Martha Jane Nadell: On "Portrait in Georgia"

The visual is not confined to Cane's prose vignettes. The text’s poems employ visual devices as well. The first section of Cane contains three poems that had been collected in the Modern Review as "Three Portraits." The first two poems, "Face" and "Portrait in Georgia," employ something like the Petrarchan conceit. They compare the elements of a woman's face to a variety of objects or states. "Face" (10) begins by describing hair simply as "silver gray" like stars and brows as "recurved canoes." Although the poem begins conventionally, elements of "pain" intrude into the portrait as it catalogs the woman's countenance. The eyes produce a "mist of tears."

 

And her channeled muscles

are cluster grapes of sorrow

purple in the evening sun

nearly ripe for worms.

 

The comparisons shift from beautiful stars to rotting grapes, suggesting pain without naming it.

"Portrait in Georgia" (29) defines the "pain" to which "Face" alludes. The face in this poem is constituted by the racist violence in the South:

 

Hair—braided chestnut, coiled like a lyncher's rope,

eyes—fagots

Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,

Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,

And her slim body, white as the as the ash of black flesh after flame.

 

This poem is the scene of a brutal lynching. Southern racial violence dominates what could have been a conventional portrait poem. The "lyncher's rope," the "fagots" that burn the "black flesh" are images with which Toomer stresses how society's understanding of race has and will continue to produce unfathomable terror for African Americans. The visual images of "Face" become violent images in "Portrait in Georgia."

The poem is an extraordinary acknowledgement of the past of African Americans. Toomer recognizes that his desire for an ahistorical, free sense of the individual has a powerful enemy: the historical and present violence of the South. But if the two poems are so clearly about the social situation of the South, why does Toomer call them "portraits" and employ a woman's face as the central image? With the fragmentation of the poems and the list of the constituent parts of the face without cohesion that would make them into a unified whole, Toomer alludes to a type of modernist portrait that Stieglitz mastered, thereby attempting to diffuse some of the horror he portrays.

During the early 1920s, Stieglitz was engaged in one of his most famous projects; the portraits of O'Keeffe. Stieglitz photographed parts of her body, including her hands, face, breasts, and legs, making a series out of these fragmented body parts. This was a sort of American cubism, some have argued. Each part of O'Keeffe represented "her." However, within this impulse to depict the whole of a person's selves by means of a part, Stieglitz focused on the part as a thing in and of itself. Thus, the photograph of O'Keeffe's hands is as much about her as it is about her hands as hands and as a study in shape and design. The other effect of the composite portrait was that it represented O'Keeffe diachronically. Recognizing that individuals change across time and place, Stieglitz documented O'Keeffe as a mutable creature with many selves (Greenough, Stieglitz, 22).

Yet, Toomer's fragmented portraits are different, and it is here that we see his fundamental departure from the almost pure formalism of Stieglitz and O'Keeffe. The poems demand an accounting for lynching, for burning. They take an ethical stance on the racial system of the South by explicitly attacking the violence depicted later in "Blood-Burning Moon."

Details

Title Martha Jane Nadell: On "Portrait in Georgia" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Genevieve Fabre, Michel Feith Criticism Target Jean Toomer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 14 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Jean Toomer and the Harlem Renaissance
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