Countee Cullen: Collected Poems Summary

Countee Cullen: Collected Poems Summary

“Yet Do I Marvel”

A Spenserian sonnet that is clearly delineated into three distinct sections that each focuses on a separate concept. The first section takes on the oft-expressed assertion that “God is good” by calling into question the very foundation of a belief in divine justice. The second section uses the punishment meted out to Tantalus and Sisyphus to as an examination of why God chooses not to explain the reasoning behind punishments that seem unconscionably unfair from the human perspective. In what seems a paradoxical answer to the second question, the third section suggests that human beings are simply incapable of penetrating into the mind of God. The final couplet brings everything together by equating being both black and a poet with an instance of unresolvable divine justice.

“Incident”

This short poem is a recollection of the narrator of a childhood visit to Baltimore that lasted from May to December. During that period he traveled through most of the city, but he can remember only one thing from the trip. He was eight years old and he saw a kid who called Baltimore home who was about the same age staring at him. He flashes a smile at the kid from Baltimore. The kid from Baltimore responds by sticking his tongue out and calling the narrator the single most offensive racial epithet possible.

“Any Human to Another”

Over the course of 31 lines, this poem examines the universality of being human by focusing on shared emotions and traits like grief and pride and, especially, suffering. Since the only cure for suffering is to make connections with other human beings, the poem also embraces the importance of interaction between people.

“Tribute to My Mother”

As the title suggests, this poem is directed in loving memory of his mother, but the real focus here goes beyond mere remembrance. The thematic centerpiece of the narrative is the sense of morality that mother passed on to son.

“A Brown Girl Dead”

The mother of the brown girl of the poem has had to sacrifice her wedding ring just to raise money to afford the lily white dress in which she will be buried. The irony of the ritual of African-Americans dressing their loved ones in the color that equates with the flesh of their own oppressors is taken under consideration.

“A Negro Mother’s Lullaby”

The lullaby sung by this particular African-American mother is inspired and becomes a tribute to abolitionist John Brown after a visit to his gravesites overcomes the woman with profound emotion.

"The Black Christ"

The narrator recounts the day his brother Jim happened to be enjoying the day in the company of a white woman when a white man approaches them and after verbally insulting the woman starts to physically assault Jim. Jim’s response to self-defense ends with the death of the white man which inevitably leads to his lynching, witnessed by the brother and causing his him to question his faith in God.

“Black Magdalens”

Cullen’s lifelong obsession with outcast and outsiders in his poetry on this occasion turns to those modern day version of Mary Magdalene—the black prostitutes for whom no Christ is ever coming to undermine the judgmental approach taken toward them by those with the greatest self-assurance of their reservation in heaven.

“Tableau”

The friendship between the white and black boys in this poem is perhaps the most assertive and explicit examination of the homosexual tensions that followed Cullen throughout his life and through his two marriages to women. The focus of the narrative also speaks to the theme of repressed sexuality as it is really more about the negative attitude adopted by the community toward their close friendship than it is about the details of the friendship itself.

“Heritage”

Routinely considered to be the defining poem of the Harlem Renaissance, the poem is central to all African-American literature because it essentially lays out its imagery and repetition of the motif of lies to ask what Africa really means to the offspring of slaves. The utilization of information about the continent that is ignorant of the reality underscores that knowing heritage from afar may be impossible.

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