Cane, By Jean Toomer

In my review of H is for Hawk, I wrote about loving the personal history. Knowing a bit about what the author was dealing with at the time of writing helps me understand the context and more deeply love the work. With the most recent edition of Cane, it’s easy. I read the afterword first, with it’s biography and analysis of his influence, both taken and given, and it made my reading of his work deeper and much more understandable.


Cane is an older book, written during the Harlem Renaissance by a black man who passed for white for much of his life. The afterword covers his life, his struggles with his race, and his anger at the way others treated his debut book. I can’t call it a novel because the longest story in it barely covers 50 pages, but it is… something.


I read recently in Ursula K LeGuin’s essay collection Words are my Matter that poetry should be read aloud. I felt foolish, rereading pages at home alone out loud to myself but I’ll be damned if she wasn’t right. Jean Toomer writes fucking gorgeous poetry about difficult topics.


It’s hard to explain the book without sitting down and showing you but I’ll do my best. Section one is set in the deep south and features almost exclusively women. Women who love the wrong man, women who don’t need love at all, but always women connected to the experience of black people in immediate post-slavery south, whether they be black themselves or only exist in a black community. They are deeply sexualized which makes me uncomfortable as a woman and extremely, stereotypically, earthy black which makes me uncomfortable as a white person. That discomfort, however, is nestled within beauty, tragedy, and a surprising amount of resonance. Reading aloud the lines as they fit together and lilt across my tongue felt both good and sad. I’ve never known poetry to speak to me that way.


Part two is a series of less beautiful but more focused poems and also short stories about growing up black in the north where there is freedom but still great prejudice. His characters are fetishized and punished and terribly normal and for me it’s a peek into an existence I’ll never know. A world where people look at you and assume you’re less interesting or less intelligent or less desirable just because of a color.


Part three is a short story, almost a novella, that is likely semi-autobiographical. It’s about a black man who grew up in the north, living and teaching in the south. Jean Toomer got his inspiration for Cane when traveling, as a black northerner, through the deep south. The story is depressing but I’m not sure if that isn’t exactly what it was like to be there then so I took it at face value. There are symbols I don’t understand and probably never will but I think it’s worth reading, for sure.


I can tell I’ll need more time with Cane in order to truly appreciate it. That he can make the violent death of a rat in a cane field feel poignant and beautiful in only a dozen lines is testament to his talent. It’s a simple read, if not easy or fast, but it’s worth reading, for sure.