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Sunday, December 21, 2014

Reading Rudolph Lewis

Reading a Poem by Rudolph Lewis at Winter Solstice

Good readings are sometimes governed by iconoclasm, the smashing of established gestures of decoding.  A reader just walks out of the prison built by guardians of culture; she or he discards mindcuffs and explores; he or she discovers the wilderness is more intellectual than the glacial chambers in palaces of wisdom, the prisons of correctness.  Despite probable errors of misreading, the reader’s sense of being independent is rewarding.

When I first read the typescript of Rudolph Lewis’s Mockingbirds at Jerusalem, I felt that I was discovering traces of unbridled creativity.  The most important features of his craft and craftsmanship were derived from paying more attention to life rhythms than to treatises on prosody and monographs on how to write a poem.  The bane of much contemporary poetry is disingenuous professionalism. What does it profit a poet to achieve technical brilliance without fire?  Lewis has mastered fire and artistry.

After reading the published version of Mockingbirds at Jerusalem (Pikesville, MD: Black Academy Press, 2014), I have rediscovered “Defying Raging Night,” one of several touchstones in the book.  Lewis has the discipline needed to write such fresh, engaging villanelles as “The Thrill Is Gone: A Blues Villanelle” and “Get Up Dead Man: Blues Villanelle #2.”  I am attracted more, however, his playing a riff on the formality of the villanelle by invoking the blues in “Defying Raging Night.”  The poem is a defiant tribute to Dylan Thomas’s masterpiece “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night,” a tribute that confirms the rightness of Thomas’s general imperatives to resist the inevitable by displacing them with specific, burning recognitions from African American blues ethos.  Thomas inspires. Lewis empowers.  Lewis demonstrates that fixed poetic structures can be unfixed to one’s advantage.

Lewis’s achievement in this poem depends on cultural literacy, a reader’s ability to grasp allusions: “in ancient cypress swamps” ---James Weldon Johnson; “ringing insect sounds affirmed” ---Richard Wright; “I’ve known black wonders”---Langston Hughes. Place names evoke knowledge of African geography and scenes of ethnic language creation as well as genocide—Bukavu, Lake Kivu, Goma, Grand Marché, and Kongo. A genuine reading of “Defying Raging Night” absorbs a reader, uniting her or him with the lyric persona as a Middle Passage survivor who can know “black wonder soothing enough to/write letters in hope of a Mockingbird spring.” 

The poems in Mockingbirds at Jerusalem are aesthetic tools for building something positive and as yet unknown during winter in America.  Read.  Use the tools Rudolph Lewis has given us to increase our collective ability to resist ignorant armies that clash in raging night.  Read. Build critical independence.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                                            December 21, 2014

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Reading 2015


Having abandoned the bad faith of making New Year’s Resolutions, I am determined in 2015 to pursue three priorities:




The trio demands specialized kinds of reading.  2014 produced increased awareness of Cosmic Evil, of the international insanity that Cosmic Evil makes its primary work, and of the domestic insanity in European genocide, rape, and dispersal of indigenous peoples that is the origin of what is now called the United States of America. Using the bodies of Africans as objects of commerce is a nasty feature of American history; nastier still is the complicity of certain Africans, educated by an Arab slave trade, in supporting demeaning trafficking with human lives. The vulgar outcome is that Americans in 2014 are enslaved by custom, rancid ideologies, criminal passions, Darwinian penchants, and law.

 America’s history is stamped SNAFU.  Its contemporary chapters are written by people of no-color.  They are fully aware that theirs is a dying race in the global scheme of things.  Inspired by Cosmic Evil, they work feverishly to lay the groundwork of World War III and the near-total end of human and animal life on this planet and the dawn of post-whatever everything.  People of no-color may indeed succeed with generous help from a minority of Islamic demons and other beings who dance the militarized police foxtrot and procreate with Satan. One must be prepared for anything.

I have not abandoned hope that the story can end differently, but I have profound reservations about the efficacy of hope as an abstraction.  Some narcotics are not worth ingesting.

The reading plan for the first months of 2015 includes rereading W. Keorapetse Kgositsile’s essay “I Know My Name” [The Black Position, No. 3 (1973): 60-69], Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed, Henry Giroux’s Border Crossings: Cultural Workers and the Politics of Education,  Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus, Antony Easthope’s Literary Into Cultural Studies,  Friedrich Nietzsche’s The Birth of Tragedy, Richard Wright’s The Color Curtain, Lucien Goldmann’s The Human Sciences and Philosophy, Origins of Terrorism, edited by Walter Reich,  Karl R. Popper’s The Open Society and Its Enemies, Aimé Césaire’s Return to My Native Land, and Floyd W. Hayes’s “The Paradox of the Ethical Criminal in Richard Wright’s Novel The Outsider: A Philosophical Investigation,” Black Renaissance Noire 13.1 (2013): 162-171.

