Back to Blog
Patrick S. Lawrence's essay looks deeply into one African American poetic landscape of contigency, alienation, and American re-animation: Little critical work has been done on Nathaniel Mackey’s Splay Anthem (2006), a collection of installments of his two serial poems Song of the Andoumboulou and “Mu”. However, because other sections of the two poems have appeared over the past several years in venues such as Callaloo, African American Review, Chicago Review, and The Nation, there is a body of critical writing on the ongoing concerns of the portions of the poems appearing outside the collection that can shed light on how they are worked out in Splay Anthem, which won Mackey the 2006 National Book Award for poetry. As Mackey has continued to explore certain themes throughout the life of the poems, we gain added value from returning to this prize-winning collection and re-assessing the poems’ significance in a changing world. Though Song and “Mu” were begun in the later part of the twentieth century, they take on new meaning in the context of the events that have occurred contemporaneously with their continued publication. Thus, a more complete focus on the poems and their Modernist/Postmodernist techniques can shed light on the developing relationship between experimentation and politics, a relationship that has been fraught since the 1960s at least. Splay Anthem’s indirect political project acknowledges that the work of striving for equality and community is ever-incomplete, but provides a tentative foundation for this effort.
Splay Anthem is a weave of several themes and recurrent experimental forms. Jarring enjambment causes lines to read both with those that came before and those that follow with ambiguity, while often refusing to signify concretely. This is in keeping with the effect of the variations-on-a-theme style of polysemy used throughout the poems, in which words are exploited for their double (or multiple) meanings, often with plural meanings suspended simultaneously, refusing to resolve in clear reference. Mackey’s use of the word rung, for example, signifies simultaneously both the past tense of to ring and the lateral cross-pieces of a ladder. Additionally, words often appear in alienated forms, used repeatedly with slight changes to spelling but retaining just an echo of their other forms. The themes that emerge amid this weave are complex and epic, following an incomplete but continuously striving humanity as it searches for a communal, global identity. This process is difficult and often painful. It is evinced by Mackey in his preface, where he explains what he means when he uses the word Andoumboulou:
The song of the Andoumboulou is one of striving, strain, abrasion, an all but asthmatic song of aspiration. Lost ground, lost twinness, lost union and other losses variably inflect that aspiration, a wish, among others, to be we, … that of some larger collectivity an anthem would celebrate. (2006, xi)
To read the entire essay and the rest of the collection get A Sense of Regard: essays on poetry and race
Back to Blog
Excerpt of his essay: The accepted contemporary subtexts of American literary whiteness include the whole long shadow of American racial injustice, first, of slavery, and secondly, of ongoing economic and social inequality—haunting realities. We stand indefinitely, and anxiously, in their shadows.
Another part of the shadow is ongoing white privilege, and the natural instinct to retain advantage. Take myself as an example. On the one hand, I'll acknowledge my privilege readily; on the other hand, I hope not to be inconvenienced. Secretly too, my ego will privately continue to believe that whatever success I have experienced has been legitimate, is appropriate, and has been earned by my individual talent and hard work.
These are called subtexts for a reason; I will never say this openly, because of the hazard that accompanies frank expression in the public forum on the topic of race. The topic itself, everyone knows, has become the territorial property of persons of color. Thus, the frank, exploratory, spontaneous speech that our shared reality requires can easily end in blame or disgrace. Thus I won't ever disagree, openly, with the consensual liberal parameters of the racial conversation. I will be a yes-person. Occasionally, in a marginal way, among my liberal white friends, I will ironically acknowledge that the machinery of affirmative action is at work in the cultureplace. This calculation of equity (counting heads) is the price of repairing history. I consent to the machinery, and, though I would personally prefer not to pay the disadvantageous price of it—oh well, it's not about me.
My main public obligation is to appear unconflicted. Whether I feel good about it or not, to be conflicted about race would, in itself, be an admission of confusion about these labyrinthine American matters. Confusion is suspect.
