Left of Karl Marx (Part I)
As has probably become more than evident to anyone reading my entries thus far on Harriet, I’m interested simultaneously in both Poetry and poetry—that upper case canonized (MLA-ized, Norton-ized, Super-sized!) beast as well as its lower case comrade which I’ll loosely categorize (with a change of preposition) by June Jordan’s phrase “poetry [by] the people.” And within the latter, of particular interest to me is “poetry” produced within transnational social movements and especially transnational social movement unionism.
So Claudia Jones is my kind of people.
A Trinidadian born in 1915 who came to the United States before the age of ten; a graduate of Wadleigh High School as well as a laundry worker, a factory worker, a millinery worker; on the Executive Committee of the Young Communist League in Harlem; editor, Negro Affairs, Daily Worker; imprisoned on Ellis Island under the 1918 Immigration Act; poet; arrested again and held on Ellis Island (again) under the McCarran Act; arrested again under the Smith Act; imprisoned in Women’s Penitentiary, Alderson, West Virginia; deported (to London); co-founder of the West Indian Workers and Students Association; founder of the West Indian Gazette (later the West Indian Gazette and Afro-Asian Caribbean News); organizer of the first London Caribbean Carnival (later the Notting Hill Carnival, after the murder of Kelso Cochrane in 1959, victim of a gang of white youth following the Notting Hill race riots of the previous year); representative of Trinidad and Tobago at the World Congress of Women in the Soviet Union; collaborator with the African National Congress to organize hunger strikes against apartheid and protests outside the South African Embassy in London; poet; friend of George Lamming, Paul and Eslanda Goode Robeson; buried to the left of the grave of Karl Marx, Highgate Cemetery, London.
Carole Boyce Davies’ rich new bio-critical study, Left of Karl Marx: The Political Life of Black Communist Claudia Jones examines how “a female political and intellectual equivalent of C.L.R. James” whose brief resume reads like the paragraph above, has, like so many other Black activists, “been written out of history.”
I found Davies’ book (and Jones’ life) so compelling that I’ve decided to divide this entry up into two parts, covering today the chapter on the poetry Jones’ wrote while imprisoned and returning later with more on Davies’ compelling use of literary analysis in her reading of Jones’ FBI file (and the larger question of what literary/textual analysis can bring to readings of similar documents during both Smith Act and USA Patriot Act eras). This is not to suggest there isn’t a ton more to cover—the chapters on Carnival and Jones’ early journalism I found particularly engaging; but given the caveat that I’m blogging for the Poetry Foundation, I’ll stick as much as I can to, as Tina (almost) sang and as I’ve been commented upon in past posts, “What’s Poetry/poetry got to do, got to do with it?”
Barbed wire fence surrounds me
And the fog rolls slowly in
The elms stand tall and stately
And the maples crowd them in
Claudia Jones, from “The Elms at Morn”
Chapter 3 of Boyce Davies’ study, “Prison Blues: Literary Activism and a Poetry of Resistance,” is a unique and well-researched addition to the growing body of critical studies of incarceration and poetic creativity which includes, recently, Lawson Fusao Inada’s Only What We Could Carry: The Japanese American Internment Experience, Sarith Peou’s Corpse Watching, and the Marc Falkoff-edited Poems from Guantanamo: The Detainees Speak, among others. Fusing frameworks from Barbara Harlow’s Resistance Literature and Angela Davis’ Blues Legacies and Black Feminisms Boyce Davies reads Claudia Jones’ poetic output among “a range of creative acts, which, in their articulation defy an oppressive state’s attempts to silence and contain political actors.”
To give some sense of Boyce Davies’ critical approach to and reading of Jones’ poetry, here is an excerpt from her take on one of the central metaphors of Jones’ poem written to her father shortly after her deportation and while aboard the Queen Elizabeth to exile in London, “Ship’s Log: Paean to the Atlantic”: “In Claudia Jones’s piece about the Atlantic, the implications of deportation and exile are deliberately linked to the creation of diaspora, and then connected to a creativity that is a direct response to state repression. The so-called immigrant figure is targeted by a series of Immigration and Naturalisation Acts, which work only unidirectionally. In my analysis, Claudia Jones’s life work is one of a number of missing gendered black Atlantic texts, missing in Gilroy’s “Black Atlantic” formulation, being one who figures not in terms of his “crisscrossing” model but in a crossing as a deliberate relocation and self-creation in activism.”
It was invigorating to read a political history/radical studies volume that places so much emphasis on poetry and the poetic, that is equally comfortable speaking of Audre Lorde, the Last Poets, Adrienne Rich, and Ken Saro-Wiwa as it is of Elizabeth Gurley-Flynn (whose poems to Claudia Jones are also included in the volume), Stuart Hall, Antonio Gramsci, and W.E.B. DuBois; and it was invigorating as well to read about a poet like Claudia Jones, who “always acted from the principle that economics, politics, and culture were inextricably linked.”
More soon, from left of Karl Marx.
Mark Nowak is the author of Revenants (Coffee House Press, 2000), Shut Up Shut Down (Coffee House Press, 2008), and Coal Mountain Elementary (Coffee House Press, 2009). His writings on new labor poetics have recently appeared in The Progressive, Virginia Quarterly Review, American Poets in the 21st Century: The New...