(In)justice of the Place: Design and Pattern in Contemporary Political Poetry

Recent racial violence in the United States and abroad makes poetry books that take up social justice ever more urgent. Books with explicit political content often eschew the lyrical in favor of “documentary” materials, while others manage to twine them. In seeking ways to incorporate complex cultural/social information, some poets have developed hybrid forms, and here I will examine two such collections.

Taking T. S. Eliot’s idea of the “third” or dramatic persona speaking to another invented persona, Ruth Ellen Kocher conjures a cast of nine speakers who “perform” a series of prose poems. The nineteenth-century minstrel show provides the venue for these characters, whose language and subject matter contrast with “sampled” language Kocher appropriates from philosophy texts and minstrel manuals. Passages from these manuals  (“How to Stage a Minstrel Show,” and “New Jokes for Female Minstrels”) reveal the racist stereotyping that undergirds early American vaudeville and burlesque—and, by inference, all liberal and performing arts. Into this history, through prose poems, Kocher brings African American civil rights martyrs (Martin Luther King Jr., Emmett Till, Malcolm X), performing artists (Pearl Bailey, Eartha Kitt, Richard Pryor, Sun Ra), and cultural icons (W.E.B. Du Bois, Marcus Garvey, and Paul Robeson). 

Multiple patterns—in form, titles, documentary materials, and characters—give the book a layered texture. For example, sixteen poems bear the title “Skit” followed by subtitles. Similarly, Kocher places nine poems with the title “Olio” (a “miscellany”) throughout the book, replicating one aspect of the historical minstrel show wherein brief “olios” occurred between major acts. Of the nine characters, four have names that end in “Neva Igga,” and repeated references to “N. Igga” reinforce the cultural and linguistic entrapment Kocher’s characters experience and parody. Here’s the middle section from “Skit: Lacy N. Igga Takes the Stage:”

glow of negro sunshine     Dang    there’s Stein again     Work that

Melanctha      Black Vamp      Sweet-ee       Mammy      Bae      or

nigger  nigger  nigger    [What book was that?]       Every podium

Every classroom     Lit tips a hat     tips white-face         tips some

kinda black-face         un/molded        un/blued               un/ended

un/hanged    un/turned    un/zipped     Say        Say           Faulkner

Say bull of a nigger . . . mouth loud . . . filled with teeth like tombstones

Smile       Smile      Kantian blackness        Hey cork          Hey skin 

Lacy thinks    robed     thinks robbed   thinks my body    a shank

my body   a body   my body something sometime a promise   my body

something sometime a rot at the edge of the field    the edge of the woods

the edge of the road roped to a tree   sweet and smoldered   Lacy nods

nods      smiles       smiles     silly lazy lazy Lacy lazy lazy          robed

Kocher shows how Gertrude Stein (in Three Lives), Emmanuel Kant (in Critique of Pure Reason), and William Faulkner (in Absalom, Absalom!) create an annihilating view of embodied blackness—part of a larger, unacknowledged social project to dehumanize non-white people. How, Kocher asks, does a black woman bear the language of a canonized western philosopher and two of the great American modernist prose writers? The last five lines of this section illustrate, with frightful imagery, the real consequences of such terror: a view of the self as already “a rot at the edge of the field.” “Every podium” and “Every classroom” reinforce the dangers of the uncritical deployment of these texts and, by inference, many others.

Unconventional spacing, slashes, single words, sentence fragments, unattributed italicized passages, and frequent repetitions contribute to a feeling of fracture and incompleteness in Third Voice. In “Olio 19,” Kocher deploys a series of empty brackets ([  ]) in place of the first and last words of sentences. While these “containers of white space” further the theme of erasure, they can confuse readers seeking linear narrative. Jump-cuts in time, changing narrators, and unfamiliar syntax contribute to Kocher’s experimental project. By contrast, the brilliant “Skit: Lacy Teaches the Sublime” takes the form of a three-way conversation among Edmund Burke, Emmanuel Kant, and W.E.B. Du Bois. Quoting directly from Burke and Kant on beauty and the sublime, and from Du Bois’s The Souls of Black Folks, the poem dazzles by showing how these theorists shape our feelings and ideas about race. Employing irony and strategic juxtapositions, starchy diction and moving testimony, Kocher pulls off in the last line of the poem what so many others could not: “Du Bois:  The price of culture is a Lie.”

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Admit One: An American Scrapbook continues the examination of race in America that Martha Collins began with Blue Front (2006) and White Papers (2012). On the Contents page, where we usually find the titles of individual poems, we have only the names of the book’s five major sections: Fair; Zoo; Fitter; Fewer; Postscript. This conspicuous absence startles: readers enter the “Scrapbook” as they would approach a visual record, without prior “language” or information. The single words (two nouns, two adjectives, and the codicil-like “Postscript”) sit, stark, on the page, revealing little of the poet’s methods, subject, or style.

