Negotiating the Body: Three New Books
The Feel Trio, by Fred Moten. Letter Machine Editions, 104 pp., $20.
Citizen, by Claudia Rankine. Graywolf Press, 174 pp., $20.
Fred Moten’s The Feel Trio was a finalist for the 2014 National Book Award, a surprise only insofar as its publisher, Letter Machine Editions, is fairly tiny, and insofar as NBA finalists are more often than not more widely known and perhaps as often authors of predictable to underwhelming verse. Many poets I know had either never heard of Moten (who is also a critical theorist), or had heard of him but were not familiar with his surprising and linguistically and intellectually exciting poems. The Feel Trio is one of the most enjoyable and rewarding books of poetry I’ve read in years. I believe that Moten should have won the award.
Influenced by one of Cecil Taylor’s phenomenal avant-garde jazz trios, The Feel Trio has its own free form style, utilizing stream of consciousness and collage, working in various registers, voices, dialects, and dictions, the three sequences that compose the book resonating with, and at times against, one another. The spontaneous is only possible in any meaningful way because of the skill that produces it. One doesn’t plan out his next sentence when talking; it simply occurs, but only because of the skill he possesses to craft it, and that skill will dictate its shape and complexity. Moten writes, “Performers feel each other differently, / as material things that never happen //... in thrownness, begins the world where we are fallen, / falling down together in an accident we dream.” So the poems of The Feel Trio suggest that the line between reason and intuition, between intellect and the heart, between the philosophical and the demotic—a distinction embedded in the very bedrock of Western thought, and inextricably linked to colonialism and racism—is specious: “... sugar and spice / is some country-ass shit in the middle of this shit. I know I’m not / supposed to say it like that, but what about the rock fights and / random blades when language lays out? there’s no language for the / too sweet object of everybody’s third thoughts any muhfuckin way.”
The Feel Trio is in keeping with the intellectual focus and concerns of Moten’s earlier collection, Hughson’s Tavern, named for a tavern in eighteenth-century New York City where slaves, indentured servants, poor whites, free blacks, and soldiers gathered to trade stolen goods. A foundation point of insurrection, the tavern unified lower class citizens, regardless of race. Both books are deeply concerned with the body and the individual’s freedom (of movement) within the administered world in certain historical epochs, and equally concerned with the possibility, or lack thereof, of amelioration of the human condition. Indeed, the lyrical dexterity, the performativity of the language, the lack of titles or capitalization, the gestural, primal nature of the poetry enact a kind of freedom. And the power of the enactment registers in the discomfort such liberty of form and language might engender in the reader; the reader cannot always find her place among the imagistic, narrative, and intellectual folds of Moten’s verse, yet she cannot help but identify, perhaps deeply, with much that’s found here. The Feel Trio is not a passively enjoyed reading experience, not is it every willfully or needlessly dense. Rather, it gratifies a curiosity fed by confoundedness and discoveries, both practical and intuitive, as it creates a cycle of nuanced engagement and stimulation. This kind of experience is too rare in our poetry.
Progressive politics and Pan-African or black culture fuel much of The Feel Trio, and it is resistive in its depth of historical concerns. When Moten draws in Carl Dix; Dennis Morris; John Akomfrah; “Burningham;” Ronnie Boykins; Brixton, England; Juan Williams; Marvis Frazier; and Gary, Indiania, he does so without nostalgia, but in an act of cultural-historical revivification, and without rehearsing the stories and histories everyone has already rehearsed. Moten does not let his readers forget these figures and places that were crucial to the evolution of black life and liveliness, and that were seminal in his own artistic, political and intellectual formation.
I mean to make something else all the time.
the harder you look inside
the easier it it to forget about gary. black youth has
always been a project of sonic youth in the
everyday distortion. we clear? sharper? my
plan is based on human nature, from tutu
to biko, with a continental burst in my
gig bag, which is knee-toed, sharp as a tack.
Moten writes both within and beyond race, implying that he is both more than his racial identity yet inextricably connected to, and in love with, the treasures and tribulations of black life. Indeed, the speaker of this poem recognizes the richness of nuance born of the complexity and difficulty of life as a person of color in America, whatever the historical moment—particularly in our current American moment, where
the violence of coping strata is specific and seasoned. we give
shit away to hurt people and build poor shelters that move and
wrap around. we love to hold the continual failure in one another,
till new things come from that like bullets that catch bullets for
butter and chocolate. our thing event theme is doin it to death.
