Dawn Lundy Martin, Good Stock Strange Blood.
Harmony Holiday, Hollywood Forever. Fence Books, 2017.
Duriel E. Harris, No Dictionary of a Living Tongue. Nightboat Books, 2017.
Based in part on an "experimental libretto" for a multimedia operatic project that never came to fruition, Dawn Lundy Martin's Good Stock Strange Blood explores the conundrum of heritage and choice, what we might summarize as the age-old problem of determinism vis-a-vis the freedom of the will. In this book the drag effect of "history"--a dystopian resignation to determinism--on Martin's fierce utopian drive implies less a tug of war than gothic haunting, the residue of personal and collective trauma. That Black female writers as various as M. NourbeSe Philip, Toni Morrison, Barbara Chase-Riboud, Gayl Jones, Helen Oyeyemi, and Yvonne Vera have also examined the everyday causes and effects of racist violence and patriarchal abuse does not mean Martin's writings are to be lightly taken or summarily dismissed. As the emergence of Black Lives Matter and #MeToo attests, Good Stock Strange Blood is old news that remains all too new.
As in her previous collections of poetry, Martin returns to scenes of trauma, to the legacies bequeathed by blood (e.g., light skin and nappy hair moralized as good and bad, respectively) and what we might simply call the "world," figured here as boxes within boxes ("When you leave the com- / pound, you discover a larger / compound. You're traveling in / the wrong direction"). Since enjambment traditionally functions as both a mode of inertia and mutability--the pleasures of narrative reduced to a simple dialectic of familiarity and change--Martin invokes lyric parataxis and prosaic musicality to, respectively, countermand and reinforce vehicles of transformation. And as the book's title implies, transformation is just a few cells (and, in writing, a few letters) away from transmogrification. The book is thus organized according to time-lapse techniques rather than narrative epiphanies. For example, the last section, optimistically named "Operatic, the Book Escapes the Book," is cut, as if unadulterated hope was too lethal a drug, by the ambivalent last line of the book: "Tightrope from which we emerge." Here, as a few pages before, flights of fancy ("To mutate is to live") take off from the decks of civilization ("Call it a shoe worn over whole magics"), serve as "Counterband" (the name of another section) to the "com-/ pound" box labeled Afro-pessimism. On the one hand, Good Stock Strange Blood posits "black" against "they," acknowledging the obstinate objectification of the African Diaspora by colonizing subjects (Black and white). On the other hand, inasmuch as "black" is just another "com-/ pound," an enforced with-ness (i.e., "we"), Martin detaches her narrator from a composite "black"--as well as from a reductive "female"--in order to defer, indefinitely, the dovetailing of culture and biology at the nexus of race and sex. Against this historical positivism, Martin invokes negation: "I am not a boy in anyone's body. // I am not a black in a black body." Had it not been commodified as the go-to badge of a proud ambivalence, queerness might be a word for what Martin is attempting here. Still, as a placeholder for "what can be accessed only because it cannot be reached," queerness may have to do.
But "to be" queer and to queer something is, in both cases, to give in to the infinitive. For Martin, being, the infinitive par excellence insofar as it appears as history, must be refigured, transformed into that which flirts with monstrosity (another name for the divine). Thus, the opening metaphor of the book as a "house" with a "foyer" (here, the Prologue) immediately gives way to the book as "a long, thin, wavy tendril" attached to "a small spot at the top of [the narrator's] head." However, the Prologue, cast as an interview, appears inadequate as it is followed by a second "prologue," or the second part of a divided Prologue: a set of poems titled "To Shed the Traces of Catastrophe ...?" Here, "we," a more capacious term than, if all too presumptuous as, "black," is posed against "they" in a series of lyric vectors, zigzagging between bafflement ("What is our name?") and affirmation ("We shut shades") that will recall, for some readers, certain sections of Zongl or Beloved. The key figure in the opening section, however, is neither "we" nor "they" but "Mother," an apt "origin" not only because the next section is called "The Baby Book," but also because the mother is both a figure of reprobation ("'blackened' skin, / her 'tarnished' 'whiteness'") and object of asexual fantasy: "to be born of Sarah's head, through / sieve, seized wreckage." The queering of the father figure--here, Zeus--only seems to freeze-frame disaster, for as the above infinitive reminds us, the narrator can only posit a subjunctive voice in opposition to a positive history. For every dream of an "/ ... made of many arches and windows ... / entrances to the many houses of god," there is "each morning a fireheart grief coming out of sleep."
