As a reviewer unfamiliar with the work and life of African-American artist Horace H. Pippin (1888-1946), I have to admit, a sense of apprehension when approaching this third poetry collection by Janice Harrington. (Brief fear list: ignorance of art/cultural history, missing critical biographical information, misinterpreting allusions to the poet’s experience, general ignorance, etc..) But I was intrigued to learn about Pippin, who has been marked as one of America’s most esteemed African-American painters, albeit one of a naive, or “primitive”, style. And, I was curious as to what Janice Harrington’s approach would be — an initial conjecture was that the title and opening epigraphs hinted at an exploration and potential challenge of the labels historically attached to Pippin’s art.

In brief, Pippin was a self-taught artist (with the exception of a brief stint of classes at The Barnes Foundation) who worked around a significant arm injury acquired in WWI to become a celebrated painter of his day. His paintings depict memories of his childhood, war experiences, and religious material, with subtle, but definite, commentary on slavery and segregation, the experiences from which he was born. His portraits and landscapes, while seemingly simply stylized, contain dramatic heft in their arrangement and tonal and textural choices.

Harrington shares these base facts within the framework of carefully chosen epigraphs at the forefront of each section. In the opening poem, she presents an internal, initial ambivalence towards acceptance of preconceived monikers, and from there the collection steps forward into an ekphrastic conversation concerning both Pippin’s life and artwork, as well as challenging the broader social consequences of such labels and conformity. From Picture of the Poet and Horace H. Pippin Before the Perigree:

I see my shadow on the sidewalk, the night shadow
of a night-colored woman, and remember his words:

We went to bed in the dark
and got out in the dark only the moon showing.

At Meuse-Argonne,
before fields of black mud, he looked at the stars.
In darkness always the same question,
how to sway darkness?

The collection proceeds to lyrically and delicately posit the idea that Pippin was in truth, quite adept at expressing his specific emotional experience and confronting the social injustices faced by Blacks: his ostensibly uncomplicated presentations are in actuality layered with religious and historical symbols and allusions. Harrington presents her argument through a descriptive investigation of many of Pippin’s individual pieces, as well as pointing out his repetitive use of specific items/people/places, such as the doily or the Birmingham Meeting House.

As a whole, Primitive moves through a necessary contemplation of Pippin’s personal and professional experiences as a man of color navigating white-instituted rules and norms. This contemplation can be seen as being motivated by an evolution in the greater societal conversation of race, as well as by the author’s (Harrington’s) own experiences and questions. Effectively, Harrington has created a meeting between one of the great African-American painters of the past, with the current conversation about race within American history. While the collection follows a timeline of sorts, it does roam into the abstract, allowing the reader room for imagination and ultimately searching for answers