Nonsecular: William Faulkner, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Toni Morrison

April 19, 2014

Toni Morrison says in a Paris Review interview: “I always get up and make a cup of coffee while it is still dark—it must be dark—and then I drink the coffee and watch the light come.”   It’s a ritual that conjures into being “a space that I can only call nonsecular . . . Writers all devise ways to approach that place where they expect to make the contact, where they become the conduit, or where they engage in this mysterious process.”

I don’t necessarily see The Bluest Eye as being written in this space.  But Beloved has got to be.

It’s also the space, I think, where William Faulkner and Garcia Marquez become such resonant names for Morrison.  ”Nonsecular” isn’t necessarily the first word that I’d reach for when it comes to these three — it’s close, but not quite spot-on.   But then no other word is spot-on either.   How to describe that particular combination of the over-the-top and the matter-of-fact, outrageousness and everydayness?   Garcia Marquez says that he himself is genuinely unsurprised by bizarre occurrences, but that Faulkner also makes out to be that way.   Well, that could be, but as far as I’m concerned, the two of them are about even, and Morrison seems a little less extreme only because, in her racialized world, the “nonsecular” equivalence of the matter-of-fact and the over-the-top happens to be shared by other authors.

 

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2014 Conference

April 12, 2014

All these things that I didn’t know before the conference: Daniel Venegas’ Don Chiopote, the Creole folklore collected in Louisiana by the Federal Writers’ Project, and (I’m ashamed to say) Kiran Desai’s The Inheritance of  Loss, writing the story of the Indian diaspora through what Arjun Appadurai calls a “gastro-politics” — tastes, textures, and smells circulating across the Indian Ocean, across the Atlantic.

I guess this is the bare minimum we have a right to expect from every conference: a not unhealthy embarrassment, if not outright shame, from not knowing these things.

In this case, though, just looking up this material isn’t going to be enough, and spending hours and hours on them won’t be enough either.  In fact, probably no amount of time I can spend at this point would make me competent in Creole, or fluent enough in Spanish to get all the jokes in Don Chipote.

So maybe this is the other bare minimum that we also have a right to expect from every conference, especially one that calls itself “American Literature in the World”: a not unhealthy sense that we’re not up to lots of things, that we’ll never be up to them on our own.   Collaboration has long been a norm among scientists, why not among humanists?

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Malcolm X’s Reading

April 3, 2014

I’m always a little suspicious when people make a big point about what books they’ve read, when they throw around big name like Schopenhauer, Kant, Nietzsche.   But Malcolm is pretty scrupulous.   Of Herodotus, he writes: “I read Herodotus, “the father of History,” or rather, I read about him.”   It was Will Durant’s Story of Civilization that he was reading, that taught him not only about Herodotus but also about “Aesop being a black man who told fables; about Egypt’s Pharaohs; about the great Coptic Christian Empires; about Ethiopia, the earth’s oldest continuous black civilization.”

He had gotten into the habit reading while at the Norfolk prison colony.  The Parkhurst Collection was especially strong in philosophy and religion.

It’s probably not surprising that W.E.B. DuBois should be on the reading list,  or Spinoza, the “black Spanish Jew.”   But there’s also the Findings in Genetics by Gregor Mendel: “I really studied this book by the Austrian monk. Reading it over and over, especially certain sections, helped me to understand that if you started with a black man, a white man could be produced; but starting with a white man, you never could produce a black man-because the white chromosome is recessive. And since no one disputes that there was but one Original Man, the conclusion is clear.”

That’s Malcolm X.

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Black Philip Roth

March 28, 2014

Not biologically black, of course (though what an “African-American biology” might mean is not entirely clear either).

Still, Philip Roth might be said to be partly black — through mediation, association, and, perhaps most of all, contention — in at least one novel.   Coleman Silk, the professor who passes as white in The Human Stain — is assumed by everyone to be inspired by Anatole Broyard, literary figure and frequent New York Times contributor, whose racial identity became public knowledge after his death.  Wikipedia proceeded on that assumption.   Philip Roth, chagrined, posted an open letter on the New Yorker blog stating, in no uncertain terms, that Coleman Silk was based, not on Broyard, but on his friend Mel Tumin.

