The Poetry of Afaa Weaver
In 1980, Afaa Michael Weaver was working his tenth year at the Procter & Gamble factory in Baltimore. Though he was writing and publishing some poems, most people in his community thought of his writing as the “scribblings” of someone slightly off his mark. They assumed he would continue working in the factory for the rest of his life. Weaver, however, had different ambitions.
Born Michael Weaver in 1951 on the east side of Baltimore, he was the first in his family to go to college. His parents had come north during the great migration, and his grandparents had been sharecroppers.
At the age of sixteen, Weaver enrolled at the University of Maryland in 1968 as one of 300 black students in a school of 33,000. But after two years, he dropped out when his wife got pregnant. He got a job at the local steel mill where his father, three uncles, and a cousin worked, and where his great uncle had died when he had gotten caught in molten steel.
The steel mill marked the first of fifteen years of Weaver’s factory life. Weaver then got a job at the Procter & Gamble factory, which was less dangerous and which provided slightly better benefits. He worked on the packing floor for the first five years, then moved to the warehouse, and finally became a night janitor.
Throughout those years in factories, Weaver was writing. An early composition teacher at the University of Maryland had encouraged Weaver’s writing, but Weaver’s discovery of and commitment to poetry was his own and what he calls “intuitive.”
In the mid-1970s, he began to enter the local Baltimore poetry scene, which was having a renaissance, and Lucille Clifton became a mentor. By the 1980s, he was a well-known figure in that world, publishing in the Baltimore Sun and attending and giving readings, but moving between the local literary scene and the factory world was disorienting.
In 1985, the 34-year-old factory worker sent his first book out for publication, applied for a prestigious National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) fellowship, and, though he was still in the middle of completing his bachelor’s degree through a long-distance program, applied to Brown’s MFA writing program, where Michael Harper taught.
Weaver was successful in all of his applications. And that fall he moved out of Baltimore for the first time in his life.
Today, Weaver is the author of 14 books of poetry and several plays and has won a number of important awards, including the Kingsley Tufts Award—the world’s biggest monetary prize for a poetry collection.
Weaver has straddled different worlds throughout his life: the world of his family in Baltimore; the intellectual world of New England, where he now lives; the working class; and the middle class.
His Tai Chi and Daoist practices, both of which he started when he was working in factories, help keep him centered and whole. After more than thirty years of practice, Weaver spent the year of 2002 in Taiwan on a Fulbright fellowship learning Chinese and immersing in Chinese culture and poetry. Since then, he has returned several times as a liaison between the Chinese and American poetry worlds.
Weaver’s poetry, as these three poems beautifully exemplify, explore questions of work and meaning, the individual and society, and the socio-political and spiritual worlds through which Weaver has traveled in his own personal journey.
- Nadia Colburn, Editor
Dear Mystical Reader
In a wild garden’s clump of grass, blades bend,
one tilts up to touch another as if it is a woman
reaching with two hands to move aside the head
of another blade, then it pulls down as if to curtsy,
but really snatching down, and then bending back
to press against two blades joined against her.
She rolls herself up, pushes back against them,
sinking her green thinness into the ground, shining
in the sun to turn around, to pluck and pull
down a weed trying to surprise her and then being
pulled until she breaks the back and the will of weeds
to win or to lose. This garden, this drama, this dance
of light and wind on what dares to grow, what
has the ambition to work for what it calls life,
to struggle while human eyes are oblivious
to the price of what grows here, unaware it is
the price they pay, the work it takes to stay,
to be a worker where workers are allowed.
Each movement in the garden is the movement
of any life, anything or anyone who is born and
once born wants to stay alive to fill contracts
most never see but believe, migrant and native
farm workers who walk to the fields to take jobs
left begging for workers but offering no protection
until a Cesar Chavez rises from the soil and sweat,
Chinese men leave families and women behind
to build railroads in stretches of land and be killed
for sport where Africans become Americans
in slavery, segregation, the Great Migration, later
black immigrants in the time of Garvey and King.
