Passion shields its servants (PoemTalk #155)

Lorenzo Thomas, 'Souvenir of the Manassah Ball'


Al Filreis convened Erica Hunt, Bob Perelman, and Tonya Foster to a virtual version of the Wexler Studio of the Kelly Writers House — for a conversation about a poem by Lorenzo Thomas. The poem, “Souvenir of the Manassah Ball,” was written in 1990 or 1991, and now appears on page 310 of the magnificent Collected Poems of Lorenzo Thomas, edited by Aldon Nielsen and Laura Vrana (Wesleyan, 2019). The performance of the poem we used as our audio recording for this episode was presented at a reading on November 13, 1991, at Buffalo.

We think this PoemTalk conversation will be especially helpful to those who are reading this poem for the first time: we collaboratively identify all or most of the cultural and historical references (Lochinvar of Walter Scott, the fashion for “Pantomime Quiz” as another name for Charades, Lear’s Cordelia, etc.) and we are able to figure out why so many pairs of dancers appear, despite this couple’s pariah status (it is because they themselves reflect a thousand times in the chandelier above them). The group identifies the racist hatred that animates some or likely all the couple’s detractors. The poem of course counters such violent hatred, but can it (or the speaker) be said to be ideological? In the end we feel real admiration for the poet’s working through the ballad rather than merely overturning it for its crude obsolescences — work that nicely prevents us from deciding anything but that “It’s hard to assign victimhood.” Love, including (unironic?) romantic passion, makes such assignment brilliantly complicated. The forces acting for this couple create a shield from harm — well, much of the harm, if not “all.”

The text of the poem can be found here. And the Buffalo performance of it can be found here and on PennSound’s Lorenzo Thomas page.

Zach Carduner directed, engineered, and then edited this episode of PoemTalk. Nathan and Elizabeth Leight generously support our series. PoemTalk is a collaboration with the Poetry Foundation.