Williams and the decaying body
The most compelling feature of William Carlos Williams’s poetry, for me, has perhaps always been the complex tango of virility and fragility that fight it out in his deeply autobiographical poetry. The idea that man could be both potent and capable of great frailty was a fact of his work that resonated with the vigorous and clumsy youth I was when I first encountered his work. Williams traces the deterioration and ultimate betrayals of his body in his poetry, reflecting on both the particularities of his condition and the universals of aging. Despite his best attempts, Williams’s body would always betray his impermanence, and developing medical technologies only seemed to solidify his sense of its precarity.
Williams was always a bodily poet — think of his famous celebration of “my arms, my face / my shoulders, flanks, buttocks” as he “dance[s] naked, grotesquely / before my mirror” in “Danse Russe” from Al Que Quiere! (1917). But late in his career, he very deliberately engaged with a poetics of the body and wrote through dozens of attempts that paralleled changes to his body that would eventually end his life. In some work, he maps a body onto the landscape; later,he traces a poetic genealogy of successors including Allen Ginsberg. In other work, he explores his own deterioration through the metaphor of the A-bomb and through the disorienting effects of his mother’s senility.
As Williams aged, he attempted to redefine the bounds of his own skin through his poetry seemingly in order to reconcile himself to his own decay as well as to reflect on continued anxieties about poetic immortality. He enacted the anxieties inherent to creative types, hoping that as his body weakened around his still-sharp mind that he could somehow guarantee the gesture of immortality, even as he acknowledged the necessity of grounding himself in reality.
Williams 1961, Beinecke Library Special Collections (photographer unknown).
Williams engages in the language of medicine in order to establish narratives of a nonnormative body that is crippled by the traumas of time but persists: mapping his body outward onto permanent or powerful objects and spaces. In Paterson, his five-part epic-length meditation on both the titular city and the challenges and pitfalls of even attempting representation, Williams draws a parallel to his own late-in-life deterioration after suffering a series of strokes beginning in March 1951, creating a narrative of semipermanence set in stone and greenery. Paterson the city becomes Paterson the man, who is as vast as he is unaging:
Paterson lies in the valley under the Passaic Falls
its spent waters forming the outline of his back. He
lies on his right side, head near the thunder
of the waters filling his dreams! Eternally asleep,
his dreams walk about the city where he persists
incognito. Butterflies settle on his stone ear.
Immortal he neither moves nor rouses and is seldom
seen, though he breathes and the subtleties of his machinations
drawing their substance from the noise of the pouring river
animate a thousand automations.
That this city, who is also a man — “only one man –– like a city” — could be a stand-in for the poet himself, we need not think of Williams bombastically comparing himself to the bustle and thrum of the then-still-thriving New Jersey industrial hub. Instead, the poem invites us to reflect on the urgency of that man-city’s permanence in juxtaposition to, and in harmony with, the immortality of nature itself.
The hum of the Great Falls, slowing wearing their way through the face of the Passaic basalt, was as inevitable as Williams’s own fading strength, but his obsession with the consequences of such inevitabilities preceded the strokes that began in the early 1950s and eventually ended his life. Williams the Doctor-Poet was particularly suited to engaging with the medical language that became a predominant theme in his post-stroke poetry. He was more aware than most of the process of erosion to which his body had subjected him. Late in life, Williams would note that his medical training had influenced his poetry through its emphasis on precision of description. Williams the Doctor allowed Williams the Poet new avenues of revelation regarding the blood vessels gone rogue in his skull.
Williams’s business card, date unknown, the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.
And though he lived into old age through years of incredible medical advancement, the rapid growth of medical knowledge and practice also served to proliferate new anxieties about the body to which Williams, too, seems victim. The poetry that is most relevant to pursuing questions of embodiment and aging comes late in Williams’s career. But it isn’t his own old age that initially set him on a poetic search for immortality. Instead, I find the heart of his concern with personal decay appears in the poems reflecting upon the death of his mother Elena.
Elena, Williams’s Puerto Rican mother, lived into the beginnings of her son’s own old age, dying somewhere between the ages of ninety-eight and 102 depending on the source consulted. The elder Mrs. Williams had a somewhat strained relationship with her son, though she had become increasingly dependent on him as she became more frail, finally sinking into senility, at which point she was placed in a nursing home by her son in order to make room for his brother’s family in the house they had shared. Years before her death, Williams first acknowledged the weakness of her body in “Eve,” calling it her “wasted carcass” and noting her unwillingness to slip dignified into death in a manner that would best suit her son: “One would think / you would be reconciled with Time / instead of clawing at Him / that way, terrified.” But it is not Elena’s body that most troubles Williams, but the ways that her senility shakes his own sense of self. Particularly jarring is the identity crisis begun in “Two Pendants: For the Ears” where the dying Elena fails to recognize Williams:
Elena is dying.
In her delirium she said
a terrible thing:
Who are you? NOW!
I, I, I, I stammered. I
am your son.
The stutter of shock and discomfort — the “I, I, I, I” — that he produces in identifying himself to her when she does not know him makes tangible his surprise at finding their lifelong connection suddenly unmoored by the tricks of her ailing mind and body. For Williams, aging and failures of memory are inherently tied to a sense of self. The poet’s sense of self can only for a poet be expressed by speech. In losing her mind (so to speak), Elena has lost not just her history but also somehow lost Williams for himself. His stammering “I, I, I, I,” grasping at his suddenly porous identity. It is this misrecognition that sets him on his path toward reconciling his mortal body with a world of language that would outlast him.
Williams and Elena Williams, his mother, sometime in the 1940s, Beinecke Special Collections (photographer unknown).
Two years after Elena’s death, William’s own march toward the grave would begin. One of the most debilitating results of the strokes that plagued Williams for the last decade of his life was the sudden loss of speech and motor-skills which greatly diminished his ability to write and type. It is no surprise, then, that “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” begun around the period of his first stroke and published in 1955, reflects a sense of helplessness when faced with the bombs that were going off in his brain. Though its primary message is one of apology toward his much-betrayed wife, Flossie, “Asphodel” is frequently concerned with the failure of the body to form the words that the mind imagines and the stakes of such failures in light of impending mortality. The only escape from the power of the bomb is imagination, which makes men immortal, unless they are silenced by their own bodily betrayals. Ultimately, “The bomb speaks” and man is unable to find the language for an appropriate response so “We come to our deaths / in silence.”
Williams’s poem is evocative not only because of its vivid depiction of interior decay, but also because his decay occurs in tandem with the technological advancement and destructive potential that defined the nuclear age. Radioactivity, and the resulting “radiant gist” that had haunted the work of Paterson Book IV after he watched Mervyn LeRoy’s schmaltzy 1943 biopic Madame Curie, both allowed for the revelatory treatment possibilities of the x-ray and for the destructive force of the A-bomb.
Notes on a prescription pad from the early drafts of Paterson, including an idea Williams would later develop in “Asphodel, That Greeny Flower,” ca. 1948, the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.
But the connection that Williams makes between his strokes and the bombs is not so straightforwardly related to their shared destructiveness. Instead, we are asked to understand the bomb in relation to the flower. The unappreciative living ignore the asphodel, a lowly weed, while the dead look to it and wonder, “What do I remember / that was shaped / as this thing is shaped?” An asphodel shares its silhouette with a mushroom cloud, reiterating the themes of mass-scale destruction as well as the connection Williams draws between destruction and creativity.
In finding a parallel between the asphodel and the bomb, Williams finds a logic for the micro-bombs in his skull. Curie’s search for what Williams termed the “radiant gist” in tons of pitchblende represented for him the potential for beauty and worth in dreck and heartache. Though it is too neat to read the claims in “Asphodel” for a rebirth resulting from the bomb, when Williams says, “In the huge gap / between the flash / and the thunderstroke / spring has come in / or a deep snow fallen. / Call it old age,” there does seem to be an acknowledgement of a utopian potential to aging. Certainly Williams has experienced a sea change. It remains undecided whether the new version of himself that he must grapple with is irreparably damaged — is he now that “wasted carcass” he had pitied only a few years before? — or if there are glimmers of a Williams as-of-yet-unexplored. But there is a possibility that Williams now, like the dead before him, has come close enough to the threshold of another world to now appreciate the asphodel, which “has no odor / save to the imagination / but it too / celebrates the light.” “Give me time, / time,” he had implored, time to make tangible and articulate his flooding memories early in “Asphodel.” Now he knows that he needs time only in order to “refuse death” and to keep “the light” of his mind out of death’s reach.
Williams’s shaky handwritten 1955 inscription to Charles Abbott in a 1951 copy of his autobiography, the Poetry Collection, University at Buffalo.
But Williams was nonetheless aware of the betrayals a body could make to a still-sharp mind after months of fighting to recover his speech, handwriting, and typewriting skills. In his translations of three Nahuatl poems, first appearing in The Muse in Mexico of 1959, Williams places key emphasis on the phenomenological experience of inhabiting a body. This emphasis is particularly clear when you compare these versions to John Bierhorst’s controversial translations. While Williams translates the lines as: “Or, maybe, it is only on Earth / that we lose the body?” Bierhorst translates them as: “The place where all are shorn is here — on earth!” Bierhorst parses this song, like “Asphodel,” as representative of the desire for immortal life, though in this case the figures more closely resemble the walking dead than wildflowers. Certainly, Williams’s translations are more beautiful, more simple, but they also shed light onto the primacy that Williams placed on the experience of living itself and the ways that being trapped within his own slowly dying body became central to his poetic sensibilities, even as he lost the ability to speak and eventually lost some of his hold on language itself.
The readings that I have been able to link to here from the archives of PennSound are all recordings from the last fifteen years of Williams’s life, and they reveal, I think, that despite his deterioration and despite his struggles to relearn the basic motor-skills required to continue writing, Williams remained vital. This was no husk. He read with excitement, delivering lines that sent his audiences tittering and offering applause of admiration, not pity.
Williams and his wife Flossie taken sometime in the 1950s, Beinecke Special Collections (photographer unknown).
