Brenda Hillman’s poetry circumnavigates around the overarching interest of spirit, matter, and everything in between. Even though Hillman’s work is often uncategorizable, she works within a vein that combines traditional lyric as well as more experimental forms. In addition, she incorporates various theologies and esoteric philosophies in her writing. Hillman has said of herself, “I think of myself as a mystic in a practical way.” Hillman blends cultural references, nature, and the spiritual with an open lyric form that leaves room for mystical experiences to occur on the page. Hillman’s poetry can be read as enacting an alchemical process where spirit is turned into matter and matter into spirit.
Hillman is often deemed “a school of one” because “her poems can maddeningly lurch from the sacred to the profane, from the most quotidian and anecdotal writing to passages of darkly brooding gravity.” Yet despite her use of innovative form, she still identifies herself as a lyric poet: “I’ve never left the lyric behind. I’ve not only been influenced by lyric, I am a lyric poet.” Playing with lyric and innovation, Hillman sets aside all assumption of how poetry has been written previously to do something new. Through experiments with form, Hillman disrupts assumptions of what poetry is. She creates a sense of bafflement by juxtaposing ordinary events in her poems with the imaginative and mysterious. Fanny Howe calls this a poetics of “bewilderment,” where one composes in a state of wonder, awe, and disorientation. A poetics of bewilderment can also be understood within the terms of what psychoanalyst Carl G. Jung (1875–1961) describes as a way of uncovering true uniqueness: “If I want to understand an individual human being, I must lay aside all scientific knowledge of the average man and discard all theories in order to adopt a completely new and unprejudiced attitude.” Hillman has a similar theory of composition: “The place where we make poetry is outside any familiar state. Poetry sort of makes us stranger so we can wake up in a place where everything hangs off the edges, creating itself.”
Carl Jung and Brenda Hillman
Jung developed a model of the psyche with an organizing center known as the self: “The self is not only the centre, but also the whole circumference which embraces both conscious and unconscious; it is the centre of this totality, just as the ego is the centre of consciousness.” His concept of the self was revolutionary because Jung claimed that humans carry an element of the divine within their psyches and that the goal of one’s life should be the search for selfhood, which is known as the process of individuation:
Individuation means becoming an “in-dividual,” and, in so far as “individuality” embraces our innermost, last, and incomparable uniqueness, it also implies becoming one's own self. We could therefore translate individuation as “coming to selfhood” or “self-realization.”
Jung’s conception of self-knowledge, however, is not to be understood in a rational sense, but rather in a divine sense — discovering and integrating the spiritual into one’s life. This union can bring about a more fulfilling communion with the larger world. His model includes various stages in which a person gains specific knowledge about one’s soul; at the center of this inner work is the ongoing formulation of a unique self and creating a relationship with that self, and this lifelong process may never be entirely realized. Jeff Raff, a contemporary Jungian analyst, reminds us that “the formation of the self is never fully complete, for there always remains material not yet integrated into (or harmonized by) the center.”
Jung provided a map for the psyche by categorizing it into parts, with the ego as the center of consciousness and the self as the center of personality which includes both conscious (the ego) and unconscious impulses. Jung’s unconscious consists of both a personal level or “contents that … lost their intensity and were forgotten” and a collective level or “the ancestral heritage of possibilities of representation … common to all men, and perhaps even to all animals, [that] is the true basis of the individual psyche.” The collective unconscious includes archetypes — images or figures — that “give form to countless typical experiences of our ancestors. They are, so to speak, the psychic residua of innumerable experiences of the same type.” Jung used symbols and images to interpret dreams, yet he hypothesized that there was more to the unconscious than the personal. He was often deemed a mystic by his contemporaries because his archetypal theory held elements that could never be empirically explained, and he relied upon various disciplines such as mythology, religion, and alchemy to exemplify his theories:
I noticed to my amazement that European and American men and women coming to me for psychological advice were producing in their dreams and fantasies symbols similar to, and often identical with, the symbols found in the mystery religions of antiquity, in mythology, folklore, fairytales, and the apparently meaningless formulations of such esoteric cults as alchemy …
Just as Jung “found parallels to his psychic perspective in the lineage of alchemy and Gnosticism” and “consistently referred to and quoted from older religious traditions to shed light on the workings of the unconscious,” Brenda Hillman uses Gnostic and alchemical language in her writing.
As Hillman has clearly identified herself as a lyric poet, let’s examine this term more in depth. A lyric implies a rhythmically interesting line in a poem that could be sung; this is often where the emotive function plays a larger role. In addition, the lyric frequently refers to a category of poetic literature representational of music in its sound patterns which are characterized by subjectivity and sensuality of expression — usually in a highly enthusiastic and exuberant way. As indicated in Jung’s model of the psyche, if the ego is the center of consciousness, then in order to create a self, it must be in relationship with both the personal and the collective unconscious. This is how I see the Jungian model working in a poetic model of a self: the words on the page represent the ego or consciousness, the personal anecdotes represent the personal unconscious, and the lyric form represents the collective unconscious. Hillman uses a lyric form when she conjures mysterious experiences, and I will present specific examples of this form through a close reading of her poetry.
Hillman’s poetry has been described as conveying “the necessity of otherness, to write, to be the amanuensis of the visible world, joined with the necessity of inclusiveness, of participation.” Hillman uses the lyric to bring out ecstatic insight from human experience. In the necessary disorientation one feels when creating a poem, Fanny Howe expands the definition of the lyric as “searching for something that can’t be found. It is an air that blows and buoys and settles. It says, ‘Not this, not this,’ instead of, ‘I have it.’” This searching is continual in Hillman’s poetry. The lyric recurs, but Hillman simultaneously redefines selfhood by introducing new forms into her poems as she explains: “The idea of knowledge in process does have to do with the experiments and explorations of writing, I think, and not just arriving at a spiritual center.” Jung might call this a search for self-knowledge. By wavering between two elements or approaches, “not this, not this” separations can dissolve, activating a process of individuation, the aim of which is “nothing less than to divest the self of the false wrappings of the persona on the one hand, and of the suggestive power of primordial images on the other.”
Through the arc of Hillman’s poetry collections, one can see that she “has in recent years written poems that question the continuity and cohesiveness of what we think of as the self.” Hillman’s sense of the “I” constantly shifts and expands, making her work an exciting place to trace the self’s alchemical development.
The alchemical self
In the most literal terms, alchemy is known as the medieval philosophy concerned with the chemical transformation of metal into gold. However, often the “gold” is of a more spiritual nature. In alchemy, various sequences are associated with different stages of transformation. First, the alchemists must find a substance they believe contains the prima materia that after losing its form can go back to its primal state. This stage is known as mortificatio or the nigredo, in which the material undergoes an alarmingly dramatic breakdown. Since this matter loses its original form, it is often reduced to liquid (solutio) or formlessness. The alchemist then introduces the chaotic liquid substance to sulfur, which creates a new form. Thus, a continual process of separation (separatio) and joining (coniunctio) of various states of matter and substances takes place, sometimes with violent reactions and sometimes with a balanced reaction that produces a solid and organized matter. This organized matter is referred to the philosopher’s stone.
Fire or Calcinatio is another key symbol in alchemy, which reduces a substance to ash in a type of purification process. Fire also resulted in separation, “splitting the ash or body of the material from the spirit, which rose to the top of the alchemical vessel as vapor.” In alchemy, the separation and reunification process continues until the ultimate goal of gold (either spiritual or physical) is produced. As the alchemists experienced, this process of turning metal into gold often ended in failure, but the attempts to transform matter did result in self-knowledge. We can also see how this process represents a spiritual or psychological transformation, as Jung pointed out with his alchemical model.
Pieter Breughel (1525-1569), The Alchemist, 1558.
Jung did much research on alchemy and was profoundly interested in the work of sixteenth-century alchemist Gerald Dorn. Jung interpreted the three stages of what Dorn called “The Great Work” of alchemy as three stages in the constitution of the self. Jung’s alchemical model included a first, second, and third coniunctio, or three levels at which opposites unite and “since the self is the union of opposites, each stage corresponds to a different level of self-formation.” However, one should realize that the process of alchemy is not linear: “although there is sequence, there is also simultaneity, regression, and chaos.” The alchemical process, and often the various coniunctios, are repeated many times before the self moves into the next stage of development. It is important to keep this in mind in relation to Hillman’s body of work.
Fortress and mortificatio
The alchemical process in Hillman’s work begins with Fortress. This volume presents the reader with the beginning of a separation process in which opposites emerge in binaries of sorrow/joy, beauty/pain, love/loss, dark/light, and newness/death, which lead to a breakdown of material (Hillman’s life as she knows it) into the mortificatio stage of alchemy. Separation seeps through the book’s elegiac tone: “In the beautiful void / over the lighted wing, / those ice children seem alive, moving / with no purpose but to be separate” (8); “I see the silk threads / snails put upon the porch / and think how simply / all things leave themselves behind” (43). The mortificatio or nigredo stage of alchemy is often associated with a dark color, and in Fortress, the color gray emerges often: “the gray between decision” (3); “the large, cement-gray-suited woman” (5); “leaves that fall / in gray apostrophes” (56). This darkening world indicates decomposition, or a death. In alchemy, there must be a death before the material can go on to the next stage of joining, or coniunctio.
Fortress exemplifies strength in its title, yet its content addresses the experience of disintegration. Mention of dreams, nature, and the other are woven throughout the poems to create a mysterious presence which often questions the origins of things: “Does a poem pre-exist / as dawn pre-exists” (69), and “Sometimes you are known completely / by seeing, known as if by a secret companion: / eyes pressed from the base of an incline / into the depths of your perilous being” (58).
In Jung’s alchemical model, the first coniunctio takes place in the unconscious: “the first union begins when the ego discovers the reality of the unconscious and makes an effort to pay attention to it …” The ego begins to recognize and develop a relationship with an “other,” or the unconscious. Hillman juxtaposes her experience of divorce with strong, declarative lines throughout the book: “What we want is simply past our reach” (Fortress, 22); “You could reach inside and make it work” (46); and “The music is the music of failed expectation” (65). The authority in these succinct sentences balances against her personal experience of loss and creates recognition of the “other.” Fortress provides a glimpse into individual experience through a lyricism that may be filled with wonder or sorrow: “They’ve taken the larynx out of the dog / so he won’t disturb the neighborhood. / But he still opens his soundless mouth, loving his own // subjective barking” (35). These lines evoke grief, yet there are moments of amazement found elsewhere: “The great hurt hangs on for a while, / and then reveals the maps … / of a true self no less mysterious” (57). It is in these moments of lyric bewilderment that the conscious ego reaches toward a symbolic death in order to move out of the mortificatio stage to a coniunctio with the unconscious or mysterious: “I don’t care that my body / will die, for it has not known / its proper freedom” (69).
Death Tractates, Bright Existence, and the first coniunctio
Death Tractates progresses into a splitting process as Hillman deals with the veil between worlds and attempts to find meaning in an experience of loss. The idea that the poem holds its own consciousness, “I had only to trace the pen / over the words; / the poem was already written” (32), is intertwined with a death: “that death did not subtract, it added something, / her death made me whole” (21). Death Tractates was written as an “interruption” to Bright Existence (1993), and the two books serve as companions to one another, representing the alchemical splitting processes of separation and integration. The question of formlessness in one collection of poems is answered with concreteness in the other. Bright Existence is filled with experiences of the quotidian: paying tolls at a toll booth, a hair caught in her new lover’s throat, even pulling lice from her daughter’s hair. No detail is too small or irrelevant. Through observation, Hillman records and makes sense of the transformation taking place in her life.
