Black with White

I recently finished reading Raising Lilly Ledbetter [available here from Lost Horse Press], edited by Carolyne Wright, M. L. Lyons, and Eugenia Toledo. While I hope to post a review of the anthology later, today I want to rave about a particular poem.

According to the biographical statements at the close of the anthology, Colleen J. McElroy is a professor emeritus at the University of Washington and has published nine volumes of poetry.

What caught me first about McElroy’s poem “Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge” was the music, as you will see.

Sprung Sonnet for Dorothy Dandridge


A woman unadorned stands out in a crowd of otherwise
Camouflaged women, and takes from her shelf all manner
Of potions and powers, the oils and slick pots of color
That hold electricity and confusion of mimicry
That test the ties that bind deception to reality
A woman in sundappled skin can mislead with mad
Profusion and tricks that others would give an eyetooth for
Who know elaboration gives us our most handsome species
Who teach us disguised animals need not dissolve
Into surroundings when anonymity is not our destiny
Who know to understand the zebra’s stripes, you must get down
     On your hands and knees where the vertical whites vanish
     Into the sky and the blacks take on a shape so indistinct
     The world’s blurred kaleidoscope of the mundane and bizarre

Where Whites say black/ Blacks say black with white

I was also maddened by the choice of endwords but on re-reading and re-reading [because what an emotional trajectory to follow over and over!] I came to love that “otherwise” ending. In the first read-through I loved the conflation of electricity, pots of color, I loved the slap in the face when I, a white reader, got to the end of the poem and had my world shifted.

In so many ways, this is exactly the purpose of a poem, to teach me to see something in a way I did not see it before. Thank you, Professor McElroy.

Other musical textures that really work for me in this poem: “disguised” and “dissolve”, coming out again in the next line in “destiny” and then again one more line down in “stripes”. “Potions”, “powers”, and “slick pots”. “Electricity”, “test”, “ties”, “deception”, and then coming back to the hard T with “reality”.

The music in McElroy’s poems is immense and I look forward to reading more of her work.