Thursday, June 23, 2011

Calvin Forbes Shines Some light on Raccoon in Poetry Magazine

In the July/August issue of Poetry, Calvin Forbes has a short poem "Talking Blues" about a raccoon. Well, it's about that and something else. Given Forbes's interest in folklore, it's likely that the raccoon is a kind of reference to someone black or black folks in general. Perhaps.

At different places in the poem, the speaker talks about and then directly to "raccoon." On the one hand, raccoon is "pretty" and "tame like a kitty," but on the other hand, "raccoon bites you if you get too close."

Raccoon apparently has plans to head northward to a place long revered in African American folk consciousness: Harlem. But, the speaker warns that "you too country" and ill-equipped for New York City. Plus, "you better get wise" in order to avoid the fate of the possum.

Aside from our murmured comments about some various black actor out there "cooning for white folks," you witness far less references to raccoon--a figure who was quite popular back in the day, way back in the day in African American folklore. For decades now, raccoon been overshadowed by versions of Br'er Rabbit. Among African American literary critics, we're probably more likely to hear about the Signifying Monkey.

Raccoon and his sometimes sidekick possum are often off the radar. For the most part, they didn't migrate northward and into popular consciousness. So it was yet another surprise from this issue of Poetry for me to see raccoon's appearance.

Forbes had previously worked to bring the folk hero Shine back through verse in a chapbook back in 1979 and then more recently in his volume The Shine Poems in 2001. Presenting Shine and now raccoon in poems might be one way of helping to recall and sustain the spirits of these figures and the folk culture that molded them over the years.

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