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Monday, August 3, 2015

Of Nature, Nation, and the Ethnic Body




To echo a famous twentieth-century statement,  the mind should prompt the mouth to say A BODY IS A BODY IS A BODY, aware that the voiced words refer to and locate an indivisible subject and object..  Or perhaps the utterance dislocates the invisible to bring into view, into perspective, a something in the world that the world is determined to impale with the idea that the something is ethnic and different and to talked about.  If the something that is so embodied speaks, especially in terms of accepting its ethnicity, the something that is a human being may be contemplating its relationship to nature and to its properties and privileges as a constituent of a nation.  Leave all of that in the conditional. Or export it to POEM, to POETRY. It is poetry and the poem that can facilitate contemplating the mysteries of nature that always outpace human understanding. These mysteries are akin to those which invite consideration  of the nature of  nations ---- the birth, maturation, and death of nations. The will behind the impulse to beget social contracts that are the invisible skeletons of nations. Are all these nations in one sense or another ETHNIC by virtue of being combinations of people identified as “ethnic”?  Poem, the use of the potential magic of language in its splendid arbitrary nature ---ah, the endless shapes that sound assumes.  Poem, the vehicle for maximizing our discourses regarding nature and nation and the unstable temporal and spatial identities of bodies assumed and  reported to  be ethnic.  The poem can name the contradictions, the discord of a) having common national or cultural connections and b) having origins by virtue of birth or heritage which may or may not correspondence with the origins of a specified nation. In this sense, bodies account for their ethnicities.  They move into or out of ethnicity by accident or choice, forever bearing the traces and onus of being or existing. Of all our existing and future genres, it is the poem to which we turn to make sense (and occasionally nonsense) of ethnic motions and notions. The indeterminate status of poem as poem is truly the force that through the green fuse drive the flower.

Here I offer as catalysts for discussion three of my own poems which do not overtly identify my ethnicity because they are, by their nature,  beyond both nationality and ethnicity, until (and this is the crucial turn) I as the voice of a body interpret them into the imagined spaces marked national and ethnic. The first is “Poem 70,” written to annotate my success in arriving at the age of seventy:


Poem 70

Small, common, not tired

Nor weary nor worn,

Powerful I am

I am an infinite eye/


Reviving, deriving midnight

From a trinity of signifying parrots---


Passing hep to hopping

The jarring jam they

Dream words

Syntax wax


She and he

Who prismed light---grandeur

Parents razing towers

From/form a sentence ---me/I


Stone immune to polish,

To ignorant charms

Clashing by day,

Superlative subparticles endure----


Invited to logic wild

Crazy quilting

Wet bones on a mountain,

Fear no evil we/I

Zillion paragraphs

Am defiant dance of chapters,

Have bibled seventy gospels

Shadowed through

The middle between

Of hardships and the rock of ages,

Have published sleep----


A miracle of invisibility

I am

A purpose to remember.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 31, 2013


It is the job of a reader to make intelligent guesses about whether the voice in the poem, the speaking “I”,  is a citizen of the United States of American and an African American or a Chinese person who is by heritage a citizen of Cuba.  The reader does not know she is supposed to make such guesses until the poet who as author is no longer related to the poem once it flows freely in the world proposes that these guesses rather than a different set of speculations ought to be undertaken.  Much depends are where the clues are coming from.

The second poem, “Poem 65,” may have incorporated more clues, especially in the choice of using a line from Walt Whitman as an epigraph. Nevertheless, these clues may depend on the extent of a reader’s cultural literacy.

Poem 65

“Old age superbly rising! Ineffable grace of dying days!”

                                                ---Walt Whitman, Leaves of Grass


That year love lassoed us

Nailed us to a burning tree.


A trillion stars assumed our minds

Fed us honey and pungent gasoline

In a myth-drenched season.


And want of reason turned us a trope.


In those days a mosquito sang a fatal song

So wrong we cracked bones on a killing floor.


Now in the light of night

Red magnolias blow and children laugh outright


We embrace sanguine memories

Against the fears watered by our fears


Old age and scuppernong have learned us

Charity for the resurrecting past


Tolerance for the blue holes of blessings

Grown ineffable in our eyes and ears.