The gap between these two unconscious positions—the position of historical plaintiff, played that evening by Alexander, and the position of uneasy, but secure self-righteous possessors of privilege, played by myself—is substantial, and, so far, mostly unbridged. Both positions seem a little petrified or fossilized. Our consensual silence—the particular silence of white liberals—on the subject of race is, paradoxically, ultimately an obstacle to acknowledging the present and moving into the future. It's not hard to see that we—both white and black poets—are still breathing through straws.
Brothers and sisters—am I allowed to say that?—we are haunted. One question is: can a conscious poetry help bridge it?
To read Tony's essay and his answer to that question, and to read all the others, you can get the anthology here.
Back to Blog
Ailish Hopper’s “The Gentle Art of Making Enemies” considers the destabilizing, re-assembling and re-visioning of race through poetry, and the gestures, strategies, and maneuvers of many poets currently working in this vein. Read a couple of excerpts of her well researched essay:
Challenge the codes [regarding race] and you will be punished by their enforcers---who may be black or white. This protective border serves what James C. Scott calls the “public transcript,” which justifies and prosecutes its “rules” that are by nature hidden. They can only be expressed in codes, euphemisms, and other forms of disguise, which appear as simply agreed-upon, unanimous. Meanwhile there exists a “hidden transcript,” the things that are said away from the gaze of the racial codes and their enforcers. (1990, 45) As in the rest of the world’s activities, poetry, publishing, and criticism numbingly and brutally reflect this dynamic, what Marcel Cornis-Pope calls, “narratives of containment” (2001, xii).
[A]nger, is equally distorted across the racial spectrum. For white poets, for instance, pain is only visible in its neurotic forms, e.g., “white guilt,” which is merely another version of white refusal. Real accountability, naming the stage and the script we all stand on and speak from, is thus an important rupture. Martha Collins acknowledges that: “…a few years after Brown/ v. Board of Education [she] wrote a paper/ that took the position Yes But not yet,” not adding a narrative of remedy, despair, or even hope (2011, 1). She simply opens this closed space in history and lets stand her naked complicity. This poetics is thus a cold shower not only on history, but on our readerly desire to be soothed or to find sympathetic understanding.
Rewriting aims to disrupt what Brecht called a “hypnosis” between that can happen between poem and reader, if it is based on stable, but false, notions of our own, and others’, identities. (1961, 12) Inside this hypnosis, all manner of racial codes can safely be transmitted, with the reader unaware. This disruption, since language is so complicit, too, is well assisted by visual language or actual images. Claudia Rankine, in Don’t Let Me be Lonely, pairs a poem with an illustration by John Lucas that makes material the social internalization of “toxic” racialization:
TO READ THE FULL ESSAY AND ALL OF THE OTHER, YOU CAN GET THE ANTHOLOGY HERE
Back to Blog
Tess Taylor, herself a descendent of Thomas Jefferson, examines, in a bright and thoughtful essay, poetry that addresses racialization from a white perspective. Snippet: How might writers who have been discouraged or even disinvited from thinking about their racial experiences as racial begin to read and write those experiences? Which instincts towards silence or omission would such a writer have to overcome? What is at stake in naming spaces where race, racialization, and racism occur in white lives? If whiteness is partially maintained by strategies of not-saying, not-knowing, self-normalizing, what does it mean to craft art in which whiteness can be destabilized? In short, how does a subject take responsibility for moving from whiteness to witness?
Three contemporary poets—Jake Adam York, Rachel Richardson, and Martha Collins—have been remarkably successful at giving aesthetic form to these questions as they struggle to name and claim some of the paradoxes of inheriting white experience. How does each work against the “fog” that Morrison describes? How does each deploy, reveal, and break racial codes? How does each position the expression of racial knowledge, especially racial knowledge white writers have often failed to acknowledge or reveal? It’s worth noting that merely examining and naming the white body as white is historically itself a charged act. Melville’s Ishmael—the ultimate anonymous narrator—has historically been presumed white simply because he occupies the space of voyeur-reporter describing (other) racially marked bodies. In contrast, Collins, York and Richardson self-examine and self-mark. They call attention to their own bodies, stories, and speech, attempting to read the uneasy codes that converge upon them. In doing so, each tries to make the occluding cloud somewhat less blinding—and to show a way through it.
