Introduction for Cornelius Eady, Cave Canem Reading at the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, June 12, 2017
“John Punch” is the opening song on Cornelius Eady’s CD Singing While Black. Punch was an African servant in colonial Virginia. In 1640 he tried to escape with two white indentured servants. After they were caught, the two white men were sentenced to longer indentures, while Punch permanently lost his liberty, making him the first legally sanctioned slave in the Chesapeake. “John Punch’s story is the moment black people’s status in the colonies changed from indentured servants to slaves,” Eady says in an interview in Drunken Boat. “He’s also related to President Obama on his mother’s side—the first slave and the first Black President on the same family tree—what’s more American than that?”
Even more American, perhaps, is the primary speaker of Brutal Imagination, the imaginary black man Susan Smith blamed for the murder of her two young sons. In the second poem, he states: “Susan Smith has invented me because/ Nobody else in town will do what/ She needs me to do.” If, as DNA evidence suggests, Barack Obama is the literal descendant of John Punch, that first African American slave, is the black man in white imagination Punch’s figurative descendant?
If imagination can make some Presidents and some slaves, imagination is also how poetry knows. The imagery in Brutal Imagination stuns me, but the restraint with which it’s delivered intensifies the punch.
Susan hopes the sheriff will recognize what she’s stitched
Under my lids. Perhaps I’m a young boy whose dark skin
Ricocheted off her and her friends on a playground.
Now I drive about, my gaze a blown switch.
Eady’s imagery can stun, but it also cherishes detail, holds a moment up to a magnifying glass or sometimes a jagged funhouse mirror. Hardheaded Weather, a selected edition of poems written between 1980 and 2007, is full of such moments. Of the blues legend Leadbelly, Eady writes, “Sometimes the only way to discuss it/ Is to grip a guitar as if it were/ Somebody’s throat/ And pluck.” In “Sherbert,” a white waitress refuses to serve an interracial couple. The poem’s heat grows in the space between the couple and the manager who eventually serves them.
… what language
Do I use
To translate the nervous
Eye motions, the yawning
Afternoon silence, the
His simple inquiries.
Cornelius Eady’s genius is his ability to tease out these moments between and among people, and the imaginations—brutal, banal—that lie beneath.
It’s my great pleasure to welcome Cornelius Eady to the mic.