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All the Birds Sing Bass: The Revolutionary Blues of Jayne Cortez.

Although Jayne Cortez is one of the most popular poets in the United States, few critics have examined her work in detail. Eugene B. Redmond devotes some attention to her poetry in Drumvoices (1976); Barbara Christian has published review essay (1985); Aldon Nielsen discusses Cortez's work in his seminal study Black Chant: The Languages of African American Postmodernism (1997); and Kimberly N. Brown has recently published a chapter on her in Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color (1998). The neglect of Cortez's poetry reflects an indifference toward poetry generally and, more specifically, the Black Arts Movement which shaped her approach to writing. Despite the recent attention devoted to Sterling Brown, the vast majority of critics continues to focus upon various prose forms. And while this attention has contributed a reassessment of the importance of African American literature, many black poets--Henry Dumas, for instance--have been all but forgotten.

The critical indifference toward the Black Arts Movement stems from bitter disagreements over the definition of literature between conventional critics, on the one hand, and Black Aesthetic proponents, on the other. Black Arts poets contended that they had become the new avant-garde in American literature, but critics like Henry Louis Gates countered that Black Aesthetic theorists were essentialist and chauvinist, and dismissed the poetry of the period as mere rhetoric. The adherence to cultural nationalism inhibited a truly revolutionary poetics because it fostered a manichean world view wherein poets often conceptualized representation as reactions to the colonizer. As Patrick Taylor argues m his Fanonian study of African Caribbean literature and culture, the inability of the colonized to act on her/his own terms reflects a world view shaped by slave ethics (55). The widespread rejection of the blues as submissive music reflected a sense of confusion not unlike the false consciousness to which the poets we re opposed, and their conceptualization of representation as a dialogue with the master undercut one of the primary objectives of the movement--to speak directly to the colonized.

Nonetheless, Black Arts writers were correct when they called attention to the potentiality of a sound-based poetics. As David Lionel Smith says, "Though Gates often assaults Black Aesthetic critics for having an ideological agenda, the real struggle is between an ideology that rejects the institutional status quo and another that embraces it" (106). While the academy has traditionally privileged metaphor as a universal sine qua non of the poetic, it is also important to consider the political implications of this viewpoint. Barbara Harlow has pointed out that indictments against much of Third World poetry as rhetorical are based upon attempts to create a universal idea--that genuine poetry is based upon metaphor--out of a locally based notion that follows Aristotle's ideas in The Poetics (50). "Who knows what a poem ought to sound like," Charles Olson writes, "until it's thar?" (79).

My contention is that Black Aesthetic poetic theories are best exemplified in the poetry of Jayne Cortez, whose work demonstrates the full potentiality of what I call a blues poetics; that is, the most profound manifestation of the tradition of African American Resistance poetry. Earlier poets like Sterling Brown and the Langston Hughes of the 1920s had resisted misrepresentation by transcribing vernacular forms onto the page. Margaret Walker, Robert Hayden, and the Hughes of Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951) fused their fascination with vernacular forms with a concern for modem literary conventions. However, Black Arts poets, who were attuned to the impact of Malcolm X and James Brown on black audiences, realized that the sermon and song/shout could be utilized to create a popular people's poetry (Neal, "Shine" 20-21). In other words, rather than envisioning their work primarily as reading material, poets attempted to incarnate--that is, become--the black performer and thereby blur the distinction between poetry and song by using the voice as an instrument. But while the idea of incarnating the performer is certainly a viable one, poets were not always successful. Like any other artistic approach, incarnation requires study and craft.

I intend to demonstrate not only how clearly Cortez's work is informed by African American vernacular forms, but also how she appropriates the role of the blues artist as secular priestess. After a brief discussion of Cortez's unique version of blues poetry, in which she blends sacred and secular black cultural traditions with Surrealism, I will examine key texts of hers that reflect a radical internationalist politics shaped by the specific historicity of the African American experience and committed to the liberation of colonized subjects globally. I will also demonstrate how Cortez calls into question the hegemony of a script-centered poetics. Such an examination requires a critical methodology that acknowledges the central position of blues music as a matrix in African American culture (Baker 3). My blues metaphor will help me to illuminate the various ways in which Cortez's artistic method parallels blues musicians' creative process, particularly their revisions of other vernacular forms.

