The Complete Poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, by Paul Lawrence Dunbar
Encased in a sturdy and stylish paperback, The Complete Poems of Paul Lawrence Dunbar, by Paul Lawrence Dunbar, exhibit Mint Editions handling of an early African American poet. Dunbar (1872 – 1906) lived a brief life, “published his first collection of poems as a teenager. While working as an elevator operator, Dunbar released and personally distributed his works to earn extra money.” He died “at age 33 due to tuberculosis.” Like Rimbaud, his life was like a comet, briefly shining before being prematurely extinguished.
Complete Poems has many, many poems. These include the collections Lyrics of Lowly Life, Lyrics of the Hearthside, Humour and Dialect, Lyrics of Love and Laughter, Lyrics of Sunshine and Shadow, and ending with “Miscellaneous.” What Dunbar managed to do involved capturing his unique human experience and expressing it in several different voices. A good poet has a specific “voice.” An Allen Ginsberg poem sounds like an Allen Ginsberg poem. The same goes for poetry by Walt Whitman, Hart Crane, Algernon Swinburne, Charles Baudelaire, and many others. Other poets are multivocal, containing multitudes. Ezra Pound immediately comes to mind, with his poems and translations of Chinese poets, Provencal troubadours, and Old English seafarers. Dunbar’s poems contain many voices, from the lowly vernacular to the high-toned classical mythology.
In “If” he speaks of:
A barren, barren world were this
Without one saving gleam;
I’d only ask that with a kiss
You’d wake from the dream.
In contrast to this stately quatrain, he writes poetry in the African American dialect. They can be humorous and depict plantation life. Born in 1872, the Civil War and slavery would be fresh in the minds of recenly freed blacks. He would come of age as the Reconstruction Era fizzled and failed against Southern legislative obstructionism, terrorism, and lynch mob rule. Dunbar chronicled this life in his poetry.
An example of his “dialect poems” is “Temptation”:
I done shuk my fis’ at Satan, an’ I ’s gin de worl’ my back;
I do’ want no hendrin’ causes now a-both’rin’ my track;
Fu’ I ’s on my way to glory, an’ I feels too sho’ to miss.
Wy, dey ain’t no use in sinnin’ when ‘uligion ’s sweet ez dis.
It seems a bit strange on the page, but Dunbar’s poetry was meant to spoken. When said aloud, the dialect shines through. The unfamiliar can become familiar. Complete Poems has numerous poems written in dialect as well as many others in more refined registers. The collection provides an embarrassment of riches.
What makes Mint Editions different is that “books are only printed when a reader orders them, so natural resources are not wasted. […] [N]ever manufactured in excess and exist only in the exact quantity they need to be read and enjoyed.” Because of the present environmental crisis instigated by human activity, some companies have doubled down in the bad old ways while others have innovated. Innovation is always a risk, but Mint Editions have found a way to exploit the opportunities previous used by “print-on-demand” technology. Still used by self-published authors, print-on-demand usually showed its low-budget roots. The books, even by authors with the best intentions, remained cheap looking.
Judging a book by its cover is a cliché, but also very true. The consumer’s first impressions are everything. But this reviewer was impressed by Mint Edition’s production of Complete Poems. It managed to enact business practices which positively benefit the environment and look good doing it. Complete Poems is the full package: slick design, forward thinking business model, and wonderful poetry. My only quibble, albeit minor, is that the volume had a more in-depth introduction. The present volume has a paragraph of author biography. It seems scant, given Dunbar’s considerable output.