Williams ceased his public readings after his third stroke in 1958 and continued to suffer a series of smaller strokes, or transient ischemic attacks, until his death in spring 1963. His biographers have already traced the impact this had on the poet emotionally, and though he spent much of these last five years depressed by his struggle even to speak, an interview with Stanley Koehler for The Paris Review from eleven months before his death reveals his continued investment in conveying the particularities of his bodily experience. He insists he cannot speak in a clear and sharp voice, perseverating on the damage wrought by the strokes. He is plagued. His voice hesitates and quavers, but Williams remains. Koehler remarks upon the opening lines of the fifth and final book of Paterson published two years before: “In old age / the mind / casts off / rebelliously / an eagle / from its crag.” But Koehler does not quote the lines that follow: “— the angle of a forehead / or far less / makes him remember what he thought / he had forgot // — remember confidently / only for a moment, only for a fleeting moment / with a smile of recognition.” It is these lines that, in some ways, seem a most fitting epitaph for Williams. Growing old was hell. But in old age there was a clarity that had not been available to the virile young Williams admiring his naked flesh in front of the mirror in the north room. Ending his interview with Koehler, Flossie, who has joined them to facilitate conversation, is listing the translations of Williams’s works. Williams, triumphant, shouts, “I’m still alive!” Perhaps this is the memory the old man catches hold of in Paterson. “I’m still alive!”
6. In his Williams biography, “Something Urgent I Have to Say to You”: The Life and Work of William Carlos Williams (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2011), Leibowitz quotes Williams’s dying father as saying, “The one thing I regret in going is that I have to leave her to you. You’ll find her difficult” (51). The moment shared between father and son certainly seems telling of the relationship between mother and son.
13. Before Bierhorst’s translation in 1985, the Cantares Mexicanos had never been translated in their entirety into English and had been popularly thought to be the core text available to scholars of pre-conquest Aztec life and literature. In his “General Introduction,” Bierhorst made the claim that these songs were actually largely post-conquest and heavily influenced, even possibly entirely invented, by the invading Spanish. Chicano scholars have since largely dismissed this component of Bierhorst’s work, while his translations remain acclaimed.
Has American poetry become more engaged with public events, more politically relevant, in the opening years of the twenty-first century? That is the claim made by The New American Poetry of Engagement, an anthology edited by Ann Keniston and Jeffrey Gray and published in 2012. In their introduction, Keniston and Gray argue that American poets, particularly in the wake of September 11, 2001, have displayed a “turn toward a more engaged poetry” in response to a historical context that “disrupted and threw into question the ‘personal’ concern of much poetry.” The anthology collects poems that “incorporate, chronicle, or allude to public events,” from the Iraq war to climate change. Although Keniston and Gray see the chronicling of such events as the main aim of an engaged poetry — taking their cue from Robert Lowell’s query, “Yet why not say what happened?” — they also suggest that twenty-first-century poets of engagement grapple openly with the problems of representation, dwelling on “the gap between the need to tell and the limitations of the language they use.”
The claim for a “new” American poetry of engagement would seem to imply an earlier American poetry that lacked such engagement. And indeed, Keniston and Gray arguethat nearly the entirety of twentieth-century American poetry can be characterized by its “relative apoliticism.” “The engagement evident in the poems of The New American Poetry of Engagement is remarkable,” Keniston and Gray write, “partly because it was not always so: most twentieth-century poetry in American went in quite the other direction.” Keniston and Gray assert that modernism’s focus on “depicting subjectivity in new ways” and on “fractured and traumatized consciousness” led to a turn “away from the political” and toward the personal — a trend extended into the second half of the century by the confessional poets. This antipolitical tendency was abetted, they argue, by modernism’s scholarly handmaiden, the New Criticism, with its “avoidance of the political” and rejection of context in favor of an “emphasis on the ‘poem itself.’”
That modernism was apolitical is certainly a debatable claim. Ezra Pound’s Cantos consigns Lloyd George and Woodrow Wilson to hell, espouses the monetary doctrines of Social Credit, and elegizes Mussolini; the early sections of Louis Zukofsky’s long poem “A” signal their leftist orientation with quotations from Marx and meditations on labor and war. Nor did modernism shy away from responding to historical events. T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land is frequently read as a depiction of the “ruins” of European society in the wake of the First World War, and Pound added his own bitter coda to the war in “Hugh Selwyn Mauberley”:
There died a myriad,
And of the best, among them,
For an old bitch gone in the teeth,
For a botched civilization.
Later, H.D.’s Trilogy unfolds in the shadow of the London Blitz, with “An incident here and there, / and rails gone (for guns) / from your (and my) old town square.”
In the later twentieth century, poets and critics would add to this assessment of modernism the assertion that modernist form itself constitutes a politics — that the non-narrative, fragmented, disruptive aesthetic of modernism presents a challenge to dominant linguistic and political ideologies. Since the 1970s, Language writing and its descendants have been the most visible contemporary partisans of a politics of poetic form, explicitly linking poetic experimentation with radical politics. One can certainly argue about the validity of such claims, but there can be little doubt that Language writing and its related tendencies proceed from a political intention. Why, then, does Language writing not feature in Keniston and Gray’s account of political poetry?
The answer, it would seem, is that the desire for a newly “engaged” poetry is not simply a desire for “political” poetry of just any kind. Instead, it would seem to be a desire for a very particular kind of political poetry, one that privileges “facticity and content,” that explicitly alludes to “public events,” that seeks to narrate, bear witness to, or represent such major events — that follows, as Keniston and Gray have it, Lowell’s imperative to simply “say what happened.” The 9/11 attacks are the paradigmatic “public event” of the era Keniston and Gray describe, and perhaps nothing captured this new moment of poetic engagement as well as the sudden vogue for a sixty-year-old poem: W. H. Auden’s “September 1, 1939.” Auden’s poem was widely quoted in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, its resonant phrases seeming to anticipate the events of 9/11 (“The unmentionable odour of death / Offends the September night”) and their possible causes (“Those to whom evil is done / Do evil in return”), culminating in the poem’s anguished tagline: “We must love one another or die.” Yet the very fact that Americans would turn at this moment to a half-century-old poem by an English-born poet might be seen as signaling a certain lack of comparable voices in contemporary American poetry. As Brendan Bernhard would write in a reflection on Auden’s poem a decade after the attacks, “Poets who spoke with that measure of confidence and ambition no longer existed — at least not in America.”
If we take this event as paradigmatic of the desire for an engaged poetry that Keniston and Gray articulate, we can see that it is not exactly a desire for a “political” poetry, broadly understood. Rather, it is a far more specific desire for a poetry that can reach a wide audience, that speaks directly to and about major historical events, that prizes “saying what happened” over formal or aesthetic concerns. In short, the desire for an engaged poetry may be better understood as a desire for a public poetry, one that rejects what Keniston and Gray characterize as modernist “hermeticism” or the overly personal perspective of confessionalism in favor of a broader and more collective idiom that is “responsive to and responsible for the world outside the self.” Little surprise, then, that the prototypes for this mode of public poetry are not primarily Americans, but figures such as Pablo Neruda and Anna Akhmatova, poets who were also activists or dissidents, writing in societies where poetry was far more culturally central than in the US, and whose work reached large audiences. It is this kind of public poetry that Keniston and Gray argue is largely absent from twentieth-century American poetry, and this kind of public poetry that they see as newly emergent in the post-9/11 era.
But was such a public poetry in fact absent from twentieth-century US literature? Perhaps, if one focuses solely on a narrow slice of work from certain canonical figures. But how would the role of engagement look different if we broadened our view? What about a poetic landscape that included poems like June Jordan’s “A Song for Soweto”?
At the throat of Soweto
a devil language falls
claw syllables to shred and leave
the tongue of the young
learning to sing
her own name
Or Audre Lorde’s “Afterimages”?
I inherited Jackson, Mississippi.
For my majority it gave me Emmett Till
his 15 years puffed out like bruises
on plump boy-cheeks
his only Mississippi summer
whistling a 21 gun salute to Dixie
What of the most controversial 9/11 poem of all, Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America,” with its blistering questions of responsibility and blame for the attacks (and which some have read as anti-Semitic)? What if we included spoken-word performers like Beau Sia or Ishle Yi Park, or poets like Maya Angelou or Richard Blanco, who have read their work at presidential inaugurations?
In short, including the work of US poets of color provides a very different image of engaged poetry over the past century, one in which politics and history are often foregrounded and passionately investigated. Such engagement is not a new phenomenon; poets of the Harlem Renaissance, from Claude McKay to Langston Hughes, grappled directly with issues of racism, injustice, and American identity. In the 1960s and 1970s, the Black Arts movement, along with Asian American and Chicana/o literary movements, explicitly linked poetic expression with racial and ethnic identity, presenting poetry as an integral part of a larger political movement. Poets of color write in a context in which the very categories under which they write are politically conditioned; for better or worse, writers of color may find their work read for political claims or sociological insights, whether intended or not. Some poets of color may chafe under such expectations, while others may find their work nourished by such direct political and social connections. The larger point, however, is that it becomes difficult to make the case that twentieth-century American poetry has been disengaged and apolitical if we are attentive to race and to the work of nonwhite writers. That this “other” tradition is not visible in Keniston and Gray’s anthology is not surprising, given that of the fifty poets included in the anthology, forty-five are white. The “problem” of engagement in twentieth-century American poetry starts to look increasingly like a white poets’ problem.
Yet poets of color confront their own set of challenges in pursuing a public poetry. Many poets of color, particularly those connected with the activist generation of the 1960s and 1970s and with the more recent spoken-word scene, are comfortable with a broadly public rhetoric that draws on collective experiences and offers explicit political statements. But even such directly political writers cannot always presume to speak to or for a broad national community, as they give voice to marginalized experiences and histories and address audiences that have traditionally been neglected in mainstream poetry. For others, the very act of “speaking to” or “speaking for” is rendered problematic by experiences of colonization, linguistic suppression, and historical erasure; the writer of color may well have a very different relationship to “saying what happened,” and to the authority necessary for such public acts of representation and remembrance, than a white writer does. Public poetry, in short, has been problematized in American poetry not simply because of the aesthetic choices of individual poets, but because of an increasingly complex understanding of “the public” and of poetic audiences. Locating engaged poetry in work that seeks the broadest and most abstract audience may well overlook some of the most vital political work that American poetry is now doing.
