Back when considering mess, I suggested an approach akin to ekphrasis. Where the response to non-literary art is neither an ode nor elaborate caption, perhaps barely even a dialogue between the poem and, say, painting. Instead, the poem would attempt to do what the painting does at a dynamic level versus an (a) dialogic or (b) allusive one.
I use “dynamic” to mean intersection of method and effect, how something goes about making a thing do what it do and what that doing does. “Dialogic,” here, denotes a poem effectively “containing” the artwork—William Carlos Williams’ Pictures From Breughel come to mind. The poem gets its argument by holding the artwork up for consideration. By “allusive level,” I mean to suggest a poem that’s tension comes from the reader’s awareness of an artwork. This artwork acts as midwife for the poem’s birth even if we don’t know what the midwife looks like. I think “Plutonic” from Tracie Morris’ collection, Intermission, is a good example.
Again, in “MESS,” I conscripted Fred Moten to describe the dynamic level. He speaks of approaching an artwork’s secret “by way of [its] poetic reproduction” in an interview with Charles Henry Rowell.
“MASS” looked into accumulation—particularly via the mode of repetition—as a means for physicalizing language in a poem. Perhaps language is already the poem’s meat; yet repetition, through its sonic and visual persistence, can make for meatier meat.
Of course, one must be conscious of fat. The excess that’s good to you, but often not for you.
Burning fat off, however, has benefits. Converting excess into something useful. The energy necessary to begin or sustain an activity.
Here’s a writing exercise. It’s called “Titles for Poems I’ll Never Finish.”
Set a timer for two minutes. Now: during that two minutes, write down titles—only titles—for poems. Try to get 30 of them. Don’t stop to think of good titles. Don’t stop to think of whether the title is funny or even original. Certainly don’t stop to think what the first line of a poem with that title might be. Just titles without poems. Masts without ships.
…three, two, one: STOP.
Read them back if you like, but the exercise is done. Fewer than 30 titles means you probably thought too much. Your excess of titles can sit in your journal, putting on weight, but no poems.
Good to, not for. Touchstone of The Illicit. Lubricant of transgression. “If loving you is wrong, I don’t wanna be right.” “We both know that it’s wrong, but it’s much too strong to let it go now.” Sure, much R&B lathes inappropriate desire to a luxuriant ache after a lot of Soul’s gritty, carnal testimony. But both seduce. Perhaps the lyrics offer repulsion, but against the swell and hum of arrangement, the ecstatic tension of a singer sangin, that repulsion gets complicated when not utterly overwhelmed. “We forgot about all the pain we’d cause…”
I first encountered Kara Walker’s work at the Walker Museum in Minneapolis. 1997. At the time, I knew nothing about her art, so entering the gallery, walls blanched almost because of the work, I experienced something between seduction and repulsion, though as far toward the latter as Shirley Murdock’s voice tilts toward the former.
The walls showed generic antebellum tableaux—The Big House in the distance; some trees; bunches of chained black folks powdered with a few white folks; a docked ship, masts skewering the horizon like googies for diners.
Despite nodding to convention, the figures were strategically perverse. The plantation teemed with mélanges of sex—especially sex—, heaps of feces and often cartoonish violence. The characters flaunted ambiguous and ambivalent relationships of dominance and submission. But perhaps most troubling, the presence of frequently erotic pleasure in the exchanges displaced vetted representations of pain and victimization.
Walker works silhouettes. Black paper cut into figures and set-pieces then stuck to walls. Within the aesthetics’ constraint, Walker must rely on representational cues one can “read” by outline. Clothing and shoes will evoke a historical moment—say the Confederate soldier’s uniform in Chikin’ Dumplin’. Hair and often provocatively exaggerated physical features signify race and gender.
Her work is at once black-and-white and ambiguous. It is not totally seductive; that is, it’s wrong and I do wanna be right. It isn’t wholly repellant either. It is funny, ha?—comedic and discomforting, odd and off.
One signal of Walker’s humorous intent is her titles. Holland Cotter of the New York Times once described them as “long, goofy, old-timey.” Cotter referenced “Gone, An Historical Romance of a Civil War as It Occurred Between the Dusky Thighs of One Young Negress and Her Heart” but could just as easily have named “The End of Uncle Tom and the Grand Allegorical Tableau of Eva in Heaven” or “Slavery! Slavery! Presenting a GRAND and LIFELIKE Panoramic Journey into Picturesque Southern Slavery or ‘Life at ‘Ol’ Virginny’s Hole’ (sketches from Plantation Life)’ See the Peculiar Institution as never before! All cut from black paper by the able hand of Kara Elizabeth Walker, an Emancipated Negress and leader in her Cause.”