Death is a central theme in Death Tractates and Hillman asks the large spiritual question: “What is this so-called / death what is it” (31). In her exploration of loss, she investigates Gnostic philosophies, asking what comprises matter and spirit and what boundaries might constitute the border of a soul. Hillman searches for a trace of her lost mentor in four sections entitled “Calling Her,” “Writing Her,” “Losing Her,” and “Finding Her.” Often a Dickinsonian dash signifies the entrance or exit of a disembodied voice who addresses the speaker of the poem and answers questions that have been posed: “— You think about a poem too much” (11); “— Don’t you see? / It doesn’t matter what order you put them in” (33); “The choice was simply / whether to live in ‘memory’ and time / or outside —” (42). Lamenting inquiries continue throughout the text: “What if, despite your false calm, / your brokenness, your self-deception — / in fact, when you were most broken, / her heaven was you?” (35). This insistent questioning leads only to a place of paradox: “— You asked for the difference between life and death … / … and at the moment of your question, / you were handed, / like a black rose, the paradox —” (47).
In alchemical psychology, paradox is a place in which one must learn to dwell comfortably. The tension of opposites must be held during any coniunctio stage of alchemy and “the ego must be flexible and able to hold a middle position … consciousness must be balanced with its opposite — the unconscious.” In Death Tractates, the “I” is distinct from the “you” and space serves as a place of paradox in the uniting of the opposites. Fanny Howe explains that space or emptiness: “teaches us to mistrust the location of the ‘I’ inside us, since it exists at a ‘zero point of orientation,’ being both at the source of the physical body and on its periphery where it, too, becomes empty.”
The reader experiences this space as it surrounds the central poem located exactly in the middle of Death Tractates. Set apart by blank pages, “(untitled poem)” explores the idea that a poem has its own consciousness: “— So the poem is the story of the writing of itself” (25). In this line, Hillman enters the alchemical stage where “the ego carries the principle of consciousness into the darkness of the unconscious and this effects transformation.” The poem continues as it speaks to the ego’s task in the first coniunctio or union:
So, put yourself in the way
of the poem. It needed your willing
impediment to be written …
You had to be willing to let it through the sunshine
error of your life,
be willing not to finish it — (Death Tractates, 25)
As Hillman explains elsewhere, “It seems as if betweenness, ambiguity, or states of uncertainty are the sites for the most possibility.”
And, just as the short, lyrical poems in Death Tractates strive for consciousness, the first poem in Bright Existence echoes the process:
The world had been created to comprehend itself
as matter: table, the torn
veils of spiders … Even consciousness —
missing my love —
was matter, the metal box of a furnace.
As the obligated flame, so burned my life … (1)
Hillman struggles with the idea of creation through “real” objects such as a table and the metal box of a furnace. She juxtaposes these with symbols of the imagined world like the “obligated flame.” The image of the furnace emerges here, so like the alchemical calcinatio or burning stage that purifies and also separates matter and spirit.
Bright Existence’s poems reflect a Gnostic belief, that the world was created as a site for the spiritual ones to come to know themselves. In “The Spell” Hillman writes: “This world is my twin / but I was not cut from the same cloth, I passed / through the shadow so I could be / amazed at it —” (32). In Jung’s alchemical model, during the first coniunctio the ego must become aware of the unconscious in order to move forward in self-formulation: “two as a symbol, and especially doubling or twinning, usually refers to a content within the unconscious that is ready to cross over into the conscious sphere.” Hillman explores this idea through form and formlessness. Poems that consider the hardness of form: “trapped in somethingness, in those tiny mosaics with no blood” (Bright Existence, 30) are juxtaposed with poems that consider spirit: “because at the edge / of your becoming, something kept trying / to erase you” (57). Lines in the title poem “Bright Existence” demonstrate this first coniunctio clearly:
there should be more witnesses at the edges of the self
where everything is both …
the part that wasn’t ready
stayed inside a little longer
and the part that was ready to be something
came forth — (96)
Here, the “part that wasn’t ready” and “the part that was ready to be something” signifies a reaching toward consciousness, a doubling, “where everything is both” and there must be recognition of the other for this union to occur.
Hillman ends Bright Existence with an image of the snake: “I found its skin of stretchy diamonds / and picked it up, so I could keep / one of the two selves …” (99). In Jungian thought, the snake is the symbol of transformation and often denotes the uroborus or the serpent eating its own tail — a symbol of union.
Loose Sugar and alchemical ash
After these twin volumes, Hillman embarks on a study of alchemy and depression in Loose Sugar, in which she attempts to transcend her dark experience. The series “blue codices” explores the mode of fragmentation. In this series, the “ash poems” are essentially fragments that fall to the bottom of the page, symbolic of alchemical ash from the furnace. The volume is structured in five dualistic sections entitled: “space/time,” “time/alchemy,” etc. mirroring the unresolved nature of the poems themselves. Things heat up: “Once you were immortal in the flame. / You were not the fire / but you were in the fire; —” (3). This image of the burning alchemical furnace is central to the process of alchemy, and just as alchemists hoped for success and often failed in their search for gold, Hillman too, having struggled with depression, uses the idea of alchemy as a way to transform her experience into a different material or as a way to see it as something outside herself. The ash poems become “the ash of depression from which your beauty of spirit will rise, if it doesn’t kill you first.” So in this alchemical process of separating the ash from spirit, Hillman attempts to allow the spirit to break free from depression. This process is not easy and often contains periods of the nigredo, which include darkness and unknowing.
During the second coniunctio of Jung’s alchemical model, the self takes on a life of its own and begins to function in its own right. The new self is represented by being held between the masculine and feminine. Both energies are needed for the second coniunctio to take place. In poetic processes, the writing of a poem can be seen as the act of writing the self, or searching for a relationship between the unknown (the blank page) and the known or perceived known (the word on the page). In Gnostic myth, this is specifically the search for a feminine wisdom: “Sophia (or wisdom) fell from the pleroma (or pure world), scattering divine sparks. The Archegenetor (or Demiourgos) — a secondary god — created humans to enslave these divine sparks in matter.” Similarly, in Jungian theory, the unconscious represents the mystery of what is at the depths of uncertainty and is often denoted as a feminine principle.
The poem “The Spark” alludes to this kind of joining in the second coniunctio: “You who happened only once: / remember yourself as you are; // when he comes to you” (Loose Sugar, 5–6). The “you” is well established as a feminine presence at this stage in Hillman’s writing (in the progression of Death Tractates to Bright Existence to Loose Sugar). Thus, the line “when he comes to you” represents this masculine and feminine union in the formulation of the poetic self and “stands for the psychic totality.”
Cascadia and the second coniunctio
Cascadia explores the question of place which “takes us automatically to the problems of reality and the ideal.” Unlike her previous books of poetry, carefully organized in separate sections, Cascadia is structured like a large striated landscape. Each poem is layered upon the next and the aforementioned feminine principle emerges throughout the book in poems such as “(blank page)” and “(interruption).”
Pietro Longhi, The Alchymist, 1661.
The poem “(blank page)” is precisely that: a page filled with whiteness. It is given a title in the table of contents, but no words are written on the page itself. Symbolically, the blank page can be seen as feminine, a space that is formless and undefined, yet contains multiple possibilities, indicating here that it holds open possibility like that required in the alchemical process of self-formulation. Also, Hillman notes that the blank page can be used as an in-between space: “The alchemists knew that the fallen thing can be retrieved … so the marginal voices exist at the side, apart from the lyric, with a lot of white in-between. Seemingly trivial detail offers itself easily to metaphoric space. The between is left blank and fertile.” We can see this exemplified in the poem “Cascadia”:
one of those
In the search for the search
During the experiments with wheels
After the scripted caverns
When what had been attached
Was no longer attached
After choosing the type of building
In which no one has died
We recalled a land or condition
Whose shape was formal
Formality gave pleasure
A shadow’s shadow dragged it
Back to the sea of eyes
Hillman explains that her “poetry and poetics began to evolve unexpectedly … The sense of the single ‘voice’ in poetry grew to include polyphonies, oddly collective dictations.” By stretching the “I,” Hillman’s work expands from a lyric-narrative tradition to a more innovative mode. Hillman herself has noted, “The lyric … is also social … That much more stretchy sense of ‘I’ really interests me.”
The reader sees this illustrated in Cascadia’s “(interruption)” as a “we” is called forth: “(enter: The ‘we’ —)” (6). This short fragment is enclosed in parentheses and is centered directly on the page, surrounded by white space. In Jung’s alchemical model, during the second coniunctio “the self progresses to such a degree that it takes on a life and reality of its own within the psyche. The self comes alive and begins to function in its own right.” One also sees here the masculine and feminine union needed to contain the process. As those “above ground” in consciousness are transformed, the unconscious also undergoes a transformation, endowing the self with new energy. The parentheses of Hillman’s line signify a generative dewdrop and the “we” represents the second coniunctio in the alchemical process. A “we” of masculine and feminine unite as a new “we” of the self emerges. Hillman’s poetic self becomes polyphonic and this new “center strives to express itself” more consciously in Cascadia through an inner and outer landscape.
Hillman’s “A Geology” plays with the idea that “place is a world and a word” and crosses boundaries between the internal and external: “In the expiation of nature, we are required to / experience the dramatic narrative of matter … // This was set down in strata so you could know / what it felt like to have been earth” (Cascadia, 14). This poem is grounded with four words on each corner of the page to anchor it “so it wouldn’t float.” The word “fault” is repeated three times on the last page of “A Geology” suggesting multiple meanings: mistakes, geologic fractures that cause movement in the earth’s crust, and/or human weakness. The fourth word “prevalent” on the bottom right corner of the page surprises the reader in its difference; it not only helps to anchor the poem, but also destabilizes it and opens its reader to the experience of the last line: “what it felt like to have been earth.”
In an alchemical process of separating and joining matter, substances can react to each other in a violent or balanced manner. When balanced, the substance can emerge as solid matter, or the philosopher’s stone. Cascadia is about landforms where “shifting internal geographies must be managed in relation to external ones.” In alchemical terms, the violent reaction is the poem “written under various kinds of emotional pressure” and the stone emerges as organized matter: “It took quiet / It took stone” (Cascadia, 74).
Lines from the poem “Before My Pencil” grapple with the idea of creating a world out of intense feeling. The poem investigates “the mannerism of the curve” of earth or the universe and finishes with the idea that it can “crawl among syllables,” creating itself by feeding on dead organic or spiritual matter to produce a “white fact.” In alchemy, as the substance continues to change, it reaches “an initial resting-place … called the first stone” where it regains form and has “the power to create silver from other metals” and is often “associated with white … referred to as the albedo.” Similarly, this poem touches “the white fact,” Hillman reaching a resting place where she creates a solidified poetic self.
Pieces of Air in the Epic: A gesture toward the third coniunctio
In Jung’s alchemical model, during the third coniunctio the individual self comes into union with the divine world that existed before matter and spirit were separated. The third coniunctio is rarely ever achieved except perhaps in death as “the individual self that has been formed comes into union with a level of reality that transcends it, with the divine world … the one world before spirit and matter were separated.” This is the Gnostic world Hillman explores in much of her poetry, but about which she rarely arrives at a conclusion. The third coniunctio denotes the spiritual plane of the elements of air, wings, etc. and is represented by the sun, sky, and clouds. In Pieces of Air in the Epic, Hillman explores this elemental world as she “tackles the large metaphysical questions” and “opens up the line and the page’s horizon to express the apocalyptic fears of our ‘epoch.’” The poetic self enacts a new way of seeing: “I looked below / the air behind the paintings … / / I made my eyes pointy to look at air in / corners.” The poem “Street Corner” invokes the one world that will ultimately transcend this individual self: “There was an angle / where I went for / centuries not as a / self or feature but / exhaled as a knowing” (3).
