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Listening to Fred Around the House
So, right, “Her territory sunflower,” the first lines of Fred Moten’s poem “B Jenkins,” perhaps my favorite poem of recent years. I encountered a recording of it first, & months went by before I found it on a page or on a screen. It was one of those situations where the phonotext (a lovely & useful coinage by Steve Evans) took pride of place in my imagination. This was two winters ago when Viv was an infant, nearly always cradled in my arms, or so it seemed. PennSound became my aural reading lamp & book bound up; the sound of words whose light I read by hearing. I fell in love with that poem of Fred’s. It became part of my life. Soon I’d fallen hard for every one of his recordings.
This dynamic offers some interesting questions. What do we make of this relatively recent phenomenon, of encountering a poem in recorded form first, & then (as with a book) having this discretionary plenitude, one that I associate with listening to pop, where one can listen & listen & listen, as obsession’s needs are always unrequited. So it goes repeat repeat repeat until content or broken, fraught, enlivened or maybe bored as shit. However it’s going that day.
There’s also the question of place. Where is one doing the listening? With what & whom is the sound of the poem intersecting? I’d like to explore that today. Listening. Just like site-specific performance. Or, well it is site specific performance! Just as reading is. Just as talking. For our purposes here, consider the sound of Fred’s voice as it mixes with a gurgling infant while something on television drones & swells for backdrop. Think of how a certain room feels when a certain voice fills it. What goes on when the broader spiritual & political vacuities inherent to private property find a countervailing song in its airs. What are the constituent materials of the magic wherein what’s dear about the house, the beloveds that are there, become, through proximity & listening, interpolated into one’s encounter with the poem? So what happens? “Baffling combustions” occur.
In the spirit of those baffling combustions, I’ve turned here to their most enabling contemporary engine: CA Conrad’s Somatic poetry exercises. Inspired by Conrad’s crucial tool kit, turned as it is toward an amplification of possibility for the body/place/language/feeling-thought matrix, I decided I’d go to each room of the house, pick out a certain poem of Fred’s, play it & then write what happens, chart how it blends with or repels my settled sense of the atmosphere there, listen to what happens in my body as the poem comes to meet me in that place.
I gave myself a few of constraints. One is that I wouldn’t refer to the printed text of the book throughout my experiment. Thus there are misplaced & mis-heard words, imagined line breaks etc. This is me for play’s sake staying true to my ear’s errors. Just to see what they rightly or wrongly uncover. Another is I listened only to poems from his book B Jenkins.
Finally, I haven’t revised, or I should say, I permitted myself as many revisions as I liked while I was listening to the poem in that moment in that room, but after that, I tried to let it be. I cheated a little. Not much though I swear! Anyway, I did this in order to engage one of the wagers of Fred’s book which explores, well, it explores a lot!, but part of what it attempts to sound out is the theoretical & political apparatus that surrounds improvisation in the black diaspora’s vanguard traditions. While foregrounding that, it also offers improvisation as a thought, a means for anyone to think & sing the spatio-temporal wilderness of historical being. Improvisation as a way to be quick on your feet wherever you are. Flash the scissors of thought. Cut the lines of hell as they come swarming to ensnare you. Because when you’re in hell what do you do? You strategize! Then you act.
In foregrounding improvisation I don’t mean to say that Fred’s own compositional practice hews strictly to it. It holds that as well as the cut, the collage, the long steeping, the speedy ingress here, the slow fade out there, trill into talk, fugitive obscurity melting into open transparent address which bangs & sparks a mindful friction with the world. The impossible singing itself. That’s how I hear it at least.
Fred says something about his own practice in the interview that concludes B Jenkins, something simple with the biggest implications— “Writing a poem has become for me, at least in part (emphasis mine), an attempt to find out some things and to try to work through some things intellectually, emotionally, and musically. I’m trying to find out some things, get at some things, and consider some things, while at the same time trying to make some things”
So here I am moving with Fred around the house, holding those attempts he lists in mind.