Though few poets utilize blues stanzas regularly, much black poetry is informed by a blues aesthetic. But since many critics cannot envision an alternative to a script-centered poetics, they often mistakenly assume that a blues method can only be reflected in stanzaic patterns on the page. Needless to say, this view of literary crafts(wo)manship is constricting. As Sherley Anne Williams suggests in her important essay "The Blues Roots of Contemporary Afro-American Poetry," the problem that critics should address is the poet's creative process. According to Williams, poets who revise black vernacular forms--that is, blues poets--"extend the verbal traditions of the blues in the same way that the Swing of Count Basie and the bebop of Charlie Parker extend the instrumental traditions of the blues, making those traditions 'classic' in a recognizably Western sense while remaining true to the black experiences and black perceptions which are their most important sources" (135). Here Williams clearly provides an ou tline for a new critical trope based upon blues music. She suggests that the black poet's position vis-a-vis black expressive forms is analogous to the jazz musician's position in African American culture. [1] In other words, by comparing the poet's artistic method to common practices in blues culture, we can better appreciate his/her literary achievements.

My selection of the phrase secular priesthood bears some explanation here. Above all else, Black Arts poets wanted to promote self-determination through their writing. As Larry Neal says in his 1968 essay "The Black Arts Movement," "The main tenet of Black Power is the necessity for black people to define the world in their own terms. The black artist has made the same point in the context of aesthetics" (62). While many writers interpreted this as an excuse to abandon form altogether (Thomas 309), more perceptive writers insisted on creating different kinds of poetic forms. "Yeah," Neal writes, "you can take the other dude's instruments and play like your Uncle Rufus's hog callings. But there is another possibility also: You could make your own instruments" (Neal, "Ellison's Zoot Suit" 53). [2]

Of course, many critics have scoffed at the notion of a sound-based poetics, but Raymond Williams points out that this position reflects a class bias, because literature has always been associated with social privilege: The definition of literature as a printed book was based upon a social concept that signified educational achievement for the privileged few (47). But "if literature was reading," says Williams, "could a mode written for spoken performance be said to be literature, and if not, where was Shakepeare?" (48). So, in spite of their rejection of Christianity as mythology, Black Arts poets adopted the black preacher as a model because they understood his/her role in the New World as a primal poet and performer. In other words, black aestheticians attempted to create an affective poetics similar to affective preaching, which allows the listener to experience the poem sensually and thereby gain understanding through memory. Audiences discuss and evaluate a stellar performance weeks afterwards, virtual ly reliving it, so that its spiritual essence is extended (Davis 33). Yet the question remained: How could the sermon be transformed into a revolutionary secular form?

The answer lay in the blues idiom. Black Arts poets realized that the black musician and the black preacher are counterparts. Their respective expressive forms are inscribed by a blues sensibility. As Albert Murray says in his discussion of saxophonist Lester Young, the blues musician functioned as a secular priest in black communities:"... the off-duty blues musician tends to remain in character much as does the Minister of the Gospel, and as he makes the rounds he also receives a special deference from the Saturday Night Revelers equivalent to that given off-duty ministers by Sunday Morning Worshippers" (230). Thus, despite the black church's disdain for blues music, it is not surprising that black sacred and secular forms have cross-fertilized each other. For instance, Thomas A. Dorsey, who became famous as a composer of gospel music, played piano in Ma Rainey's Wildcat Jazz Band; Bessie Smith and Robert Johnson sang a song entitled "Preachin' the Blues"; and pianist Bobby Timmons's "Moanin'," which elabo rates on gospel rhythms, is now considered a jazz classic. Even trumpeter Miles Davis traced his style to his love of gospel music (Davis 29).

But while Cortez shares much with poets such as Amiri Baraka, Sonia Sanchez, Askia Toure, and Kalamu ya Salaam, who have continued to build upon the aesthetic theories of the Movement, her work is unique in several respects. Just as blues musicians strive to develop an inimical style, so Cortez has developed a personal version of the incarnation of secular priesthood. For instance, Baraka, Sanchez, Toure, and Salaam all employ tonal semantics, an African American form of paralinguistics, a term that performance scholars use to describe a mode of communication that cannot be conveyed adequately in print (Bauman 19). That is, "the voice is employed like a musical instrument with improvisation, riffs, and all kinds of playing between the notes" (Smitherman 134). [3] But Cortez has been able to rehearse with her own band, which allows her to fine-tune her use of tonal semantics in her interactions with band members. Her band, The Firespitters, has a distinct sound, yet it is clear to listeners that the band has b een structured around her voice and the rhythms of her poetry. Cortez often employs vocal techniques that simulate those of blues singers and/or instrumentalists. She also uses what I call terms of rememory [4]: allusions, words, and/or images that recall important aspects of the black cultural experience.