In the remainder of this essay, I will explore how these problems of engagement, public poetry, and poetic form have unfolded in the work of one particular subset of poets: Asian American writers. The trajectory of Asian American poetry since the 1970s diverges sharply from the narrative Keniston and Gray offer in their account of twentieth-century American poetry. Asian American poets have frequently sought to depict historical traumas and to speak in a broader public idiom. From 1970 to the present, they have engaged politics with many of the same techniques that Keniston and Gray attribute to the new poetry of engagement, from citation of historical documents to experiments with different speaking positions. Yet they have also grappled with the fact that the historical experiences they seek to engage — the colonization of Korea, the internment of Japanese Americans, the often painful history of Asian immigration to the US — are relatively unknown to many American readers. This sharp awareness of the multiplicity of histories that make up the American experience, and the different audiences the Asian American writer (and all writers) must negotiate, provides a complex and nuanced sense of the challenges — and the potential — of American political poetry today. Since my discussion seeks to establish the divergent trajectory of Asian American poetry over the past several decades, I establish a context by examining Asian American poems from the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s, before turning to an exploration of how a twenty-first-century writer extends this tradition.
Although her work is rarely discussed today by mainstream critics, Janice Mirikitani was a hugely influential figure in the Asian American movement of the 1970s. As a student at San Francisco State during the strike of 1969–70, Mirikitani was present at the birth of Asian American studies, and contributed to the emergence of Asian American literature through her editing of the first Asian American literary journal, Aion. She became widely known as an activist writer, particularly through her work with Glide Foundation in San Francisco, and was honored as poet laureate of San Francisco in 2000.
Mirikitani’s poetry is a deeply engaged one, addressing events from Japanese American internment to the Vietnam War, and directly confronting racism, sexism, and imperialism. It is also unapologetically a poetry of witness, as Mirikitani frequently writes in the first person (whether singular or plural) about experiences of oppression and trauma. Her poem “Looking for America,” in her collection We, the Dangerous, speaks in the voice of an Asian American looking for images of Asians in American media and finding only stereotypes:
I found myself
in a bar, dancing for a tip,
cheong sam slit to my hip,
or in a brothel, compliant and uncomplicated,
high-heeled in bed, wiping some imperialist’s lips
with hot scented towels.
The collection’s title poem, “We, the Dangerous,” offers a collective voice that speaks from the experiences of Japanese Americans interned during World War II: “And they commanded we dwell in the desert / Our children be spawn of barbed wire and barracks.”
Like many American political poets of the 1960s and 1970s, Mirikitani articulates a clear sense of the centrality of poetry to politics, as well as of poetry’s limits when confronting politics. In a 1976 interview, Mirikitani proposes poetry as a means by which people of color can speak for themselves, rather than being spoken about:
Others are constantly trying to study, talk, write about us, resulting in distortions, myths, and lies about Third World people. … Even the well-meaning outside of the Third World cannot express the soul of it because they have not “lived in the house,” and do not speak the depth of the language.
At first glance, it would seem that this leads Mirikitani to a poetry that emphasizes content over form; she asserts that poets of color “don’t have the luxury at this time” of focusing on aesthetics, and dismisses poems that are merely “about bees, or birds, or nature.” If the “return” of content and the real is what marks contemporary engaged poetry, we can certainly see it already in Mirikitani’s pronouncement, “I don’t read poetry to escape. I want reality. That’s what poetry should be,” as well as in the work of other political poets of the 1970s.
We should, of course, resist the urge to assign to the Asian American poet a kind of authenticity and transparency of speech that automatically invests her pronouncements with a political value unavailable to the white writer. Instead, we can examine how Mirikitani reveals both the necessity and difficulty of speaking in a rather different framework. Take, for instance, this three-line stanza from “We, the Dangerous”:
We would expect nearly all American readers to recognize the first two references — the site of the first atomic bombing and the location of the most recent US war. But how many readers will recognize the final reference? For Japanese Americans, of course, the name resonates as the location of one of the camps in which Japanese Americans, regardless of citizenship, were imprisoned during World War II. Today, many Asian Americans of other ethnicities would also recognize the reference; indeed, fundamental to the forging of the pan-ethnic category “Asian American” was the acknowledgement of a shared history that could include, say, both Japanese American internment and Chinese American exclusion. But it is still reasonably likely that most non–Asian American readers would not immediately recognize the reference to Tule Lake, as the details of internment remain absent from most Americans’ historical knowledge.
The signifier “Tule Lake,” then, has a rather different function than the references to Baghdad, Fallujah, or Guantanamo scattered through The New American Poetry of Engagement, or the names “Abu Ghraib,” “Darfur,” and “Afghanistan” in Robert Hass’s “Some of David’s Story.” These are distant places known to Americans through the news and experienced not directly, but through the media — as, for instance, Hugh Seidman’s “Thinking of Baghdad” views the Iraqi war: “The warplane graphic rotates slowly on the vengeful news channel.” Few, if any, of these poems claim the perspective of in-person witness, such as that of a US soldier or an Afghan civilian. Indeed, adopting the position of witness is rendered particularly difficult by the fact that most of these locations are sites of violence or injustice perpetrated by the US itself (at least from the political perspective that most of these poets share); the poets’ location is necessarily one of self-critical complicity rather than outraged victimhood.
The greatest exception to this, of course, is the 9/11 attacks, an atrocity directed at Americans on US soil. It’s little wonder that Keniston and Gray see 9/11 as the central event of the new engagement, since it is one of the few events of recent years that gives many American poets access to writing a personal poetry of witness. Galway Kinnell’s “When the Towers Fell” begins with a statement of collective witness (“From our high window we saw them”) and moves toward more personal reflection (“At the high window where I’ve often stood / to think”). Yet it is also, perhaps primarily, a reflection on 9/11 as mass event, one experienced both personally and through the media; Kinnell’s final stanza takes the endlessly repeated television loop of the World Trade Center’s collapse and internalizes it: “In our minds the glassy blocks succumb over and over.” Speaking as a “we” — speaking for, or to, a collective — is utterly necessary to grapple with this event, yet also deeply problematic. The poet’s witnessing of these events is always already mediated, and as Keniston and Gray note, Kinnell and other similarly situated poets are as likely to critique and ironize the position of witness as to embrace it.
Mirikitani’s invocation of Tule Lake, in contrast, has no such ambivalence about it, and she embraces speaking as “we” with a confidence difficult to imagine in Kinnell:
We, the dangerous,
Dwelling in the ocean.
Akin to the jungle.
Close to the earth.
Yet this confidence is, paradoxically, a product of the more delimited scope of the collectivity. Mirikitani’s “we” is pointedly not an abstract, universal “we”; it is not the “we” of Auden’s “We must love one another or die.” It is a “we” defined in opposition to a more powerful “they”: “they commanded we dwell in the desert … they would have us make the garden … they would have us skin their fish.” Indeed, the “we” begins not as a plural but as a singular: “I swore / it would not devour me.” Initially, the “we” seems to speak for Japanese Americans, “commanded” to “dwell in the desert” in internment. But the growing power of the poem lies in the gradual expansion of the “we” to include Asian Americans more broadly, from sexualized stereotypes about Asian women (“And they would have us strange scented women … to loosen their backs massaged in myth”) to the exploitation of Asian labor (“We, who fill the secret bed, / the sweat shops / the laundries”). The culminating triangulation of “Hiroshima / Vietnam / Tule Lake” expands this Asian American voice into a global Asian voice, one that claims solidarity between Asian Americans and Asians in Asia by seeing all three events as examples of US military violence against Asians. Indeed, the archetypal qualities taken on by the “we” — “Dwelling in the ocean. / Akin to the jungle. / Closer to the earth” — while beginning as terms by which the “they” renders the “we” foreign and other, concludes as an assertion of what Mirikitani would likely characterize as a “Third World” voice, one that unites colonized and nonwhite peoples around the world.
The power of Mirikitani’s poem, then, is that it does not seem subject to the binds that Keniston and Gray view as characteristic of the new engaged poem. In the latter, the poet must negotiate between the position of individual witness (often not directly available to the author) and of abstract collectivity (which can often be engaged only ironically or self-critically). Mirikitani, in contrast, speaks for a delimited collectivity to which she claims a direct connection (sliding directly from “I” to “we”), one that has clearly been the victim of a specific historical injustice, but whose reach can also be expanded to make much broader political claims. The politics of identification available to Mirikitani and other writers of color would appear to be much more elusive for the white American poets who dominate Keniston and Gray’s anthology. The cost of that identification, of course, is that Mirikitani cannot presume to speak for all Americans — indeed, her gesture of solidarity is primarily with those outside of the boundaries of the nation, rather than within it, and relies upon opposition to a “they” identified with majority US politics and culture. Rather than seeking to address a broad, general audience, Mirikitani’s poem speaks primarily, and unapologetically, to the other members of the “we” of which she counts herself a part.
Ansel Adams, “Roy Takeno reading in front of office,” Manzanar Relocation Center (courtesy the Library of Congress).
Other Asian American poets adopt a more ambiguous attitude toward the question of audience, but still retain an awareness of the different kinds of audiences they may be addressing. Such is the case with the work of Lawson Fusao Inada, who, like Miriktani, is a major figure of the Asian American movement era. His first collection, Before the War: Poems as They Happened, published in 1971, was the first collection of poems by a Japanese American published by a New York trade publisher. Inada’s 1993 collection Legends from Camp, like Mirikitani’s poem, takes the Japanese American internment experience as its starting point. The poem “Concentration Constellation” creates an imagined map of internment camp sites, invoking the names Manzanar, Jerome, Heart Mountain, and Tule Lake. In contrast to Mirikitani, however, Inada’s emphasis is not on the first person, but the second; much of the poem is spent addressing an unnamed “you,” who seems somewhat reluctant to visit the scenes of internment: “It’s all right there on the map. / It’s all right there in the mind. / Find it. If you care to look.” The “you” may be a Japanese American who is resistant to revisiting the historical memories of internment, or perhaps a non–Japanese American who is uninterested in the history of internment. The latter interpretation is strengthened by a subsequent stanza in which the “you” seemingly signals impatience with the history lesson: “By now, you weary of the way. / It’s a big country, you say.” The speaker’s response is gently humorous, but also pointed: “It’s a big history, hardly / halfway through.” The apparent modesty of the speaker’s cajoling voice is what enables the poem’s forceful conclusion, in which the conversation with the “you” turns into a (gently delivered) command:
Now regard what sort of shape
this constellation takes.
It sits there like a jagged scar,
massive, on the massive landscape.