Such revisiting, as it were, of old friends will strengthen me to grapple with such works as the Dao De Jing,  In the Wake of Hurricane Katrina: New Paradigms and Social Visions (2010), edited by Clyde Woods,  Thomas Brothers’s Louis Armstrong’s New Orleans (2006) and Black Gold: An Anthology of Black Poetry (2014), edited by Ja A. Jahannes.   All of this is reading to inform my writing of READING RACE READING AMERICA: SOCIAL AND LITERARY ESSAYS, a book I may finish and publish before my burial.  Wish me luck.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            December 18, 2014

Monday, December 15, 2014

Bob Kaufman's Necessary Poem

Bob Kaufman’s Necessary Poem

Like Countee Cullen, you must doubt not that God is good, well-meaning, and kind.  Omnipotent in mercy, God is eternally watching and listening. If you are a hard-shell, titanium-plated Christian, you believe. Period.
Nevertheless, you ought not wear out your welcome with incessant knocking on heaven’s door and 24/7 requests that the Lord should resolve a problem that you can manage with help from poems by Bob Kaufman, Wanda Coleman, Walt Whitman, Amiri Baraka, Howard Nemerov,  Langston Hughes, Sonia Sanchez,  Lucille Clifton and a thousand other American poets.   Chinese philosophy, empirical evidence paid for with your tax dollars, and Einstein’s general and specific theories of relativity can also be of some assistance.  No, poems do not solve problems.  Poems put you in a state of mind to think about solutions. This is not a claim that poetry is innately more effective than prose, only that some readers are more stimulated by poetry.
The Old Testament prophet was right: there is a time for everything.  There is a time for torture and terror.  There is a time for beatitude There is a time for violence (racial and non-racial), for post-global insanity, for civility and tolerance, and for revenge. There is a time to be as brutal and dumb as war, and a time to be as still and wise as peace. There is a time for paradox.
 If the atomic clock is accurate, late 2014 is a time for interrogating Kaufman’s beautiful lyric “I Have Folded My Sorrows.” [See Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965.]
When you need the common words to deal with the surreal in 2014, you find them easily in televised Democratic, Independent, Republican and politically unidentifiable noises, in the clamor of those Kaufman identified as “addled keepers of yesterday’s disasters.”  Some of the speakers do employ poetic devices in their speech, but they usually intend to establish the shock of difference.
In reporting or commenting on “the news,” many journalists and pundits seem have a remarkable poverty of understanding that cheap reification of the threadbare “black and white binary” lacks credibility in a world that has many colors. If you want words that have a better claim on being “true” and worthy of communicating serious news rather than slimy distractions,  you have to risk getting them from combat zones created by morally compromised hackers. A safer alternative is to depend on common sense and instructive poetry.
Kaufman’s “I Have Folded My Sorrows” is designed to enlighten.  He begins the poem with a conceit of fictive truth:
I have folded my sorrows into the mantle of summer night,
Assigning each brief storm its allotted space in time,
Quietly pursuing catastrophic histories buried in my eyes.
Six lines later, Kaufman asserts “Blues come dressed like introspective echoes of a journey,” thereby establishing that an essentially American music can sponsor rational thought. The next three lines, marked by the anaphoric “And yes, I,” speak of searching “the rooms of the moon,” of refighting “unfinished encounters” although they “remain unfinished,” of wishing to be “something different.”
The poem ends with a poignant couplet:
The tragedies are sung nightly at the funeral of the poet;
The revisited soul is wrapped in the aura of familiarity.

Does the initial “I” refer to Kaufman the poet, to a persona he constructed as a supreme authority, or to you the reader?  If you allow the lines to activate full affect, you can identify your existence in 21st century “catastrophic histories.”  It is a mark of your intelligence to refuse to have your identity named by others, even by others who are said to look like you. Your intellectual soul can select its own society.
As you wrestle with Kaufman’s form and content, do memories of then link up with your ongoing awareness of now? Does a critical unification occur? Can the spatial and temporal patterns of a problem (or many problems) begin to give you greater focus and agency?  If you can honestly say “Yes” to each question, you have begun the work of determining what individual and collective solutions will be. Kaufman’s necessary poem has helped you to elect your destiny. Even if you absolutely reject theological narratives, you will have made a crucial choice in folding your sorrows.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            December 15, 2014

On a novel by Caryl Phillips

On a Novel by Caryl Phillips

Phillips, Caryl. Cambridge. London: Bloomsbury Publishing Ltd., 1991; London: Vintage, 2008.

