Selected Poems by Claude McKay

Table of Contents

header After the Winter Heritage Spring in New Hampshire Harlem Shadows White Houses Baptism Russian Cathedral Flame-Heart The City's Love In Bondage Enslaved Africa America December, 1919 If We Must Die On Broadway Romance The Tropics in New York
After the Winter Some day, when trees have shed their leaves And against the morning's white The shivering birds beneath the eaves Have sheltered for the night, We'll turn our faces southward, love, Toward the summer isle Where bamboos spire to shafted grove And wide-mouthed orchids smile. And we will seek the quiet hill Where towers the cotton tree, And leaps the laughing crystal rill, And works the droning bee. And we will build a cottage there Beside an open glade, With black-ribbed blue-bells blowing near, And ferns that never fade. Heritage Now the dead past seems vividly alive, And in this shining moment I can trace, Down through the vista of the vanished years, Your faun-like form, your fond elusive face. And suddenly some secret spring's released, And unawares a riddle is revealed, And I can read like large, black-lettered print, What seemed before a thing forever sealed. I know the magic word, the graceful thought, The song that fills me in my lucid hours, The spirit's wine that thrills my body through, And makes me music-drunk, are yours, all yours. I cannot praise, for you have passed from praise, I have no tinted thoughts to paint you true; But I can feel and I can write the word; The best of me is but the least of you. Spring in New Hampshire Too green the springing April grass, Too blue the silver-speckled sky, For me to linger here, alas, While happy winds go laughing by, Wasting the golden hours indoors, Washing windows and scrubbing floors. Too wonderful the April night, Too faintly sweet the first May flowers, The stars too gloriously bright, For me to spend the evening hours, When fields are fresh and streams are leaping, Wearied, exhausted, dully sleeping. Harlem Shadows I hear the halting footsteps of a lass In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass To bend and barter at desire's call. Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet Go prowling through the night from street to street! Through the long night until the silver break Of day the little gray feet know no rest; Through the lone night until the last snow-flake Has dropped from heaven upon the earth's white breast, The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street. Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace, Has pushed the timid little feet of clay, The sacred brown feet of my fallen race! Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet In Harlem wandering from street to street. White Houses Your door is shut against my tightened face, And I am sharp as steel with discontent; But I possess the courage and the grace To bear my anger proudly and unbent. The pavement slabs burn loose beneath my feet, A chafing savage, down the decent street; And passion rends my vitals as I pass, Where boldly shines your shuttered door of glass. Oh, I must search for wisdom every hour, Deep in my wrathful bosom sore and raw, And find in it the superhuman power To hold me to the letter of your law! Oh, I must keep my heart inviolate Against the potent poison of your hate. Baptism Into the furnace let me go alone; Stay you without in terror of the heat. I will go naked in--for thus ''tis sweet-- Into the weird depths of the hottest zone. I will not quiver in the frailest bone, You will not note a flicker of defeat; My heart shall tremble not its fate to meet, My mouth give utterance to any moan. The yawning oven spits forth fiery spears; Red aspish tongues shout wordlessly my name. Desire destroys, consumes my mortal fears, Transforming me into a shape of flame. I will come out, back to your world of tears, A stronger soul within a finer frame. Russian Cathedral Bow down my soul in worship very low And in the holy silences be lost. Bow down before the marble man of woe, Bow down before the singing angel host. What jewelled glory fills my spirit's eye, What golden grandeur moves the depths of me! The soaring arches lift me up on high Taking my breath with their rare symmetry. Bow down my soul and let the wondrous light Of beauty bathe thee from her lofty throne, Bow down before the wonder of man's might. Bow down in worship, humble and alone; Bow lowly down before the sacred sight Of man's divinity alive in stone. Flame-Heart So much have I forgotten in ten years, So much in ten brief years! I have forgot What time the purple apples come to juice, And what month brings the shy forget-me-not. I have forgot the special, startling season Of the pimento's flowering and fruiting; What time of year the ground doves brown the fields And fill the noonday with their curious fluting. I have forgotten much, but still remember The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December. I still recall the honey-fever grass, But cannot recollect the high days when We rooted them out of the ping-wing path To stop the mad bees in the rabbit pen. I often try to think in what sweet month The languid painted ladies used to dapple The yellow by-road mazing from the main, Sweet with the golden threads of the rose-apple. I have forgotten--strange--but quite remember The poinsettia's red, blood-red in warm December. What weeks, what months, what time of the mild year We cheated school to have our fling at tops? What days our wine-thrilled bodies pulsed with joy Feasting upon blackberries in the copse? Oh some I know! I have embalmed the days, Even the sacred moments when we played, All innocent of passion, uncorrupt, At noon and evening in the flame-heart's shade. We were so