Embedded here are inter- and intra-communal relations, where dependence and resentment are hard to separate, where social assistance and injustice exist side by side, and where self-mastery vies with mastery by others. The very character of The Feel Trio is to indicate that dichotomies separate the inseparable, that art, life, history, and humans are far more complex than the categories used to make sense of them, so that, old hat as it may sound, the personal and the political are not only viscerally connected, but indivisible. And Moten gets you digging: you want to know his references rather than feel alienated or annoyed by them. And though the poems may frustrate our search for knowledge, nothing of the enjoyment of reading them is lost for it.
Poetry is too often judged in certain circles primarily on whether it is understandable and manageable rather than on its resistance to understanding and management. As a young poet I was to told of Ashbery’s work, “You have to learn to read Ashbery; Ashbery teaches you to read Ashbery.” And my experience would come to bear that out. The Feel Trio is much the same way: it teaches you how to read it. The training itself is part of the experience. Very often the world makes only some or little sense, so we should not expect poetry to easily make sense, either in its language or its content: “unfurled in tongues that won’t belong in / anybody’s mouth, mass swerving from the law of tongues.” If the goal of the poem of catharsis or revelation is to grant us, well, catharsis or revelation, it usually only tells us what we already know. It’s far more likely that the poem we don’t entirely understand, the poem that puzzles, might in fact lead us to a genuine realization, a deeper awareness of the worlds we inhabit.
Claudia Rankine’s fifth volume, Citizen: An American Lyric, which has received immense attention in literary and mainstream media, was a National Book Award finalist and National Book Critics Circle Award winner for poetry. The book melds prose, poetry, and visual image (from Zinedine Zidane’s head-butt in the 2006 World Cup final to J.M.W. Turner’s painting The Slave Ship), creating layers of meaning and engendering a sense of wandering and interconnectivity. Its hybridity is exemplified by the fact that it was not just the winner of the NBCC Award in poetry but was also a finalist for the NBCC Award in criticism.
Citizen is a text driven by history, voice, and tenor. So much is to be read into the narrative tone of voice, and so much is communicated, open to interpretation— more so than in many poetic texts—particularly when Rankine’s tone implies freedom of expression, something which the accumulative stresses of racial violence (verbal, physical, &c.) would seem to attempt to limit. Indeed, our ability to interpret tone is a measure of our awareness of the worlds of others, and hence of our ability to identify with those worlds, to the extent that this is ever possible, regardless of our awareness.
Rankine’s book is about different experiences of citizenship, different experiences of belonging to larger groups, and those groups’ experiences of institutions, literal and figurative. About different consequences received or support provided, depending on one’s place in society and culture. And it is very much about racism—not simply the explicit acts of discrimination and animosity, but the glances, slips of the tongue, implicit evaluations, stances, and passing remarks: the “misunderstandings.” There’s no denying the timeliness of Citizen, given Michael Brown and the Department of Justice’s Ferguson report, Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and—evoked on the book’s cover in David Hammon’s artwork In the Hood, composed of the disembodied hood from a hoodie sweatshirt—Trayvon Martin.
Citizen may lack the complexity of view and idea that Moten’s The Feel Trio offers, and Rankine may at times generalize too broadly. But this is a smart, troubling, and important book. One of its most powerful aspects is its ability to put you—whatever your race, class, or gender— in the complicated, upsetting, and sometimes sublime situations Rankine describes, as you work to dispel whatever privilege of ignorance you might enjoy or whatever wish to might have to look away. As one student who appears in Citizen tells the speaker, “racism isn’t a problem in America, anymore.” Citizen puts the reader, as directly as possible, in the shoes of the other; you feel as if you are there as a spectator. In other words, experiences are expressed, but very often the reader cannot be entirely involved in or absorbed by them. But they are still a punch in the gut, as when a speaker rings the doorbell of her new therapist and is received by a woman yelling:
Get away from my house. What are you doing in my yard?
It’s as if a wounded Doberman pinscher or a German shepherd has
gained the power of speech. And though you back up a few steps,
you manage to tell her you have an appointment. You have an
appointment? she spits back. Then she pauses. Everything pauses. Oh,
she says, followed by, oh, yes, that’s right. I am sorry.
