A Swarm of Bees in High Court
“black performance has always been the ongoing improvisation of a kind of lyricism of the surplus-, rupture, collision, augmentation.”
—Fred Moten, In the Break
A long nocturne, Tonya Foster’s long-awaited debut collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court roves in and out of the dream of Harlem. This rich cityscape, pregnant with so much history and tension, floats through the consciousness of the poetic speaker, whose sleeplessness leads her into a series of meditations on memory, desire, and daily life. Her worries, dissatisfactions, and poignant joys take flight into song through the sonic pleasure of her word play and permutations.
A collection of thirteen pieces which includes a closing praxis statement on her text, the book progresses through a sleepless night, past dawn, and into day. Composed often in tercets, Foster’s work turns sleeplessness into an occasion for gathering the city’s subtle voices, braiding them into the agonistic “swarm” of experience that composes human sites. And what are the swarming “bees” at work in her text? The b’s of being, of being black, the big B of Blackness, of blood, birth, and sometimes bullets or basketball. Her fine array posits Harlem into a living, dreaming apiary of Blackness and life, dripping with dreams and difficult realities.
I discover a visceral delight in Foster’s permutations, the way that she rewrites and syntactically reiterates her lines with cleverly placed commas, parentheses, and dashes—all of which serve to push the phrase into a multivalent array of possibilities. In her opening poem, “Harlem Nocturn/e/s,” she begins with two loose tercets on the page:
As always, there is
our black robe.Our tock-tockclocks
(y)our ga(i)t(e)s and g(r)avel.
As always, there is
this hill we climb—(y)our thicket
of (st)roll and (st)utter.
Visually, the use of the parenthetical letters imbricate dual readings into her phrases—such as your/our gates/gaits and gavel/gravel—through which emerge two distinctly different worlds of meaning. A split but simultaneous address appears—of them and us, “your” and “our” world. Some move with gaits, a personalized walk with its own unique rhythm. Others move through “gates,” implicating a social structure in which some have mobility and others don’t, as dictated by the penal court system’s “gavel.” One aspect of the way Foster’s text “swarms” is how she adroitly maintains these multiplicities, keeping them literally in view on the page through her punctuated re-visions.
These visual interruptions and semantic permutations demonstrate Foster’s strong connection to black radical traditions of experimentation that highlight complexity and play as critical discourse. Described by poet and theorist Fred Moten as dwelling “in the cut” or “in the break,” this mode of philosophic engagement operates by creating an excess in meaning. Operating often through improvisation or interruption, these excesses (what he terms breaks or cuts) highlight the impossible material and historical circumstances of blackness, requiring us to attend to the traces of bodies in its performance. In short, to dwell in the break is to inject a historical and complex self into an overdetermined frame of view. Moten describes how “the emergence from political, economic, and sexual objection of the radical materiality and syntax that animates black performances indicates a freedom drive that is expressed always and everywhere throughout their graphic (re)production” (7). Foster’s work is an excellent instantiation of dwelling “in the cut” of language; her use of parentheses and slashes offer hermeneutical excesses in her work, make visible the same freedom drive that Moten describes.
By creating these multiple readings throughout the text, Foster invites us to inhabit and negotiate an array of realities, through which I come to recognize an essential conjecture. What do we hear here? And who hears that here? Lived sites are not static certainties, but buzzy propositions that whorl into view as inhabited instantiations. Her poems demonstrate how site and text shift, depending on what dominates our listening and view. In “Harlem Nocturn/e/s 2,” Foster makes explicit this essential conjecture in sites and bodies when she meditates on being and origins.
is from always Is,
here from ancestral t/heres, know
from have always in/own/ed.
Is “from” always
the cardinal hive through which our
Is “from” always
the lodestone which aligns/mis
aligns meaning, love?
Is “from” always,
though in us, between us? The
sheet and shi(f)t(s) we t/read?
I read an overdetermined type of being in the capitalized shift from “is” to “Is.” The latter recognizes archetypes that tread with a weighty inescapability, of being “here from ancestral t/heres.” I see a similar aspect in her use of “from,” which suggests a dual reorganization of the subject; one that writes futures and possibilities based on assumptions of origins and pasts. This “from” indicates a closed structure for blackness— Foster’s use of the interrogative indicates that this system need not be fixed or closed; to query at it supposes a possibility of expansion, an unnamed otherwise, which her use of interrupting parentheses likewise model.
