On Jean Toomer’s “Portrait in Georgia”

from “Portrait in Georgia”

from Jean ToomerCane

Hair—braided chestnut,
coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame.


Jean Toomer offers his concise and searing portrait in his great classic, Cane. DiscoverinCaneg this book as an undergraduate was a life-changing experience. It is one of the touchstone books that I re-read because of its terrifying lyricism. The poem’s imagery is not subtle, and its politics scald even after all this time. Melding the image of a woman’s body with the horrors of lynching. Beauty racialized and corrupted by the violence it spurs. How not to recoil? A woman’s body as danger, an implement of racial control. And yet that poignant line, “Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,” and afterwards rot and loss. If breath also signifies the word-breath shaped language, maybe the poet also speaks to the inability of this violence-corrupted body to speak in a way not tinged by ruin, rot, charred bodies.

“Portrait in Georgia,” from Jean Toomer, Cane. 1922. Ed. Darwin T. Turner. Norton, 1988.