CHOP/THE WORLD/THE KWANSABA
Redmond, Treasure Shields. chop: a collection of kwansabas for fannie lou hamer. Stow, Ohio: Winged City Chapbooks, 2015.
"Art breaks open a dimension inaccessible to other experience," Herbert Marcuse wrote in the conclusion of The Aesthetic Dimension: Toward a Critique of Marxist Aesthetics (1978), "a dimension in which human beings, nature, and things no longer stand under the law of the established reality principle" (72). Like other thinkers of his tribe, Marcuse reified the limits of the binary as he struggled to break free from its grip. His dilemma is nicely refracted in the closing proposition of his lucid essay: "If the remembrance of things past would become a motive power in the struggle for changing the world, the struggle would be waged for a revolution hitherto suppressed in the previous historical revolutions" (73). Echoing a bourgeois title to locate the conditional, he illuminates the suppressive force of language that imprisons one in "the established reality principle." Is there no way out? Yes, there is, but Marcuse stopped short of taking it. Reality principles are not established or fixed; they are remarkably fluid. Over a long period of time, a revolution first changes prevailing modes of thinking, which, during another span of time, changes the material conditions of human life. Thus, Fannie Lou Hamer was a bit more perspicacious than Marcuse in understanding revolution. She lived what he could only theorize.
As an engaged poet who wishes to open a hitherto rarely accessed dimension, Treasure Redmond is to be commended for crafting a collection of kwansabas as a tribute to one of the bravest women who ever lived in the Mississippi Delta. chop is book that W. E. B. DuBois might have mentioned favorably in The Gift of Black Folk (1924). Redmond took the challenge of contemporary poetics to be innovative in using a fixed form, the kwansaba; she also accepted the challenge of representing how the forms of things unknown functioned in Hamer's mind and in Hamer's letting a light shine on the American body politic of the twentieth century. In her introductory remarks for the collection, Redmond asserts that her intention was to let "the poems seek to work in concert using the economical nature of the Kwansaba form to get at what was most essential about Hamer's mammoth contribution to American life"(2). chop is a remarkable fulfillment of that intention.
The collection is a practical touchstone for testing Marcuse's theory regarding aesthetic dimensions. The kwansaba, for the benefit of those who are unfamiliar with the form, was invented by Eugene B. Redmond in 1995, and it is a form that demands discipline, craft and craftiness. A kwansaba must have seven lines; each line must contain seven words; each word must have seven or fewer letters. Many poets choose to write lines in their kwansabas that flow with minimal internal punctuation, enabling readers to experience uninterrupted sweeps of sound. Treasure Redmond, however, maximizes the implicit economy of the kwansaba, using short units of sound to imitate the syntactic/synchronic character of thought and the additive qualities of speech. Consider five lines from "justice" (page 14):
we stay in holly springs. can't stay
in oxford. awaiting trial like daniel. den
so loud we hear it 25 miles
away. sheriff, police, highway patrol namd law
breakr. they got cousins in the jury
Line 2 is the jewel . The occurrence of a period between "daniel" and "den" is a rewarding disruption of our clichéd expectation ---daniel (in the lion's ) den; we are also sound-slammed into recognition of the hitherto unavailable by "den/so loud," momentarily hearing the "din" in the "den," a most accurate rendering of Mississippi Delta dialect. One suspects that Redmond learned how to use dialect judiciously from the master poets Paul Laurence Dunbar and Sterling A. Brown and from listening attentively to how talk sounds and means in some parts of Mississippi.
It unlikely that chop or any collection of modern poetry can or should escape the reality principles signified by language, because the dimensions the kwansabas open for us are not ahistorical. Indeed, for readers who know little about Civil Rights history in Mississippi, a full appreciation of those dimensions might require surfing the Internet, or, reading For Freedom's Sake: The Life of Fannie Lou Hamer (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1999) by Chana Kai Lee and other books about the unfinished struggles for civil and human rights in the American South. The specific referents in the poems -----"winona /jail," "fannie, annie and vickie," "marlowe," "paps," and " 'lantic city," for example--and Redmond's chronological sampling from Hamer's life history test one's cultural literacy.
Readers will construct the aesthetic dimensions of chop in accordance with the knowledge or lack of knowledge they can use in negotiations with the kwansabas. Much to her credit, Treasure Redmond demonstrates how the discipline of the kwansaba can move readers to have transformative aesthetic experiences in acquiring a more critical sense of America's history.
Jerry W. Ward, Jr.
September 15, 2015