A familial touchstone via 'Dhalgren'
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.