Other inquiries on exhalation/breath continue in “Platonic Oxygen” as the poet asks, “What is thought Is it breath / Were you breath” (76). The formlessness of the unknown transforms the solid matter of Cascadia into air: “Can we remake elements” (29) Hillman asks in “6 Components from Aristotle.” These meditations bring one closer to the elemental world, although “the danger of writing a book on air is that it might disappear at crucial moments.” Hillman does not allow this to happen, as the poetic line remains grounded in the everyday: “Some // foolish soul has sold his entire / Liz Phair collection back to Amoeba; // Used jewel cases seem almost tender, / smothered-to-smithereens-type plastic …” (66).
Hillman continues to work with polyphony, and in the poem “Air in the Epic” the reader must jump between dense phrases to seemingly disconnected phrases surrounded by space. The lyric which operates in the right-hand margin can be read vertically while the dense poem on the left cannot:
You look outside the classroom where construction trucks find little Troys. Dust
rises: part pagan, part looping. Try
to describe the world, you tell them — but what is a description? (8)
It is the space between the lyrical phrases that allows the mind to make causal connections that do not exist on the left. Hillman has carefully constructed each line so that it must interact; it must come together and join in an alchemical process while still suggesting gaps. The experimental form of “Air in the Epic” and “String Theory Sutra” produces a tension that reaches toward the transformative third coniunctio. The poem remains lyrical, yet continues to question the poetic self:
There are so many types of
“personal” in poetry. The “I” is a needle some find useful, though
the thread, of course is shadow.
In writing of experience or beauty, a cloth emerges as if made
from a twin existence … (80)
In Pieces of Air, the poem sees itself existing through the “writing of experience or beauty” as cloth made from a “twin existence” and one can see that Hillman’s poetic self has grown and transformed from the “selfhood” of her earlier books. Just as a person might function in life according to what she has consciously experienced, there is also an underlying unconscious myth or archetype at work that creates a life pattern and is expressed in a poem by what Howe calls “the strange Whoever who goes under the name of ‘I’ … where error, errancy, and bewilderment … signal a story.”
Through the breath, the image, and the lyric, the spiritual elements of the third coniunctio are at work in Pieces of Air: “… there’s a patient tap / tap tapping in the text … / where stars pass; / stars passed; stars pierced you —” (56). In “Clouds Near San Leandro” the poetic self inquires, “Aren’t there visions involving everything?” (67). Pieces of Air provides the reader with elated insight and urges one to question spirit and breath: “song outlasts poetry, words / are breath bricks to / support the guardless singing / project. We could have / meant song outlasts poetry” (4). Hillman has indeed found a way to separate matter from spirit and lift the words off the page in rapturous song.
One can clearly see the three coniunctios in Jung’s alchemical model represented in Hillman’s books of poetry, where inner and outer worlds resonate and come together on the page in a redefined notion of self that takes shape in the alchemical imagination of time and space, earth and air. Hillman identifies herself as a poet with Gnostic interests and has carved a niche for herself within an oeuvre of poets who are interested in the mysterious workings of the origins of things, or in Jungian terms, the unconscious. Hillman has even developed a “minifesto” which explains her interests:
= A poem is the rescue of a vanishing body.
= Poems embodying original technique make units smaller than the sentence serve both the sentence and the line. They help rethink the relationship between word, phrase, or sentence every time they make one of those things.
To rescue the vanishing body, the mysticpoet writes words, phrases, or sentences on the page. In doing so, a new body — a poetic self — is developed. Hillman never abandons the lyric, although she often dwells in a place of unknowing with her experimentation of form: “Uncertainty is to be preferred. In those years, many of us found we could reinvent the lyric, however shattered it might be.” The process of alchemical separation and joining repeats itself in Hillman’s poetry, and with an element-focused volume of poetry still to come — on fire — Hillman’s reader might wonder where she will take us next. My guess is that, like alchemy, she will take us through a continued process of refining the self through gnosis, just as the image of the burning salamander signals the return to the prima materia:
Some animals are warm in paradise;
your little alchemical salamander taricha tarosa,
fresh from the being cycles, stumbles
over rocks in its lyric outfit —
And with Brenda Hillman, there will always, always be a “lyric outfit” present.
1. Brenda Hillman, interview by J. Robert Lennon, Cornell University Podcast Audio, November 7, 2008.
6. Kevin Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” Poets and Writers (August 30, 2001), ¶8.
14. Brighde Mullins, “Introduction,” Readings in Contemporary Poetry: Brenda Hillman, by Dia Art Foundation, November 10, 1995.
21. “[T]he [philosopher’s] stone creates mystical experiences and ecstasy, and offers a door that leads to the celestial world. Their goal in the creation of the stone is direct encounter with divinity” (ibid., 219–20).
35. Hillman, interview by J. Robert Lennon, Cornell University Podcast Audio, November 7, 2008.
38. Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” ¶3.
42. Hillman, interview by Sarah Rosenthal, “Our Very Greatest Human Thing Is Wild, an interview with Brenda Hillman,” Rain Taxi (Fall 2003), ¶28.
45. Larimer, “An Interview With Poet Brenda Hillman,” ¶5.
46. Ibid., ¶ 7.
47. Ibid., ¶ 3.
51. Susan McCabe, “Platonic Oxygen: On Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic,” Denver Quarterly 41, no. 2 (2006): 65–66.
53. McCabe, “Platonic Oxygen: On Brenda Hillman’s Pieces of Air in the Epic,” 71.
The more the words, the less the meaning, and how does that profit anyone? — Ecclesiastes 6:11
What does poetry do with language? This question, shouted and shrieked by various avant-gardes of the early twentieth century, became increasingly relevant for Russian poets during the Soviet period. In the 1920s and ’30s, many learned that even as poetry uses words to forge alliances and break windows, words in poetry can also cause serious trouble: they can get you fired or exiled or killed. In the slightly warmer but artistically stifled atmosphere of the mid-1950s, the poet Vsevolod Nekrasov (1934–2009) started asking: what can poetry do for words? He was appalled by the Soviet regime’s violent enactment of an absolute break between signifier and signified, and the absolutely false new meanings being institutionalized left and right. Nekrasov spent the next fifty years trying to make words “mean what they say,” while remaining acutely — poetically — aware that words have never had one clear meaning. His project is self-consciously “non-poetic”: his usage is deliberately, documentarily colloquial, his vocabulary limited, and his material quotidian. But the process whereby Nekrasov interrogates the “truth-value” of the language under inspection is fundamentally poetic; this process is also, incidentally, what bridges the poet’s sarcastic, socially critical poems and markedly lyrical meditations on nature and inner life.
A POEM ABOUT CAUSES AND CONSEQUENCES
for Alik Ginzburg
Had it up to here:
Chatted up to here.
Chatted up to here:
Had it up to here.
Chatted, had it,
In the afterword to the new collection of Vsevolod Nekrasov’s poetry in English (I Live I See, UDP, 2013), the American scholar Gerald Janecek relates one of the times he fell afoul of the poet’s prickly nature. Nekrasov insisted that Janecek withdraw a selection of his poems from the 1992 Third Wave anthology of contemporary Russian poetry because of the involvement of another scholar, Mikhail Epstein, in the volume. Epstein had entered Nekrasov’s long list of sworn enemies after maligning the poet in a 1988 review of newer developments in Russian poetry. Epstein had written:
It would seem that poems like [Vsevolod Nekrasov’s] —lavishly garnished with “like,” “this here,” “after all,” and “well, you know” —could well have been written by Akaky Akakievich. This is the vocabulary of a poor man, a “little man” of our time, stuck deep in a muttering, unintelligible muck made up of bureaucratese, and capable of turning even words like “spring” or “blue” into bureaucratese. They are repeated 10–20 times in a single poem and are themselves transformed into an abstract element of speech, into a conjunction or particle.
Although Janecek chides that this was “certainly an unfair characterization by any measure,” Epstein was not completely off the mark. Gogol characterizes the speech of the protagonist of “The Overcoat” thus:
It should be known that Akaky Akakievich expressed himself mostly with prepositions, adverbs, and finally, such particles as have decidedly no meaning. If the matter was very difficult, he even had the habit of not finishing the phrase at all, so that very often he would begin his speech with the words “That, really, is altogether sort of …” after which would come nothing, and he himself would forget it, thinking everything had been said.
The fact that Epstein has misread Gogol or Nekrasov or both is not our concern here. Regardless of the less-than-kind thrust of his argument, his error actually invites a beautiful explanation of Nekrasov’s poetic project (not to mention his rootedness in the Russian literary tradition). The tragedy of Gogol’s hero is his utter disconnectedness from language as a means of expression. In the spiritual vacuum of a grotesquely bureaucracy-dominated Petersburg, Akaky Akakievich has some kind of vestigial capability to feel deeply, but literally lacks the vocabulary to bring these feelings to action. The problem doesn’t really lie with poor Akaky Akakievich, though. The fact that his words are empty placeholders actually makes him look good next to his more socially graceful colleagues and fellow citizens. Rather than empty, their speech is filled with smooth and shameless lies. Fast-forward a little more than a century, and this is one of the qualities of Soviet official-ese that Nekrasov seeks to overturn:
and again with the
glory and glory to us
as per our words
in a word
would you all take us
at our word
Although the banality and falsehood of official speech were an important impulse for Nekrasov’s work, the scope of his project extended far beyond the physical and temporal borders of Sovietdom. We can see this in the equal attention he paid to everyday colloquial or “neutral” language — Nekrasov recognized that words lose meaning through any kind of automatization, that the nefarious manipulation of language by Soviet authorities is just one of many effective methods for the extermination of meaning. Words repeated one time too many can become synonymous with animal grunts (think of poor Akaky Akakievich senselessly repeating the same meaningless syllables in a futile effort to express his great agitation). Rather than simply representing alienation, Nekrasov’s “grunting” sometimes appears as a depiction of “inward speech,” the half-formed sub-language of thought. Nekrasov is a master at manipulating this kind of language, which is simultaneously dramatically understated and rich in semantic resonances (often to comedic effect).
most likely yeah
but like most likely
the sky shouldn’t look like that
Nekrasov uses repetition with razor-sharp intention and aggressive curiosity. What happens to a familiar word (and the concept it supposedly represents) when you repeat it over and over again? What does it mean when there is nothing else on the page? For instance, in the case of the poem “nichego/nichego,” consisting entirely of the word ‘nothing’ repeated twice? What happens when the repeated word suddenly comes into contact with other words?
Moreover, Nekrasov never mumbles — for all of its engagement with the “real” and “everyday,” this poetry is not “found” but carefully crafted. The poet’s enunciation is precise to an extreme — his words are not only intelligible, but also often reveal previously imperceptible nuances, performing a kind of demonstrative dissection of automatized meaning.
But at night
Dark and nigh
Night and night
Nekrasov has been called a minimalist, and there are certainly aspects of his poetry that justify such a term. At the same time — and this is true of other minimalist poets, of course — a minimum of words or an intentionally lean vocabulary by no means imply monotony or poverty of meaning. On the contrary, a concentration of a limited number of words not only invites heightened attention to the words themselves and their position on the page — it can also describe a concrete experience and invite the reader to a similar meditation
and a pine
it’s so totally
and suddenly everything’s
This essay was written by Ainsley Morse; the poems in it were translated by Ainsley Morse and Bela Shayevich.
or Clint Eastwood’s idea of the lyric poem
William Ernest Henley’s 1875 poem “Invictus,” from which the 2009 film about the 1995 Rugby World Cup and the dismantling of apartheid takes its title, reads:
Out of the night that covers me,
Black as the pit from pole to pole,
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.
