African Poetry: Hope Wabuke

Image | Jerry Riley |
Image | Jerry Riley |

The Table of Contents to Hope Wabuke’s The Leaving anatomizes: the first poem is titled “Mind” and the final word in the last poem’s title is “Hips.” Between the two, readers encounter “Mouth” (poem 4), “Breath” (poem 5), “The Nerve” (poem 8), “Skin” (first word in poem 10), “Spine” (poem 14), and “Belly” (poem 15). As a student of the black diaspora and of poetry, I am intrigued by how these titles map and re-map the black woman’s body—a body I approach through the poet’s gendered signature.

Within histories of poetry, the blazon is the privileged form that anatomizes women. We know it most famously from Shakespeare’s Sonnet 130:

My mistress’ eyes are nothing like the sun;
Coral is far more red than her lips’ red;
If snow be white, why then her breasts are dun;
If hairs be wires, black wires grow on her head.
I have seen roses damasked, red and white,
But no such roses see I in her cheeks;
And in some perfumes is there more delight
Than in the breath that from my mistress reeks.
I love to hear her speak, yet well I know
That music hath a far more pleasing sound;
I grant I never saw a goddess go;
My mistress when she walks treads on the ground.
          And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare
          As any she belied with false compare.

Notice how the woman is described as a series of parts—I prefer not to use the word dissected, though dismembered might work. Notice which parts are mentioned—eyes, lips, breasts, hair, cheeks, breath. Just as importantly, notice the order in which they are mentioned, how the eye travels, and what the eye leaves out. After close to twenty years of thinking about this particular blazon, I remain unconvinced that such dismembering attention is either benign or flattering.

In Cane, Jean Toomer turns to the blazon to consider the violent structure of interracial desire in a lynching U.S.:

Portrait in Georgia
Hair--braided chestnut,
       coiled like a lyncher’s rope,
Lips--old scars, or the first red blisters,
Breath--the last sweet scent of cane,
And her slim body, white as the ash
       of black flesh after flame.

To gaze at the white woman’s body as a black man, to actively (or passively) desire it, or to be accused of desiring it, is to subject oneself to the risk of destruction. Not all men have the same access to the blazon’s gaze.

Toomer’s poem is 7 lines, half of the 14 in a traditional Shakespearean sonnet. I have been convinced for a few years now that the dominant aesthetic strategy of early twentieth-century African American poetry is truncation—shortening a dominant form, stopping it before it ends. Truncation is a formal strategy that registers the afterlife of slavery: “This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, premature death, incarceration, and impoverishment” (Saidiya Hartman, Lose Your Mother).

The masculinist and frequently misogynist tradition of the blazon has been engaged and challenged by women poets. One of my favorite responses is from Carol Ann Duffy’s “Standing Female Nude.” On seeing a portrait of herself, a model insists, “It looks nothing like me.” Other women poets foreground how women look at women (Adrienne Rich, Marilyn Hacker, Audre Lorde, Erica Hunt, Elizabeth Alexander). I would place Wabuke’s TOC in this latter category. I am staking a lot on titles of poems and doing so is presumptuous, if not foolish. Still, I think the TOC intervenes in and engages histories of the black woman’s body.

“Mind” is a noun and a verb: used in a particular tone, it enjoins one—usually a younger one—to pay attention, to stay in line, to respect an occasion and one’s elders. Mind is a training verb, a reminder that one lives in a social, and that the social continues through paying sustained, respectful attention to each other.

Within colonial modernity—the world after 1492, as Sylvia Wynter has it—mind (as noun and verb) is absent for the black imagined by white supremacy.

Wabuke’s one-word titles—“Mind,” “Mouth,” “Breath,” “Spine”—unfold in similarly rich ways, invoking the occasions of their use—at the dinner table, for instance—and the longer and deeper histories of blackness and Africanness.
Introducing the chapbook, poet Patricia Jabbeh Wesley writes,

Throughout the book, Wabuke moves from the chronological narrative to the flashbacks and back to chronology without losing the reader. Over and over, she grounds herself as witness, inheritor, and emissary of history, to open us up to a newer world of African diaspora poetry.

