James DePreist’s Precipice Garden

by Elouise

I’m looking at This Precipice Garden, a slim volume of 42 poems written by James DePreist. One of my friends gave it to me in 1988. I’d never heard of DePreist.

James DePreist was African-American. Born in Philadelphia on November 21, 1936. Nephew of Marian Anderson, also a Philadelphian and role model for young black musicians. When he died in 2013 he was 76 years old.

DePreist’s life was shaped by two realities: music and polio.  DePreist was already internationally known as an outstanding orchestra conductor when, in 1962, polio left him with both legs paralyzed. For more about DePreist and his aunt, Marian Anderson, click here and here.

In the 1990s I watched DePreist conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, seated in his motorized wheelchair. A presence to be reckoned with. Confident, not flashy. Doing what brought him deep satisfaction. Making musical magic happen. Just the way it happens in his poetry.

DePreist published two volumes of poetry. In his first volume, the one I was given, he explores his inner life.

The reader can follow in slow motion and see how the self proceeds along a tangled path. There are half-choices, retreats, the acceptance of shadows. Doubt is part of the process; self-questioning is constant; any assertion is a giving up of glimpsed alternatives.

From William Stafford’s comments in This Precipice Garden, published by the University of Portland Press in 1986

This Precipice Garden has three parts or movements:

Constructs of Happenstance
Joy’s Ephemeral Core
A Conspiracy of Dreams

Here is DePreist’s first poem in Part One (p. 3). His placement of words on lines and even across pages, sometimes hanging in space, is deliberate. A way of containing and communicating more than prose or poems in neatly arranged lines are able to say.

The night is brighter
than the day;
by an inner light
I glimpse a world more brilliant
than any sun
and travel paths
which day erases.

Here’s the poem that catches my attention right now, three short poems later (p. 6).

I’ve been weakened by the walls I’ve built,
of strength-drenched testing,
protected into an unprepared defense
of self.
Failing in my futile fortress to see
contentment’s numbing trap
must battle the questions now breeching
my barricades.

My outer life looks nothing like James DePreist’s. I share love of music, and have a connection with polio because of my sister Diane, and Mom. Beyond that, I’m a white woman. Brought up on the West Coast and in the Deep South. Preacher’s kid. Theologian, educator, mother, wife. And so much more. Worlds apart from James DePreist.

Maybe. Maybe not. As this human being, this white woman “numbed by the trap of contentment,” I resonate with this poem. I’m inspired by his internal struggle throughout the collection. I also love the musical quality of his poetry. But I’m drawn to the music of his poetry by more than this.

DePreist tells the truth about himself, in carefully chosen words and images. He gives us access to inner dialogue that isn’t publicly displayed or easily known, yet is often misunderstood or misrepresented. He shows us how he struggles over time with questions for which he has no ready answers.

I identify with DePreist’s approach and his questions. His interior journey “along a tangled path” gives me hope, and inspires me. He’s a member of my ‘great cloud of witnesses,’ people now gone who cheer me on and hold me accountable for what I’ve received.

© Elouise Renich Fraser, 22 February 2015