A boy goes with his father to the Fulton Fish Market to get discarded fish to bring back to Harlem and sell, keeping one to cook over a fire in a vacant lot. "Knees of a Natural Man" is a poem of survival.
As a child growing up in Harlem during the Depression, I knew (and sadly observe today) the grim spectacle of men in vacant lots, around crackling oil-drum fires, smoke billowing, flames shooting up as from the hell of frustrated ambition. Sometimes I would catch sight of a bottle passing from hand to hand in an ancient rite of the alienated and dispossessed. I knew the raw, loud spectacle; the sharp smell and chill of the Fulton Fish Market; the confusion of pushcarts crowded under the rumbling Eighth Avenue El. I knew "how to pick the leavings / [my ole man] say people throw away" (32): relief apples, the evergreen trees discarded by vendors late Christmas Eve that shimmered in tinsel on Christmas morning. I remember the evening my "ole man" came home from searching for work, fainting in the doorway, having gone all day without food. I knew something of Dumas's Lenox Avenue, Harlem, below Sugar Hill, off from Strivers' Row, down in The Valley, around the "Knees of a Natural Man."
But it was not the powerful evocation of an experience of deprivation that kept me in awe of the poem, or its wry humor, but its brilliant disclosure of a timeless ritual of initiation into a world of "natural" men, men who not only survive impossible circumstances, but who transcend them in the heroic tradition of the blues. In a voice as perfectly tuned as the lyre of Orpheus or the guitar of John Lee Hooker, Dumas permits us a journey to the Underworld (downtown) and back again. The voice is youthfully reverential, unschooled, monosyllabic, recording what happens in a mingling of verb tense that also suggests the timeless, preliterate world of myth. It is a voice that stands in ironic contrast to the unmistakably archetypal nature of the journey taken by a father and son to a fish market to bring back six fish to Harlem, "keepin one for the pot" (32).
The son is unconscious of the ritual significance of the secular events he narrates. Fish, wine, fire, hunger, the big lie, the blow--these elements of initiation the boy must experience if he is to stand shoulder to shoulder with natural men. But the symbols of life (the fish) which the father takes the son to the world of commerce (the market with its "guts" and "scales") to obtain are dead, with "eyes like throat spit" (32). The son must be shown "how to pick the leavings"--choose that which has been discarded but is not rotten (truly dead). Returning to the Upperworld ("back uptown on lenox"), the boy is further instructed in the use of the object of their quest: "we scaling on our knees" (giving thanks through their labor) and then selling five fish, keeping one to eat. The father buys a bottle of wine and gives his son the task of making a fire. The boy must also guard their prize from a "backyard cat climbin up my leg for fish" (32).
When the father smells the cooked fish, he appears with "frank williams," the attendant priest and witness to the conclusion of the boy's rites of passage, and the ceremony continues: The father gives the ritual lie ("'the boy cotch the big one"'), divesting the son of his innocent belief in adult veracity, leaving him with a more balanced view of the world; and then the father administers the ritual blow ("slap me on the head"), sanctifying the loss of innocence, and instructing the son through pain (32-33). Next, the boy must sacrifice to the malevolent forces that forever lie in wait to steal what one has gained from the world ("i give the guts to the cat"). Now he is ready for the Eucharist. The son takes a drink of wine. Sparks fly up "like we in hell." The father "is laughin and coughin up wine" in the joy and pain of life. They circle the sacred fire. But before the final act, the ritual question, put to the son at the beginning of the journey, must be asked again: "'you hongry boy?"' (33).
Is the son ready to eat, to become one with the father through this rite of communion, to take on the father's knowledge, his rituals of survival and transcendence? The boy's reply is brief, comic, thunderous in its irony, "'naw, not yet"' (33).
Not yet. Father, I acknowledge your world. I affirm your wisdom. But my hunger is not yet sufficient.
Were the poem to end here, we would have only an artfully amusing tale of an adoring son's inability to embrace fully the harsh world of his father. At most, the poem might be interpreted as an ironic criticism of those institutions responsible for the terms with which the father and son (without Mother/Wife!) must negotiate their survival. However, Dumas wants us to go deeper, and the final stanza provides the way--to an epiphany of pity and terror mingled with the laughter of the blues. The boy, still eager for self-realization, tells us:
next time i go to fulton fish market first thing i do is take a long drink of wine (33)
The poem's formal structure, eleven two-line stanzas, variably pentameter in length, perfectly accommodates its colloquial tone yet reinforces its ritual intent: the couplets (like father and son) move us through a series of stations (linked by subtle rhymes--market, spit, yet, pot, lot and wine, can, one--; the blues repetitions of wine, fish, and market; and puns scales and scaling) in an ascent (down the page) toward the mystery and paradox at the center of experience. "Knees of a Natural Man" presents us with a sacred ordering of the secular, which embodies what artist Romare Bearden identifies in African American life as "the prevalence of ritual." Like all enduring art, Dumas's poem places us in communion with our deeper selves.