What is “avant-garde poetry”? is a question long on answers, if short on consensus. On the one hand, the notion of the avant-garde is invariably seen as a historical category. The history of modernism and the authority of certain authors converge here in a kind of hermeneutic presumption, as if the meanings and values of both constituted readymades. The avant-garde poet emerges as a figure (invariably male, invariably white) that history and culture no longer need to put in question. But on the other hand, those European and American avant-gardes posed a question about the relation between the reading and practice of poetry that goes beyond the category of the avant-garde itself. If certain forms of poetry can now be so easily decoded or read as avant-garde, then clearly the culture industry and the historical avant-garde are now analogous. But somehow if a discrepancy between poetry and the culture industry in part defines what it means to write experimental poetry, then perhaps the very notion of the ‘avant-garde’ is no longer relevant. It is as if the category of the ‘avant-garde’ now inheres in such an anachronistic sense of form and value that it escapes reflection, and so is no longer adequate to the very notion. How can this gap be overcome?
When one turns to black avant-garde writers and poets, these impasses (at the level of definition) are inadequate. In the history of black avant-garde poetics, the aestheticization of the term avant-garde was invariably seen as a shibboleth: that is, a refusal to think what the alienation of human being in the modern era was made of. Aimé Césaire was very aware of the dangers of conflating poetic form with hermeneutic readymades – as, for example, in modernist racist discourse, which both historicized and aestheticized race as sentiment and meaning (traces of which can be seen in all white modernist authors). But the double sense of form on which Césaire insists indicates that avant-garde poetry and radical politics are not the same, and that we must explore the productivity of their relation without reducing either to presupposed concepts or categories. The problem is that in the scholarship of modernism and the reading practices which have now become commonplace, black experimental form has itself become a readymade in the marketplace of modernist content, which is precisely why contemporary black avant-garde poetry is only read (often very badly) insofar as it resembles the old modernist boudoir, or imitates the avant-garde’s wishful resembling of its own lost discrepancy.
Amiri Baraka, theorist of black musical and political form, revolutionized how we should understand their relation by suggesting – after years of close study of black music – that chiasmus rather than dialectic was the exact form of black avant-garde poetry. This was avant-garde criticism with a capital A, but only in an existential and analogical sense. In fact, Césaire was much more radical and expressed his insights into revolutionary black poetry via a language of the unconscious in which syntax rather than lexis, non-sense rather than sense takes precedent. His belief was that in order to be modern (and in a way which is never simply, or historically, avant-garde) the black poet had to become a scientist of the marvelous in which radical unintelligibility is not so much the exception as the rule. Césaire’s immense productivity consists in creating a poetry of events that does not have form or content as its end, but is rather the pursuit of their irremedial alienation. Instead of claiming, as the various European avant-gardes did while reading Marx, say, or Freud, that he was producing a new dialectics (of culture, or meaning), Césaire claimed that poetic production was productive because it consumed knowledge. Or rather–that it was the ‘poetic’ itself that was productive, often against the express conscious and political wishes of the poet. As Césaire explains in his famous letter to Maurice Thorez:
I’m not going to confine myself to some narrow particularism. But I don’t intend either to become lost in a disembodied universalism. . . . I have a different idea of a universal. It is a universal rich with all that is particular, rich with all the particulars there are, the deepening of each particular, the coexistence of them all.
I can think of no better statement of why black avant-garde poetry should not be reduced to the usual modernist dilemma of aesthetics versus politics, or why its attentiveness to richly diverse modes of being should not be seen for what it is, i.e., a politics of the word defined by an incessant fidelity to creative negation. If this is a fidelity which can too easily be appropriated by the forces of cultural industrial control, that is because the value of its creation coincides with the terrible universal insecurity that is both its origin and truth, but one that also defines how each particular gives on to the world a newly embodied universal which provides for and bears along its own richness of meaning. As a result, Césaire remains for me the incomparable world-historical producer of black poetic form and one who continues to haunt.
ESKIMO (AFTER WILEY)
And once again this wedge is my
hypothesis, for what is denied isn’t
a true beginning, and what you
see below isn’t an answer,
or a final step, but truth’s living
flesh being hacked to pieces.
But then that’s poetry’s falsehood.
And at the end of these words
I will ask you endless questions
for hours and hours on end
taking turns to write or yell
accusations, and I will tell you
the proof of what happened,
and with this confession
you will be unable to contradict
or resist me, or turn back from the rim
of remembrance, and thus return to the dim
constellations of memory.
And you will forget what you did,
and I will take you to
the grey zones where all the bones are buried.
A hunger should be cold
cut with shards of catastrophe.
A tsunami that simply refuses to die where bush fires
go out, and tidal waves recede,
waiting for the rescuers to arrive. It’s the end of virtue;
a slag-heap of the endlessly perishable,
a lake where thought itself, neither slough nor swale,
drags us down into darkness.
Because every ‘might’ve’ should be hard, relentless,
as indifferent to the surrender that wants no part
as to the desire that asks for it
for they are both the same—
I will show you what happened
the night before your innocence,
when what might have been
was just one of those days when truth is forfeit,
and what happens is itself already damaged,
and it’s hard to decide whether the most guilty
is the one who runs away,
or the one who spends every day
in thrall to the sanctuary of forgiveness
because he’s already erased all traces?
