Tonya Foster takes on the question of form itself in “Touching Authenticities” by deconstructing the essay, which strikes me as a necessary gesture given that she is tending to the question of the “authentic.” The world of the “natural” is laid bare, interrogated, and destabilized in Foster’s piece, as is “origin,” which begs the question in poetics, “Who do we refer to when we animate the speaking I?” In conversation with Rosmarie Waldrop’s groundbreaking talk/essay, “Alarms and Excursions,” Foster reimagines what it means to tell the story of one’s self, one’s beginnings, one’s “history,” what one remembers, and how what one remembers can be radically disfigured by the imposition of the present—in Foster’s case, a newly found one-minute video of her father “talking into a camera about homelessness.”
A narrative, Foster seems to suggest, has an artifice that is at its outset inauthentic. The conventions of form motor the coherence of the inauthentic and re-write it as not constructed, but instead organic as if the body produces our notions of who we are. Invoking Jay Wright’s cosmic poetics, Camille Rankine’s apostrophe of catastrophe, and Ronaldo V. Wilson’s disquieted body, Foster unearths that alien feeling familiar to me by now—the one that watches cannot be addressed inside the body that experiences, the one that is forced to reconcile what cannot be reconciled. As Foster, herself, says in this remarkable memoir-ish grappling, “no easy answers.”
—Dawn Lundy Martin
As I prepare to move farther West than I’d ever planned, I find myself trying to “sum up” my time as a poet in New York. Summarize. Reckon. Tally. Complete? Sometimes, my attempts to tell this New York tale begin in New Orleans in Miss Turner’s third grade classroom, where I declare my plans to be a lawyer or a singer and to live in New York City. Detail—RM and EM (unrelated to each other, they have different last names) were in that class. I remember wanting to be seen by them. Other times, the story begins with me following a man I realized too late that I loved to the city of my childhood dreams. Detail—my first year in New York, I relentlessly mourn his absence by looking for him wherever I went in the city. Other days, the tale might begin with my driving a 10-foot U-Haul from Houston to New Orleans to Atlanta to D.C, and then, on an October 5th, through Lincoln Tunnel into New York. Detail—as we approach the toll, I crank up Oleta Adams’s cover of Billy Joel’s New York State of Mind. Crank it loud enough to drown in the sing along. This is a setting of the stage. Of course, desire trusses each of those “beginnings.” Initiation and ignition. Audre Lorde writes of the “erotic [as] a measure between our sense of self and the chaos of our strongest feelings.” That chaos characterizes more than private, internal spaces, is also measure between self (or sense of) and other selves (definitive or possible or unfamiliar). And yes, “We think by feeling.”
A couple of weeks ago, I learned of a one-minute video of my father. In the frame, he’s outside in the New Orleans sun, sitting on a bench against the stone of what looks like a city building. He’s in a white t-shirt, bald and sweating, talking into a camera about homelessness. Homelessness. Shot seven years ago, the video, the fact and clarity of it and of what it suggests about his instability unsettle me, destabilize the stories I tell myself about him, about my own beginnings and belongings, about his trajectories. The video casts a shifting filter over the stories he’s told me. There’s a peculiar, discomforting feeling in watching the estranged face of my father in a video that he doesn’t know I’ve seen; a sense that something of the father’s daughter perspective is derailed, at the same time that the daughter is cast as the unrelated voyeur. Neither perspective is stable nor singularly authentic, particularly given that authenticity depends, in part, on inscription. The video tells me so little, and yet suggests much about his life outside of my understanding. Many of my earlier poems were filled with his absences. No speculation. Just absences.
On a cross-country flight, I finally watched the film Birdman. In the movie’s closing shots the white face of Emma Stone as the undaughterly-daughter-transformed gazes through a window after her disappeared father. She smiles lovingly, not into the camera, but through the window, into the there in which the figure of the father possibly soars. Stage right. I think. Sometimes, figuration draws admiration and soothing comfort. Some performances can suggest what we already think we know, can reassure and affirm.
So, some details are corny that way. They can make a start or an ending seem pat, punctuated by certainty, by definitiveness of beginning/ending and of trajectory. The end may be in the beginning but the beginning is not always nor only what or where we claim it is. Each origin has, of course, its myriad origins in memories and/or sensations, in languages, in histories, in bodies. Instabilities in perspective, in contexts, in meaning, in our experiences in/of time are regular features of the day-to-day, the moment to monumental, the minute to historic. And how do poets render that, that sense of multiplicity that might decorn and destabilize? Or that might at least suggest the lived dailyness of the instabilities in which we (poet-we, nonpoet-we) traffic?
Jay Wright opens “Three Pots Figure a Going and a Return,” the first poem in The Guide Signs: Book One and Book Two (2007), the final parts of a 10-book series, by dialing into the “kindness” and logics of pots in the company of an “I,” by tuning into a discomforting eros of forms and being:
Pots treat me kindly, fall with a logical
flow. Some I know will cunningly play with my
head, flare and turn, a nesting sorrow,
set near the hearth of my spirit’s corner.