It would be too true and too simple to attach causality to the "father," a word which, like the homily "beloved husband," finally obfuscates history as the past and present site of trauma. "Father" is only one of several veils that the poem "Obituary" attempts to lift: "I love you like a saw / into barely beating / heart, my body hard / and flat against the coffee table ..." Excavating terror and torture from repressed memory, Martin merges this figure with, and poses it against, "my stranger," "Some Black Unknown," as she names one section. The stranger, like the father, may only be another figure of the past but, unlike the father, may be the possibility of a future; that "other baby book," (section three) an alter pre-ego and subconscious "man/woman" that, for example, Martin might have become but now exists only as introjected trauma. Given the actual men that "be" in this world, this figure, one foot in the ego, one in the id, cannot be named as such, can only be hinted at as if "S/he" does (and does not) "exist," a shadow that haunts these poems and doubles down on both collective and personal trauma. The single slash mark demarcates and yokes together not only gender pronouns but also gender and race. The "logic" of the slash implies that Martin's "S/he" is, here, a fucked-over Black / female // person Janus-faced: the "wrong" and "right" directions. The double slash marks an absolute difference between female and person. The slash, single and double, is given a name, however mythic, at the opening of "Some Black Unknown":
Once I wrote into being an imagined figure named Perpetuus, whose name is Latin for "continuous, entire, universal." Perpetuus is necessarily liberated from gender and without attachment to skin or color. S/he is only reflection.
The companion and predecessor to this piece is "To be an orphan inside of 'blackness,'" a prose poem which immediately precedes "Obituary." A takedown of racial microaggressions across cultural and social landscapes (including the publishing and marketing sectors of the poetry business), "To be an orphan" registers Martin's distance from the scenes of instruction she nonetheless incessantly rehearses. No mother's amniotic ocean to swim back to, s/he can only contemplate the Atlantic, that absence named the Middle Passage by the descendants of those who did not fly--voluntarily and not--off the decks of slaveships. And as Langston Hughes (cf. The Big Sea) discovered when he recrossed the Atlantic to go "back home," one cannot recross this body of water without dragging along the bodies buried at sea: "Ocean floor filled with dead wings and tar. The slaves blink their slow eyes." Still too close to be put behind us, those long-dissolved skeletons are perhaps too easily recalled as "history." In Good Stock Strange Blood, not even the stories of flying Africans can pull the book, an abscessed tooth, out of the book.
Clarence Major's first compilation of Black colloquial expressions, published in 1970, was simply titled Dictionary of Afro-American Slang. The second, vastly expanded edition, titled Juba to Jive: The Dictionary of African American Slang and published in 1994, demoted the original title to subtitle status. Reversing alphabetical order, the second edition's title served as a synecdoche for the backwater blues of the African diaspora. As Ralph Ellison might have said, we go forward by going backwards. Or as Harmony Holiday would have it, relearning what we have forgotten, remembering what we have suppressed, is key to our going-forward survival, to getting through--not over--the trauma of Black life in the West. Of course, to be "Black" is to be a child of the West whether one lives in the United States, France, or Somalia, but Holiday, like Harold Cruse, deploys that trope of modernity--Negro--as often as she uses Black. As the narrator of Ellison's novel Invisible Man learns at great cost to his dignity, and as Holiday puts on display in Hollywood Forever, the absurdity of living while Negro/Black in the West must be taken seriously, but not too seriously. Because he was invested in the novel as a genre, and thus in the only "literary" aesthetics available to him at Tuskegee, Ellison took the plunge into "history," defending and celebrating Euro-American culture in general. He could do so because he understood that American culture--if not American politics--was driven by African and Negro linguistic, musical, and social values and tastes that would soon multiply--or from the perspective of so-called "red-blooded" Americans--metastasize into what we so easily call multiculturalism.
