When the 2011 film The Help came out, it was like a freedom, or racial justice, litmus test. For many viewers of color, and perhaps especially Black viewers, the film was yet another Hollywood, which is to say white, co-opting of history, in which white people look faulty but well-meaning, and Black people look long-suffering, but ultimately redemptive, reinforcing of this white self-perception. The Black Americans in the film also look free—existing, however tried and tired, on an equal playing field. This is perhaps most visible in the film’s white viewpoint: it’s based on a book written by a white woman, about a white woman, who not only collects and circulates firsthand accounts of the suffering of Black maids in the early 1960s, but also presents them as evidence of her own heroism. This is not to say that her efforts were without sacrifice—that’s not the point. And, in fact, not making white heroism be the point is my point here.
To many, The Help’s familiar narrative was far from transparent storytelling. As Susan Sontag writes in Regarding the Pain of Others, images or representations of suffering “are themselves a species of rhetoric. They reiterate. They simplify. They agitate. They create the illusion of consensus.” “No ‘we,’” she continues, “should be taken for granted when it comes to other people’s pain.” On top of its myopic view of history and the war-machine of capitalism that produced it, what makes a work of art like The Help so existentially numbing is its sureness, and ignorance, about not only what it presents, but to whom it is presented. By white people, for white people. In this way, white-created art about racial boundaries or inequality so often confuses shared viewership with shared experience, imagining a real and created “we” when what we have are separate and misunderstanding “I’s.”
There has been a recent flowering of books and poems published by white poets that address race and racism, including my own. But, are we writing race and racism, reinforcing the white viewpoint, which is designed not to threaten its own power? Or, are we rewriting race and racism, not merely representing, but disturbing; showing not just whiteness—but what it is to be awake, and disruptive, inside it?
Ain’t I a Whitey?
If I could do it all over again I’d be in the same
Skin I’m in
Any poet who seeks to write about racism reckons with the past, and not just any past, but what has been, as Toni Morrison describes it in Beloved, “disremembered and not accounted for,” what “has claim [but] is not claimed,” and thus emerges, like it or not, into the present filled with “bottomless longing.” The poetics in which this past often gets expressed calls to mind trauma narratives: trance-like forms of address; stuttering syntax and broken, looping repetition; a voice that seems to speak not from reason, but from a rupture in it. It is not just race that has been disrupted, but the poet herself.
The numbered poems in Martha Collins’s recent book, White Papers, rely on a quick, tickertape-like syntax, which she uses to disturb the seamless composure—the implicit claim of unanimity—that performances of whiteness often put forward and hide behind. Here, from “”:
——————-could get a credit card loan car
—————— come and go without a never had
——————-to think about a school work job
——————to open doors to buy a rent a nice place
——————-yard park beside a walk
——————-iin any store without a never had
——————-to dress to buy a dress shoes under-
——————-wear to understate or -play myself
——————-to make myself heard to get across a never
——————-mind point I never
——————-had to earn the right to climb
——————-my own if I should lose my key or
——————-all I own my open door world was all
——————-before me where to choose and I
Collins performs being-white for us: the lack of punctuation and running together of phrases suggest how the endless ledger of denied mundane acts and “right[s]” amounts to systematic oppression. Yet, this is not quite a speech act; there is no speaker, or mechanism, on stage with the fractured narrative. It is the bareness, the naked and fully extended coil that is on display, as if just to do so might heal, in a version of what Homi Bhabha, in The Location of Culture, called a “ceremony of claiming and naming.” And if we find it sacrilegious, or even just uncomfortable, to see Bhabha’s words—intended for literatures of the colonized—applied to a writer whose whiteness reflects the colonizers, then that is how we know we are starting to move across the boundaries of race’s fictionality, its constructed frame. And it is dangerous territory.
But far more often, in poetry by white writers, race and its history are described as being “[stuck] like a fishbone / in the . . . throat,” to quote Robert Lowell in “For the Union Dead.” This sense that the pathways of expression are obstructed, constricted, or too few in number leads the act of speech—as possible accomplice to a felt but not-yet- nameable force—to call itself into question, as seen in Rodney Jones’s “Elegy for the Southern Drawl”:
I feel odd hearing a tape of my own voice
That marks wherever I go, the sound
Of lynchings,the letters of misspellings
Crooked and jumbled dupe the teacher,
Slow ink, slow fluid of my tribe, meaning
What words mean when they are given
From so many voices, I do not know myself
Who is speaking and who is listening.
