Naomi Long Madgett

Naomi Long Madgett

“I was responsible for publishing seventy-six titles, and would you believe it? I think I have counted fifteen poets at this conference who have at least one book published by Lotus Press.”

Photo: C.B. Claiborne, 1994

Writer, editor, teacher, and publisher, Naomi Long Madgett has been the moving force behind Lotus Press, Inc., the leading publisher of distinguished poetry by African Americans. Responsible for the publication of seventy-five titles, she became senior editor of the Lotus Poetry Series of Michigan State University Press in 1993. An award-winning poet in her own right, Madgett has published seven collections of poetry including Pink Ladies in the Afternoon (1972, 1990), Exits and Entrances (1978), Phantom Nightingale: Juvenilia (1981), and Octavia and Other Poems (1988) which was national co-winner of the College Language Association Creative Achievement Award. Black Scholar Magazine gave her the Award of Excellence in 1992, and in 1993 the Hilton-Long Poetry Foundation offered its first annual Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award for excellence in a manuscript by an African American poet. Madgett’s poems have been included in well over one hundred anthologies in this country and abroad and have been translated into several languages. Madgett was named Detroit Poet Laureate in 2001, and was the recipient of multiple awards, such as the Michigan Artist Award, an American Book Award from the Before Columbus Foundation, a George Kent Award, and recognition in the Michigan Women’s Hall of Fame. In 2012, David B. Schock released the documentary film Star by Star: Naomi Long Madgett, Poet & Publisher.

Reluctant Light

Mother, I didn’t mean to slight you but
it wasn’t you that I adored. 
You hid your energy in shadows 
and I was dazzled by the sun. 

I idolized the one whose voice soared to prophetic heights, 
whose words rejuvenated epics of the ages. Some fine June Sundays, 
slender and magnificent in morning coat, he would electrify the pulpit 
with eloquent pronouncements of doom and glory so divine 
the very gates of heaven seemed to part, bathing the atmosphere in crystal light. 
Seeking his favor, I rehearsed raising my hand like his in benediction, 
earning the childhood name of Preacher, shortened in time to Prete. 

You gave us daily sustenance but there was never 
a choir’s fanfare or the soulbeat of the mighty to grant applause. 
You baked the bread for which we seldom thanked you, 
canned pears for winter and mended Depression-weary clothes, 
scrubbing sheets on a washboard, humming hymns to lift your sagging spirit, 
and cultivating beauty in endless flower pots. 
The summer when he toured the streets of ancient Palestine and Rome, 
you consoled yourself by painting pictures of the Appian Way 
using the kitchen table for an easel. 
You coached me with my homework, rejoiced 
in my small triumphs and prepared me to confront the enemy, 
tapping your umbrella against my fifth grade teacher’s desk 
to punctuate your firm demand for justice. I didn’t recognize 
your subtle power that led me through blind, airless caves, 
your quiet elegance that taught me dignity – nor could I know 
the wind that bore him high into the sunlight 
emanated from your breath. I didn’t want your journey, 
rebelled against your sober ways. 

But I have walked through my own shadows and, like you, 
transcended glitter. I have learned 
that I am source and substance of a different kind of light. 

Now when they say I look like you and tell me 
that I have deepened to your wisdom, softened 
to your easy grace, I claim my place with honor 
in that court of dusky queens whose strength and beauty 
invented suns that others only borrow. And Mother, 
I am glad to be your child. 


I hardly remember my mother's face now, 
But I still feel 
At my bosom a chill'd wind 
Stirring strange longings for the sturdy back 
I used to lean against for warmth and comfort 
when I had grown too tall to ride.

And I am blinded by 
The glint of sunlight 
Striking golden fire from the flint 
Of seafoamed rocks below me 
On some island not too far from home.

After that, the only light I saw 
Was a few wayward chinks of day 
That somehow slanted into the airless tomb 
Where chains confined me motionless to a dank wall.

Then the sun died and time went out completely.
In that new putrid helltrap of the dead 
And dying, the stench 
Of vomit, sweat, and feces 
Mingled with the queasy motion 
Of the ship until my senses failed me. . . .

I do not know how many weeks or months 
I neither thought nor felt, but I awoke 
One night – or day, perhaps – 
Revived by consciousness of sound. 
I heard 
The pounding of the waves against the shipside 
And made believe its rhythm

Was the speech of tribal drums 
Summoning in acute need the spirit 
Of my ancestors. I dreamed I saw 
Their carven images arrayed 
In ceremonial austerity. I thought I heard 
Their voices thundering an answer 
To my supplication: "Hold fast, 
Sur/vive sur/vive sur/vive!"

Once more the sunlight came, but not the same 
As I remembered it. 
Now it sat silver-cold 
Upon the indifferent New England coast. 
Still It was good to see the sun at all. 
And it was something 
To find myself the bright dark mascot 
Of a blind but well-intentioned host – 
A toy, a curiosity, a child 
Taking delight in anyone's attention 
After so long a death.

As I grew older, it was not enough. 
The native lifesong once against burst free, 
Spilled over sands of my acquired rituals – 
Urged me to match the tribal rhythms 
That had so long sustained me, that must 
sustain me still. I learned to sing 
A dual song:

My fathers will forgive me if I lie 
For they instructed me to live, not die. 
"Grief cannot compensate for what is lost," 
They told me. "Win, and never mind the cost. 
Show to the world the face the world would see: 
Be slave, be pet, conceal your Self – but be."

Lurking behind the docile Christian lamb,
Unconquered lioness asserts: "I am!"