In addition, Cortez's development as a poet seems to coincide with her development of an internationalist world view and an interest in Surrealism, whose radical politics are quite compatible with the ideas of Black Arts theorists. Surrealists emphasize a correlation between consciousness and social action. Andre Breton (132) believed that artists and intellectuals should identify with workers, and his idea of recovering one's psychic force by plunging into the depths of one's interior sounds similar to Haki Madhubuti's idea that liberation can only be achieved if black people "change [their] mind[s]" (38). Though Breton mistakenly assumed that all artists are products of the bourgeoisie, Surrealists were committed to a "tenet of revolt, complete insubordination [and] sabotage according to rule" (125). Hence, it is not surprising that Aime Cesaire recalls that "Surrealism interested me to the extent that it was a liberating factor" (68).

Because of its rejection of simplistic either/or oppositions, Surrealism is an apt complement to the blues. In fact, Paul Garon argues that blues music is an American form of Surrealism (20). While the nationalist vision of many Black Arts poets restricted their attention to African American forms, Cortez's interest in Surrealism is analogous to blues musicians' fascination with Western instruments. Just as black musicians discovered that they could create the effects they desired in music by applying oral techniques to Western instruments, so Cortez employs Surrealism to create a blues-surreal method. More specifically, Cortez's poetic style exemplifies blues music's propensity for syncretism. She often blends surrealistic imagery with rhythms that riff on-that is, revise-the black sermon form.

The riff chorus that black preachers employ in call-and-response interchanges with congregations is a prominent feature in Cortez's poetry. This mnemonic device is usually employed as a variation of what Gerald Davis calls a formula set that "develop[s] from a key word, idea, or phrase in the lines immediately preceding the set" (53):

Churches everywhere

Churches in the basements

Churches on the street corner

Churches in the storefronts and in the garages

Churches in the dwelling house and

Churches in the synagogues

Churches everywhere

Churches on the air twenty-four hours a day

Turn on the air and you'll hear somebody preaching church (Coagulations 52)

The key word here is, of course, Churches, and the line "Churches everywhere" concurrently establishes rhythmic and rhetorical bases for subsequent lines.

At times, though, Cortez's key word or phrase is less obvious to readers. Nor does she always convert her key word or phrase into a riff chorus. In "For the Brave Young Students of Soweto," for instance, the riff chorus contributes more to the rhetorical import of the poem than to its rhythm. Cortez celebrates the 1976 uprising by South African students by cataloging a series of images that function like a collage to describe the degradation of South African colonization. The issue of concern was the politics of language. Students marched in protest as a response to the government's order that Afrikaans be used as the language of instruction in the schools. After the police killed thirteen-year-old Hector Petersen by shooting him from behind, students rioted, boycotted and burned schools, and attacked police stations and the homes of black policemen (Mandela 112-13).

In the recorded version, the poem is introduced by a duet between muzette player Bill Cole and drummer Denardo Coleman, Cortez's son. As the tempo of the drumming increases, the muzette fades, allowing for a brief drum solo before Cortez interjects her own voice, using the line when i hear your name or a variation of it as her key phrase to draw parallels between various colonized groups. First, she establishes a political interconnection between South Africans and African Americans:


when i hear your name

I think about you

like the fifth ward in Houston Texas

Then she focuses on other colonized peoples to emphasize the global nature of colonization:

When i look at this ugliness

and think about the Native Americans


into the famine of tribal reserves

think about the concentration camps

full of sad

Palestinians (Coagulations 44)

Cortez does not engage in tonal semantics in "For the Brave Young Students in Soweto." Instead, she relies upon the rhythmic structure of the poem and the blending of her own voice with the music of her band members to compel the listener's attention. However, in "U.S./Nigerian Relations," a revised title from the printed version in Firespitter entitled "Nigerian/American Relations," Cortez demonstrates the complexity of sound-based poetics. Although the printed version of the poem reads as a simplistic example of prose that is nothing more than a compound sentence--"They want the oil / But they don't want the people" (26)--Cortez's performance is a classic example of the incarnation of secular priesthood, an extended riff chorus of these two lines. At the outset, Cortez's lines, which at this point are barely audible, are accented by single drumbeats. As she increases the volume of her voice, the band members begin to play. When Cortez speeds up the tempo, the band responds, and they all proceed at a feverish pace before a brief interlude, when the band plays ensemble without her. When Cortez returns, she uses an antiphonal approach, alternating the pitch of her voice by enunciating the line They want the oil in her speaking voice and enunciating the word people in a high-pitched voice that intermittently intones an interrogative. Then Cortez returns briefly to the fast tempo before conc luding the poem by slowly repeating the phrase they don't want the people (26).