Wanted to start in the most awkward room first. “Up in my works & mess.” What’s in there? The unreconciled. Fertility of disharmony for thinking, dissensus of what hits & misses as a gift. Our bathroom is small & I’m sitting on the floor by the tub like I’m about to give Vivian a bath, leaning against it. “Cool relaxing harness.” Already wanting to drop prepositions to get to Fred’s rhythms in my own thing, & hear in that word ‘thing’ right now all the complexities Fred brings to it in his writing, implying as it does the object, the commodity, the oevure, & the coded density of ‘our thing’ as it relates to jazz. “As serious as your life.”
So many of the poems in B Jenkins bring us to the scene of the party, or after party, moving language through scaffolds of official celebration, secret celebration, the place, the social, the verb ‘to party’ as a kernel of radical potential not yet historically registered but activated nonetheless. Touching in its thought a site where where ‘official’ & ‘unofficial’ are dissolved categorically, obsolete. That’s somewhere else far from us I fear, the pull at the edge of Fred’s poems.
But ‘the party’ still dear & general in this work as well, big conviviality & musical life imbued with the deep sweetness & bruising antagonism of a world broken by inequity, structured by an inequity. The party as a reckoning.
“my skills/my shit/the shit.” Ok, well, that works in the can! But what about the way things go down in the bathroom at a party, the secret sex & good drugs, the private conversations that spill as inflection in one’s later talk after slipping away from the little shared moment, surrounded by mirrors.
Hyper sophisticated phonetic materializations of anger; anger at the forced abandonment of a certain particular beauty in the world, blackness, irreducible.
So many of these poems bracketed between two names like two doors. Sneak out of the part if the scene gets too heavy. Take a walk through the territory on its other side. This bathroom has only one door. Out the way I came in. I have to pee, but feel like I should finish my little ceremony first somehow to hold the moment. Hold it in!
“The spare luxurious spray of the 13th commune.” Lands as physical comedy for me after thinking of peeing. Duh. No! Instead…richness & momentum of that, what’s so extraordinary in Fred’s work, the musical phrase that has the sweep of world history without ever getting bogged down. The laptop disappears when I’m listening. When the poem ends I feel its weight again on my lap. Amazing.
Listen to the poem again just to feel the weight fade.
“Universal girl from Magic City.”
I want to write this poem on the wall above her crib. Have the histories it sings be there for her from the start of her reading. Make it elemental. The present & the future that it sings. Then something else in my body–good urge I join to a reproach. Maybe corny or tyrannical to force poetry on her like that? Even the best poetry in the world. Yet…this poem, it IS the world we come to together, a part & particular of it, blown out & small. No way out but through so why not go by way of this?
Memory of my Sun Ra t-shirt, my orange copy of Soap. There’s a little orange basketball right by my knee, & a parti-colored Dora car with a magic wand piano for a dashboard. This brings a gaiety that, in a fashion proper to Fred’s brilliance, is both agreed upon & turned by the poem.
“Magic City.” Birmingham. That deepest of American places. Sun Ra’s earthly homeplace. This is Cincinnati. 2013. Groaning of some car with bad tires like mine struggling over the ice. Roar of a jet.
“Pre-holiday gardenia/cultural student of perfect image/perfect meadow/please wait.” Perfect appears, soon called to pause. What’s the ‘waiting’ Fred’s giving us here? Is this Fred hearing where, alive to the perfection that might be ours, knows how authority arrives, cloaked in rhetoric, falsely polite, to hold us back. Always called to wait for what is already everyone’s anyway. The world.
Image in my mind of the cop’s palm flat toward the bodies that advance on it. Fred giving us the spot where that leaps in?
No maybe “please wait” is something else entirely. A call for preservation, the holding of the dear. Don’t abandon this site. There’s a caution there, free-floating & intense.
Not sure who Sherrie Tucker is. The mind splits its attention as I wonder about it. One of its ears stays with the poem, the other, through the eyes, goes to Google. This reading was recorded at KU Lawrence. I find a Sherrie Tucker, professor there, wrote a book called The History of Consciousness. Glancing through her bio as the poem plays again, she’s written books about jazz, improvisation, gender, queer aesthetics. Feeling that thing inside where it’s like “God. I should totally know this person’s work. I kind of suck.” But her writing belongs to the same field of inquiry as Fred’s. Gotta be her.