For some but not all readers who acknowledge their membership within the boundaries of a certain ethnicity the clues may be the words killing floor and blue holes, words that in African American speech communities possess special connotations. These words may allude to certain blues lyrics and establish a semantic relationship with blues lyrics.  If that is the case, it is appropriate to identify the “we” in the poem with black Americans.  Nevertheless, black Americans do not have a monopoly on how words revolve around the concept of ethnicity.  The language of the poem has the option of not being ethnic, unless we are willing to identify the concept of ethnicity as a universal item that manifests itself in multiple forms.

The third poem, “Winter Solitude,” speaks of time, a particular season that marks a cycle in Nature, and actions that require no linking to nation or country.  It exercises its option to defy ethnicity, to be beyond ethnicity, unless the words the second line, segregates, peace be still and jazz are limited to reductive orbits in culture-bound locations. Second line does refer to a culture-bound ritual associate with funerals and parade celebrations in New Orleans, Louisiana; the phrase “peace be still” is exported directly from a refrain in an African American gospel song. In this way the ethnic referents can wear the mask of being associated with Paul Laurence Dunbar’s famous poem “We Wear the Mask.”

Winter Solitude

Funeral follows funeral---

the second line between ---

resentment segregates the tombs.


The universe is wrinkled

with the whims and the winds.

Saints cut of silk, frantic like the turf,

wanting terror to touch down,

explode lucid leaves of grass


for the asking

is nevermore.

The universe is wrinkled

with the whims of mothball hours.

Time.  An old man erect,

folding the canals of his bones.

An old woman, pious,

rigid in her rapture on an urn,

grinning toothless passion.

The universe is wrinkled

with the whims of worried days.

Words copulate not

none the less but more.

Salvation burns

where peace be still

is still to be.

The universe is wrinkled

with the whims of stinging seconds


Sounds, jazz iced down,

signal the ending

always beginning

time.  Sufferings in ascetic hymns

wash.  Absolute soap for the soul.

Primate wings renounce a name.

Yes, seed clich├ęs. .Pungent despair

in the fragrant dust.  Flowers rust.

Gravity marks wasting time.

                        December 21, 2011


Poems, I would argue, do reveal and conceal what is ethnic in talk about nature and nation, and the ethnic pleasure is in the always unfinished revolutions of interpretation.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

November 3, 2014

Wuhan, China





Sunday, August 2, 2015

When we endorse, the devil finds work

When We Endorse, the Devil Finds Work


If the term agent provocateur can be transformed to yield a positive meaning, it is to be noted that Howard Rambsy II is an American cultural scholar who succeeds in doing so.  Since 2013, he has consistently provoked readers of his "Cultural Front" blogspot to think about what is debilitating, what is neutral, and what is wholesome in American cultural commerce.  His July 30, 2015 entry "From Baldwin to Morrison & Coats: a brief history of endorsements" is typical.

Rambsy invites us to reread the letter "Black Writers in Praise of Toni Morrison" (New York Times, January 24, 1988), a tribute signed by 48 scholars, writers, and artists who proclaimed: "Your gifts to us have changed and made more gentle our real time together.  And so we write, here, hoping not to delay, not to arrive, in any way, late with this, our simple tribute to the seismic character and beauty of your writing.  And furthermore, in grateful wonder at the advent of "Beloved" you most recent gift to our community, our country, our conscience, our courage flourishing as it grows, we here record our pride, our respect and our appreciation for the treasury of your findings and invention."  The prose was purple; the sentiment, genuine. The urgency of the letter was prompted by recognizing that James Baldwin "never received the honor of these keystones to the canon of American literature: the National Book Award and the Pulitzer Prize: never."  When Baldwin's funeral was held on December 8, 1987, Morrison did not have these keystones in her hands.

The letter is an intra-ethnic endorsement of Morrison's achievements.  It is crucial for interpretation of American cultural history to notice it was published in the New York Times rather than in the Baltimore Afro-American or the Philadelphia Defender.

Rambsy provokes me to wonder to what extent the letter reiterates the yearnings of James Weldon Johnson's  1921 and 1931 prefaces for The Book of American Negro Poetry.  I wonder how the act gives substance to the shadow of contradiction.  Why after being accorded respect by some Americans did Morrison need to be "canonized" by other Americans associated with the so-called mainstream literary establishment or thought-and taste-control mafia?  One easy answer: canonization brings a few dollars as well as placement in the fluid list that complements a redefined American literary history.  Fate or luck or accident ultimately ordained that Morrison would receive a global keystone.  It is reasonable to surmise that the letter assisted Fate.

