Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Tales by LeRoi Jones, Words by Amiri Baraka

 photo © Mark Butkus 2011
"When I walk in the streets, the streets don't yet claim me."

First Lines, Second Thoughts is a look at the first lines of well known literary works. On second thought, do these opening words stand alone as poetry? Today, we take a different approach. We look at the opening lines of a short piece of fiction — Words — by the Beat poet LeRoi Jones. Words is from a collection of short fiction entitled Tales that had it's first paperback printing 50 years ago in 1968. 


Now that the old world has crashed around me,
and it's raining in early summer.
I live in Harlem with a baby shrew and
suffer for my decadence which kept me away so long.
When I walk in the streets,
the streets don't yet claim me,
and people look at me,
knowing the strangeness of my manner,
and the objective stance from which
I attempt to "love" them.
It was always predicted this way.
This is what my body told me always.
When the child leaves, and
the window goes on looking out on empty walks,
you will sit and dream of old things
and things that could never happen.
You will be alone,
and ponder on your learning.
You will think of old facts,
and sudden seeings which made you more
than you had bargained for,
yet a coward on the earth,
unless you claim it,
unless you step upon it with your heavy feet,
and feel actual hardness.

— LeRoi Jones

In 1965, LeRoi Jones ceased to be. Following the assassination of Malcolm X in Harlem on February 21, 1965 LeRoi Jones left his wife and two children in Greenwich Village and moved to Harlem and became Amiri Baraka.

A collection of his short fiction was published in 1968 as Tales by LeRoi Jones. Tales would be the last collection of fiction by Baraka until Tales of the Out & the Gone in 2006. The postscript to Words reads, Harlem 1965.  

Words also reflects on mortality and is considered reading today, on the anniversary of Amiri Baraka's death on January 9, 2014.

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