Frank Bidart, Half-Light, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2017
Gabrielle Calvocoressi, Rocket Fantastic, Persea, 2017
Patricia Smith, Incendiary Art, Triquarterly, 2017
Tyehimba Jess, Olio, Wave Books, 2016
Reviewed by Jason Myers
LOVELY IN LIMBS: THE BODY IN CONTEMPORARY POETRY
"To be in any form, what is that?"
—Walt Whitman, Song of Myself
Recently I was party to a conversation about symbolism in the stained glass windows of churches. The symbol in question was one Robert Lee of Virginia, most commonly identified by his middle initial, E. I guess I should not have been surprised that parishioners in Austin, Texas would wish to gaze upon his likeness as they purported to worship one who would have called Lee, charitably, a viper and a hypocrite. The conversation raised necessary questions of representation: whose faces do we see in our public spaces, and whose are absent, invisible? "What art man that Thou art mindful of him?" the Psalmist by way of King James asked. "Christ plays in ten thousand places,/Lovely in limbs, and lovely in eyes not his," Gerard Manley Hopkins responded.
Several recent poetry collections have addressed limbs, eyes, etc. in all their beauty, oddity, complexity, and mystery. The winner of the 2017 National Book Award, Frank Bidart, has been the great poet of incarnation for the last forty years, as Halflight, his collected poems, demonstrates. In persona poems like "Herbert White" and "Ellen West," Bidart inhabits the bodies of a serial killer and an anorexic woman, finding in these extreme pathologies analogies for the anxieties, desires, and memories that haunt everybody. His extraordinary 1977 collection, The Book of the Body, begins with a long poem, "The Arc," in which the speaker has had an arm amputated. This is a brilliant way of rendering the body at once tangible and ineffable, a there and a not-there, form and deformity. The poem ranges from clinical descriptions of how to care for the 'stump' to meditations on Michelangelo: 'spirit/implicating itself in matter, only able to know itself/by what it has done in Time, —' the capitalized time, followed by comma and dash, suggest both enormity and limitation. A few stanzas later the speaker 'whispered that my body was bound by two iron dates...'
Death, which Wallace Stevens called the mother of beauty, lurks in nearly every one of these poems, and not an abstract or theoretical death, but bodies, in all their vulnerability, decadence, and foetor, dying. Bidart writes of his deceased parents: '(now that they have no/body, only when I have no body//can we meet—)'. The line/stanza break does marvelous work here, allowing the reader to consider the poet's, and his own, mortality, to pause, mortified, considering what Bidart will name later in the poem as 'reconciliation with the body that is/annihilation of the body.'
Beginning in 1990, along with shorter poems, Bidart has dedicated himself to a project spanning several collections under the canopy of "The Hours of the Night." "The First Hour of the Night" appears at the end of In the Western Night, "The Second Hour" at the end of Desire, "The Third Hour" concludes Star Dust, and "The Fourth Hour" takes up 40 pages of newly collected poems, just before "Radical Jesus" and "Visions at 74" at the very end of Half-Light. It would be impossible to do work of such breadth and scope justice in this essay; suffice it to say that the ideas and experiences that inform Bidart's poetry—reckoning with the past, understanding violence, fulfillment of erotic longing (specifically same-sex desire, and the satisfactions and shames that attend said fulfillment and said longing: 'wound and balm' as he puts it at the beginning of "The First Hour"), the body in conflict and resolution with the mind, carnage American and otherwise, hunger as both natural process and pathology—find some of their most moving expression in this magisterial long poem.
In monastic traditions, Christian and otherwise, hours are observed with reverence and repetition of prayers, chants, songs intended to liberate the self from what Bidart describes as 'one/anxiety following another, —'. The Christian practice of observing or praying the hours is linked to the notion of vigil, keeping watch for the return of Christ. That isn't exactly the vigil Bidart keeps in his Hours of the Night; rather, he seeks to answer Whitman's question, 'To be in any form, what is that?' His poem, which I hope will continue to accumulate hours, can be read as a response to Whitman's "The Sleepers." Bidart, too, wanders all night in his vision. If, for Whitman, 'the myth of heaven indicates peace and night,' for Bidart the myth indicates night and restlessness. The relentless search for form, the convolutions of syntax and typography, the effort to make, on the page, a testament to what cannot be reduced to language but must be articulated through language, is rendered, most succinctly, in the final poem of the book, "Visions at 74," in a single line: 'You are an hypothesis made of flesh.'
Gabrielle Calvocoressi, testing this hypothesis in her third collection, Rocket Fantastic, has invented a way of representing a body without gender on the page—or perhaps it would be more appropriate to say that the symbol she uses, like the one Prince adopted as his name, suggests a multiplicity, maybe even an infinity of genders. When Calvocoressi reads her riveting Bandleader poems, she utters the symbol as a galvanic intake of breath. In a recent interview with Rachel Zucker, Calvocoressi acknowledged that this aural quality originates in anxiety, from a panic attack, but can also conjure erotic or other interpretations.
Calvocoressi writes: 'I am on my hands and knees/and begging for whose//or I am unsure if § exists./What art. § is an elm//in every season and also/is the firmament.' In these lines the Bandleader is Lover and Beloved, I and Thou, an amorphous being at once panentheistic and nonexistent. The two words, 'what art,' are both an exclamation and a question, as in, "how cool," and also, "what art man that Thou art mindful." The body in these poems is supple, surprising, subject as well as object, call and response, traversing a wide range of forms. The Bandleader is likened to a clearing, an eight point stag, foxes and wolves, doves with their curved necks, the grass starting to shake, medals, a samovar, snow covering a wolf's tracks, a thousand pages read across the endless plains, and a Blue God. Calvocoressi is a magician of metaphors, pulling them out like so many splendid scarves. The profusion of images and analogies suggests the giddiness of love as well as the struggle to name and transcend limitation, to be in a form without being confined to the form.