White dominance can even hide behind the guilty, silenced, personal defeat that examined whiteness often expresses (read: “I’m so stuck!”), doubling down on white privilege, as, once again, white problems are presented as central, “unique,” and not merely the expressions of an oppressive group. The self-censoring and sense of futility that white people may experience are not disruptive, but part of race’s design, a narrative policing that preserves roles and power by not presenting, which is to say suppressing, information that runs counter to race’s claims. Far from exceptional, it’s a constraint that is reminiscent of other post-conflict groups, the Poles, for instance, after World War II, described by Ed Hirsch as profoundly distrustful, “haunted by guilt, initiated in the apocalyptic fires of history.”
This Infected Gesture
The most unsurprising presentation of racism in American racial discourse is in images of Black pain. Many white poets, delving into history, find and use such imagery even as such gestures are widely critiqued, either for appropriating the suffering of oppressed groups, and reinscribing white supremacy, or for just being a too familiar white-poet move. Still, there can be an ethical force to some of these attempts if they are successful in restoring to view what whiteness has tried to erase—which is to say, the workings of white power, itself. Several poets in recent years have exhumed not only national history, but also family history, in work in this vein. Here is Catherine Sasanov in her book Had Slaves (2010):
Months before he purchased you, he worked you in his dreams. Fulfiller of every need inside his head, you must have staggered through your days, worn with starring in his sleep….You turn to cash upon your seller’s palm, the bloody mess inside the buyer’s barn—He swears an imposter’s hidden in your hide, that he’s the man to beat it out.
Sasanov tries to piece together a picture of slavery’s social ontology: the physical violence, the “bloody mess,” is in some ways just the byproduct of the violence of the racial imaginary, which “works” another’s body, “turn[s]” it into “fulfiller” of the white master’s “every need.”
But work like this also brings up painful questions. For example, since many of these poems’ subjects are the black body in pain, do these white speakers have any ethical claim in depicting them? Many recent, racially charged controversies in the poetry world have had this question, admittedly over-determined, at their center. But is the resolution, as some have asserted, to merely “flip the script,” insisting that white writers avoid as false all racially constructed boundaries? How do we distinguish a principled approach from its careless iterations, or from “nothing’s sacred”? Or, given the alleged complicity of the speakers in such work, should these works be thought of as an acknowledgment, an admission? Too often, any potentially healing gesture gets infected by racism—a white poet may not see her work’s implicit bias or exploitation, and how it will land in the eyes and bodies of people of color; or she may over-anticipate this response, and avoid any conscientiously challenging, or risky, moves; or a reader may disallow, as possibly race-harmful, any poetics at all that disturb the lyrical, and thematic, status quo. These fine, important questions form the ledge of the past onto which our racial conversations rarely venture. Instead, our claims, differences—and lived humanity and possibility for shared experience—retreat, or disappear. Not named, yet still felt—numbingly, sometimes lethally—they lie within closed spaces in a past and present that too many of us rarely enter.
But, to some at least, the act of speaking out, of putting on record these speakers’ witnessing, their trauma or pain, increases the chance that others socialized as white might come to recognize their own racialized experience, instead of living race’s fairy tale, in which they are merely onlookers. No matter our racialization, there are narratives to silence us about moments, sites, events, that call up traumas in many of our minds. For to speak freely, from whatever place in the system, threatens power, and racism in America is about defending power, the power of white people. The problem is, these sites are experienced in inarguably, and profoundly, different ways, and they have absurdly different, too often life-threatening, legacies. How will a white poet speak freely—harder still, lyrically—without reinforcing the perch from which she sings?
The Real Reconstruction
As a beginning, at least, a white poet attempting to write from her own racialized experience must enter these closed spaces. In prosodic or narrative terms, this means introducing musics, speakers, situations, that might feel politically incorrect, even counterfactual. For among the things hidden in these closed spaces are white pain (as distinct from guilt, its more neurotic expression) and, even more problematic, white longing. The eros of white privilege is well known, both in its violent and sexualized form, and in its more latent, stifling versions (e.g., “some of my best friends are . . .”). But there is an eros deeper than whiteness, a longing for something better, something more life-giving, more intimate, what Toni Morrison names as an important and hidden wounding in America’s history of racism, its harm to our “romance of community,” when that “bottomless longing” emerges in the present. To paraphrase Brian Turner, race is merely the landscape—the real subject is relationship.
In Jake Adam York’s “Self-portrait as a Moment in 1963,” he shows one version of this longing, as a kind of refusal to comply with this policing:
There’s a silence here I want to scratch away
so I can see what’s underneath, what they don’t recall.