It lies there like the rusted wire
of a twisted and remembered fence.
The imperative to “regard” is less an expression of witness than a demand for the reader to witness, as the “you” is compelled to look at the “twisted and remembered” history of internment. Inada’s poem grapples openly with the continued neglect of Asian American history in the American consciousness, moving toward a broader engagement with the general American reader, but acknowledging the continuing gaps in historical awareness that separate different audiences.
Bringing neglected histories to wider attention may lead poets to include historical documents and testimonies in their work. Keniston and Gray cite the use of “appropriated language” as a distinctive strategy of the new engaged poetry, but we can already see Asian American poets of the 1980s and 1990s using such citations of official language in a charged political context. Inada’s “Instructions to All Persons” provides a particularly striking example. The poem is preceded by a facsimile of the most notorious document of the Japanese American internment: the military evacuation orders posted all along the West Coast in 1942, instructing “all persons of Japanese ancestry” to report to assembly centers for transport to the camps. The large-type, boldface word “JAPANESE” dominates the document, emphasizing the racism underlying internment; it is a document that will be immediately familiar to most Japanese Americans, as well as to many Asian Americans. Less certain is whether non-Asian American readers will recognize the document or be familiar with the history it references; for many of these readers, the document may well be something they are seeing for the first time.
What Inada does with this familiar, yet unfamiliar, document speaks directly to this possible divide in his audience. Inada titles his own poem “Instructions to All Persons,” pointedly dropping the “of Japanese ancestry” that signals the document’s racist aims. This can be read, at some level, as a universalizing gesture; by directing his poem at “all persons,” Inada rejects the racial limitations of the original document, seeking a broader audience and broader message. But the poem is far from being an attempt to transcend Japanese American experience in favor of a more abstract collective. Inada selects individual words and phrases from the document — “ancestry,” “family,” “responsible,” “civil” — and makes a new arrangement from them, declaring: “Let us take / what we can / for the occasion.” History and aesthetics are linked in this simple phrase: “taking what we can” refers to the technique of appropriation and collage Inada uses in his poem, but it of course also echoes the plight of the internees, who must “take what they can” as they are forced from their homes. For Inada, the evacuation order is not simply official language to be critiqued, nor is it a transparent window into lived reality; instead, it is a linguistic source from which various lessons, values, and poetics can be drawn. The doubling effect of including the original document keeps this linguistic play historically grounded, teaching — or reminding — readers about the racist history from which the poem emerges.
Any discussion of recent engaged poetry would be incomplete without a consideration of spoken word, which emerged in the 1980s and 1990s as a new — and newly popular — mode of public poetry. Beginning with the rise of the poetry slam in the 1980s, at sites like the Green Mill in Chicago and New York’s Nuyorican Poets Café, and growing to encompass a wide range of poetic performance, spoken word began to reach national audiences in the 1990s and early 2000s, most notably through the HBO program (and later Broadway show) Def Poetry Jam. Poets of color have played an especially prominent role in spoken word, including Asian American poets such as Beau Sia, Staceyann Chin, Bao Phi, Kelly Zen-Yie Tsai, and Ishle Yi Park; much of their work is explicitly political, engaging issues of racism, sexism, and homophobia, and confronting cultural stereotypes and differences. Direct engagement of current and historical events is a common theme; for instance, Kelly Tsai’s “Black, White, Whatever” addressed the role of Asian Americans in the discourse around race that accompanied Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign. An even more striking example is Ishle Yi Park’s “Sa-I-Gu,” a reflection on the unrest that followed the beating of Rodney King by Los Angeles police officers and the officers’ subsequent acquittal. In the media, these events are most often referred to as the “LA riots” of 1992; others refer to these events as an “uprising.” However, Park’s poem — whose text was first published in 2002, ten years after the unrest — uses the Korean phrase “sa-i-gu,” meaning “4/29,” or the first day of the unrest, following the Korean practice of referring to historical events by their dates. As Park puts it in the first lines of her poem, “koreans mark disaster / with numbers — 4-29 — Sa-I-Gu. / no police. no help.” In the focus on black-white conflict after the Rodney King beating, what was often overlooked was the role of Asian Americans in the violence — particularly Korean Americans, whose businesses bore the brunt of looting in the aftermath of the verdict. Park’s naming of the event as “Sa-I-Gu” is a pointed intervention into the public discourse about the riots, claiming a Korean American perspective on the events that has been relatively absent from the mainstream conversation.
Park’s poem powerfully blends the personal and public, juxtaposing media images (“mile high cameras hover, / zoom in, dub it: / war of blacks & koreans”) with a conversation between a mother and daughter:
here I rub my own tender
wrists, ask unanswerable questions —
why are the cops doing this?
my mother will answer simply,
wisely, because they are bad.
Park’s is a public poetry that engages and critiques public knowledge, offering a different, and racially marked, mode of witness to public events. Rather than seeking to grapple with the issues raised by the unrest in abstract terms — guilt and innocence, black and white — Park places herself and her own ethnic identity at the poem’s center. This move sharpens rather than weakens the poem’s political critique, as Park testifies to a Los Angeles in which people of color are abandoned by the police: “l.a.p.d. ring beverly hills like a moat, / won’t answer rings from south central / furious and consistent as rain.”
Yet Park’s poem is also acutely conscious of its own political limits — or, more precisely, the limits of Asian American voices in American public discourse. In one of the poem’s most striking passages, Park contrasts the strong voices of African American leaders to the unheard voices of Asian Americans:
we have no jesse
no martin no malcolm
no al, no eloquent, rapid tongue
just fathers, thick-tongued
and children, too young to carry more
than straw broomstick and hefty bag.
Public speech, advocacy, and poetry are, Park suggests, racially conditioned in complex ways — not just in the white majority’s ignorance of Asian American voices, but even in the relative prominence and power of the voices of different nonwhite groups. Park’s provocative comparison leaves open the question of what Asian Americans themselves can or should do in gaining a more prominent public and political role — a challenge to which poetry itself appears as one possible answer.
I conclude with a consideration of the distinctively twenty-first-century work of Cathy Park Hong, whose 2007 collection Dance Dance Revolution engages historical traumas through present and even future settings, while playfully and critically exploring the question of a public poetry through its use of invented language. The major historical event evoked in Hong’s book — the 1980 Kwangju uprising against the South Korean government and the subsequent massacre of protesters — is a central event in modern Korean history, and one in which US neocolonialism is deeply implicated. Yet it is also an event of which most non-Korean Americans remain unaware, raising the question of how to engage this topic poetically.
Hong acknowledges this possible divide in audience through a doubling of poetic voice. One character, the Historian, is a young Korean American woman researching the history of the Kwangju uprising; the other character, the Guide, is a woman who took part in the Kwangju uprising and subsequently fled into exile. The Historian provides narrative context that helps frame the Kwangju uprising for readers who lack knowledge of the events, acting as a mediator or interpreter. This is necessary because the Guide, who is the actual witness to these events, does not narrate her experiences directly — does not simply “say what happened” — but instead is distanced from us through the Guide’s use of a pidgin language invented by Hong: “I speak sum Han-guk y Finnish, good bit o Latin / y Spanish … sum toto Desert Creole en evachanging dipdong / ’pendable on mine mood … ibid …” According to the Historian’s foreword, this language is “an amalgam of some three hundred languages and dialects … a rapidly evolving lingua franca” that “while borrowing the inner structures of English grammar, also borrows from existing and extinct English dialects.”
This language is the local language of the Desert, a “planned city of renewed wonders” that resembles a science-fictional Las Vegas, featuring “state-of-the-art hotels modeled after the world’s greatest cities.” The fictionalized setting of the Desert allows Hong to bring the history of Kwangju into contact with twenty-first-century America, while still preserving the possibility of parallels to other times and places. The Desert is a landscape marked by recognizably contemporary upheavals: it is heavily populated by migrants, but it has also been built through the displacement of an aboriginal population who sometimes resort to “canny acts of sabotage” in order to undermine the occupation.
Yet the reader is forced to access these events, as well as the history of Kwangju, by navigating the Guide’s language, tantalizingly familiar yet at times difficult to decipher. We may ask why Hong asks us to view the events of Korean history through language like this: “I’s born en first day o unrest … / Huzza de students who fightim plisboi patos! / En gangrene smoke, youngins t’rew butane Colas, / chanted por ole cantanka Rhee to step down … he did!” At some level, this is certainly a poetry of witness; yet accessing that witness requires an act of heavy decoding, of navigating a language that is both foreign and not. We may see this is part as Hong’s deeply contemporary acknowledgment that our access to past (or present) traumas is always highly mediated, never transparent. But I would go further and argue that Hong’s engagement with the problem of representing trauma is a highly located, even distinctively Asian American, one. Like Mirikitani, Inada, and Park, Hong acknowledges that she addresses not a general, abstract audience, but one that is divided, at least in part along ethnic lines. Rather than seeking to negotiate or bridge that divide, Hong takes it as central to her project, forcing all readers to confront the “foreignness” of the histories she describes. The reader who is a native speaker of English is led through the migrant’s complex navigation of language, and the reader who may already have knowledge of these events is forced to experience them anew in interpreting the Guide’s words. Hong’s invented language may seem to be the very opposite of a broad, public poetic language, but it may in fact gain its political power from its universalizing of an experience of exile and linguistic alienation, using the creativity of poetic language as a tool for the exploration of history.
As this brief survey of Asian American poets suggests, the landscape of contemporary engaged American poetry looks very different if we view it through the work of US poets of color. Instead of a history of apolitical poetry from which poets have recently departed, we see a lengthy history of public, politically engaged poetry that speaks to major public events and bears witness to historical traumas. But the work of poets of color also shows us that the era of an unproblematically public poetry — one in which the poet can simply speak for an abstract or national “we” — is over. Instead, the Asian American poets I have discussed grapple consciously with the different publics their work negotiates — at times speaking to and for specific communities, at other times confronting the exclusion of Asian American stories from a wider American public discourse. In this work, the idea of poetry as public speech is not merely deconstructed or discarded; indeed, the public role of poetry is highly valued. But the public itself has changed, and the work of Asian American poets and other poets of color acknowledges this openly. The question of political poetry is not simply a question of the aesthetics or the political orientation of the individual poet; instead, it is in large part a product of the changing terms of American politics itself, shaped by the same political and cultural contexts — particularly of race, gender, and sexuality — that have redefined American life over the past fifty years.