I am so sorry, so, so sorry.
Indeed, Rankine uses the second person throughout the book. The “you” is both individual and collective. “You” are in the writing, in the acts and experiences, and yet you are just as likely not quite that “you.” And I cannot help but feel that the use of “you” is also intended to make readers aware of the way they consume the text. Do we engage it actively or passively? Maturely? Accurately? I grew up in a very poor, underserved neighborhood, just a couple blocks from the projects where my aunt and cousins lived, with (driven, hardworking) parents who had only a high-school education, who themselves came from low-income backgrounds. I’ve experience prejudice against low-income people. Certain friends and girlfriends weren’t allowed, or wouldn’t come, to my house because of the reputation of the area of town where I lived. But I’m a white male; the text does not offer the possibility of intersubjectivity.
And neither Rankine nor I would suggest that there is, and not simply because of differing experiences of race and racism. Cross-racial empathy, a devotion to equality, and a sense of communal duty are admirable and realizable goals. But we have not reached equality yet, and even when we get there, equality will not obliterate difference, but rather transform how difference is experienced. So, from upbringing and family to religion and education, to sexual preference and gender, to regionalism and life philosophy, and beyond, a reader can only identify so much with what Rankine portrays in Citizen. The point is specifically that: just as so many experiences of being othered are described in the text, so some readers are inherently othered to the extent that they cannot legitimately see themselves in those experiences. In one episode in the book, passengers on a train avoid occupying a free seat next to a black man, and the speaker attempts to put herself in the place of the black male body, but cannot.
You don’t speak unless you are spoken to and your body speaks to the
space you fill and you keep trying to fill it except the space belongs
to the body of the man next to you, not to you.
Where he goes the space follows him. If the man left his seat before
Union Station you would simply be a person in a seat on the train.
You would cease to struggle against the unoccupied seat when where
why the space won’t lose its meaning.
Again, the “you” of the text is both you and not you. No matter how much we want and are able to sympathize or empathize, we are limited in our ability to do so, because none of us is the person beside us, regardless of certain shared characteristics and histories. And that is how and why this is a book—as trite as it has become to say about a work of literature—almost as much about what’s not said, as what is said. About what cannot be said, or perhaps more importantly, what the speaker is unwilling to say, what she is withholding.
Granted, this could apply to virtually anything we read or observe, but the stakes are much higher here, and the author more willfully demarcates the boundaries. And, of course, this demarcation embodies at least two paradoxes. One: that we really can only relate as much as we are invited or allowed to by the other. And, two: as is the case with race and racism, generally, Citizen both sets forth the ways in which people of color (primarily) are subject to othering, prejudice and racism, and are the products, in part, of being excluded from a larger citizenry. And yet the text cannot help but simultaneously remind the reader that a more privileged reader is, paradoxically, potentially excluded from a citizenry that the othered portrayed in Citizen is itself included in. So, that part of the power of Citizen, is that it not only portrays the othered, but it also others those who might not normally experience such othering. This is one of the successes of Citizen: while we are, or hope to be, “all one,” as they say, in fact we are not all one—not in America, not in France, not in reality. Ignoring this fact is a backdoor way of ignoring prejudice. Again, there is no intersubjectivity. But of course that doesn’t mean there can’t be respect, admiration, understanding, and intimacy.
Citizen could be cited for expressing important ideas blandly, but Rankine is very concerned with open-endedness and clarity. And it is a book very much about not just run-of-the-mill episodes of violence, but also the very run-of-the-mill-ness of those violent episodes, their everyday-ness being a large part of what makes them so disturbing, whether they occur on the streets or on TV. And those events are, in fact, life-shaping (if often like water torture, drop by daily drop) in harmful ways, and too rarely in socially transformative ways that would indicate progress or institutionalized equality, rather than institutionalized discrimination. One of the ways in which discrimination is life-changing and freedom-quashing is the way in which it cannot help but force us to become hyper-aware of potential experiences of discrimination. That is to say, an individual who experiences discrimination cannot just be; his or her organic freedom, to simply move in the world, is blocked, and thus his or her experience of citizenship is blocked and altered. It’s a kind of normalized post-traumatic stress: if you experience a trauma enough times then you come to expect it, and live within it, and that cannot help but limit one’s well-being, one’s outlook, one’s relationships, one’s self-estimation, one’s sense of his or her own accuracy of sensation.