I want to turn someone’s head,
my grandfather’s maybe, or my mother’s
back toward…the ghost of that scene …so I can leave
and go back to the future, not history. Not yet.
Using longing (“I want . . .”) as an ethical force, York’s poems show how even elegy— refusing to be obscured by an overtaking time—can be disruptive, improvisatory, a calling-out. Poetic acts like this, as bell hooks points out in Talking Back, must involve an act of resistance “quite different from ordinary talk or the personal confession.” A slightly more disorderly, and self-disorderly, approach is needed, lest it be “trivialized or romanticized in the rhetoric of those who would advocate a shallow politic which . . . turns voices and beings . . . into commodity, spectacle.”
After all, it is not only physical force that compels obedience. Though it is controversial, and certainly not comfortable for some, to compare the modern-day white liberal with the centuries’-old white overseer, we know that, either way, with its codes and its gentility, white power, or “being-white,” does not need a whip. “Diversity,” “inner city,” “urban”—there are so many ways that, via the same euphemized language used to ameliorate racial injustice, we also reinforce it.
Thus, many poets interrogate form just as they interrogate the story of “what happened.” Infiltrative, not merely representational, they get at not only the caressable facts of history, but race’s baffling, encoded sheen. Here is Cynthia Hogue, in “Ars Cora”:
traveled to New York
with the white Creole
couple who owned
her [own, adj. intensifier,
as in: to thine own self be,
Race and white supremacy in America: persistent as bad fiction, with predictable plotlines, two-dimensional characters, subject-less sentences. Not surprisingly, many of the poets compelled to address race are Southerners, which, in American racial discourse, means that they’re the Bad Guys.
Here is Jane Cooper, from “Being Southern:”
It’s like being German.
Either you remember that yours was the defeated country. . . . or you acknowledge the guilt, not even your own guilt, but
Can any white person write this, whose ancestors once kept slaves? ...
Take your guilt to school. Read your guilt in your diplomas or the
lines of the marriage ceremony. Face your guilt head-on in the eyes of lover, neighbor, child. Ask to be buried in your guilt. . . .
When is memory transforming? When, a form of real estate?
Perhaps the world’s most boring, and lethal, story. To infiltrate the performance of being-white is first to blow its cover. The poem’s brazen direct address and rhetorical questions display anger, an important and forbidden emotion in racial discourse, our avoidance (if we avoid it, because some of us don’t) conditioned by white power, which delegitimizes its claims as “emotional,” and thus “irrational.” She challenges the sacred cow of guilt (i.e., all white people, especially white Southerners, are supposed to feel guilt), pointing out instead that guilt can be part of an endless, self-reflexive, loop that only keeps white power from being undercut. Guilt, this whistleblowing-poem says, is just a disguise for refusal.
Race refers to a performance, a dramaturgy of power, then, as well as the material inequities that are its result, and which we must also talk about. But the eros described above, the longing for healing and community that “even” white people can have, can easily be subverted if we see race only as something explicit, like the use of racial epithets (known as de facto racism) or race-based exclusions (de jure racism). Instead, we must be on the lookout for the codes and idiom by which racialized perception and white-power reinforcement travel at will through many of our American experiences, what John L. Jackson calls de cardio racism, or racism “in the heart.” Accordingly, says Jackson, often lurking behind white guilt or white silence is the fear of speaking out, and being one of “those” white people—the perpetrators of racism. Or, of speaking out and being what he calls the “new racial sinner”—the one who calls another “racist.”
In reality, it is likely that there is always racism afoot in each of our perceptions, no matter where we are on the racial spectrum. As James C. Scott says, in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, in the dramaturgy of power, even the powerful are performing.
To Margaret Rozga, in “Arrest the White Girls,” racism is a monster:
You girls should stay away from there.
You don’t know what you’re doing, hanging around with
In that moment something overwhelming filled the room.
I could see the unsaid word
try to wrap its tentacles around us.
In poems by Kate Daniels and Tony Hoagland, it is more of a fog that takes over:
I could find nothing in his face
To frighten me, and something old
Inside was punctured and started to empty, Draining itself like a ruptured boil.
And though that felt like a healing, poison Still poured out, dampening the space Where [he] and I stood. . . .
Now, as our bodies clamored
For the culmination, clouds of old history
Reverse-fumigated the room. . . .
But when a black man and a white man
Turn their glances on each other,
The air suddenly fills up with secret signs. . . .