1. This essay was originally written in response to an invitation from Keniston and Gray to contribute to a collection of essays on engaged poetry that would serve as a followup to the anthology. The editors ultimately declined to include this essay in their collection.
9. Language writing receives only a brief mention as an example of an “experimental poetics,” one side of an opposition between experimental and confessional verse that has “become uninteresting, if not obsolete, to poets and readers alike.” Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 5.
11. Brendan Bernhard, “Between September 1 and 9/11; W. H. Auden, East Villager,” The Local East Village (September 1, 2011), accessed June 29, 2014. For further discussion of the poem’s post-9/11 impact, see Eric McHenry, “Auden on Bin Laden,” in Slate; Peter Steinfels, “Beliefs; After Sept. 11, a 62-Year-Old Poem by Auden Drew New Attention,” in the New York Times; and Nicholas Jenkins, “‘September 1, 1939’ after September 11, 2001,” W. H. Auden Society Newsletter 22 (2001): 5–8.
13. The controversy over Baraka’s poem focuses on the poem’s unfounded claim that “4000 Israeli workers at the Twin Towers … [stayed] home” on 9/11, implying that they had advance knowledge of the attacks. The ensuing controversy led to calls for Baraka’s ouster as poet laureate of New Jersey. (For more, see Suzy Hansen, “Amiri Baraka Stands By His Words,” in Salon [October 17, 2002].) Keniston and Gray include a poem by Robert Pinsky that includes a reference to when “the guy read his poem about how the Jews / Were warned to get out of the Twin Towers,” but do not include Baraka’s poem itself (Robert Pinsky, “The Forgetting,” in Poetry of Engagement, 157).
14. It’s worth noting that the central events highlighted in The New American Poetry of Engagement — 9/11, the Iraq war, the policies of the Bush administration — are not events of which the poets can claim direct personal experience, but rather highly mediated, often distant, mass events to which the poet can have only an ambivalently impersonal relationship. While we should avoid the romanticized idea that writers of color have “authentic” access to experiences of historical trauma — an idea that many writers of color themselves critique in their work — it does seem to be the case that a central problematic of the mode of engaged poetry Keniston and Gray describe is the “domestic ‘I’” who confronts a “distant, calamitous place that the speaker learns of through the news” — a sharp contrast to the strategies of identification (however problematic) pursued by many poets of color (Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 8).
29. While Keniston and Gray acknowledge that the use of appropriated language is also seen in modernist and postmodernist collage, they assert that the new engaged poetry differs in presenting such materials “without intervention or comment … sometimes to mount a critique of them but just as often to achieve a sense of lived reality through them” (Keniston and Gray, introduction to Poetry of Engagement, 11–12).
Preface: One day, at Naropa University, I was on a panel that Anne Waldman organized for the MFA summer writing program. I gave my talk about poetry and speech acts. Chip was nice enough to attend as an audience member. Chip knows his poetry. He mentioned J.L. Austin to me and the pushback Derrida gave to Austin via John Searle, in Derrida’s Limited Inc. a, b, c. This was off the top of his head. The late greats Amiri Baraka and Stuart Hall also encouraged me to continue to explore J. L. Austin. What is it about these Black geniuses and the knowledge of this philosopher? And poetry? I combine all these ideas, thoughts, people in my mind. They refuse intellectual or aesthetic limitations, a constellation of creative people I look up to. Intimidated as I am by this company Chip’s in, I’m grateful and beyond lucky to help celebrate this phenomenal gentleman known as Samuel R. Delany; I’ll give it a go.
I made Chip’s acquaintance, as he well knows, because I told this story to him before a few times, from my brother when we were kids. We’d gone through Lord of the Rings, and Dune, a few of the Carlos Castaneda books, probably The Martian Chronicles and Foundation Trilogy too. My brother has the tome of Dhalgren in his hands. He was so excited! “A Black guy who writes science fiction!” my sibling said. The tome’s size was formidable in that it wasn’t split up into three smaller books like some of the collections we’d read. So I flipped it open to an early section to get the “jist.” I couldn’t even wait to read it linearly.
I didn’t flip to the tree-woman scene. I didn’t happen upon the discovery of the chains and prisms in the cave, I didn’t coincide with those parts, no. I opened it up to the Kidd going to Tak’s for the first time:
He had known what was coming since he had accepted the invitation in the park. … His shirt lay beside him on the bed. He pulled his hands together into his lap, fingers and knuckles twisted around one another — scratched his dark, creased stomach with his thumb. “Look, about … being nuts.” He felt self-righteous and shy, looked at the doubled fist of flesh, hair, horn and callous pressed into his groin; it suddenly seemed weighted with the bones in it. “You’re not, and you never have been. That means what you see, and hear, and feel, and think … you think that is your mind. But the real mind is invisible: you’re less aware of it, while you think, than you are of your eye while you see … until something goes wrong with it. Then you become aware of it, with all its dislocated pieces and its rackety functioning, the same way you become aware of your eye when you get a cinder in it. …” […]
“All right.” Tak spoke gently and appeasingly “Why don’t you take the rest of your clothes off?”
“Look I’m awfully dirty, man —” He raised his eye. “I probably stink like hell. If you don’t want —”
“I know just what you stink like,” Tak said. “Go on.”
He took a breath, suddenly found it funny, lay back on the hard pallet, unhooked his belt and closed his eyes.
He heard Tak grunt. One, then another boot, thumped on the floor and fell over.
A moment later a warm hip pressed his. Palms and fingers pressed his stomach; the fingers spread. Tak slid his hands to the jeans’ waist, tugged.
Heels and shoulders pressed on the hard pad, he raised his buttocks.
Tak slid the jeans down, and — “Jesus Christ, man! What’s the matter with you — that stuff all over your dick!”
“What … huh?” He opened his eyes, propped his elbows under him, looked down at himself. “What do you …?” Then he grinned. “Nothing’s the matter. What’s the matter with you?”
“You got dandruff in your crotch?”
“That’s not dandruff. I was with a woman. Just before I met you. Only I didn’t get a chance to wash.”
“Was she sick?”
“Naw. Didn’t you ever fuck a woman?”
Tak had a strange expression. “I’ll be honest: I can count the attempts on the fingers of one hand.” He narrowed his already thin mouth.
“If my God-damn feet don’t turn you off, that’s sure not going to hurt you!” He reached to brush off his rough groin hair. “It’s just like dried … cum or something.” The chain glittered across it. “It happens with some women, when they’re very wet. It’s nothing wrong.” He stopped brushing, let himself back down on his elbows. “I bet it turns you on.”
Tak shook his head, then laughed.
“Go on,” he said.
Tak lowered his head, looked up once with bright blue eyes: “It turns you on, doesn’t it?”
He reached down for the hairy shoulder, pressed: “Go on.”
My brother and I concluded, from that random reading, that we were not ready for Chip’s book. We didn’t say it; we just looked at each other. We didn’t discuss the book until decades later. The world that we got just a peek into was beyond the Middle Earths, the constructions of Mars and Dunes, even of shamanism that we had believed were the furthest realms of imagination. This section, and the whole of Dhalgren, was the possibility of envisioning our actual world, the one we inhabited then, with the fear of the fallout of nuclear winter/nuclear summer around us, changing our world of fear to one of infinite possibility for people who actually exist, for all people, for people like us.
I wonder what our viewpoint would’ve been like if we had agreed to read it then; we were kinda yokels, unsophisticates. We weren’t really ready, for the omnisexuality, for the completely new way of seeing, adults in real situations. Our fantasy books, although containing adult characters, were really not fully grown-up worlds. And my sibling and I probably had childishly narrow expectations of what a Black speculative writer could/should be. We were just kids.
We were confused! “You didn’t tell me he was Gay,” I said. My brother said: “But I think he’s married, with a child!” In the cloistered and homophobic binary of childhood reductivism, we couldn’t hold these disparate ideas together, a world bigger than our prepubescent hands. We weren’t ready to understand the breadth and depth of what was going on in this Dhalgren’s world.
What I now wish is that I had read this book in college, when as a Black studies and political science student, these ideas would have expanded my thinking about both of these spheres. I still don’t think I was/am ready to fully appreciate this scene but approaching it would have been mind-expanding at a time when I really needed it.
But that passage was a motion towards light, the kaleidoscope, decades long. I’d never forgotten what it said, what it offered up as an approach. I’m glad I happened upon that section, that it planted a seed. When I reread the book, when I was settled down enough to approach it, I remembered the exact moment when I put the book down as a younger person. It’s resonance was that strong, that loving. I called my brother and said: “I remember that part! I remember that part!”
I was an adult, and teaching around, this time at Temple, when I met Chip in the flesh. I think I’ve figured out the day that Chip and I became friends. I’d broached the subject of speculative fiction; because Chip is so incredibly warm and gracious, I was less embarrassed about making the inevitable foolish comment. (It is still impossible for me to be in any way cool or sophisticated around Chip Delany so I just gave up at a certain point, and would just talk to him about stuff.) We were talking about Daniel Radcliffe and my aversion to seeing him in Equus because of my associations with him as a child and as Harry Potter. We also chatted about Richard Griffiths, as they were both in the Harry Potter films and in the theatrical production of Equus. I’d gone back to my childhood spec-fic associations with an update, as Chip’s sister, Peggy, had gotten him and Dennis tickets to see the play. I wanted to know what Chip thought about Radcliffe and Griffiths. This led us to a conversation about The History Boys, as Richard Griffiths starred in both film and theater versions. I wondered about the repressed sexuality of the Griffiths character and the problems that caused the boys under his charge, how they dealt with his pathetic lasciviousness.
Chip wrote back, saying:
What I would have liked to have seen — and I think it would have made the play twenty to thirty percent stronger — is if there had been a scene between the older woman teacher and the “bimbo” secretary, whom the school headmaster is sharing with the young sharpie student, and the two of *them* — the women — came up with the basic idea of blackmailing the principal; then the secretary passes the idea on to her boyfriend, which he passes on to the rest of the boys — rather than the idea originating with the boys themselves. That, to me, would somehow have felt much “righter,” and more believable. The women — particularly the secretary — have to deal with this kind of thing all the time. That would work to normalize the boys’ experience even more — which, I thought, was the subversive side of the play.
