In celebration of National Poetry Month, the Writer’s Center is showcasing the work of Poet Lore contributors. Their final installment includes a brief Q&A with author Samiya Bashir about “John Henry’s First Real Swing—” from her sonnet sequence entitled "Coronagraphy" (Poet Lore 107 3/4).
Stuck: something here about black folks—all of us no matter our gender, our shade, our size—finding ourselves together-and-apart in a cycle of oppression that fits us all a bit differently. Throughout these poems, John Henry and Polly Ann find themselves in quicksand of like origin. Their experience is unique to each of them, but both are being pulled under.
Notice: an aberrant incandescence wobble back and forth between and within them. Polly Ann is the tougher of the two in many ways no matter that John Henry is physically stronger. Both show off sharp foresight.
Wonder: can/will any foresight save them/us? Polly Ann opens the final sonnet with what might be read as echo, reformed and differently born: “I can tell our futures too. Listen here — ” She might/may/must be read as something entirely else too.
Feel: all of that difference. John Henry’s perspective is overpowering and close-up, hot and large compared to Polly Ann’s. He is legend, as you note, and she is footnote.
But: and here the form itself serves as coronagraph progressively eclipsing the direct light of legend, blinding as that can be, so we may see all that stands alongside.
Balance: must necessarily shift for us to see and embody. Beside the glare of “tall tale,” real lives are at stake. Polly Ann’s life is real. Her concerns are real—pedestrian-seeming even—but that’s life.
“Lift and drop. Lift and drop. Lift and — ” one finds fewer songs written about the moments after the dash. That’s what we celebrate, too. When resolved into chore, into overcoming; when focused into the longtime scale of life after loss (after loss) we more clearly see so much of what we fight to protect, of what and how we survive, of what we work to change in order to better fit our bodies and our spirits.