It’s been 25 years, I’m reminded, since Neon Vernacular won the Pulitzer Prize. I hope you did something to mark the anniversary. My stained and feathered copy, when I tipped it from the shelf, dragged with it a magician’s scarf of memories like the first time I met you in ’97. Major Jackson let me tag along to the campus dining hall for lunch with you when you were in Camden to give a reading. I was terrified and kept my mouth full of chicken tenders, distracted by the swish and thump of the soda machine behind us. Even now, whenever I see you, I suffer a brain fart so incapacitating I can barely manage chatter about teaching schedules and pub dates. But I do have questions. Can I talk to you about Neon Vernacular and double consciousness?
You’re probably sick of this conversation, but it seems to me that—at least not in this book—you’re not actually trying to resolve double consciousness at all, despite this arguably having been the overriding objective of African American poets since Phillis Wheatley. Instead, like Br’er Rabbit, you seem to have embraced that briar patch as a sanctuary and refigured double consciousness as the headwaters of an American surrealist aesthetic. Poets often hang their poems on the hook of some outsourced conflict, contradiction or paradox. You have modified the inward turn of the Confessional poets and given it the clinical bearing of Mamie and Kenneth Clark. Your poems are studies in American social psychology.
For years, I was content to curl around the feet of your poems registering only the seismic disturbances in their subtext. I shrugged off your process as a thing charmed by Erzulie or won haggling at some crossroads. In time, I learned to see them as performative. When they aren’t written in persona, the lion’s share of your work grows out of firsthand experience. Still, masked or not, your speakers have a theatrical quality, a downstage relationship with the reader by which I mean they convey a type of dramatic irony reserved for the autobiographical speaker that I think of as lyric irony.
Lyric irony describes an affect found in first-person oration that makes the poem feel authentic and sincere while simultaneously measured and crafted. A kind of sprezzatura, a kind of cool. Once I saw the daylight between the speakers and the poet, I looked for ways into your poems as myself rather than as some idealized black man from Bogalusa, the son of an illiterate carpenter (you don’t talk about your mom much), whom I’ve superimposed like Forrest Gump on already cinematic fantasies of the Civil Rights movement and the Vietnam War—a process that was no more empathic than the kind of speculation you describe in “Starlight Scope Myopia.”
Viewing the enemy through an infrared scope, you describe guessing at the inner lives of Viet Cong soldiers as they work in the night loading an oxcart. “What are they saying,” you ask. “Are they talking about women / or calling the Americans / beaucoup dien cai dau?,” (which is Vietnamese for “crazy” and the title of one of the books collected in Neon Vernacular). We can’t possibly know what’s in the minds of others. It is the height of condescension to presume to know what someone else is thinking. I do it, of course, in my everyday life, but I try not to make it a habit, especially in my poems. Empathetic reading is in some ways just as bad. It lets me fanboy your text, but empathy requires me only to be passive, open. Tolerant. There’s no effort in empathy, like when people say, “I’m just here to listen.” When I stand on my own—as me—in relation to the text, however, I can participate more actively and appreciate more fully how special Neon Vernacular is within your oeuvre. Your poems allow and require me to stand inside them with their speakers, and adopt a subject position reminiscent of Martin Buber’s I and Thou, but closer to the Rastafarian I and I.
Double consciousness, put simply, is an alienated self-awareness. “This sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others,” as DuBois defines it in The Souls of Black Folk, abstracts the inner lives of African Americans and divides the imagination against itself. If the black self and the white gaze were circles in a Venn diagram, instead of an almond-shaped overlap, we’d find the white gaze eclipsing the black self in varying degrees. DuBois’ symbol for double consciousness is the veil. In reality, as a poet, I can’t actually look at myself through the eyes of others. Whatever others are present in my head when I’m alone at my desk writing, they are only present because I’ve conjured them. Their voices are my own. I am the one who imagines, based on my experience and cultural knowledge, what others are seeing and reading when they see and read me and my work. This is not to discount the very real existence of #BBQBecky and her crew, even the ones armed and in uniform, but to suggest that double consciousness is an inside job.
