Ramcat Reads #8
Kolin, Philip C. Emmett Till in Different States: Poems. Chicago: Third World Press, 2015. In the metaphysical philosophy of Martin Heidegger, poiesis is "the essential agency of primary truth." Seeking to rescue diverse human experiences from godlessness, Nathan A. Scott, Jr. noted in The Poetry of Civic Virtue (1976) that
Indeed, Heidegger considers any truly fundamental act of reflection to be an affair of "poetizing," for it is the poet (der Dichter) who is, in his view, far more than the thinker (der Denker), a proficient in the art of "paying heed" to the things of earth. And it is just the capacity for this kind of attentiveness that he regards as the great casualty of those attitudes toward the world engendered by a culture so heavily dominated as our own by the general outlook of scientific positivism. For, in such a climate, the sovereign passion controlling all transactions with reality is that of turning everything to practical account: the furniture of the world is approached predatorily, with an intention to manipulate it and convert it to use. (5)
In contemporary American culture, the sovereign passion is irrational, regressive and hate-driven, and how Heidegger positioned "paying heed" must be revised. Poets and historians and readers of poetry and history (narrative reconstitution of verifiable facts) are also thinkers. We have no necessary and sufficient evidence to prove that one camp or the other is more proficient in attending to the glories and horrors of everyday life. The point is nailed by Philip C. Kolin's Emmett Till in Different States: Poems (Chicago: Third World Press, 2015), and the coffin is nailed tightly should we compare Kolin's extraordinary book with The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2002), edited by Christopher Metress, or with Devery S. Anderson's Emmett Till: The Murder That Shocked the World and Propelled the Civil Rights Movement (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2015). Navigating back and forth between history and poetry can't prevent the assaults of sovereign passion, but it can strengthen us, perhaps, as readers to conduct defensive combat in 2016.
Kolin's poems on the iconic tragedy of Emmett Till urge us to remember that acts of reflection can have the properties of a prism; they can split enlightenment into component parts. Unless I am blindly misreading Kolin, he is encouraging us to discover the pragmatic linking of history and poetry.
Emmett Till in Different States follows in the tradition of Gwendolyn Books, Julius E. Thompson, Langston Hughes, Richard Davidson, Audre Lorde, Bob Dylan, Wanda Coleman, and Sam Cornish ---a few of many American poets who remembered 1955, who used art and their aesthetics to create a socially responsible prism or literature of everyday life to buttress cultural memory. Kolin takes us into the territory of abrasive remembering, the space where language gives birth to images of an iconic moment in America's violent past. These morph into kindred images of a terrible present. Kolin's poems deliver us into the dread of an existential future. They demand that we abandon delusion, embrace common sense to eschew spinformation, and make our peace with the unending obligation of reckoning. A life-promoting account of the furniture in our minds is a virtue not a vice.
As a title, Emmett Till in Different States refers at once to Till's life and death in Illinois and Mississippi and to the aesthetic states advocated by poetry and history in concert with one another. We have options in how to read Kolin's book, but two of them intrigue me. If one reads the forty-nine poems printed between pages 7 and 72 and delays reading paratextual matter, one may hear a long black song performed in many voices, a particular sonic remembering. On the other hand, if one reads the book from cover to cover, one dwells on the architectonics of remembering, the structural machinery of engaging history through the poetic prism of a different consciousness. In this case, one moves through the frames of Till's extended chronology (1902-2016), a prologue extracted verbatim from parts of The Lynching of Emmett Till: A Documentary Narrative, the multiple voices of the poems, the notes on the poems, and Kolin's concise biographical sketch. These two states of experience are relevant for cultural literacy and cultural memory, for the "paying of heed" that the velocity of 2016 tries to deny us. Through the efferent and aesthetic reading so nicely theorized in Louise M. Rosenblatt's The Read The Text The Poem: The Transactional Theory of the Literary Work (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1978), our minds can give rise to a third state of awareness: the reconstituting in the dreadful contexts of 2016 of what Faedra Chatard Carpenter calls "the well circulated, yet never exhausted story of Emmett Till" and of how, as Devery S. Anderson aptly reminds us, the Till case "remains an open wound not only in the South, but throughout America." Like the poems in Frank X. Walker's Turn Me Loose: The Unghosting of Medgar Evers (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2013), the poems in Emmett Till in Different States invites us to stare all the ghosts of America in the eye. It is significant that in the final poem Kolin uses his Roman Catholic poetic sensibility to canonize Till on the feast of St. Moses the Ethiopian, thus putting the domestic terrorism of lynching into the purview of eternal verities and sending us back via poiesis to the continent of mankind's origins.
For 2016, I urge those who say they "love" poetry to explore the territory of Kolin's poetry and be born again in a baptism of blood. We can perhaps manifest our "love" for poetry and the sanctity of human life and have better transactions with reality by walking in the minefields of American and world histories.
Laskas, Jeanne Marie. Concussion. New York: Random House, 2015.