When Rambsy draws attention to what has occurred in 2015, skepticism dawns.  He quotes only a portion of  Toni Morrison's blurb for Ta-Nehisi Coates'  Between the World and Me.  The blurb in full reads:

"I've been wondering who might fill the intellectual void that plagued me after James Baldwin died. Clearly it is Ta-Nehisi Coates.  The language of Between the World and Me, like Coates's journey, is visceral, eloquent, and beautifully redemptive.  And its examination of the hazards and hopes of black male life is as profound as it is revelatory.  This is required reading."

I have no reason to doubt the sincerity of Morrison's expression, for I recognize that what plagued her did not plague everyone between 1987 and 2015. Reading  W. E. B. DuBois, Margaret Walker, Cornel West, Kalamu ya Salaam, Michelle Alexander,    Arnold Rampersad,  Amiri Baraka,  Lorenzo Thomas,  bell hooks,  Tom Dent, Houston Baker, Angela Davis,  Trudier Harris, Richard Wright and others did not allow me to have a sense that an intellectual void existed. I chose to seek critical insights rather than redemption and undelivered moral comfort

What I'll want to determine, once I read Coates's book, is something about the tension which results from his directing readers to Wright in the title and using the epistolary form in the contents which evokes Baldwin.  I suspect most reviewers are comfortable with the moral distance or "transcendent freedom"  that can be had from reading someone's letter to a nephew or a son.  That kind of reading is less painful than dealing with a kind of direct association with horror that Wright demands.  That is the key.  The more Coates is characterized as a new embodiment of Baldwin, the less one has to suffer what Wright demanded that women and men must suffer to render life meaningful.  My embrace of Wright obviously sets me apart from Coates's  reviewers who seek to minimize the sharing of pain by attributing its force mainly to the victims (black people) and less so to those who perpetuate reasons (thug-terrorists domestic and global) for the body to be in pain. Should I discover that Coates does not examine the hazards and hopes of male, female and other-gendered life, I shall be assured that he is not a clone of James Baldwin but a thinker who stands on the shoulders of giants and projects a vision that is not naively transcendent.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.      August 3, 2015

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Nadhiri's digital poetry

Asili Ya Nadhiri's Digital Poetry and Performance


After both reading and listening to Nadhiri's tonal drawing "wandering here in this dark where it eating up the light" (, I observed:

This double-voiced rendering of the tonal drawing is an example of what might occur when a poem escapes the prison of print and page and becomes an item in digital poetry.  In a traditional live reading, it would not be possible to have the overlay of sound without the help of some time-delay mechanism. This digital tonal drawing allows us to hear subtle differences in emphasis of inflections in voice 1 and voice 2 as well as echoing that produces a state of "rendered-ing" or "rendering-ed."  Nadhiri's conceptualization sends us to performance theory to find language to discuss self-reflexive echoes.

Good models for such language abound in Black Performance Theory (Durham: Duke University Press, 2014), edited by Thomas F. DeFrantz and Anita Gonzalez.


Nadhiri replied on his website  to the observation on July 25, 2015 at 10:21 p.m. ---"Jerry, you are making me consider extending this manner of expression more presently."   My observation was concerned with poetry and physics, but Nadhiri's email to me (also July 25) redirected me to philosophy and poetry.  He had written that "perhaps the form birthing in 'wandering here in this dark...' might be suggesting one in which the universality impliciting in my latter work might be made more expliciting."  This remark seems related to a thesis Reginald Martin and  I will elaborate in our book Words and Being:

Although common sense is not immune to deconstructive critiques, it is our most powerful tool in efforts to minimize confusion in studies of African American and American cultures and cultural expressions.

Martin and I are not philosophers, but the thesis will make our book  philosophical by accident, especially in our commentary on poetry. Nadhiri's proposition regarding form coming into being can be shifted from the conditional to the declarative.  The aesthetic impact of his tonal drawing is present progressively universal, and it is an occasion for grasping uncommon knowledge. In its digital manifestation, a tonal drawing can initiate deep, common sense thinking about why innovation in  African American poetry matters as we perform literary and social positions.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    July 26, 2015


Tuesday, July 21, 2015

When Classmates Die

When Classmates Die


We think your life was spent

environed by thugs, roses, dogs, fried chicken,

jackasses, mashed potatoes, violence, and buzzards---

all ill-intended to bend your mind,

twisting and breaking off your goals.


Cold, the world-womb, bleeding quick, pregnant

trash-grown ideogasms the young and gifted

are fed daily  by the crazy and the dead.