Bliss Broyard, chagrined in her turn, argued on Facebook that there was no way her father’s two memoirs, and especially Henry Louis Gates’ long and much-discussed piece about him in the New Yorker, would have gone by unnoticed by Roth, leaving no traces in his mind.

Maybe that’s how we should think about this: Mel Tumin as a “strong” template for Coleman Silk in Roth’s mind, and Anatole Broyard as a weak, perhaps unconscious, but nonetheless not-absent template.

Strong and weak, present and not-absent: it’s not a bad way to think about the phenomenal field of race, especially when channeled through things like the New Yorker, Wikipedia, and Facebook, media that disseminate, accentuate, and dilute.

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Frank O’Hara, Amiri Baraka: “The Day Lady Died”

March 19, 2014

Frank O’Hara and Billie Holiday had probably never met, never exchanged a single word.   There’s no record of the two of them at any gathering.

What I found instead is an  image of Amiri Baraka and Frank O’Hara, part of the footage taken by the experimental filmmaker Jonas Mekas, showing them hanging out at the Living Theater, 1959, the same year that Holiday died.

Billie Holiday has been pivotal for Amiri Baraka over the years.   She’s there: in Black Music, in Three Books.   In “Dark Lady of the Sonnet,” he writes: “more than I have felt to  say, she/ says always.  More than she has ever/ felt is what we mean by fantasy/ Emotion, is wherever you are.   She/stayed in the street.”

It’s fitting that Holiday should be front and center for Baraka, an anchor, a given.  She’s nothing like that for O’Hara.  ”The Day Lady Died” is a perfectly normal day, hot and muggy, with the usual food, usual frustrations, and only a reference near the end to a “New York Post with her face on it.”   By then the sweat that comes pouring out isn’t just from the weather, “while she whispered a song along the keyboard/ to Mal Waldron and everyone and I stopped breathing.”  

That seems about right to me: it takes two to capture the contradictions of Billie Holiday: her cultural centrality on the one hand, marginality on the other; her face on the front page of the New York Post, and dying at age 44, under arrest in the hospital for drug possession, with $0.70 in the bank.

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Falling out

March 12, 2014

I know it’s about Vietnam, about the contested nature of poetry as precipitated by that event.   And it couldn’t have been more public.  Their letters, now collected into a volume, documented the widening gap, followed by a collection of scholarly essays, edited by Al Gelpi and Robert Berthoff, Poetry of Politics and Politics of Poetry.   Surely, every conceivable angle ought to have been covered.

And yet the falling out remains murky in my head.  It couldn’t have been the case of one being in the wrong and the other in the right, or even one being Jewish and the other not. And it’s definitely not a case in which one could weigh in, take sides.

I’d rather think of it as being like a disease, like Alzheimer’s, or arthritis,  about which there’s really not much to say, except that it’s there.

That’s how I think of the falling out between James Baldwin and Richard Wright.   And that’s how I think of Robert Duncan and Denise Levertov.

That’s

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Denise Levertov’s Ghazals

March 7, 2014

I wonder what they  thinking, these authors who write poems that they call ghazals, that bear no obvious resemblance to the traditional form in Urdu and Persian and Arabic?

Denise Levertov’s “Broken Ghazals” is simply one poem  in a heterogeneous collection, sandwiched between “Decipherings” and “The Gaze Salutes Lyonel Feininger While Crossing the New Jersey Wastelands.”  The highlight of the volume is probably the 14 poems by Jean Joubert — translations in the commonly understood sense.

But perhaps the ghazal-that-doesn’t-look-like-a-ghazal points to a less common but equally plausible idea of translation, based not on resemblance, an attempt to reproduce or approximate the semantic or formal contents of the original, but on something far less nameable, something like flavor, tone, or even the degree of finality of an apparently completed sentence?

On the front, Levertov’s “Broken Ghazals” actually reminds us a lot of Agha Shahid Ali’s.  I especially like the penultimate stanza: “Squinting toward light:/ a tree has filled it/ with green diamonds.  Or there’s the air, bemused:/ newfallen snow.”

But then it occurred to me that maybe I like it so much because the last line sounds exactly like a Tang poem.

