Saturday, November 17, 2007

Essex Hemphill's Ceremonies and Muriel Rukeyser's The Life of Poetry

The pairing of these two books for me feels heavily ironical. I have read Rukeyser’s book at least three times; it’s a book I return to because I want to remember and reengage with it. I’ve only read Ceremonies once before and that was when I first bought it, in 1992 or 1993, when it first was published. I haven’t returned to it and have actually recoiled from it. Ceremonies represents, for me, a particular time in life when many people were dying. These were people that I knew and was close to and this book, Ceremonies, and two others Beam’s In the Life, and the Hemphill anthology, Brother to Brother, were important, vitally important, with all of the vita that the root of the word suggests, to a group of black gay men that I knew. Many of them have now passed on like Hemphill and Beam. The others I’ve lost touch with because I moved, now many times. So there are all of these levels of grief associated with Ceremonies for me. As I’ve read it for the past week, the grief hasn’t lessened. In fact, it is almost unbearable, such that I’ve only read about 20 pages at a time - in the mornings, until I cry, and then I set it aside and proceed with the day. The tears are primarily about grief and though I can see elements of the book that are gorgeous (as well as things that I think are weak about some of the poems), I can barely muster the passion for writing critically about this book.

This is why I left English for the first time. Sometimes language has everything to offer in mourning, in grief. Sometimes it has nothing. Sometimes what we must give to sadness and anger is action and work, not words. I often thought that my life and my mind were split between the “k” and the “d”. The wor, the war, the whor were constant beginnings, but what you put at the end made a difference. Sitting at a computer, writing words or talking on the telephone, moving about, meeting new people, making more connections, doing work. Words or works. I want to not have to chose between the two, but am often caught in the faux choice with the two warring, each demanding exclusive time and attention.

The Life of Poetry makes no such demands. Perhaps because it is an older text, it makes no imminent demands on my time and attention. It makes me feel things, certainly, but it doesn’t taunt me. I made no commitments to Rukeyser about how I should life my life. She makes no demands of me. To the people who read Hemphill and loved him, I made promises. Some that I’ve kept, some, I fear, I’ve compromised, and some I’ve forgotten. This book reminds me. That reminder is not some faded picture with happy memories of salt water taffy by a board walk. It is a reminder of what poetry is, when Rukeyser says that she “cannot say what poetry is.”

I know that our sufferings and our concentrated joy, our states of plunging far and dark and turning to come back to the world -- so that the moment of intense turning seems still and universal -- all are here, in a music like the music of our time, like the hero and like the anonymous forgotten; and there is an exchange here in which our lives are met, and created. (The Life of Poetry, p. 172.)

For me, there is an exchange in Ceremonies in which my life is created. Hemphill is a narrative poet of spare, direct lines. Ceremonies is published just before Audre Lorde’s death and while he was writing while she was, it has her influence, as well as the influence of Gwendolyn Brooks and June Jordan.* What I find fascinating about this collection is the interplay of poems and prose. Much of the prose is a blending of memoir and personal essays. I think of this type of writing - working across genres and pressing each of the genres to extremes - as characteristic of political writers. I think that Hemphill’s poems couldn’t contain everything that he wanted to say. They couldn’t contain the anger, the analysis, the truth that he needed to say. Similarly, the prose couldn’t contain everything either. The two bled into one another and come together in this book.

Reading Ceremonies alongside of Rukeyser’s The Life of Poetry highlights the similar tension in The Life of Poetry. There are passages of the book that are a poem; they press the language so hard and so far that though it appears like prose, it isn’t. And, of course, Rukeyser ends The Life of Poetry by writing a poetic autobiography. By poetic, I mean not the autobiography of her poetry, although it does function that way, rather I mean an autobiography that is poetic, informed by the world of poetry. The entire narrative of The Life of Poetry drives to the life story of Muriel Rukeyser which is then transformed into the meaning of peace and how we will create peace. That narrative trajectory which is compelled through autobiography seems a similar trajectory through Ceremonies. Although Hemphill’s material concerns may be different than Rukeyser’s, I think that the fundamental question that both are grappling with in these books is, how shall we live our lives in a way that is honest to our very beings and that makes a difference in the world.

*I’m interested in what black, gay male poets today might identify Hemphill and Assoto Saint as forefathers. I think of Carl Phillips or Reginald Shepherd and see their work certainly enabled by the work of Hemphill and Saint, but I wouldn’t directly map their writing as closely.

1 comment:

Nicki Hastie said...

Wow! There are some amazing lines here, Julie. There's a whole book behind this:

Sometimes language has everything to offer in mourning, in grief. Sometimes it has nothing. Sometimes what we must give to sadness and anger is action and work, not words. I often thought that my life and my mind were split between the “k” and the “d”.

Whatever you did or didn't want to write about Essex Hemphill's Ceremonies (a book I'm afraid to say I don't know), your passion for words and work came through.