Saturday, April 15, 2006


When Lauri Ramey and I began work on the book EVERY GOODBYE AIN’T GONE: AN ANTHOLOGY OF INNOVATIVE POETRY BY AFRICAN AMERICANS, one of the poets I hoped we would be able to locate was Helen Quigless. I had never seen a reading by Quigless, but for years I carried around with me the memory of seeing her poetry in such volumes as FOR MALCOLM, NEW BLACK POETRY and BLACK SOUTHERN VOICES. In particular, I recalled her poem Concert,” which begins:

This garden too pleasant
the moon too near pools
of water avoid

Reflecting smooth sketches
of “Spain” in man’s desires.

I knew that she had studied with both Robert Hayden and John Oliver Killens, but I knew virtually nothing else about her. I made inquiries with poetry friends around the country, posted messages, contacted the publishers of anthologies in which she had appeared, but nobody could tell me how to find her.

When the second volume of David Levering Lewis’s biography of W.E.B. DuBois came out, I sat down to read it, starting with the acknowledgments, as is my way. (I read everything; only wish I could remember everything.) There in the very long list of names appeared “Helen Quigless.” I thought the odds were against there being more than two people with that name in the literary world at the same time, and so emailed Dr. Lewis to ask about her. Turned out they were friends, and he had an address. I mailed off a letter, and the permission to reprint “Concert” came back quickly, though with a note added beneath Ms. Quigless’s signature telling me that she was suffering badly from cataracts. The person who added that note also wrote that Helen was excited to hear from us and looked forward to seeing her poem restored to print.

Any of you who have worked on projects like ours know how long they can take to get out, but this past February, our collection finally appeared from the University of Alabama Press. I dutifully sent off contributors’ copies to all of our poets accompanied by notes telling them how honored we were to have their work in the volume.

A week later I found a voice message on my office phone from Carol Quigless, who turns out to be Helen’s sister. Carol brought me the painful news that Helen had died just a few months earlier after a life-long struggle with rheumatoid arthritis. Never having known anything of Helen Quigless apart from her poems, I asked Carol how her sister had lived her life. Carol explained to me that after completing Library Science school in Atlanta, Helen had gone to work in Washington, D.C. at the Federal City College. Not quite believing my ears, I asked what years Helen had worked there. It turns out that I had known Helen after all, without knowing that she was the poet I had been reading. For three years, the library room in the temporary building that housed the English department (along with history, languages and others) had been my main hangout. It was a comfortable place to rest (the Metro was just nearing completion and I usually walked from around 18th & Florida across town to our school) and to read books. I have good memories of the friendly woman who often greeted me as I entered, who I now know was Helen Quigless.

Carol also told me that Helen had been interested in a professor in the history department who had done work on Haiti. Barely able to control myself, I asked if it could possibly be C.L.R. James. Not only was it James, but, Carol informed me, Helen had made some reel-to-reel recordings of James teaching and giving talks, and she had left instructions in her will that these recordings be given to the University of the District of Columbia. Carol had just finished packing the tapes off to DC when Helen’s copy of our book came in.

As a student in my twenties, I had sat in that comfortable room off E St. reading a poem in NEW BLACK POETRY, which had been assigned in my class, never knowing that the smiling woman working just a few feet away to build a collection of books and study materials for the benefit of people like me was the poet whose work I read. Now, decades later, we are able to reproduce her work for others to read. What goes around just keeps on going . . .

Here’s the link to Helen’s obituary in THE DAILY SOUTHERNER.

No comments: