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

Countee Cullen, "To You Who Read My Book" (1925)

Soon every sprinter,
   However fleet,
Comes to a winter
   Of sure defeat:
Though he may race
   Like the hunted doe,
Time has a pace
   To lay him low .

Soon we who sing,
   However high,
Must face the Thing
   We cannot fly.
Yea, though we fling
   Our notes to the sun,
Time will outsing
   Us every one.

All things must change
   As the wind is blown;
Time will estrange
   The flesh from the bone.

The dream shall elude
   The dreamer's clasp,
And only its hood
   Shall comfort his grasp.

A little while,
   Too brief at most,
And even my smile
   Will be a ghost.
A little space,
   A Finger's crook,
And who shall trace
   The path I took?

Who shall declare
   My whereabouts;
Say if in the air
   My being shouts
Along light ways,
   Or if in the sea,
Or deep earth stays
   The germ of me?

Ah, none knows, none,
   Save (but too well)
The Cryptic One
   Who will not tell.

This is my hour
   To wax and climb,
Flaunt a red flower
   In the face of time.
And only an hour
   Time gives, then snap
Goes the flower,
   And dried is the sap.

Juice of the first
   Grapes of my vine,
I proffer your thirst
   My own heart's wine.
Here of my growing
   A red rose sways,
Seed of my sowing,
   And work of my days.

(I run, but time's
   Abreast with me;
I sing, but he climbs
   With my highest C.)

Drink while my blood
   Colors the wine,
Reach while the bud
   Is still on the vine. ...

   When the hawks of death
Tear at my throat
   Till song and breath
Ebb note by note ,
   Turn to this book
Of the mellow word
   For a singing look
At the stricken bird.

   Say, "This is the way
He chirped and sung,
   In the sweet heyday
When his heart was young.
   Though his throat is bare,
By death defiled,
   Song labored there
And bore a child."

When the dreadful Ax
   Rives me apart,
When the sharp wedge cracks
   My arid heart,
Turn to this book
   Of the singing me
For a springtime look
   At the wintry tree.

Say, "Thus it was weighed
   With flower and fruit,
Ere the Ax was laid
   Unto its root.
Though the blows fall free
   On a gnarled trunk now,
Once he was a tree
   With a blossomy bough.”

Published in Color, 1925

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