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(Feeling) at Home in America with Sterling A. Brown

This week, as the fifth in a five-part series of blog posts on “what home might and might not mean,” Camille Dungy explores a poem by Sterling A. Brown (1901–1989).

After Winter

He snuggles his fingers
In the blacker loam
The lean months are done with,
The fat to come.

His eyes are set
On a brushwood-fire
But his heart is soaring
Higher and higher.

Though he stands ragged
An old scarecrow,
This is the way
His swift thoughts go,

“Butter beans fo’ Clara
Sugar corn fo’ Grace
An’ fo’ de little feller
Runnin’ space.

“Radishes and lettuce
Eggplants and beets
Turnips fo’ de winter
An’ candied sweets.

“Homespun tobacco
Apples in de bin
Fo’ smokin’ an’ fo’ cider
When de folks draps in.”

He thinks with the winter
His troubles are gone;
Ten acres unplanted
To raise dreams on.

The lean months are done with,
The fat to come.
His hopes, winter wanderers,
Hasten home.

“Butterbeans fo’ Clara
Sugar corn fo’ Grace
An’ fo’ de little feller
Runnin’ space….”

—Sterling A. Brown

From The Collected Poems of Sterling A. Brown
TriQuarterly Books, Second Printing 1999


When I think of the idea of home, I consider this refrain:

“Butterbeans fo’ Clara
Sugar corn fo’ Grace
An’ fo’ de little feller
Runnin’ space….”

For several years in the 1920s, Sterling A. Brown (1901-1989) worked at Virginia Seminary in Lynchburg, Virginia, a school where my grandparents also once taught. Maybe I love him partly because he was once at home in a place that I have called home. But, really, what draws me to the poems in his book Southern Road are his unflinching, clear-eyed depictions of his poems’ subjects.

The idea of home built into “After Winter”—steeped in a history that is marked by exclusion and subjugation, but also hard work and earned pride—is complicated and beautiful. “His hopes, winter wanderers,/Hasten home,” Brown writes. What happens when hope comes home? Is it nourished and clothed? Look at the man whose dreams these are. He’s not even entirely a man, but is described as a “scarecrow.” Some thing to stand in the field to ward off the birds who would consume a whole crop if allowed. He’s “ragged,” he’s “old.” Both scared and scary.

The diction of this poem is part of its power. We’re asked to take this speaker at his word, and as he is. He’s not prettied up and fancified through language any more than is his description made something other than it is. The speaker in the quoted lines is not sitting by a warm hearth, inside a house. He is not reflecting on harder times from some vantage of comfort. Rather, he is out in the field, in the season just after winter. The poem is set in the moment after the lean months, before the fat. His hands are in the “blacker loam” that could bring out of itself what is as yet unrealized potential.

Brown doesn’t always use jagged alignment in his poems but, here, we cycle between marginal alignment to floating without the security of the margin. We see in this, perhaps, the arrangement of a field, but, also, it disarms our sense of security.

Still, the poem spends the bulk of its time at “home” in hopeful thoughts. That’s where I want to stay, too. In a place where there are butter beans (oh so nutritious) and sugar corn, which we might now call sweet corn (oh so delicious), for the two girls, and for the young boy, “runnin’ space.” An opportunity for the son to do more than the father (he who stands, fixed, in his field, a scarecrow). The pride of ownership in this poem, the hope for the future, they warm me, even though I know that winter is inside the poem, too. As the back and forth placement of the stanzas suggests, this poem is unstable. It ends in an ellipsis, in the unfinished (repeated) thought. There is nothing certain or permanent about it. But, oh, oh, good gracious, there is in it a home for hope.

This blog post is based on Camille T. Dungy’s talk “(Feeling) At Home in America,” given at Poets House in fall 2017, as part of Poets House’s 30th Anniversary season in which six poets were asked to provide close readings of five seminal poems (6 x 5 = 30).

Camille T. Dungy’s debut collection of personal essays, Guidebook to Relative Strangers, was a finalist for the 2018 National Book Critics Circle Award. She is also the author of four collections of poetry, most recently Trophic Cascade (2017), winner of the Colorado Book Award. Her other poetry collections are Smith Blue (2011); Suck on the Marrow (2010), winner of the American Book Award; and What to Eat, What to Drink, What to Leave for Poison (2006). In addition, Dungy is the editor of Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry (2009). She has received fellowships from the NEA in both poetry and prose, and she is currently a Professor in the English Department at Colorado State University.

Posted In: Close Readings