A series of poems-in-patterns unfolds, as Collins weaves autobiography, social history, and spectacle. Her focus on the early-twentieth-century exhibition and exploitation of Africans and Native Americans as evolutionary “types” launches an alternative American history, beginning in 1904 and reaching the present. Poem by poem, Collins illuminates connections among her own family members and proponents of “scientific racism,” forced sterilization, miscegenation laws, eugenics theory, and Nazism. In other hands, this undertaking—necessitating considerable research—could easily sink under the weight of names and dates. Collins, however, personalizes the “scrapbook” by inventing new forms for collecting and preserving. 

One type of poem she uses to great effect explores the definitions and colloquial/familiar associations we bring to individual words. Without standard capitalization or punctuation, centered double-spaced on the page, these poems—about a dozen in total—feature single words or small groups of words. From the section of the book about the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair, this poem demonstrates her model:

Fair / Fair / Fare

 

religion and trade     in Roman

medieval     to trade or display

or other goods     or animals

county    state    world

 

free from bias     doesn’t play fair

beloved woman    completely, quite

clean    spotless    pure

blond     gracious

 

fair    trade    game    play

the numbers      buy sell     deal

the not     fair     dark    fare

well    to be    bought     and sold

Improvisational and cumulative, the language links historical periods and material culture. Taken with the other poems in this section, “Fair / Fair / Fare” contributes to an examination of how racism undergirds twentieth-century ideas and technology. The list-making aspect alludes to subtle and not-so-subtle shifts in inference and usage. Readers will inevitably compose phrases (“well” and “fare” = “welfare”) and make connections to poems such as “Physical / Culture” in which someone attending the 1904 Fair may take a “college-credit ethnology course / taught by Professor Frederick Starr / using human exhibits.”  Although the book moves in a chronological fashion, Collins powerfully interlaces the present with the past, as in the explicit reference to slavery in the last eight words of the poem—“dark fare / well to be bought and sold.”  Other titles in this sequence include “Exposition / Expose / Exposure” Pass / Pass / Pass,” and “Admit / Admit.”

Biographical narratives about “exhibited” African Ota Benga, sterilization victim Carrie Buck, and eugenicist Madison Grant advance the chronological narrative and provide ballast with “touchstone” characters we revisit throughout the book. In poems of exacting detail, Collins renders these lives unforgettable, proving poetry’s unique function in communicating lived history. These portraits vivify the tragic treatment Benga and Buck received and the social contracts that permitted that treatment. From “Carrie Buck, Part Two”:

In July the Colony Board approved the sterilization

of Carrie Buck, a test case for the new law,

 

for which Priddy appointed (1) Aubrey Strode,

who’ d written the law, to represent the Colony, and

(2) a guardian who appointed a former Colony Director

and boyhood friend of Strode to represent Carrie.

The verbs (“approved” and “appointed”) highlight the corruption of nepotism, and the names (“Strode” and “Priddy”) inscribe the poet’s commitment to historical veracity. A flat, unembellished tone, repeated in the “documentary” poems of Admit One, conveys the unquestioned actions and the unaccountable culpability of the men in charge. The sequence on Madison Grant depicts the legal consequences of eugenics theory, the alliances he made, and the impact of his book The Passing of The Great Race; Or, The Racial Basis of European History. From “Madison Grant, Part Three”:

after The Passing, Madison Grant 

 

presided over / co-founded / co-directed

most of the major eugenics organizations

 

created / inspired / was essential to immigration

reform, including the 1924 Immigration Restriction Act

 

conceived / achieved Virginia’s 1924 Racial Integrity Act

campaigned with Marcus Garvey for Negro repatriation

 

—and devised an ingenious plan to save the redwoods

which were threatened with extinction, like the great race.

Packed into the portraits, dates and legal information threaten to overwhelm. However, Collins skillfully attends to prosodic aspects that solidify each poem. Here, the pieces of legislation Grant promoted and the listing of verbs (“presided over/co-founded/co-directed,” “created/inspired,” “conceived/achieved”) have a mnemonic effect, reinforcing Grant’s influence and reach. 

In Third Voice and Admit One: An American Scrapbook, Ruth Ellen Kocher and Martha Collins mix documentary source materials and experimental lyrics, asking language to serve a number of functions. Both books make use of serial sequences that create a dynamic rhythm for the whole, and thus, each collection enacts a vital re-imagining of the historical “record,” each poet exposing cultural “norms” for the constituencies they serve, and the damages wrought. The patterns deliver a re-formulated present, informed by fearless juxtaposition.

 

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*An essay-review of

Third Voice. By Ruth Ellen Kocher. North Adams, MA: Tupelo Press, 2016. 114 pp. $16.95, paper.

Admit One: An American Scrapbook. By Martha Collins. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2016. 104 pp. $15.95, paper.

 

Robin Becker's collections of poetry include Tiger Heron (2014), Domain of Perfect Affection (2006), The Horse Fair (2000), All-American Girl (1996), and Giacometti’s Dog (1990), all in the University of Pittsburgh Press’s Pitt Poetry Series. She has received fellowships from the Bunting Institute at Harvard, the Massachusetts Cultural Council, and the National Endowment for the Arts. Liberal Arts Research Professor of English at Penn State, Becker served as the Penn State Laureate during the 2010–11 academic year. Her poetry column, “Field Notes,” appears in the Women’s Review of Books, where she serves as poetry editor.