Thursday, July 14, 2005


“Mama, I’m hungry,” I complained one afternoon.

“Jump up and catch a kungry,” she said, trying to make me laugh and forget.

“What’s a kungry?”

“It’s what little boys eat when they get hungry,” she said.

“What does it taste like?”

“I don’t know.”

“Then why do you tell me to catch one?”

“Because you said that you were hungry,” she said, smiling.

This is what did it. The first time I felt it.

8th grade. Miss Villenauve. American Lit. This excerpt from Black Boy by Richard Wright. I will never forget it.

Specifically, it was the word, kungry - light while dark, laughing while crying, improvised yet all too familiar - the linguistic equivalent of blues. A blues which I recognized, yet a blues which, after months of ingesting pages of Poe, Hawthorne, and Hemingway, I had never seen before. I wanted more of it. I wanted to make it. And so I sought it.

Though I knew what the passage said, I read it over and over trying to figure out how it said it. I tried to pull it apart - to see the gears inside.

There seemed to be nothing special about the language. These were all words I'd seen before... except one. And this word, kungry, meant nothing when taken out of the context of this passage, yet it meant everything within it. It had the minuteness, yet the boundlessness of nuclear reaction. In such a small space, it said so much. I didn't yet have the word for it, but it was poetic.

And then there was this organic rhythm to the banter between Mother and child. I recognized its echo from the halls of my Father's house. And though we students were each reading this passage to ourselves silently, my heart audibly thumped, my tongue wettened, my throat tightened: I could not wait to go home and read it out loud.

Indeed, It was music; It was poetry; It was theatre. And It would be my start...

The above entry, It, is my output after completing the first exercise in Robin Behn's The Practice of Poetry: Writing Exercises from Poets Who Teach. This exercise, called First Words, was to try to recall the first moment in which written language
struck you, and was supplied by Ann Lauterbach.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your beautiful commentary on this classic Wright passage.

Anonymous said...

Indeed,I first heard the poem in the 8th grade,it has stuck with me to this day.A good poem will do that.I was just thinking about how hungry I was and this poem came to mind.

Anonymous said...

It's NOT a poem.

M. Ayodele Heath said...

Very true, Anonymous. It is not a poem. The exercise asked the reader to identify the first moment when written language struck you. I personally found this prose passage to have a poetic quality to it. :-)