Toni Morrison’s Beloved deftly exposes the psychology of enslavement in North America, but it is Dessa Rose by Sherley Anne Williams that succeeds best in exposing the narratological features of a female slave’s “story,” namely the verbal strategies she uses to retard the extent to which her story (herstory vs. history) can be stolen.  Caryl Phillips, however, ought to be valued as much as Williams and Morrison from the angle of post-colonial witnessing.  In his novel Cambridge, he “films” the tragic irony of the metanarrative of the enslaver and the enslaved, bringing to fiction what Hegel brought to philosophy.

Morrison, Williams, and Phillips inscribe the space of slavery in the so-called New World.  That space, or actually what is a remembered space-time continuum, also includes time-management in Margaret Walker’s Jubilee and Gayl Jones’s Corregidora.  Walker and Jones sharpen views of how novels on slavery overflow generic boundaries and conventions; their novels are glosses on the phenomenology of slavery in human histories.  The spectacle of shared responsibility regarding the multi-layered “Other” in the production of identity riddles, paradoxes, and dilemmas. We gaze on the “Other” as an ancient entity that has newly migrated from Chaos to Reality. And our gaze establishes proof that we are looking at nothing.

Phillips’s special contribution to the mimesis of the absurdly absent is his excellence in dealing with dialogic imagination.  He enables language to penetrate slavery’s dark shadows.

Phillips is meticulous in recovering 19th century British English in several registers throughout the linked parts of Cambridge: 1) Emily Cartwright’s journal of her visit to her father’s West Indian plantation is a travelogue that doubles as both a treatise  on animal nature and as a “blind” confessional memoir regarding abolitionist yearnings; 2) the slave Cambridge’s autobiographical justification of revenge, so resonant of Equiano’s narrative and Nat Turner’s disputed confession; 3) the feature story by an unnamed journalist which details Cambridge’s murder of “a person by the name of Brown.” Brown, the overseer of the estate which belonged to Emily’s father is, one must guess, the father of the bastard to which the very proper Emily gives birth.  Thus, the newspaper story is a public deposition for the enlightenment of colonial slave-owners.  The narrator’s Prologue and Epilogue frame the white female and black and white male gendering of story.  Phillips uses his excellent mimetic skills to reveal the twisted psychology and ethics of the always already fallen world made by the enslaved and the enslavers.  Cambridge is one of the finest examples of the purpose post-colonial fictions serve.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.            December 15, 2014

Saturday, December 13, 2014

Literary Crime and Punishment

I believe you do remember a scene from the 1971 film of Anthony Burgess's dystopian novel A Clockwork Orange, the scene where the young criminal Alex is strapped in a chair and forced to watch hours and hours of violent, graphic films. What a lovely bit of British black humor, of an objective correlative of the Old Testament, of violent salvation.  Let us dream a political scene of American white humor: all of our senators and representatives are forced to endure aversion therapy. Strapped in hard Puritan chairs, they wear headgear that does not allow their eyes to blink.  They are forced to watch Pier Paola Pasolini's film Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom.  They are forced to watch the film twice before they are released. The film is a pornographic monstrosity, a very Italian bit of red humor.  The film is, as Francesco W. M. Palmieri noted inLiberazione, October 2005, "the erotic spasm of a diabolical angel."

I remember that when I discussed Pasolini and Salo very briefly with James Baldwin many years ago that we agreed that Pasolini had crossed a moral line of no return, a soul-murdering line.  In the Age of Cosmic Evil, it would be a fine gesture of post-human justice to compel our politicians to watch themselves and regurgitate "the pleasure of corruption."  They might emerge from the experience as paragons of patriotic justice.  As our nation goosesteps into Armageddon, we should dream. 

Jerry W. Ward, Jr. 
December 13, 2014

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

The C.I.A. Report

Affairs of the State
Bullets lust for flesh
As testy water
Seeks a level to
Torture barley
Into tea.  And things just be
Into tea.  And things just be
 Plagiarizing peanuts
So fine, so free, so fair
As iconic pain
Bleeds blue to bleed,
The ink of treason’s trust.
Bullets’ lust for flesh,
Torment time
Into  tea. And things just be.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    December 10, 2014

Monday, December 8, 2014


Tonight I listened to six women who alleged on CNN that  they had been raped by Bill Cosby.

As I listened to them, I heard the voices of six women who gave birth to proof that they had been raped on slave ships and plantations by Bill ABCXYZ.

What is to be learned from such uncanny experience?

J. W. Ward, Jr.
Decemember 8, 2014