In Wright’s work a reader can be drawn along by initiating deft musics that “play” with the head by suggesting a musical levity and ease that will nonetheless nest sorrow. Through the long o’s of flow, know, sorrow to the l’s of fall, of will, and at the end of logical, as well as the l’s (and f’s) of flare, flow, and fall, the language of this work sets us up for the dis ease and pleasure that mark even “the smallest space of being,” at the same time that it imagines spaces of being just beyond a body’s, a form’s experience. He registers the unborn before and the dead beyond, the body a necessary passage. “Blessed by the dead, I await the body.” In Wright’s poetry, even an encounter with pots has cosmic implications for what and how we hold and what holds us. There is a sense of an expansive and shifting interiority that marks and is marked by the spaces in which being is and takes place. Wright’s inquiries into nature and forms of being give no easy “answer.” Permutations of form, and, via form, being.
Camille Rankine opens Incorrect Merciful Impulses (2016) with an epistolary addressed to disparate you’s. “Tender” begins the collection by particularizing and drawing together, grafting a universal that is both bare and "rich with particulars":
None of this means what we thought it did
Dear bone fragments
Dear broken skin
I am in over my head
Through a subtle turn of form, the patriot is answer and cause and inside of the catastrophe. The “I” is the body, is in the body, is in the pieces of the scattered body, and is above those pieces and the idea of those pieces. In Rankine’s collection, the we is a discomforting mischling of being, event, memory, and object. There is deft attention to structures of sociality that will not allow easy rest nor settled perspective. In her analyses “The struggle/ is authenticity.”
Is that the case for bodies of texts, as well as for beings? Is there textual authenticity? What’s the struggle of the text?
The title poem of Farther Traveler, Ronaldo Wilson’s study of loss, desire, love, and of the physical limits of the self, begins with waste, a focus on the artificial containment of the biological.
Urine, dark in a pouch, bangs on the thigh,
tethered to a catheter. Root to the bladder.
The gash in the sack—
What will heal is not remembered.
For instance, when my Dad goes for a walk,
but for undulating—
It may as well be sky.
The struggles are material and formal. The tethered waste bangs. There is the “smell of faint shit,” and a dailyness that won’t return the father to his known self. The father travels farther. Survival is rooted in these discomforts and decompositions. The book’s formal variations—poems, prose, movies, diptychs, epistolary—refuse to settle into a single, comforting mode, and Wilson’s radical poetics immerse the us his work calls forth in the chaos of physical and intellectual being(s). His work attends to the messy erotics of power that animate bodies and ideas of authenticities, challenging the idea that authenticity is beyond the body, beyond the body’s performances and productions. The abstract real is a bodily breakdance and breakdown. This is memorialization. The work is dedicated to and elegy for his father, who was and is. It’s also ode to Daddies.
“In 1901, visitors to the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, New York, could pay 10 cents to watch emancipated slaves and two generations of free-born African Americans reenact scenes of slavery in an attraction called Old Plantation. This live display was supposed to ‘amuse and at the same time instruct’ (Ahrhart 1901:42) the visitor about what slave life was like on the “old plantation befo’ de wah.” During the seven-month run of this attraction, the cast numbering over 150 black performers — touted as “genuine southern darkies” who had “never been north of the Mason and Dixie Line” — lived in “real” slave log cabins, picked cotton while singing work songs, and performed “camp style” meetings and cakewalks for visitors.
Yet this ‘veritable glimpse of the Sunny South’ reportedly required the creation of a special school by a Northern white showman to prepare the black troupe for their performances. ‘The principal of the school,’ as a Buffalo newspaper reported, was Fred McClellan, a show business veteran with 18 years of managerial experience, including a five-year stint at Madison Square Garden in New York City and another five years at Buffalo’s Shea’s Theatre. For one month, McClellan taught his “pupils” — ‘negroes of all ages, sizes and shades of black’ — essential elements of the late-19th-century minstrel stage. He taught them cakewalks and buck dancing, rehearsed them in singing ‘negro melodies’ and ‘camp-meeting songs,’ and ‘prepared [them] to reproduce the Southern negro at work and at play’ for the world’s fair.
—from “Lessons from Blackbody Minstrelsy: Old Plantation and the Manufacture of Black Authenticity,” by Amma Y. Ghartey-Tagoe Kootin in TDR: The Drama Review.
What was being reproduced?
What nature of being was produced by this form?
Speaking of Daddies.
Where is the authentic located?
How is it assessed and propagated?
Can authenticity be taught?
Any production of There can take comfort in what seems familiar, seems known, is thought known. There is discomfort when we come into messy fleshy contact. Poems come in and out of contact, an erotic measure of that is most often at some remove, some distance.
