The last year or so have been eventful in American poetry, especially if you follow the conversations, in verse or prose, about race. The blogosphere, and many other spheres, have lit up on several occasions with differing opinions on Who is Right or Wrong, What the Problem of Race is Really About (or its variant, Why do People Have to Keep Bringing this Up). In other words, maybe not so eventful, maybe, The Usual and Familiar, Part Ad Infinitum.
Meanwhile, the last two years have also brought some important new poetry that deals directly with race, including books by Thomas Sayers Ellis, Martha Collins, Evie Shockley, Douglas Kearney, Jake Adam York, and many more. This is from Thomas Sayers Ellis’s “Or,” in Skin, Inc.:
Or Oreo, or
worse. Or ordinary.
Or your choice
or any color
other than Colored
or Colored Only.
Or “Of Color”
While many of these works have been understood for their role as “public” or “political,” I think they, like many artifacts and ideas about race, are more often seen as utopian, or even dystopian (utopia’s mirror image). Since utopia and dystopia are most often dismissed, ignored, or otherwise pigeonholed, poetry about race can be, too. Meanwhile, a whole unmapped, “unthinkable” territory within them beckons.This week in this series of posts I’ll be looking at this beckoning landscape, of the unthinkable, what Audre Lorde so famously described as poetry that “helps us name the nameless…so it can be thought.”
Many so-called utopias have been realized, whether legal utopias, like blacks and women getting to vote, or technological ones, like talking to one another on little TV screens. This has lessened, rather than heightened, the word’s appeal; as utopias become “thinkable,” we distinguish even more between what is predictable or realistic (or, thinkable), and what is pie in the sky,” “wishful thinking” (unthinkable). Of course, there is also the twentieth century’s important contribution to its current meaning. Here is some of Wislawa Szymborska’s poem titled “Utopia,” her ambivalence emblematic of the harsh possibilities of utopia, in this case totalitarianism:
Island where all becomes clear…
The only roads are those that offer access…
The Tree of Understanding, dazzlingly straight and simple,
sprouts by the spring called Now I Get It.
The thicker the woods, the vaster the vista:
the Valley of Obviously.
If any doubts arise, the wind dispels them instantly…
On the left the Lake of Deep Conviction.
Truth breaks from the bottom and bobs to the surface.
Unshakable Confidence towers over the valley.
Its peak offers an excellent view of the Essence of Things...
For all its charms, the island is uninhabited…
Reading poetry about race in a similar way, as either utopian or dystopian, we might see its attempts to show the unthinkable as mere ideas (and Usual and Familiar ones at that), never something embodied or “inhabited.” Of course, when it comes to race, the “unthinkable,” both is different, and weighs differently, on each of us, depending on our skin color and life circumstances. And, perhaps in poetry, the harder question is, How on earth could any of us describe it?
At some point the notion of utopia changed from something that existed in a physical place, as in Thomas More’s “Utopia,” from which the word comes, to something that existed in time, either a future, in which case it would never arrive; or a past, in which case it was already sealed and done.
But the unthinkable isn’t necessarily only in the future or the past---just as the past isn’t necessarily only in the past.
Here is Lucille Clifton’s poem, “Memory:”
ask me to tell how it feels
remembering your mother's face
turned to water under the white words
of the man at the shoe store. ask me,
though she tells it better than i do,
not because of her charm
but because it never happened
no bully salesman swaggering,
no rage, no shame, none of it
i only remember buying you
your first grown up shoes
she smiles. ask me
how it feels.
Reading and listening to the American poetry world’s responses to the events this past year or so, I saw another dimension of the utopian, with many of us illustrating what Adrienne Rich said, about the unthinkable, in “The Phenomenology of Anger,” that “every act of becoming conscious” may at first seem illogical, unreasonable---unthinkable---indeed, “an unnatural act.”
This is reflected in what Theodor Adorno and Ernst Bloch said about this artwork aimed at “something’s missing:” rather than a mere wish-fulfillment or revenge-fantasy, they saw it as a productive, if hard question or critique--an “it-should-be.” Like, what really do emancipated bodies and language look like?Ailish Hopper is the author of Bird in the Head, which was chosen by Jean Valentine for the 2005 Center for Book Arts prize, and recent poems have appeared in APR, Ploughshares, Poetry, Tidal Basin Review and many other places. She has received support from the MacDowell Colony, Vermont Studio Center, and Yaddo. A native of Washington DC, she teaches at Goucher College and lives in Baltimore.