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When June comes dancing o’er the death of May

Three poems by Claude McKay

Claude McKay, the author of Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem
Claude McKay, the author of Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem

A Memory of June

  • When June comes dancing o’er the death of May, 
  • With scarlet roses tinting her green breast, 
  • And mating thrushes ushering in her day, 
  • And Earth on tiptoe for her golden guest, 
  • I always see the evening when we met — 
  • The first of June baptized in tender rain — 
  • And walked home through the wide streets, gleaming wet, 
  • Arms locked, our warm flesh pulsing with love’s pain. 
  • I always see the cheerful little room, 
  • And in the corner, fresh and white, the bed, 
  • Sweet scented with a delicate perfume, 
  • Wherein for one night only we were wed; 
  • Where in the starlit stillness we lay mute, 
  • And heard the whispering showers all night long, 
  • And your brown burning body was a lute 
  • Whereon my passion played his fevered song. 
  • When June comes dancing o’er the death of May, 
  • With scarlet roses staining her fair feet, 
  • My soul takes leave of me to sing all day 
  • A love so fugitive and so complete. 

America

  • Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
  • And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
  • Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
  • I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
  • Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
  • Giving me strength erect against her hate.
  • Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
  • Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
  • I stand within her walls with not a shred
  • Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
  • Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
  • And see her might and granite wonders there,
  • Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
  • Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. 

Africa

  • The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light, 
  • The sciences were sucklings at thy breast; 
  • When all the world was young in pregnant night 
  • Thy slaves toiled at thy monumental best. 
  • Thou ancient treasure-land, thou modern prize, 
  • New peoples marvel at thy pyramids! 
  • The years roll on, thy sphinx of riddle eyes 
  • Watches the mad world with immobile lids. 
  • The Hebrews humbled them at Pharaoh’s name. 
  • Cradle of Power! Yet all things were in vain! 
  • Honor and Glory, Arrogance and Fame! 
  • They went. The darkness swallowed thee again. 
  • Thou art the harlot, now thy time is done, 
  • Of all the mighty nations of the sun. 

Claude McKay (1889–1948) was a Jamaican poet and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement in the 1920s that heralded the talents of African-American writers, musicians, and artists. While he wrote a number of memorable poems, McKay was better known as a novelist. His novel Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem was published posthumously this year. Early on in his life McKay was an avid Communist sympathizer, but by the mid-1930s had become disillusioned and began to write against it. His work has influenced later African-American writers including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

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Claude McKay, the author of Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem
Claude McKay, the author of Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem

A Memory of June

  • When June comes dancing o’er the death of May, 
  • With scarlet roses tinting her green breast, 
  • And mating thrushes ushering in her day, 
  • And Earth on tiptoe for her golden guest, 
  • I always see the evening when we met — 
  • The first of June baptized in tender rain — 
  • And walked home through the wide streets, gleaming wet, 
  • Arms locked, our warm flesh pulsing with love’s pain. 
  • I always see the cheerful little room, 
  • And in the corner, fresh and white, the bed, 
  • Sweet scented with a delicate perfume, 
  • Wherein for one night only we were wed; 
  • Where in the starlit stillness we lay mute, 
  • And heard the whispering showers all night long, 
  • And your brown burning body was a lute 
  • Whereon my passion played his fevered song. 
  • When June comes dancing o’er the death of May, 
  • With scarlet roses staining her fair feet, 
  • My soul takes leave of me to sing all day 
  • A love so fugitive and so complete. 

America

  • Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
  • And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
  • Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
  • I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
  • Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
  • Giving me strength erect against her hate.
  • Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
  • Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
  • I stand within her walls with not a shred
  • Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
  • Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
  • And see her might and granite wonders there,
  • Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
  • Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand. 

Africa

  • The sun sought thy dim bed and brought forth light, 
  • The sciences were sucklings at thy breast; 
  • When all the world was young in pregnant night 
  • Thy slaves toiled at thy monumental best. 
  • Thou ancient treasure-land, thou modern prize, 
  • New peoples marvel at thy pyramids! 
  • The years roll on, thy sphinx of riddle eyes 
  • Watches the mad world with immobile lids. 
  • The Hebrews humbled them at Pharaoh’s name. 
  • Cradle of Power! Yet all things were in vain! 
  • Honor and Glory, Arrogance and Fame! 
  • They went. The darkness swallowed thee again. 
  • Thou art the harlot, now thy time is done, 
  • Of all the mighty nations of the sun. 

Claude McKay (1889–1948) was a Jamaican poet and central figure of the Harlem Renaissance, a literary movement in the 1920s that heralded the talents of African-American writers, musicians, and artists. While he wrote a number of memorable poems, McKay was better known as a novelist. His novel Amiable with Big Teeth: A Novel of the Love Affair Between the Communists and the Poor Black Sheep of Harlem was published posthumously this year. Early on in his life McKay was an avid Communist sympathizer, but by the mid-1930s had become disillusioned and began to write against it. His work has influenced later African-American writers including James Baldwin and Richard Wright.

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