‘Fern’ by Jean Toomer

This has to be number one, because it’s haunted me for 30 years, ever since that first reading, age 19, English undergraduate at the University of the West Indies in Jamaica. I have driven my own students mad with it ever since. That first line, daaamn, it grabbed me by the throat: “Face flowed into her eyes…” It made me sit up and ask what was possible on the page, and to ask what I was allowed to do as a writer. Fern is a bewitching woman with that way of attracting men and not giving a damn, standing on her veranda, eyes all in the distance, neck-back inches away from an errant nail in the wall, unknowable, indefinable. The narrator is obsessed by her, they go out one day, she faints – or perhaps it’s a sexual metaphor – whatever the case, in the end, nothing is really concluded or even understood. You’re left with the odd impression that Fern or women like Fern will be standing there swaying forever, perplexing men, and also with the idea that women like this are probably very easy to understand, if men could make listening more important than conjuring enigmas of hurt and beautiful women. Toomer’s style is often odd, his prose is full of unapologetic lyricism, sensuality, and even now, when I read him, I want to sway, sway, like a cornflower, want to be lost in the sound of the South, this bewitching, complex place, so packed full of pain and beauty. 
The more I learned about Toomer himself, the more fascinated I became, about the mixed race heritage that he seemed to deny, at why he was never quite the cream of the Harlem Renaissance crop like Zora Neale Hurston and Baldwin, at why he remained that confounding thing, a ‘writer’s writer’, which is to say, not commercially successful. Some reports suggest his eventual spiritual conversion gave him insurmountable writer’s block. I think every word of his anti-narrative prose was a gift, and that Toomer was doing something with language that no other black writer then or since has quite accomplished. It’s not just the surrealism, or the beauty, or the pain. He gave no fucks, and every part of my learning, rebel-self responded viscerally. 

First published in Cane, Boni and Liveright, 1923. Read the story online here

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