happy, happy, I remember, Beneath the poinsettia's red in warm December. The City's Love For one brief golden moment rare like wine, The gracious city swept across the line; Oblivious of the color of my skin, Forgetting that I was an alien guest, She bent to me, my hostile heart to win, Caught me in passion to her pillowy breast; The great, proud city, seized with a strange love, Bowed down for one flame hour my pride to prove. In Bondage I would be wandering in distant fields Where man, and bird, and beast, lives leisurely, And the old earth is kind, and ever yields Her goodly gifts to all her children free; Where life is fairer, lighter, less demanding, And boys and girls have time and space for play Before they come to years of understanding-- Somewhere I would be singing, far away. For life is greater than the thousand wars Men wage for it in their insatiate lust, And will remain like the eternal stars, When all that shines to-day is drift and dust But I am bound with you in your mean graves, O black men, simple slaves of ruthless slaves. Enslaved Oh when I think of my long-suffering race, For weary centuries despised, oppressed, Enslaved and lynched, denied a human place In the great life line of the Christian West; And in the Black Land disinherited, Robbed in the ancient country of its birth, My heart grows sick with hate, becomes as lead, For this my race that has no home on earth. Then from the dark depths of my soul I cry To the avenging angel to consume The white man's world of wonders utterly: Let it be swallowed up in earth's vast womb, Or upward roll as sacrificial smoke To liberate my people from its yoke! Africa The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light, The sciences were sucklings at thy breast; When all the world was young in pregnant night Thy slaves toiled at thy monumental best. Thou ancient treasure-land, thou modern prize, New peoples marvel at thy pyramids! The years roll on, thy sphinx of riddle eyes Watches the mad world with immobile lids. The Hebrews humbled them at Pharaoh's name. Cradle of Power! Yet all things were in vain! Honor and Glory, Arrogance and Fame! They went. The darkness swallowed thee again. Thou art the harlot, now thy time is done, Of all the mighty nations of the sun. America Although she feeds me bread of bitterness, And sinks into my throat her tiger's tooth, Stealing my breath of life, I will confess I love this cultured hell that tests my youth! Her vigor flows like tides into my blood, Giving me strength erect against her hate. Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood. Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state, I stand within her walls with not a shred Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer. Darkly I gaze into the days ahead, And see her might and granite wonders there, Beneath the touch of Time's unerring hand, Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. December, 1919 Last night I heard your voice, mother, The words you sang to me When I, a little barefoot boy, Knelt down against your knee. And tears gushed from my heart, mother, And passed beyond its wall, But though the fountain reached my throat The drops refused to fall. 'Tis ten years since you died, mother, Just ten dark years of pain, And oh, I only wish that I Could weep just once again. If We Must Die If we must die, let it not be like hogs Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot, While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs, Making their mock at our accursèd lot. If we must die, O let us nobly die, So that our precious blood may not be shed In vain; then even the monsters we defy Shall be constrained to honor us though dead! O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe! Though far outnumbered let us show us brave, And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow! What though before us lies the open grave? Like men we'll face the murderous, cowardly pack, Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back! On Broadway About me young careless feet Linger along the garish street; Above, a hundred shouting signs Shed down their bright fantastic glow Upon the merry crowd and lines Of moving carriages below. Oh wonderful is Broadway -- only My heart, my heart is lonely. Desire naked, linked with Passion, Goes trutting by in brazen fashion; From playhouse, cabaret and inn The rainbow lights of Broadway blaze All gay without, all glad within; As in a dream I stand and gaze At Broadway, shining Broadway -- only My heart, my heart is lonely. Romance To clasp you now and feel your head close-pressed, Scented and warm against my beating breast; To whisper soft and quivering your name, And drink the passion burning in your frame; To lie at full length, taut, with cheek to cheek, And tease your mouth with kisses till you speak Love words, mad words, dream words, sweet senseless words, Melodious like notes of mating birds; To hear you ask if I shall love always, And myself answer: Till the end of days; To feel your easeful sigh of happiness When on your trembling lips I murmur: Yes; It is so sweet. We know it is not true. What matters it? The night must shed her dew. We know it is not true, but it is sweet -- The poem with this music is complete. The Tropics in New York Bananas ripe and green, and ginger-root, Cocoa in pods and alligator pears, And tangerines and mangoes and grape fruit, Fit for the highest prize at parish fairs, Set in the window, bringing memories Of fruit-trees laden by low-singing rills, And dewy dawns, and mystical blue skies In benediction over nun-like hills. My eyes grew dim, and I could no more gaze; A wave of longing through my body swept, And, hungry for the old, familiar ways, I turned aside and bowed my head and wept.