Pre-New Orleans New Orleans. Some fortunate French fellow, far from and lonely for home, arrives at the end of February, 1699 with his fleet of four ships at the mouth of the Mississippi. He is, one imagines, though definitely smelly and disheveled, rather elegant with the force of an explorer’s nature—the capacity for imposition. At first, he asserts that the mud-coated tree trunks at the river-mouth are rocks. Mistakes in perception cost something. (ASIDE: Who pays and how much?) This mistake keeps him and his men from shore for a time. Once he understands the trees as trees, he instructs his men to run their day-boats ashore, where, despite having been guided by directions from members of the Bayagoula and the Mongoulacha tribes, the Frenchman and his men celebrate their “discovery.” They sing a Te Deum in honor of the occasion.
The next day, Shrove Tuesday, the fellow and his fleet begin their ascent of the river. They christen a bayou twelve miles in “Mardi Gras.” The lakes they encounter they name Pontchartrain and Maurepas in honor of France’s Maritime Minister and his son. They use their mother tongue and a cross (with all its attendant meanings) to inscribe foreign terrain.
Memory and a Reading of Histories
Taking the Path train from Manhattan, I used to travel westward into Jersey City. Established just after 1629 when Michael Pauw bought a tract of land from the Raritan Indians, the site of the city was first important as a gateway into Northern New Jersey for the Dutch traders who settled Manhattan. It was an important station on the Underground Railroad. Slaves escaping North hid in the dead air space between cabins on Erie Canal boats. The site of the city has always been a point of transition. From the island to the mainland. From being called Scheyechbi by the Lenni Lanape to being called Jersey City. From Native American to Dutch to English to American. From European immigrants and African slaves to East Indian, Middle Eastern, Asian, African, and Latino immigrants. From agriculture to industry. From wilderness to fortified settlement to the wilderness of an incorporated city. Any transition, whether it’s from one place to another, from one gesture to another, from one position to another, or from one line to another is an exertion of will.
Ruptures are accompanied by some sort of violence/violins of violation/vile oscillations. The Dutch traders robbed and massacred the Raritans. In self-defense, the Raritans attacked Dutch settlements. During the British occupation of New York, Major Light Horse Harry Lee led 300 men south from the American camp on upper Hudson River to the site of Jersey City to attack a British fort. Decades later, when the population of the area consisted mainly of boatmen and transients and the town had neither jail nor policemen, the area became known for dog fights, bull baits, and drunken brawls. Even after Jersey City was incorporated and an official order established, there were strikes and riots and bombings. Each disruption in the “world as we know it” is a disruption in our perception of the world…
How is the sense of disruption mediated for the tourist, the non-native? While personal context (tradition, experience, and environment—social and economic) dictates the vocabulary and, what Roland Barthes calls, the “body of attitudes” that accompany depictions of New Orleans, “[t]he image [of the city] is penetrated through and through by the system of meaning, in exactly the same way as man is articulated to the depths of his being in distinct languages. The language of [any] image is not merely the totality of utterances emitted,[…], it is also the totality of utterances received: the language must include the surprises of meaning.” Barthes’s idea of “surprises of meaning” seems to have become an essentialized/naturalized aspect of the “distilled” image and function of New Orleans. Its reputations as the “fattest” city in the nation, as home to some of the world’s finest cuisine, as the one-time murder capital of the country, as home to several drive-through daiquiri joints, as the birth place of jazz (which early on was considered obscene), as a place where any and everything goes sets up the city as a place where anything that happens can be read as “natural.” The perspective of the native who experiences the city-space as an immediate rather than relativistic event is rarely a part of this public accounting…. Is the poet the accountant?
It’s the shifting perspective which engages my creative work and critical work, which orients my thinking by feeling.
A few years after Katrina, when I’d returned to New Orleans to teach as my mother moved back into her reconstructed home, I regularly met with my cousin K at Tulane, my alma mater. K and her mother had not left New Orleans during the storm and were two of the over 15,000 citizens who took refuge in the New Orleans Superdome. Over coffee or lunch, K talked about her experiences during the storm, about how she and her mother made their way to the dome from the Calliope (pronounced Cal-lee-ope, which rhymes with nope, legally known as BW Cooper, and pronounced Cal-li-o-pe, which rhymes with dopey, by non-natives) the Calliope Projects once it became clear how serious the flooding was. She talked about the smells of sewage and garbage that covered their skin and clothing, (Calliope, by the by, is the muse of epic poetry) talked about the backed-up and overflowing toilets and the horrible smell of human waste and rot, about how it contributed to the sense of despair, the sense that the smell signaled an end of days. There was a sense that there was no way out. Surrounded and abandoned in/like shit…My older cousin K didn’t recognize herself or her life. I’m haunted by that image and idea, by how home and the self are reconfigured/defamiliarized by disaster and state designations. What is the state of subjectivities in/as debris? Their figurations and performances?
What’s to be done with experience? With what is past experience? What to do with what is/is not mine to tell?
Tonya M. Foster was born in Bloomington, Illinois, and raised in New Orleans. She earned a BA from Newcomb College, Tulane University, and an MFA from the University of Houston. Foster is the author of the poetry collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court (Belladonna*, 2015) and coedited the book Third Mind:...