This Waiting for Love: Helene Johnson, Poet of the Harlem Renaissance

Verner D. Mitchell, Author, Helene Johnson, Author
Verner D. Mitchell, Author, Helene Johnson, Author University of Massachusetts Press $30 (160p) ISBN 978-1-55849-256-1
Paperback - 134 pages - 978-1-55849-572-2
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At age of 18, Johnson (1906-1995) won Opportunity magazine's first prize for poetry for 1925--her cousin Dorothy West, one year younger, shared the prize for fiction with Zora Neale Hurston. The two moved to New York the following year, and helped spur the Harlem Renaissance. West remains well known, while Johnson, as Memphis University English professor Mitchell recounts, produced only a handful of poems, and had married and dropped out of the literary scene by the mid '30s. Nevertheless, the fact that this is the first single-author collection of her work is surprising, particularly given that Johnson continued to write, if sporadically, and that the poems are often quite good. In a preface, Rutgers professor Cheryl A. Wall (Women of Letters of the Harlem Renaissance) finds ""the ease with which Johnson moves from the rigor of the sonnet to the free idiom of [a line like] `your shoulders jerking the jig-wa' is impressive""--and she's right. Poems like the defiantly lyrical ""Magula,"" the foreboding ""A Southern Road"" and the social realist ""Regalia"" (""Stokin' stoves/ Emptin' garbage/ ...Answerin' a million calls/ ...it sure wasn't no picnic/ Bein' a janitor"") retain their immediacy. The era's overblown norms can intrude at times (""her pale palmed hands grasped the thin air in quest/ Until, like two antalgic words, they fell""), and the letters, photos and a biographical essay from daughter Abigail McGrath are more like padding than essential material. But readers who turn to the poems themselves will feel like they've discovered a vital American voice. (Dec.) Forecast: This collection will find its way onto some syllabi, and the poems will enjoy a much higher degree of anthologization as a result. But although constructed for the general reader, the book lacks the kind of major material needed to break into the trade market, though Black History Month could give it a boost via retail displays.
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