Do feelings lose their feeling if they speak to a lack of feeling?
Can feelings be a hazard, a warning sign, a disturbance, distaste, the
disgrace? Don’t feel like you are mistaken. It’s not that (Is it not that?)
you are oversensitive or misunderstanding.
This way in which previous exposure to prejudice might limit current and future freedom is one area I wish Rankine had explored more explicitly. Some would argue that it is the most brutal crime in racism: that it’s always present, even when it’s not. Racism is all too real, obviously. But beyond the actual experience of racism is the ever-present possibility of racism, and that mere possibility, the vigilance it provokes, curtails one’s freedom to “just be.” And, crucially, the possibility can’t help but limit one’s very sense of hope. That is to say it limits and tampers with one’s experience of self. This is as obvious as the voices of African-American parents speaking on NPR about how they coach their children precisely about how to act, and how to be perceived. These parents might advise against running (in a hoodie (in a white neighborhood (at night))). And who can blame them? And yet there is blame to be placed, but elsewhere.
For so long you thought the ambition of racist language was to
denigrate and erase you as a person. Language that feels hurtful is
intended to exploit all the ways that you are present. Your alertness,
your openness, and your desire to engage actually demand your
presence, your looking up, your talking back, and as insane as it is,
We are all always being asked to interpret the world around us— and Rankine reminds us of this through her emphasis on tone—and a certain pressure comes with that, depending on the awareness of the world we bring, but many of us are able to interpret without such high stakes. This is one way people become, as Rankine puts it, “hypervisible.” Which is to say, you are visible only because you are not who, how, or where some other expects you to be. Being marked out gives agency, but it also harms. Prior to the moment of being noticed, you are invisible, so that attention is experienced primarily negatively, and invisibility, which implies being left alone, also means being forgotten in the most meaningful and important ways—socially and emotionally.
You fear the night is being locked in and coded on a cellular level
and want time to function as a power wash. Sitting there staring at
the closed garage door you are reminded that a friend once told you
there exists a medical term—John Henryism—for people exposed
to stresses stemming from racism. They achieve themselves to death
trying to dodge the build up of erasure. Sherman James, the researcher
who came up with the term, claimed the physiological costs were
high. You hope by sitting in silence you are bucking the trend.
In such cases, one cannot enjoy, as one might enjoy, a soccer match, a meal, a party, a date. Indeed, the emotional extremes we experience—absolute joy, exuberance, outrage, anger—and which generally go unnoticed, become gaze-worthy. They become—in the words of Fox Sports’ Jason Whitlock commenting on Serena Williams’s three-second celebratory dance upon completing a rare career Golden Slam—“immature and classless.” And what can come of this curtailed self but guardedness, self-consciousness, worry, and curtailed hope, if also art. Such trials clearly should not be the price of making fine art. Again, there is agency, but there is also harm.
You imagine if the man spoke to you he would say, it’s okay, I’m okay,
you don’t need to sit here. You don’t need to sit and you sit and look
past him into the darkness the train is moving through. A tunnel.
All the while the darkness allows you to look at him. Does he feel
you looking at him? You suspect so. What does suspicion mean? What
does suspicion do?
Citizen is exhausted with the everyday experience of being subordinated, with incremental acts of aggression, with the ways in which the unspoken (the gesture, the facial expression, silence, stance) allow for miscommunication and internal blockage, despite that unspokenness also allowing for greater nuance, and potentially embodying an act of empowerment. It is a book that fights and, importantly, it implicates.
Part of the power of my god is this a man, Laura Sims’s third book, is the way it intrigues the reader with things that repel, or that one feels should repel. To say that there are ethical implications to Sims’s collection would be to undersell the depth of those implications: the reader, herself, is ethically implicated. The book is a quick read but an unnerving one, and it draws you back again and again. Like Moten, Sims makes us curious. She studied “the confessions, interviews, letters and journal entries, of and by convicted (or suspected) murderers,” and she employs portions of these texts. Imagination. Sims asks us to not simply imagine horrific violent crimes, but to do so via the mind of the killers. She gives us only glimpses, so we must not only fill in a few small gaps in the act or in the psyche, but also use our own minds to imagine detail, context, and similar historical acts we might be familiar with. And implicit in this invitation are our own imagined crimes. Who among us hasn’t imagined another’s harm or death? Sims implies that the line between the “average” person and Ted Bundy, David Berkowitz, or Dzhokhar Tsarnaev is far from fine, and yet even the best among us is capable of intentionally causing, wishing to cause, or fantasizing about causing harm, emotional, mental, physical or otherwise.