Go on then go on then, try me if ya name’s man.
And once again truth is held up as a threat,
and I will look at you
during a pause in the interrogation,
and soon it will be your turn again, and there will be
no restraint in the cells when the little one wanders away
and black as death the conquest.
And I will hear your screams again,
and during the beatings
the words ‘I wasn’t there, I wasn’t there’
will return like skiffs already covered over by banks of chromatic rain
in a vast sea of heartlessness—
and your lips will seek another hearing,
and you will listen to the tapes silent, but horrified.
And the wish not to be pagan,
head bowed, wrecked by humiliation,
sent scuttling back to the island
and to the waters that should never
have been stepped in, and the body
which all year long has been the source of the sun’s empty interrogation,
and you will admit to the dead no sacrifice.
And I will ask you once again,
and you will look at me and see
my pupils burning with sunlight and fire,
and your eyes looking at me will see
why sacrifice of the dead is the only thing that matters
even though all that will be saved are dungheaps.
And all of us blinded as we head back to the blue,
the ice-fall and snows,
the avalanche and glaciers that bury you also.
Man knows he will never escape
and so walks on the beach anonymous: was this the intricate, blank sun?
Will the guards look after me, bring me lunch, as I am,
or are they just waiting to leave again? The bars
are overflowing and dangerous, each incident must be met with a chill
forbearance in the noonday sun, then massaged
as flaccid, dingy outlines net each pilgrim.
Only then does everything pass down to extinction
down there, as each journey opens with hope, and thought
enters the great, carnal round of beginning, sun-blinded,
its naming programmed in neon, your confession an epic
that takes in the whole world, now, but a homecoming,
a reunion, with no one to sing the story or knit its arrival.
And even the oracle rages for its lack of vision
to bet on the thing that never happens but always will.
Slowly it dawns, in the clubs and lobbies.
The sun is fate. The clue lies in how it takes shape in the kiosks
the glare of immortality, and none the wiser for seeing it.
And the thought that life is but a shadow
falls like guano across the most famous landmark on the island,
but it was only the body of a dog petrified once more
tales of what happens, and the fear of what fails to etched into our travels.
The police take up their places. Near but far and always waiting
to explore every inch of the island, looking for temporary truths amid the locals,
finally all those inebriated with thoughts of death & glory.
And a new song emerges from all the rapturous things on earth,
the bars, the cafes, the grey stucco houses and storefronts
the sanious delirious bruise of an island, and all the waves
versions of waves flattened under the sea’s immense weight.
The tides taking us farther and farther out,
where we flounder, lost in what we will & don’t know, that no sea dispels.
Sometimes at night they come back,
So earnestly pleading,
Each in white parading at the centre of snowstorms.
How I envy their elaborate need to speak.
To go walking where no one goes.
To be pinned down. The clocks
Begin to dream at 3am and they’ re in holiday mood.
The bed is shaking again, bathed in pig latin & pea soup,
Waiting for the screaming-mad
To plunge into a rose-coloured girl’s mouth.
Fuck me Jesus! We don’t need to do it yet!
Once they saunter in you can see them
For what they are actresses in flares and mini skirts,
Priests playing at a piano, drink trays carried by Nazis,
All turn there, a legion finally home to a child waving.
They are the gap through which nothing existed,
When being was it. The day may not remember them,
But night certainly does, as the most resilient once life
Has ended, viewed from hotel corridors, or snow-hanging woods.
And hidden among them, yet quite different,
The same malice-voiced marionette,
That one night touches us we sleep, tormenting
Us as we dream, the mirror we step through into existence.
SEXTS FROM THE ROYAL INFIRMARY
The body lies in its boredom and shit: desire
roots through the interstices, between vacant stares and a word
that reminds us
of the whole echoing loveliness —
like attending the wedding of two strangers
locked into a kind of passionless divorce
that is also the acceptance of a life-altering, unforgiving love.
Still, what comes and goes
are thoughts that lay the body bare, sort of,
in the form of mutual non-acceptance
that won’t be embarrassed by what no longer defines them.
The terms are no longer those of closure or revelation,
but maybe those of an open ended feeling
that, prior to being open, was neither open nor conclusive,
but a kind of crude margin
that shadows every human thing.
Think of an actor who knows,
deeply flushed, that he’s about to be kicked out of a crowded theatre,
and that will be the biggest punchline of his career.
You are not what you seem,
for what you are is enclosed.
A flock of fledglings alight on the balcony, and of course, the too
discover, by chance, the rim of evidence
before their bodies can even formulate it,
though the arc of loss and learning is theirs alone.
Seeming is not how life enters the world, nor how it becomes.
I speak to you, and your eyes
move swiftly along a train of thought —
but something gets in the way,
something pertaining to you voids the hunter
tracking through drifts against the winter cold
before the quick thrill of capture, or is that the stabbing-shuddering thought
wedded to a god, though admittedly he can always escape through transformation.
Seeing you just lying there was hard, I admit,
for how one lies is always the final poser
whether it be the ecstasy of desire
or the death that turns one over so to speak, as is customary on such occasions.
That would be neither hope, nor presumably, knowledge,
but merely a kind of impenetrable usage
that has grown old with the thought of itself, yet remains resonant in its ongoing beauty.
D.S. MARRIOTT | DUPPIES
LONDON MATERIALS 2017