…I am a word full of E’s
—a cool porcelain bell, a spore,
a briny rusted lock, a passing scab,
an errant cell turning.
—“self portrait (with vial & corn tash)”
How can one respond to the trauma of global violence? Written against the backdrop of the September 11th attacks, genocide in Rwanda, and the more intimate dramas of sexuality and illness, Duriel E. Harris’s second collection Amnesiac seeks to provide a new tune—another mode in lyric language—for addressing violence and its effects on our bodies and psyches. Her rich, gritty language embodies the sedimentation of heritage and history, demonstrating how it exerts force like a physical pressure on the frequently broken human body. As a poet, her project isn’t simply to document these forces, but to push back—with the desire to understand, unearth, sing, and taste these experiences as they flow, take up, and transform.
She draws her book’s title from an Olga Broumas poem, “Artemis,” which she includes as one of two introductory epigraphs to the collection. Broumas writes, “like amnesiacs / in a ward on fire, we must / find words / or burn.” Broumas advocates a “politics of transliteration,” one in which the mind captures shifts in meaning as they occur. Harris’s collection seeks to explore and add flesh to this methodology by drawing upon the black body as an archive and witness. This methodology allows Harris to acknowledge the inchoate, amoral nature of violence with a strong sense of discipline and human sensitivity.
Despite the presence of a few prose pieces, the dominant mood is lyric in both the emotive and musical senses of the word. Harris includes song lyrics and scores with musical notation for performance alongside many of her poems, which encourage the reader to “hear” the piece differently—with a distinct beat and melody. In this regard, her project continues an African diasporic tradition of subverting dominant ideologies through song. The first musical piece that she includes is titled “Enduring Freedom,” the lyrics of which begin in a prototypically patriotic manner: “Oh beautiful skies and amber grain, purple mountain sides.” However, Harris subverts our expectations by inserting the phrase “lonely bullets.” This small inclusion transforms the song, such that we cannot help but read/hear “America singing” differently by attending to its undertones of violence. “Enduring Freedom” is presented as if in a hymnal, and on the recto is Harris’s poetic response, titled “Enduring Freedom: American Doxology.” It begins with a Whitman epigraph: “And what I assume you shall assume / For every atom belonging to me as good belongs to you.” The poem begins
I am the hate that I oppose
That which I am not is naught
I am the chain of acts, of generations
I glorify myself and do not waver
Harris’s piece refutes the holy shroud of noblesse that swathes patriotism in order to point to a basic truth of US history—that this nation was founded and continues to depend upon a voracious eradication of others. Importantly, the “I” of this poem elides nation/God-head with the self. Harris exposes the dangers of such a position through its adamant negation of others (“that which I am not is naught”). This poem displays for us the harrowing possibility of what happens when America speaks with the voice of a vengeful god, “Awful in my killing clothes / Magnificent and melodious.” Her inclusion of Whitman’s epigraph points to a paradox in American patriotic ideology: the imagination of the nation as a democratic, inclusive utopia versus its exclusive, near-genocidal endeavor for power. She dates the piece “October 7, 2001” and with the ten-year anniversary of the September 11th attacks just recently behind us, it is clear that the breaks in the paradox of America’s idealistic exceptionalism continue to widen and spread—one has only to look at the Islam-ophobia infecting political discourse, or the state’s continued and pervasive kowtowing to business interests at the expense of human securities and rights.
By offering musical notation, Harris incorporates non-textual means for subtly shading her work. For example, her song “Wishing Well” is scored to be played in a “lively march with snare, fife and bugle.” The lyrics, written in a minstrel-y pidgin, capture the oppressive impossibility of the Atlantic passage—one drowns to feed sharks, or survives in order to be enslaved.
