days I hope will come
rendezvous with Life I keep
fear I deeply, too
From the poem I Have A Rendezvous With Life by Countee Cullen
I have a rendezvous with Life,
In days I hope will come,
Ere youth has sped, and strength of mind,
Ere voices sweet grow dumb.
I have a rendezvous with Life,
When Spring’s first heralds hum.
Sure some would cry it’s better far
To crown their days with sleep
Than face the road, the wind and rain,
To heed the calling deep.
Though wet nor blow nor space I fear,
Yet fear I deeply, too,
Lest Death should meet and claim me ere
I keep Life’s rendezvous.
Born in 1903 in New York City, Countee Cullen was raised in a Methodist parsonage.
He attended De Witt Clinton High School in New York and began writing poetry at the age of fourteen.
An imaginative lyric poet, he wrote in the tradition of Keats and Shelley according to the website, https://allpoetry.com/.
It was another one of Cullen’s poems that may have been the first real poem I ever read.
Back in the 1960’s at Crestview Elementary School in Grand Rapids, Michigan, the school took part in the Scholastic Book Program.
We would get a 4 page newsprint catalogs of cut rate paper back books and we would be encouraged to order a book or two.
We still had to pay of course but the prices of these books were pretty cheap.
The day the orders were due, most kids in class would show up with a white envelope with a dollar in it along with an order for 1 or 2 books.
Then I would go up with order for 5 or 10 or 20 books.
I have to admit that when it came to books and me, my parents were very generous.
Maybe they figured if I was reading I wasn’t in trouble and that alone was priceless.
After a week or two, we would come in from recess and on the teachers desk would be a big box.
In this day and age of Amazon, it is hard to explain how exciting a big brown box could be.
The teacher, most likely Miss Critchell as I had her for 2 and a half years of grade school, but that is a different story, would open the box and we would see that it was filled with books and a bunch of orders.
Once we settled down, the teacher would pick up an order form, rummage for a book and call out Diane, Ruby, Richard or Cindy and those kids would go forward and the teacher would hand them their book and their order.
And I would wait and wait and wait.
Then the teacher would count the last books and look at the last order and say, “Mike, these are yours,” amd had me the box.
And that was it for me for the rest the day, maybe that week.
Teachers were as happy as I was.
Call It Courage, The Mystery of the Blue Cat, Up Periscope.
I can still remember the titles.
The feel of a new book.
I can say I have spent all my life in information services, with the last 20 years creating an online environment for news.
But before that I worked for, going backwards, a publisher, the public library and for almost 10 years, a bookstore.
That all got started back in grade school.
I would order almost anything off of those Scholastic Catalogs.
My Mom would look over the list and ask, “Are you really going to read that?”
Of course I would say.
Though I admit sometimes I just wanted the book.
Out would come the checkbook and the next day I would give my teacher a white evenlope with the order and my Mom’s check.
I feel like I read them all the books I ordered.
I know I read a most of them.
Most of them in a matter of days.
I know I got lifted eyebrows over, “A Students book of Verse” or something like that, but I know I got the book.
I remember looking at it when it came and wondering why I ordered it, but there it was.
I remember that it was 4th or 5th grade.
Crestview had been integrated by them.
I was sitting at my desk.
I would read at my desk when we were supposed to working on other subjects.
I would open a book in my lap to hide it and read.
I always thought my teacher didn’t notice.
She might not have noticed the book but she had to notice I was being quiet.
And if I was being quiet, the teacher wasn’t going to do anything to get me to stop being quiet.
I had the Students Book of Verse open.
I was thumbing through it, never having read much poetry aside from anything I might have had to learn as a ‘Memory Selection.”
Somehow, someway, in 1970, the editors of that book managed to include the poem “Incident” by Countee Cullen.
Never heard of it,
Never heard of Cullen.
But I read his poem.
I slapped the book shut and put it in my desk and slammed the lid.
I was shaking inside.
Had anyone seen me reading that poem.
Had anyone known that that poem was in my new book.
How has THAT poem got into this book?
To this day I wonder that.
I like to think that some young editor at scholastic snuck the poem in there with the hope that one kid, like me, might learn from it .
It was the 60’s..
About the same time we had a school concert with lots of Bob Dylan songs.
I might have got looks when I slammed my desk but no one, including the teacher, said anything.
I hid the book back in the box and later that day took all the books home.
When I had a chance to be alone, I got the book out the box and read the poem again.
For a little kid there were just too many emotions.
One was WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG.
Another was awe.
Awe because, while I couldn’t verbalize it and today I still can’t, how could all this emotion and feeling and meaning be contained in the words of poem.
A short short poem and it said so much.
I looked around at my classmates and could not understand.
You could say that’s when I discovered the power of poetry.
Makes me laugh to think that I am now writing these daily haikus.
Dandelions in a forest of redwood trees with poems like Incident.
Maybe besides poetry there were other things that I understood that day.
Things that were WRONG WRONG WRONG.
Not much I could to make it right.
But I could try.
It wasn’t the wrong I wanted to concentrate on but the right.
A rendezvous with life
Even though I have fear, I have hope.
And I give thanks for the parents who wrote those checks for those books.
And I give thanks for a wife who understands and we always try to give books as gifts to the kids.
And wait for those days I hope for.
For those who have never read it, here is Countee Cullen’s Incident or Incident in Baltimore, written in 1925
Once riding in old Baltimore,
Heart-filled, head-filled with glee,
I saw a Baltimorean
Keep looking straight at me.
Now I was eight and very small,
And he was no whit bigger,
And so I smiled, but he poked out
His tongue, and called me, “Nigger.”
I saw the whole of Baltimore
From May until December;
Of all the things that happened there
That’s all that I remember.