Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark

Yet the authority of the voice interrupts itself. First the people “cling and whisper together as children” but then the voice says: “no, never as children.” The simultaneous innocence of children is precluded or occluded, as the images suggested, by the social conditions destabilizing their lives. The statement that “no journalist” suggests the discrepancies between press coverage of white and black criminality that Mumford describes.[33]

The “mingling and commingling” of the lovers above reappear in the guise of “sisters’ voices in chapels”; it is an ambiguous phrase which suggests black women in revivalist urban storefront churches rather than Roman Catholic nuns.

Beyond the bridge’s
iron mesh, the girl touches a birthmark
behind her knee and wishes the doused smell
of charred buildings was only hydrants flushing hot concrete.

The bridge’s iron mesh also reappears and the psychic distance is refocused locally, behind a girl’s knee. She returns to her memory of the 1950s childhood, when public hydrants are opened so children can play in the water. But the “doused smell of charred buildings” shows an inundated fire department left with the task of putting out the burned buildings after the riot. Yet the poem leaves the charred buildings and pivots to the summer of 1967, itself connected the memory of the earlier summertime.

Summertime. Pockets of shadow and pale. Too hot
to sleep, Hush baby, come to papa, board
the window before morning’s fractured descant,

a staccato crack of fire escapes snapping pavement
and citizens descending, turning back with points of flame

Gershwin’s song from “Porgy and Bess”[34] reintroduces the images of “shadow and pale” from the first stanza as the voice of the lover from earlier in the poem says: “too hot to sleep, Hush baby, come to papa” again as the figures board the windows. The term “citizens” restates the civic indictment the government made against Newark’s citizens, who were consistently blamed, as in the South Bronx in the subsequent decade, for burning their own communities.

within their eyes before they too must look away.
At dawn, when the first buses leave, their great wipers arc
Like women bending through smoke

to burdens, singing terror, singing pity.[35]

The enjambment between “points of flame” and “within their eyes” sends the reader’s gaze to the iris of the lovers who leave via the fire escape, but also “must look away,” since the burden of communal responsibility cannot be necessarily completely borne by victims or perpetrators. The final abstractions of the singing terror and pity arrive through women “bending through smoke,” as if they are transforming themselves, in the style of Ovid’s Metamorphoses, to escape what they must witness.

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References

  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 144.
  1. “Summertime” was a return hit in August 1968, when Janis Joplin sang it on Big Brother and the Holding Company’s Cheap Thrills.
  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 76-78.

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