The Stunning Poverty of Unrest
At the Sarah Lawrence Poetry Festival a few weeks back, I picked up a copy of Simone White’s chapbook, Unrest, which was published this year by Ugly Duckling Presse. In it she writes, “My brother called on the phone. I could hear the music again. I needed to talk, but not now and not about poverty.” I read an implicit invocation in these sentences that seem to, in the absence of an impoverished landscape [or a dearth], produce possible conditions in which the dearth occurs. I’m writing, I suppose, about impoverishment because I’m interested in the ways that impoverishment can be a hyper-stimulated place for the emergence of the creative. This seems to me to be the opposite of the mainstream. It is also the kind of avant-garde that excites me most—that something from nothing that I wrote about in my post last week.
Without fetishizing lived poverty, I am thinking about the poetry and other art forms that refuse the mainstream [either by necessity or desire], that do not seek mass appeal or upper middle class privilege, that instead linger in spaces of ill repute or despair or critique, that recognize the generative possibilities of invention on the so-called edge [or this place of unrest]. Myung Mi Kim’s poetry lives here for me. As does the work of Bhanu Kapil. It never releases us. It never makes things easy on us. Is this space of unrest also an invitation toward a kind of forgetting?
I have been writing about the power of forgetting all year. Forgetting as a saving grace or the bliss of forgetting. Forgetting, to me, is different from not remembering; it’s more active. It’s a powerful stance against the tyranny of the past, its persistent imposition. Despite psychotherapy’s insistence on the healing powers of recovering memories, the converse has been true for me. The repression of memory can open up a literal space in the mind for something else to take its place. In place of the wretched condition.
This is feeling like an increasingly mad proposition, but I want to continue. I want to spin it out, stretch the space of unrest so that its walls are vibrating, bursting. Simone White’s Unrest is indicative of the kind of innovation that disentangles “race” from tropes—for example, the trope of religion, including devotional shouting, the body in the midst of baptismal blessing, the tiny cruelties enacted upon children, the body in greased down preparation for church. I want to say that I am not critiquing the tropes themselves here. I am suggesting that the overuse of certain tropes and attachment to certain pasts might obstruct the noticing of other things, and thus, the reinvention of the contemporary self.
In White’s short collection, pasts are almost entirely fraught; rather than use tropes she hollows them and refills them—something akin to stuffing a bell pepper into a the head of a black babydoll. Poem S, titled “Is that a Bird in My Hair? Jesus?” balances on the cusp of profound absurdity and at the same time reminds me of when my mother removed the hair from combs and burn it lest a bird get a hold of it and build a nest, a phenomenon that [mysteriously] makes headaches happen. Reinvention, it seems, is like this—there is a gesture toward something knowable and at the same time a reaching toward what has yet to be imagined.
What might happen in the place of what we think we already know about the past? What if instead of attempting to nail it down, to fix it in place, we instead mutated it or looked toward the fissures, the absences, the holes, the fractures, the places between selves, bodies, and wrote from there? Wouldn’t that be liberating?
Poet and activist Dawn Lundy Martin earned a BA at the University of Connecticut, an MA at San Francisco State University, and a PhD at the University of Massachusetts Amherst. Her poetry collections include Discipline (2011), chosen by Fanny Howe for the Nightboat Books Prize, and A Gathering of Matter/A Matter...