In the fell clutch of circumstance
I have not winced nor cried aloud.
Under the bludgeonings of chance
My head is bloody, but unbowed.
Beyond this place of wrath and tears
Looms but the Horror of the shade,
And yet the menace of the years
Finds and shall find me unafraid.
It matters not how strait the gate,
How charged with punishments the scroll,
I am the master of my fate:
I am the captain of my soul.
Even the trailer for this film that takes its name from this rather unknown nineteenth-century poem uses the recitation of several of its lines.
In the sombre, meditative recitation of Morgan Freeman — an African-American whose last name itself is an historical statement — the actor “channels” the unmistakable presence of the voice that we will later understand belongs to Nelson Mandela. The film is an intriguing confluence of presences: Clint Eastwood is its director; Matt Damon effectively captures the appropriate South African accent and plays François Pienaar, the captain of the Springboks, the rugby team that at that point were being Africanised into amaBokoboko; and Freeman portrays Nelson Rolihlahla Mandela, who in the film is charismatic and plays Madiba as a personally and emotionally isolated individual in his role as the recently installed president of the new, emancipated South Africa.
The story in the film is a simple and — to use a film-reviewer’s expression — “emotionally convincing” account of how President Mandela, the leader of a fragmented nation, “invests” belief in the captain of the nation’s rugby team in the lead-up to the 1995 Rugby World Cup when it was held in South Africa, the first event of its kind post-apartheid, in such a way that Pienaar and the team might be transformed into an unifying symbol that could help heal the damaged, haunted nation. Under apartheid and, partly, due to the effect of sporting boycotts, that team then known as the Springboks had previously symbolized the confrontational confidence and delusion of the normality of the Afrikaner nationalist government.
Depending on how cynical or how demanding we might be, the film can be seen in two ways: as an insightful illustration of an elder enacting his wisdom, a portrait of a man who lost much of his life through imprisonment and yet was still able to articulate and negotiate the necessities that allowed South Africa to survive both the impending disintegration of apartheid and the voiding of the African Nationalist Congress’s socialist discourse after the fall of the Communist Bloc; or it can be viewed as a typically Hollywood rewriting of historical events to suit the techniques of scriptwriters and the central concept of that folk-god, the Movie Hero.
But the film is not interesting for us here except for the fact that in it a poem — even if it is “Invictus,” a poem few readers without a specific interest in Victorian England would have heard of — is crucial to a key moment in the film where Mandela, ever the charming statesman, has to communicate an intention, an aspiration, to the poem’s recipient, the captain of a team who are all unlikely to have ever previously been open to the Poetic, such that Pienaar must not only understand it but must also, in certain ways, come to embody it.
Mandela gives François Pienaar “a mission,” and he takes it on as part of the duty implied in his role as the captain of the nation’s most important team: he is a Leading Citizen. Is that not what poetry has often done in modern nations, the Poet becoming spokesperson for the nation by embodying its articulacy, the lyric poem being the simplest expression of political aspiration and hope?
“Invictus” was written by William Ernest Henley (1849–1903) in 1875, during the Victorian era, a time that in the study of English literature has now largely been eclipsed by twentieth-century modernism. It was first collected in his Book of Verses, where it is the fourth part of the uninspiringly titled sequence “Life and Death (Echoes).” In his day the poem had a certain amount of success, conveying as it did aspects of Henley’s autobiography: he suffered from tuberculosis as a child and at the age of seventeen had a leg amputated.
His poem effectively embodies the Victorian ideal of a kind of emotional stoicism which for us in the twenty-first century might seem fraught with self-deceptions and the internalization of the Imperial. Yet for lay readers, as is testified to by the comments that accompany the poem in its various versions on YouTube, the poem continues its work of what might be called illustration and motivation. (Most moving to me was a comment written by a young adult who said that for her the poem was very important: she too was an amputee and knew the willpower required to live with that.)
Certainly, seen in the context of the twenty-first century, the poem hardly seems to deserve attention for its literariness. The sentiment it expresses, of determination and will, its emphasis on what has been heavily critiqued as the “unified subject” — or the idea of an independent Self — and its conventional language would not make it a likely object of study today, much less an admired poetic artefact.
Yet Mandela, it seems, mightn’t concur.
To the Mandela of the film that poem represents self-mastery and empowerment, those qualities that were at least one part of what made him one of the greatest leaders of the twentieth century, very Victorian qualities. As it’s presented by Clint Eastwood as director — I wasn’t able to verify it from the various biographies nor from Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game that Changed a Nation, the account by John Carlin that formed the basis of the astonishing story — Nelson Mandela read that poem while in prison and would bring it to mind in moments when he felt close to despair at what confronted him.
To ask the obvious: What confronted him?
For filmic reasons, Eastwood allows a good degree of ambiguity. There is no sense of other languages — whether Xhosa, Mandela’s mother-tongue, or Afrikaans, the “Language of the Oppressor” as it was called in those times of conflict, to mention only two of the nation’s twelve official tongues — being involved in forming Mandela’s sensibility, no presence of Communist or socialistic influence and their political circumstances, no indication that the liberation struggle in South Africa was connected to the anticolonial and civil wars in Mozambique, Angola, or Zimbabwe or elsewhere. Nor is it explicitly presented — most likely due to Eastwood’s interest in the trope of the lone man facing historical change, that he contemplates in Gran Torino, too — that for Mandela to have reached the point where he could become president of South Africa he must have been both well-capable of negotiating with those figures who were his antagonists as well as being able to allow the necessary ambiguities of expression that could allow those factors that contradicted his politicking to remain present, if unstated.
Mandela might not have made a good literary critic, but he definitely could have been an emotive civic poet.
After all, it is when Pienaar is unsure of how to motivate — note that term of both theatrical and managerial “acting” — his team, when members of the team are showing signs of resistance to his leadership, when the project of using a win in this most symbolic sport in the South African context to make gains in that other game, the politics of nation-building, seems doubtful or dubious, that Mandela passes on the commission of the poem. Later in the film, Pienaar is shown visiting Robben Island, seeing the quarry where the imprisoned members of the ANC were tasked with stone-breaking, and he himself is seen by the audience standing in the cell which held Mandela for many of those twenty-seven years of his sentence, as the entire poem “Invictus” is read in Madiba’s — via Morgan Freeman’s — deeply affecting voice. Visually, it is almost a dream-sequence, with a half-tone Mandela haunting those places the rugby captain wanders through. It has all the characteristic, manipulative charm of a powerful cinematic reverie.
That point at which the poem is recited, embodied within the ghostliness of the cinematic narrative, is that moment when Mandela’s past, the history of the struggle and Mandela’s own place in it as figure and person, are conflated with the ambition of the nation’s future, its chance for success, and it is then that responsibility is given over to Pienaar, the Hero who it is hoped could enable the microcosm of the rugby field to become the macrocosm of the entire country; the mission depends on his acting on the motivation or, to use the poetic term, inspiration, given to him by Madiba.
(Of course, I should have remarked earlier that “Invictus” is Latin for “unconquerable.”)
In this film and its version of South African history, the lyric poem does everything that it has always been expected to: it expresses individual integrity, defines personal feeling and enables an articulation that is a product of introspection, an articulation that can lead to action. In the poem the long-imprisoned freedom fighter who managed to win and become president and the conservative, until then apolitical, captain of a previously demonized sports team, who is able to reorientate himself in the political project of a new nationalism, are united by the lyrical “I,” which itself is a political figure.
In the transition between the “I” who is William Ernest Henley, the invalid author of the poem, and the reader embodied in Freeman as Mandela, or in Damon as Pienaar who is acting on Mandela’s self-transcendent nationalist ambitions, there is the primal, twinned poetic question of Author vis-à-vis Meaning. For all three of these literary figures — the commissioning father Mandela, the good son, Pienaar, and the god himself, in the Author William Henley — the poem “Invictus” is an articulation of what — to borrow a phrase — might be called “a will to power.”
Elsewhere, in another era, that impulse might have been called hope.
Through Henley and Mandela, Mandela and Pienaar, then Freeman and Damon, the “I,” “initial” person of the poem, is embodiment, the Persona, what is, in the very oldest of senses, an effect of inspiration.
The Clint Eastwood the director, a shadow of God, is himself a ghostly presence in all this and someone with a deep understanding of the metaphorics of the masculine, has taken the possibilities latent in the strange slippage that occurs in the Persona, as a means of creating a rhetorical, literary mode that might stand against the inevitable “facticity” of cinema’s moving-image and its instrumentalist emotionalism. Here the lyric poem becomes an object not transhistorical in being transcendent, but transhistorical instead in that it is an artefact, much as the Self that can move through discourses and histories and due to the nature of those systems be “rendered” historical, “factual,” by each.
The poem “Invictus” then is not merely, as the film’s trailer would suggest, a kind of motto for the ethos of the story and its explanation as to why South Africa, despite all its potential conflicts, didn’t degenerate into civil war during the demise of apartheid. It is actually made to be an example of archetypal poesis. But the Thing being made might not be the poem but rather the Person, the individual, the mysterious, polyvocal adoptable Self.
Maybe the unconquered of the poem is that person who is always spoken by the Poem in the voice of the Reader, who is motivated by making and remaking, who is that persona inevitably recited, uttered, amidst the cinematic blur of any History?
Postscript: We should remember that, in lieu of a final statement before he was executed, Timothy McVeigh, the Oklahoma City bomber, gave a hand-written copy of the poem “Invictus” to his jailer. In the US media afterwards there were suddenly a range of commentators drawn to literary criticism, to analysing and defending Henley’s inspirational lyric poem.
Drafts of this essay were presented at the 2012 Poetry and Revolution conference at the Contemporary Poetics Research Centre, Birkbeck College, University of London, and at the Institute for English Language and Literature, Freie Universität Berlin. The essay first appeared in a Portuguese translation by Înes Dias in the magazine Cão Celest, issue 2.
Disidentity in the works of Akilah Oliver and Ronaldo Wilson
I find myself going back into the past. In absence.
What haven’t I looked at thus far? What remains
(mostly) unquestioned in examining what queer
representations are? Race. Ethnicity. My white skin.
I must dig deeper.
When was the first moment I realized “race”?
When did I see my body as white?
How did seeing this body change how I understood the world?
It hit me before Gloria Anzaldúa, of course, but I can’t
remember when. What I know is how reading her
Borderlands/La Frontera: The New Mestiza changed me.
I was never able to see the world the same way.
Through the process of disidentification present in her text.
“Which scrambles and reconstructs the encoded message of
a cultural text in a fashion that both exposes the encoded
message’s universalizing and exclusionary machinations and
recircuits its working to account for, include, and empower
minority identities and identifications.”
But, but, but … what does it all mean in my narrative?
Resist the seductiveness of false universals.
Realizing whiteness and queering privilege
It appears I must first look at the moment of emergence where I set Anzaldúa’s book open on my desk and was led to disidentification, to knowing Muñoz. Even before that moment, however, even before I knew him (or knew the word), I created a poem exploring these very topics:
I have set the book down:
how I weep at the mirror
blotchy skin / bloodshot eyes,
tasting tears running down cheeks
child of the
the space at the juncture of cultures,
a vague and undetermined place
created by the emotional residue
of an unnatural border,
the space where
my body seems
s t r e t c h e d
yet how is any of this
possible at all?
Glancing at my body:
neatly trimmed hair, hip-less build / awareness of maleness.
Desire for stubble against chin.
No hablo español.
I am no Gloria Anzaldúa:
mestiza, feminist, woman, lesbian
holding the words in my hands
they slip through fleshy cracks
and puddle at my feet.
how these words resonate
Words to sensation
sensation to flesh
flesh to identification
hacked away with a machete
in the mirror.
bone and organs,
naked and exposed,
grotesque body oozing
who am I?
as I wish nothing more
than to fade into air.
I found here, for the first time, a disconnect from my previous identity. The year prior, in 2005, I came out as gay. And now I was suddenly confronted by a cultural text speaking to me beyond this identification. At first, on a level of sexuality, then along lines of age, and finally with race in mind. How was it that I was connecting to a lesbian, mestiza feminist? In this initial reading, I was only seventeen years old. I had been born in the Midwest in a fairly diverse community, but my experiences with other places around the world had been limited, at best, or had created certain assumed truths I discovered were blatantly incorrect in the short time I had been in college reading this academic work.
One particularly affecting instance occurred while reading the chapter, “How to Tame Wild Tongues,” in which Anzaldúa describes moments where her mother told her not to speak Spanish and where, at Pan American University, she was required to take two language classes to help strip her of her accent when speaking English. Mirroring other chapters, Anzaldúa’s words effortlessly slink between Spanish and English as she rejects the central warnings of her mother, and the policies of her former university. She says, “attacks on one’s form of expression with the intent to censor are a violation of the First Amendment. El Anglo con cara de inocente nos arrancó la lengua. Wild tongues can’t be tamed, they can only be cut.”
I’ll admit I didn’t know what to do with the text after these moments left me feeling her pain and anger but not fully understanding it. I struggled with this process of disidentification because there is, after all, no manual for it. (Nor should there be because the questing of disidentification leads to more open-minded, queer-positive narratives.) So for quite some time, I would prop the text open, staring out of my expansive dorm window, watching the emergence of fall, as brilliant red and orange leaves twisted to the ground at the mercy of the wind.
After some time browsing through pages, staring out the window, and drifting over question after question, the idea of the borderlands became something I latched on to despite these unfamiliar cultural experiences and references. It occurred as I repeated the phrase: a vague and undetermined place created by the emotional residue of an unnatural border. But what was my unnatural border? Where did this odd sense of displacement arise from?
I was not situated in a physically unnatural border like Anzaldúa was. But why does a borderland need to be a physical space? I think people often imagine the borderland as the edge, and there is nothing wrong with this description, but it’s more appropriate to say that the borderlands are charged spaces in-between cultures and identification where bodies, languages, sexual practices, and other identities collide. As I began thinking more about the borderlands, and developing a stronger understanding of patriarchy as it related to Anzaldúa’s description of how Spanish colonization destroyed female agency, it became clear I belonged at the edge of white male culture, in the middle of the clash between heteronormativity and bent identification. While my European ancestors were among these early colonizers, given my desire for other men, I belonged in the sexual borderlands. An outsider in or an insider out (I don’t know which) of a mostly imagined, but no less real, borderland.
I never identified as gay after that moment of realizing I was in the borderland. It was here I began disidentifying, discovering myself as queer in the active disavowal of this herteronormative, patriarchal privilege I was born into. In choosing the word queer, I saw the lines and limits of my body as being more contested, always searching around and discovering unexpected fissures on my skin. I heard hegemonic phrases uttered and saw glances that I now understood were objectification; in recognizing this hegemony, I realized how past moments of colonization had been guided by these same principles. More importantly, I knew I could become complicit in colonizing consciousness unless I took steps to avoid this privilege. Through Anzaldúa’s voice, I began learning how I could do precisely what Muñoz describes disidentification doing: I could, finally, recircuit existing cultural assumptions to fashion my queer body.
While I didn’t have specific tools at the time to structure a political ideology against racism, I found myself focused on understanding the moments where other voices of color influenced my consciousness, changing how I viewed the world. Reflecting back, I realize how invaluable Audre Lorde, Chandra Mohanty, Gayatri Spivak, and others have been in providing tools to understand the world in a more nuanced way.
Discovering double consciousness in DuBois
Two semesters later that voice would be W.E.B. DuBois, one of the assigned authors at Bard College at Simon’s Rock because he was born in Great Barrington, Massachusetts where the college is located. In 2007, it was The Souls of Black Folk, which was first published in 1903. To this day, it remains one of DuBois’s most well-cited texts and one of the earliest examples of African-American sociology. Covering significant sociohistorical ground, it includes DuBois’s own stories to define the directions he felt the black community should head, at the same time exploring the ways in which racism has greatly influenced black consciousness.
In my immediate readings of The Souls of Black Folk, I latched on to the concept of double consciousness that DuBois develops in his first chapter, “Of Our Spiritual Strivings.” This concept is initially described through the veil, which is a metaphorical device used to show how black consciousness is separated from the consciousness of white individuals. The veil, rather than simply being a negative imposition on behalf of white culture, is a way for black individuals to expose and advocate for a more unified antiracist movement. Double consciousness factors into this process of advocacy as the result of living through the veil. That is to say, because black individuals are born with a veil, their consciousness enters them into a “world which yields [them] no true consciousness, but only lets [them] see [themselves] through the revelation of the other world.”
The black individual who sees himself through the other world, the white world, is then “always looking at [himself] through the eyes of the others,” which forces him to always feel his “two-ness.” This process, DuBois goes on to describe, is often destructive, leaving an individual torn between wanting to be part of the United States at the same time he doesn’t want to risk sacrificing his cultural roots or identity. While much of DuBois’s focus revolves around sociological study of the effects of racism on black culture, he begins to envision the power of this consciousness, exploring how the “strivings” of these black individuals will help engender a more just and free United States of America.
During this semester, I wrote a short essay exploring how I felt my own sense of double consciousness. While it was not entirely analogous to DuBois’s description, I connected to the struggles of these black individuals on the most basic premise that I defined my life through others’ assumptions I was gay due to my feminized physical appearance and mannerisms. I recognize how this consciousness is less immediate because sexuality, unlike skin color, can be hidden. That is to say, I could have consciously worn baggy clothes or avoided participating in other activities associated with gayness. Through this particular realization, I found myself drawn to the notion that I was seeing the world differently, and that this consciousness could serve to further connect queer bodies rather divide them. Reflecting back, it seems this double consciousness was the central link in uniting those in the borderlands.
I will admit I cannot understand all moments in The Souls of Black Folk. DuBois, as an example, dedicates a chapter to discussing the role of the Church in organizing black lives. As an avowed atheist, these discussions do not further my understanding of how to structure political movements for queerstory. As importantly, they often strike up a divisive tone because some of the leading advocates against LGBT rights are affiliated with churches, including the people of color that DuBois talks about. The charge is not that DuBois is homophobic, or that he’s advocating for homophobic ideals; instead, this lengthy exploration of the Church failed to resonate, in any sense, with my own experiences and philosophy.
Nevertheless, I used DuBois as a bridge to breach present gaps between queer, white persons like myself and people of color, even if they do not identify as LGBTQ. After reading Souls of Black Folk, I immediately became involved with the Owl’s Nest Coalition on campus. This group offers a space for the various minority organizations on campus to meet, discuss specific localized concerns, and support other organizations in their activist work. My experiences with this group, while challenging, forced me into developing a more fully realized understanding of what queer meant, which would increasingly depend on Jose Muñoz’s Disidentifications.
Afterhours in Langston Hughes: A metaphor for disidentification
The concept of disidentification, I soon realized, was linked to DuBois in two interesting ways. First, disidentification is a natural extension of the concept of double consciousness because it supposes looking at a fragmented sense of self to disidentify from normative self-formation that is the basis of that fragmentation. Disidentification differs from double consciousness because it is a more overt attempt to use the conditions of this identity formation to revise existing histories as a means of creating new political conditions. This more overtly historical and political stance of disidentification is woven into the second way that DuBois and Muñoz are connected: through the queer poetics of Langston Hughes.
While DuBois and Hughes are situated temporally, meaning they lived as notable voices of black empowerment in the 1920s, they offer different methodologies to achieve this empowerment. Though both we united by an interest in song — Christian spirituals for DuBois and jazz for Hughes — DuBois operates as an academic, providing one of the earliest sociopolitical records of black cultural accomplishment from a decidedly heteronormative framework, whereas Hughes was the poet laureate of the Harlem Renaissance, gaining prominence for his depictions of the nightlife and vagrants of Harlem during this time period. Muñoz, though he works within academia like DuBois, aligns himself more closely to Hughes in his theoretical ideals because of Hughes’s focus on the queer black nightlife, which is later retold in Issac Julien’s film Looking for Langston.
The play between DuBois’s more assimilationist stance and Hughes’s radical, revisionist stance has become a theoretical object of inquiry for Muñoz. In his introduction to Disidentifications, he describes disidentification as “prying open memory,” effectively reformatting memory to disrupt notions of temporality and, to use his particular academic framework, perform history. DuBois, in his work on double consciousness, suggests a modernist, progress-driven narrative for black individuals; while his ambitions for their “strivings” are rooted in a desire to give a voice to black culture, they do not operate to pry open memory like Muñoz’s model.
But Langston Hughes doesn’t subscribe to these traditional notions of identity. Shane Vogel, in his essay “Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife,” locates the transformative narrative laced in Hughes’s poetics. Taking the poetic image of the afterhours club, Vogel remarks how Hughes “resisted naming and fixing his desire, not out of internalized shame or the logic of the closet, but out of what bell hooks proposes we think of as his ‘perverse regard’ for desire itself, its mysteries and uncertainties.” Hughes’s poems, in embracing the social marginality of the afterhours clubs, disrupt the “textual and material logic of the institutional archive” in a way that instead creates “a queer time consciousness” that becomes archived in “the line of poem.”
Muñoz explores this new archive, which encountered an unsurprising reemergence given the most virulently antiqueer rhetorics were directed against people of color during AIDS’s violent emergence as a global pandemic. The film Looking for Langston becomes so instructive because it was released in 1988, the same time Arnold Rampersad’s historical account of Hughes’s life was published. Where Rampersad proposed that Hughes was not gay because of what Vogel describes as a lack of “eye witness accounts and documentary evidence” of his sexual practices, Looking for Langston suggests Hughes was queer precisely because his identity “elude[s] historical inscription.”
This act of eluding being written is achieved in Hughes’s work by careful depictions, in both content and form, of “a temporality that unfolds in defiance of city and moral law to create fugitive spaces like the afterhours club.” Looking for Langston achieves this same counterpublic space because it “holds on to [a] lost object,” meaning it doesn’t intend to affirm the notion that a queer and black history has been hidden from history; instead, the film shows this history did, at one point, serve as a site of resistance and is, once again, even if it is many decades later, still relevant to understanding the ways in which queer black subjectivity is constructed publicly. Muñoz proposes that disidentification does, like Looking for Langston, “work on and against dominant ideology” to “transform a cultural logical from within.” Isaac Julien is engaging in a type of historical production through the film that, on the basis of being named history, must adopt some mainstream cultural definitions.
Yet the film limits these definitions because it, in using some traditionally accepted modalities of writing self-narratives, suddenly and unexpectedly rips them apart through the process Muñoz refers to as “desire with a difference.” This means queer and black bodies strive for culturally accepted ideals at the same time they seek to create new desires through an analysis of these ideals. This creates what he calls a type of history not invested, as in Hughes’s case, of his “known” object choice, but instead in a “contested field of self-production” that cannot separate fiction and reality. This doesn’t make such change apolitical, however. As Muñoz is careful to articulate, Looking for Langston is “a redeployment of the past that is meant to offer a critique of the present.”