“Pantomime daughters shriek inside.” I receive this shriek, despite its being qualified “inside,” as something public, an unleashing of the damage of injustice through the intelligence & discipline of music.
A soft riot of stuffed animals spilling out of canvas bags behind the door.
No fading in & out of material phenomenon this time. The reverse. Everything jumps in bright relief.
Only one leg fully on the bed, the other hanging off, leaning on my left arm, laptop in front of me. Overly excited by listening I think. I can’t just lay back on the pillows. They don’t even look inviting. I’ve been choosing shorter poems to keep going I think, to stay with what an improvisation like this offers. Something is happening for me. I don’t want to lose it.
This poem is a guide to the mind that’s just received a new form, & I recognize what it charts as a familiar sort of bed thought, laying there, considering a certain piece of music in a moment of repose, the excitation of those considerations finding outlet in thought though the body feels peaceful.
“They are the music in a little empty space.”
“Since street life is a studio” another bed thought, where the social world is never ever ever not with you, no matter how enclosed the bedroom seems. Making things or just doing some thinking, one is in the street’s studio then all the time. Thinking of local things related, local streets. Feel sick over what’s been done to Washington Park here in Cincinnati. The maximal studio of that park with all its livid people & their (our) rare unwieldy camaraderie, all of that experiment & pain tamped down to polite oblivion. Anger at the edges sort of getting in the way of my thinking right now or the anger too familiar I don’t have a fresh or particular sound for it in the moment for it.
I don’t get that Mondrian thing, that static/frenetic emblematic of his painting, until the end, when the word ‘primary’ lands & I see the big three colors, “arrayed in primary buzz,” then I get the way its all over this poem.
Body lights up with a feeling of being astonished at the phrase “a dew drop cave,” visceral in its melding of subterranean bigness to the small hanging thing, little note at the end of a bar that drops & evaporates into an enormous relational sound-world of polysemic integrations & cuts, something accomplished through timing at the cliff. Another phenomenon the “grain” of Fred’s work animates all the way down through every sonic layer.
“Grain” another Fred word for me. “Touched in grain & sewn in stride.” Wait is that how it goes? No. Gotta stay with THIS poem.
I look at the lint brush on our dresser & think of it, weirdly & suddenly, like Fred’s ear, rolling over historical surfaces, picking up fine lost constituent bits laid together in new patterned/a-patterned ways, the crucial fibers cleaner surfaces abandon. The dust on the record as a history of its sound in material time. The way his poems are dust jacket, liner notes, grooves & needle, the tune, played as a shout out to someone thus always dedicated to the world: This song goes out to Name/Name=World.
I sort of laugh at my bootleg objective correlative called up by immediate cosmetic props, not big enough but still somehow good for a smile & a well-meant lunge at something. How I feel generally about Fred’s poems. Trying to stay with the moment that way, arm falling asleep from this posture, mind almost too awake, like I should take some lint & cat hair from the bed & sprinkle it into my brain, imaging it as magic powder for wooziness to touch the late night sounds I need to hear through better gauze against my bug-eyed-crystal caffeine-being super weird-laying on the bed thing right now.
So many empty blue moons under the waterfall rainbow & clock. Blue moon city to be pulped & resurrected. Next year’s glass. Green Cascade. Blue print of Sea & Surf on the cup. Cowgirl in a starry nightlight wreath.
“Some jewels lined up like hard flowers”
This room is so messy its disorganization opens up a secret, one where stuff’s utility dissolves in the illogic.
“If the phone rings”
The sorry brown banana shaped receiver of the landline phone still mounted on the wall. The whole old world of sound when it came through that curly-cue wire wrapped tight in plastic, how we played with that as if our own curls when we talked. A billion years ago now it seems, that idle winding & speaking.
I’m getting far into the music of it now but I feel all over-hot & somewhat off in my body, hat still on, & coat, from having just been out to smoke. Thinking of the James Baldwin book a friend of my mother’s gave me when I was 18. Blown away then as now. I read that book in the mountains that summer, the last time I went to Johnson County.
