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Lance Jeffers (1919-1985): WRITING TOWARD BALANCE

[By Jerry Ward]

Equating
the power of Lance Jeffers’ mind with intellectual passion, Eugene Redmond
proclaimed in his introduction for When I
Know the Power of My Black Hand
(1974) that Jeffers was “a giant baobab
tree we younger saplings lean on, because we understand that he bears witness
to the power and majesty of ‘Pres, and Bird, and Hodges, and all’ “(11).  In bearing witness to fabulous musicians,
Jeffers left evidence in his poetry and his novel Witherspoon (1983) that the art of writing well entails finding a
balance between the kind of humility to which Redmond alludes and the mastery
of craft.
In
an interview with Paul Austerlitz included in Jazz Consciousness: Music, Race, and Humanity (Middletown, Ct:
Wesleyan University Press, 2005), Milford Graves speaks about his interest in
Einstein and quantum physics.  John
Coltrane was also immersed in study of Einstein’s physics. In the poetry of
Asili Ya Nadhiri, one discovers his indebtedness to jazz and physics, just as
one finds in Jeffers’ poetry an indebtedness to the study of anatomy, jazz and
classical music.  Strong poets and strong
musicians are receptive to mastering their craft by making intellectual
investments in disciplines which, on the surface, seem remote from their
own.  Assertive humility is important.

Humility
may be alien in contemporary American life, but it is necessary for our
respecting tradition and ourselves as saplings in need of guidance from
baobabs, redwoods, and oaks.  Reading all
of Jeffers’ poems in My Blackness is the
Beauty of This Land
(1970), When I
Know the Power of My Black Hand
, O
Africa Where I Baked My Bread
(1977) and Grandsire (1979) is a rewarding use of time.  We learn to locate ourselves in human
history.  We learn that direct
confrontation and battle with language is more valuable than intimacy with
clichés.
Jeffers
used rhyme with discretion, but he maximized repetition of parts to intensify
the “epic line” American poets have inherited from Walt Whitman.  The epic line projected Jeffers’ passionate
attention to small things and big events in historical experiences.  Surreal phrasing is a typical feature in his
work, a feature that also flavors the poetry of Bob Kaufman. Consider Jeffers’
“in the sea the anchor of your/ soul rushes to the surface on flying fish’s
wings” or “The hawk is slavery still alive in me/ my testicles afloat in cotton
field.”  How many blues songs swam
through his mind when he wrote “My own flesh has been nailed so strait/ I’ve
been forgot by my own genius”? 
Exploration of Jeffers’ poetic landscape yields moments of technical
brilliance, moments that challenge us to find our own wordpaths to similar
achievements.  We must know what the
ancient rain can bring.
When
I ended “Second April Poem (for Lance Jeffers)” with the lines
People
who want to be
the
alpha and omega
ought
to take lessons
from
my friend Lance
who
made morality a verb.
I
thought of how Old Testament his prophecy was. 
He was unashamed in testifying about the evil and the good in human beings.  He had conviction and character.  He was willing to predict that a male poet
“will explore the unexplored continent of himself and his people, will seek out
the hidden caves and springs of beauty and hell, will seek out the hell and the
complexity within his bones and within the viscera of his people” (“The Death
of the Defensive Posture,” 259).  These
thundering words come from his seminal essay in The Black Seventies (Boston: Porter Sargent, 1970), edited by Floyd
B. Barbour. His referring us to land masses and body parts is indicative of his
“scientific” posture with regard to discovering truths about humanity.  References to geography and anatomy recur in
his poems; they reinforce the sense of greatness or grandeur.  His aesthetic is grounded in humanistic,
pre-Black Arts assumptions about the human condition, but his poetics is
grounded in relentless investigation of what the human condition is from the
vantage of Blackness.  His “humanistic”
response to writing as a way of knowing was an effort to balance logic with
sensual saturation.  His writing is a
fine example of how universally inseparable are art and ethos.
From
reading Lance Jeffers, not once but many times, we may learn the value of
disciplined uses of language, of exorcising demons that seek to persuade us
that we have no obligations as poets to our biological and literary ancestors
and descendents.  Truth be told, we can
learn to write well from many poets other than Lance Jeffers.  Whether they can teach us as well as his
works can the validating beauty of writing toward balance is a matter for
contemplation.