This critique of the present consequently fashions connections between individuals in ways not only invested in “characters but also with verbs or ‘acts,’” meaning traditional or historical gaps can be traversed to generate hybrid, migrant subjects existing in relation to each other despite dominant paradigms stressing the impossibility of these relationships. While Hughes was particularly concerned with creating life in the afterhours clubs through a jazz poetics, he did so in a manner that spills into the present — or just-distant past of Julien’s reimagining — not to merely allow us to admire him from a distance, but instead to speak directly to these ghosts to forge radical alliances.
These alliances “require an active kernel of impossibility” in the sense that talking to ghosts means we must ask our questions as we simultaneously imagine their responses to these questions, knowing they are lost on our own physical and temporal plane. But this act of creation generates a “call-and-response” to history that develops into the procedural structure of storytelling in the present. As my own earlier narrative illustrates, I wanted to understand how I disidentified from a gay identity through W.E.B. DuBois’s and Gloria Anzaldúa’s narratives. But this process did not just involve me analyzing their works as an outsider; I’ve needed to speak to DuBois and Anzaldúa to find my own borderlands identity as it continues to be discovered through an endless series of calls and responses.
Hughes’s history is, then, valuable in a number of ways. His call to document a truly queer movement through space, one Vogel describes as a “moment in a night that will continue” without a discernible end, is one of the first such movements in the United States. This valuable movement through space reemerged in the height of the AIDS crisis as a response to the rapid expanse of antiqueer rhetorics especially vitriolic to queers of color with AIDS. Thus, in Looking for Langston, Muñoz finds explicit disidentification at work because it focuses on “recycling and rethinking encoded meaning” in respect to AIDS-related oppression. With this movement across traditional temporality, I can establish cultural history of a struggle at the same time I suggest a queer future.
This latter point structures an analysis of more contemporary works by Akilah Oliver and Ronaldo Wilson. They suggest how Hughes’s call to disidentify from traditional productions has more political and social relevance than ever before. Despite tremendous political progress, queer and black are not as synonymous with one another as they should be; mainstream LGBTQ politics actively exclude black, Latino, and Southeast Asian “performances” of identity. Even within self-professed queer movements and queer academics, Muñoz recognizes how these queer and black voices are understood in disembodied contexts, analyzed only as creative works distinct from politics, or wholly apolitical. I’ve begun with my own story, more than a decade after Disidentifications was written, to show how disidentification has been a survival practice for me; without this process of disidentification, I might not continue to live with such an uncertain disidentity, or what Muñoz calls a “reconstructed identity politics.” However, it is precisely through disidentity that the creative impulse of queer storytelling emerged to search beyond the structures suppressing queer counterpublics.
I know I am forever indebted to Anzaldúa, DuBois, Hughes, Julien, Muñoz, Oliver, and Wilson for challenging my sense of privilege and forcing me into a fearful political and social uncertainty. This recognition is more than mere admiration or valorization of courage. It is also at the heart of what Muñoz describes as prosopopeia, or “She who mourns a friend summons her up through elaborate ventriloquism.” This reanimation of the past accounts for Hughes’s reimagination, the queer black insurgency of the AIDS crisis, Muñoz’s analysis of this insurgency, and the belief that, without continued reimagination, queer storytelling will only become cultural reappropriation of heteronormativity in an age where virulent antiqueer and black rhetorics flourish because of this reappropriation and assimilation.
Introducing voices of disidentification in the present
I have selected works by Ronaldo Wilson and Akilah Oliver because I was immediately drawn to these two texts. I initially selected more well-known works by authors including Audre Lorde and James Baldwin, but Wilson and Oliver have stuck in my mind because careful readings of these works have been revelatory in many ways. Oliver and Wilson restructured my consciousness as I realized my own privileges, confused me in descriptions of spirituality, myth, and religion, and also forced me into lateral contact with their bodies. In this process, I have found ways we are connected through difference. These two works have also enabled me to bring discussions of disidentification into the present, allowing me to provide an outline for a process I call queerstory, a process through which identities can achieve productive sociopolitical effects. From this point forward, I use both authors to show how queerstory can effectively create fluid, transhistorical, and atemporal stories that embrace queer bodies and desires as sites of history making.
The first of these works, Ronaldo Wilson’s Narrative of the Life of the Brown Boy and the White Man, explores the life of a brown boy — who is never named — as he explores how he understands this body through his relationship to his boyfriend, who is only ever referred to as the white man. In the introduction of the work, which takes the form of short prose-poem chapters, we get an immediate sense of the narrative’s themes when Wilson writes, “the brown boy never dreams of being his own body. He only longs after big white men.”
In exploring the life of the brown boy through his fantasies, desires, and dreams of almost always being somebody else, Wilson interrogates the ways in which queer desire is constituted against a more dominant paradigm of gay male sexual culture that prizes whiteness. At the same time, through a narrative structure so heavily reliant on dreamscapes and imagination, the materiality of sexuality — meaning sexuality constituted through physical acts — is stripped away, forcing the practice of queerstory to demand a look at how sexuality is constituted through imagined and immaterial spaces.
I would specifically like to extend Wilson’s description of treading water in one of these prose-poem “chapters” to serve as a larger metaphor for disidentification as a process that treads identity. By this, I mean that disidentification itself is a process, much like Muñoz describes, of surviving disjunctive or fragmented senses of identity. I will explore how this is manifest in the structure of Wilson’s Narrative, how this relates to the prose poem genre he is writing in, and how this can be applied to queerstory as a whole.
The next work, Akilah Oliver’s A Toast in the House of Friends, is the more visionary in terms of its form, employing a wide range of poetic styles to interrogate the relationship her body has to violence, and the ways in which speaking can constitute a challenge to these violent realities of the present. She sums this up in the poem “murdering” when she says, “if I am engage antiviolence work then by necessity I enter into contract / with violence, / no shy slipperies here.” In this contract with violence, Oliver develops a book that bleeds history. Violence trickles like blood from the pages, moving us to interrogate the ways in which racialized violence cannot be ignored, and how this type of violence is placed in the context of understanding desire.
Oliver, it seems, is never able to break from violence; however, this is not the aim. She wants us to remember. She wants herself to remember the past, to mourn, letting those moments of self-reflection linger as she binds us to representative strategies deeply invested in traditional cultural practices such as chanting. But these chants also bring the narrative into the present, as she explores the ways in which new forms of art — most notably her discussion on graffiti — constitute a unique public space of memorial. At the same time, she creates a reimagination of these earlier cultural practices, driven by individuals she describes as the visible unseen. I intend to show how these individuals are relevant to the representational strategies informing queerstory.
Both Wilson and Oliver are connected because they create counterpublic spaces that, like Hughes’s jazz poetry of afterhours clubs, allow for queer voices of color to flourish in imagining the possibility of creation. They also challenge a cultural logic that sees queer and black as separate, positing how queer desire and pleasure, in the process of these new spaces of possibility, must be informed by the disidentificatory practices of queers of color. Let me be clear here: this radical openness is made possible precisely because disidentification shows us how identity is unfixed, mobile, and relational — roaming through fantasy, memory, and felt experience — to generate social critique.
A failure to recognize this identity means queerstory as a practice will be drawn into the legacy of colonial and imperial violence, unable to break out of the repetitious and violent cycle that drives it. Without these theorists, without the moment where I found my body in Anzaldúa’s, I’d probably be chugging along on a marriage equality campaign, neglecting people of color in the process. But I am not. I’ve come into queerness realizing I am always coming into identity because disidentity is ongoing polyvocal conversation. This is not to say there is a “model” approach to interrogate white privilege; instead, disidentification is less a model than it is a loose blueprint of ways to approach privilege.
It’s also important to note what differences exist between Wilson and Oliver in both form and content that generate, through moments of disconnect, the same disidentificatory practices leading to their creation. This is because counterpublic spaces, like the afterhours clubs, are not ones of agreement; rather, they are spaces where disagreement is expected precisely to generate a collective response to challenge the legacies of violence. In recognition of this fact, I will focus on how Wilson and Oliver’s connectedness dissolves. However, I’m also not suggesting that disagreement overwhelms agreement; instead, I want to show that in moving forward with queerstory, it is vitally important to examine how disidentification is a simultaneous investment in agreement and disagreement.
From treading identity to the visible unseen
“The brown boy think the word white when he looks up at the white man meditating, but hears something else like c’mon or a grunt and slides between his legs and falls asleep there, thinking only about his black father’s erasure”
The first thing that strikes me in reading Wilson’s Narrative is the simplicity of his language. It is so simplistic, in fact, that the first time I read it, I’m put off by how childish it feels as I attempt to read it out loud. There only seem to be short, choppy sentences that lack natural rhythm, particularly as I encounter descriptions of eating and shitting. I ask myself, squarely, “How is this poetry? Or even art at all? What could this possibly have to say of disidentification and queerness?” I set Narrative down for a moment, deciding to give it a second chance like I do every text. In a subsequent reading, my pace slows dramatically. As a slim volume of only seventy-seven pages, it is easy for Wilson to just breeze by and fall out of consciousness.
This second reading revealed what I had glossed over before: Wilson’s simplistic language shows that, for queer people of color, disidentification occurs in both dramatic, exceptional circumstances and everyday life. Wilson uses language precisely in what Muñoz calls a “strategy that works on and against dominant ideology.” This strategy reconfigures what these acts of repetition mean through the constant shift between dreamscapes and imagination the brown boy employs in the narrative. In reaching this realization, I begin exploring the form Wilson uses and, more specifically, how the images he uses suggest counterpublic spaces.
I begin by asking, “What does a prose poem do?” because it seems clear the simplicity of his language is counteracted by complexly layered form. The prose-poem, Juan Manuel Sanchez reminds us in his essay, “The Prose Poem: An Apology,” is undefinable because of its “mutable genius.” The prose-poem is mutable because the combination of prose and poetry creates an oxymoronic space where conventions of constructing narrative seem oppositional. But Narrative fully embodies the peculiar power of the prose-poem as a hybrid form. Wilson is able to use poetic repetition and slink into memory quite easily through these devices, but the paragraph form allows him to use these poetic devices to construct a lengthier narrative. This embrace of hybridity is an essential component of disidentification and the creation of counterpublic space. This occurs because disidentity is a form of identity that simply operates differently than expected by latching on to more traditional modes of expression at the same time it tries to interrogate these modes of expression.
The hybridity of Wilson’s identity is illuminated, as I described in the previous section, through the idea of treading. In his chapter “Irrational Desire,” Wilson recounts the scene of being at a pool where he notices an older white man “with gray hair and a hard clayish face … wading near the ladder and struggling to keep his head above water.” He is engaged “in his exercise for the afternoon: treading.” This activity is easily dismissed as a simple physical action, as a struggle to keep one’s head above water. Yet treading is not merely an exercise poor swimmers use to stay afloat. Instead, it is something seasoned swimmers and military service-members use to stabilize themselves in the water. This means treading is a form of carefully constructed movement that ultimately moves these individuals nowhere. In bobbing up, they fall back down into their initial position, continually repeating this process for any specified duration.
When we consider Sanchez’s description of a prose-poem as “circling back” on images and meaning, it becomes clear the concept of treading can be applied to Wilson’s work as a whole, and disidentification more generally. This is because one of the central “plot” points of Narrative is the brown boy’s circling back on the body he always wants: the one that isn’t his own. Forget specific poetic images; the brown boy in Narrative treads identity because, through the constant process of disidentification, he always bobs up and down to return back to the brown skin that sparked this analysis.
