perennial fashion presence falling
- By Michael Thurston
I’m going to be straight with you: in important ways, this book might not be for you. You might be, as I suspect I sometimes am, inadvertently but consequentially, one of the motherfuckers addressed in “are you one of these motherfuckers?” Which is to say one of those readers who frames and interprets Black experience past and present through the scrims and frames of ideological whiteness. In something of an ars poetica (for this volume and for much of this brilliant poet/critic/theorist’s work), Moten writes:
when we salvage our surfacing and circling from your savage
enclosure, it will be this miracle, right now, singing through
can’t breathe forever in this world and we ain’t talking to you,
These poems are celebrations and performances of Black vernacular culture’s transformative power, performances of celebration in the root sense of the Latin celebrare (honor), the honoring of culturally specific meaning-making, speech acts that explore the multiple significances manifest in historical patterns and their breaking. They enact “denotative detonation,” which might be Moten’s update on Houston Baker’s vital notion of the simultaneous “mastery of deformation” and “deformation of mastery” characteristic of Black cultural practice. They take on the murder by suffocation of Black men on American streets and resuscitate it in song, layer it in signification via reference and repetition, turning and detourning, until they are “instruments of clinical ecstasy,” until those are pearls that were his eyes, maybe, or at least until there are pearls to cast before the swine suspected in the audience. Which is also to say, my fellow motherfuckers, that for precisely these reasons this book might be for you.
For more than twenty years now, Moten has been an active and prolific writer working at the complex intersection of scholarship, theory, arts, and poetry. Many of us in the academic world first encountered him through the collaborative project he developed with Stefano Harvey, The Undercommons. There, too, the experience of writing not for us (the essays offer deep, damning, and utterly persuasive critiques of higher education as enmeshed in and in service to capitalism, a factory that transforms the raw material of insurgent intellect into the state agents of a constantly reproducing professional-managerial class) that was at the same time vitally for us. For me, his In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, was a powerful frame shifter; there Moten at once describes and enacts a linguistically innovative, theoretically sophisticated analysis that constantly reminds readers that “radical” means “at the root,” that the “break” enables us (or, better, forces us) to see Blackness at the root of literary expressivity.
Moten brings to his poetry the same keen attention to history’s presence in language that characterizes his critical and theoretical work. Where the breaking of familiar terms by slashes, dashes, and parentheses struck many in the 1980s and 1990s as a derivative Derridean (or sub-Robert Duncan) practice, Moten continues to show how such “breaks” reveal (a word with its own historical and rhetorical load, to which I will return) otherwise occluded histories. In “graves say, graves says,” a wonderful riff on the career of jazz drummer Milford Graves, we find a great example: “of concern with dis emplot/meant’s misconception, of apposition in apportion.”
Though a joke explained is no longer funny, it is worth unpacking a line like this. Notice the compound neologism that’s split up here into its constituents: “disemplotment.” Narrative theory gives us “emplotment,” the assembly into meaningful structure of otherwise random or merely consecutive (Rankian “one damn thing after another”) events. Moten slashes the word apart to lay bare the latent pun that links the act to meaning, making it manifest with an added vowel, but, at the same time, he adds at least the possibility of negation with the prefix “dis.” The possibility is left open but not resolved by the space that separates the prefix from the word, but this space also strangely emphasizes the work of the prefix as it enacts the separation that “dis” literally, etymologically signifies (“apart, away, asunder”). That space-bar click of distance (there it is, “dis stance?”) also holds “dis” as its own word, Moten’s Black slang elsewhere enabling us to hear a dialectal “this” (so “this emplotment,” the deictic now in a dialectical opposition to the distancing), but his constant allusiveness also opens up the possibility of Dis, the infernal city Dante enters (“abandon all hope ye who enter here”), which links historiography with Hell. Our (art’s) concern with “dis emplot/meant” is, then, justified by the “misconception” (at once a wrong understanding and a bad bringing to life) that we possessively associate with it. What graves say, in part, as a consequence of the death that awaits us all, is, maybe, that our plots and their meanings are dissolved (dis solved), while what (Milford) Graves says offers some meaningful possibility in and through his performance, this practice of meaning-making, even when misconceived (at its generation or interpretation). No wonder, as the next line has it, “repercussion is terrible, beautiful, yes, yes I know.” Moten has taught us to tear the prefix off that first word, to hear the drumming in it, and to recognize the Yeatsian judgment of rebellion with which it is allusively linked. “Drumming,” as the poem begins, “is a martial art.”
