Naomi Long Madgett: You Are My Joy and Pain: Love Poems (Wayne State University Press, 2020)

Hush now, don’t explain / You’re my joy and pain / My life’s yours, love / Don’t explain / …” – from the Billie Holiday/Arthur Herzog Jr. song Don’t Explain (1944)  

Most people will know much more about jazz singer Billie Holiday (1915-1959) than about poet Naomi Long Madgett (1923-2020). But if you do know something about Madgett, it might surprise you that she took a line from Billie Holiday’s Don’t Explain as the title for her last collection of poems, subtitled Love Poems, released shortly before she passed away on November 5th at 97.

The daughter of a Baptist minister, her 2006 autobiography Pilgrim Journey (Lotus Press) was reviewed by Professor and Chair of Africana Studies at Wayne State University, Melba Joyce Boyd, as “honest reflections” on “encounters with love, difficult marriages, racial injustice, class conflict within the black community, the joys of motherhood (her daughter, Jill Witherspoon, is a published poet - UFI), a near fatal automobile accident, and the curious satisfaction of being a poet.”       

You Are My Joy and Pain is divided into three sections: A Promise of Sun, Trinity: A Dream Sequence, and Stormy Weather. There are no clear racial markers (except maybe the title) in this book of poems about love and spirituality, clothed at times in a religious vocabulary.    

A favorite of my own is Somewhere in the City. It begins: “You are somewhere in the city, lost to me / but sharing buildings, skyline, traffic signals, / street names, rush hours, and street scenes, / sharing unconsciously things we do not share / by purpose anymore. // …”

Detroit’s poet laureate since 2001, few of her poems collected here are similarly rooted in the physical, urban world. No Choice is probably a better example of what you can expect to find:  

“All that I want of you I take. / It’s not your privilege to offer or withhold. // The sun climbs the morning and has no say / in who receives its benediction. // Rain falls and can’t select / who is to be refreshed. // You are. I take from you / all that I need.”

But it is Trinity: A Dream Sequence, a long poem of nine pages, divided into 20 segments, that is the absolute centerpiece of the volume, a complex and – like most dreams – enigmatic poem, a meditation on an ‘illicit’ love affair set within a secular but also a religious framework.

Lotus Press: Poet and publisher. Unable to find a suitable publisher for her fourth collection of poetry, Pink Ladies in the Afternoon, in 1972 Naomi Long Madgett founded Lotus Press, run largely by herself, initially from the basement of her own home.    

And for the next 43 years she edited and published about twice as many volumes of African American poetry, Lotus Press in 2015 merging with her friend and fellow poet, editor and publisher Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press (see Index for more on Randall and Broadside Press), another Detroit institution, to form Broadside Lotus Press, still running in 2021.  

Among the poets published by Lotus Press, aside from Naomi Long Madgett herself, are James A. Emanuel (see the Reading Black article: James A. Emanuel: Whole Grain: Collected Poems, 1958-1989); Samuel Allen, Houston A. Baker, Jr., Robert Chrisman, Tom Dent, Ronald Fair, Lance Jeffers, Gayl Jones, Sybil Kein, Dolores Kendrick, Oliver LaGrone, Pinkie Gordon Lane, Haki R. Madhubuti, Adam David Miller, E. Ethelbert Miller, May Miller, and Dudley Randall.

And then there is Toi Derricotte (I: New and Selected Poems, University of Pittsburgh Press, 2019). Madgett had published her first volume of poems in 1978, and Derricotte has not forgotten her mentor: “I often wondered if what she did for others was taking away from her own work … she was always saying, when I’d ask her about her own writing: “I’ll get to it when this book is done,” calling Naomi Long Madgett’s final volume “masterful and extremely daring.”

And she did manage to publish 11volumes of her own. Remembrances of Spring: Collected Early Poems (Michigan State University Press’ Lotus Poetry Series, 1993) reprints Songs to a Phantom Nightingale (1941), Phantom Nightingale: Juvenilia (1981), and One and the Many (1956).

The 2001 Naomi Long Madgett documentary film Star by Star by David Schock took its name from the collection Star by Star (1965), revised 1970 and reprinted by Lotus Press.

But it is the three midlife volumes, Pink Ladies in the Afternoon (1972 – mentioned above), Exits and Entrances (Lotus Press, 1978), and especially Octavia and Other Poems (Third World Press, 1988) – some of the poems reprinted in Connected Islands: New and Selected Poems (Lotus Press, 2004) –  that contain her most complex and challenging work.

A second release, Octavia: Guthrie and Beyond (Lotus Press, 2002) leaves the text of the book-length poem intact, but contains updated biographical information and photographs, giving context to a poem originating in Madgett’s search for – and research on – her deceased aunt and look-a-like and other family members, several of the poems written in the voice of one of her ancestors.

Eighty years of poetry. Naomi Long Madgett was 17 when her first volume was published, 97 when You Are My Joy and Pain came out, a record few – if any – poet can match.

The poems here are not new. On the copyright page the publishers write: “All of these poems have appeared in previous collections by this poet.” But it reads like a new work, and by placing poems like Trinity in a new context, Naomi Long Madgett has managed to give old poems a new life.

Choosing past the age of ninety to organize her final volume as a book of Love Poems, the subject was obviously important to her. There had been A Promise of Sun. But the road had sometimes been rocky, as suggested by the title of the final section of the book, Stormy Weather.

Two marriages had ended in divorce. After that, Naomi Long Madgett said in the Star by Star 2001 documentary, she was determined not to marry again: “I didn’t  trust my own judgement.” But she did marry a third time: “That was the marriage that worked.”  

UFI // 26 February 2021   

Postscript: In 2012 Naomi Long Madgett was named a Kresge Eminent Artist. The monograph published by the Kresge Foundation on the occasion includes – among other things – a fine author portrait, The Starlit Poetry of Naomi Long Madgett, by Melba Joyce Boyd, biographical and bibliographical material, photos, excerpts from Pilgrim Journey, and a reprint of 25 of her poems.