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POET USES SIMPLE IMAGES TO HINT AT COMPLEXITIES

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THE SWEET AND SOUR ANIMAL BOOK, by Langston Hughes, Oxford University Press, $15.95.

Langston Hughes (1902-1967) always made a distinction between poetry and verse, though he knew well that both can be difficult to write. He had a gift for rhyme and meter and the light touch, however, which he exercised throughout his career, and nowhere better than in a 1936 unpublished manuscript discovered among the poet's papers in the Beinecke Rare Book Library at Yale University.That manuscript has been published by Oxford University Press as "The Sweet and Sour Animal Book," an animal ABC of compactness and touching wit.

Hughes's humor tends toward the rueful, as he chronicles in brief poems the fox who never feels at home in a box, the elephant who is as big as a house but is afraid of a mouse, the rabbit whose habit of eating garden plants gets him in trouble with his mother. Nothing as serious as a moral need apply, but Hughes drops subtle clues about the complexity of life and its attendant gratifications and dissatisfactions. For every happy cat purring in a dry sanctuary, there's a Dobbin that has been cast aside and a quail that's fleet on his feet "Till the hunter / Comes gunning / For something to eat!"

The book is lent considerable appeal by its illustrations produced by first-, second- and third-graders at the Harlem School of the Arts. The animals, constructed of wood, cardboard, papier-mache and clay and brightly painted, are enormously clever and charming.

The last animal in the book is the zebra, and it's here that Hughes lays the true but gentle meaning of his enterprise:

Zebra.

Zebra.

Which is right -

White on black -

Or black on white?

It's close to subversive, this sweet and insidious question that insists - despite its interrogatory nature - that the peculiarities of color or light and darkness or even race matter not as much as the complete picture.