“Mama & Miss Key & them whispering”
That line calls up the moment, as a kid, adults whispering somebody’s “turn for the worse,” immanent death, me young & meant to be kept out of ear shot, secret talk I heard clear as day. This is how America talks to itself, the mediated real, no babies really out of earshot, hearing all the murder talk, not letting on that they know because they (we) know too well what has to be done. You know you’re going to die just like we/I know there’s no future for a country in its forever-capital-hegemon-hate form— “Hollow circle & round edge scream & shatter the material”— “They shot her 23 times & hit her twelve”— “the old/new city”
“You can walk through the bookshelf to a bloody corner”
Just the faintest start of sweat on my forehead under this hat’s faux blue fur. Take it off. It’s like thought. Like wet hair that’s been covered too soon by a hat so when removed it reveals funny cowlicks & matting. Listening to Fred for me reveals that kind of thought-hair. Somehow especially right now in the kitchen, I can feel it almost tingling as if laid too long one way or braided tight. Moved or loosened a pained relief tingles in the scalp.
Laptop stuck to this red table cloth by (invisible) spills of Heinz ketchup (which Vivy calls syrup). Blood & sugar. What’s hidden. What adheres.
Isn’t this the truest house line: “Somebody’s window is covered by a book with pictures.” So rich with dread & truth. Bible, family photo album, a family history—it’s bodies living moving pictures behind those windows— “a little hard beauty swallowing eyes.”
Terror of under thought conflations in this improv (mine. tiny life.) really a terror of what horrors have occurred & are as yet not fully thought–the serrations that comprise this country. What slavery was & is. What bigotry was & is. The unfinished agony we’ve yet to quit expanding on, the agony that too has its own improvisational logic, hell’s dexterity for keeping us.
Mouth dry from coffee.
Who the fuck am I?
That’s kind of how ALL poems start.
Fred just puts that there. On point.
“The band spread out into the audience”
This house spreading into other houses, the street/studio, left arm elbow pain numb, brain nearly on fire. Sarah throws some bread in the toaster. It’s little red light that means “ON” burns too bright.
Listening to this at my writing desk. It feels ultimate for me because what emerges here hits so close, & is so richly delivered—-issues about the instability & inhering & fabrication of voice, my favorite consideration for poetry, favored for the very thing Fred says:
“can’t tell you how much my voice mimes me/there is escape in there like an island grain/that my voice sounds for/& the sound is me/but it’s not me/it’s a little alone”
For those reasons, & because of the way the writing body that writes at a desk & tries to go all the way to the voice that it can manage the days it can manage it & then better to unmanage on days when to hold a dream of management’s destruction is the thing,
because the body with its fantasy-voice voice-dream voice-truth lives at its desk like this for poetry & because of Fred’s precision which repels a harsh authority,
because of all of that then it’s the only poem I’ve (in this moment & the way it finds forever) ever wanted or needed
because its that moment when the body finds the pop record holding fast & most to what that body’s moment is. Sharp jump that’s hardly thought— “just play it again that’s all that matters in the world.” The pop reflex in the heart. Lightning in a bauble.
This is where I write, right here, at this desk. In that moment.
In front of me, on my window, an old Cincinnati Poetry Review. It’s cover photo–cops guarding the doors to the old Contemporary Art Center during the Mapplethorpe show. 1990. Old news? “Obama approves drone strikes on US Citizens.” A story on Yahoo! Less than 24hrs ago. Just a vague expansion of general murderous policy. “We’ll kill who we want when we want to” already a settled matter. Ask the rest of the world. Ask whoever you know that’s getting or going to be crushed. All these tyrannies touch. Anyway, I have that cover on my windowsill to stay alive to a localized instance of hate, for vigilance forever against it, to remember what part of this city fucking is.
“the break/the object/the bridge”
because that little sequence makes me want to go “omg y’all don’t you see it in that sequence, don’t you feel where we are exactly?!?”
the fissure/in the thing/is how it links
…little half communisms struggling to mind the gaps (made) between us
“the sound came from the other one/the broken thing”
then the BRIDGE: “To separate & touch/slant & churn”
BRIDGE to where?