Holiday's reaction to this history of mutual, even dialectical acculturation is, as she writes, ambivalent, not only or primarily due to her own mixed-race blood but also due to its effects on African American society at large. This ambivalence can manifest itself as humor, as dread (not fear), and even as ennui. Hollywood Forever showcases all of these reactions. As Holiday observes in her own online notes, Hollywood Forever is a book to be read while listening to its soundtrack: a Spotify playlist Holiday named "Cantaloupe in the Club" after witnessing a dapperly dressed brother holding a cantaloupe aloft as he moved around the dance floor of an East St. Louis nightclub. "Cantaloupe in the Club" is, as I read it, another subsidiary of Holiday's ongoing mixtape project Mythscience, which primarily features snippets of speeches, interviews, and dialogue from major, minor, and anonymous players in the Black Power and Black Arts Movements. The textual version of Mythscience in this book is titled "The Afterlife and the Black Didactic: Seven Modes for Hood Science," and includes meditations on, among other things, the social meanings of the music of Charles Mingus and Sun Ra. Holiday's insistence on the relevance and popularity of "jazz" is meant to bracket changes in what constitutes "popular music" even as the motif of "running" as change (of sets, of costumes, etc., the basic shtick of a one-woman show) affirms the inescapability of temporality. In brief, the total voice of Black cultural expression is, and the present tense of the infinitive "to be" (which also points forward) encapsulates what Amiri Baraka, writing about the totality of Black music, once named "the changing same."
Like Holiday's earlier book Negro League Baseball (2011), Hollywood Forever explores the Black public sphere as didactic uplift anchored by a stoic undercommons. The book begins decades after commodified Black musical expression had entered the general public sphere. Holiday reminds us that the domineering appeal of Black music's porous and promiscuous genres (e.g., the blues reconfigured as a subset of R&B and country and western) leads to exoticism and backlash: negrophilia and negrophobia as two sides of the same coin. Thus, one of the book's motifs is the billboard-cum-flyer scare tactic ubiquitous throughout the pre-and, yes, post-rock 'n' roll era: "Help Save The Youth of America / DON'T BUY NEGRO RECORDS." This once-popular circular is merely the flip side of that other mode of white anxiety regarding the visibility of Black bodies in public forums. The subtitle of Holiday's book, taken from a magazine headline, is "Will Hollywood Let Negroes Make Love?" Jesse Owens and Jackie Robinson aside, the fear that Blacks might be nothing more or less than human still hangs over public discourse today (e.g., the analog and digital rhetoric about the bodies of Michael Brown and Michelle Obama). Few will recall--but Holiday is, if nothing else, a committed archivist--that even as late as 1977 the question of Black-Black sexuality being expressed in popular film and on television was grist for the mill, never mind Black-white sexuality (e.g., the controversy surrounding the love scenes between O. J. Simpson and Elizabeth Montgomery in the pre-Lifetime but all-too-Lifetime, made-for-television movie A Killing Affair).
So, from the minstrelsy of Blind Tom to the niggerdom of Kanye West, here we are, in the age of hip-hop ubiquity. Today freedom of expression means the right of Black and white men and women to mock rap music in speech idioms borrowed from hip-hop culture. And as always, a Black body in public remains, if not an exotic nexus of wonder and fear, a curio on display, splayed out on magazine covers, splayed out in the streets, on social media, and so forth. There is nothing new under "the sun [that] kills questions." And yet the new mythology demands a response, a risk, and so Hollywood Forever tries to outrun the cameras and screenshots by repurposing them. Integrity is, here, the totality of actual history: Martin Luther King Jr.'s adultery, for example, must be sutured to his assassination, not in causal but human, all too human, terms: "He stepped out onto the balcony for a private cigarette after sex with a woman who wasn't his wife (so what) (does that make him) when they shot him." Ditto for Holiday's insistence on remembering that Miles Davis was both pimp and pioneering artist, wifebeater and victim of police brutality ("He's gonna fuck his wife tonight when they get home / tender then harder he's gonna fuck her up ..."), that Bill Cosby is both a serial rapist and pathbreaking comedian and actor (Holiday reproduces the iconic photograph of Davis and Cosby having a chat at a party). Her kamikaze sorties (because she too is acquainted with ambivalence) are no more attacks on "all" Black men than the recent #MeToo solidarity circulating on social media reads as misanthropy (despite the predictable blowback of All Assaults Matter).
