"Dances Among Mysteries"

introduction for a reading by Herman Beavers

Major Jackson, Poet
April 24, 2002

It is indeed a pleasure to be here at the Kelly Writers House of which I can comfortably say is probably today one of the most adventurous and significant literary undertakings in Philadelphia. It has been a joy to watch from afar The Kelly Writers House assert itself as one of the premiere venues for writers and the discussion of writing within many different and important contexts.

It is even more a pleasure to introduce a man whom I have admired for some time now. Early on, I became aware of Professor Herman Beavers arrival to University of Pennsylvania through his former students and my now estranged friends. They spoke highly of his engaging lectures and classes concerning such diverse topics as Faulkner, Ellison, Southern Literature, the hagiographic project of jazz icons, the employment of masculine identities in black performance culture, and of course, the limits and possibilities of contemporary poetry. His fluency of speech concerning the above mentioned topics and many others was no surprise soon after I learned he had studied and obtained degrees from Oberlin, Brown, and Yale.

I am grateful for the summer of 1996, the year in which I was able to spend a week in June with Professor Beavers and a host of other talented thinkers and poets at the Cave Canem Poets Retreat in upstate New York. It was there in which I had the good fortune of discussing, debating, listening and conceding to the well-sprung of ideas and perspectives Professor Beavers advanced and broke down to us young aspiring poets. For many of us, Professor Beavers became a sort of big brother. Of course, we gossiped and exchange juice about some of our favorite writers, poets who we studied with or knew from afar. I believe however I was most struck by the language Professor Beavers employed to discuss the dynamics and construction of maleness, black male identities, and community. It became clear that this subject not only was the concern of his scholarly/critical being but also the focus of his imaginative life - and how valuable it is.

It is difficult for us to think of the artist/writer/poet's work as a form of gift-giving. But how can it not be when a writer of Professor Beavers range and power blends and situates, in the great tradition of American and African American poetics, his own personal journey within historical, mythical, folkloric and literary discourse. Such a task has at its roots a kind of heroism, but also its dangers. Take these lines from his poem "An Old Man Remembers The Guitar," a deft dramatic monologue in the voice of an iconic blues guitarist: "Looka here boy, don't let no body tell you truth'll make you free. It won't do nothing but kill you and you be mad for rest your natural born life." These lines, which fly in the face of a many memoirist, articulate the bone-deep risks of writing in the modern age. However, I quote poet Theodore Roethke: "Those who are willing to be vulnerable move among mysteries." It is clear to me Professor Beavers not only moves, but penetrates and dances among mysteries.