African American Poetry (1870-1928): A Digital Anthology

A Note on Queer Poetics in Claude McKay's "Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table" (1922)

(This short contextual essay is by Sarah Heidebrink-Bruno)

As discussed in McKay’s Queer Poetics, “A Public Humanities Syllabus,” some of McKay’s more sensual writings tended to leave the sex and gender of both the speaker and the object of the speaker’s attention open—a rhetorical choice that invites multiple interpretations of the texts. Of course, McKay’s purposeful ambiguity still allows a more traditional reader to read one of McKay’s love poems as a celebration of heterosexual desire, presumably written for a male speaker about a woman. However, McKay’s vagueness also provokes more subversive readings, as well, by inviting a reader to question heteronormative readings of love poetry, by purposefully obscuring the sex and gender of the speaker and/or lover. In this manner, the reader can come to understand that feelings of desire and physical pleasure are more important in McKay’s writings than normative assumptions about the presumed sex roles assigned to either the speaker or the object of the poem.

For example, in McKay’s “Alfonso, Dressing to Wait at Table,” the ostensibly male speaker (who may represent McKay) celebrates male beauty, by focusing on how Alfonso’s physical presence captures the hearts and imaginations of his patrons. In the opening lines of the poem, the speaker praises Alfonso for being “a handsome bronze-hued lad” whose “eyes were made to capture women’s hearts,” thus indicating that Alfonso’s beauty unquestionably makes him an object of desire.

Though the opening stanza explores the intricate dance between Alfonso and the women who adore him, by the third stanza, McKay’s speaker makes an intentional choice to move from the periphery to the center of the interaction, by stating that “Alfonso’s voice of mellow music thrills/ Our swaying forms and steals our hearts with joy.” The inclusion of the speaker in “our swaying bodies” and “our hearts” suggests that the speaker is not immune to Alfonso’s charms. In fact, Alfonso’s singing voice has a physical impact on the speaker, whose body sways in time with the crowd and whose heart is as stolen as the women’s captured hearts that the speaker explores in the first stanza.

As the reader gathers from the poem’s title, Alfonso’s beauty is also relevant to his job waiting tables, where his physicality and charm could persuade desirous women—and possibly men—to favor him, which also has financial repercussions, as well. Thus, the poem also lends itself to interesting interpretations concerning race and the depiction of working-class bodies within labor poetry, as Alfonso’s beauty has a profound impact not only the speaker, but also the public at large. Importantly, the speaker worries that Alfonso’s body and voice might be appropriated by “clamouring… hungry and importunate palefaces,” or white customers. The speaker fears that these “pale-faced” customers might reduce Alfonso’s beauty and talents to a mere spectacle, rather than the paradigm of male desirability that the speaker celebrates over the course of the poem.

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