Readers often praise your work for showing what it means to be a black man in [insert generic spatial-temporal context]. You don’t fancy yourself a racial ambassador in that way, I gather. In interviews you’ve disapproved of writing and interpreting African American literature as a “service literature” made to compensate for gaps and omissions in the literary record (a challenge you do seem to take on in 2004 with Pleasure Dome). Neither are you addressing white supremacy explicitly because to do so would require you to dredge from inside your imagination the sedimentary dung that is the American racist imagination, a process which, unless you’re writing poetry that simplifies the world to good and evil, threatens to poison the mind.
Simply negating or ignoring that racist imagination and “rejecting everything of European origin,” as Harryette Mullen credits the Black Arts movement, would risk making the poems hypocritical, considering how much your aesthetic relies on global literary traditions including those from Europe. This leaves a very narrow space in which to do your dance. How does one derive an aesthetic from self-alienation without either resorting to postmodern clichés or writing, to paraphrase Baldwin, “everybody’s protest poem”?
In the essay “Poetry and Inquiry,” you discuss “psychological warfare” and “authorizing [your] sense of self” in your writing process, which suggest a conventional approach to double consciousness. But the poems themselves, to my mind, suggest something different. Consider exhibit A: the opening lines of “Untitled Blues.”
I catch myself trying
to look into the eyes
of the photo, at a black boy
behind a laughing white mask
he’s painted on. I
could’ve been that boy
Granted, this is an ekphrastic poem, but the object doesn’t choose the language. Nor does it demand such imbrication. Perspective flickers like light off a disco ball. Ending on the hypothetical (“I / could’ve been…”) hardly authorizes a sense of self. Your poems don’t abide certainties. Beneath the disco ball, (I imagine your right arm pointing up, some cloying Swedish falsetto in the background), spangled in a dazzling medley of perspectives, this is precisely where you want to be.
“Introduce me first as a man,” you write in “Unnatural State of the Unicorn.” The directive is a response. We’re led to imagine someone having introduced you as a role model or as a representative of your race. Yet, the poem declares, “I have no birthright to prove.” As a comment on racial identity, a comment you may not have intended for this poem as I’ve taken the lines out of context, it refuses the kind of collectivism characteristic of the Black Arts movement, which was a little before your time, I know. The poem concludes, existentially, “I am this space / my body believes in.” It is precisely this solipsism, this refusal to internalize the judgement and narratives circulating in society that gives your poems nobility. I’m not saying you’re like Nero in a little boat adrift in thought as the world burns. No, you moved the conflict from the public sphere and placed it entirely under your own jurisdiction.
Even when addressing war as a concept, you’re less interested in the history, ethics or consequences of war than you are interested in the ways war cuts through the pretenses of social hierarchy. After the military bearing and the chains of command, there is a radical democracy on the battlefield where social norms collapse. I’m thinking now of “Tu Do Street” where machine-gun fire levels black and white GIs as indiscriminately as the prostitutes they frequent.
Sight, figuratively and literally, is a vexed faculty for African Americans. As early as the 17th century, priests and scholars justified slavery by claiming black folks were the descendants of Ham. As you know, Ham saw his father Noah passed out drunk and naked, and for that Noah cursed him and all his descendants to be a race of servants.
Ham’s sin of witness is allegorical of the very real prohibitions against African American visual agency that have existed throughout our country’s history. Black people were denied the right to testify in court, and long denied the enlightenment of literacy. We were subject to various prohibitions, legal and normative, against looking a white person in the eye. Of course, there was also the capital offense of “reckless eyeballing,” that is, a black man looking at or in the direction of a white woman in any way that anyone might construe as sexual, a charge leveled against the fourteen-year-old Emmet Till, and for which he lost his life. This prohibition is deeply engrained in American culture.