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Adrienne Rich’s ghazals

February 27, 2014

Her earliest ghazals are in Leaflets, at the very end of the volume, which I must have looked at.   But I’m reading them seriously only now — because of Agha Shahid Ali and Call Me Ishmael Tonight, his end-of-life ghazals.

Rich’s poems are in couplets, but they don’t seem to follow the rhyme-and-refrain pattern that Ali sets forth as the strict constraints of the genre.   In fact, they are so loose and unstructured they could be anything, though they do seem to have the same onward momentum that ghazals have, ending and beginning in one and the same gesture.   In the one dated 7/14/68 she writes: “Did you think I was talking about my life?/ I was trying to drive a tradition up against the wall./… For us the work undoes itself over and over:/ the grass grows back, the dust collects, the scar breaks open.”

I also like the fact these ghazals are in a volume that looks so haphazardly thrown together, coming a few pages after a poem dedicated to Frantz Fanon, mentioning his death (“born Martinique, 1925; dead Washington D.C. 1961″), but not dwelling on it, and instead going back to the beginning: “What I see best is the length/ of your fingers/ pressing the pencil/ into the barred page/ of the French child’s copybook/ with its Cartesian squares, its grilled/ trap of holy geometry/ where your night-sweats streamed out…”

The Indian Ocean and the Caribbean?   Rich was linking the two back in 1969.

 

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Frank Stella, Agha Shahid Ali: Moby-Dick into ghazals

Feb 20, 2014

Stella’s “Fedallah” isn’t anything like Melville’s: not the “tiger-yellow” apparition “with one white tooth evilly protruding from its steel-like lips,” but a fluid, dancing figure, with some dark streaks and shadows, it’s true, but otherwise resplendent, impressive.

Not sticking to the original is probably an act of generosity here — Melville’s portrait of Fedallah isn’t why we’re reading Moby-Dick.  Stella’s reference point seems rather to be his own trip to Iran — modern day Persia — shortly after which he began his Protractor Series (1967-71), brightly-colored, circular shapes based on the circular plan of ancient Middle Eastern cities, each named after one of the these.  The Moby-Dick Series followed in the 1980s, but Persia never quite disappeared.   In the 1990s Stella would come back to it in a big way, in the Ain Ghazal Variations.

I don’t think Stella and Agha Shahid Ali have ever met, and now there’s no chance to, but I’d like to think of them in the same room talking about those ghazals: Stella’s visually vibrant, mixed-media installations, at once ancient and modern, and Ali’s more traditional, text-based poems, also both ancient and modern, that he collected in Call Me Ishmael Tonight, published posthumously after his death in 2001.

Of the ghazal form, Ali says that the rhyme, refrain, and line length set up by the first couplet impose a constraint on every succeeding couplet, one that “delivers on that suspense by amplifying, dramatizing, imploding, exploding.”

Stella would have agreed.

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Stuart Hall and vernacular modernity

February 14, 2014

The passing of Stuart Hall makes me go back to his seminal essay, “Negotiating Caribbean Identities,” where he talks about “vernacular modernity” as the “modernity of the blues, of gospel music, of hybrid black music in its enormous variety throughout the New World.”

For Hall, Miles Davis embodies that definition.

I wonder,  though, whether vernacular modernity couldn’t also be taken more literally, as the multiplicity of spoken tongues, some indigenous to the Americas, others brought from Africa, making New World “modern” beginning in the seventeenth century.

Music indirectly bears witness to those tongues, so too does literature, especially in its invocation of names that it’s still a shock to recall.   I’m thinking of the Abendakis in Thoreau’s Maine woods: “It was a purely wild and primitive American sound, as much as the barking of a chickaree, and I could not understand a syllable of it; but Paugus, had he been there, would have understood it.  These Abenakis gossiped, laughed, and jested, in the language in which Eliot’s Indian Bible is written, the language which has been spoken in New England who shall say how long?  These were the sounds that issued from the wigwams of this country before Columbus was born.”   I’m also thinking of Ibos arriving in South Carolina in Paule Marshall’s Praisesong for the Widow.   And, most of all, in tribute to Stuart Hall, the Jamaica maroons in Maryse Condé’s I Tituba, Black Witch of Salem.

Vernacular modernity could be precolonial as well as postcolonial, no?

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