And it gets hard to see through
all that smoke and burning shrubbery.
And what with the internal sirens
and the historical foghorn
and the sprinkler system
designed to suppress non-categorical fraternization. . . .
you just want to put your hands over your head and step away from the vehicle.
The constant fear of calling out, or being called out, risks cementing this isolation and misunderstanding. And so, reflecting the rest of society’s reticence and self-limitation, many poems by white poets are often characterized by paranoia or fear.
Sharon Olds’s poem, “On the Subway,” shows us a few of the ways of being-white, constraints like the racial role of either “white-as-helpless:”
life he could take so easily and break across his knee
like a stick or, “white bitch”:
the way I am
living off his life, eating the steak he does not eat, as if I am taking the food from his mouth.
Yet, in Olds’s poem, these narratives appear almost as laws of the universe, which she must engage in “without meaning or / trying to:”
We are stuck on opposite sides of the car, a couple of (Daniels, “Doc”) molecules stuck in a rod of light rapidly moving through darkness.The young man here is not a human. And neither is she. Surely there is much more in her experience than just these racialized thoughts. To paraphrase Jackson again, if racism was “erased” by the laws of the last century or so—where did all the racists go? What is more likely, and close attention bears this out, is that all the racist “wolves” are still here, just now dressed in sheep’s clothing. And, though few will want to hear this, they are us.
I Am Tony Hoagland
Poems about race operate in a field of understanding that is profoundly charged, and charged differently depending on how we were socialized, what kinds of racial traumas we’ve been exposed to, and what kinds of access—or not—we have had to the so- called American Dream. In this way, we inhabit our times, and they us.
Tony Hoagland’s name is now so associated with white racial ignorance—or oppression, or mistakes, depending on how you see his work—that he has become a container for many of our racial paranoias and pain. To paraphrase a recent conversation on another poet’s Facebook wall, in response to Jenny Browne’s poem “When Tony Hoagland Says My Maternal Instincts are Impressive”—which never refers to Hoagland, or to race for that matter—the character of “Tony Hoagland,” like Persephone, now appears in literary circles like some sort of mythical being. Meaning, it has qualities of cultural wishfulness. Meaning, at least for white people, What We Wish We Were Not. Unfortunately, that doesn’t change what we, who are being-white, are. Are part of, and perpetuate. And, equally important, keeps us from getting to the important problems and possibilities in Hoagland’s work—which reflect the system of those of us who are white.
The last two stanzas of Hoagland’s “Foghorn” contain, in some ways, the whole of our national dilemma, and become, like The Help, a racial justice litmus test. He tries to address this, naming a “land where consciousness is a fiction”:
through the oxygen mask of my lies and the skin of my self-deception, this is what I say:
Brother, lean your brown face down and let me look at you.
Hoagland begins his ending by trying to acknowledge not only the nation’s faults and ethical frailties, but also his own. Or, at least, that is what a sympathetic reader might see. Hoagland’s strategy can be read very differently depending on how one perceives the speaker’s racialized experience, and according to what one’s own racialized experience has been.
At the very least, he attempts to set the record straight about America’s state of the nation regarding race: to him, we are unconscious, and the speaker himself, perhaps as a representative member, “lies” and is prone to “self-deception.” What is not clear, however, is what the speaker’s stake is here; are these words merely self-descriptive, or do they bear the force of real rupture? Is the speaker really trying to see, or move, “through”? I am less interested in prescribing what a work of art should or shouldn’t do than in pointing out the performance of being-white, and the fact that what Hoagland does here is neither accident nor displeasing to the power structures—in academia, in publishing—that look and sound overwhelmingly like him.
The last couplet of “Foghorn” begins with a word that, especially in racial discourse, is heavily encoded. In Black culture, calling someone “brother” is an affirmation of a shared experience, community, inclusion. Often, invitation-only. But “brother” has also been taken up by white counterculture members of all stripes and generations, borrowing and inviting themselves into these meanings as if to evade their privilege. The line continues by using two imperative verb phrases—“lean . . . down” and “let me”—which, given that the speaker is a white man, and is asking (ordering?) a Black man to reveal himself or come near—a gesture that is often, for people of color, a gateway to physical harm, psychological harm if they are lucky—sets up a powerful cue for dominance, at least to those readers trained by their experience to read the racial codes that way. So, “brother” may be an attempt to defuse that, and indicate a quite different gesture. But, from this perspective, what gesture could that be, other than dominance, and especially given that the speaker has already revealed himself at numerous times as being unconscious, and a liar?
