Stunned and grieved by Toni Morrison’s death, the Beverly Rogers, Carol C. Harter Black Mountain Institute, home of The Believer, is reckoning with its own humble encounter with this towering figure in modern letters. In 2002, Morrison offered five original poems for a limited-edition, letterpress book to help fund the institute’s work advancing freedom of expression. According to the scholar Stephanie Li, these poems “represent Morrison’s first and only foray into verse.” What makes the book—produced by the printer Peter Koch in an edition of 399 numbered copies, and 26 lettered copies—all the more remarkable is the inclusion of silhouettes by Kara Walker in response to Morrison’s poems. “The partnership between Morrison and Walker,” Li writes, “is both remarkable and unprecedented. Although Walker has cited Morrison as a key influence on her artistic development and critics have begun to analyze intersections in their work, Five Poems is the first demonstration of collaboration” between them.
The series Morrison contributed to also includes letterpress books with contributions from Salman Rushdie, Joyce Carol Oates, Kenzaburo Oe, and Wole Soyinka, among others, each with its own vivid history. But none can match the publication of the only poetry known to have been authored by Toni Morrison. —Joshua Wolf Shenk, Editor-in-Chief
Toni Morrison stamped the very idea of a great American novel with her own brand of storytelling and on her own terms. I don’t know a writer or reader of any genre who isn’t mourning her today. She proved the power of her black characters and the value of their black lives through books loved by readers who do and do not have everything in common with those characters. She was also undeniable in her power as an essayist, and showed her respect for and influence by other genres with her plays (Dreaming Emmett and Desdemona) and her only published short story (“Recitatif”). Of course, she wrote poems. Her work in verse seems over and again to show us a woman facing death, and facing it with all the life she can. It’s as if she knows who she is and that, in that knowing, her declarations here will live forever. —Jericho Brown, Poetry Editor
I tore from a limb fruit that had lost its green.
My hands were warmed by the heat of an apple
Fire red and humming.
I bit sweet power to the core.
How can I say what it was like?
The taste! The taste undid my eyes
And led me far from the gardens planted for a child
To wildernesses deeper than any master’s call.
Now these cool hands guide what they once caressed;
Lips forget what they have kissed.
My eyes now pool their light
Better the summit to see.
I would do it all over again:
Be the harbor and set the sail,
Loose the breeze and harness the gale,
Cherish the harvest of what I have been.
Better the summit to scale.
Better the summit to be.
The Perfect Ease of Grain
The perfect ease of grain
Time enough to spill
The flavor of a woman carried through the rain.
Down home dreams
A rushed by shapely prayer.
Evening lips part to hush
Questions raised at dawn.
The melon yields another slice.
Ecstasy becomes us all.
Red cherries become jam.
Deep juvenile sleep
A whistle trace
White shorelines in green air.
Welcome doors held open
When goodbye is “So long.”
The perfect poise of grain
Time enough to spill
The flavor of a woman remembered on a train.
Someone Leans Near
Someone leans near
And sees the salt your eyes have shed.
You wait, longing to hear
Words of reason, love or play
To lash or lull you toward the hollow day.
Silence kneads your fear
Of crumbled star-ash sifting down
Clouding the rooms here, here.
You shore up your heart to run. To stay.
But no sign or design marks the narrow way.
Then on your skin a breath caresses
The salt your eyes have shed.
And you remember a call clear, so clear
“You will never die again.”
Once more you know
You will never die again.
It Comes Unadorned
Like a phrase
Strong enough to cast a spell;
Like the turn of sun through hills
Or stars in wheels of song.
The jeweled feet of women dance the earth.
Arousing it to spring.
Shoulders broad as a road bend to share the weight of years.
Profiles breach the distance and lean
Toward an ordinary kiss.
It comes naked into the world like a charm.
I Am Not Seaworthy
I am not seaworthy.
Look how the fish mistake my hair for home.
I had a life, like you. I shouldn’t be riding the sea.
I am not seaworthy.
Let me be earth bound; star fixed
Mixed with sun and smacking air.
Give me the smile, the magic kiss
To trick little boy death of my hand.
I am not seaworthy. Look how the fish mistake my hair for home.