An important aspect of Cortez's revolutionary mission involves employing her blues aesthetic in a process that Cesaire refers to as "disalienation" (68). That is, Cortez uses the blues to assume the role of the ancestral healer. While she asserts the right of the colonized to use violence in poems like "Rape," "Give Me the Red on the Black of the Bullet," and "Lynch Fragment 2," more often her work operates as a sort of antibiotic that attacks the false consciousness in the colonized psyche. Since the cultural bomb (Ngugi wa Thiong'o's term) is central to the hegemonic process that "annihilate[s] people's belief... in themselves [and] makes them see their past as one vast wasteland of nonachievement" (Ngugi 3), Cortez's orchestrations of the blues impulse function as medicinal testimonies that recapitulate and historicize shared cultural experiences. That is, her song/poems encourage colonized audience members to revise the terms in which they view themselves, so that they can move, at least psychologically, from margin to center. [5]

Yet it is important to bear in mind that Cortez varies the changes of her blues modality to address specific problems. "Rose Solitude" is a case in point. The poem is a praise song/poem for Duke Ellington, who was arguably the preeminent American composer of the twentieth century, and yet denied the informal title of the King of Swing, which was given instead to Glenn Miller. "Rose Solitude" thus resituates Ellington's music as a central figure in our collective memory. The poem is introduced by Richard Davis's elegiac bass. Cortez's title recalls Ellington's "Solitude," and her persona is a personification of the Ellington muse. Though here, too, there is the braggadocio of the blues persona, Cortez employs less antiphony in her own voice, using instead a softer, more sensual tone to simulate a jazz ballad. Cortez begins her lyrics by capturing the ambiance of the jazz musician's life offstage:

I am essence of Rose Solitude

my cheeks are laced with cognac

my hips sealed with five satin nails

I carry dreams of romance of new fools and old flames

between the musk of fat

and the side pocket of my mink tongue

Listen to champagne bubble from this solo (Coagulations 36)

Cortez also uses her surrealistic method to create a poetic collage filled with seemingly incongruous word pictures that she, in turn, near-sings in collaboration with Davis. In addition, Cortez employs a variation of the riff chorus, though readers/listeners may not detect it immediately because Cortez shifts her key words after the first line:

I tell you from stair steps of

these navy blue nights

these metallic snakes

these flashing fish skins

and the melodious cry of Shango

surrounded by sorrow

by purple velvet tears (36)

After the first line establishes the rhythm, Cortez begins the next three lines with the word these, and omits the phrase I tell you from, opting instead to simulate jazz musicians' method of frustrating their listener's expectations by implying the phrase. Similarly, Cortez begins the conclusion of the passage with the phrase surrounded by sorrow, and omits the word surrounded in the next lines.

The collage-effect also simulates blues music. The blend of brilliant colors with Cortez's silky voice produces an exhilarating effect that is comparable to the soothing feelings that compel foot-tapping motions from audience members at jazz concerts. Moreover, Cortez's use of color invokes the presence of blues music. The "navy blue nights" image, like the "purple velvet tears," suggests not only the nighttime settings of the performances but also the super-blues basis of Ellington's music. The snake and Shango (Nigerian god of thunder) images suggest the saxophones and drums, respectively, while "fish skins" imply the sequined dresses the women patrons wore.

In "If the Drum Is a Woman," Cortez evokes Ellington's presence once again. Here, though, instead of the ballad, she combines her own riff chorus with son Denardo Coleman's polyrhythmic drumming in an intertextual dialogue with Ellington. As is typical in the blues tradition, Cortez appropriates Ellington's music as a basis of improvisation for her own tune in order to foreground gender violence. Her response to Ellington here is reminiscent of Dee Dee Bridgewater's "Doodlin'," which is a revision of Horace Silver's version of the song. Like Bridgewater, whose scatting simulates the sound of a trombone, Cortez asserts the primacy of the black female voice, and challenges the objectification inscribed in Ellington's text. On the cover of his suite entitled A Drum Is a Woman, a voluptuous (white) woman appears as the central image of the photograph. Sitting with her back turned between two larger drums, her arms raised and her head tilted back, the woman's curvaceous body is an extension of the drum. Cortez's foregrounding of polyrhythms, then, calls attention to black women's contributions to the cultural histories of the African diaspora, and her collaboration with Coleman suggests the potentiality of broader social cooperation between men and women. Given the gendered inscription of the drum in the photograph, the misogynist implications in "What Else Can You Do With a Drum" become clear, and it is not surprising that Cortez's song/poem is actually a response to this song.

