handholding: 5 kinds: sonic, textual engagements
In the preface to her 1998 Soft Skull Press book, Intermission, Tracie Morris writes that the book, her first print publication since her self-published, Chap-T-her Won, is one result of her spoken word performances: “The more ‘stage’ stuff I do, the more the page presents itself as a forum for another voice” (n.p.) As the relationship between stage, page, and voice suggests, the poems that constitute Intermission, now twenty years old, are more traditional in form, structure, and orientation than her more public works of art. The title of the book itself implies a pause or rest before resumption of the main “story”: Morris’ well-known sound- and voice-based performances. This lopsided emphasis on oral performance appears to have changed. In 2012 Morris published another book of poems, Rhyme Scheme, and in its preface Morris admits that her bibliophobia (first articulated in the introduction to Intermission) almost prevented its publication. Still, in 2016, Kore Press released her most ambitious book to date, handholding. As I noted in my review of Ralph La Charity’s litanies said handedly, poets known for oral/sound performances raise all kinds of aesthetic and cultural issues when they turn to the page as another site for “another voice,” though in La Charity’s case, the book is explicitly manipulated as both a canvas for collage and a score for performance. For La Charity, who is interested in upending the traditional hierarchy between sense and sound, speed of delivery and “nonsense” are translated onto the page by repetition and neologism. Morris takes a different tack. In the recording of these poems (accessible online via a code printed in the book) she reads most of this book at a deliberate, largo pace (I discuss the exception to this tendency below). For Morris, then, the emphasis is on sense, less on sound, and so to that extent, the fierce, rapid-fire delivery characteristic of some of her “early” vocal performances is downplayed here.
handholding is organized as a series of homages. Morris engages a representative work of art from five different artists she admires: films directed by Stanley Kubrick (Eyes Wide Shut) and John Akomfrah (Seven Songs for Malcolm X), the modernist music composition of John Cage (“4’33”), Kurt Schwitters’ sonata-poem “Ursonate,” and that literary monument, Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. It is perhaps not altogether surprising that the most successful of these collaborations is with the Schwitters. The contrast between Morris’ faithful, yet improvised, performance of “Ursonate” and her more or less exegetical readings of the Kubrick and Akomfrah films reinforces the impression that Morris is more comfortable amid sound experimentation than she is with text-based materials. Unlike La Charity who attempts to destroy both written and aural “sense” in litanies said handedly, Morris’ “textual engagements” are largely traditional in execution, theme and form. Her reading of Stein is adventuresome and certainly the best of the text pieces here, but in the end, she doesn’t take us far beyond the territory Harryette Mullen staked out in her early reworkings—cf. S*PeRM**K*T –of Stein. The same can be said for the rather predictable “silence” of “5’05,” her homage to and extension of Cage’s notorious “4’33.”
Now, to be fair, Charles Bernstein suggests that reading this book as poetry might be a category error: “This is not so much a collection of poems, as conventionally understood, as a display of the possibilities of poetry. Each work here is not just in a different style or form but rather explores different aspects of poetry as a medium: re-sounding, re-vising, resonating, recalling, re-performing, re-imaginings.” (1) Although Bernstein’s introductory remarks might appear to place a tremendous burden on the book—that’s a lot to live up to—we might step back and consider the book within the larger field of American poetics (just to confine ourselves to an accessible object of comprehension). Can handholding really be said to offer a template for the possibilities of poetry? Well, yes—or more accurately, perhaps, but the template and the “possibilities” are nothing new. The “re-“ of Bernstein’s various “aspects of poetry as a medium” can be subsumed under the general rubric of appropriation and, even more traditionally, “influence.” In fact, one of the striking things about the three textual engagement pieces here is their similarity in “style” and form. All three consist of long prosaic sentences and phrases punctuated by occasional blues-based lyrics. It is true that Morris’ process for composition or, to be specific, inspiration, is different for each piece. Her introductions—which in many ways are the most interesting parts of the book— to the three textual pieces explain how each work came about, her procedures for engagement. That the execution of each piece is so similar in style and form might suggest that Morris is still working with a limited lexicon or vocabulary when she is writing poems (or charting some “possibilities of poetry”). Now, another name for delimited methods or thematics is procedural, and that puts Morris work in handholding square in the middle of a long tradition in postmodern American poetry.
