Janice Harrington's “Picture of the Poet and Horace H. Pippin Before the Perigee”

Last month, I had the great pleasure of attending an Evening of Jazz and Poetry, put on by the Illinois Program for Research in the Humanities. The gathering was a celebration of the release of poet Janice Harrington’s latest collection, entitled Primitive: The Art and Life of Horace H. Pippin. Harrington calls Primitive “a poetic reflection”—not exactly a biography, but instead, a series of poems inspired by Pippin’s life and work. Pippin was born in Pennsylvania in 1888 and served in World War I. After the war, despite a wounded and withered arm, Pippin painted. In 1940, art collector Albert C. Barnes heralded him as “the most important Negro painter to appear in America.” He also called Pippin’s work “primitive,” a descriptor that Harrington examines and critiques.

I’d like to share the first poem in the collection with you today. Titled “Picture of the Poet and Horace H. Pippin Before the Perigee,” the poem presents a kind of imaginative communion across time between Harrington and Pippin, poet and subject. This poem taught me the word “perigee,” which means the point at which a given object that’s orbiting the earth—say, a satellite, or the moon—is closest to the center of the earth. In contrast, apogee is the point at which it’s the farthest away. When the moon is in perigee, it looks bigger.

Janice Harrington teaches in the University of Illinois’ Creative Writing program, and she lives here in Champaign-Urbana.

Here it is, “Picture of the Poet and Horace H. Pippin Before the Perigee,” by Janice Harrington:

Under a sycamore’s bough
a bat folds and unfolds.
The black iris opens, black,
purple-black, a thing of night.
I go out, when it is dark enough,
to see the perigee.
                        milk moon, clabber moon,
                        old woman’s saucer.
I see my shadow on the sidewalk, the night shadow
of a night-colored woman, and remember his words:
We went to bed in the dark
and got out in the dark only the moon showing.
At Meuse-Argonne,
before fields of black mud, he looked at the stars.
In darkness always the same question,
how to sway darkness?
Beside the magnolia, I watch the perigee:
sap welling from a milkweed’s stalk,
a Sunday pearl, an infant’s skull.
I think of you
and your long-ago answer, to look,
and look beyond: small and necessary acts.

You can find Janice Harrington’s “Picture of the Poet and Horace H. Pippin Before the Perigee” in her new collection, Primitive, published by BOA Editions in 2016.