The Poetry Review Explores Tyehimba Jess & Harmony Holiday's Vital Hybrid Poetics
In a double-review for the winter issue of the U.K.'s Poetry Review, Dai George looks at Tyehimba Jess's Olio (Wave Books, 2016) and Harmony Holiday's Hollywood Forever (Fence, 2017), with an eye on "an increasingly vital hybrid poetics evolving on the other side of the Atlantic, in defiance of Trump’s zombie white supremacist politics and the subtler exclusions of the liberal establishment." More:
...Their overt subject is black musicality, and the parasitic fascination that white culture has with the talented, entertaining, alien other in its midst. Out of this toxic relationship emerges a condition James Baldwin once diagnosed as “schizophrenic”, where “to be a Black American is in some ways to be born with the desire to be white”. Harmony Holiday excerpts these words opposite a poem titled ‘There is this ambivalence that I must deal with’, whose speaker wonders “if we’re in cahoots with every / oppressor on every side”. In this collusive and painful condition lies a rationale for the hybrid aesthetic, in so far as restless, mutable forms might enact the trauma of a mind divided against itself, caught between assimilation and refusal, patronage and self-determination. Yet paradoxically they might also enable the black voice – or black body – to evade the pigeonholes of a culture that would happily co-opt it. “To enter the transcendent field we started in,” declares Holiday in ‘for dreamers, for drummers’, “you must assimilate those opposites it gazes at, and then you have to testify as them, one by one, alone.”
Hollywood Forever, Holiday’s second full poetry collection after Negro League Baseball (2011), is literally difficult to read. On almost every page the text competes against its backdrop, be that an Ornette Coleman album cover, an Azealia Banks tweet, or a racist poster from the Jim Crow South. These images are as intrinsic to the experience of reading the book as the stark, irregular poems that jut against them. Little effort is made to clarify the font or even to situate it in the foreground, a rebarbative effect that mimics the internet and its hyperreal din. “I couldn’t stop googling mugshots,” begins ‘Recognition Scenes’, over a grainy reproduction of Prince staring blankly at the camera. The poem veers catastrophically from allusions to narcotics addiction, domestic servitude and the commodification of black pop music (“these pills / our pills toppling into sold songs / and mammies on the TV dinner tray in wrong aprons”) to the sudden, oblique vision of a lynching (“Mama is no mulatto / casual swinging from that oak”). These conflations and accelerations are central to the logic of Holiday’s work. A poem will start amid the exploitative junk of the present day, spitting and riffing on what it finds, before a trapdoor opens under it and we’re plunged into a nightmare. Again, this effect seems closely linked to the experience of surfing the net. Images proliferate, links are clicked on; historical trauma springs from the subconscious with the speed of a pop-up window.
This is in many respects a hard, unsentimental book, its voice both wary and weary. It testifies, over and again, to “how lonely it is to overcome ourselves and the / choreographed oppression” (‘Niggas with wings or a luminous continuity’). But against the grotesque choreography of white racism, Holiday asserts an alternative tradition...
Please read the full review here.