May 21, 2015

Clarence Major (USA) 1936

Clarence Major (USA)

Born in Atlanta in 1936, Clarence Major grew up in Chicago, where, even as a teenager, he began to draw and paint and write poetry and fiction.
     In his early twenties Major began a literary magazine, Coercion Review, which featured the work of many notable writers, including Henry Miller, Kenneth Patchen, and Lawrence Ferlinghetti.
    After two marriages, both ending in divorce, and a period serving in the Air Force, Major moved from the Midwest to New York City in December 1966. There he briefly worked as a research analyst for Simulmatics, under the direction of Dr. Sol Chaneles. Major analyzed news coverage for the 1960s riots, and did field work on the riots in Detroit and Milwaukee.
    In 1967, however, he turned to teaching, first working at the New Lincoln School in Harlem before joining several college and university programs, which over the years included Brooklyn College, Queens College, Sarah Lawrence College, the University of Washington, Howard University, the University of Maryland, University of Colorado, Temple University, the State University of New York at Binghamton, and, finally, at the University of California Davis for eighteen years before retirement in 2007.

In the early years Major published his first fiction, All Night Visitors (1969), and soon after had his first solo exhibition of paintings at Sarah Lawrence College. His first book of poetry, Swallow the Lake, appeared in 1970, followed by Symptoms & Madness (1971), Private Line (1971), and The Cotton Club (1972). 
     In 1973, his second fiction, No, was published. The following year the author joined the Fiction Collective.
     Major has traveled widely, participating in the International Poetry Festival in Struga, Yugoslavia, where he read his poetry, sharing the stage with figures such as Leopold Sedar Senghor and, in the following year, with John Ashbery at the Poetry International Festival in Rotterdam. Throughout the early 1980s, Major won cultural and exchange grants to study in Nice, London, Rome, Paris, and Poland.                  
     Meanwhile, two new works of fiction, Reflex and Bone Structure (1975) and Emergency Exit (1979) appeared, to critical acclaim. And new books of poetry and fiction were published at regular intervals throughout the 1980s and 1990s. Among his works of fiction were My Amputations (1986), Such Was the Season (1987), Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar (published by Sun & Moon Press in 1988), Fun & Games (a short story collection, 1990), Dirty Bird Blues (1996), and One Flesh (2003).
      Such Was the Season was a Literary Guild book club selection, Painted Turtle: Woman with Guitar was cited as a “Notable Book of the Year” by The New York Times Book Review, My Amputations won the Western States Book Award, and Dirty Bird Blues won the Sister Circle Book Award in 1999.
      Major also continued showing his art and wrote a number of important nonfiction works, including Dictionary of Afro-American Slang, The Dark and Feeling: Black American Writers and Their Work, Juba to Jive: A Dictionary of African-American Slang, The New Black Poetry, Necessary Distance: Essays and Criticism, Come By Here: My Mother’s Life, and three books of art, Configurations: Paintings by Clarence Major, Myself Painting: Paintings by Clarence Major, and Clarence Major and His Art: Portraits of an African-American Postmodernist. In 2019 he published The Paintings and Drawings of Clarence Major.
       A complete list of his works of poetry is listed below.  


Swallow the Lake (Middletown, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1970); Private Line (London: the Heritage Series, 1971); Symptoms and Madness (New York: Corinth Press, 1971); The Cotton Club (Detroit: Broadside Press, 1972); The Syncopated Cakewalk (London: Permanent Press, 1985); Inside Diameter: The France Poems (London: The Permanent Press, 1985); Surfaces and Masks (Minneapolis: Coffee House Press, 1988); Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press); Parking Lots (Mt. Horeb, Wisconsin: The Perishable Press, 1992); Configurations: New and Selected Poems 1958-1998 (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 1998); Waiting for Sweet Betty (Port Townsend, Washington: Copper Canyon Press, 2002); Myself Painting (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2008); Down and Up (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013); From Now On: New and Selected Poems, 1970-2015 (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2015); My Studio (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2018)

For a small selection of poetry, go here:

Swallow the Lake

Gave me things I
could not use. Then. Now.
Rain night bursting upon and into. I

shine updown into Lake Michigan

like the glow from the cold lights of the Loop.

