Book Review: Death Dance of a Butterfly
By Brenda M. Greene
Like the death dance
of a butterfly,
your writing maps
like pain reading
defining the gray,
creasing the lines
By Melba Joyce Boyd
The lines from Boyd’s poem, “Stage: Black”, dedicated to the memory of the playwright Ron Milner (1938-2004), lay the foundation for the themes of Melba Joyce Boyd’s sensitive and gripping volume of poetry, Death Dance of a Butterfly, Past Tents Press, (2012). Boyd asserts that Milner’s writing is like the death dance of a butterfly. His plays “. . . reinsert song into monologues. . . He is a sorcerer of words . . . whose plays have reversed the language of hate” (22). Boyd begins her poem for Milner with an epigram that symbolizes the cyclical nature of life and hence life’s similarity to the death dance of the butterfly. She states, “Death is just the gateway to everlasting life. And change is the gateway to re-order, re-birth, renewal”(22). This cyclical nature of life affirms birth as the beginning of death or a renewal of life; the butterfly who engages in the “death dance” witnesses life in all its intensity. And just as the butterfly, after emerging from a sustained period of hibernation, lives a brief life and brings brightness to the world, and then succumbs to an inevitable death, so too do we humans enact a life that like the butterfly, is a passionate dance that explores life in many dimensions and that must eventually come to an end.
The reader comes away from Boyd’s volume of poetry with images and profiles of people who have made a significant impact in historical moments over a period of time, people whose experiences highlight an acute awareness of the beauty and fragility of life, the value of living a purpose-driven life and the ever-present face of death.
Boyd names those dancers, writers, musicians, teachers, heroes and sheroes who we should remember, those culturally courageous leaders who live among us and while doing so participate fully in life and give back to us through their writing, music, art, dance, politics and community work. And although all of these leaders may not be nationally known, Boyd chooses to acknowledge them because of the work they have done; the legacy left by them becomes a catalyst for occupying a “space” in Death Dance of a Butterfly. These leaders include but are not limited to Julia Collins, a 19th century writer, Ken Louis Cox II, a prominent, internationally acclaimed pianist, Michael and Genevieve Fabre, French scholars, Manning Marable, scholar, Dr. David C. Northcross, physician, Sekou Sundiata, poet, Lorenzo Thomas, poet and scholar, Donald Walden, musician, and Vivian Spenser Randall, psychiatrist and social worker. Through poems that portray powerful images and critiques of the lives that we live, that expose our contradictions, our obstacles and our challenges and that advocate for justice, civil rights and peace in our communities and in our nations, Boyd provides vivid portraits of the legacies of these leaders. Each poem represents an elegy, a farewell or a testament to the individual and to his or her life in all its complexity.
In the poem, “Why I Observe the Sabbath at Home in the “D,” we witness images that depict the destruction of our environment, the criminalization of our youth, the violence in our communities, the vindictiveness and contradictions of our political leaders, the rise of the prison industrial complex, the hypocrisy in our churches and the commercialism and materialism of our culture. The speaker chooses to observe the Sabbath at home, for home is the sanctuary, the safe space, the place where one can create distance from the “horror and violence” in our lives.
Boyd’s poem, “A Black Iron Pot” is an unnerving and chilling critique of the holocaustic nature of the aftermath of Katrina. The speaker reveals that “New Orleans is a transatlantic holocaust; bloated bodies floating on ether between shadows of suffocated survivors abandoned in the fury of nature’s reclamation; damned in a dome and an abyss of a whimsical President;” (15). As the speaker continues memories of the shadows and spirits of the Middle Passage loom, “the hell-of-burden with thousands moaning like Africans in the hull of a slave ship cast in a fiendish plot in the middle of the Atlantic ocean” (15). This poem underscores the importance and necessity of remembering and telling the stories of those were not told, of giving voice to those who were silenced and victims of unspeakable acts. Boyd’s “Eulogy for Julia C. Collins” a nineteenth century writer who died before she completed her serialized novel, The Curse of Caste or The Slave Bride, speaks to the despair of not being able to complete one’s journey in life. The speaker refers to the cock who “. . . crowed three times at my front door. The paper remains blank and white and black ink does not exonerate the slave bride, redeem the villains, or the characters who condemned her daughter and invented her caste” (18). We are reminded of the African proverb; we must tell the stories of the dead so that they will continue to live or as the philosopher Cicero notes, “The life of the dead is placed on the memories of the
I came to know Jitu early in life through his programs at The East and later in the independent school movement. He was one of the founders of Medgar Evers College and when he saw that the College was in trouble because of its leadership, he called people together to see how he could be involved in ensuring the College’s legacy. We will miss your presence, your wisdom, your spirit. living. The love you gave in life keeps people alive beyond their time.” Thus as participant readers in the Dance of the Butterfly, it is incumbent upon us to listen to and remember the stories of those who have departed.
