Helene Johnson’s career, choices, and sacrifices she had to make to express herself as an artist make the term “edgy poet” seem like a cheap cliche. When critical demand dictated that black poets wrote in form, she wrote sharp, terse and physical free verse. When she did decide wrote in form, her work critiqued and deconstructed the goddess archetypes popular in the work of Harlem Renaissance. She wasn’t before her time. Her time hasn’t come yet.
By the time this poem was published, the biggest cultural quandry in the minds of black critics wasn’t jim crow or blackface. It was getting Langston Hughes to stop writiting “Low down” lyrics. It was getting Claude Mckay to stop writing “ghetto tales” in his novels and his poems. It was getting Countee Cullen to “mature” and write lyrics for the aspiring classes.
Dense, knotted, but exquisite, this poem reads on a lot of levels. First off: it’s the first major atheist poem in the history of black lit. Second: this tale of Johnson seeing a sweet, beautiful young man who-in finding god-is losing the pleasures of being human, is her going into the teeth of every critic who wanted to dictate what black women should be and busting some gums. Third-in her line breaks and her modernist illusions in relation to animals in the first part of the poem-it is her homage to the early experimentation of Langston Hughes and a commentary on how the pressure of black media was mutating his voice, as well as the voices of the great writers of the time.
Magalu is a morning of the physical, an elgy for the organic possibilities of a life free from in orthodoxy, and the last poem she got published in her lifetime. Johnson wrote this with the knowledge that it would be the final thing she would ever put out; and dear fucking god, she wen’t down swinging. This is one of the bravest poems I’ve read in my lifetime. It is also one of the most tragic.