Treading identity extends to disidentification because disidentification creates counterpublic spaces. These spaces are not fixed or permanent in the same sense that institutional structures are. They are dynamic and unfixed because, in quoting Muñoz, they are “suggested, rehearsed, and articulated.” The notion of identity as rehearsal and articulation can be expanded to what I consider a more socially and politically productive term: practice. This means that to practice one’s disidentity for others, to willingly rehearse it and refashion it, requires the process of treading.
As my own narrative indicates, I’ve been able to practice this sense of my conflicted identity only as I moved up and down through identity (but not beyond it); if I move beyond disidentity, and stroke forward, I then latch on to some essential or permanent subject position, which threatens the idea that subjectivity is a collective process. This is not to say one will always be treading, but instead that disidentification enables queerstory to operate as collective identity. Treading is not like the gray white man’s flailing in Narrative. The struggle of a queer body is a purposeful struggle to be and to become.
Wilson’s Narrative, through this process of treading identity, offers us one of the most powerful disidentifactory processes structuring queerstory: mourning. As he bobs up and down through imagined pleasures, he locates these pleasures through the process of prosopopeia I described earlier. In his day-to-day life, he falls into memory and recounts dreams not to simply recollect his relationship to other white men or to his family members. As Muñoz describes, “the lost and dead are not altogether absent. Not only do they exist in the drama of African-American life, but they help formulate it.”
This means these lost and dead voices are not simply present as memory; instead, Wilson uses them to drive the brown boy’s understanding of his body. He remembers, for instance, his father in a dream, taking his experiences in real life and refashioning a new version of his father. In the dream, this angry father, who has no control of his body, becomes realized in the brown boy’s own lack of control during a real life incident. The drama ensuing from this scene is a true manifestation of the drama of disidentity; though the language Wilson uses is simplistic, it only helps to advance just how potent these figures are in his life, and how their presence extends into the brown boy’s felt experiences:
Out of the dream, the brown boy sat on the pot. Piss
shoots between the lid’s gap, cascading outside, down the
bowl’s neck. Of course, he caught himself, well before he
realized how much he was like his black father as he gobbed
the piss at the base with the toilet paper, absorbing all of it.
However, I do want to be careful in ensuring these dreams do not become interpreted in a psychoanalytic context. Though Narrative is certainly ripe with this type of analysis, I am not searching for some essential origin of the brown boy’s subjectivity; I am instead reminded that as queer individuals we mourn our origins precisely because our identities challenge the myth of origination. What mourning these figures offers is a chance of explanation when this treading identity is the defining aspect of disidentity. My own narrative illuminates a similar concern. In feeling rootless, I try to speak to individuals like Anzaldúa or Lorde as a means of discovering what my disdentifications have been tied to.
Finally, I believe Wilson’s Narrative is so important because it forces any reader to examine his or her own sexual desires in very specific ways. Wilson’s brown boy struggles, as I have described throughout, to understand why he loves men and always wishes he was in another body. But Wilson’s treading through the hybridity of the prose-poem is, as Sanchez describes, “sometimes ambiguous and so left to the reader to interpret.” This ambiguity is both a function of disidentification — that it is an open-ended process where the subject practicing her identity does not quite know her desire — and a function of the counterpublic — that it is a dynamic space where, if ambiguous meaning cannot be generated, there can be no collective push toward meaning.
It thus becomes clear that the brown boy’s exploration of his relationship to the white man is also an effort to force the white man to understand his own relationship to his desires. There are no names for any characters precisely because this lack-of-naming generates sites where disidentification can occur for the reader. I am the white man; thus Wilson’s Narrative has forced me to analyze why I like brown bodies, and what that desire for brown bodies means. I thus stumble across the following questions: Am I unwittingly objectifying these bodies by fetishizing some sort of otherness? How do my relationships to queer men of color manifest differently compared to queer white men? What implications do these questions have in structuring a collective understanding?
While I do not have any answers to these questions now, nor do I expect to arrive at some fully formed truth, without considering these questions, I am not considering my desires or pleasures as being constituted against and through other forms of violence or oppression. A failure to do this means, even if I am silent, denying the complex intersections of race, gender, and sexuality. Queerstory, then, cannot be as open, dynamic, and accessible to those I want it to be accessible to. I will have failed the lost and/or dead voices I entered into conversation with earlier.
“Graffiti posits history as always in the process of becoming undone”
Akilah Oliver’s poetic syntax, unlike Wilson’s simplistic prose, trips me up. I can read Wilson aloud the first time, but immersed in Oliver I stumble over pronunciations of some words, question their organization on the page, and finally doubt the rhythm, moving through unfamiliar chanting and an academic essay on graffiti in the middle. Maybe her poetry isn’t for me. Maybe disidentity has ruptured any chance of identification. Maybe there are some gaps queerstory cannot bridge.
Yet I latch on to phrases suggesting otherwise. First the idea of “blushing moments.” Then “i conjugate occasions.” Then phrases given new meaning: “once upon a time” gets placed next to “aesthetic of references” which enters into contact with “and on his farm.” Fairytale blends with critical theory then rewrites child’s song. In this instance, I realize I do not lack an understanding; instead, I must further explore the new language of disidentity Oliver is chanting. It is a language I realize lies in what Oliver calls the “visible unseen.”
Like Wilson, Oliver takes a second read before I can understand who the visible unseen are. Their identity is revealed only in the last titled poem of the collection, “dear matthew shepard.” This one I read aloud, catching the rhythm immediately. I know Matthew, and like Oliver, I too have spoken to him, weeping in memory when I recognized I could have been (or still could be) killed by homophobia. But one particular passage moves me, throwing me back to the moment where Oliver first mentions the visible unseen:
what did you fathom, matthew,
what resistance kept you alive,
through the hard night.
it was so fucking cold,
the sick act that hung you upon a sacrificial fence,
the normal boy american faces of the brutes
who played out their homicidal homophobia
on your beautiful
Here Oliver speaks to Matthew in a way that has not been seen before. Yes, he is one of the most recognizable gay figures in the history of the United States, but his recognition has granted him precisely the status of a visible unseen. Here I am thrown back into Oliver’s essay on graffiti, where she describes the visible unseen as those “whose place in history has been fictionalized and rendered unseen under the totalizing glare of history.”
In the case of Matthew, while his place as figurehead of homicidal homophobia’s destruction is justified, his own beauty and resilience are often ignored through totalizing historical narratives. This is unsurprising due to the ability of violence to negate existence during and prior to its occurrence, but Oliver nevertheless engages what Laura Trantham Smith describes, in “From Rupture to Remembering,” as “the gaps and erasures of historical black bodies and experiences, but privileges presence over erasure or rupture.” While Matthew Shepard is a white man, his experience with violent murder becomes linked to Oliver’s own experiences and voice, revealing both the way violence operates across temporal boundaries, and how this crossing leads to the creation of new identity. In this way, Oliver creates a relationship that is unseen in dominant paradigms, but once again flourishes in counterpublic spaces.
Oliver works along similar lines as Wilson, who eloquently uses memories and dreams of his family members to co-opt dominant historical narratives. I would, however, argue that Oliver, through her instance on the visible unseen, and her direct linkage to Shepard and others, creates a disidentity whose scope is much broader as it attempts to do more historical construction and reconstitution of identity. This is not to say Wilson does not offer counterpublic spaces, or that his work is more “self-indulgent”; instead, given his focus is so explicitly on the psyche of the brown boy, larger references to configuring history are much more indirect (as in the case of the generalized “brown boy” and “white man”).
This narrative strategy is what Smith calls Oliver’s belief that “bodies contain a vast history of knowledge that exceeds the bounds of one’s literal experience.” By literal experience, it is clear that Oliver does not mean “true” experience. Oliver does not privilege the corporeal experiences over the space of imagination; instead, she tries to argue that what we feel with our body is imbricated in a collective history of struggle far beyond what the individual body does. This is what Oliver called, in an earlier work, flesh memory, and what Smith so beautifully describes, quoting Oliver, as representing “‘a twist of an appropriation’ — a taking back, a reclaiming of the black female body and its representation.”
However, after arriving at this understanding, I realized the black female body Oliver describes is her own creation. Oliver implicates her own bodily experiences in the commonly understood and documented legacy of slavery, detailing the role of spirituality as a means of attempting a rupture from this legacy through its reliance on a particular form of rhythmic chanting that remains a largely black form of spiritual expression. But Oliver’s sheer multiplicity of writing forms suggests a black female disidentity, rather than an identity, because of her attempts to make the body both ahistorical and atemporal. This formulation might seem oxymoronic on first glance. Yet calling it oxymoronic would ignore Oliver’s belief that using identificatory categories does not equal fixed identity. Instead, a black female disidentity offers sites of identification that become integrated into the process of using what Muñoz describes as “connotative images that invoke communal structures of feelings.”
These sites of simultaneous identification and reconfiguration are immediately evident in the first pages of A Toast. In the poem “In Aporia,” Oliver explains the action that is occurring as being “I his.” For example, “I his body is disintegrating” suggests both a site of personal identification — though not explicitly spelled out, we can infer from the back cover that I is the black female body Oliver speaks from — and an undefined other he that challenges the very nature of this I by forcing us to imagine their relationship. A similar use of undefined pronouns that follows, shifting between “I,” “i,” “we,” “he,” “you,” offers immediate sites of identification that are reconfigured in the moment of their articulation, creating a multiplicity of visible unseens.
This “i his” formulation extends further into content, as in the early moments where Oliver recycles clichéd phrases, nursery rhymes, and other language etched into dominant, recognized discourses. When Oliver describes, in “Crossover,” how “i wept you,” we are confronted with specific linguistic instances that challenge our expectations about how self functions in relation to others, and how the very basis of this disidentity is a blending of many sites of identification. In this instance, for example, we would expect the formulation “I wept for you” or, perhaps, “I wept for your memory.” But Oliver challenges us to imagine moments where the body, and its memory, are distinct, and that the loss of this body is not simply intellectualized but felt, running through flesh in a moment of shared grief.
Given these observations, however, A Toast is not merely a collection of poems about rupture, just as Wilson’s Narrative is not merely about the brown boy running away from his brown identity. Though the brown boy always tries to be somebody else, the repetition of connectedness to his brown family and skin shows how he returns to the moment of disavowing his skin in order to refashion new possibility in that skin. When Wilson and Oliver are linked, it is clear that Oliver, too, uses this disavowal to construct different identifications. These constructions are most clear when she repeatedly chants “we have love” or makes calls of using love to transform violence. Yet we also witness this construction in an imagined space, which is most clearly illuminated by the following passage:
when i arrived in the forever dream my name / had become another and i recognized myself in the face of the children and the / dream children chanted both/both and i met all the ghosts who come and go still / and the ghosts and the dream children took my hand and we plummeted down a / long and narrow tunnel and when we landed we stood before the screaming hiero- / glyphic wall and the wall began to whisper, the wall was prayer, the wall was a sage, it sang 
Here Oliver places us in a space outside of time that is clearly her imagination and creation. Instead of dismissing this space, she integrates it into her own consciousness before inviting us to join her in this space. Beyond the bounds of traditional temporality, it is replete with identificatory possibility insofar as we also value how imagination can be brought into presence to understand future possibility. This particular page ends with the lines “the wall was a sage, / it sang” but does not feature a punctuation mark. By doing this, Oliver allows continuance of the poem, using the ambiguous temporality as invitation for the readers to imagine what the wall could sing and how it could be our sage.
