Review: The transcendent field

Harmony Holiday, Hollywood Forever, Fence, $16.95, ISBN 9780986437304
Tyehimba Jess, Olio, Wave, $25, ISBN 9781940696201
Dai George considers the expressive and political power of a hybrid poetics

These two excellent new books – epic, resourceful, visual, incensed – explode the parameters of modern poetry. Combining prose, lyric, fragments, found text, screenshots, slogans and illustration, they attest to an increasingly vital hybrid poetics evolving on the other side of the Atlantic, in defiance of Trump’s zombie white supremacist politics and the subtler exclusions of the liberal establishment. Their overt subject is black musicality, and the parasitic fascination that white culture has with the talented, entertaining, alien other in its midst. Out of this toxic relationship emerges a condition James Baldwin once diagnosed as “schizophrenic”, where “to be a Black American is in some ways to be born with the desire to be white”. Harmony Holiday excerpts these words opposite a poem titled ‘There is this ambivalence that I must deal with’, whose speaker wonders “if we’re in cahoots with every / oppressor on every side”. In this collusive and painful condition lies a rationale for the hybrid aesthetic, in so far as restless, mutable forms might enact the trauma of a mind divided against itself, caught between assimilation and refusal, patronage and self-determination. Yet paradoxically they might also enable the black voice – or black body – to evade the pigeonholes of a culture that would happily co-opt it. “To enter the transcendent field we started in,” declares Holiday in ‘for dreamers, for drummers’, “you must assimilate those opposites it gazes at, and then you have to testify as them, one by one, alone.”

Hollywood Forever, Holiday’s second full poetry collection after Negro League Baseball (2011), is literally difficult to read. On almost every page the text competes against its backdrop, be that an Ornette Coleman album cover, an Azealia Banks tweet, or a racist poster from the Jim Crow South. These images are as intrinsic to the experience of reading the book as the stark, irregular poems that jut against them. Little effort is made to clarify the font or even to situate it in the foreground, a rebarbative effect that mimics the internet and its hyperreal din. “I couldn’t stop googling mugshots,” begins ‘Recognition Scenes’, over a grainy reproduction of Prince staring blankly at the camera. The poem veers catastrophically from allusions to narcotics addiction, domestic servitude and the commodification of black pop music (“these pills / our pills toppling into sold songs / and mammies on the TV dinner tray in wrong aprons”) to the sudden, oblique vision of a lynching (“Mama is no mulatto / casual swinging from that oak”). These conflations and accelerations are central to the logic of Holiday’s work. A poem will start amid the exploitative junk of the present day, spitting and riffing on what it finds, before a trapdoor opens under it and we’re plunged into a nightmare. Again, this effect seems closely linked to the experience of surfing the net. Images proliferate, links are clicked on; historical trauma springs from the subconscious with the speed of a pop-up window.

This is in many respects a hard, unsentimental book, its voice both wary and weary. It testifies, over and again, to “how lonely it is to overcome ourselves and the / choreographed oppression” (‘Niggas with wings or a luminous continuity’). But against the grotesque choreography of white racism, Holiday asserts an alternative tradition. A trained dancer, she is steeped in a lineage of black musical futurism running from Billie Holiday and Miles Davis – the latter pictured on the front cover, dazed and bloodied after a beating from a cop – through the cosmic jazz of Sun Ra. She knows how to make language move, and has every right to boast that “my body makes the sentences” (‘See how nature can expose a nigga’). Gradually, powerfully – not that it owes anyone this – Hollywood Forever works beyond mere anger, “toward a land where the sun kills questions”. Its final page contains a photograph of a black woman teaching a young black child how to hold a balletic pose. Like this pose, the work of justice may be complex and arduous, but in Holiday’s poetry it moves tantalisingly into focus. The text overlaying the image spells it out: “Reparations begin in the body”.

Tyehimba Jess, whose second collection Olio recently won a Pulitzer Prize, employs hybrid strategies to less directly confrontational effect. Where Holiday sparks a riot between text and image, challenging her reader to pick out each element against the intrusive noise of the other, Jess curates a signposted gallery where greater emphasis is placed on the traditional lyric virtues of silence and white space. The collection’s epigraph defines “olio” first as “a miscellaneous mixture of heterogeneous elements”, but then also in a more targeted sense, as “the second part of a minstrel show which featured a variety of performance acts”. At a time when hybridity often seems to equate, in itself, to an act of emancipation or resistance, this comes as an uncomfortable reminder that people of colour have long had the variety of their art burlesqued for racist purposes. Jess’s Olio draws on vaudeville-era language with a historical irony whose queasy frisson can hardly be misunderstood. One sequence has as its header:

ALL COONS LOOK ALIKE TO ME!
A Chant of Merry Coon Song Melodies
GUARANTEED! ALL TITLES HISTORICALLY ACCURATE!
GUARANTEED!

This is clever rather than just brutally effective satire, however, because of the way it reaches forward to implicate the modern reader. With their claim that all song titles in the list that follows are “historically accurate”, these lines prompt us to examine how easily an enlightened interest in the past can tip over into dangerous appropriation. White people have a deep history of obsessing over, cataloguing and trying to rescue the authenticity of black popular culture, and Olio lures one into colluding with that tradition. Replete with appendixes, pullout sections and interviews, it presents its materials with an archivist’s meticulous élan.

Jess’s difficult task is to recreate the lost voices of real people, born in the Antebellum and Reconstruction South, while honouring their original dignity and autonomy of expression. Broadly he rises to this challenge, establishing a form – the ‘syncopated sonnet’ – that allows for impressive, polyvocal range. At times the formal inventiveness masks a fairly traditional, even sentimental lyric register, as in ‘Millie and Christine McKoy’, the opening poem in a sequence about two conjoined twins who were carted around the South as part of a travelling freak show. Admirably, Jess tries to listen for the interior voices of these women, and to explore via the indeterminacy of his form how those voices might have intertwined and answered one another. Their imagined language strikes me as problematically picturesque – Jess relies on phrases such as “our hearts’ syncopated tempo” and “we’re fused in blood and body – from one thrummed stem” – but the cumulative effect of these performances is persuasive and moving. At the end of the sequence Jess recombines the five McKoy Twins sonnets in a fold-out supplement with the ogling language of the freak show blazoned on the outside flap (“step right up ladies and gents boys and gals and see the two headed nightingale the McKoy Twins”), while inside we find Jess’s five original poems arrayed as the points and centre of a ‘Syncopated Star’. Far from a gimmick, the novel formatting unlocks a new intensity in the verse, allowing the poems – and, by extension, the sisters – to speak in private, strengthened by solidarity. It’s a solution that typifies an ingenious collection, whose author has the grace, the modesty, and the moral imagination to sing in service to the lives of others.

Dai George’s first book was The Claims Office (Seren, 2013). This review was first published in The Poetry Review, 107:4, Winter 2017. © The Poetry Review and the author.