Tuesday, May 5, 2009

Charting the Emotional Landscape


Following the death of my father from metastatic lung cancer in 1991 (he had never smoked a cigarette), my relationship to language changed.

For decades I had forced it to carry the weight of my various frustrated angers, starting with the early poems of Mad Dog Black Lady (reprinted in African Sleeping Sickness). The contradiction inherent in the title of that first book amused me — being mad yet being polite about it. I wanted to "say it plain" as the dictum goes; but, my penchant for complexities, and admiration for the genuinely profound went artistically unsatisfied. I was constantly seeking a way to lend depth and scope to my poetry — particularly after being criticized for (apparently) writing too easily — something I was unaware of doing, since it may have taken hours of intense focus, a dozen revisions, over years, if lucky, to compose a given poem; although I managed an average of a hundred poems per year, in various stages of completion. (This does not rule out other types of writing experiences, such as the "automatic" and "being in the zone." Yet I'd hesitate to classify work emerging from those experiences as "easy.")

How, I wondered, does a poet make one's effort evident without putting the reader to sleep? How could I sustain my stubborn purpose and volcanic content without resorting to a traditional form, which might deaden my text in its familiarity? How do I invite the reader into the process, and yet "lock" my language? How do I present familiar emotional content in an unfamiliar form? How do I vent my fury, exuberance or love, all of those, and yet transcend it / them in the same extended moment?

Even as I asked such questions, my answer was coming about on its own — related to my childhood encounters with music (which I discussed in The Riot Inside Me), with an emphasis on the classical music taught in junior high school, coupled with my adult appreciation of the blues and jazz. I had always loved the minor keys, discordance and the contrapuntal as generators of musical ironies — and enjoyed their counterparts in elevated conversation and cultural dialogue. What knitting of a comprehensive musically inclined whole (akin to collage, perhaps pieces of Pound’s Cantos wiggling around in my subconscious and tripping across Theolonious) from fragments, the overheard, snippets of ideas, combined in unexpected ways, offered exciting, challenging and unexpected poetic leaps? My answer was the fugue. In it, one finds the discipline of structure wedded to the freedom of movement. When I went back and examined some of my longer poems, such as "Essay on Language" (6/86, in Heavy Daughter Blues), I realized that I had already begun exploring my version of the fugue.

Since, I've managed to compose five fugues. The playful "The Ron Narrative Reconstructions," a nod to poet Ron Silliman (in Bathwater Wine), was my first fully realized fugue, and was written in January 1995. "Salvation Wax" (10/95, also Bathwater Wine), was the third, the most biographical, and, I think, the most important of the fugues, the longest poem I have written to date; however, the last one, "Amnesia Fugue" (4/99), which appears in Mercurochome, has become my favorite. In these fugues, I am doing what was wished for in Hand Dance (performing 'the ritual of the whole . . . shaping a certainty'), as suggested in the form of the poems "ethiopian in the fuel supplies," "Essay on Language (2)," "Vet" and "Cancer" — poems in which I explore the "shattered narrative."

The series is completed with "Night Widow Fugue" (9/97), my homage to unmarried / unloved Black women of all ages. It is wed to "Sorceress of Muntu" (5/73), the first of the fugues drafted, but which remained unfinished until its revision in August 1997. In it, I pitch a royal bitch about my frustrated "writing career." I had intended to use "Sorceress" as the title poem of a separate manuscript; however, the phrases it apparently "needed" for completion had failed to materialize. I had tried fitting it into other manuscripts, but it overwhelmed them. In Ostinato Vamps (University of Pittsburgh Press) it is not only a perfect fit, but an exquisite climax. It equals "Amnesia" as my favorite of the fugues.

For the years between “Salvation Wax” and “Amnesia Fugue”, I favored the older work. Their common theme is the death of my eldest son from HIV / AIDS. In the first, he is dying. In the second he is dead. As time passes, the latter holds more emotional weight, therefore more impact. It is difficult for me to read it. I often present sections of "Salvation" in public; rarely so with "Amnesia," perhaps because there is still too much painful immediacy in its narrative. Too much sadness.

Will I write another fugue?


The series seems to have ended itself. It’s as if I’ve exhausted the need that created these poems. I don’t know the definitive answer, although I wish I had the luxury of time to worry it onto paper. In the meantime, I regard the fugue as a remarkable way in which to recreate given moments, explore new impulses, expand aesthetic arguments, and refine one’s emotional content in the process of composing the poem. It is a form for those who delight in deepening revelations.

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