Douglas Kearney and the cool ipso facto

Photo credit: MOCA

Douglas Kearney is a vitally important poet, critic, and performer — and, given the significance of his massive open online course, “Sharpened Visions,” public teacher too. As a poet and as a critic-essayist — in both genres of thinking-through/while-writing — Kearney evinces an intense interest in micro-glossaries, socially invented argots, the ironic political possibilities of cant, the language-y side of folktales, the dense musicality of Black speech, the naunced differing registers of the ways people say what they say. He averts falling into the (as he once put it) “vortex of self-reflexive word play,” but he comes riskily and thrillingly right up to the edge of it. The key to that aversion is his rejection of figurative closure. His work — verse, performance pieces, critical essays, musical talks, drawn visual displays — reject the “equivalances” of simile-like likenings. Add that to a rejection of narrative and you have a poet who sees he has no choice but to develop “other syntaxes.”

Try to be in an audience when Kearney performs his visual writing. He manages, in an unusual way — although I think of eccentric precedents in the photograph-poetry of Erica Baum, the super-slow writing drawn letter-by-letter verse of Robert Grenier, the sketch-line poems that accompanied John Keene’s early poetry — to draw or sketch or paint language in a way that is commensurate with poems typewritten and presented on the page. Performing either does to some extent depend on the by-now traditional “poetry reading” voice of the poet reading off the page what readers have or could have already read for themselves. But at the same time, Kearney’s performance of visual writing (call it “poetic artwork”?) produces a new signifying that neither looking nor reading could predict. When Kearney “reads” such collaged (word/image) visuality he is doing something roughly equivalent to Free Jazz-inspired quasi-improvisation. The mind is working now, in the performance. This is not at all like the typical poetry reading, where mind has done its work and what remains is a choice of voicing but not so much signification. He is, to use Edwin Torres’ term, a lingualisualist.

The poems of Buck Studies and prose of Mess and Mess work (and succeed) in this way. One reads them and imagines the above-described improvisation that is awaiting them. But before turning to those books, of 2016 and 2015 respectively, I want to observe what Kearney achieves through his serious and inventive art criticism. In “The Next Chamber,” considering artist Lauren Halsey (Hammer Museum, 2020), he contemplates the traditional monumentalism (and self-preservation[ism], as it were) of art as distinct from the contemporary art he admires, such as Halsey’s, in which the “Here/Now” of an artwork’s significance is just as effective and meaningful as the “There/Then” of the situation or time of its making. Readers of the whole of Kearney’s work will benefit from thinking of “The Next Chamber” as his own artist’s statement. “We still here, there” — might as well be a line from his Buck Studies. And this is a gloss on his own work as a general proposition: his work “depict[s] Black socialities [Kearney is nothing if not what in the 1930s was called a “social poet”] of joy and comfort.” His, like Halsey’s, is a “speculative Black utopia” and as such is “actually another way of seeing what was already there.”

Buck Studies is a powerful instance of writing addressing the problem of how the reproduction and reception of stereotypes can be confronted and daringly investigated — and, indeed, one must say, researched (through verse, a remarkable intellectual mode in itself). Kearney torques phrasings of crude racialized humor, the strange language of morose sympathies arising from affective responses of modest anti-racist allies, the many terrifying ways in which celebrated Black historical figures are affixed with obscene (indeed pornographic) monikers. The work constantly encourages readers to ask whether what they are reading can indeed constitute poetry. Are Brer Rabbit rewritings/writings-through — using cancellation cross-outs or faux censoring erasures — an instance of versification as we have known it? An instance of the undoing of racist folkways through innovative form? This is of course one definition of experimental art — work that leads one to wonder and to question if it is art in the first place, and thus it indeed is, per Duchamp, Rauschenberg (a particular influence on Buck Studies), the Gwendolyn Brooks of “The Chicago Picasso” and “Boy Breaking Glass,” the Amiri Baraka of song-poems like “Something in the Way of Things (in Town),” the Jayne Cortez scatting anti-racist/feminist binarisms in, for instance, “She Got He Got,” the Nisga poet Jordan Abel whose The Place of Scraps erases selected earnest words of a racist Canadian ethnographer, et alia. Stagger is a protagonist, with his “badman’s tongue” (in “Mane”), but does the poems’ speaker have the tongue of a bad man too? One hint at the irony at the level of the writer — Kearney himself — comes to us in the form of explanatory (and, via cultural anthropology — scholarly) footnotes. The convergence of punning, torqued, triple-entendred phrasings on one hand, and detailed references to the histories of heroic legend and of U.S. racism, reminds one of the work of poet-theorist Tyrone Williams. Readers of Kearney’s work seeking comparisons would do well to read Buck Studies alongside Williams’s book On Spec.