Probably should write my own.
Well, um, yes, Mr. Delany. That would be lovely …
Poetics, Performance, Philosophy, Delany
I’ll be forever disappointed that I missed the opportunity to take our keynote speaker Fred Moten’s class on Dhalgren. Fred taught the course just before I entered grad school, but the knowledge about the existence of the course, and my dismay about missing it, did prompt me to reach out to Mr. Moten as the keynote, as I knew that he was aware of Chip’s work.
Fred taught the Austin class that changed the trajectory of my doctoral studies, so I’m happy things came around, full circle. We’re all in Chip’s world(s) whether we know it at the time or not.
I like thinking about what Chip’s language is doing in that small section of Dhalgren I shared. What is he doing with language here?
The poetics of this section, and the whole of Dhalgren, are so luxurious in his adjective and adverb generation, substitution from the expected verbs. His usages reflect poetic economy, and jar the resonance of individual words. Maybe that’s why I recalled that scene so vividly over the decades.
There are many layers of meaning in this scene, especially within the context of the book, but also in and of the scene itself. Tak and Kidd’s dynamic is lush and lustful, particularly on Tak’s part, but it’s the normativity of this queering of sexuality not only in terms of homosexuality but also vis-à-vis kink. That kink is a normal aspect of sex in which dynamics of power should, healthily, be reconsidered, that the body is subject to new discoveries in and of itself in the interaction of (an)other bod(ies).
It is giving us, as readers, permission to engage in this performance without judgment of these characters, as they are not judging each other. On the most basic aspect of Austinian dynamics, Chip is demonstrating that “describing” is doing. He substitutes words that are actively and more accurately performing how the scene is performing. In this book and in subsequent fictional and nonfiction books, Chip refines the meaning, the intention, and the result.
Moreover, the Goffmanian performance of giving vs. giving off is heightened here in a way that’s textbook to The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. The overt sexual innuendo of these Goffmanian terms is obvious when applied to the scene. Not only are the intentions of what was/is being given constantly shifting but also how it’s being interpreted by the characters. Chip’s comments about The History Boys are a small peek into his performative mind, very much in the way that Goffman conflates understanding everyday interactions on theatrical terms.
This is an unflinching look at desire and the body, both adorned and naked, brutal and gentle, in its beauty and honesty. Both characters reinforce, for each other, the absence of shame. It’s in these contrasts, in the performative act of imagining these events happening simultaneously that clarify the constative elements of what is occurring in the plot.
Our fear of the descriptive and of the body, the scatological, the detritus, is often about removing the patina of covering, of the describing. The adjectives and adverbs. The nouns and verbs beyond the epidermal qualifiers of language (at least in English) are like textual embodiments of viscera.
Like the Renaissance writers, and their Greco-Roman ancestors, Chip engages in the humors as a lens. This “dandruff” is an outside presentation of the environment. The mixing of the body’s liquid with what we want the body to do. What was wet is now dry, what is laden, inside, is out, and through its exposure is visible yet somewhat unknown, must still be negotiated with.
“In Greek Medicine, the sperm is seen as being a further distillation or refinement of the Radical Moisture, which is in itself the concentrated essence of the Natural Faculty and its Four Humors.”
By offering the idea of female sexual detritus in an equal way with male ejaculation, he generates a bigger way of seeing this liquid motion in the utopian/dystopian world of Dhalgren, in the midst of fire and smoke’s embers.
This is the juncture at which I find myself appreciating the text as an adult. My kid-like self was accustomed to a certain type of constative performance. That of Tolkien, Herbert, Clarke, Serling, Poe. My adult self sees him in these figures but also in people like Austin, Derrida, Baraka, Goffman, Micklem, Lorde, Bernstein, Moten.
The utterance of my brother’s initial exclamation regarding Chip, beyond the actual book, his very presence as himself, encouraged us to open its cover, but we were not prepared for the other types of worlds his particular presentation of Blackness opened. Now I see his centrality as a Queer Black man from Harlem as a prism, refracting one light, language, into infinite colors, affects. I can’t wait to tell my brother at work, and tell him all about today.
As I find myself turning/returning to Dhalgren as a grown person, as a formally trained artist and thinker, I am glad for the richness that moment gives me for this moment of celebration, to celebrate the outstretched hand I reached toward as a child. I was a student of Delany’s before I realized how much schooling I had ahead of me. I’m still learning as we appreciate him today. We continue to appreciate his striations as pedagogical, philosophical, and poetic transcendence, ascendance, elemental. A beam of light through moments, places as we raise our glass.
3. David K. Osborn, “The Male Reproductive System,” greekmedicine.net.
You came to see human bodies tonight, but she said this is “holy work and it’s dangerous not to know that ’cause you could die like an animal down here.” She was talking about making dances — pacing back and forth across bridges, riding up and down the block, selling loosies on the corner, walking in the middle of the street. The hazard of movement, of moving and being moved, of knowing that we are affected, that we are affective. There’s danger, too, in the very fact of this reminder, even if it’s just a taste, of what you haven’t seen. The maternal is a radical exteriority the eucharistic consumes. Time and again and out of time we’re lost in the rematerialization of this loss, another invaluable impersonation done gone, sometimes of natural causes, sometimes in refusal of naturalization. That’s when he (I mean that man, you know, the man, the one, the one who looks like everyone and no one, as you know) tries to control the more than human by calling it less than human. The quasi-autobiographical modalities of our story, of however many years a slave, which try to render thingliness relatable, model this regulation precisely in seeking after it. Relatability, which is subjection’s scene, the romantic subject’s haunt, is the naturalization of what can’t help but be a docile body. It comes to light as the production of corpses on or underneath the thoroughfare. The only way to come through this bildung in the service of destruction and rebuilding, that contract, that contact, that refusal of surrender, is to extend the ante-autobiographical modalities of our story. Our consent to be inseparable, our constant escape from what our constant escape induces, even from time, even when we’re on it, require us to live in danger.
So may I offer you something? Something rich and strange, an abundance, but on a plate so small it’s not even a plate; a spoonful, really; just a mouthful, just enough to taste, just for a moment, the alchemical magic, the terrible and beautiful and immeasurable richness and impurity of a train or a streetcar or a sidewalk held in the flavor of solfège, in simultaneously encrypted and decrypted composition, sung until it can be tasted, that taste made music from embouchure to batterie, hand to mouth, in ongoing haptic incident and percussive hors d’oeuvre. If you’ve never been offered something like this before, I can only imagine your frustration at being enjoined to imagine dance before you can attend to it; and by way of this intangible offering from so far away; and by way of something which is, if not quite nonsensical, moving by way of the wrong sense. The synesthetic reach is probably too little and too much: a proprioceptive failure — a sharp disorientation — appears to be immanent as well as imminent. Nevertheless, beyond the bonds of taste, feel how much of dance — of the chorographic, choreographic life you’ve been living and are living and are about to live right here, right now, in this bearing that we can’t quite get — there is to be tasted in and by way of Samuel R. Delany and Cecil Taylor.
She opened her mouth, feeling her tongue’s weight on the floor of her mouth, the spots of dryness spreading it, and tasting the air’s differences, which marked not the air’s but the tongue’s itself.
When I was in the Conservatory, there was a Southern woman who taught English the first year that I was there. … She was talking about Tennessee Williams, and she was talking about Streetcar, and she said, “The language in that play, there are sections of that play that are so good,” she said, “that I could actually taste it.” … Mother always had me reading. Mother spoke French and German and brought Schopenhauer to me when I was eleven years old, but that was something else — that was — you didn’t have a choice there with Mother. Boom! That’s the way that went. But here was this woman who just said this, and I heard it. And her emotional dedication to a word — I said, “Wow, that’s my dedication to music. You mean it’s possible to have that kind of dedication to another art?” So, that.
Moved movers amid the intensity of the pas de deux my offering asks you to imagine, Delany and Taylor are bound in what Denise Ferreira da Silva would call the affectability of no-bodies. Bound for that embrace, they hold, in their openness, to its general, generative pattern. Openness to the embrace moves against the backdrop of exclusion and the history of exclusion, which is a series of incorporative operations. This is how openness to being affected is inseparable from the resistance to being affected. Dance writes this push and pull into the air and onto the ground and all over the skin of the earth and flesh that form the city. The words of these moved movers have something specific to do with dance and I want to talk about that specificity as an interplay between walking and talking, between crossing and tasting, between quickness and flavor. Their words and work form part of the aesthetic and philosophical atmosphere that attends the various flows and steps that have taken place in and as New York City over the last fifty years, especially downtown in the serially and simultaneously emergent and submergent dance space between two churches, Judson and St. Mark’s. I want to call upon this history of devoted heresy, of transgressive congregation, because, as with most of what we know of atmospheres and their conditions, the astral air and gritty fluid Delany and Taylor have long been circulating, rich with the mineral, venereal, funereal character of New York’s paved soil, it’s palpable, haptic aroma, the way it gets rubbed into and out of yourself and others in the jam and crush that tends to mess and mix up selves and others in the grand, eccentric compound improvisation of the city — because that kind of knowledge, our knowledge of all that, our capacity to think in and with our inhabitation of all that, is too often suppressed in crowded, solitary busyness. It takes a lot to feel yourself walking around, mouth open in wonder and/or desire, as eager to taste as an Arkansan, or an Oankali, out looking for where the dragons might be.
Genitals, buttocks, nipples, tongue all seemed so insistently present inside Sam’s mouth and twenty-four-hour-worn suit. Once, well back before dawn, when the train windows were still black and the other passengers slept, he had stared at one white round glass, thinking of the moon, when, at once, he’d stood, to bring his mouth closer and closer, as if to kiss this night light at the aisle’s end, pulling back only when the heat about burned his lips.
Yoruba memoir other mesh in voices mother tongue at bridge scattering Black.
We shared an apartment for a while, and I had the opportunity to watch him practice, and his practicing revolves around solfège singing. He’ll sing a phrase and then he’ll harmonize it at the piano and then he’ll sing it again, always striving to get the piano to sing, to try and match this feeling of the human production, the voice, in terms of pianistic production so that it gets the same effect. Cecil’s trying to get the vocal sound out of the piano, and I think he’s achieved it on many occasions. You can almost hear the piano scream or cry. It’s worked for him.
