Or, like Groundhog Day: the same show, over and over, with all of us seemingly unaware that we’ve been fed our script or our lines. Fun like ---the abyss.
Here is Polish poet Zbigniew Herbert writing about the abyss, relating his older brother’s appearance, when home after the war:
nothing was left him
we walk together in the streets
and he recites to me
touching my face
with blind fingers of rain
Because we’re not really talking about race, or writing about it, if the abyss, or the absurd, is not somehow nearby, even if it is not in the words, the tone, or the subject. Or, at least, if not, we risk writing about, and probably for, whiteness. Robert Lowell’s Colonel Shaw, in “For the Union Dead,” is “out of bounds” once he leads a “Negro infantry.” He is along the abyss:
Riding on his bubble. He waits
For the blessed
Space is nearer.
It’s always present, of course, but not always noticed, as Kevin Young’s riff on Lowell points out, in “For the Confederate Dead:”
and eye-level a mural runs
the wall, flaking, a plantation
scene most do not see---
Young’s scene represents the closed spaces, in the present and the past, around which we all walk. They hold the unspeakable, the untouchable, the backed-up-in-the-body dichotomy, a dichoto-myelitis that courses through most of our interactions around race—including art. Below, John Lucas shows us an image, an embodiment of this ailment, from Claudia Rankine’s Don’t Let me be Lonely.
Kate Daniels’ “Autobiography of a White Girl Raised in the South,” acutely illuminates this experience, of whiteness, a “profound neurosis that nobody examines for what it is,” as Toni Morrison says:
From the beginning, then, there were always two: me and not-me.
The one I was, white and skinny, straight brown hair. And the one
I wasn’t, but could’ve been---that black or brown girl, hair coarser…
I didn’t even know where she lived, only saw her in public.
Daniels reveals this sense of the color line (“me and not-me”), but, since she’s white, without the structural oppression, she has the option to stay only within her world (“I didn’t even know where she lived”), instead of having to understand and negotiate two worlds, as her black counterparts likely did, to stay safe.
Part of the absurdity in a reparations conversation with many white people, or the illness of whiteness, or white power, is a “But I didn’t know!” or “I’m just saying…” phenomenon, a euphemistic disguise designed to keep the closed spaces closed, and the people who benefit from having to open up their metaphorical “wallet” by expanding their knowledge, or by including, publishing, hiring people who may not look, think, or be like they be.
This is all known, written about in “diversity” conversations, whose own euphemisms are often polished to a high gloss (It’s Not Race It’s Class). None of the actions, or poems, will mean anything if they do not emerge from the real work: for white people to look and see how their own racialized experience, our own internalization of the structures and power of race. Our own use of these euphemisms to defend or avoid, or otherwise let ourselves off the hook. Here are some examples of recent euphemistic disguises, some, my own pet peeves, some, others have pointed out.
In Marjorie Perloff’s recent essay, “Poetry on the Brink,” she critiques the heavy machinery that the creative-writing-education world has become, for its effect on poetry. Like Vendler, she critiques Dove’s anthology for its ignorance of established or agreed-upon aesthetics, saying that “one evidently wants to read her anthology to learn not about American poetry of the twentieth century but about her likes or dislikes.” It is, of course, an interesting charge, since that must be true of every anthology---that it reflects the editor’s likes and dislikes. So, underneath this, stated, accusation seems to be some familiar whiteness-disguises: that it is not really trying to consolidate or hold on to its aesthetic---or material---power; it is “just saying” that that poet, who “happens to be black” isn’t “objective” enough.
This reminded me of a piece that Poets House sent out to all of its members, brought to my attention by Evie Shockley. A humor piece from The New Yorker, it satirically relates news of Poets House’s new building by stringing together faux verse from a collection of poets. Ian Frazier, the writer, is as far as I know a humorist, not a poet, so can be forgiven for not knowing his poetry. But, Poets House, which then sent the piece out to all of its members, probably should know.