Much of the enormous pleasure of this book is to be found in the tentacular connections that work out from moments like this one, so that, woven through the poems (and Moten will remind you that “text” derives from the Latin for weaving) are strands of reference, strong semantic threads. The “misconception” in this passage, for example, picks up the insistent repetition of “conception” in “covering,” a poem earlier in the book:
in the broadest conception
of black music, which is the
truest conception of black
music, black music can’t be
conceived, a music of covers,
black music covers, and cover
The poem plays variations on conception, juxtaposing these with (or working them through) variations on covering and covering, disclosing, in “reveal,” the veil through which, Dubois tells us, Blackness experiences. Intertwining “black” and “blue” threads, Moten covers Louis Armstrong and Michael Harper: “black blue as black, / black burying ground, blue / as burnt black grounding in / the broadest, blackest edge.” “Grounding” echoes the “ground” of painting in the later “color field” (which also picks up “black abstraction” from this poem) and also itself from the earlier “red sheaves,” a poem responding to the multi-modal visual artwork of Jennie C. Jones, where it resounds alongside “tilling” and “tiling,” which later recur as titles and, well, concepts, in “tiling, lining notes” and “tilling, limning notes,” as well as in references to mosaic (in “the red sheaves”) and “the precise irregularity / of anamosaic gesture.” And if you hear Wallace Stevens baubling a graveyard back there in the burying ground, Moten will confirm, in “approaching,” that “the dirty south / is a nigga cemetery: the dirty south is like decorations / in a nigga cemetery.” And not far from that reference, Moten wonders “who / can stop us on the road of this lovely dream beneath the / tree we hang from,” linking in suspension both to lynching references and to a phrase like “existence is arboreal” in “taj subduction.” You get the idea, though I’m not coming even close to showing how Moten weaves complex repetition and riffing into what he calls (in “epistrophe and epistrophy”) “the whole texilic field of / textual welcome.”
Moten has never been one to settle in or on a single form or discourse. His theoretical work and poetic texts not only work together and in terms of one another but in fundamental ways are each other, simply facets of the same practice, and among the most powerful ways that he enacts a unified field theory of Black art is the lamination of fields of reference in these poems. He’s talking both about and with (the latter meaning not only “to” but also “through”), not only those writers he suggests or suggestively alludes to (often in neat combinations that band together [pun fully intended], say, Edmund Spenser and Charlie Parker—“faerie ornithologie”), but also many whom he explicitly names. A partial catalog of these: Fannie Lou Hamer, John Coltrane, Amadou Diallo, Jack Whitten, Edward Witten, Thomas Witten, Ronnie Isley, Bryan Ferry, Ruthie Gilmore, Murray Jackson, Prince, Toni Cade Bambara, June Jordan, Sylvia Wynter, Lorna Goodison, Emma Amos, Alma Thomas, Irma Thomas, Son Ford, Kevin Beasley, Clyde Taylor, Amìlcar Cabral.
Writers, musicians, painters, geographers, physicists, philosophers, activists all appear, sometimes for the light they cast on a theme, sometimes as a sonic chip in the poems’ resonant repetitive practice. I mentioned Duncan earlier, and this time as I read Moten I recalled a line from his “A Poem Beginning with a Line from Pindar”: “Pindar’s art . . . was not a statue but a mosaic, an accumulation of metaphor.” Moten’s, too, though the mosaic is animated, spun on a turntable, sampled, scratched, and sound-mixed. The point of all these proper nouns is that just as the book as a whole is shot through with references that accumulate significance through repetition (“repetition is dis place/ment, too”—“epistrophe and epistrophy”), the book is itself set out as part of a much broader artistic and cultural web. Indeed, some of the poems emerge from collaborations and dialogues with artists in various media (Jennie C. Jones, Carrie Mae Weems, Sam Rivers, and others). As such, it offers not only itself but also the overlapping and well-worked fields to which it—explicitly, implicitly, funnily, punningly (all those birds and aviaries!), seriously—gestures. Why? Because this is how something is salvaged from the savage history of Blackness in America. Because “history needs supple meant.”
Because this is how this book, though not in some ways, for you, in some ways is exactly for you, now, motherfucker.
MICHAEL THURSTON is a professor at Smith College.