On 19 January 1991, three months before his 60th birthday, a group of American and international poets gathered at the American Cabaret Theater in Indianapolis to celebrate Etheridge Knight’s life and art. But Knight was ailing physically: cancer was ravaging his lungs and he had not fully healed serious injuries from a hit and run accident in late 1988. For all in attendance that evening, the party must have also felt funereal. He didn’t make 60; we lost Etheridge on 10 March 1991.
The Lost Etheridge: Uncollected Poems of Etheridge Knight is a welcome reanimation of the poet’s voice. During his lifetime, Knight published five poetry books: Poems From Prison (1968); Black Voices From Prison [an anthology] (1970); Belly Song & Other Poems (1973); Born of a Woman: New and Selected Poems (1981); and The Essential Etheridge Knight (1986). Since his death, Knight’s legend and literary influence have grown, but his catalog has not.
Norman Minnick, the book’s editor, has filled that lack by combing through archival material at three different universities, locating out-of-print books and literary periodicals, and collecting this cache of Knight’s unpublished and uncollected poems. He founded the new collection on selected poems from each of Knight’s three individually-authored books, thus establishing the poet’s central sound and vision. These title-driven sections are prefaced with dated sequences of “Unpublished Poems”: 1964-1968; 1968-1981; 1982-1991. There are also divisions for “Unpublished Poems (Dates Unknown),” “Uncollected Poems,” and a clutch of Knight’s prose pieces. This arrangement offers a portrait of the poet in process and progress, and presents “the full thrust of [Knight’s] intellect and wit,” as Yusef Komunyakaa writes in the Foreword.
Minnick’s recovery and publication of these lost works suggest that an annotated edition of Knight’s complete works is a necessary next step. Though accessible and intelligent, Modupe Labode’s brief, closing biographical essay and Komunyakaa’s short, anecdotal introduction, left me wanting more textual criticism and more contextualizing literary history to help me understand Knight’s prowess and achievement. Perhaps rereading Komunyakaa’s stronger, more detailed essay on Knight, “Tough Eloquence,” sparked my desire. There, he argues that Knight’s “duty-bound” willingness “to take chances,” informed his ability to present “the profane alongside the sacred.” Knight did so while maintaining “tonal congruity and imagistic exactitude,” a major accomplishment of lyric technique.
Notice how frequently Knight turns to the haiku or other short, invented, fragmentary forms in order to exercise and hone this element of his aesthetic. For example, “Three Haiku,” a late uncollected poem, is a powerful display of Knight’s (born in Mississippi and raised in Tennessee during the 1930s and 40s) tender and tough blues poetics. As Richard Wright, another Mississippian-cum-Midwesterner, found late in his writing life, the haiku’s formal constraints may have been the best harness for Knight’s poetic genius.
A favorite of mine, “Indiana Haiku-2” (from Born of a Woman, though not reprinted in The Lost Ethridge), expresses many of Knight’s best qualities. Across the poem’s five scenes, Knight’s efficient lineation delivers distinct visual field, specific action, effective summation, and elliptical endings. Take, for example, “Vigo County,” the delicate, startling opening vista: “Beyond the brown hill / Above the silent cedars, / Blackbirds flee April rains.” However, two scenes later, in “Crown Hill Cemetery, Indianapolis,” that arrested, sibilant quietude is disrupted by the humbling hiss of a stray dog’s seeming critique: “A black and white dog / sniffs gravestone to gravestone; / Pees on Hoosier Poet.” Knight’s humor here mocks “Vigo County”’s pristine, nearly clichéd, “poemness.” He is also self-mocking and prophetic. The dog seems to be searching for the lost, interred Etheridge, specifically to release his evaluation. But The Lost Ethridge illustrates that we ought to rain laurels on this “Hoosier Poet” not disdain.
Closing his Preface to Born of a Woman (included here in the “Prose” section), Knight writes, “my poems are about / or for people . . . I see The Art of Poetry as logos (‘In the beginning was the WORD’) as TRINITY: The Poet, The Poem, and The People. When they come together, the communion, the communication, the Art happens.”
When I attended Vigo County public schools (1977-1990), Knight’s poetry wasn’t part of my education. I wish it had been: his poems would have thrust my younger self into the mysteries of the word and out of the frequently burdensome experience of being a black kid in white spaces. I would have seen myself there, on that brown hill, above the cedars, in flight. That’s the communion I seek sometimes when I bike the two miles from my house to Knight’s headstone, Crown Hill, section 62, lot 173. As the final poem in The Lost Ethridge, “The Dance,” encourages, I go there, to praise Knight in the voices of all “ . . . the Singers / Below, above, / And within me.”
 The Lost Etheridge: Uncollected Poems of Etheridge Knight (2022), xx
 Clytus, Radiclani (editor) and Komunyakaa, Yusef. Blue Notes: Essays, Interviews, and Commentaries. University of Michigan Press, 2000, 16.
 The Essential Etheridge Knight, 37
 Ibid., 37
 The Lost Etheridge: Uncollected Poems of Etheridge Knight (2022), 242
 Ibid., 237
Walton Muyumba is a writer and critic. Muyumba is the author of The Shadow and the Act: Black Intellectual Practice, Jazz Improvisation, and Philosophical Pragmatism (University of Chicago Press). His writing has appeared in The Atlantic, The Believer, The Boston Globe, The Los Angeles Review of Books, The New York Times Book Review, The New Republic, Oxford American, and among other outlets. He sat on the National Book Critics Circle’s Board of Directors, 2014-2020. He holds the Susan D. Gubar Chair and is an Associate Professor in the Department of English at Indiana University-Bloomington.
Norman “Buzz” Minnick came of age in the 1980’s punk scene of Louisville, Kentucky, and was the frontman for the influential hardcore band, Bush League. His collections of poetry are To Taste the Water (winner of the First Series Award from Mid-List Press), Folly (Wind Publications), and a chapbook of poems entitled Advice for a Young Poet (David Robert Books). Minnick is the editor of Between Water and Song: New Poets for the Twenty-First Century (White Pine Press) as well as Jim Watt’s landmark study of William Blake, Work Toward Knowing: Beginning with Blake (Kinchafoonee Creek Press), The Indianapolis Anthology (Belt Publications), and The Lost Etheridge: Uncollected Poems of Etheridge Knight (Kinchafoonee Creek Press). Minnick lives in Indianapolis.
Monthly reviews of books written by Indiana authors are made possible by the Eugene and Marilyn Glick Indiana Authors Awards and Indiana Humanities. Opinions expressed in this review are solely those of the reviewer, not any affiliated entity.