A Tale of Two Tributes

When I was flipping through the anthology, I noticed in Ntozake Shange’s poem “my father is a retired magician” that in the speaker’s idolect, certain graphemes are omitted from words, even though they make certain sounds. The title of the poem allude’s to the speaker’s father, while the poem is also dedicated to Shange’s siblings Ifa, P. T., and Bisa. Within the poem, the words with omitted graphemes are smaller, common words, often recognized as sight words.

I also observed that these similar, small sight words also pop up in Diane di Prima’s “For Amiri Baraka.” This poem is explicitly stated to be a eulogy for Amiri Baraka, her longtime friend and collaborator, former lover, and father of her daughter Dominique. The speaker also omits certain graphemes throughout the sight words, including the word “your.”

“Your” is a sight word that children in second grade need to learn how to spell, because the word is very common and there are graphemes that aren’t as noticeable in the word. This word is shortened as “yr.” The consonants, “y” and “r”, are emphasized, while the “o” and “u” are omitted. If I read this word in my head, the “y” with the bossy “r” is recognized in my head as a vowel, with a phoneme of “e” inferred. When I say “yr”, it sounds like “yer” instead of “yore.” By reducing this word to two consonants, it has the same amount of letters as “my”, the first person possessive pronoun. Pronouns are especially important in this day and age, and the possessive pronoun retains that similar importance. The possessive automatically implies that there is something that can only be attributed to the possessor, something that implies that they own something worth mentioning. Even though the possessive pronoun is miniscule, the effects it has in the broader space of language is striking. In all of the possible shortened words I chose to spotlight, I chose “yr” because it was a possessive pronoun and because of its intriguing ramifications in the broader context.

Both tributes have a lot of common characteristics. “Yr” is an anaphora in both poems. In “my father is a retired magician,” the anaphora is more subtle and used sparingly, but in the sixth stanza, the anaphora is especially prominent: “…help wit yr career    yr lover        yr wandering spouse / make yr grandma’s stay in heaven more gratifyin / ease yr mother thru menopause & show yr son / how to clean his room.” (Rowell, 147) “Yr” retains it sonic influence throughout, even through repeated indentation and enjambment that would normally break up the flow of words. However, in “For Amiri Baraka”, “yr” is used mostly in the beginning of the poem, in a more prominent anaphora: “don’ matter was it / yr left foot went bad / or yr right / don’ matter yr lungs / or yr heart.” (SFGate). The enjambment in “For Amiri Baraka” is more frequent, but the lines all have similar lengths, allowing for a propulsive rhythm despite the frequent enjambment.

This possessive pronoun illuminates the similarities and differences between the two tributes. The first tribute “my father is a retired magician” uses longer line lengths, stanzas, and indentation to bury the “yr” pronoun, which also blurs the pronoun in many other words. This tribute feels caught up in the same magic that the speaker’s  retired father did, and seems to avoid a direct statement of emotional attachment. But in the end, the speaker states that their father’s magic has empowered them to celebrate their “blk magic”, even though white people think that black people using magic is dangerous. On the other hand, “For Amiri Baraka” uses shorter line lengths, similar line lengths, only one stanza, and subtle bolding and italicizing to emphasize the “yr”. This tribute is a direct statement of grief, but twists the meaning of the “yr”: those possessive characteristics don’t matter, because there is a greater magic in the messages that Baraka shared and that message will live on even if his body or his soul have not. There is a sense of recursiveness throughout these poems. Grief, loss, and other emotional attachments are not linear, and what ultimately matters is the bigger message, not the corporeal bodies.

My father is currently playing “Danny Boy,” on his trumpet, a sad song for many people, but an especially sad song for me. My Uncle Danny recently passed on, and he played the song at his funeral. Even though this funeral happened months ago, the strong reaction that I have to this song further reminds me that grief is recursive. Even though I miss the attributes that made my Uncle Danny who he was, the bigger messages and the bigger truths that he lived by will remain a lot longer, and this gives me a lot of comfort. This message is reiterated strongly throughout “my father is a retired magician” and “For Amiri Baraka.”

 

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