My own sense is that Hoagland is alluding to another, older gesture in poetry, the gesture of embrace, eros, and grief—the gesture of, for instance, an aubade. He uses the imperative not to dominate, but to invite. He names the other man as having a “brown face” not to objectify, but to see and to appreciate. It is a gesture of attempted intimacy. Likewise, when he invites the other man to “let me look at you,” he is perhaps trying to also acknowledge that he, the speaker, needs to see, that, given the deep pull of the “fog” of his socialized experience, he, and they if there is ever to be a “they,” needs to ground himself in an encounter—real, lived.
I find this latter interpretation plausible; I also admire Hoagland’s ambition, verve, and willingness to take risks in approaching the subject of race in his poetry. But, no matter what its aims are, “Foghorn” does not succeed. Hoagland presents the subconscious influences of race in himself in a way that’s too resigned, guarded—even resistant. The poem seems more focused on the white speaker’s need to be free of his burden of the “fog” than the black man’s who, depicted so generically, seems more like a reference point or object than an actual human being. What Hoagland fails to do here is the crucial act of self-disruption, which would break the speaker through the fog into an awareness that we are all defined in ways we cannot control, and that we exist within a structure of white supremacy that has material consequences—and for people of color, often dangerous and depleting ones.
This Is (For the Lover In You)
We are not the first society to live in an aftermath of slavery. Orlando Patterson, in Slavery and Social Death, quotes Seneca, distinguishing between “the performance by the slave of what he is obliged to do” (ministerium), and “what was performed ‘not by command but voluntarily’” (beneficium), a boundary that sounds eerily like ours, as we try to construct relationships on this power-stratified stage.
Hoagland’s poetic strategies, like those of many who are socialized as white, seem to assume this sense of voluntary relations, a given “we,” no matter his readers’ racialized experience, not realizing how many interracial interactions bear a trace of—via white power, or the haunting tropes of skin color—an element of ministerium. For to say no, to piss off a white person, has real risks for a person of color in our society, whether rhetorical (e.g. being seeing as a “crazy n—”) or concrete, given that that white person might be connected to someone who holds the keys to a job, a mortgage, etc. Or publishing your poems.
Four years ago, Claudia Rankine accused Hoagland of expressing racist sentiment in his poem “The Change” at an event at the Associated Writing Programs Conference. He issued a public response. So much commentary has been generated by this exchange, referred to by Rankine as a “dialogue,” that I will not add to it here. But I will borrow from R. Erica Doyle a different name for what Rankine did: an intervention. And I will point to the most important word in what Rankine wrote in her piece—its last—which so many of those who weighed in seemed not to hear.
That word? “Please.”
Awake Inside of Race
A poet is somebody free.
For a poem to ask what emancipated bodies and language look like, it needs to move past the stories in which we are merely race-characters, toward race-realness, which means toward a kind of identity-instability. For someone white-presenting, as we move through the world, on and off the page, there is the option of being-white, but there is also the option of being a wildcard, a traitor. Yet this also means, in real ways, putting ourselves within range of white power’s whip. This power is disguised, of course,euphemized in stories of “standards” and supposedly “objective” measurements. In poetry, this is often hidden in the creation of seemingly neutral formations like publishers’ author lists, journals’ books reviewed (and reviewers), and anthologies’ tables of contents.
“Multicultural inclusiveness prevails,” complained Helen Vendler in 2011 about Rita Dove’s anthology-editing, and then asked, “why are we being asked to sample so many poets of little or no lasting value? Anthologists may now be extending a too general welcome.” These interlopers, the “multicultural” poets, she implied, produce work that is merely “thematic,” not well-crafted.
But when she said, “there is a certain objectivity bestowed by the mere passage of time, and its sifting of wheat from chaff,” Vendler ignored her own use of metonymy: it is of course not time, but human beings—and non-“multicultural” ones at that—who “objectively” measure art. So, it’s no accident that it is on aesthetic grounds that a “multicultural” poem is criticized. As Nell Painter points out, in The History of White People, so, too, has been the “evidence” of all white-ascendant thought. For a white poet, then, putting one’s poems in range of the whip is not about merely acknowledging one’s being-white; it’s not about trying to evade, or disown, one’s privilege. It is about acting, on the page, in such a way that white privilege, which is to say white power, will want to disown you.