Back to Blog
Vox Populi: a public sphere for politics and poetry has posted my essay about a pair of old army pants, "Things That have Lived and Then Died". It's part of a larger project about thrift stores, clothing, class, intimacy, boundaries between people, and the Jersey Shore called My Life in Other People's Clothes.
Here's a snippet:
That’s when I noticed the army pants. Thick green military wool. Clearly from one of the World Wars. I think American, but am not sure. It is something another person might research, compare linings, style and construction, stitching, but it isn’t the history or collectability that drew me to the pants.
The wool was scratchy and rough against my palm.
“Where did you get these,” I asked Molly.
She nodded for me to pick them up. In my hands, they unrolled to the ground, the cuff near my ankle. The man who’d worn these couldn’t have been much taller than me.
“You can have them,” she said.
It hadn’t occurred to me, but now I held them against my pelvis, the high waist against my belly, the button fly. “These are great,” I said. “Thank you.”
“They look like they should fit.”
I mumbled agreement. Something about the pants moved me.
It wouldn’t be until later at home when I slipped my legs inside them that I felt my body slipping inside someone else’s, as if their bones and flesh were still present, and I was pulling them on over my own.
When I buttoned the fly, and felt my hip bones settle in their sockets, a widening out happened, against what I normally feel, which is that I always want to make my hips appear as slender as I can. Instead, they seemed full and wide and supportive, and I felt as if my legs under me didn’t end in pretty feet or delicate ankles (which I don’t have, but always wish for), but somehow felt solid and competent and able to march far distances.
This is not what I mean, really. Not that I imagined being a soldier, not that I imagined being strong and masculine. Instead, I felt as if time slid sideways, that the boundaries between people and times were somehow porous, and that this rough textile, this made thing that clothed I don’t know how many people before me, was a kind of portal. Many bodies, many times.
I don’t care about the historical accuracy of place and time so much as a caring about a kind of emotional and empathetic residue. I am not the first to wear these pants, but I am likely to the last who will. And I do wear them every winter. And they are very warm indeed.
And check out the rest of Vox Populi magazine, curated by Michael Simms of Autumn House Press.
Back to Blog
Jaswinder Bolina takes on the normative White Male figure and explored the margins around it in this deeply considered essay, “Writing like a White Guy”. Excerpt:
The one thing I least believe about race in America is that we can disregard it. I'm nowhere close to alone in this, but the person I encounter far more often than the racist--closeted or proud--is the one who believes race isn't an active factor in her thinking, isn't an influence on his interaction with the racial Other. Such blindness to race seems unlikely, but I suspect few of us entirely understand why it's so improbable. I'm not certain either, but I've been given some idea. At a panel discussion in 2004, a professor of political philosophy, Caribbean-born with a doctorate from the University of Toronto, explains that he never understood why the question in America is so often a question of race. A scholar of Marxist thinking, he says in nearly every other industrialized nation on Earth, the first question is a question of class, and accordingly class is the first conflict. He says it wasn't until he moved to the United States in the early '70s--about the same time my father arrived--that he intellectually and viscerally understood that America is a place where class historically coincides with race. This, he says, is the heaviest legacy of slavery and segregation.