Walks. Deaths. Births.

Streets. Things I could not give back. Nor

use. Or night or day or night or

loneliness. Other ways   feelings I could not

put into words   into themselves into people.

Blank monkeys of the hierarchy. More deaths

stupidity & death turning them on

into the beat of my droopy heart   my middle

passage blues my corroding hate my release

while I come to become neon iron eyes stainless lungs

blond zincgripped steel I

come up abstract

not able to take their bricks. Tar. Nor their flesh.

I ran: stung. Loop fumes hung

                             in my smoky lungs.

ideas I could not break nor form. Gave me

things I

see break & run down the crawling down the


Illusion illusion, and you

would swear before screaming somehow

choked voices in me.

The crawling thing in the blood, the

huge immune loneliness. One becomes immune

to the bricks the feelings. One becomes


One becomes each one and every person I

become. I could not


I could not whistle and walk in storms

along Lake Michigan's shore. Concrete walks.

I could not swallow the lake

 (from Swallow the Lake, 1970)


Red mullet, rosy in its sleep

profile, red mullet on a white plate.

Straight ahead!

Blue table cloth as frame.

Mullus barbatus does not smile up

from its dead trilia beidha eye.

Olive oil glows on its scales.

Red mullet, red mullet

olive oil is not its blood.

Before you eat the red mullet,

embrace at the table : especially

if you are not a mullidae expert.

The goatfish will kick.

Pray to the Red Sea and

the Suez Canal. Become skilled

at fishing, and fishing

around the bones. Do not tickle

its erectile barbels. It will

not laugh at itself.

Scrape the slime from your body.

Have a loved one drag a rake

along your thighs. Clip

the matted hair. Clean under

your finger nails.

(from Inside Diameter: The France Poems, 1985)

Balance and Beauty

We go over to see the head of a woman,

even more: night and Mandolin.

One has to be right

handed to get into the microcosm.

We slip in the back

door: both working from the other

side of our brains. At Port Lympia

nobody notices how skillful

I am in cracking crab shells

with my right: easy as a bird's head.

Don't anticipate.

Up here, slightly above the skyline

nothing invades our rests

in shaded cavities of this hillside.

This is no picnic at Saint Philippe.

The head of the woman remains

an unrealized objective.

In the village of Helene

they ask why am I so sure

about this left-handed business.

I show them a map of my nervous system.

They say this proves nothing.

(from Inside Diameter: The France Poems, 1985)

Lost in the Desert

The sun,

       in her memory,

                    held itself high

above its bed,

         the mountainsto the South.

Human bone, beaded dolls, chunks

                         of turquoise,

were the relics of her cove.

The "Coral direction" pleased her,

         looking down that range

to the sound of tesese (once she

              tapped the taut skin

    herself and heard the power of


lift up from the orifice).

Her throat dried faster than the pit

  of clay oven when

                the match is

   struck to paper

            beneath the wood.

In silence, she turned

               her small emery wheel.

In silence, in silence.

The sun


behind the range like a prairie wolf


        a path through desert rock.

She was out

           here now (in the music).

Her heart was a terrified cactus wren


in a dirty fist.

           Unseen Hands was not there

to protect her

      from the Mystery    

             and its danger:

he's a gray fox        

               they're in a desert

and she's a desert rat.

                 In the mirror

she sees the beginning

              of the full moon

and more: herself as windstorm,

                  as summer flood,

                  as migrating coyote,

                  as spotted skunk

                       on the run;

                  as sheepherder

                     rounding up strays,

                         cutting cattle

for the Nastacio family...

       It was the summer her brother taught

her to fly

              like a bat

(instead of eating

              the mutton, she fed it

to the wild dogs) and like the other


that came while she slept.                             

            "You look like you

just saw a ghost!"

        Somebody in the desert

was frying pork chops.

        She could smell

the smoke, blue as leavesat dusk.

