Before the Feast of Shushan
Garden of Shushan!
After Eden, all terrace, pool, and flower recollect thee:
Ye weavers in saffron and haze and Tyrian purple,
Tell yet what range in color wakes the eye;
Sorcerer, release the dreams born here when
Drowsy, shifting palm-shade enspells the brain;
And sound! ye with harp and flute ne'er essay
Before these star-noted birds escaped from paradise awhile to
Stir all dark, and dear, and passionate desire, till mine
Arms go out to be mocked by the softly kissing body of the wind—
Slave, send Vashti to her King!
The fiery wattles of the sun startle into flame
The marbled towers of Shushan:
So at each day's wane, two peers—the one in
Heaven, the other on earth—welcome with their
Splendor the peerless beauty of the Queen.
Cushioned at the Queen's feet and upon her knee
Finding glory for mine head,—still, nearly shamed
Am I, the King, to bend and kiss with sharp
Breath the olive-pink of sandaled toes between;
Or lift me high to the magnet of a gaze, dusky,
Like the pool when but the moon-ray strikes to its depth;
Or closer press to crush a grape 'gainst lips redder
Than the grape, a rose in the night of her hair;
Then—Sharon's Rose in my arms.
And I am hard to force the petals wide;
And you are fast to suffer and be sad.
Is any prophet come to teach a new thing
Now in a more apt time?
Have him 'maze how you say love is sacrament;
How says Vashti, love is both bread and wine;
How to the altar may not come to break and drink,
Hulky flesh nor fleshly spirit!
I, thy lord, like not manna for meat as a Judahn;
I, thy master, drink, and red wine, plenty, and when
I thirst. Eat meat, and full, when I hunger.
I, thy King, teach you and leave you, when I list.
No woman in all Persia sets out strange action
To confuse Persia's lord—
Love is but desire and thy purpose fulfillment;
I, thy King, so say!
This poem is in the public domain.
Anne Spencer was born Anne Bethel Scales Bannister on February 6, 1882, on a plantation in Henry County, Virginia to former slaves, Joel Cephus Bannister and Sarah Louise Scales, the daughter of a slaveholder. Spencer’s parents separated in the late 1880s. Her mother supported the family by working as an itinerant cook. Financial hardship led to Spencer being temporarily placed with a foster family in Bramwell, West Virginia, though she was still cared for by her mother, who was determined to raise Spencer as member of the black bourgeoisie. When she was eleven, Spencer began studying at Virginia Theological Seminary and College (now, Virginia University of Lynchburg) in Lynchburg, Virginia. She graduated at seventeen as valedictorian.
Spencer remained in Lynchburg for most of her adult life. She married fellow Virginia Seminary student, Edward Alexander Spencer, and had three children. Spencer then opened and managed the library at Dunbar High School. While establishing a chapter of the NAACP in Lynchburg, she met James Weldon Johnson, then field secretary of the NAACP.
Spencer published more than thirty poems in anthologies, including Johnson’s seminal work, The Book of American Negro Poetry (Harcourt, Brace and Company, 1922); Countee Cullen’s Caroling Dusk (Harper & Brothers, 1927); and Alain Locke’s The New Negro, as well as in Opportunity and Crisis magazines. Spencer never released a poetry volume during her lifetime, as she was often frustrated by editors and publishers who censored or misunderstood her work. Spencer was the second African American and the first African American woman whose work was published in the Norton Anthology of Modern Poetry (W. W. Norton, 1973). Her work was also published posthumously in Time’s Unfading Garden: Anne Spencer’s Life and Poetry (Louisiana State University, 1977) by J. Lee Greene, a book that is now out of print.
Spencer hosted a literary salon during the Great Depression and World War II in the Queen Anne-style home her husband designed and built. Her guests included W. E. B. Du Bois, Paul Robeson, and Langston Hughes. Spencer was also a botanist. She became a controversial figure within the African American community in the mid-century, due to her preference for wearing pants and her aversion toward school integration. Meanwhile, she also offended whites with her diatribes against both white supremacy and interracial friendships. Spencer once offered her home as a refuge to Ota Benga, the Congolese man who was kidnapped, kept in a cage, and exhibited at the St. Louis World’s Fair (formally known as the Louisiana Purchase Exposition) in 1904.
Spencer, who died on July 27, 1975 in Lynchburg, left behind unpublished work, including a novel and cantos in honor of abolitionist John Brown.
Date Published: 1922-01-01
Source URL: https://poets.org/poem/feast-shushan