To read the rest of Jaswinder's essay and all the others, the book can be gotten here:
Back to Blog
In “Writing White”, Martha Collins, known for her own poems exploring whiteness and race, seeks to respond to Major Jackson’s writing on white poets writing about race as well as Claudia Rankine's examination of white poets taking on the topic of race in their work. Excerpt (corrected):
I have realized in the years since I published Blue Front, my life itself has been extremely white. While I was writing that book, I was thinking mostly about my father, who became the imagined or questioned figure through whom I tried to observe the lynching. But at some point I began to consider what all of this had to do with me, a white woman living nearly 100 years later. Then the term “white papers” came into my consciousness and provided a title for what ultimately became a book of numbered but untitled poems that deal with race, particularly the issue of what it means to be white in a multi-racial society still haunted by its deeply racist past. A number of the poems focus on my very white Midwestern childhood; others involve historical explorations of the racial history of several places (all Northern) where I have lived; still others examine the uses we make of the words we so inaccurately call ourselves, particularly “white.” Ten years ago I would have said that I had very little “racial” history. In writing this recent book, I learned a great deal about the history of race, including the history of whiteness, and a great deal about myself. My own experience has become racialized, in a conscious way, and whether that awareness is apparent in my poems or not, it has changed the way I live my life and see the world.
To read the full essay and all the rest, purchase it here.
Back to Blog
Major Jackson’s essay on race in poetry, “A Mystifying Silence: Big and Black” cracked open the silence on the topic of race in poetry. First appearing in the American Poetry Review, it is reprinted in the anthology in a section called "Imperialism & Experiments: Comedy, Confession, Collage, Conscience". Some of the essays in the section respond directly to Major Jackson's essay; others build upon it; some try to answer his call. In the coming days, there will be blog posts on the other essays--by Martha Collins, Jaswinder Bolina, Tess Taylor, Ailish Hopper, Tony Hoagland, and Patrick Lawrence--in this section. Here is a tiny taste of Major Jackson's humane and intelligent essay:
Writing about race has to be so much more than writing about race, and moreover, race in poetry is not a mere discussion between black and white peoples of the United States, or a visit to the Martin Luther King, Jr. National Historic Site, or some poeticized contraption set up to ensnare an overly sensitive group of readers who passionately believe in equity, justice, racial harmony, and change. It bears repeating again: for us to actualize as a country whose ideals and documents profess the value of a diverse ethnic and racial populace, we must begin to pen a body of poems that go beyond our fears and surface projections of each other to a fuller account of the challenges and reaches of an ever-evolving democracy.
To read the full essay and all of the others, please get the anthology!
Back to Blog
"the poetic cosmopolitanism of Arab American poetry necessarily holds a space for the work of national liberation"
Back to Blog
What's happening to us? Why is there a feeling of crisis in the culture? Two crucial reads, maybe the most important things I have read in a while (next Picketty's tome on capitalism): one, in this issue of THE NEW YORKER, is on the hunger games capitalism crushing all of us and how income disparity is a choice. It explains a lot of current thinking on the topic, but points a finger at why the rich are getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class is being erased, and it comes down to a kind of wholesale moral theft by our leadership: http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/03/16/richer-and-poorer
The second read connects to the first in that it exposes one racist, classist way we raise public revenues: creating and maintaining a permanent underclass, that is not exclusively but is deeply racist and is another kind of wholesale theft. The just released report on Ferguson is explained in this issue of THE ATLANTIC. It exonerates the officer but lays the blame where it belongs, exposing one dangerous facet of our growing police state. And it's us. http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2015/03/The-Gangsters-Of-Ferguson/386893/
In between these two articles, we can't ignore that we have militarized our police not to keep the public welfare, but to raid the poorest and/or most marginalized among us, and we've put into place the systems above that have and are chipping away at social systems that support all of us. Above and below, we have given away community. WE gave it away, and now the middle class is caught as if in a vise, and are we screaming? Trying to change things? No, we point fingers--color, religion, class, race, profession, you name it--and it's somebody else's fault that the standard of living is decreasing for most of us, while the uber rich, the trans-national rich increasingly hoard more and more. And we all sit back and complain while secretly aspiring to a wealth we will never see. All of us pointing fingers this way or that. It's our government, people. It's manifests what WE value. And that means US. If you are not outraged, you are either not awake or you are deluded--precisely what our current K-12 system tries to ensure.