More broadly than she did in Negro League Baseball, Holiday attempts to jump-start the dreams of cultural generalists such as Baraka and Lorenzo Thomas to recapture African American culture as one sector of a totalizing voice that will never complete itself insofar as it remains open to a future over which it has no control. Holiday envisions this total voice as already always a timeless continuum embodied in prophets like Sun Ra and Alice Coltrane, and the new/old things of Kendrick Lamar. This total voice, which might be called Afrocentric feminism, also embraces non-Western cultural practices and values (e.g., a Honduran doctor who claimed to have cured AIDS through allopathic medicinal remedies and culturally based polygamy as a prophylactic against pedophilia and adultery). Writing and dancing are Holiday's individual embodiment of this diffuse totality, methods that might serve to access a "hidden language" articulated in movement per se (her Vimeo production in which she reads a selection from the book over collages from Black films and videos is titled "To be running and not in fear"), in the representation of movement via ads, photographs, and movie stills.
How to "show" writing as dancing, dancing as writing? Holiday uses unconventional spacing--sometimes phrases, sometimes words, and even letters--to depict the rhythms of self-interpreting dance, the dance of a jazz-inflected intellect. The stuttering rhythms also manifest themselves in the larger formal patterns--repetition of certain pages and phrases ("Do Not Buy Negro Records") and sentences that show up several times in different fonts, colors, and cultural contexts. However, the most arresting facet of Hollywood Forever is Holiday's deployment of montage and palimpsests. She embraces spectacle as the inevitable consequence of the African Diaspora even as she critically engages the salacious spectacle of Black people in the public eye. For example, in siding with Black women who suffer physical and emotional abuse from Black men, Holiday nonetheless admits that she is "tired of the resin in every great preacher's voice, the / perfect sanctimony of manhood is better pimps are better than holy men...." Inasmuch as Holiday links the sartorial splendor of both preachers and pimps with the bling of Black entertainers in general, she interprets spectacle as style, as elan, flair, and above all, as the affirmation of dignity and pride long displayed in popular Black magazine titles (Ebony, Jet, Tan, etc.). Fashion and style are also modes of (out)running without fear.
Nonetheless, as Ellison knew, and as Holiday repeats here, Black survival in the West has always depended on accepting ambivalence as a stance, however wobbly, however buffeted about by the clarion calls of certainty (hence her hostility to religion). Holiday's ambivalence is mounted in the frame constituted by the opening ("I want a land where the sun kills questions") and the penultimate sections ("But then where do we bury the questions killed by our benevolent sun") of the book. This motif might be understood as the recourse to Afrocentric resources hidden behind or as one plane (one page) of the palimpsest that is Black history. And as Negro League Baseball made clear, the American myths we forge from African and European myths already have a long tradition, however buried under the sediment of history. In that sense, Holiday's multiple projects are scholarly: historical recovery as essential to our knowledge about the past and, consequently, to our orientation toward the future. Hollywood Forever is a contribution to this science of myth, an untimely reminder of our humanhood.
Despite two previous very good books of poetry, Drag (2003) and Amnesiac (2010), Duriel E. Harris is probably best known for her one-woman performance project Thingification. A theatrical sojourn from the present to the past (and back again), Thingification deploys call-and-response tropes to deconstruct congealed concepts of race, gender, and sexual orientation, positing in their place a spectrum of intersexual and intertextual positions. Harris demonstrates these possibilities in her chameleon-like transformations into, and through, a historical network of eight characters. In No Dictionary of a Living Tongue Harris revisits some of the themes of her previous books: the intersections and divergences of racial and sexual identity, the self and the body, and the relationship between remembering and forgetting. No doubt part of Harris's relative "invisibility" is that her poetics and motifs are quite similar to that of her Black Took Collective compatriot Dawn Lundy Martin, and indeed parts of No Dictionary of a Living Tongue may remind readers of Martin's 2015 book, Life in a Box Is a Pretty Life. Both Harris and Martin use inscribed boxes to showcase the relationship between history, the written par excellence, and the enclosed body of a person, of experiences, etc. However, as Thingification suggests, Harris wears her multiple selves on her sleeves, and unlike Martin's more insistent sense of self, Harris seems more ambivalent about the possibility of a self even as she insists in the title section of the book that despite "... The thing we are / cut off // ... speech inhabits a body / making and hearing sound / its deciding witness: / skin, a throat unwound." Of course, if the skin, an external organ, is "a throat unwound," inner and outer are indissociably linked. Yet, the possibility of an unalienated integration of the body as a coherent self is counterpoised by the very structure of the book and the way that Harris deploys the preposition "from."