Though my god is this a man might be called conceptual, it is enigmatic but not perplexing. Much as with Citizen, the reader cannot help but wonder at what is left out of the text, what goes unsaid, yet is gestured at, what cannot be known, what might be derived from the fraction offered, and who has redacted what (there are pages that contain only blocks of black) and for what reason. The reader is not necessarily aware of the distinction between direct quotation and Sims’s own words, and despite this—indeed, because of it—Sims cannot help but be in a position of power insofar as we are very conscious of the hand behind the poems, which are comprised of only twenty or twenty-five words per page. The author cannot disappear in this context, cannot vanish into the usual stream of language, but is thrust forward by her doling out of so few words. We all know that the texts we read are merely composed of the content a given author has chosen as worthy of conveyance, but here that control is explicit. And it mirrors the way in which these men (and a few women) came to control the stories of their victims’ lives, or at least attempted to. Sims provides plenty enough for the reader to “understand,” but that does not matter because the magnitude of actions Sims evokes can be comprehended without ever being understood. Not even by the murderers themselves, as when Bill Heirens, the Lipstick Killer, is quoted as saying, “I do not know why I did that. That was something, I do not know why. I do not know why it was done.”
In an interview, Catherine Wagner asked Sims about “a relationship between serial killers … and zombies” and if it has to do with an attraction to “feeling scared in a predictable context ... Seeking control, fort-da style.” Sims responded, “I think it’s definitely related to losing my mom to cancer when I was nineteen. Zombies and murderers ... you can imagine responding to them—or even defeating them—in physical ways. My mom’s death was amorphous and beyond our control—an invisible disease attacking and destroying her body.” And yet, my god is this a man seems to indicate that the minds of killers are amorphous, and their actions, particularly to their victims, unexpected, eliminating entirely the victims’ sense of control. After all, isn’t this potential loss of control over our own lives and mortality what we thrill at when watching The Walking Dead, for instance, and isn’t it the real loss of control at the hands of something or someone beyond us that terrifies us? If prison or execution are the responses to such horrendous crimes, if they are the defeat of the killer, they seem a defeat out of measure with the crimes committed.
my god is this a man might be an attempt to come to some modicum of understanding of unpredictable violence, but it is certainly as much an acknowledgement that there can be no real understanding, and that what both gnaws at us and draws us in is this inability to come to resolution. The very cover of Sims’s collection itself does not resolve— the watercolor beast fades info the matte gray of the background. And its head is off cover. The fractured image mirrors the fractured nature of the text itself. This fracturing is juxtaposed with strict borders featured on any number of pages containing, again, blocks of black, some of which feature no text, some of which feature text, as well as pages which contain text trapped within a bold, black, square border (including the author’s note): “I’m controlled, I am not / doing / interviews. Still” or “& // I cast him down / in that outhouse.” Alternatively, one portion of the book has language from Dzhokhar Tsarnaev’s confession combined with the author’s “Bedtime Relaxation” meditation recording. Containment and predictability are always set off against amorphousness and the unexpected.
Still, with borders comes location and proximity: “I cleaned myself // she fell // a bottle and inside // on top of me.” And a page later: “I lied her on the floor,” and on the facing page, in bold, large-font text “I said, I lied her on the floor.” So much of the text is information, thought, image disembodied from a concrete context, and we tend to think of location and proximity as characteristics that give us a sense of stability and comfort. Yet here location and proximity create just as much discomfort and discombobulation as any lack of context, for the location, “inside ... on top of,” “on the floor” only bring to bear the unbelievable act: “she fell … I lied her.”
Adam Day is the author of Model of a City in Civil War (Sarabande Books) and the chapbook Badger, Apocrypha (PSA). He coordinates The Baltic Writing Residency in Latvia, Scotland, and the Bernheim Arboretum & Research Forest.