Some things just run in families. In 2004, Michael S. Harper, whose titles have included Brown’s Israel J. Kapstein Professor of English and Rhode Island’s poet laureate, lost his father, W. Warren Harper. The death also cost Michael’s daughter Rachel Maria Harper ’94 her grandfather. Although such losses occur daily in families, the Harpers are writers—Michael is the author of fifteen volumes of poetry (two of them nominated for National Book Awards), and Rachel’s first novel, Brass Ankle Blues, was published this spring—so it comes as no surprise that this family turned its loss into literature. Both Michael and Rachel are among the friends, colleagues, and relatives who contributed photographs, drawings, poetry, and prose to the recently published I Do Believe in People: Remembrances of W. Warren Harper, which Michael Harper also edited.
The result is a collective portrait of a tall, slender, elegantly dressed man who loved such orderly pursuits as crossword puzzles and gardening—a passion that could not be diminished even by dogs running through his plants. As a father, Michael Harper writes in the book’s preface, he was “my literal coach in basketball, American Legion baseball, and all the chores he invented and announced to keep me conscious and conscientious.” Like many determined African Americans of his generation, Warren Harper worked his way into the middle class as a manager in the U.S. Postal Service, a job that disguised a disciplined, tenacious mind and a heart that resisted scarring.
“Our parents knew the theme of lost neighborhoods, their own and their kinfolks,” Michael writes. “They were our first teachers, and parenting was accomplished by vivid example. They were never neutral in our upbringing. And they raised others as well at their table, white, black, all aspects of the rainbow. They did this by an accomplished belief in custom and ceremony with a heartfelt stamp of their own as the best currency. For many: it took.”
The Harper household “was always full of music, of every generation, and all kinds: modern jazz, dance music, folk rock, musicals, rhythm & blues, PBS, Masterpiece Theatre, every kind of sport, news and game show; daily newspapers and magazines to be parsed and passed on. Friends and family always welcome; many showed up, with perfect timing, for my mother’s meals, some improvised, all delicious. Kids were always welcome and catered to, but always within limits. Instruction was freely given and not necessarily asked for. One did not run randomly through the Harper residence. It was always our home and our homestead.”
Writing keeps alive what time eventually destroys. Warren Harper was a man who, like most, lived a life that was to all appearances unremarkable. Yet also, as with most men (and women), the unremarkable reflected only the world’s inability to see the remark-able within. Thanks to his son and granddaughter, we now can catch a glimpse.
MY FATHER AT 75
By Michael S. Harper
He makes his own soup from scratch;
by the watch he does crossword, cleanup
and the stationary bicycle;
if allowed to he lives in the past
but the phone, news, and memoirs
tabulate and afflict him.
He was born in a small town
and still is uncomfortable
with his people;
discomforture hones standards.
He refuses to budge.
I like his attire when he flies,
pressed jacket and slacks,
a few papers, his walking shoes;
I have seen the women of the world
make passes at him directly to his face;
my mother would laugh at this:
get yourself a young Mexican,
make fire steam from my daughter’s nose.
I don’t ask about the neighborhood
or prospects south of the border,
but when he walks his innings at dawn
I walk with him.
La Brea is not the tarpits
but the bottom of a hill where my brother
did a blind cutaway, with his helmet on,
on the right lane pavement,
blindsided by a woman in a Continental.
After two weeks it was him that gave the word
to unplug him. On the next street
lived a childhood friend who’s disappeared;
he has the face of many abused children
anxious to please, on crack or benzedrine,
for his face is cracked by the fruit
of camouflage, and betrayal:
he did not bury his parents
or let them rest in an urn.
This is the street of weights; it is a system
of barbells and pulleys in anxious backyards;
it is the nectar of barking dogs on chains;
there are parked cars everywhere and license
plates from the Caribbean, from Quantico Bay.
We will not go on from here; we will return
to the ivy, and the digging, and when the rains
come, to watering in the early hours.
He will feed the dogs at dusk. And let them go.
Portraits of the world, which was my mother, and her children,
caress and afflict him. He has the neat
penchant of a man who contends to stay home.
FATHER (A PARABLE OF RICHES)
By Michael S. Harper
June 29, 2003
I’m wearing your fedora
which is like your father’s
you are both young men
(sometimes I turn up the brim)
then I put a mandolin in one hand
flute in the other
then I walk downtown to meet my friends
(they are not friends you say)
soon I’m standing on the river
on as opposed to in because of the float
in all fingers are the melodies
I will need when things go bad
They are bad now because of fdr
he’s a king who’s never known poverty
he marries his cousin
both families give estates to the state
orphans come from the five boroughs
people south of Kingston set up camp
I’m still wearing the hat
but downriver on a raft
there is no Huck and no Jim
the Civil War is now on film
you are born that year (1915 but not Dutch)
a mob who knows your family
approaches the porch
I start to write the poetry of our clan
?For more information on I Do Believe in People, contact the Brown Bookstore.