Connecting to the Harlem Renaissance through the poetry of Countee Cullen
Updated: Sep 13, 2022
Presentation given by artist Rossella BLUE Mocerino on May 29, 2019 in conjunction with art show: "Dreams in a Silken Cloth" at Countee Cullen Library Harlem
A year ago I came to check out the space available for exhibition at this library which bears the name of the Harlem Renaissance poet, Countee Cullen. The library itself stands on the former site of the mansion of A’lelia Walker. She was a patron of the arts and her mansion became a gathering place for the Harlem Renaissance artists and writers. Langston Hughes called Walker “the joy goddess of Harlem’s 1920s.” He wrote in his 1940 autobiography The Big Sea: “A’lelia Walker had an apartment that held perhaps a hundred people. She would usually issue several hundred invitations to each party. Unless you went early there was no possible way of getting in. Her parties were as crowded as the New York subway at the rush hour—entrance, lobby, steps, hallway, and apartment a milling crush of guests, with everybody seeming to enjoy the crowding.”
The first thing I laid my eyes on entering the Countee Cullen Library was an inscription taken from one of Cullen’s poems entitled “From the Dark Tower”:
We shall not always plant while others reap
The golden increment of bursting fruit,
Not always countenance, abject and mute,
That lesser men should hold their brothers cheap;
Not everlastingly while others sleep
Shall we beguile their limbs with mellow flute,
Not always bend to some more subtle brute;
We were not made eternally to weep.
I came away from the Countee Cullen Library with the understanding
that yes, I would be exhibiting in this great space and with the knowledge that I couldn’t possibly have a show at the Countee Cullen Library without Countee Cullen. My wife, who always gets my meaning, presented me with a book of his poetry.
The title of my art show “Dreams in a Silken Cloth” comes from one of Cullen’s superb epitaphs, “For a Poet”.
I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth, And laid them away in a box of gold; Where long will cling the lips of the moth, I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth; I hide no hate; I am not even wroth Who found the earth's breath so keen and cold; I have wrapped my dreams in a silken cloth, And laid them away in a box of gold.
In Cullen’s poetry the word dream appears very often. The creative artist is seen as the keeper of dreams. Houston A. Baker writes in his book, “A many-colored coat of dreams: The Poetry of Countee Cullen”:
. . . his guiding mode was not the realistic but the romantic, and he believed the poet was a man in tune with higher spiritual forms rather than a social tactician. The romantic mode implies a world charged with wonder and suspends the laws of probability – there is unlimited expectation.
Mr. Baker further writes:
. . . Cullen defines the poet as a creator of immortal beauty, a man still in harmony with the mysterious and the ideal in an age “cold to the core”. Cullen writes in “To an Unknown Poet”:
"Love is enough, “I read somewhere; Lines some poor poet in his pride
And poverty wrote on the air
To ease his heart, and soothe his bride.
Something in me, child of an age Cold to the core, undeified, Warmed to my brother bard, this sage; And I too leaned upon my pride.
But pride I found can blind our eyes, And poverty is worse than pride.
Love’s breed from both is a nest of lies;
And singer of sweet songs, you lied.
But artists are tenacious. We hold on to our dreams and visions. I embarked on my artistic voyage in 1993 when I attended for the first time the Venice Carnival. I knew I had found the fertile soil needed to express my ideas – not on paper but on canvas. A question I am often asked by a stranger upon learning that I am an artist is “What kind of art do you do? Is it realistic?” At which I always reply:”I don’t do realism but I guess you can say my work is figurative.” All the figures in my paintings are in costume and they wear masks. You could probably assume that they never hang their costumes on a peg nor take off their masks. The world my figures inherit is a rarified world where magic, mystery and passion rule. They are fierce individualists and true believers in the power of love. Art should elevate us from the mundane. I see the act of painting as a spiritual experience that connects the past with the contemporary; the profane with the sacred.
But artists do have to deal with reality sooner or later. As Mr. Baker writes about Cullen:
". . . his painful realization that the Black man is so often scarred by his experiences in America that it’s difficult for him to sustain the romantic point of view that Cullen felt most conducive to poetry." As an artist and a woman I hold on tenaciously to my color scheme and to the belief that my vision is equal to that of any man. Men are not the only ones who produce great art.
As Cullen ends his poem, Yet Do I Marvel with these lines:
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!
I could say
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make me a woman, and bid me paint!