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Speculating Darkly, or The Folk Surreal Future (1 of 3)

Photo by Sally Mann

It’s April in Chicago which means it feels like January in east Texas which means it’s still rather cold for a Southerner, which is the way I’ve come to think of myself though I was born and raised in New Jersey and only came to the South in college because I felt no longer northern, no longer sufficiently integratable into the multicultural bohemia of the North, which means I am missing the South here in Chicago which has its architecture, rivers, black plastic bags battered and fluttering in the wind like deranged vultures, its L, its neighborhoods and neo-1960s segregation/integration—which means I am thinking of the South.

Here, I can’t help but think of Terrance Hayes’s exquisite rendering of the abjection and contradictions of “the far South” in “Arbor for Butch.” He writes:


Where the rain comes, long-toed and crushing the grass,
swamping the land; where a slave talked his children
out of running away with the bottom of his shoe.
This is what it means to believe in ascension and fear climbing.


In the far south where sap jewels the bark, the teeth
of the saws are sticky and bittersweet. But I wanted to carve
a door out of the wood, and around that door I wanted
to build a room, because I knew what my mother wished for
and I knew from far off what she would need.

When I think of the Deep South—east Texas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, Florida—I think of this passage—the belief in ascension, the fear of climbing, the sap jeweling bark, the teeth of saws sticky and bittersweet from the sap—the contradictions in believing in ascension yet fearing the climb; the notion that a saw, something meant to cut down, could carry something sweet in its teeth. I think this is why I miss the South. I miss its unabashed contradictions, its reveling and celebration of its funk, its disorder, its razing of decorum. I do not mean to objectify, appropriate, or flatten the South or Southern-ness nor do I mean to hierarchize the South over any other part of the US, but I do mean to discuss, what Rickey Laurentiis calls the Southern Gothic, what Theaster Gates calls Speculating Darkly, what Ma Rainey might have called the Black Bottom, what Darieck Scott calls extravagant abjection, what Louis Armstrong called jazz, what Ida B. Wells called the Red Record, what I call the Folk Surreal Future. What I do mean to discuss is the southern imagination and its idiosyncrasies that might provide a way of thinking through race, abjection, and the making of poems.

(However, I must admit that I am bit nervous performing close-readings and private meditations in so public of a forum. I’ve come to think of myself as Keatsian reader or critic—one who “on any certain day read[s] a certain Page of full Poesy or distilled prose and…wander[s] with it, and muse[s] upon it, and reflect[s] from it, and prophes[ies] upon it, and dreams upon it—until it becomes stale—but when will it do so? Never.” I would not go as far as Jacques Rancière, asserting that “Poetry is not, first of all, a manner of writing, but a manner of reading” and that I, as the critic and reader, make the text via my encounter and interaction with it. No, I will not go that far. But I am used to being a brilliant literary scholar and reader in the comfort of my reading chair and two long hair cats that often nod in agreement when I fling books across the room in disgust or admiration or both. But what type of post-Black Arts Movement, post-MFA, post-Enlightenment, post-PhD poet, critic, and essayist would I be if I did not fail miserably in front of you? Well, I have taken up enough of your time with this overly-aware-of-myself disclaimer. On to meditation.)

All of these artist-theoretician-magician-journalists that I have mentioned above discuss, imagine, chronicle, explore or occupy the contradictory and imaginative space of ascension that also fears climbing. Hayes’s slave (and I say that purposely, that it is Hayes’s slave) who fears climbing but desires ascension for he and his kin(d) speaks back even as it speaks toward a future. The slave who fears running away from slavery because of the potential psychic and physical pain of trying to attain freedom and failing anticipates the contradictions of post-Emancipation African-Americans seeking bourgeois life in the North while trying to stay culturally-rooted to the South which anticipates the 1990s suburban kid’s desire ‘to keep it real’ which is a performance of black “authenticity” in the post-Civil Rights era by African Americans because many young, black folks are growing up in the ‘burbs rather than the hood (though don’t get it twisted, there’s still mad negroes in the hood). Here, I think of the rapper Biggie Smalls, also known as the Notorious B.I.G., of Bad Boy Entertainment fame. Recently, the apartment that he grew up in and famously rapped about as “one-room shack” just went on the market in Brooklyn $725,000.00, and it is actually three bedrooms and has a den. His mother notes that Biggie was selling a persona and not his actual, lived experience which I think is fine. I have no problem with personas. Ai, Patricia Smith, W.D. Snodgrass, Natasha Trethewey, and even I like to write in the mode often; persona is artifice par excellence; and for real for real, aren’t we always writing in a persona? But I must also note that I don’t want to brush aside what it is like to grow as a black boy/man in the 1980s and 90s, in New York, in pre-hipster, pre-gentrification, pre-Brooklyn-is-the-most-“ironic”-place-on-Earth Brooklyn, but what my Biggie Smalls digression notes is the fear of losing root, that the fear of losing one’s folk, and that this fear travels across the nineteenth century into the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. But I feel like I could do a better job at close-reading those two sections from “Arbor for Butch” so I am going to step back a bit and think through the section header.

Originally Published: April 15th, 2013

Roger Reeves's poems have appeared in journals such as PoetryPloughshares, American Poetry ReviewBoston Review, and Tin House, among others. Kim Addonizio selected “Kletic of Walt Whitman” for the Best New Poets 2009 anthology. He was awarded a 2013 NEA Fellowship, Ruth Lilly Fellowship by the Poetry Foundation in 2008, two Bread Loaf Scholarships, an Alberta H....