Begin again

“Many knew that no matter what they did, if they moved through a public space, it would have to be deliberate, and their bodies would be read as a statement.” Above: image of a public square in Florence by Samuli Lintula, via Wikimedia Commons.

Think back to the last time you marched — when you moved deliberately through a public space, when you used your body not just to get from one place to another but to be a statement, when you had to be keenly aware of the larger body you moved within and the body you moved against. If you’ve never marched before, go out now and try it. Now think back. Begin again. Be aware of your body in this public space. Are you cold? Are you hungry? Do you carry a sign? Is it heavy? Does it block the view of the people behind you? Are you walking? If you are not walking, if you are not able to walk, are the bodies around you aware of that, are they still moving with you? Do those people wear hats? Do they wear hats that you associate with the color of your skin, with the shape of your genitalia? Does that comparison strike you as hilarious? Do you think about this as you move together? Do you feel protected by the bodies around you? Is there another body, next to yours, that you know you should protect?

Do you yell? Do you whisper? Do you chant? Do you sing? How do you begin again?

The cover of Solidarity Texts: Radiant Re-Sisters features a grid onto which “begin again” is inscribed again and again. Sometimes the letters run into each other, linked together as if forming one long, cursive word, and sometimes we see a deliberate stop or gap in between. The multiple iterations of “begin again” appear to make a uniform statement — and ostensibly offer the same meaning — yet they are in constant negotiation (and renegotiation) regarding their positioning next to one another and within the squares of the grid, as well as regarding their resemblances to one another. Compare the first “b” to the second “b” on the same line. They may be written by the same hand, but unequivocally they are inscribed, and present, differently.

We can see this, we might note it, but here is the difficult part: how do we effectively read each “begin again” differently, with these renegotiations in mind? Does the differing inscription of one “b” to another actually change the meaning of “begin again?” Shouldn’t it? But isn’t all we can do, with the ways in which we are trained to process linguistic interpretation, to note this while we read and then move on? 

The only way I see of reading each “begin again” differently is not through the conventional structures of meaning, but through enacting those differences ourselves in performance. Through tone of voice, speed in speech, gestures that accompany our utterances — this is how we read the opening of Solidarity Texts precisely. “Begin again” is, after all, an imperative. This is also how I read Solidarity Texts more broadly. It is not a static anthology of poetry and art to which we are called to ascribe critical interpretations and judgments. We might do so, but it wouldn’t be the most urgent or productive reading. Rather, the anthology is an occasional document; it records a momentary gathering; it is an intersection of an array of performances, and it asks its readers to radiate outward, through their own performance of solidarity or opposition. The “radiant resistance” here is not dogmatic. It carries within it contradiction, paradox, and perplexity; it offers no clear program. That might be frustrating to some, but I think that is precisely the point. Solidarity Texts, now as a manifestation of the Women’s March seen in hindsight, is an opportunity to begin again, to consider how we moved together and how we moved against each other, to evaluate what we have used our bodies to protect, and what we have used them to resist. It tells us we cannot stop until we learn to read the differences between us, even while we recognize and affirm our solidarity. 

M. NourbeSe Philip, who created Solidarity Texts’ cover, writes on the following page:

Begin again: that was the advice of the Benedictine monk, John Main, founder of the Christian silent meditation movement in the West, to those who found themselves floundering in their commitment to the daily task of meditating. It is an idea that is strangely comforting — to begin again — in all the contradictory impulses of that phrase, for a beginning is new in its never-been-here-before quality and resists the idea of repetition nestled at the heart of again. But that is what we must do in the face of the tsunami of the attacks bearing down on all those committed to a fair and equitable society — begin again and again and again. 

“Begin again” was also the advice of the modernist writer, Gertrude Stein, in her lecture “Composition as Explanation” (1926). Stein states, “Beginning again and again is a natural thing even when there is a series. / Beginning again and again and again explaining composition and time is a natural thing.” For Stein, “beginning again” is inextricably linked to her famous conception of the “continuous present,” even if they are not quite the same thing. Rather, “beginning again and again” is how one tries to achieve (or, as Stein puts it, “gropes for’) the “continuous present,” which is both a mode of ongoing composition and, as Lisa Ruddick puts it, an “abolition of grammatical difference, or inflection, [that] disturbs the linear time.” This, Ruddick argues, offers “a potentially anti-paternal pleasure. Its emphasis is on process … The father may own linear time, but the continuous present defies the closures of linear time by setting everything in motion.”[1] This, I would say, is a radical strategy “in the face of the tsunami of attacks,” as Philip articulates it, of a system so pervasively, enduringly, and intricately oppressive we barely know what to change, what can be fixed. Perhaps it’s remarkably pessimistic, but right now this defiant, restless “continuous present” is the only bearable future we can imagine, and it’s better than what we have. Present, after all, is also an imperative. The object is left open: to present ourselves, to present the world we imagine, to present the person next to us and the world they imagine that we could not. Be present. We set everything into motion, our end is disruption, and we begin again and again. 

This has significant consequences for how we imagine the past — for how we bring the past into the present. In Solidarity Texts, I am struck by a complicated nostalgia that runs through several pieces. Oana Avasilichioaei writes in “Before the Cataclysm”:

Once we were a garden. We were undergrowth. Moss and lichen, trellises of ivy, clambering tangles of foliage. Yet something obstructed our allegory. We were not sentimental but intended a trajectory towards some kind of tenderness. Yet our movements had become robotic. Mechanisms randomly controlled by others. We did not yet know what would be our trigger. 

And in an excerpt from I am writing to you from afar, Moyna Pam Dick asks, “can’t we rewrite that fairy tale?” Then later: “This is the Fall. // I miss my garden, my mama, my books, my swing, my copse. // But it’s said that to sustain memories here is what is most dangerous.” The danger in nostalgia, in our desire for that time before the current administration was a possibility, is that Trump America was always a possibility. We realize that the cataclysm we experience now, and which so many of us have marched against since January 2017, was produced by the same United States of America that shaped us. Within our books, under our swings, through our gardens, America was marching toward the moment we face now. “This is not America,” we cry, as we know it is, it was. How do we now understand the America we were happy, or at least content, to live in and to be part of until just the last couple of years, when that America has led to this? Why didn’t we see it? Why didn’t we position our bodies earlier to resist it, to protect those bodies we need to protect? 

But many did see it. Many knew that no matter what they did, if they moved through a public space, it would have to be deliberate, and their bodies would be read as a statement. For many, being American meant they always had to be on the march, whether they wanted to or not. They were always keenly aware of the larger body they moved within and the body they moved against. If you’ve never marched before, that was your privilege. Now go out and try it.

Begin again. Be aware of your body in this public space. 

1. Lisa Ruddick, Reading Gertrude Stein: Body, Text, Gnosis (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1990), 86.