Although a trustworthy friend recommends the film "Concussion" and the Internet trailers featuring Will Smith are inviting, I have yet to see the movie. Based on Jeanne Marie Laskas's September 2009 GQ article "Game Brain,"( http://www.gq.com/story/nfl-players-brain-dementia-study-memo ) the film will probably have the impact of Michael Moore's "Fahrenheit 9/11," which provoked me to utter angry words about a nation of sheep. I imagine "Concussion" is sufficiently right-wing for no film critic to call it an "egregious cinematic stinker," and certainly Dr. Bennet Omalu, upon whose life and forensic work the film is focused, stood on his ground and produced testimony regarding dementia pugilistica that even extreme, conservative critics might allow their hearts to admit has merit. What their mouths will say about Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy is a different can of worms. For devout fans of football and other American gladiatorial games, the film may provoke thirty seconds of anxiety before they return to normal.
I have read Laskas's Concussion and have cultivated more than a grain of admiration for Dr. Omalu as a Nigerian American who poured determination and Igbo spirituality through the alembic of Catholicism to become, despite his agon with depression, a fine role model for African and African American males. I shall not hesitate to say that some immigrants are better models of the excellence to which we should aspire than are some native sons. Laskas has the prescience to grasp that Dr. Omalu's life history is as compelling as what he discovered about tau tangle in the brain of Mike "Iron Mike" Webster and published as the scientific paper "Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy in a National Football League Player" in the July 2005 issue of the prestigious journal Neurosurgery. Laskas is an accomplished, clever writer. Her prose is conversational and witty. There is a delicious edginess in her weaving of an extended parable into the book about the relationship between Dr. Omalu and Dr. Cyril Wecht, whose mastery of hubris makes Donald Trump look like an inept neophyte. Even more tasty is her cultivated muckraking of the National Football League, which continues to value billion dollar profits more than the lives of professional football players. After all, American players are, like Roman gladiators, expendable and replaceable. The bottom line is to keep fans happy and money rolling in. Ethics and morality count as much in the game as washed-up sex workers, or to use language attributed to Dr. Wecht "malicious editorial pimps and reporter prostitutes."
Dr. Omalu's rediscovery and exposure of what had been known in the Western world for several centuries about the effects of brain trauma has cost the NFL a pretty penny, thanks to an April 2015 uncapped settlement that will cost the League about one billion dollars over the next sixty-five years (Laskas 260). That's chump change. The NLF knows it; the retired or discarded, brain-injured players know it; the fans know it. But the American sports industry is an improved version of Shakespeare's Shylock. It will plead in no court for a mere pound of flesh. It will contract athletes to man up and be patriotic about the consequences of concussions.
Miller, W. Jason. Origins of the Dream: Hughes's Poetry and King's Rhetoric. Gainesville, FL: University Press of Florida, 2015. Miller's archival research is first-rate. His astute interpretations of how speech acts can function in social and political histories. Origins of the Dream is an exemplary model for future inquiries about the confluence of thought, poetry, and social action.
Norrell, Robert J. Alex Haley and the Books That Changed a Nation. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015. The ongoing hype from the publishing industry that books can change a nation is a Eurocentric joke. An occasion for a good Asian or African laugh. The Autobiography of Malcolm X did change some aspects of ideology among Americans who wanted to decide whether to canonize Martin Luther King, Jr. or Malcolm X or both; Roots, as book and television series, changed the tenor of conversations about heritage among a significant number of African Americans and created interest in research on ancestry and family history. Neither Haley nor his writings changed the United States of America in ways that can be confirmed by empirical evidence, and in 2016 empirical verification counts for more than nostalgia. Norrell's claim that "Haley wrote the two most important works in black culture in the twentieth century" (227) is utter nonsense. What isn't nonsense, however, is his research in extant Alex Haley papers and court documents, the crucial information that drives inquiry about the nature of collaboration between Haley and Malcolm Little/Malcolm X/El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, about the role of culture industries in promoting or demeaning that book as well as Roots, about Haley's court battles with Margaret Walker and Harold Courlander. What Norrell does well is to reopen interest in one day having an approximation of full disclosure in the case of Alex Haley.
Scroggins, Mark. Intricate Thicket: Reading Late Modernist Poetries. Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 2015. Amidst all the great noise we make about poetry, prizes, and personalities as if we were at a great rally of Dadaists, it is a relief to read Scroggins's blunt assertion: "Any attempt to capture an inclusive picture of contemporary poetry -- even of a particular corner of contemporary poetry --in a given moment is doomed to incompletion and partiality." Intricate Thicket and other works in the growing catalog of offerings from the Modern and Contemporary Poetics series published by the University of Alabama Press remind us that we have responses for everything and reassuring answers for nothing. Scroggins's assertion applies equally to vain efforts to project inclusive histories or portraits of American literature and culture.
White, Shane. Prince of Darkness: The Untold Story of Jeremiah G. Hamilton, Wall Street's First Black Millionaire. New York: St. Martin's Press, 2015. It is instructive to read this biographical study of Hamilton, a man who used his remarkable intelligence to beat nineteenth-century New York financiers at the racial games they loved to play. It is instructive to consider how White, an Australian professor of history, exposes the architecture of writing history with the panache so often lacking among American historians who try to tell a black story. It is most instructive to remind ourselves that 21st century historiography must expand its view of the multi-layered presence of African Americans in the never finished narrative of what it means to be an American.
Wheelock, Stefan M. Barbaric Culture and Black Critique. Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2015. Wheelock's very scholarly examination of black antislavery writers, religion, and the drama of the slaveholding Atlantic invites a new engagement with matters of race and philosophy that Cornel West explored in Keeping Faith (New York: Routledge, 1993).
Jerry W. Ward, Jr. January 6, 2016