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Sorry I’m Late / Compared to What?
I read with interest George Quasha’s recent post “Self-evidence with Difficulty,” drawn especially to these sentences:
Duncan used to say that he and Charles Olson had made work that insisted on being taken at the level of its poetics; I took this to mean in part that casual reading or reading to select the “major poems” did not meet the core reality. … This view of the text as interwoven with a life or serving a life at the level of its actual complexity, rather than representing or expressing a life or its ideologies, suggests that a poetry requires the full range of non-reductive possible response that life itself does.
This claim is attractive because I think Quasha comes very close to encapsulating my understanding of what I am supposed to be doing here this month. I guess I’m supposed to be, as Quasha writes, manifesting a kind of in-personhood via The Poetry Foundation infrastructure, the end result of which is that readers of Harriet have the feeling that they are “[s]eeing the poet in person, getting to know her …” and that this “can be a great amplification of certain unnamed factors” that could aid in the interpretation of what I am transmitting in terms of poetry; or, what the range of possible personas presented this April might transmit, giving one view of what is being transmitted culturally before we can say, critically, what that thing or things might be. I’m giving this a try because I think that might work, if we don’t take our manifestation too seriously. We.
You might say that this view of what I am supposed to be doing here ends up being very flattering to me, requiring immediate identification with, at least, Robert Duncan and John Cage as practitioner’s of my same “art.” No, I would say that: I don’t know what you would say.
Surely, if I were to speak to you, write to you, all about poetry, I would transmit almost nothing of what it was like to be near me in person, not to say that I think you might want to be near me (why should you?). But I am already down this particular rabbit hole, giving a pretty obvious view of the dialectical aspect of what it would be “like” to be near me, which I think is probably pretty frustrating, if you really want to know.
(1) On February 16, I “took to my bed,” laid up with deeply shocking (to me) pregnancy-related nausea. I could count on one hand the number of times I left my apartment between February 16 and March 27, on which date I took the subway from my home in Bedford-Stuyvesant to CUNY Graduate Center in midtown Manhattan, a commute I have done three to five times-a-week without challenges for seven years, without thinking.
(2) I am 41 years old. I have no children, except for this one apparently growing inside me, which I know because I have seen a lot of pictures and can hear its heart beating.
(3) In spite of what might be called an “athletic build,” there has never been any question about my athletic ability: it is below average. Often, I can keep up with truly gifted athletes without annoying them too much, so I know what truly gifted athletes are capable of. My sister, Santi White, my dear friends Cheryl Jones-Walker, Lorrin Thomas, Eve Holbrook, Joy Phillips, Litia Perta, Ross Gay, have, for the sake of camaraderie, tolerated my average ability as a runner, a cyclist, a swimmer, a basketball player, a yogi, despite the fact that, in comparison to their enormous physical gifts, my efforts are not worth mentioning.
What I have is a powerfully methodical body/mind connection that makes for stamina and looks like deliberateness or deliberation and probably is both. Physical vigor is an aspect of self-definition that dominates my perspective. It informs the content of my writing when I obsessively return to questions of the disobedient body, and it actually causes strange thinking to occur.
Now that my body does not belong to me, I am not sure what it will mean to be, or become again, very strong.
I think of scholarship, too, as a variety of physical power—in which I feel always, comparatively, diminished.
I conclude now I have no
inner resources, because I am heavy bored.
Peoples bore me,
literature bores me, especially great literature …
Perhaps “Dream Song 14” is meaningful to me because “bored” is an aporia that seems to open just for me; it is for falling into in theatrical despair, overwhelmed by ignorance and misunderstanding, Berryman, my blackface doppelganger. I feel myself the poem’s shaken, impossible to rouse child, whirled round by great literature and stiff-armed by it. That is love.
Marooned in bed, unable to read anything, write anything, unable to do anything that was not related to feeding myself, I thought a great deal about alienation from “my work” (which was what exactly? gestating a human? reading books? writing critically about American culture and black art? poetry?).
How I hate to sound like anyone else.
(5) Not every genius has something like “inner fire,” but the mind does do what it do.
If I’m trying to achieve something in writing poetry, it is to become more liberated from the workmanlike busyness into which I am forced as a latecomer (at 30, though now that time seems so far behind me), however far genius remains from my reach.
The people I know who have actual genius unfailingly extend great kindness to me in my ignorance and effort. They do not tell me what to do, but they share glimpses of how it is for them to work with all their powers fully engaged.
(6) The phrases that kept occurring to me after the Cave Canem/Poetry Project Amiri Baraka Tribute at St. Mark’s Church on April 5 were “Compared to What,” which you can hear on Roberta Flack’s First Take, one of the handful of records of records I call perfect,
and “I come up hard,” the first line of Marvin Gaye’s “Trouble Man”
where “there’s only three things for sure / taxes, death and trouble.”
I kept thinking, Yeah, “poetry” is not really on the list of concepts that I find usefully comparative for gross theoretical designs. Not like, for example, “black music.”
Discussing the possibility of collaborating on a panel about “poetry in the 1980s,” I was told that “black music” was not a scholarly category or concept that could be acknowledged; that it had to be properly historicized (and, obviously, the person who was telling me this was the person to school me on that historiography). And that was the end of that.
One day, I’m going to stop trying to introduce myself and my poetic projects and I’m going to get/find myself real comfortable with my latecoming, mysterious, unprofessional, subjective, undemonstrative, black, theoretical, unsourced (sources suppressed), embodied writing practice that wells up sometimes and stays with me through the time of the writing project, then disappears, as if it were never there, leaving me in a self that is, in some ways, more familiar—familiar, in terms of the possibility of knowing the person who stands in front of you in time, or who becomes unable or impotent for the purposes of advancing or explaining the enterprise of poetry. That person is not friendly. She is not effective and doesn’t win anything. She’s not particularly smart. She is most definitely broke. Harriet would not have her.
Not to block or disregard the critical enterprise, in which I am heartily invested, but to hold onto or value the ways in which my work, my reading, my writing, what I have to say, are inextricable from fallow silences that are not ameliorated or filled by exposition or citation. (Think of Fred Moten on Ad Reinhardt, maybe, as an example of a kind of writing that does not do harm to the absence in question). I think I am in a fight with poetry all the time, a fight that is motivated by the right of the parts of me that are silent to take place beside the point of literature’s learnèd and horrible watching over me.