The first part of "What Else Can You Do With a Drum" is a narrative performed by Ellington himself, who focuses on Carribee Joe, a lover of nature and animals, who finds an elaborate drum in the jungle. When Joe touches the drum, it speaks to him and says, "I am not a drum, I am a woman. Know me as Madam Zajj, African chantress." (Ellington). After Joe rejects Madam Zajj's appeal to "make beautiful rhythms together," she angrily flies to Barbados to find another Joe. Then the trumpet section initiates the calypso rhythms in which Trinidadian singer Ozzie Bailey sings,

There was a man who lived in Barbados,

he saw pretty woman one day,

he took her home and when she got there she turned

into a drum.

It isn't civilized to beat women

no matter what they do or they say,

but will somebody tell me what else can you do with a drum? (Ellington)

Cortez displaces Bailey's male voice, and revises Ellington's representation of the black woman as sex object. While Ellington envisioned Madam Zajj (whose name is jazz spelled chiasmically) as a personification of the blues spirit, her capability as an enchantress is based largely on her physical beauty. In contrast, Cortez challenges male listeners to question their conceptualizations of gender roles. While the poem is obviously an indictment of violence against women, it is also a study of the process whereby colonized individuals become reflections of the colonizer, and thereby reify the socio-political structure that underlies their own marginalization by victimizing others:

If the drum is a woman

why are you pounding your drum into an insane


why are you pistol whipping your drum at dawn

why are you shooting through the head of your drum

and making a drum tragedy of drums (Coagulations 57)

In "In the Morning," Cortez engages in a revision of a different sort. Rather than responding to a specific musician, she draws from the wellspring of African American lore, creating a musico-poetic blues form based upon her idea of the ring shout, [6] an antebellum religious ceremony in which slaves danced counter-clockwise to improvised music with refrains. Like Sterling Brown's "Memphis Blues," "In the Morning" is informed by an ABA structure (text, development, and restatement) that is common in jazz compositions and sermons (Henderson 40). Unlike "If the Drum Is a Woman," "In the Morning" is not polemical. Rather, the sound of the poem informs both form and content. Just as bebop musicians employed terms like ool-yakoo to express the pleasure and social ramifications inscribed in the blues impulse, so "In the Morning" describes and conveys the sensations of African American self-discovery through the dance of language in which Cortez reenacts the rocking emotional energy reflected in the syncopation, ha nd clapping, foot stomping, and suggestive gyrations of the ring shout. In the recorded version of "In the Morning," the Firespitters introduce the piece with a slow tune that blends a down-home blues beat with a jazzy, urban sound. Although none of the musicians has a solo, the sound of the guitar is particularly prominent. The foregrounding of the guitar is apt because guitarists were the preferred instrumentalists among blues vocalists. The blues sound contributes to the poem's appeal by producing the actual sounds that Cortez celebrates via simulation and replication. Thus, in syncretizing different strands of blues, Cortez and the Firespitters demonstrate the artistic possibilities for cultural hybridity which, in turn, becomes a metaphor for her revisionary process as she merges sound and script, transforming the traditionally Western notion of literature through its subsumption of the blues matrix.

