A Tribute to Dolores Kendrick
Pleiades issue 39.1 proudly features a tribute to Poet Laureate Dolores Kendrick. Here, we share this online exclusive tribute to Dolores Kendrick featuring poetry from Anthony Walton, Tim Duffy, Tara Betts, and the introduction to the tribute, by guest editor Abdul Ali.
Dolores Kendrick was the second appointed poet laureate of Washington D.C. She is the author of Why the Woman Is Singing on the Corner: A Verse Narrative (P.E. Randall 2001); The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women (Morrow, 1989), winner of the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award; Now Is the Thing to Praise (Lotus Press, 1984); and Through the Ceiling (Paul Breman Limited, 1975). She was the recipient of the George Kent Award for Literature and was inducted into the International Literary Hall of Fame for writers of African descent at Chicago State. She received an MA in teaching from Georgetown University in 1970. She then moved to New Hampshire, where she taught at Phillips Exeter Academy for over twenty years.
Remembering Lady Dolores
I first met Dolores Kendrick as an undergraduate at Howard University in the early 2000s. The occasion was auspicious as we were honoring three elder black women poets: Lucille Clifton, Nikki Giovanni, and Mari Evans. At the time, Dolores was the second Poet Laureate of Washington D.C. (succeeding Sterling Brown). Before she opened her mouth to introduce Nikki Giovanni, her mink coat, pointed heels, and old-time Hollywood movie star looks caught my attention. I was instantly intrigued. Who was this woman?
Later, I would read Women of Plums, her award-winning work about enslaved Black women, and seek out where she was reading around town. Often it would be at a foreign embassy or the Library of Congress. Part of my interest in Dolores was that I was a young poet seeking a mentor. Dolores represented an aspect of Washington D.C. that I had only read about where Black folks for generations were professionals, activists, intellectuals while at the same time appearing as ordinary folks in the community. Though they lived through Jim Crow, they worked hard to protect us younger African Americans from the danger that existed outside of our communities.
So, you might be able to fathom the loneliness I experienced when I learned that Dolores Kendrick had passed. It was as if someone had sucked all of the oxygen from our planet and all of the stars went black. And yet, her work radiates. Her words are rivers coursing through our private and public landscapes. Ms. Kendrick was an educator for more than forty years. Her students have written to me singing her praises. Many of them have gone on to join the writer’s table.
I doubt there will come a time when I forget the robust vision of Dolores. To talk with Dolores about poetry is to bear witness her fierce individualism and resistance to schools of poetry. Her insistence on remembering our ancestors. Her strength and resolve that sent her to Phillip Exeter Academy in New Hampshire where she changed the landscape of that exclusive boarding school community. Her remaining Poet Laureate of Washington, D.C. for nearly twenty years.
What I want more than anything from our readers is to take notice of this giant of American letters, who labored mostly in classrooms, covered in chalk dust and fancy heels, and to read her work.
To celebrate her humanity and to get to know her body of work as she has left us several volumes of poems and a posthumously published collection of Selected poems, Rainbow on Fire. I hope you enjoy the poems that I’ve assembled that I believe will be the start of several efforts to document and excavate the body of work of our Lady Dolores.
Seventeen Haiku Stanzas for Richard Wright
Sunrise ripples west
over the lake in December-
no warmth, little light
high rise after high
rise hard between the IC
tracks and lower State
like Stonehenge hard off
the Ryan driving hard for
downtown, then O’Hare
no druids here- only
the Housing Authority
with its deep need to
keep the cold city
separate but equal, bound
grid of black, white, brown
The middle passage
ends here, abruptly, in
concrete and silence
Chicago, blind beast,
thresher of the east, middle
and west, rendering
livestock, lumber, grain
and capital into art
As he walks Stony
Island- exhaust, exhaustion,
the black boy wanders
the middle passage
a journey without end, by
way of Abe Lincoln
his world much bigger
than it was, so much smaller
and so much the same
so much he did not
know, the grey reality
of industry, ice
apartment full of
cold, roaches, and memories
the long dream of
through his mind, unkind
Chicago, two sides of
one fence, Jackson or
Chicago, two sides of one
fence, between the white man and
the chilly blues, don’t
make no difference-
blues is falling, falling down
like December rain
Written in Blood
“dying asks a question: she gives an answer.”—Dolores Kendrick
She is tired of questions written in the blood of dead children,
tired of the suppositions recast on sidewalks. Her babies knew
soil and song, books and beauty, more than the fluency of din
and bloodsport shuddering the air beyond any concentration.