Boyd’s tribute to Sekou Sundiata, “Like Rain Piercing Metal” lays bare the ways in which the tragedy of 9/11 was a national nightmare that collapses and blurs the boundaries of race, ethnicity and class. After the tragedy of 9/11, Sundiata, known as a performance poet, traveled around the country for two years conducting workshops, talks, potluck dinners and giving performances on what it means to be an American. Having witnessed 9/11 and having been a strong social critic of American politics, he was motivated to explore the concept of American identity with students and the general public . The culmination of his two year travels was a mosaic of music, dance, poetry and interviews that premiered at the Brooklyn Academy of Music (BAM) as the 51st Dream State.
In “Phoenix Rising,” a tribute to Mayor Coleman Andrew Young, Boyd informs us of Young, a Tuskegee airman, whose privacy was invaded by the FBI, who was backlisted as a communist red and a man who with bravado exposed the Un-American motives of Senator McCarthy’s tirade and crusades against democratic principles in a free society. Young was the first Black mayor of Detroit and he appointed Dudley Randall, poet laureate of Detroit in 1981. The epigram at the beginning of “Phoenix Rising,” “Cities have died, have burned, yet phoenix-like returned” is Randall’s dedication to Mayor Young.
Death Dance of a Butterfly also celebrates our literary critics, those such as Michel and Genevieve Fabre, who represent those black intellectuals, “ambassadors on journeys to foreign literature,” (43) who sought the literary and artistic community of Paris, and used this as the place from which to explore black aesthetics. In their critiques, they “. . . contradict snide dismissals of Wright’s Bigger . . . explicate reasoning for violent imagery distilled into poetic beauty. . .” (44). And Boyd also pays homage to Manning Marable in “Rearranging Your Father’s Table”. Boyd notes that Marable, a prolific writer, historian and social critic, informs her, “Before I die, I want to write a box full of books”. Her conversation with Marable is one where they
. . . exchange quotes from Marx and Ida B.; Frances Harper talks back to Booker T. as we reshape declining unions in deserted factories and re-imagine revolutionary fields in Cuba with Ché and Guillén and then transpose Dudley Randall’s poetry with Diégo Rivera’s mural inside a Detroit museum(36).
Marable researches the lives of Frederick Douglass, W.E.B. DuBois, Medgar W. Evers and Malcolm X. His makes his transition before he is able to respond to the critique he receives on his last major work which won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for History, Malcolm X, A Life of Reinvention, Penguin, 2011.
In “Purple Haze for Ronnie” (1960-2010), the speaker reminds us that “Mothers should not bury sons, daughters should not lose fathers before becoming women. But sun can shine through rain and each life carries its own clock” (58). The butterfly has no control over the dance of life for life is a paradox that is replete with contradictions.
Poets create images that cause readers to slow down, images that appeal to the senses and motivate the reader to linger and reflect on words and phrases that stimulate the imagination; the poet manipulates and experiments with language and in doing so enables us to examine our interior lives and the life of the mind. Melba Joyce Boyd has chosen to do this by sharing with us the lives of musicians, poets, artists, dancers, educators, politicians and community workers. Her celebration of the memories of these culturally courageous leaders brings to mind the words of Marcus Garvey.
Death is the end of all life in the individual or the thing; if physical, the crumbling of the body into dust from whence it came. He who lives not uprightly, dies completely in the crumbing of the physical body, but he who lives well, transforms himself from that which is mortal to immortal.
The leaders in Death Dance of a Butterfly have lived well and the epigrams, elegies, homages and farewells created by Boyd have transformed them into that which is immortal.
Melba Joyce Boyd, D.A., is Distinguished Professor and Chair of the Department of Africana Studies at Wayne State University. She is the author of nine books of poetry, editor at Dudley Randall’s Broadside Press (1972-1977) and biographer of Wrestling with the Muse: Dudley Randall and the Broadside Press (Columbia Univ. Press, 2004) which received the American Library Association Black Caucus Honor for Nonfiction,
Brenda M. Greene, Ph.D. is Professor of English and Executive Director of the Center for Black Literature at Medgar Evers College, City University of New York.