C.D. Wright, in One with Others, chronicles the experience of a Southern white woman who went against the racial codes, and was thus ostracized and punished, who “feels a quick sting”:
notes the rapid swelling in the webbing between her thumb and index. . .
the throb, already throbbing,
. . . she
peers into the coleus the dusty reddish thing, the sickening hourglasses along its thick length as it creeps soundlessly into the foliage, and it passes through her mind as her body is passing out that Southerners sympathizing with the North were called Copperheads.
The “sickening” enforcement of white power, which “creeps soundlessly,” can take many forms. In poetry, our punishment will be aesthetic. The physical body, punished through the lyrical body, is then told that no punishment has occurred. No matter your race, the work will be called “political,” “didactic,” “thematic,” or “angry.” The racism gets transmuted, through the alchemy of power, into code: the critique will never be about race. It will be about “craft.” “Quality.”
The white poet then becomes a race-traitor, an informant, giving up, and giving up on, the particular brand of self-centeredness with which white power cloaks itself. In Sebastian Matthews’s “High Wire Act, McCabe’s Guitar Shop,” the speaker gives up an audience member who’s begun a competing performance of being-white in the middle of a James Blood Ulmer set:
Then this, have to say it, this dumb
The speaker gives his “testimony” that betrays, defying the script and stageplay of being-white:
stands up . . . and starts
Clapping…out of time, loud
Like a teenager alone in a mansion Fingering his lighter. I turn
To Seth, aghast, and he’s staring too. The drummer furious in his hands.
Ulmer stalks the stage. . . . . . . then walks right up
To this moron clapping, and plays chords That shout, “Sit down, Dumbass.”
Revealing his rage at the other white man, he shows the temporary, if hidden, unity in being awake inside of race, and that white power has an effect not just on the brown people in the room, but the white ones as well:
And I’m shouting in my head, “Stop it, Stop it, stop it, stop it!”
It is fitting that the scene describes the dynamics in terms of aesthetics: the “dumb” white guy is not “in the know” musically, which here also means not in the know racially. Likewise, in poetry, being “dumb” about our aesthetic moves is not separate from being dumb racially. What do emancipated bodies and language look like? Partly, they look like us. And so do our poems. But, for those like the speaker, who might experience being “in the know,” its price for entry is the willingness to let go of a version of reality in which we, white folk, are center. A version that is difficult for many white Americans to see, yet which, like it or not, tropes its way into each of our personal experiences, our poems, our critiques of others’ poems, our anthologies, our syllabi, our faculties. Thus, though it is a good start, it is not enough merely to add a few more people of color to each of these spaces; the white experience, and its “unanimous” “standards” must also be discerned, and dismantled, within them.
Racism and white supremacy do not affect us all in the same ways, obviously. But the dramaturgy of power, the way that codes and rules get handed down, remains eerily similar. Gwendolyn Brooks illuminates this transmission in her description of Satin Legs Smith:
The pasts of his ancestors lean against Him. Crowd him. Fog out his identity. Hundreds of hungers mingle with his own, Hundreds of voices advise so dexterously He quite considers his reactions his. . . . That everything is—simply what it is.
Although it may seem to many white people, especially in the poetry world, that things “just are”—ideas about what makes a poem good, or choices in our own poem- making—they are inflected by race and, as such, are already imaginatively impoverished. It is not necessary to write explicitly about whiteness, but there is no real “We” possible between poem and reader unless there is some acknowledging, and containing of, its “fight-ness”—the way race and its self-centered ideologies move so freely through our pens.
So much more is needed. Poems that neither propose a “pretend racelessness,” as Major Jackson puts it, nor are jailed by the race border patrol. Poems that begin to work with a reality that is not post-race, but race-real. And know the difference between news and News, meaning something new: white people telling each other about where we learned what we need to unlearn; then, with help, learning the different, and life-giving. News: seeking out the History in which we are small, minor characters. And not The Good Ones. Opening, to a different sound in the body. The tongue, and hips. A different relationship to space and time. From shame, humility, and humanness, that becomes a gentle Force. Can we—will we?—make something whole from the owned and disowned in the American experience? For it is all right here, waiting for our handiwork. However piecemeal, our poems can begin to rewrite this story, whether it is the “dis-remembered” past, or the closed, painful spaces in the present. I want to see, on the page and in our relationships and communities, poems that challenge this fulcrum, that break open our symbol sets, embody accountability, open up new narrative channels and undiscovered histories. Poems that know how to listen, so well, that their formal choices might finally “give name to the nameless,” as Audre Lorde said, “so it can be thought.”
Initially published in The Boston Review 4/23/15