'Is the Bandleader a man?' Calvocoressi asks. 'A woman? Am I?' In the collection's arresting first poem, "Shave," we read: 'Yes, I was a lady once but now/I take the blade and move it/slowly past the jugular.' This ominous image evokes the sense of threat, even coming from the self, that arises when someone doesn't answer the above questions 'correctly.' The way a body does not or cannot conform to a hegemonic expectation of what a body ought to be (cisgender, heterosexual, ideally male but if female then white, weighing not too much but not too little either) puts the body in question at risk for ostracism, violence, and ultimately death. Such risks form the subjects in Patricia Smith's Incendiary Art, a title which acknowledges the way fire has been central to black life in America, from James Brown and the Famous Flames to crosses burning across the south, Baldwin's The Fire Next Time and conflagrations in black churches (such conflagrations play an important part in Tyehimba Jess' Pulitzer-winning Olio, about which more later).
Like Zora Neale Hurston, Smith has an imagination at once anthropological, historical, and personal. Many of the poems in Incendiary Art feel like midrash, the desire to expand familiar stories with fresh, more expansive takes. There's something both audacious and harrowing in the series of poems entitled "Emmett Till: Choose Your Own Adventure," in which Smith instructs readers to turn to certain pages if they want the details of Till's story revised. Julius Caesar famously said that victors get to write history, but in the ugly racial past (& present) that is America, as Baldwin noted it can be hard to know who is victor and who is victim. Obviously Till was the victim of the brutal policing of white women's bodies in the south (his torture and murder attributed to his alleged whistling at a white woman), yet his mother's insistence that America see what had been done to him (which, as much as Rosa Parks' sitting and Dr. King's preaching, set in motion the Civil Rights movement), and Smith's reclamation of such horror through art, are victories.
A later series, titled "When Black Men Drown Their Daughters," captures loss in language lavish and bracing: 'She doesn't/realize the hard questions she poses for pigeons/or how, so dull and stupid with dairy, she is all/the fall the sky can language.' The pathos of these lines is verbal and imagistic, a moment of truth and a moment of art. Smith makes the helplessness of children sacred and terrifying. Hers is a generous gift, akin to Mamie Till's; in leading us to see each body, she rescues them from being mere statistics, giving them, and us, what Shakespeare called 'a local habitation and a name.' Incendiary Art concludes with a stunning sestina-like poem of tremendous formal and narrative power. Smith described her inspiration to write "Elegy" for her father, murdered when she was a young girl: "I needed to resurrect the man I love most in this world, to have him stand among my family and friends, to have them hear his unleashed laughter, quirky wisdoms and growled blues."
In Olio, Tyehimba Jess resurrects a number of black bodies: some, such as Scott Joplin, Booker T. Washington, and Paul Laurence Dunbar, familiar; others, less so. The title means both hodgepodge and 'a miscellaneous collection (as of literary or musical selections)' as well as 'the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts and later evolved into vaudeville.' Among the chief concerns of Jess in this staggering, 230 page lyric opera, is the performance of blackness. "We wear the mask," Dunbar wrote. As Jess depicts in these various persona poems, prose pieces, etc., the mask can offer both protection and entertainment (which has often served as its own form of protection). He also recognizes that within white supremacist culture, the obsession with blackness expresses itself in terms of both desire and despisal. Hence the odd tradition of blackface, a practice designed both to emulate and humiliate.
In one of the many fold-out sections of Olio, Jess provides "The Witmark Amateur Minstrel Guide," including instructions for "How To Black Up." "Important Instructions" offers advice for minstrel performers seeking to become: 'the imitative or declamatory darkey, whose forte seems to be poetry or recitations; then again, you can have a sleepy, blundering fellow, mispronouncing words and totally at sea concerning etiquette or history' (that last sounds awfully like the fellow Ta-Nehisi Coates has deemed America's First White President). Such writing, documentary and otherwise, makes clear that while W.E.B. DuBois specified the 20th century as the locus for the problem of the color-line, a century can be an arbitrary boundary in a country where race has always been, to greater and lesser degrees, problematic and performative.
The heart of the book is a series of sonnets that present the Fisk Jubilee Singers, an a capella ensemble founded in 1871. 'We boil the air with hallelujah's balm,' Jess writes in the voice of one Fisk singer, Isaac Dickerson. That line conveys both the beauty and the agony of singing, as is true of much black musical tradition, that has come out of suffering and oppression. All the Jubilee sonnets are framed, top and bottom, by the names of churches, followed by a year. The year indicates when that particular church was subject to arson or some other violence. The first church listed is also the last: Mother Emmanuel AME of Charleston, South Carolina.
The quatrain that begins "Jubilee Indigo" might have been posed to Dylann Roof, the tiki-torchers in Charlottesville, the current occupant of the White House: 'How do we prove our souls to be wholly human/when the world don't believe we have a soul?/How do we prove black souls holy and human/when the whole world swears we got no souls?' Jess, like Leadbelly, the subject of his first book ('the velvet locomotive of marrow deep hum/I'd tote up from the swollen center of guitar'), or Scott Joplin, one of the many subjects of this one, has made a joyful noise from troubled material. As he writes of Joplin's music, he's 'Trying to say something older than all of us.' Thank God for poets willing to say things older, and newer, than all of us. They help to acquaint us with our inner iconoclasts, shattering glass that's been stained with violence and lies.