This history comes to mind when I read poems in Neon Vernacular, some taken from the collection titled I Apologize for the Eyes in My Head. Between poems like “Touch-up Man” and “When in Rome—Apologia,” poems that are concerned with sight as much as they are discursively visual, there is inscribed an autobiography of the veil. All filter and feigned reserve, in “Touch-up Man” you’re a photographer “lean[ing] over the enlarger,/ in the light table’s chromatic glare” where you’re “doctoring photographs.”
Another poem, “When in Rome—Apologia,” is set in a club, in the Village perhaps. With an ironic formality in the latter poem you beg your neighbor’s forgiveness “for the attention // I’ve given your wife.” Removed from the original point of witness, in “Touch-up Man,” you exert power over the image captured in the photograph while being “careful not to look / at [the boss’s] private secretary’s legs.” Without the mediating device of a camera (or a poem), your vision is a liability. The poem titled simply “I Apologize,” is comprised of a series of disclaimers, and begins, “My mind wasn’t even there. / Mirage, sir. I didn’t see / what I thought I saw.”
It’s hard not to think of our current president’s efforts to blind the nation with his Orwellian tactics. It’s impossible not to link your sorry-not-sorry guilt in the poems to a history of oppression. Take the scene from a poem like “Salt,” where, noticing an acquaintance, a white woman at a lunch counter “[Grab] her purse / & [pull] at the hem / Of her skirt,” you describe the way you can “feel her / Strain not to see me.” Turning inward, you are fortified by the history you have witnessed:
What the children of housekeepers
& handymen knew was enough
To stop biological clocks,
& it’s hard now not to walk over
& mention how her grandmother
Killed her idiot son
& salted him down
In a wooden barrel.
However society may have warped the mind of the woman at the counter, you needn’t internalize that pathology. There’s plenty of monstrosity to go around and you refuse to help her conjure whatever images she may be projecting onto you. Your awareness of that projection doesn’t stop it. Your awareness isolates it not as a social problem to be lamented or litigated—not in this context. A naïve reading would proclaim you the victor in the exchange, but the more complex truth is that no one wins. The poem pursues that complexity. That complexity is the briar patch, the door to the unconscious. It is the American surreal.
When, in “February in Sydney,” a white woman on the street notices you emerging from a theater and she “grabs her red purse / & hugs it to her like a heart attack,” you reach for the anesthetizing veil of Dexter Gordon’s saxophone playing “April in Paris,” which comes to rest “behind [your] eyelids” as you “try to feel how it is / to scream for help through a horn.” A similar poem, “Work,” begins, “I won’t look at her,” an assertion that becomes a refrain. While you mow the lawn of her “antebellum house,” the white woman installs herself poolside to sunbathe in the nude. That you two are the only people on the premises makes this a dangerous, nay, a life-threatening situation. You focus on the rhythm of work and Johnny Mathis issuing from her radio. Here, as in “February in Sydney,” black music appears discursively, but also it provides the formal structure within which you secure your psychic space and make the outward tensions serve creative ends. “Work” crests in a nightmare lynching fantasy torqued out of focus and into surreality: “Scent of honeysuckle sings black sap through mystery, / Taboo, law, creed, what kills/ A fire that is its own heart / Burning open the mouth.” Instead of resolution, you slip into the briar patch of lyric and archetype as Dexter Gordon or any other jazz musician would do. Black music is the subject and the medium of expression in your poems. It is a style and a refuge from the corrosive white gaze.
All Americans internalize the damage of racism—oppressor and oppressed—and making double consciousness legible is not only salutary on an individual level but it has the potential to prefigure a world in which racism is at least acknowledged, and not just rhetorically, to be the self-defeating vice that it is (all hate is self-hate). By not attempting to downplay or avoid the self-erasure of double consciousness, you make its futility evident and palpable. Whether the violence is a consequence of war, haunts the blood-soaked Southern landscape or weighs like a migraine on daily life, you transmute that weight to catalyze your poems. As I write this, I realize that what I’m describing ain’t nothing but the blues.