A lyrical and biographical reflection on the art and life of Horace H. Pippin—the best-known African American artist of his time—Primitive offers a searching critique of the condescension to African American folk art as supposedly “primitive,” and it also critiques the underestimation of African American life and imagination in the broader American consciousness. Award-winning poet Janice N. Harrington connects readers to this fascinating, odds-defying artist, all while underscoring the human craving for artistic expression.
Writing with your rigid shoulder, with the weaker
Hand, two years after the Great War, you try
to shape words that you could not spell, sounding
Them out—raineing, playen, bob wir, infinze—rolling
them on your tongue like Demonsthenes’ stones,
leaden shot spat out at shying targets. In a notebook
you bend the language:
hell place, nomansland—and make in ink
Uncertain places—Leeon, Oregon, Caintenerzair,
Moperycort. But words are poor gazetteers,
Compasses for the lost. We stumble
over consonants and vowels. We are strugglers
in our own language. What to call the ripped earth
Where boys wait in ditches beneath bursting shells?
You called it terribell grond of sarro, spelled
so that we hear the voices ringing with terror,
The howl of the o, and the deeper o of sorrow.
“In her innovative and incisive third book of poems, Primitive, Janice N. Harrington shows us the great revelations possible in the intersections of history and poetry. These elegantly-crafted poems explore the aftermath of war, Jim Crow America, and American visual art through the life and art of the painter Horace H. Pippin. This collection is both a historical reflection and an ekphrastic object, masterfully rendered from found texts, paintings, notebooks, and the ephemera surrounding the painter and his work. It is through Pippin’s pictures and pigments, both paint and skin, that we see the complex beauty of the artist—a beauty that announces itself in bold colors in spite of the bigger machines of oppression that so often worked in opposition to his artistry.”—Adrian Matejka
“In Primitive, the artist Horace H. Pippin is less a lens and more a prism through which Janice N. Harrington watches humanity with a careful eye. Harrington’s skill with image is undeniable, and her ability to intertwine ekphrasis, biography, history, and interior landscape results in a text that is much more than a book of poems without ever ceasing to be a moving and radiant example of one.”—Jamaal May
© BOA Editions, Ltd. 2016