From 'This Ain't No Disco'

Detail from back cover of ‘Maumau American Cantos.’

Editorial note: What follows is excerpted from Aldon Nielsen’s essay “This Ain’t No Disco,” which originally appeared in The World in Time and Space: Towards a History of Innovative American Poetry in Our Time, edited by Edward Foster and Joseph Donahue (Jersey City, NJ: Talisman House, 2002), 536–46. — Julia Bloch

In 1971, Telegraph Books, publishers of Tom Clark, Ron Padgett, and Ted Berrigan, produced Tom Weatherly’s chapbook Thumbprint. The volume’s first poem, “gina,” begins:

dark owl wish.
i hear. tic.
her shadow. bend. sinister.
in my window. as i bend.
your mind. our language. (13) 

The poem is reminiscent, especially in its construction, of the formal experiments of Lloyd Addison, one of the Umbra poets writing during the same years. The bend sinister of the poem’s third line alludes to Nabokov as well as to the two writers’ mutual source in heraldry, but, and here Weatherly produces a bend of his own, also the knotted joining together of “bend’s” additional dictionary meanings. The diagonal cut across the window formed by the woman’s frame is paralleled by the poet’s bending of our language, as a blues musician bends our notes. The compositional motion of Weatherly’s poem, whereby sound and association pull poet and reader from one word to the next, as though content were truly extending itself as form, should put many in mind of the similar techniques operating to somewhat different ends in Harryette Mullen’s tour de force, Muse and Drudge.

In 1970, Weatherly had published a more extensive collection of his work, Maumau American Cantos, with Corinth Books, publishers of LeRoi Jones (now become Amiri Baraka), Diane Di Prima, Ed Dorn, Frank O’Hara, and Al Young. Weatherly’s title alone should indicate just how syncretic a moment is represented by the appearance of this book. “Cantos,” recalling Dante and Pound, here conjoins as appellation with “Mau Mau,” denoting African resistance to European colonialism, linguistic rebellion against cultural imperialism, and a certain African hermeticism. Both terms wing around the central term “American,” indicating allegiance, in the same grain as both [William Carlos] Williams and [Langston] Hughes, to the idioms peculiar to our cadence and our universe of reference. Weatherly’s tenth canto pledges just such an allegiance: 

th black hat stingy brim
on th street you live
one more day wearing it angel
enuf so you live. enuf.
devil lights up th day knowing
which hat to wear (42)

If the devil generally has powers to assume a pleasing shape, the American devil knows what hat to wear. In American cinematic vernacular, nobody requires a glossary to read the significance of a black hat. The “stingy brim,” recently sighted again atop the heads of our present retro generations, is a hat whose name seems to slight itself in its eponymity. (And this decades before Fear of a Black Hat.) But what of the black angel “on the street where you live”? “on th street you live” is a simple and straightforward declarative sentence, but it is a declaration formed by suppressing one word in a famous song’s title, as many readers will hear another pop idiom, “Devil or Angel,” humming along between the lines of Weatherly’s lyric. The devil you know is the one who knows which hat to wear. There is patently an excess of “enuf” in these lines, just enough too much to propel the reading eye forward and backward along the signifying horizons vying for our attention. At a time when “the white man” was sometimes said to be the devil, the devil who knows which hat to wear bedevils our day, lit up. There’ll be the devil to pay.

About that “enuf.” Would it not be indeed stingy to declare this an incomplete sentence? More importantly, the abruptness of this simple enough statement points to another line we might follow out from Weatherly’s poem into the poetics of black writing of the early 1970s. Like the “tic.” and “bend.” of Weatherly’s “gina,” “enuf” demonstrates a poetics of punctual interruption that uses the form of closure as an opening. In our attentions to the oral basis of black verse we may have been too inclined to overlook, or rather we have deafened ourselves to, the ways in which the oral so often takes up the scripted. The period, at least in American English, is an unpronounced, unpronounceable full stop. When we are taking down the speech of some other, we supply on the page as a convenience for future readings the periods that are unheard between spoken sentences (those utterances we almost unconsciously separate from one another in our hearing on the basis of having recognized in them, as our elementary teachers schooled us, “complete thoughts”). Yet, Americans have a rhetorical fondness for pronouncing the period that we do not extend to the comma or the semicolon. Often, for instance, we will pronounce the period as if its stark statement really would forestall further argument. “I’m not going with you to that poetry reading tonight, period!” Who has not heard such a sentence? In the wake of the projective poetics of Baraka’s adaptations and the putatively speech-based typography of much Black Arts lineation, black poets in the 1970s increasingly made use of what might be read as rhetorical counter to Olson’s open parentheses, the period as full stop that stops at nothing, a mode of periodic interdiction.