Her proof wrenches stories loose from tongues that laugh at
amnesia and festoons omission with absurd ribbons. She outfits
her so much alive children with plums, cool water, and untaught
lessons. There is no bulletproof better than that against time.
Once a poem of hers floats past paterollers that failed to curl
their hands, swift and ghost-like, around her. She winds herself
like a wisp of wind confusing the weathervane. Her back stands
a little bit straighter, a noble bust with silver-black waves framing
her face, and she finally speaks. Her answer might be “death,
you, inevitable caller, you will come, but everyone will not buy
a ticket to your damn party today. I will sell something else.”
Phyllis Wheatley Dreams in Latin
The pen is the pike of leisure, it digs its supper
out of chain-dirt. Tityrus, Virgil’s shepherd, tells Meliboeus
that only a god could provide the leisure they enjoy.
My rest from labor cries out in English couplets,
reverent and marble, enough to make Pope weep,
sullen hunchback, easy satirist. He calls my haunts, distant friends.
He cannot write my Essay on Man. I stack evidence at night.
If I were with those shepherds I would kiss the Latin
from their faces. Speak to them until morning.
What servus have I become, chained to what villa door?
The poets are in the study behind the heavy Roman curtains
but only the painters gawk at me.
They are drunk on my features. Their wine spills into the rain-pool
of the grand house. This is no Boston. I could shove such verses
into these men they would swell like stuffed Suffolk Pheasants.
A boat. Terence is sailing. African. Slave. Poet. His look is distant.
He unlocks his chains. They slip from his tired flesh.
His pen has fallen into the ocean, it swells like a fish.
Homo sum, humani nihil a me alienum puto
I am a human too, and no alien. My arrival was by design.
In my dream, Terence boards a boat, he is alone,
weeping that he will never return from this last voyage.
His pages are tucked away somewhere. Safe from the hazards that follow his body.
You will write a tunnel out of this world, he tells me, and be free.
His sails fill with visions: the rebuke of that weary Virginian widower,
his mouth full of French and broken promises. My dying children.
The poverty. The books never published. He holds his hand up.
Comprehendo I hiss. I know. I know. I choose freedom. And salt tears. I am awake.
Abdul Ali is the author of Trouble Sleeping, winner of 2014 New Issues Poetry Prize selected by poet Fanny How. He earned his M.F.A. in Creative Writing at American University. His poetry, essays, and interviews have appeared in numerous publications including National Public Radio, The Washington Post magazine, Poetry Foundation, Poet Lore, and the anthology Full Moon on K Street, among others. He is currently faculty at Howard University.
Tara Betts is the author of Break the Habit which was published by Trio House Press in 2016. In 2018 Tara was editor of the critical reprint of Adventures in Black and White which was published through 2Leaf Press/ University of Chicago Press.
Anthony Walton is an American poet and writer. His poetry chapbook Cricket Weather and non-fiction work titled Mississippi: An American Journey are among some of his most widely recognized works. His work also has appeared in various magazines, journals, and anthologies, including The New Yorker, Kenyon Review, Oxford American, and Rainbow Darkness.
Tim Duffy is a teacher, scholar of Renaissance Poetry, and poet in Connecticut. His work has appeared in numerous journals including Entropy, The Hawai’i Review, The Cortland Review, and Longleaf Review. He is founder and editor of 8 Poems Journal.