Of shredded love (PoemTalk #192)

"For Billie Holiday" & "Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One" by Owen Dodson

from left: Herman Beavers, Tracie Morris, Amber Rose Johnson


Al Filreis convened Herman Beavers, Tracie Morris, and Amber Rose Johnson to talk about two poems by Owen Dodson: “Sorrow Is the Only Faithful One” and an elegaic sonnet “For Billie Holiday—Finally, Lady, You are Gone From Us.” Our recordings of these poems come from the Library of Congress, where on December 13, 1960, Dodson entered the Recording Laboratory there to perform a selection of his verse. Our poems are the fifth and thirteenth Dodson read, respectively, during that recording session.

Here is a link to the Library of Congress recording. And here is the list of poems he performed:

Lament -- Sorrow is the only faithful one -- Black mother praying -- Poems for my brother Kenneth -- Jonathan's song -- Iphigenia -- The decision -- The confession stone -- Sickle pears -- Two poems in a trilogy: Round song ; Goodbye, you will find me sleeping in the forest -- Tell Rachel, he whispered -- Those seven sisters -- Finally, lady, you are gone from us -- Christ was crucified way before he died -- The widow's walk -- Ballad of bad men -- My love is tender of the holy crosses -- Summing up by the defendant -- Three poems from a Funeral sermon for a woman poet: When we looked, your face had gone to childhood ; Crystal us the future ; Be it resolved, resolved, resolved, resolved.


Sorrow is the only faithful one:
The lone companion clinging like a season
To its original skin no matter what the variations.

If all the mountains paraded
Eating the valleys as they went
And the sun were a coiffure on the highest peak,

Sorrow would be there between
The sparkling and the giant laughter
Of the enemy when the clouds come down to swim.

But I am less, unmagic, black,
Sorrow clings to me more than to doomsday mountains
Or erosion scars on a palisade.

Sorrow has a song like a leech
Crying because the sand’s blood is dry
And the stars reflected in the lake

Are water for all their twinkling
And bloodless for all their charm.
I have blood, and a song.

Sorrow is the only faithful one.

From Hilton Als, The Women, quoting Owen Dodson as he recalled for the young Als his encounter with Billie Holiday: “Chile, I met Billie Holiday through my boyfriend, Karl Priebe, in the forties. She was appearing in a club in New York, on Fifty-second Street. I came up from Washington [where he was on the faculty at Howard University] to see Karl. He was working, and he suggested I come along to meet her. Chile, she was in this awful dressing room, smaller than my bathroom. She called me ‘Teach.’ Her dress was hiked up around her waist. She was fanning her pussy with a fan. She said, looking straight at me, fanning her pussy: ‘Teach, it's so goddamn hot in here’” (p. 137).