The titles drive a particular reading of the images. Ironic, sure. They not only acknowledge but promise spectacle via their ostentatious timbre. This irony and vulgarity reference history as represented in literature and visual art. A history often understood as devoid of pleasures beyond sadism, one with depredations so clearly horrible that ambiguity is anathema. To make light of the atrocities perpetrated through slavery is not only insensitive, but many elder African American artists asserted, traitorous. For her detractors, it was as though in the silhouettes’ performative pleasure, Walker and the black cutouts forgot about all the pain they’d cause.
For me, the work is compelling, angry and tragic. A mess made of a wound many seek to sterilize. Its outlandish complication of our perception of slavery forces us to consider complications at, perhaps, more reasonable levels. We ask: how did daily exchanges progress? What were the negotiations made?
This led me to write a peppy poem about the Middle Passage.
Or at least it led me to want to write something that could capture the secret of Walker’s work.
The titles exercise led to the poem.
There it is. Number two. “Lapis Dreams of Nigger Mermaids.” This became “Swimchant of Nigger Mer-folk (an Aquaboogie Set in Lapis)” when I started the first draft. I changed "of" to "for" later when I realized I needed the poem to speak to the Mermaids, not as them.
Speaking as the Mermaids gives them at least that much agency—they would get a voice. Walker’s work is most effective for me when the agent is unclear. Who instigated which act is, in her static tableaux, up to debate. Her video work, where she animates the characters as shadow puppets, lays bare the agent. We learn, for example, that Uncle Remus bids Johnny to fellate him. Thus, Uncle Remus can only be a pedophile, the white child—whose social capital eclipsed the black adult’s—is no rapist.
Letting the Mermaids tell their dreams draws the precise nature of their desire into question. It seemed to me that the speaker’s motivation had to be unclear, slippery—as opaque as the cut-outs.
“For” suggests a gift. Not necessarily a good one. Also, to speak “for” someone is to speak on his behalf. But can we trust this speaker to have the Mer-Folks’ best interests at heart?
The light verse approach of “mako wish/ye black fish/mako feed/be black bleed” and the similar bits for the hammerheads and great whites sets the poem’s account of the most violent trope of Middle Passage narratives—sharks devouring cast-off Africans—to a playful music. The waves call for the captives like a perverse crowd chanting “Jump! Jump!” to a distraught man on a ledge or a lecherous frat at a strip club. We might question whether a moment of seeming agency “me sure can di—v-e” is actually a moment of ridicule. The misuse of the pronoun “me” signifies a “primitive” speaker the same way Walker’s liver-lipped profiles read “coon.”
And how many speakers are there? Who recites the iambic line about Poseidon? Who quotes Sebastian from Disney’s The Little Mermaid? The reader knows it’s wrong.
The questions complicating the reading of a poem "for" what we understand as an abject community have the effect of isolating the Mer-Folk even more. After all, "voicing the voiceless" is ventriloquism (speaking as) or representation (speaking for)—agency belongs to the speaker. The voiceless can't even argue against mis-representation.
Like Walker’s images, the poem is composed in clusters, their proximity and associations muscle a kind of coherence. Their positioning suggests a possible narrative or progression, though the language itself contains little in the way of transitions from scene to scene.
It is a tableau and has been from its first draft.
Here’s a piece of it as it appears in The Black Automaton.
At the top, the mast and sail of a ship. Move down. A queue of Africans tumbles from the aft. Are they pushed? Do they leap? Beneath the waves, sharks wait. Deep blue to sea floor. The whole thing haunted.
Without this visual approach, I don’t think the poem would work. It depends on the reader’s ability to form a narrative based on a spatial organization of information. Rather than seeing that as a weakness, I see it as a justification of the poem’s visual component. It is not a special effect, it is integral to the poem and allows it to work efficiently and I hope, effectively. Like the notion of repetition as mass, this poem creates a landscape of words, making the reader aware of text as bodies in space. From the mast-head acting as a mast marking the blank sheet of sky to the ghostly whisper at bottom.
And like Walker’s satire, I hope that though readers know it's wrong, they still find it much too strong to let go.
Banks, Homer; Hampton, Carl; Jackson, Raymond, "(If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right" (If Loving You Is Wrong) I Don't Want to Be Right , 1972.
Gamble, Kenny; Gilbert, Cary; Huff, Leon, "Me and Mrs. Jones" 360 Degrees of Billy Paul, 1972.
Beck, Billy and Troutman, Larry, "As We Lay" Shirley Murdock, 1985.
Cotter, Holland. "Black and White but Never Simple" The New York Times, October 12, 2007.
Poet, performer, and librettist Douglas Kearney grew up in Altadena, California. He received his BA from Howard University and his MFA from the California Institute of the Arts, and is also a graduate and fellow of Cave Canem. In the Los Angeles Times, poet David St. John observed, “What...