They are here in the sea of what is called a nation,
working and writing petitions for the fair shake,
the plain deal, immigrants from Europe, the mass
of Jews fleeing pogroms and genocide working
the hard jobs of labor, Asia’s whole world here
in colonial parts written in their own words,
while the people who were here before anyone,
the original ones, the indigenous who knew
and sometimes remember a greater harmony
watch what was taken and then given again.
This dear reader is the substance of the garden,
the primary patterns of life’s sad, glad theater
of what it takes to use the body and some part of mind
to collect a check, to make the check food, clothes,
a home, or the roundabout turn to the good time.
The motion in the garden in its eight primary ways
are the parts of the wheel of life whirring across
the many faces of wisdom, the full biblical fact
of Abraham’s order or the Yijing’s eight trigrams,
sixty-four infinite changes, bound and unbound,
an old bread maker in the window of the bakery
smoking a cigar on his break, a seamstress stretching
cloth over her lap, families in old trucks singing
to half moons on the old Ocean to Ocean Highway,
Baltimore to Los Angeles, from harbor to harbor,
stevedores, fishermen, shipbuilders, tailors, grocers,
gangsters following the trail like wolves to make
small loans with big interest, selling chances
and protection to the poor, the busy commotion
of human beings in their own thick space under
a governing eye that is there to see what tries
to hide from this eye that lives in the invisible.
Dear reader, it sees us all until kingdoms come.
Xu Bing’s Flying Phoenixes
—in the Cathedral of St. John the Divine
I am sixty-four, millions of lives are buttons
on the coats of magnificent birds that arise
from lost memories of building China from
under waves of assaults…
in Beijing, ten years earlier, I wait
with poets and students to walk and speak,
wandering through this language of aging
with Shi Zhi, poet once homeless, now sung
as mythic ancestor of generations in the word.
These buttons on birds of metal
rising from ashes are lives of men and women
who went into jobs, who never came home,
who came home and died for pipe dreams,
or dreams of a country, the dust bowl lifting
up from starving families in Grapes of Wrath,
the shuffling armies of black sharecroppers
leaving the South for the North’s harsh ways,
under waves of assaults…
in Kunming I sit in a Muslim restaurant
with a poet who gave me the Koran in Chinese,
while around me folk celebrate the end of a day
of work, sitting in a park, listening to the erhu,
its eloquent moaning where Yu Jian sings about
working in a metal factory, while Wang Xiaoni
worked on a farm later to be the first woman
to write after reeducation…what do we know
when we die, when our poetry writes history?
I am nineteen, Three Negro Classics for lunch,
a worker poet in an America where our soldiers
kill our students. We are pilgrims in our souls.
The Lay of Paradise, 1970
Three story overhead electric cranes clicking,
tractors large enough to carry elephants rolling,
mashing the wooden brick floor down, down,
steel pins spinning so fast they have a silent hiss,
shears cutting shiny tin into thin plates at speeds
fast enough to cut the bone away so cleanly
a man has to remember to scream, the balers
pulling scrap tin, arms, legs, heads onto the pin
to make them small enough to be melted,
sold as Cadillacs or prayed over in graves,
the soles of safety shoes of men and women
tapping metal plated walkways to work stations.
I sit and sew word onto word when the mill
is down, I study the invocation and wait to see
a poem come out from the skylight in the mesh
of corrugated metal walls, a web of language
looking like nothing but carrying everything
that makes everything, the crucible of metaphor.
I am a child in the art, the art is a child in me.
by Still Harbor
Afaa Weaver is the author of 14 collections of poetry as well as several plays, short fiction, essays, and newspaper articles. His recent awards include a fourth Pushcart prize, the Phillis Wheatley Book Award in poetry, and the Kingsley Tufts Award. Learn more at his websites: afaaweaver.net and plumflowertrilogy.org.