Like Billie Holiday, who approached singing like blowing a horn (Murray 89), Cortez simulates jazz improvisation in the structure of her poem by employing her title phrase as a riff chorus that frames an allusion to blues lyrics:

In the morning in the morning in the morning

all over my door like a rooster

in the morning in the morning in the morning (Coagulations 28)

Cortez's riff chorus functions like a break in jazz. It marks a rhythmic departure from the previous pattern of the poem, and she maximizes the effect by varying the tone of the repeated line. Guitarist Bern Nix complements Cortez's break by soloing afterwards, and thereby accentuates the simulation of the jazz break. When Cortez returns to her title phrase for the riff chorus, she simulates the rhythm of blues music by varying the pitch of her voice antiphonally, and she experiments with vowel sounds, elongating the /o/ sound in the repeated phrase let it blow to simulate the sounds of horn players. The rhythm continues to build until the poem reaches a crescendo:

all swollen up like an ocean in the morning

early in the morning

before the cream dries in the bushes

in the morning

when you hear the rooster cry

cry rooster cry

in the morning in the morning in the morning (30) [7]

The sexual imagery here is obvious. The swelling, dried cream, rooster, and cry all suggest coitus and/or pregnancy. Yet the passage does not concern sexuality so much as it illustrates the profound respect for the cycle of life in the sediment of African American vernacular epistemology. The shameless embrace of flesh reflected in the gyrations of the ring shout and the undulating belly rub associated with blues music represent a celebration of re-creation in the ritual of birth. The music of Cortez's riff chorus underscores this idea, linking the diurnal renewal of nature with spiritual rejuvenation, just as preachers chant "in the morning" to provide hope to their congregations. But whereas preachers typically frame their conceptualizations of spirituality within the context of the hereafter, Cortez's riff chorus fosters a new dawn imbued with socio-political possibility. The blues, she writes, "[m]asquerad[es] in [hen horn like a river / eclipsed to these infantries of dentures of diving / spears" (29). The conflation o voice, instrument, and weapon reflects Cortez's belief that the raucous energy inscribed in the blues idiom can be channeled into a politically conscious movement to achieve social change.

If "In the Morning" constitutes the dance of African American language, then "You Know" represents its choreography. Despite the superb crafts(wo)manship in the former, "You Know" is perhaps her best poem. A counterpart to "In the Morning," "You Know" is self-reflexive, and is a celebration of the blues idiom. However, "You Know" contrasts with "In the Morning" in several respects. Cortez uses the riff chorus intermittently in "In the Morning" to simulate improvisation, but in "You Know" the riff chorus, "you know," functions like a walking bass: The steady beat allows for the super-imposition of antiphonal lines that simulate solos. Also, while Cortez creates improvisational effects in "You Know," the poem does not concern music so much as it does blues poetics. That is, "You Know" both describes and exemplifies Cortez's ability to merge script and sound and thereby incarnate secular priesthood. Just as Bessie Smith and other women blues singers demonstrated their commitment to their audiences, so Cortez's dedication "(For the people who speak the you know language)" (Coagulations 41) illustrates her political identification with working-class African Americans who often repeat the phrase you know in conversation.

Cortez's dedication also constitutes an act of signifying (in the vernacular sense of that word) on many African Americans whose false consciousness is manifested in their vehement disapproval of any linguistic habits that deviate from the dominant culture. In using the phrase you know as the rhythmic basis of her poem, Cortez demonstrates the poetic potentiality of African American vernacular English.

After the band breaks into a bluesy, medium tempo tune, Cortez opens with the line "You know / I sure would like to write a blues / you know / a nice long blues" (41). Hers is no version of Tin Pan Alley, though. Indeed, a major concern of Cortez involves creating a blues poetics that demythologizes the blues idiom. She cautions against stereotyping blues music as a compilation of lyrics that run "love love love in the ground" (42), and focuses instead on the pent-up rage that Bessie Smith expresses in "Black Mountain Blues":

Back in Black Mountain a child will smack you in your face

Back in Black Mountain a child will smack you in your face

Babies cryin' for liquor, and all the birds sing bass (qtd. in Dance 17)

Cortez then transforms this raw energy into a hard-hitting poetry "that you could all feel at the same time / on the same level like a Joe Louis punch." The revolutionary fervor of Cortez's blues aesthetic is such that "one drop of blues" can turn "a paper clip / into three wings and a bone into a revolt" (41). The bone image reflects Cortez's blues-surreal method. Rather than confining herself to depicting reality only as it is (consider rap artists' urgent calls "to keep it real"), Cortez stresses the importance of changing reality. Hence, the bone and wing images suggest her role as secular priestess whose magical art promotes healing by infusing sensations of freedom into the consciousnesses of her listeners, stimulating them to convert feelings into new realities:

