Poem #37: Georgia Dusk by Jean Toomer

Estimated Reading Time:  4 minutes
Book cover to African American Poetry - An Anthology, 1773-1927, Dover Edition.

TitleGeorgia Dusk

Jean Toomer

Source:  African-American Poetry: An Anthology, 1773-1927. Dover Thrift Editions. Ed. Joan R. Sherman. 1997. ISBN:  978-0-486-29604-3.

Link: You can find this poem on this website.


The sky, lazily disdaining to pursue
   The setting sun, too indolent to hold
   A lengthened tournament for flashing gold,   
Passively darkens for night’s barbecue,

A feast of moon and men and barking hounds,   
   An orgy for some genius of the South
   With blood-hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth,   
Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds.

The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop,
   And silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,
   Soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill   
Their early promise of a bumper crop.

Smoke from the pyramidal sawdust pile
   Curls up, blue ghosts of trees, tarrying low   
   Where only chips and stumps are left to show   
The solid proof of former domicile.

Meanwhile, the men, with vestiges of pomp,   
   Race memories of king and caravan,
   High-priests, an ostrich, and a juju-man,
Go singing through the footpaths of the swamp.

Their voices rise...the pine trees are guitars,   
   Strumming, pine-needles fall like sheets of rain...   
   Their voices rise...the chorus of the cane
Is caroling a vesper to the stars...

O singers, resinous and soft your songs
   Above the sacred whisper of the pines,
   Give virgin lips to cornfield concubines,
Bring dreams of Christ to dusky cane-lipped throngs.


Toomer weavers a texture-rich poem that both puts us into the world and harkens back to lives lived (and survived) on a plantation and beyond that to lives lived in Africa beyond the slave trade.  The poem is seductive and eases us in with its first stanza focuses on how the sky appears to surrender pursuit of the sun. The suggestion that our attention should turn from the sky to the world with ending it on the night's barbecue.  

The initial gathering is of white folks, indicated by the "barking hounds" and "some genius of the South".  The "cane-lipped mouth" I think has a dual meaning. The plantation harvests sugar (and thus sugar cane is on the lips) but I wonder also if "cane-lipped scented mouth" can also pass for someone who hungers to use (abuse) the cane as part of the punishment for the people he's enslaved. I think that comes through most strongly with the "blood-hot eyes"--hinting at something more fierce and violence than just enjoying the sugar; it could also hint at sexual violence of a white man--with their "blood hot eyes and cane-lipped scented mouth"--a sense of strong and violent desire that hints at devouring or consuming people whom he sees as property or goods.

There's something about the next two paragraphs that suggests a darker meaning than just the end of the day.  The presence of buzz-saws (things being cut down), the verbs (breaks, plowed), and the images of "ghosts of trees" "chips and stumps" "former domicile" all seem to point to death or harm to people. Some part of me thinks it hints at a lynching but I can't piece it fully together.  

By contrast, we're also given witness to the gathering in the swamp by Black people, calling back to their ancestral memories and celebration of one another.  Their songs seems more powerful and momentous compared to the "Surprised in making folk-songs from soul sounds" mentioned at the barbecue.  We also have the "virgin lips" which contrast with the "cane-lipped scented mouth" in interesting ways.   

Those are my thoughts.  What did you find interesting about the poem?

About the reflections

This poem is part of a 365 day challenge project that focuses on a poem a day.  Similar projects have included short shorties and photo reflections. Part of the intention of this year's project is to develop a better appreciation and means of reflecting on poetry, something that has never been a strong suit for me.  These reflections therefore do not represent a definitive assessment of the work by me. They are merely an opportunity for me to have a public conversation about what they mean in order to help myself better understand them and mayhaps have a conversation with readers for further insight.  

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