his body makes the X run, like too much ink. “No,” I tell Officer. “That’s not the one.”
“OK,” he says, to me, drawing the first syllable into a groan as he turns the steering wheel. Into the microphone, Officer says, “Negative Columbus.” The car’s muscle announces itself again, and again we are drawn forward, 500 feet or so, and then east, around the corner, onto Northampton Street.
“What about this one?” asks Officer. Up ahead another pair of cops, both black, one ridiculously taller than the other, have detained a young black man who wears a black leather jacket with red wool sleeves. This suspect, too, is splayed against a wall, this one red brick. One cop has a hand on this suspect’s head to keep it down, but the suspect struggles to turn back toward the squad car, to see who’s in the back seat, to see who might ID him.
“No,” I say, weakly, shifting to make sure my face stays shadowed. “Not this one.” “That’s OK,” says Officer, adding, with the press of a button, “Negative Northampton,” into his microphone. Then back to me, smiling broadly, “We’ve got more.”
We did have more. Two more. On the next block, near the corner of Tremont Street, another young black man, this one in a red puffy coat, is propped against a wall, a white cop at his right, a white cop at his left. The cops wave to Officer and me. I know the drill by now, and I tell Officer not to stop. “Negative Northampton two,” he says to the dispatcher as we cruise by.
The finale takes place just off Massachusetts Avenue, where a black cop and a white cop have pulled their squad car into an alley to apprehend a short, middle-age black man with dreadlocks who wears a red, black, yellow, and green hoodie beneath his leather vest. “Negative,” I tell Officer, but it doesn’t seem to register. Our siren chirps and we speed into the mouth of the alley, slowing to a gravel-popping parade roll as we pass. “Negative,” I tell him again. “Negative.”
In three minutes I am back in front of my apartment. In four minutes my cordless phone is back in its cradle. In eight minutes I am back at my bay window. I am not a fast learner, as I said, though I am sure I will never call the police again. But now do I invoke anybody?
Negative. I prefer weak frauds, like Cosby and The Jeffersons, like my sense that I am in some significant way the neighbor of the black men who live in the South End, like the time I am taking from making a living, supposedly to write poems. Like the notion that I need a fully developed intellectual understanding of what just happened in order to try to write about it.
Twenty-five years have passed. It no longer seems crazy to me that a poet might invoke a strong fraud in order to begin to be the writer he desires to become. And there is one fraud I wish I could make stronger: my belief that the same muse Derek Walcott called upon for help in 1947 walked down Worcester Street in Boston 42 years later—that she was Eight Ball’s girl, that her name was Calliope.