It can rightly be said that these last remarks are more about Bernstein’s introduction than Morris’ poems. That’s true to the extent Morris makes no great claims for what she’s doing in her introductions to each piece. In fact, she is generous and open—the reader is invited to interpret these works in whatever way seems fitting despite her explications of her stated intentions—and makes no large claims for what she’s doing. So what about the actual achievements here? Generally speaking, the pieces are most illuminating when Morris goes off track, when she veers from hewing too close to “engagement.” Specifically, she reaches moments of insight when she “talks back” to Eyes Wide Shut, Kubrick’s last film. Of course, the strategy of talking “back” to films—or any public art work—is a well-known feature of performance within, if not unique to, black culture. Black people have been talking back to white American/European cultures for hundreds of years. But listening in on the familiar can still be fun. Relying largely on couplets and tercets, the latter often deploying the traditional AAB blues form, Morris runs the dozens on the Kubrick film:
Tall man wants a small woman, can see down her front.
Tall man wants a small woman, can see down her front.
Apple breasts, lovely. Forgive me if I’m blunt. (20)
As in Intermission, Morris’ main themes here are gender and race, but her use of the blues form here, in the Akomfrah Malcolm X film, and in the Stein “review” (the triad functions within stanzas as well as paragraphs) reminds us that this basic black American vernacular underwrites most of the Hollywood soundtrack music not explicitly European in origin (as in many film noir movies). Or as Toni Morrison might have put it in Playing in the Dark, Morris excavates the “black” context and framework in, and against, which putatively “white” filmmakers and actors work. Lines like “Black and white and Latina maid/ Rose. Answers” (40) expose the way even attire, for example, can function to normalize racialization in a work of art that is not “about” race. Still, as I noted above, too much of the Kubrick piece reads as plot summary. Unfortunately, there is even less wit and pleasure in the predictable, all-too-earnest, “handholding with Akomfrah.” When Morris concludes this homage to the fallen hero with a list of recent black people killed and murdered by law enforcement agencies, it’s difficult to resist the sense that one has stumbled upon a script reading for a Spike Lee film. More “veering” away from the film—as she does in the Kubrick and Stein pieces—might have made this piece more engaging and relevant beyond—even if it included—the negative reality of lost and absence.
On the other hand, the exhilaration, wit and humor with which Morris renders Schwitters’ “Ursonate” is instructive. She sounds like she’s in her comfort zone, a phrase which, in the context of American poetics, can no doubt have only a pejorative connotation (you mean she’s not making it new?) But as she herself writes in the foreword to this piece, she does not “veer” from traditional readings (we don’t have the artist’s ‘original”) of “Ursonate.” And she does indeed faithfully follow recorded readings/performances of Schwitters’ sonata sound poem, at least at the start. Then she begins to insert tonal substitutions into the poem; that is, she sounds, at times, like a b-girl from the hood who has learned to sass in English, French and German, a glossolalia of irreverence akin to her sound performances on the DVD that accompanies Rhyme Scheme.
Irreverence, humor, and wit are also displayed in “handholding with Stein,” the best textual engagement here, even if Morris winds up largely duplicating Mullen’s achievement. While there is the usual Steinian poke at the distance between referents and language (“A blue coat is not a red coat in this regard.” (74), Morris reminds us that objects and media, however bracketed, exist within cultures by paying homage, for example, to black poetry via Evie Shockley’s revision of Alain Locke (“And this new Black, this newsprint, this ink on the apron, bleak. Bleak cleaning. Red all over.” (77)) and to popular music via James Brown and Marvin Gaye (“Please please please please. [refrain]” ….//Mercy mercy…” (88)). And, of course, there is the ubiquitous oppressive powers of history (“At the hands of state power, unenviable death. Hanging, poison, the spear, the fire.” (82)).
handholding: 5 kinds: sonic, textual engagements is a mash-up that points not to what poetry can be or do but to what poetry is, is doing today. This book isn’t so much a giant step forward for Morris as another manifestation of her “voice,” what she sounds like in print. But how she sounds in sound is still the standard by which even Morris the poet in print remains to be measured.