Oliver’s language, full of undefined temporality and meaning is not, then, meant to exclude. Because of its sheer depth of borrowed phrases and reconfiguration of historical truths, it is meant to provide, like her description of graffiti, a space to “reconstruct the lies.” This reconstruction of lies occurs in such a way that cuts across traditional categories of identity in an open and accommodating manner to anyone who believes in the concept of flesh memory. This opening up of memory, as Muñoz describes, “not only ‘remap[s]’ but also produce[s] minoritarian space.” In its production, we must confront how disidentity does not shy away from identity; instead, it allows us to proclaim, like Oliver, “dream with me / sing with me for a while.”
While it is clear Wilson’s concept of treading identity, which imagines a continual process of moving through identity, is similar to Oliver’s flesh memory as it attempts to reconfigure how our literal experiences are defined beyond the confines of these felt moments, these two processes do not always line up. In both approach and content, these disidentities are thus similar but not the same. Wilson’s prose is straightforward, written in tightly constructed paragraphs meant to capture stream of consciousness so expertly. Oliver’s prose, in contrast, embodies prose elements, traditional poetics, and language that is on the edge of language (as in chants) to challenge consciousness itself. In examining these discontinuities, I can reveal how to approach these disconnects.
It is easier for me to personally identify with the content of Wilson’s Narrative. The sexualized imagery, and questions over sexual object choice, are something I grapple with on daily basis. I live every moment analyzing how my desire and gaze are manifest in my experiences, and how I come to use privilege to my advantage in these sexualized spaces. Like Wilson, I also interrogate how I have desired queer people of color’s bodies as a white man, why pleasure with these bodies is significant in my daily experiences, and what it means for the future community-building and activism over sexual rights. But Oliver’s configuration of words resonates more viscerally with me. She speaks a hybrid language at the level of form that reminds me of Gloria Anzaldúa, who brought me into disidentity. Her words may be beguiling, but they unfurl in a manner similar to the poetic academic texts I have been inspired by and long to emulate.
This means I am faced with a challenge: do I identify more with building the content of Wilson or the form of Oliver? For a while I struggled precisely with this question. I would construct an essay focused on issues related to men who have sex with men without much consideration of form. But it always felt too incomplete, as if my writing style didn’t seem to mirror the complexities of content. At the same time, I would switch the focus to form at the expense of a rich theoretical subtext. In fact, the very earliest draft of this essay had the latter problem, and my advisor appropriately commented, “This isn’t fully developed.” But I didn’t understand how to make that development possible until I realized Wilson and Oliver were not oppositional, but could be linked in subtle way, fleshing out both form and content to create a final product embodying both methods of identification.
It is true Wilson and Oliver are divided, but there is not only rupture; concerns over Wilson’s content can be dissolved if we take time to understand and examine, more carefully, how Oliver embeds her desire through her form. Though Wilson is explicit in describing his sexual proclivities in a manner less focused on the sociopolitical forces influencing those sexual desires (as is the case of Oliver), his overall message establishes an intelligible sexual identity whose construction clashes with dominant paradigms of being that render his sexuality illegible. Though the focus is less on explicit forms of violence, Wilson seems to direct violence at himself in a manner that connects his struggle to Oliver, whose focus is precisely on this struggle between authenticity and negation. Thus the fixation on a specific sexual object, and on the very structure of traditional identification, is replaced by an analysis of collective struggles for authenticity.
On the other hand, if what Oliver says seems unclear, the impulse should not be to assume what she says is beyond the scope of individual understanding. Instead, Oliver’s work must be broken down into its individual poems, where first specific poetic images are located, then structure can be discussed, and the question of content can be “answered.” In this respect, reading Oliver does not require reading or writing about each individual poem in a sequential manner; the logic of hybridity, which is directly informed by disidentification, does not require linear sequencing. As my own reading of A Toast demonstrated, I used Oliver’s middle essay on graffiti to create a definition of her concept of the visible unseen by reading individual pieces first. By creating this definition, I was then able to uncover Oliver’s own “unseen” moments of expressing her desire.
As a result disidentity that informs queerstory is about managing and negotiating how these unstable sites of, and approaches to, identification can be understood collectively. This can be achieved if we do something I have tried to do in using both authors’ works: that we can, in the present with the passage of time, ask, “why have we approached disidentification in the manner that we have?” Such a question demands respect, careful listening, and patience among all members of whatever collective might form. But disidentity has imagined the difficulty of this coming into identification collectively, still believing, despite these challenges, such a respect is possible. This belief states that creation is inherent in disidentity is precisely what moves disidentity beyond its only assumed purpose, rupture, placing the works of Oliver and Wilson in even closer contact with each other.
A continuing legacy of disidentification
As I have shown, the process of disidentification is an essential component in the works of Ronaldo Wilson and Akilah Oliver. Yet far from being confined to contemporary works, I have shown how disidentification has origins in practices predating colonialism, how disidentification as a practice of creating counterpublic spaces in this country first emerged during the 1920s Harlem Renaissance through the afterhours poetry of Langston Hughes, and how feminist and queer poets have used these moments of critical refusal to structure the creation of counterpublic spaces. Wilson and Oliver continue to show how disidentification is important in creating these counterpublics for queer people of color, and how they offer new ways to understand queer identities through complex hybrid forms that borrow from past influences.
I have also, as importantly, shown how these queer voices of color forced me (as a then gay, white male) into questioning the understanding of my body. Though disidentification originates from queer people of color, it is one of the central practices forcing someone to come into queerness. This recognition means that the navigation of identities forms the central component of queerstory to create a dynamic, mutable collective invested in a political structure beyond the traditional conceptions of identity. However, rather than suggesting queer people of color know identity better than white queers, disidentity is used to show that without considering the valuable intersections of race, gender, and sexuality, queers can neglect the potent history of disidentification in forming so many influential counterpublic spaces that continue to be remembered as we mourn a queer past.
Disidentification is clearly a representational legacy for any future queer narrative writing. There is no certain origin or identity in all of this, but this is not what queerstory desires. Instead, it wants to locate what Muñoz calls a “‘structure of feeling’ that cuts through any identification group.” Though this seems, at best, improbable in our current political climate, I make every effort, after this first moment of disidentification, to use this process in the future creation of counterpublic spaces. I am a white man with significant privilege, but this does not exist in isolation to my own status in the borderlands or my relationship to queer people of color. As Akilah Oliver reminds me, speaking to Matthew Shepard as apparition:
& just as your death becomes mine,
someone else will wear my broken bones,
wake trembling from sleep,
try to get the work done.
14. Shane Vogel, “Closing Time: Langston Hughes and the Queer Poetics of Harlem Nightlife,” Criticism 48, no. 3 (2006): 397–425.
38. Juan Manuel Sanchez, “The Prose Poem: An Apology,” Southern Review 45, no. 1 (2009): 175–184.
52. Laura Trantham Smith, “From Rupture to Remembering: Flesh Memory and the Embodied Experimentalism of Akilah Oliver,” MELUS 35, no. 2 (2010): 103–120.
This is a note to readers of Niedecker, particularly those who use the early printings of the Collected Works published by University of California Press in 2002.
A prefatory digression: in 1992, The Library Chronicle of the University of Texas published my account of the Lorine Niedecker holdings in the Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center. I titled the essay “‘The Very Variant’: Lorine Niedecker’s Manuscript Collection,” meaning to echo her line “the very veery” in the poem that begins, “We are what the seas” (240) and to re-echo Niedecker’s play on Stein’s “The Very Valentine” — the precise, the singled out, the necessary, the insisted upon, etc.
I’m using the same title here (although this time in the plural) in order to correct the error I made back in 1992 where I put the “The Very Variant” in quotation marks as if I were quoting Niedecker. Given the small readership for the Chronicle, I have winced perhaps too often at that error. Using the same title here at least allows me to note my error while announcing a handful of far greater sleep disturbers in the Collected Works.
Before launching into those, I should mention another error in that 1992 piece in the Chronicle. There is, in fact, no “Lorine Niedecker Manuscript Collection” at the HRHRC. The collection that my essay described covered the Niedecker manuscripts that formed part of the 1964 Zukofsky bequest. Further papers were sent to the center by Niedecker and later by her husband, following Niedecker’s instructions. These papers were all absorbed into the Zukofsky collection. Look up Niedecker in the HRHRC catalogue and there’s no sign of her: a cataloguing error waiting to be addressed.
Errors and omissions in Lorine Niedecker’s Collected Works
1) Anne Kingsbury, stalwart executive director of Milwaukee’s legendary Woodland Pattern Book Center and brilliant multimedia artist, is misnamed Ann Kingsley in the acknowledgements (xxii).
2) The title of Niedecker’s “Xmas 1934” calendar poem (41) lacks a vital comma. It should read: “NEXT YEAR OR I FLY MY ROUNDS, TEMPESTUOUS.” Thanks to Elizabeth Willis for alerting me to the omission. Crucially, the comma allows the title to function also as an apostrophe, thus transferring the stormy epithet from the speaker to the addressee.
Pages where the comma is missing: vii, 41, 371, 469.
The note for this poem (371) lists the dimensions of the original pocket calendar as 5 ½ x 4 ⅜ inches when they should, in fact, be 3 ¾ x 4 ⅞ inches. Many thanks to Andy Oler for drawing my attention to this.
3) The final line of the penultimate section of “LAKE SUPERIOR” (236) should be an uncapitalized “home.” Regrettably the error has been reproduced in the elegant Wave Press production titled Lake Superior (2013) — a collection that includes several key texts related to Niedecker’s poem.
I’ll take this opportunity to add to the notes on “LAKE SUPERIOR” (434) an excerpt from an early version of the poem:
from Circle Tour
Sault Sainte Marie
Old day pause for voyageurs,
bosho (bon jour) sung out
by garrison men
Now the locks, big boats
coal-black and iron-ore-red
topped with what white castlework
Iron the common element of earth
in rocks and freighters —
and most things living
Arrowed rest room signs in the park
between us and the freighters —
the arrows of our day
and the momentary unsinging pause
The waters working together
gulls playing both sides
Niedecker’s 1966 Xmas card to Bob and Susan Nero includes the above excerpt “from Circle Tour.” Strange that she should still be using the title “Circle Tour” when she had revised it in October 1966 to “TRAVELERS / Lake Superior Region.” See my essay “Writing Lake Superior” in Radical Vernacular, edited by Elizabeth Willis (University of Iowa Press, 2008), 61–79.
4) “J. F. Kennedy after / the Bay of Pigs” (246) lacks a line space above “I’ve been duped by the experts.” Thanks to Jim Cocola for drawing my attention to this error, one which has unfortunately been reproduced in the wonderful French translation of Niedecker, Louange du Lieu et Autres Poèmes (1949–1970) translated by Abigail Lang and Maïtreyi and Nicolas Pesquès, published by José Corti in 2012.
While on the subject of the JFK poem, it might be worth adding further detail to the note (440) about the first surviving version of the poem. The six lines of the undated manuscript sent to Gail Roub are grouped in couplets.
5) Page 414, “I rose from marsh mud,” was conceived in June 1948, not 1945.
All but two of the corrected errors are already reflected in the 2011 reprinted paperback edition of Lorine Niedecker: Collected Works. The final two corrections (dimensions of the calendar poem and the spacing of the JFK poem) will appear in a reprint later this year (2013).
My apologies to those I’ve misled, and my thanks to the University of California Press for their willingness to respond to my requests for changes. I’m aware that most devoted readers of Niedecker will have copies of the earlier printings. Be warned! Either buy a paperback in 2014 or get out the marker pen!
to variants and …
Let me hear good night.
(“Ten o’clock,” 151)