“the featherbed, remember”
Enormous sigh & sob all mixed together in my body right now trying crazily to have it emerge in this doc., trying perhaps too quickly (that’s where the crazy feeling comes) the speed that I’m trying to leverage here wonderful but almost harmful in its desire to preserve itself as sensation while I’m trying to get that sensation to take me somewhere, a place where I can protect & open what’s occurring, the speed going some other place, rushing away from the feeling the poem is offering which is a plunge & glacial weight that leads with grace & tiny bleep
Fred soooo gets it though because what comes next? A catalog compressing smallness/bigness, there to help us deal, what I’m groping toward, a fool to hang on–
“little harms/little Ghandi/little Isaac Hayes/little bead”
“move the history of movement/& taking & holding the song insists”
“the taking & holding our song insists”
“paint your other name”
BRIDGE to what it is–
Laugh if you want but right now in this room this poem is for me the “God Only Knows” of world historical feeling. So. I mean that for me by way of my voice (a wild repertoire compelled by some basics). MY voice goes to “God Only Knows” as held in me, limpid star I turn to in order to gesture toward a moment of ultimate emotion, an empty prop until I think, try to have this integration in a fearless way & say it, not UN- but HYPER considered is what the saying demands, calls tenderness too, don’t hold it up as a mannequin for some cheap snarling trip to correct its appearance. The destruction of whatever manages excess–the sweet destroyer, voice, jumping way out in front of itself AS itself way out there: “opening/curve.”
What good would living do me if the world showed but nothing to me?
So you sew the critique in the grain of the words to hear the world.
My pop reflex harvests this “God Only Knows” but that’s just my story, my thoroughest affections, the “better angels” of my conditioning if you will.
Why do I say all of that? Because, like Fred first said “I can’t tell you how much my voice mimes me/there is escape in there like an island grain/that my voice sounds for/& the sound is me/but it’s not me/it’s a little alone”
Jesus. I’m feeling over the top! I don’t care or that’s exactly what I care about.
What am I doing (writing) here?
I love it.
The writing desk right? That IS how it feels on the days when the destruction of management is managed.
Here I go
Here I go
Here I go
“Now the cold reckoning is tired & you’ve been waiting for a preferential song”
Right? Again. Exactly.
Ok. Left the coffee on the desk. I don’t need anymore of that now, the speed’s sort of maiming me a little. I’m going to listen to this in the chair where I listened to it first, over & over. This big dumb upholstered chair we got when Vivian was born, so we’d have a place to feed her, to hold her, to rock her.
Oh Capitalism your cradle to grave game is tight. The way a baby gives birth to so much furniture. Stuff. Before she even emerged there was a whirl of waiting tethers, preparing to sink their hooks in, soft or hard.
Of course the chair is wonderfully gnarly as fuck. It’s grain crusted up with milk & peas, some scrubbed piss that just won’t go away. Sweat from hours sitting there. Now it’s her morning spot. Posted up, getting some benevolent pre-k cartoon scripture into her head ABC’s & 123’s & mer-children living in an underwater commune, “Bubbletucky” which, like some soft-hearted Springfield, contains all the world’s phenomena in one bounded/boundless (no)place.
Fred’s poetry too in it’s grain holds the same.
These poems–unsparing critically equally laden with care.
This is the most familiar poem to me here. Know it through/by heart. I’m going to just listen. Maybe type just a tiny bit. Maybe pretend I’m listening with you where you are? What effects does it have on you? To wonder after that & the poem at once.
“To unfold it all away”
The strategy there of an activist intellect arriving in my body like a prayer.
This person. B Jenkins. Fred’s mom.
“moving through to cure”
When we listen to these works we do hear how to move like that.
It’s the hardest fucking thing in the world.
“One more time about the theory of who we are”
A smile like crying.
Well, you’ve been with me in the house awhile now. Next time I think we should go out, walk up the steep grade of Otte Avenue–to the bar, to the gallery–places where so much poetry & thought come passing through for me in my life. Things I’m anxious to share. But that’s for next time. Thanks Fred. Thanks y’all. See you soon.