In their shared preoccupation with bridges and their variously creative use of cantilevering; in their questions concerning the architectonics of the graph, and of the graft, and even of the grift; in their investigation of the trick’s subsocial emergency, the aesthetic and sexual imagination’s passage between lawmaking and lawbreaking, the centrifugal range of holistic difficulties that mark the relationship between the bridge and a kind of engineered, sculptural, and machinic thingliness that fleshes forth history, that juts or walks or gets walked out into history as a kind of manufactured outcropping or as out speech, that speaking out into history that animates queer performance, black performance, and their convergence, Delany and Taylor reveal that dance is the city’s mother tongue. The bridge marks, because it also is, where crossing over crosses over into smuggling, a transportation of lost and found desire, lost and found matter, both of which move in constant escape. The bridge’s errant merger of rant and merge is given in the audiovisual logisticality of the cry from Edvard Munch to James Brown; but concern for it must be registered in close attention to the mouth — to the feelings of words and sounds on the tongue, the taste of herbs and roots and cream and flesh and glass, the bridge where the tongue rests — and to the fingers, too (another transfer within song towards tactile, percussive lyricism) and to the variously good and bad feet that carry them. The passages above allow for that further investigation as does the use of solfège as a pedagogical tool by Taylor’s teachers and, then, as a pedagogical-compositional tool by Taylor himself. Consider dance as a matter of mouthfeel as well as footstep (of a song, or story, the physical-chemical reaction that occurs when the idea is sounded, a birth effect given in combinations of soufleé, saveur, and savoir-faire). The essay I’ll never write would have been an ode to la and mmm.
That’s the soundtouch of an aberrant cruise inside the straight line, which uninstalls directness in interior paramouric curve or cave or cant, sticking out from itself but slant as a kind of gesture, in a kind of dedication, where the senses have become theoreticians, where aesthetic experience is a literal and literate transfer of substance. Between the oral and the aural there’s some commerce at the level of taste: material tactility, material event, material inscription. In Just Above My Head, this is what James Baldwin is after between Arthur and Crunch: circuits of lyrical emulsion and theoretical image. Knowledge of this dedication is given by way of parental — but please, in the interest of another movement, of mmm and all it stands for, of the general and pansexual maternity that animates materiality, indulge me if I say marental — lesson and lesion and loss. There’s a kind of violence to black/queer maternity that deals in the liberatory force of endangerment. Toni Morrison speaks of a certain extremity of this force, but its mundanities — not necessarily any less spectacular — animate the tradition she extends. The hazard is abandonment, which is inseparable from the grace of abandon. Delany and Taylor speak (of and in) this movement.
My mother died when I was, like, thirteen or fourteen.
After my father died, I went into analysis. It was Sullivan analysis, a kind of analysis that built on the theory of interpersonal relationships. The analyst would help steer your course. There is a relationship between the analysis and my music, even though it’s hard to define. The fact is that, being a musician, I had put a lot of things into music that music itself was not able to resolve. That is, music is the creation of a language out of symbols, of sounds, sounds that cannot be spoken and therefore create a kind of personal isolation. If there are problems that music cannot answer wholly, you either have to have friends whom you can trust not to destroy you with whatever you give them of yourself, or you have to go to a neutral source, and that is what analysis was for me.
“When I came out of school, the first thing that I did was to walk down 125th Street and listen to what was happening. And it took me maybe a month before I started digging. That was the beginning of, like, the other education. I mean the participation in, and the doing of, the thing.”
… (“I try to imitate on the piano the leaps in space a dancer makes”) …
“The dance, I think, had its results on his playing because a lot of his playing depends on body motion, especially the fast playing. He does things with a speed that most pianists, if they heard it on a record, would say, ‘How does he do that?’ It has a lot to do with the rhythmic flailing of his arms or his ability to move his body back and forth like a pendulum from one end of the piano to the other so that he can put his hands in the proper position, and I think his interest in the dance has a lot to do with that.”
“My father died of lung cancer in 1958 when I was seventeen.” This is just not a sentence that, when an adult says it in a conversation seven or a dozen or twenty years after the fact, people are likely to challenge.
And when, to facilitate my Pennsylvania scholars, I put together a chronology of my life, starting with my birth (April Fools’ Day, 1942), that sentence, among many, is what I wrote.
I don’t remember the specific letter in which one of them pointed out gently that, if I was born in 1942, I could not possibly have been seventeen. In 1958 I was fifteen up until April 1 and sixteen for the year’s remaining nine months. Various researches followed. … Finally, in an old Harlem Newspaper, a small article was unearthed that confirmed it; my father died in the early days of October 1960.
I was eighteen.
In October, almost exactly a year after my father’s death, Marilyn miscarried. She recuperated in my sister’s old room at my mother’s apartment. Two or three weeks later, she got a job as a salesgirl at B. Altman’s department store. Let go even before New Year’s almost immediately she got a job as an editorial assistant at Ace Books.
Probably within a week (certainly no more than ten days), after a set of obsessively vivid dreams, I began what, not quite a year later, would be my first published novel, The Jewels of Aptor.
On a chill, immobile evening, during a midnight November walk, through a window in an alley adjacent to the Village View construction Marilyn glimpsed two or four or six naked people — multiplied or confused, in a moment of astonished attention, by some mirror on the back wall, as the window itself added a prismatic effect to the bodies inside, gilded by candlelight or some mustard bulb — before they moved behind a jamb, or she walked beyond the line of sight, the image suggested proliferations of possibilities, of tales about those possibilities, of images in harmony, antiphon, or wondrous complementarity. Once, when I was gone for the night, she went walking — and was stopped by two cops in a patrol car, curious what a woman would be doing out in that largely homosexual haunt — on the Williamsburg Bridge. It was a time of strained discussions in our tenement living room, in the midst of which a bit of plaster from the newly painted ceiling would fall to shatter over the mahogany arm of the red chair.
My father died when I was sixteen, when I was eighteen; my mother died when I was, like, thirteen or fourteen; when I was thirty-seven, but I was thirty-eight, my mother and father died. Note the temporal confusion of a loss that makes you move, that puts you in motion, bearing you out onto the city streets. Delany writes of an abyss between columns waiting to be bridged, itinerant flight through soffit and cistern, where one enters into another scene, into contact, in which one becomes more and less than that. Taylor’s autobiographical narrative pylons, the burred, felt precision of the recollection of marental loss, move in their relation to Delany’s. Then the music becomes self-analysis, improvisation taking over the function of a certain distance, where private language and personal gesture move from solipsism to the social. There’s a thinking of the kinetic thing that Taylor engages — the participation in, the doing of, it. There’s a theory of illicit exhaustion and insistence that he gives, coming out of an experience of the ordinary in and as movement like a feel Trio A or some undercommon Caminhando, Yvonne Rainer and Lygia Clark channeled in asymmetrical, off-stride walking and cutting, hip flaneuses returned to get deep in the tradition of the everyday thing, a thin-curved slice of life, a fugitive trench, an almost interminable tranche. This is the general dance project we share tonight, supernaturally; this is solfège by Ellington, his suite for Ailey, a bridge over The River’s repercussive cascade, the music of things worn, strummed but also beaten, to airy thinness, in nothingness, as indiscretion.
Yet Cecil Taylor has no compunction about transferring to jazz any innovations that might be useful. He opened his section of a December, 1963 Jazz Composers’ Guild Concert at New York’s Judson Hall with an improvisation for tuned piano. Strumming tuned piano strings is a device rarely used in jazz, and it is obvious that all those blues chords and chord changes, rhythms and melodies that have been the definitive substance of jazz could not be played in any recognizable way on the inside of a tuned piano. But the piece was well received by the jazz-oriented audience, and Cecil, who feels that he has only one music, whether it is played inside or outside the piano, and who regards himself as nothing but a jazz musician, did not feel that he had compromised himself in the least. Buell Neidlinger described the performance: “I don’t find any of the sounds Cecil makes on the inside of the piano at all similar to John Cage or Christian Wolff or Stockhausen or Kagel. I know he’s heard all that music, but the implements that he uses to play the inside of the piano are nothing like the ones that they use. For instance, he uses bed springs, steel mesh cloth, things that he lives around. And like those cats are using rubber erasers, corks, felt mallets. Cecil’s is a much more metallic sound, very brilliant, but the Western cats soften the piano down.
“In the Judson performance I played the sustaining pedal and the keyboard and Cecil played the inside of the piano. It was fabulously successful, but it was entirely improvised on the spur of the moment — there was absolutely no rehearsal of that at all. On that tune there was just the drums and myself, and I was able to reach under the piano with my left foot and play the base at the same time.”
In that other essay I would have been more delicately emphatic in approaching this exhaustive collection of approaches. When Taylor says you can’t just walk up to the piano any kind of way, when Delany details a history of the broken world in calculated, but nevertheless incalculable, drifting, a dance is being danced from which a range of composition is improvised. Opening the piano recalibrates swing; it’s another way, in and in extension of the tradition, of organizing sonic energy. Something is given in this penetration of the instrument that is allied to orchestral song and dance. A ritual of approach is already given here that culminates in performance with Min Tanaka on the street that time, in refusal of the tonic, outside of Tonic, in what they used to call Loisaida, and then this last time in Kyoto, that long, slow, felt, sensed, anarepetitive inhabitation of our fallenness and our flight. What’s the difference that Neidlinger hears and senses in these encounters of penetrative, penetrated objects? Taylor’s implements are every day objects, “Things that he lives around.” Canted, this is the bridge Delany lives around, where matter and desire are lost and found in mist and mystery.
Usually when the moon lingered toward the day torches were not set out, and he’d be able to see all the way across the bridge, into the market square, to the glimmer on the water that plashed in the fountain at the square’s center — as long as the stalls and vending stands were not yet up.
But tonight, to fight the fog that now and again closed out the moon completely, the torches had, indeed, been lit. As the cart rolled onto the bridge, waist-high walls at either side and clotted shallows beneath, the weak fire showed the crockery shapes under the lashed canvas; then firelight slid away, leaving them black. And the bridge thrust three meters into dim pearl — and vanished.
He cuffed the ox’s shoulder to hurry her, confident that the old structure was the same stone, bank to bank, as it had been by day or by other nights. Still, images of breaks and unexplained fallings drifted about him.