This “newer world of African diaspora poetry” is entered through dispossession: parents fleeing from Idi Amin’s orgy of terror to encounter the banal, unmaking racism of the U.S. In this unmaking, the poet discovers,

But there is work
that must be done

to connect deep and
strong inside alien ground (“Mind”)

Audre Lorde terms this work “survival” and Hortense Spillers describes it as one of the supreme achievements of New World blacks. Following Wynter, I’d extend that New World designation to cover the post-1492 global order within which blackness is forged.
Black poetries seek and create forms to imagine and render dispossession. Black poets from the mid-nineteenth to the early-twentieth century used the affordances of closed forms to approach quotidian violence. The discipline of closed forms made it more possible render ongoing dispossession. Houston Baker terms this strategy the mastery of form. As useful as I find Baker’s frame, I find Caroline Levine’s idea about the affordances of form more compelling:

Affordances point us both to what all forms are capable of—to the range of uses each could be put to, even if no one has yet taken advantage of those possibilities—and also to their limits, the restrictions intrinsic to particular materials and organizing principles. Ballot boxes, biological clocks, and lyric poems all take organizing forms. Each of these forms can be repeated elsewhere, and each carries with it a certain limited range of affordances as it travels. But a form does its work only in contexts where other political and aesthetic forms are also operating. A variety of forms are in motion around us, constraining materials in a range of ways and imposing their order in situated contexts where they constantly overlap other forms. (Caroline Levine, Forms)

Affordance allows us to think of form as a tether rather than as a cage or prison (Kamau Brathwaite’s idea of pentameter as imprisonment, for instance).

Consider “Spine,” for instance, which I cite in full:

how to know
when to
be like water
when to
be like fire.

The five-line form brings to mind the tanka as it has been translated into and modified by English. In the English form, the tanka consists of 5 lines that have 5, 7, 5, 7, 7 syllables respectively (this is the Japanese form, but, since I come to the tanka through English, I’m assuming some translation work has happened, and it’s really a hybrid form of different kinds of sound). In Wabuke’s poem, a truncated form emerges, of 3, 2, 4, 2, 3 syllables (if you read “fire” as one syllable or 3, 2, 4, 2, 4 syllables (if you read “fire” as “fiyah,” as two syllables, a sound available in East African Englishes). With its one- and two-syllable words, the poem gestures toward translation or learning a new language: simple, essential words.

Because we who write in English follow Ezra Pound—yes, I can hear your protests—the poem reminds us of Pound’s attempts to write what he imagined Chinese poems sounded like. The tanka in English—including its truncated variations—will always incline toward a sounding like (yes, I know the tanka is a Japanese form—I’m drawing out the place of sound as something as imagined as heard).

Truncation is easier to discuss with closed forms—the sonnet, the villanelle, the haiku, the alexandrine. It’s harder to discuss with open forms, especially given what is often termed the “spare” line in twentieth-century poetry (Angelina Weld Grimké and Langston Hughes, George Oppen and Rae Armantrout). One form of truncation accumulates fragments, and the logic is often paratactic (Harryette Mullen’s Trimmings or Susan Howe’s Singularities). Another form (there are several and I am constructing something artificial here) uses enjambment to suggest hesitation or struggle or brokenness—words that do not come easily, if at all. “Breath” is written in this latter mode. I cite it in full:

They never speak
of the dead. The massacres

at school. Friends
and family disappeared.

How they got
word they were next.

The crossing to Kenya.
Then America.

What happened
to those left behind.

Wabuke’s truncated form—the fragments in place of complete sentences, the sentences shattered by enjambment—join familiar black diasporic forms that ask how one can imagine loss, how one can write the unspoken, how can follow traces, knowing that to follow them is to risk madness. This is the world of M. NourbeSe Philips’s Zong! It is the ongoing work of the black diasporic poet: to seek forms that might offer a glimpse of ongoing dispossession.