The New Yorker’s Poets House piece happened to mention Countee Cullen in one of its faux verses, as follows: “When that evening sun go down/ And come shinin’ right straight in,/ Some special scientific glazing-type thing on the windows---/ ”Rejects solar heat gain.”
Now, there are black poets who used, and use, dialect, and do so proudly. But Countee Cullen, pictured here, (BA, New York University 1925; MA, Harvard University 1926), is the opposite of that poet. And not only do the faux verses use dialect, they depict the black speaker as having a “golly-duh!” attitude about the new solar technology. A lot of us, white and black, might actually feel that way about solar technology, but choosing the black poet to express that plays very unfortunately on longstanding, painful stereotypes. So satirizing Cullen’s verse this way, as sort of a dialect-using bumpkin, is a little like taking this photo of him, and photoshopping onto it rags and a watermelon.
Of course, a “But I didn’t know!” quality of whiteness can be seen in many other kinds of social privilege, when one is so used to one’s advantage, or majority, or basic acceptance by others, that one assumes that one’s audience is generally either comprised of people like oneself, or sympathetic to one’s own ideas. And it appeared in one of the most infamous of the recent race-based Poetry World conflicts, the public letter that Claudia Rankine wrote to Tony Hoagland, and his public letter in response. Here’s a little of the poem that started it, by Hoagland:
some tough little European blonde
pitted against that big black girl from Alabama,
cornrowed hair and Zulu bangles on her arms,
some outrageous name like Vondella Aphrodite—…
I couldn't help wanting
the white girl to come out on top,
because she was one of my kind, my tribe,
with her pale eyes and thin lips
and because the black girl was so big
and so black,
hitting the ball like she was driving the Emancipation Proclamation
down Abraham Lincoln's throat…
Hoagland is, of course, consciously playing with and on stereotypes. But while he knows that’s risky, he doesn’t seem aware (or willing to admit to?) the ways he fails. For one thing, like it or not, we all “speak-as,” and he speaks as a white man, not a black man, or a black woman, which are, of course, very different positions from his. As he announces in his own letter, he clearly knows a lot about the “conditions” of race (euphemism alert: read: “outside of me and my actions”). And though it is understandable that he rejects the stereotype that could be put on him, as white liberal, he ends up enacting that very privilege when he rejects critique, saying, “I want some of my poems to alarm people with their subjects and attitudes. I think poems can be too careful. A poem is not a teddy bear.” Because this doesn’t happen in a vacuum. And pretending that it does expresses the worst kind of white liberal privilege---the opposite, I assume, of what he intended---because it risks implying that there is a Level Playing Field, or, worse, that We are One, when, in fact, we are not one. We are different, and we pay, in life, differently.
However, if different, we are also interconnected, interrelated. And it is this relationship that is the real boldness, the real work, for any poet writing about race. Hoagland’s particular project, which writes in a register that might be called High Sarcastic, and which actively seeks out risky subjects, thus requires an audience’s trust. But, like any other trust, it is something that the poet must earn. As in, acknowledge, and submit himself for the work of, a real relationship. And he refused.
Here’s a line from that same poem that he backgrounded, that I think he should have foregrounded:
Sometimes I think that nothing really changes—
In this lines, and in some other poems from his most recent book, he expresses, however briefly, his own experiences of the abyss. His own bitterness, resignation, his own unanswerable questions. And here’s a word from Rankine’s original letter, which he ignored, but which may be the only one he should have heard:
Had Hoagland engaged in actual dialogue---hearing Rankine’s “please,” acknowledging his own failures---instead of debate about “ideas” like “race” or “complicit with everything” or “America,” we might have glimpsed the real unthinkable, the real undiscovered country.
Since it’s in the body---our physical bodies and our language bodies---how shall a poet rewrite, and not just write, race? How shall we intervene and not merely chronicle, or, worse, end up another player on Race’s bandstand?
What does this undiscovered country look like, when we engage with those gestures, the mysterious gestures of the free?
(Image at the post's beginning: Howardena Pindell, "Separate but Equal: Genocide AIDS, Part 1 & 2")