April 30, 2021

By Crosby Kemper

Alvin Sykes and Crosby Kemper
Photo courtesy of the Kansas City Library. Alvin Sykes (left) and Crosby Kemper review a text at the Kansas City Public Library.

Editor’s Note: In honor of National Poetry Month and friends and loved ones, IMLS Director Crosby Kemper gives flight to thoughts, memories, and a few poems that can comfort us in times of loss.

Love and inspiration are the gifts of poetry. They can limn our loves, our beloved, but become objects of love themselves. They can comfort us in our losses and become remembrances of and places to find those we have loved and lost.

My friend Alvin Sykes was buried at the beginning of April. He was one those people to whom you are attached—not because they are great people, though Alvin was great—but because their goodness shines, and is what makes them great.

Alvin was a man educated in the library, who turned that learning into a lifelong dedication to justice. I had the honor of hosting him at the Kansas City Public Library when I was the director there, and witnessed how the power of poetry—specifically, his poem “Love”—helped sway hearts and minds. Alvin’s writing and advocacy contributed significantly to the passage of the Emmett Till Unsolved Civil Rights Crime Act, which created the cold case section of the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department.

Alvin had a deep and musical soul. In his honor, I offer Langston Hughes’ great poem.

The Negro Speaks of Rivers

I’ve known rivers:
I’ve known rivers ancient as the world and older than the flow of human blood in human veins.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

I bathed in the Euphrates when dawns were young.
I built my hut near the Congo and it lulled me to sleep.
I looked upon the Nile and raised the pyramids above it.
I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset.

I’ve known rivers:
Ancient, dusky rivers.

My soul has grown deep like the rivers.

Alvin Sykes
Alvin Sykes at the Kansas City Public Library

Just as I was saying goodbye to my longtime friend, my stepson Ben died at the all too young age of 39. He lived with his mother Deborah and me. In the last months, he was searching for the meaning of his Jewish faith, which in the confusion and pain of his last few years, seemed a source of direction, of solace, of rich meaning for him. So, I offer in his memory this poem of the great medieval poet, mystic, and philosopher Judah Halevi, as translated by Peter Cole:

True Life

I run to the source of the one true life
Turning my back to all that is empty and vain.
My only hope is to see the Lord, my King---
   Apart from him I fear and worship nothing.

If only I might see him—at least in a dream—
I’d sleep forever, so the dream would never end.
If I could see His face in my heart’s chamber,
   I’d never need to look outside again.

I hope these two poems offer beauty and comfort to you as they do to me. And may you find solace in the words of poets who speak to you during times of stress and uncertainty.

Crosby Kemper

About the Author
Crosby Kemper is the sixth director of the Institute of Museum and Library Services. He was commissioned by the White House on January 24, 2020, following his confirmation by the United States Senate.