Mess and Mess continues the project of Buck Studies but in the form of short essays. Buck Studies, despite its loudness, is modest in scope compared to the major ambition of Mess and Mess. Some of the pieces were collected from critical venues such as Boundary 2 and Jacket2. In the fields of contemporary poetry and poetics, and performance studies, these statements, taken as expressions of an important ars poetica, have been much sought out. “Some Terms for Black Study” is anti-glossary, faux headnote, or snappy guide to apprentice critics; the power of its satire derives from its (actual) collaborative authorship. It is itself the code-switching it cleverly defines — thus cleverer still. “Mess Studies,” mock ars poetica, satirical academic manifesto, presents the core idea of this book and, I think, of Douglas Kearney’s arresting intervention overall: the exclamation of failure must a heterodox (and multi-genre) art — unfixed by generic rules, entailing listening as much as telling/noise-making, marginal and thus fecund and multiple. As a matter of genre, and of line-by-line writing, and of the re-use of phrases in an American English born of hatred, these critical writings, taken together, contend this: if you’re not making a mistake, you’re making a mistake. Writing’s mess drips down, lines dropping down to those that follow, just the way hasty slogans are painted on walls with un-neat broad brushes (see the image of “Coverage,” from an art exhibit to which Kearney contributed at LACE in Los Angeles).

Sho will be published by Wave Books in 2021. I’ve had the good fortune to read it in manuscript. This new work turns back to the material of Buck Studies (e.g. in its first piece, “Buck”), but stands coherently apart from the implicated speaker’s voice of the earlier work, because, as the poet has realized, it’s now “too dark here to tell.” Tell = testimony, and testimony is fraught. Trauma perhaps requires the shedding of personae. It’s time, aesthetically and intellectually, to “buck   up” (the space inserted into the idiom is not a mistake). “The Post-“ picks up from the micro-essays of Mess and Mess, but here the list is dramatically incomplete. It needs our (readers’) completing it. The collaborative proposal of Mess Studies is now opened up further: the list of verb-initiated items (a “to do” list) has four blank entries, plus “&c. / &c.” leaving space for more. “Typing things to do” now for Kearney entails communitarian co-creation, and Sho defines the community. The relationship with the history of predicaments faced by radical Black poets, faced squarely by the writerly speaker, has developed to the point where the poet is finding a place to stand within a tradition. “Everyday (I Gets)” implicitly calls out to Langston Hughes, for instance, yet complicates with “grit” (synonym for “mess” here, not just happy resilience): “I play the stone / while old River tonguing me / could fret me to grit.” River is still the source of song; it itself tongues the poem and the poem is a song (the poet’s hand on the frets of the lyric instrument). The speaker, maturely, has decided after all to “tend them” (his own songs?) “On the regular.” Sho will be seen, I’m certain, as an important book given us by an always-radical experimenter with a mature vision of writing’s necessary future, “how it cooks up its figments” through “cool ipso factos.” I’ve just quoted the poem “Demonology” in the new book — yet another obsessed-over micro-glossary. Cool ipso factos — and these are very cool indeed — are not self-evidently true. It takes work to understand them rather than to assume them. That effort is the gift by the writing that requires it.