Poet Herman Beavers teaches African American literature and creative writing at the University of Pennsylvania, where he is a professor of English and Africana studies. His work has appeared in publications and anthologies including the American Arts Quarterly, Langston Hughes Colloquy, and Who Will Speak for America? So maybe neophyte poetry readers would assume that his latest work, The Vernell Poems (published by Philadelphia’s own Moonstone Press) just might be a tad too academic, lofty, or enigmatic. But oh, no, no. This book swings.
The Vernell Poems tells stories of Vernell Spraggins, a character defined by Guthrie Ramsey, author of The Amazing Bud Powell, as “the buddy you roll and sport with—the one you went to school with but wonder what classes he attended… the dude around the way, ageless but getting weary.”
So, after reading this percipient and very funny collection of poetry, I had to interview my former professor from Penn about this urban folk hero from Cleveland, who had been bouncing around in Beavers’s head since 1998.
“Vernell is a composite of people in my family, people that I grew up with and people I heard them talk about,” Beavers said. The poems got started when he was on a “really intense and competitive” poetry retreat where participants had to write one poem a day. “I had a dream,” the poet remembers.
The dream was about Mrs. Butterworth, the pancake syrup in a bottle shaped in the form of a woman. In this first poem, Secrets, Vernell and his friend Drew are in the grocery store Bag N Bolt, and Drew says,
Just when we was turning
down the aisle with all them
syrups and jams, jellies quiverin
in the jar, Vernell say, You know,
Drew, I never told nobody
What I’m about to tell you.
But I gots to admit
I always had me a thang
For Mrs. Butterworth.
His friend Drew realizes very quickly Vernell wasn’t
talkin bout likin it on
pancakes, but Vernell,
he shake his head, say,
thinking bout what she be wearing up
under that skirt.”
The people at that long-ago poetry retreat just loved the poem. Beavers wrote more like it, and when he ran into those colleagues later, “they would always ask me about the Vernell poems. To the point of, 'Herman, what would Vernell say about this?'”
Literary and acoustic
In another poem, Vernell Contemplates the Meaning of Existence, Beavers writes that Vernell has been watching TV with his friend Drew. A philosopher on the Discovery Channel comes on, talking
bout fallin into the Abyss.
He called that shit, A Place where Man
wallows in despair…Man’s pain multiplied unto
infinity…a place you reach only
after stumbling through life’s obstacles
without a spiritual map.
Later in the poem, Vernell doesn’t respond. He’s not “feelin his Heidegger Jones,” but
Instead Vernell say, Hey, I wonder can
You get there off 271? Is it like ridin
The Jackrabbit at Euclid Beach? Is it
Anywhere near Canton? I bet I was
right near the damn Abyss and didn’t even
know it! Naw, Drew, I bet you five
dollars something heavy as The
Abyss got to be out past Toledo.
Damn! Let me call my cousin in Destroy!
As Vernell deftly signifies on the pontification of philosophical punditry, he’s making glorious fun of overeducated folks who have a mission to make some people feel small. The boisterous musicality and polyrhythmic sensibilities that Beavers embeds in his work reflect what poet Mark Chasar describes as a style characteristic of Sterling A. Brown: “poems full of ‘raucous sound’ participate in the same noisy project as laughter, yoking the literary and acoustic.” Though the raucous sounds in Beavers’s poetry are socially and racially inflected, they convey universalities that adhere to any individual’s way in the world.
Like Slim Greer
"The hardest thing in this book was to write poems that do the things that poems do, rather than do what jokes do, which is work a punchline," Beavers says.
The Vernell Poems follows the tradition of Sterling Brown's Slim Greer cycle of poems and the social commentary underlying it. Using vernacular can be a hard edge to walk, but when it works—well, it sings to you.
In the Slim Greer cycle, Brown “was clearly making a comment about how ridiculous Jim Crow was and I wanted to get that into these poems,” Beavers explains. “I wanted my poems to be funny yet have an edge to them. I also did not want to make light of Black people's suffering."
There is so much to appreciate in this collection of 22 poems about the loveable trickster Vernell Spraggins, who hangs out with the Devil and his wife (and gets thrown out of Hell for his bad behavior). But then, Vernell didn’t dig Hell anyway, and
woke up to the sound of
“Sweet Home Alabama” blasting
Loud enough to shake California
And white folk, far as the eye could see,
Doing the Electric Slide, talking bout, I ain’t had
This much fun, since the ****** learned me the Bump,
They was waving Confederate flags every whichaway.
And I was thinkin I’d done made a wrong
Turn at Purgatory and ended up in Mississippi
Buy the book. Don’t wait for the movie (and there will be a movie someday). Vernell plays life like Jelly Roll Morton plays the piano. Read it.
Editors' note: BSR supports the voices of marginalized artists claiming their identities in their own works, but it's our policy to be sensitive to potential racially charged terms in quoted works, in respect for their proper appropriation at the source.
What, When, Where
The Vernell Poems. By Herman Beavers. Philadelphia: Moonstone Publishing, 2019. $10. Click here.