Sea bottom wid de bones de bones de bones
Sea bottom wid de bones & cutlass shine
Shanty bottom wid de bottle & de bones de bones
Shark bottom wid de nigger shank bones
Rag spittle: Mah heart am your’n
Ah kin sang hushye babe
And Ah kin kill all yer corns
I’se a good washer wench
And cook de night thru de morn
Lawdy-lawdy Lawd Lawd Lawd
By imagining a jaunty march underscoring these lyrics, the reader can’t help but confront the castigating irony at the heart of this piece. Additionally, it’s unusual to read this sort of pidgin in contemporary poetry contexts, and I was impressed by how Harris marshaled dialect to such smart use. Through this use, Harris reminds us that in the processes of history, orality is textuality and remains one vital vector along which we can trace convergences in displacement, power, and subjectivity in order to re-position our relationship to them. Though the politics of such pieces is more overt, the means by which Harris works are just as subtle as her more gesturally lyric poems.
We see a different type of finesse emerge in her lyric pieces. One poem in particular that caught my attention, “Portrait,” surprised me with how elegantly it moved from abstraction into embodiment.
Resin coats the soluble bodies of objects
and the mind applies itself, pressing
until even the light filtered air adheres
singly edging drafting worlds.
I lie still in the balance, emptying into breath,
a slight movement in the dissolve, reaching
for the blue gaps between frames. I crave:
She often couples such light transformations with a heavy lexicon, nearly medieval in its sonic ponderousness. For example, in “self portrait: contusion,” Harris writes “burnt thread leavens a griefy porridge / chapped and giddy raucousness / hovers to scrub the immaculate column.” These moments ascribe the text a density that for me conjures up the various pressures of history at work upon a people—in such instants, the subject emerges as an almost geologically metamorphic possibility. Alternatively, her use of the short line and the various breaks and spaces that occupy her pages lend the verse a sense of movement or give, which implies the possibility of flux or shift in the work. Though many of the pieces explore a subjugated space, this sense of give implies a means out through the writing itself.
Though Harris tends towards shorter lyric poems, the collection contains two longer pieces, “speleology” and “Guillen, Nicolas” that make use of fragmentation and space to varying effect. Of the two, I found “speleology” to be far more successful; she creates an alternative space, nearly mythic, in which mystery and knowledge wind together like a mood. On a narrative level, the poem seems to recount a spiritual visitation, one that leaves the subject transformed. Harris moves adeptly from percussive, minimalistic writing to narrative prose to lyric disintegrations with each section. The end result is a piece that subtly performs its haunting; “Ahead, at the unraveling, bone waxed baskets bark woven sacks / and the blown glass sheen of a woman’s name inhales.” These poems’ inclusion in this particular collection intrigued me; they enacted a different sort of music, compositional in a way that the musical scores were not. I could follow the various lyric lines unfolding across the poem’s span; they tangled and wove together with a striking insistence and had a different duration than the shorter hymnals with their measured beats. Harris, again, subtly modulates and reworks the lyric into a new strain.
Amnesiac is a terrifically virtuosic piece without announcing itself as such. Harris moves from intimate intensity to parodic rhapsody in the turn of a page and creates new genres (e.g. her “phaneric displays”) on the way. Given the conversation unfolding here at Constant Critic regarding virtuosity and gender (Raymond McDaniels’ on Evie Shockley, me on Uroyoan Noel, and Vanessa Place on The New Masculinist Lyric), Harris’s collection offers some rich possibilities for further discussion. Adopting Raymond’s note that vanity shrieks “look at me!” whereas virtuosity “says look at this,” Harris’s strong interest in subjectivity in language perhaps offers a new means for considering virtuosity: look at me and at this. Raymond noted the same dynamic in Shockley’s book. Is there a fault line of gender in virtuosity? Perhaps the better question is, how are we predisposed to see a fault line of gender in virtuosity?
Harris devises unusual juxtapositions, and the emotional structures of the poems as they emerge are complex, resonant and often surprising in their clarity and depth. Her project of articulating trauma in an emotionally resonant yet intellectually rigorous manner intrigued me for its ability to sustain an entire collection. How does one respond to global violence? Brokenly. Ardently. Furiously. With a beat.
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