1. On –th Street, just beyond Ninth Avenue, the bridge runs across sunken tracks. Really, it’s just an extension of the street. (In a car, you might not notice you’d crossed an overpass.) The stone walls are a little higher than my waist. Slouching comfortably, you can lean back against them, an elbow either side, or you can hoist yourself up to sit.
There’s no real walkways.
The paving is potholed.
The walls are cracked here, broken there. At least three places the concrete has crumbled from iron supports: rust has washed down over the pebbled exterior. Except for this twentieth-century detail, it has the air of a prehistoric structure.
At various times over the last half-dozen years, I’ve walked across it, now in the day, now at night. Somehow I never remember passing another person on it.
It’s the proper width.
You’d have to double its length, though.
Give it the pedestrians you get a few blocks over on Eighth Avenue, just above what a musician friend of mine used to call ‘Forty-Douche’ Street: kids selling their black beauties, their Valiums, their loose joints, the prostitutes and hustlers, the working men and women. Then put the market I saw on the Italian trip Ted and I took to L’Aquila at one end, and any East Side business district on the other, and you have a contemporary Bridge of Lost Desire.
It’s the bridge Joey told me he was under that sweltering night in July when, beside the towering garbage pile beneath it, he smelled the first of the corpses.
Transfer is hard life. The history of approach is terrible in its ongoing removals and violent translations. Unnatural causes burden every step you take. In the city, under the bridge, tonight, murder animates the history of dance, so you have to turn enjoyment to refusal and be open to the things you live around. How are you getting home tonight? Pretty soon it’ll be time to go out into the pearl.
She said, if you’re ready to be less and more than human, to be nobody, to have no body, to claim the nothingness that surpasses understanding, then recognize and move against the killing even if you think it’s not you that’s killing or being killed. We study non-compliance with civil butchery. X and ’nem were walking in the middle of the street. What can we do to match that danger? Abandon flown in and out of abandonment, dance is the risk of movement. Dance is movement at risk. Noncompliance is contact improvisation. He’s trying to kill this ongoing walking down the street together. He’s gone, unburied angel, and we are anti-gone, against the times. We study the sacrament of self-defense, which is fulfilled in the persistent practice of what we defend. Always already less than human, we’re more than human in public. Evidently, there can only be one human at a time. Humanity is antisocial, evidently. Calm the tumultuous derangement and mow your lawn, he said. You can be human by yourself but black don’t go it alone. It’s a social dance, unruliness counterpoised between riot and choir, and our melismatic looting is with child, sold all the time, but never bought. Our numbers are queer, they won’t come out right, ’cause we keep moving like simple giving in the remainder. The human is never more or less than one. More and less than one, we’re walking down the middle of the street. We study staying unburied in the common underground. Don’t let him humanize us. Don’t forget about X and ’nem. We an’ dem are more and less than that. We an’ dem and X and ’nem a-go work this out. We’ve made some other plans. Your mama’s baby’s flesh will raze the city. In that crossing, in the rub it bears, we’ll raise the city. We are the engine that will raze this city. What neither begins nor ends is that we are the engine that will raise this city. On earth, where we read the worlds he makes in force against song and dance, we are instruments at work and play, in touch and taste, of tongue and roof, for mouth and bridge. Just a taste, and our amusement, and it’s gone. This is our invitation to dance — out of nothing, till there’s nothing at all.
This essay was commissioned by Danspace Project for the catalogue accompanying PLATFORM 2015: Dancers, Buildings, and People in the Streets, organized by guest curator Claudia La Rocco and Danspace director Judy Hussie-Taylor. For more information about that book, and the various readings, discussions, and performances during the Platform, please go to danspaceproject.org.
Of Samuel Delany
Trigger warning: this essay includes snippets of cultural theory, so if you’ve had traumatic experiences with it, please be careful.
When I began thinking about how best to honor Samuel Delany today, I felt some sense of obligation to explain what for me has been the transformative effect of reading Delany’s work, especially from the standpoint of queer studies.
No doubt this “Mandate To Explain” was installed in my brain during my training as a literary critic. This time, it made me think of Freud’s famous essay “The Moses of Michaelangelo.” Freud acknowledges upfront that “works of art exercise a powerful effect on me” and that
this has occasioned me, when I have been contemplating such things, to spend a long time before them trying to apprehend them in my own way, i.e. to explain to myself what their effect is due to. Whenever I cannot do this, as for instance with music, I am almost incapable of obtaining any pleasure. Some rationalistic, or perhaps analytic, turn of mind in me rebels against being moved by a thing without knowing why I am thus affected and what it is that affects me.
On the one hand, this statement might make you feel sorry for Freud: was he really such a control freak that he could get no inexplicable pleasures? On the other hand, you might feel inclined to disbelieve him: if he is first moved by something and proceeds to get pleasure only if he can figure out why, are we supposed to believe that being moved by it was not pleasurable in the first place? Here we come up against the reductiveness of the Freudian arc of arousal and release, which tends to disavow all the pleasure except what’s found at the very end.
But finally — and this is what brings us to Delany — we can at least affirm with Freud that the pleasure of what moves us specifically — of what I think must be called erotic particularity — can be resonantly linked with the pleasure of metacognition.
As even Freud may not have disavowed, some kernel of the erotic particularities that drive us must remain opaque, and this opacity might on the one hand be characterized as the grain of sand around which the pearls of our selves and lives and metacognitions are secreted, or on the other as that which in practice we do well to treat simply as fact. As some of us are also driven to know — and as poets know and those versed in dynamical theory know: constitutive constraints are pure positivities for the systems driven by them. Here we find a way of articulating constraint as a core principle of evolution and of the even more general emergence of complex order, or as one of Delany’s characters puts it: “there are some directions in which you cannot go. Choose one in which you can move as far as you want.” This intimate relationship between constraint and freedom — more intimate and more convulsive than dialectics can account for — is part of the architecture of the world Delany theorizes and builds in his work. Philosophically, you might say, it is related to what Alfred North Whitehead called the propositional nature of reality.
It is also true that, early on, Delany was writing with surprising openness and even matter-of-factness about minority sexualities and practices when repression and supression of such discourse were even more the order of the day. But as we know from Michel Foucault, the account of sexuality being repressed tends to be invoked for what he calls “the speaker’s benefit” — to make the speaker seem transgressive and even heroic, while unwittingly serving the larger mandate to bolster a regulating discourse of sexuality tied to recognition and identity. Delany’s great achievement is precisely to have refused this gambit. To put it in extreme shorthand, between the erotic particularities and the metacognition in Delany’s writings, there is little interest in the way of an oedipal self to straighten and deparadoxify. We are creatures of our erotic particularities, of the systems of power and discourse we negotiate, and of their intricacies and interweavings. That is what Gorgik knew.
I do not think of Delany’s writing in this way as in any sense heroic. It goes much deeper than that. It’s about survival. As Gorgik also knew. Especially for those of us without proper oedipal selves, finding Delany’s writings is more about survival and less about finding recognition or intelligibility, especially when the writer is himself, as Delany put it, “that most ambiguous of citizens.”
Eve Sedgwick wrote of this unintelligibility as “leaving, in the stigma-impregnated space of refused recognition, sometimes also a stimulating aether of the unnamed, the lived experiment.” Or as Eve’s student José Muñoz put it,
Queerness is a longing that propels us onward, beyond romances of the negative and toiling in the present. Queerness is the thing that lets us feel that this world is not enough, that indeed something is missing. Often we can glimpse the worlds proposed and promised by queerness in the realm of the aesthetic. The aesthetic, especially the queer aesthetic, frequently contains blueprints and schemata of a forward-dawning futurity.
By the way, I don’t mean to imply that Eve was the one who taught this to Jose: they found each other. What I am talking about is finding and inventing ways of being in the world and ways of writing and thinking through which it is possible to find and to invent and reinvent each other. As I said before, this is what brings us to Delany. This finding and invention and reinvention of each other is exactly what I am calling survival. Did I say survival? I could have called it pleasure. Survival. Pleasure. Survival. Pleasure.
In 2006, I wrote about Delany’s 1967 story “Star Pit”: partly about its relationship to his memoir, but mainly as a prescient enaction of complex systems theory and as a corrective to a kind of liberal ecologism: it’s hard to believe that story was written almost fifty years ago. I also came to believe that, in the story, Delany had invented what came to be called the EcoSphere, a completely sealed-off and self-sustaining aquarium or terrarium. In any case, I took my role as critic as extending what I understood to be the work of the writer — adding another layer or two of metacognition to what was already an intricately layered discursive entity — and I announced upfront my quixotic desire to install Delany’s story “at the intersection of cultural studies and theoretical biology” so that “future generations of biologists and cultural theorists will — together — read Delany and me in their autopoeisis classes.”
As you may know, I have so far failed so thoroughly in this mission that most people don’t even believe that there is an intersection between cultural studies and theoretical biology. Here’s where I go into my Mad Scientist persona:
Fools! Someday they’ll understand!
And although EcoSpheres continue to be sold on the Internet, my claim that Delany invented them has still not led to any royalties for him. Sorry, Chip.
To put it another way, this is an instance of what Judith Halberstam would come to call the queer art of failure. I want to end with the final two paragraphs of my essay on Delany’s story, which develop a version of what this ongoing failure means.
To honor in practice the recognition that powers and knowledges come with more or less radical limitations, and vice versa, would yield revolutionary consequences. The ongoing work of queer writing is to make the varieties of “ambiguous citizenship” into gifts as well as burdens to those who bear them and to enact the desire for a world in which this might be the case.
Like the mini-ecosystems that model it, Delany’s story is a device that manufactures intuition about self-organizing systems: it posits a sequence of models (a set that includes itself), each of which fail in the direction of the next. In so doing it enacts and transmits, nurtures, and directs a desire. What does it want? Like all models, it wants to be real, to become alive, or to the extent that it is alive already, to go on living. The text wants to stay alive, wants its adopted children to stay alive, but because they cannot stay alive in any world, it wants a world in which they could stay alive, a world that could stay alive, a queer world, whose ecology is not blithe wholism or eternal warfare but sustainable contradictions, whose intelligence and perseverance and perversity are what sustain us.
2. See Terrence Deacon, Incomplete Nature: How Mind Emerged from Matter (New York: Norton, 2012), especially 182–205, and also see Ira Livingston, Poetics as a Theory of Everything, especially chapter 2, “What Are Poetics?” (forthcoming).