‘Fern’ by Jean Toomer

Fern by Jean Toomer, 1923

The magic trick:

Using passive, complicated sentences that often require multiple readings

Another vignette from Cane, this one is rich. Very, very rich. The plot and the ideas are interesting. A black man from the north visits Georgia and woos a local woman. There’s a lot there to unpack. But it’s the way Toomer unpacks those topics that is so fascinating. The sentences are very comfortable in their complication. They twist and turn in different directions. Some are active. But most are passive, starting with odd phrases that almost back into the sentence’s message. It’s not a quick read, as a result. Often, you will find yourself rereading a sentence a couple of times – first for comprehension and then for the enjoyment of it. And that’s quite a trick on Toomer’s part.

The selection:

Her eyes, if it were sunset, rested idly where the sun, molten and glorious, was pouring down between the fringe of pines. Or maybe they gazed at the gray cabin on the knoll from which an evening folk-song was coming. Perhaps they followed a cow that had been turned loose to roam and feed on cotton-stalks and corn leaves. Like as not they’d settle on some vague spot above the horizon, though hardly a trace of wistfulness would come to them. If it were dusk, then they’d wait for the search-light of the evening training which you could see miles up the track before it flared across the Dixie Pike, close to her home. Whereever they looked, you’d follow them and then waver back. Like her face, the whole countryside seemed to flow into her eyes. Flowed into them with the soft listless cadence of Georgia’s South.


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