Despite the apparent discontinuity from poem to poem, a structural pattern can be detected in this collection. We begin with childhood trauma ("A child's face swollen from abscess shining like a good beat down") and end with adult hope ("I want to escape you who I may have once been"). And I've already noted that the two sections of inscribed boxes frame the book, though the first section is called "Decorus" while the second is called "self portrait with black box and open architecture. "In "Decorus" we are still adrift in early trauma, but by the time we get to "self portrait" the narrator has internalized the violence of youth and now "awaken[s] into memory chased with whiskey and wine." What stuns the narrator later is that even as an adult the mere presence of soldiers and guards casts her back into the past. Thus "from 'History'" begins:
More tunnel than room, in her childhood mind the cellar was a giant snake, a long black constrictor prone to swallowing and squeezing unruly children to stillness.... She didn't know what about the guide had reminded her of the cellar. It was something about the way he stood behind them at every destination, his massive frame: square, dark, and heavy like a fortress door.
As a synecdoche of the inscribed boxes, themselves tattooed skin or skin unwound to expose the throat, guards, policemen, and soldiers remind the narrator that the patriarch is ever present, and it goes without saying that his manifestations can be either male or female, can be both a man killing his wife in front of their son ("A man jawed tightly in owning") and a policewoman who locks herself in a bathroom, fearful for her life after her ex takes her gun. And this goes for the narrator herself, acknowledging the sadism at the edge--or perhaps at the center--of her relationship with her lover ("Blood Fetish").
So all of this is well-documented "history," but why, we might ask, "from 'History'"? At about forty pages, this is the longest section in the book; "from Simulacra" comes in at about thirty pages. In the most literal sense, the preposition merely indicates that the poems included here do not comprise the entirety of either "History" or "Simulacra" (the same caveat applies to the nine pages "from No Dictionary of a Living Tongue"). This is the standard procedure for selected collections of poems. However, typically the "from" refers to material culled from other books. Here, they presumably refer to folios, chapbooks, and programs for Harris's other artistic, musical and theatrical interests. Most significantly, the preposition here has the same effect as an ellipsis; it points to an absence, primarily of other poems or writings, as well as the events that can only be inscribed or represented by the "throat unwound." Not only is our traumatized narrator able to recall only certain events from both her childhood and adult life but also history itself; we ourselves are composites of presences and absences, selves we display and selves inaccessible or suppressed. Harris's encyclopedic interests and references--philosophical, theological, musical, theatrical, etc.--certainly reflect her many selves, but she is under no delusion that they in toto comprise "herself."
Loss and absence, then, are not aberrations; they define what it means to be human. To be human is to be blessed and cursed with incomplete memory. We are always haunted by the ghosts of selves, repressed or "present." Of course, accustomed as we are to this thematic in both our arts and the lives we live, the unanswerable question still haunts: is this dispersal of selfhood "natural," a function of the irreconcilable drives and fears as psychoanalysis would have it, or is this "historical," as T. S. Eliot, quoted in the last section of her book, would have it, a function of social, cultural and economic changes--loosely called modernity--that have led to dissociative human beings? And if both, the old chicken-and-egg problem, is our desire for a coherent self merely a fool's errand otherwise known as the history of the world?
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|Title Annotation:||Harmony Holiday, Hollywood Forever; Duriel E. Harris, No Dictionary of a Living Tongue|
|Article Type:||Book review|
|Date:||Jun 22, 2019|
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