Foster’s work is also notable for how it explores the complexities of black female subjectivity and desire. One of the most impressive pieces of her collection, “In/Somniloquies,” begins with her poetic speaker up late and sleepless, watching bad reality tv while her male lover sleeps beside her. The poem moves into a meditation on growing from girlhood into womanhood, initiated by red (“blood butterflied across the seat and white of summer culottes”) into black:
Black as tar. Black as
being. Black as boots, as
hollows, as (w)holes. “Your
black ass, tar black ass,
know better.” Cowboy’s voices in
tones from livid stoops.
She examines how a variety of voices try to tell her speaker about being a woman. These voices include other women, such as “Her mother: I’d / like to hear this. What do you / know about a man?” (19) and aunt, “You can’t be eatin’ / like you don’t mind trading a / baby for red beans” (31) and men, such as the “cowboy’s voices” from the stoop that shout out at her. Importantly, her speaker is not a passive agent in this melange of voices that speak into her. She desires, and that desire is edged.
But need is the swarm
that some women learn to feed
from their flesh of self.
Beside her, the dark
husk murmurs. What to do? Love
what could destroy you?
The clarity of the poetic voice in these lines carry an intensity of feeling that communicates the subject’s vulnerability. Moments like this are just as sophisticated as Foster’s more overt moments of language play and demonstrate her dedication to exploring a full range of being and emoting in her work’s “swarm.”
I was further impressed with the way that Foster’s collection examined the complex intra-gender dynamics between black women while also commenting on relationships with black men. The other women in “In/Somniloquies”are nurturing and shaming, chastising and competitive. In her poem “High Court,” the phrase “blind puddle” slowly comes to stand in for black masculinity in a slow permutation that devastates.
Blind puddle that was
little boy’s blood, cold water
and Mr. Clean clean.
“Blind puddle that was
chance for movie chivalry”—
sunlight drives this thought.
posit the boy, strutting man-
to-be-been, the gones.
imagine sinews, tendons.
Tongue your wasness.
The “blind puddle” initially indicates a cleaned wet spot on the ground, the remnant that was “little boy’s blood” which now reeks of “Mr. Clean,” the mopping agent. Significantly, there is no little boy, just the “was” of his body— cold wet trace. This “blind puddle” continues on from boyhood and becomes a “chance for movie chivalry,” or a fantasy projection of masculinity. Next, Foster moves explicitly into the construction of black masculinity: “posit the boy.” To posit is to offer a statement that is assumed to prove true. In just two short lines, the erased boy does in fact prove to be erased. His future is embedded in his re-naming as the “blind puddle.” He is the “man-/ -to-be-been, the gones.”
With a necessary national conversation stoked by the ongoing police killings of scores of unarmed black men and boys swirling in the air, Foster’s tercets cut through me. While invoking black masculinity as an erasure— blind puddle— also insists on the corporeality of the unseen, erased bodies; she commands us to “imagine sinews, tendons.” And what are we left with? A blankness interrupts the final line of her last tercet, which finally concludes “Tongue your wasness.” Her use of “your” here is fascinating and devastating. Is she addressing the initial little boy here? Is his ghost lapping at the bleached puddle now? I was deeply moved by the way her poems long after black men while also extinguishing the easy fictions/projections we frequently cast onto those we desire. Throughout her book, black men appear as threatening, desirable, cherished, murdered and disappeared.
Just as Tonya Foster’s speaker is sleepless, her collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court offers us a new waking dream of Harlem, one pregnant with its heat, streets, and contentious voices. It verges, folds, and concatenates with an excess of living voices and possibilities. I prefer the “cut” of Foster’s Harlem of complex inheritances. Her work challenges me to walk with her through the deep cuts of life at its most affirming, heart rent, and bitter levels. She turns away from the fantasy of an urban utopia to offer instead a site of various, sometimes frustrated desires, of tenderness and a truly living black community.