From Publishers Weekly
Admired by unlikely allies during his lifetime, Tolson (1898-1966) is due for reappraisal: this weighty book of all his mature poetry may be just what he needs. Tolson sought to depict African-American concerns in long poems modeled on T.S. Eliot and Hart Crane. His Libretto for the Republic of Liberia (not an opera libretto, but a book-length ode in eight parts) tries to do for that African nation what Crane's The Bridge did for the U.S. His longer, harder book-length Harlem Gallery (left unfinished at his death) records, in 24 intricate sections, the thoughts and symbolic deeds of a figure called the Curator, who meditates on art and history as he encounters symbolic personages, among them the outspoken Dr. Nkomo; "Hideho Heights,/ the vagabond bard of Lenox Avenue"; Guy Delaporte III, "symbol/ of Churchianity"; and John Laugart, the powerful creator of a painting called Black Bourgeoisie: "This castaway talent/ and I" (the Curator and Laugart) "were fated to be/ the Castor and Pollux of St. Elmo's fire/ on Harlem's Coalsack Way." Tolson alludes to everything from Bessie Smith to Sir Toby Belch, "the bulls of Bashan" and the Sicilian Vespers; his elaborate lineations announce at once the worth of high, complex art and the integrity of Black experience. If his baroque approach frequently seems overblown, the ambitions behind it remain impressive and moving. Tolson provided his own annotations to Libretto; Harlem Gallery's battalions of allusions have quite properly prompted editor Nelson to add brigades of endnotes. This volume also includes Tolson's more conventional first book, Rendezvous with America (1944), and several shorter uncollected poems. Former Poet Laureate Dove's introduction furnishes useful hints for reading Tolson, linking him to other Black writers. (Oct.)
Copyright 1999 Reed Business Information, Inc.
A glance at nearly any passage from the poems reprinted here will confirm that one is in the presence of a brilliantly eclectic mind determined not to hide its light under a bushel. In an interview the year before his death in 1966, Tolson stated: '... I, as a black poet, have absorbed the Great Ideas of the Great White World, and interpreted them in the melting-pot idiom of my people. My roots are in Africa, Europe, and America.' Tolson contained multitudes and did not shy away from the contradictions therein to look for single-minded issues or simple solutions; he had no problem harboring the paradoxes of the melting-pot -- indeed, he was able to refine from that cruel matrix a golden, ostentatious lyricism, drenched in the pain and beauty of the blues.