Yet I Do Marvel

June 12, 2008

Yet I Do Marvel

I doubt not God is good, well-meaning, kind
And did He stoop to quibble could tell why
The little buried mole continues blind,
Why flesh that mirrors Him must some day die,
Make plain the reason tortured Tantalus
Is baited by the fickle fruit, declare
If merely brute caprice dooms Sisyphus
To struggle up a never-ending stair.
Inscrutable His ways are, and immune
To catechism by a mind too strewn
With petty cares to slightly understand
What awful brain compels His awful hand.
Yet do I marvel at this curious thing:
To make a poet black, and bid him sing!

Countee Cullen

This astonishing sonnet turns whole notions of beautiful writing and beautiful thoughts on their heads. Conventional wit and loftiness are used in a manner that teases out an embarrassing ineptitude that exists at the heart of creation, one to which the poem’s logic naturally leads. Here is a twist to any simplistic life-affirming belief that God Almighty moves in mysterious ways.

When we assume that God’s “awful brain” is connected to “His awful hand”, we are struck in turn by mind-boggling puzzles about the visible unfairness and suffering in the world. But, to address these both critically and conventionally, we are permitted only the numbing repetitions of doctrinal reasoning. It is either such a route or a radical break, a confrontation with bare-faced real-world events which, from the perspective of Heaven or even art, must be a false turn to triviality.

This poem thus actively highlights beautiful and yet painful paradoxes: the mole’s fascinating blindness, the thrilling myths of eternally suffering Tantalus and Sisyphus, and, of course, the singing black poet. The piece itself movingly embodies the expression of beauty by a black soul pushing through a culturally white form.

Gwee Li Sui


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