He spread the blanket

           and made the fire;

she concentrated

              on radio static

inside her chest. Once in a while

in it she heard muskrats

             and wolves sniffing

the air in the cliffs

      above Zuni

where the clans

   had their summer

                feasts and dances.

The sun,

             in her memory,

was going to be her moonlight

                        all this night long!


It gets very cold           here

                 in the valley

below Sacred Mountain...

        Her father proposed

to sell her to a richer family

 she could eat.

"I told him I didn't want to eat."

      So she eats with her fingers,

chili stew...

The cold made the hunger worse.

       She stood between two

bee-hive shaped ovens

                  in the yard.

In protest her mother

     refused to pack her clothes

so the father had

           to do it himself.

"My grandma told him the BIA

       was against selling children."

Zuni law wasn't

               he said,

against selling.

         She put on her buckskin,


ready to go.

The shouting?

             She ran, stumbled

fell into the catfish-river

     got rear-ended up

the stream, grunting like a Coronado


broken like a Coronado horse,

         the dyes washing

off her skin

    as though she were an olla jar

painted with mudfrogs

                not so carefully

and with the wrong stuff.


Stiff, by the light of kerosene,

          on an orange crate,

by a clay pot

    with mudfrogs and delicate


also thisturned the wrong way           

             this arrangement

by the bed...She saw

               a young man looking



   on her, waking.

He said, "Unseen Hands

             placed food before you.


     Up, back against wall,

the platter of catfish

                   on her knees,

still her hunger didn't reach     out

           to it. Of more interest

was the lighted side

       of the wide face

                    above her.

"Who are you?"

          He made his sign,

his fingers, little hapas

      with the corpse-demon heads

you expect.


About the desert,

              she whispered

like a Ramah Mormon peeking

                      into folded hands.

    Not from the terrace

of an old house, not by a fire-


while using frybread

           as a spoon in stew

or a wrapping for the catfish,

                         her father...

about this desertthe opposite

          of "my people lost in the lake"    

     she whispered in a clearing

halfway between Saint John's

                 and Surprise Valley,

as though she actually stood

      at a juncture between

the Colorado River and

                  the Zuni River north

                                 of Hunt,

smelling brush burning but

                  with no sight

of Sacred Lake. Nothing about this


reminded her of tomatoes melons

                        and peppers.

She whispered with awe

feeling herself sinking in sand,

          as in

water, dying, consumed...

                 Thought about guilt,


      of the ancient ones, all those

hundreds, hundreds of measured time,


down from The mesa

              (for no clear reason,

as they had gone up for none).

       If the infants became too

troublesome, why

         wouldn't the ancient ones


them in a lake? ("In our belief

   these children who fell

in the lake

        became the first kachinas.")

They live down at

               the bottom, and come

up at night        and dance:

           in the plaza.

Not always friendly, these     

      You could be left

a bleeding victim of one's rage!

Which way, this Sacred Lake?

At Dowa Yallane it was never mentioned.

Nothing about it and nothing

       about the desert either...

but it goes on: memory, sound

  all of it, the scrapings

on wood, the turnings, Moonlight?


The help of Unseen Hands,

           seeing a way through

windstorms, all of it!

Out here, one needed to learn

             to be as untrusting

as the coyotes. Yes,

      moving the way they move;


(from Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of
the Century, 1989)

“Swallow the Lake” is reprinted from Swallow the Lake (Middleton, Connecticut: Wesleyan University Press, 1970. Copyright ©1955, 1957, 1960, 1968, 1970 by Clarence Major. Reprinted by permission of University Press of New England.

“Beaulieu” and “Balance and Beauty” reprinted from Inside Diameter: The France Poems (London: Permanent Press, 1985). Copyright ©1985 by Clarence Major. Reprinted by permission of Clarence Major.

“Lost in the Desert,” reprinted from Some Observations of a Stranger at Zuni in the Latter Part of the Century (Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1989). Copyright ©1989 by Clarence Major. Reprinted by permission of Sun & Moon Press and Clarence Major.

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