Tuesday, February 1, 2011

Echoes of Animism/Paganism in "Georgia Dusk

Jean Toomer's poem Georgia Dusk, from the Cane collection, paints a nostalgic yet vivid picture of one aspect of an early-20th-century subculture of the black American South. The superficial subject is the passage from day into night, the setting of the sun, and the daily events, both natural and social, surrounding this occurrence in rural Georgia. Although the language used suggests a celebratory ritual, there is a somber and even dark overtone, evoking a sense mysticism and some level of religious reverence.

The first two stanzas seem to suggest a festive night of carefree partying, indicated by "night's barbecue" and even "an orgy". While such elements may be part of the events, the rest of the poem coaxes the reader into a respectful, almost awed silence. "The sawmill blows its whistle, buzz-saws stop/and silence breaks the bud of knoll and hill,/soft settling pollen where plowed lands fulfill/ their early promise of a bumper crop."

The men who "race memories" seem to be reminescing over folk-tales, conjuring exotic characters from their native cultures to haunt the swamps into which they themselves have been transplanted. The penultimate and final stanzas intensify the religious mood. It is unclear whether the possessive pronoun "their" attributes the voices to the men or to their imaginary creations, but the voices (produced however directly by the men) rise, "caroling a vesper to the stars".

I was fascinated at the personification that pervaded the poem. The poet speaks of humans and nature in the same way, even to the extent that the subject is sometimes hard to distinguish. People in the poem appear to be fundamentally contiguous with nature. I cannot help but consider a link between this dynamic and the animistic religious cultures of Africa which continued to influence African-American culture for generations after the end of the slave trade.


  1. Reed, I am intrigued by your perception of anamism and paganism in Georgia Dust. If I correctly take animism as the idea that non-humans may have souls, I think that could be readily seen in the personification of the trees, the sky, and the stars. However, I do not understand where you find the paganism reference. Isnt Christ not explicity mentioned in the final line? While I suppose the pagan roots of the Africans would provide an argument,Toomer seems to suggest that their old traditions are nothing more than "vestiges of pomp".

  2. Reed,
    I have to disagree with how "race memories" is interpreted. You read it as a verb, as in racing. I took "race memories" as memories of the race (race being African-Americans. Perhaps I am biased after just having re-read "Notebook of a Return to the Native Land" by Aime Cesaire, in which he speaks about memories of his people. I am curious to see how you would interpret that part of the poem if you looked at "race" differently.