Jerry W. Ward, Jr.                            July 21, 2015


Sunday, July 12, 2015

Harper Lee's Moral Reckoning

Harper Lee's Moral Reckoning


After reading the Wall Street Journal review by Sam Sacks  of Harper Lee's Go Set a Watchman, I wrote on my Facebook timeline:  This novel obviously upsets some people because it sets the record straight about Southern literature.  A much better novel that deals with a white woman's discoveries about her racist father is Minrose Gwin's The Queen of Palmyra.

According to Sacks, Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird (1960) is "the most beloved novel in American history ---more popular than even the Bible in numerous polls."  It would be a waste of time to correct Sacks's sense of American history or to argue that some other American novel is more beloved than Lee's.  I doubt that the unnamed polls reveal what Mr. Sacks claims, but I do not dismiss the possibility that they tend to confirm that  the fictional Atticus Finch did "become a symbol of the nation's moral conscience." In that case, we can say with confidence that Finch replaced William Faulkner's ambiguous Gavin Stevens (Intruder in the Dust, 1948) as the white male unambiguous heroic figure and moral voice in Southern fiction.  Who defines what is ambiguous, however,  remains a question to be answered.

Sacks clears his throat so as "not to damp the enthusiasm of expectant readers but to introduce a friendly word of caution. 'Go Set a Watchman' is a distressing book, one that delivers a startling rebuttal to the shining idealism of 'To Kill a Mockingbird.'  This story is of the toppling of idols; its major theme is disillusion."

Truth is like oil in the Gulf of Mexico.  It upsets animal, plant and human ecology.

Tough-minded readers should applaud Harper Lee for striking an iconoclastic blow from an assisted living home in Monroeville, Alabama.  At age 89, Lee is rich (her net worth is estimated at $35 million) and on the brink of having to explain herself to a Supreme Being.  She obviously wants to do the right thing, to be on time in Time.  Thus, she is forcing naive readers who relish and consume American idealism to savor Southern realism; with Go Set a Watchman, she is obligating readers to give moral bankruptcy a name.

President George W. Bush awarded her the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 2007.  President Barack Obama awarded her the National Medal of Arts in 2010.  It is just that she should thank her country for these honors by telling a truth before she dies.  It was no accident that she helped her friend Truman Capote with his research for In Cold Blood. In 2015, blood in the United States of America is an ice cube for all of us who are waiting for Godot or watching to see who has an eye on the sparrow.


Jerry W. Ward, Jr.    July 12, 2015

for BK Nation

Thursday, July 9, 2015

Note on "Poem 72"

A NOTE ON "Poem 72"

July 9, 2015


In order to write "Poem 72," I had to begin with the following cluster of words:


tissue  somewhere peril peripatetic biopolartics filmic collusion of neoliberal bondage

(e)lucid sex synergy symbolic ecology disappear violence intimate detachment

allegory glue of privacy token autocritography omniscient freak ground of never -colony

antimimetic mother witch rebeling woman a pink banker of niber hate narrative ethics

causalities unnaturals middle objects reformance eschatological

It has become increasingly difficult to write a simple poem.  It may be that the cluster of words is the interpretation for "Poem 72."


Poem 72

who is neverlonger

a question


jokejester asked

for an answer


for a reason

deemed autocritographical


who mother(out)witted

a black whole of how





Jerry W. Ward, Jr.

July 6, 2015


Sunday, July 5, 2015

From an Open Letter

From "An Open Letter to a Writer"


July 5, 2015


Since we talked back in May, our world has made good progress in collapsing.  When I was much younger, my spirit would have trembled.  Now it laughs, because one can laugh freely if one is Roman Catholic and not Christian, if one is faithful trickster.  Thus, I smirk when African-descended people "forgive" a Satanic thug in Charleston for murdering their relatives and friends in church  ---  a church associated with Denmark Vesey.  We deserve nothing better than to celebrate July 16, 1822 in 2015 by recalling that Christian black folk are insanely good.  They trash the sacrificial intentions of black revolutionaries and walk into the genocide of salvation.  We no longer laugh to keep from crying.  We laugh to keep from killing.


I remember the moral disengagement hatred demands and maintain some distance from it.  As I mentioned to one of our fellow-writers, I write to prevent my becoming a serial killer.  Killing people rarely resolves the systemic problems which encage us.  I write to assassinate time.




Stay well and stay strong in this eternal battle we have to fight.




Jerry W. Ward, Jr.