you know

go into the dark meat of a crocodile

and pinpoint the process

you know

into a solo a hundred times

like the first line of Aretha Franklin


The allusion to singer Aretha Franklin indicates that she is an important artistic model for Cortez. The phrase the first line of Aretha suggests Franklin's inimitable style that is recognized immediately by informed listeners. In addition, Cortez's homage to Franklin not only recalls the privileged position of the black musician in African Americans communities, but it also highlights the priestess-like role that Franklin served for black women during her popularity in the 1960s and 1970s. Like Cortez herself, Franklin was not, in the strict sense, a blues singer. The sound of Franklin's voice, however, and the style in which she performed her lyrics produced an effect upon audiences comparable to that of blues musicians. Franklin's performance of "Respect" is a case in point. Though Otis Redding had recorded the song earlier, Sherley Anne Williams points out that Franklin's version is distinctive because it became a metaphor for resistance (recall her spelling the word R-E-S-P-E-C-T) and articulated a set of values that reinforced her listeners' sense of agency.

Of course, as I mentioned earlier, black singers were sources of inspiration for other poets of Cortez's generation. Her work, however, offers a double-edged revision of Black Arts poetry. For instance, "You Know" displays all ten of the qualities that Carolyn Rodgers lists in her taxonomy of Black Arts poetry. "You Know" "signif[ies]"; it "teach[es]/rap[s]"; it "run[s]down" and "coatpull[s]"; it engages in "mindblow[ing]" (fantasy); it is "dealin/swingin"; it expresses "love"; it is "two faced" (irony); it "riff[s]"; it is "du-wah"; and it concerns "getting us together" (7-8). Yet the poem is also an implicit critique of the cultural nationalism that impeded the full development of a blues poetics. While "You Know" should be read as a response to Baraka's request in "Black Art" for "a Black poem" (106), her foregrounding of the blues idiom in the line i sure would like to write a blues is a revision of the manicheism in "Black Art." Similarly, "You Know" retorts to Sonia Sanchez's "liberation / poem," where in she says, "blues ain't culture / they sounds of / oppression" (54). Despite Sanchez's disclaimer, her very language-that is, her use of the zero copula-as well as her omission of the In sound in the lines no mo / blue / trains running on this track (which recalls John Coltrane's "Blue Trane") testify to her own attempt to create a blues poetics.

Cortez's version of blues poetry constitutes a profound challenge to literary conventions, and demonstrates the eloquence of contemporary blues poetics. As such, it affirms Raymond Williams's suggestion that it is possible to create literature for a colonized audience. Yet the hallmark of her achievement is her production of a syncretized form that blends oral forms like blues music and the sermon with the notion of literature as script. While many African American poets have experimented with vernacular forms, Cortez adds a new dimension to literary history by incarnating the black performer. In the process, she reconceptualizes the very notion of American poetry by shaping her work to the contours of omni-American aesthetics [8] grounded in the specific historical experiences of the United States. Whereas most poets in the Black Arts Movement rejected the notion of the artifact and thereby accepted a manichean opposition between (black) sound and (white) script, Cortez redefines the literary artifact by re cording albums, though she continues to publish books. Thus, in her quest for a popular people's poetry, she appeals to both readers and listeners.

Tony Bolden is Assistant Professor of English at the University of Alabama. He is currently revising a book-length manuscript on African American poetry.


(1.) While the term jazz is expedient for the purposes of this discussion, I consider jazz as the most complex manifestation of the blues idiom. Albert Murray (75, 82) argues that, even though blues instrumentalists use oral techniques, the actual message of the music comes from its instrumentation.

(2.) Given the male-centered references here, it is ironic that Jayne Cortez has become the preeminent poet to emerge out of the Movement.

(3.) According to Peter Middleton, some poets enhance the effectiveness of their performances by using "sound symbolism, the use of the sound of words to intensify the meaning of what [they write]" (284).

(4.) I am borrowing Toni Morrison's term here.

(5.) I am borrowing bell hooks's title here.

(6.) See the "liner notes" to Unsubmissive Blues.

(7.) I witnessed the power of this poem first hand at the 1994 National Black Arts Festival in Atlanta. The audience demonstrated its approval with loud hoots and screams, and gave Cortez a standing ovation.

(8.) I am borrowing Albert Murray's title here.

Works Cited

Baker, Houston, A. Jr. Blues, Ideology, and Afro-American Literature: A Vernacular Theory. Chicago: U of Chicago P, 1984.

Baraka, Amiri. "Black Art." Selected Poetry of Amiri Baraka /Leroi Jones. New York: Morrow, 1979. 106-07.

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Author:Bolden, Tony
Publication:African American Review
Article Type:Critical Essay
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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