Get out the microscope, because we’re going through this poem line-by-line.
Lips—old scars, or the first red blisters
- Let's recap, shall we? We've had a person's hair compared to a lyncher's rope, and their eyes compared to lethal fire. Now, this person's lips are being compared to scars and blisters—like those that might occur from violent acts like a lynching, or even a whipping (another common occurrence in the antebellum South). Many former slaves carried these scars on their backs, even after the war.
- This is starting to sound suspiciously like a blazon, which is a form of poetry that lists and heaps praise on the attributes of a woman. Hmm. That would mean that this poem is describing a woman, using the imagery of a lynching.
- Yikes. That's quite the combo. And if our working theory holds water, we're betting some interesting moments lie ahead.
Breath—the last sweet scent of cane,
- Time to sing the praises of another attribute. Here, Toomer suggests that this person of whom he's making a portrait (a woman?) has breath like "the last sweet scent of cane."
- That's actually quite the lovely metaphor, don't you think? Quite the change from all that lynching imagery we had in the first few lines.
- Still, the thread continues. After all, sugar cane was commonly grown on slave plantations in the South, and in the worst conditions, too. So we have this woman's breath being compared to a scent that has African American associations that are hard to ignore.
- Plus, Cane is the title of the book in which "Portrait in Georgia" is published. That means when we see it here, it should set off all kinds of thematic alarm bells.
And her slim body, white as the ash
of black flesh after flame.
- A-ha! So it is a woman our speaker has been describing.
- Here we're told that her slim, trim, awesome bod is white. So not only has our speaker been blazoning away at a woman, he's been talking about a white woman this whole time. Bet you didn't see that one coming.
- Toomer tosses a simile our way to describe just how white this woman is. Her skin is like "the ash of black flesh after flame."
- Let's take a step back. Once we read these final lines, we're forced to look at all the other imagery in a whole new light.
- Is it possible that this whole time, the speaker has been describing a woman? And not just any woman either—but a white woman? And not just any white woman—but a beautiful one, to boot? After all, she has been described as "slim," with "sweet" scented breath, red lips, and chestnut hair.
- But how do we reconcile that with the fact that our speaker's descriptions of her are all written in a language that sounds a lot like words you would use to describe a lynched corpse? We've got scars, blisters, and ash.
- Or is this poem entirely about a black woman who is a lynching victim, her flesh turned white from being burned?
- It's also worth noting that many black men were lynched in the South after being accused of interacting with white women in a variety of supposedly inappropriate ways. Is that what's happening here? Is this poem depicting the lynching of a black man for interacting with a white woman?
- To be perfectly honest, there are about a billion ways to put this all together, and Shmoop thinks that's kind of the point. It's hard to know where the black flesh ends and the white flesh begins. The bodies of these two figures are being merged in new and surprising ways that force us to reconsider the racial divides in American history. And Toomer has accomplished all that by merely popping some images down on a page. Dude had skills.
- For more, be sure to mine our "Analysis" sections, which dig deep into the different readings of the poem.