October 25, 2011

On John Keene and Tisa Bryant

If you look up John Keene, you might come across a blog, J’s theater, on staged readings, Occupy Chicago, Basquiat, Glissant, and other posts that I enjoyed immensely meandering through—Keene updates the blog on a relatively regular basis. Here you can find an entry about Tony Hoagland’s poem, which had been brought to attention for its racist language—sure, I read the poem, and couldn’t believe that “Change” from What Narcissism Means to Me (2003) was by someone who had won the James Laughlin Award, and was the finalist of the National Book Critic Circle Award, and who has taught at various American universities. “Change” was read at the 2011 AWP Conference . . . A little odd, to say the least! Anyway, back to John Keen—this was the fourth ironic result in my Google search:

214 people named John Keene in U.S. | WhitePages. ... John Keene is most likely to live in Alabama, Arkansas, Arizona, California, ...

But this John Keene whose work will be featured in Mandorla 14 lives in Chicago and teaches African American and American literature at Northwestern University. All three poems in the issue engage the trope of the “bunny” to refer to a variety of subjects, which in the first poem (“How to Draw a Bunny”) might refer to Ray Johnson’s Neo-Dadaist collages, or Nayland Blake’s conceptual art that incorporates a bunny rabbit as a way of discussing “the stereotype of homosexual male promiscuity” (Arnold Kemp). According to Kemp, when Blake began to investigate the diversity of identity, “taking into account his gender and sexuality as well as his own biracial mix of African and European heritage, he started to see the bunny in the context of not only a pop cultural icon that could be subverted to express gay identity but also as the African American folk hero of the Uncle Remus Tales.” The last line of Keene’s first poem, though, gives the whole piece a sinister tone—if at first “drawing a bunny” was a subversive act (“so long as it’s a bunny and not a blackbird,” implying that everyone knows/is familiar with the thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird)—then in the end, “drawing a bunny requires only a pencil,” this too becomes commonplace, unheroic, translatable, compared to “drawing, undrawing or withdrawing a life.” A new meaning of “drawing” is introduced here, perhaps, and it might refer to “taking” or “pulling out”—undoing a life, just as “undrawing” or “withdrawing.” The second and third poems use the rabbit/bunny as a transitory or peripheral metaphor—these poems belong to the “catalogue” poems, in which the poet lists seemingly unrelated things that beg to be connected or arranged as puzzle pieces. The pieces talk about American life, its social trends, poverty, eccentrism, and also platitudes.

But now about Tisa Bryant who makes work that often traverses the boundaries of genre, culture, and history. Unexplained Presence (Leon Works, 2007), her first full-length book, is a collection of original, hybrid essays that remix narratives from eurocentric film, literature, and visual arts and zoom in on the black presences operating within them. The excerpt that will appear in Mandorla is from Bryant’s fiction, [the curator], that meditates on identity, visual culture, and the lost films of Justine Cable. She is also the author of the chapbook, Tzimmes (A+Bend Press, 2000), a prose poem collage of narratives including a Barbados genealogy, a Passover seder and a film by Yvonne Rainer.

The excerpt from [the curator] that I glimpsed through is a dream-like, flowing, melodic stream of consciousness and its erotic energy that propels the reader through the rich descriptions of Iris’s improv journey from her bed(room) to the Orson Welles Theatre in Cambridge. The narrator/protagonist, Iris, has a day off from her boring job as a Receptionist of Diversity—where she is clearly miserable, comparing her situation to a Mammy poster, in which a black woman serves a white man (but not quite, because Iris “has” a duplicitous French maid and “is” a rebellious black mammy). The day starts with a loss (of a lover) and a dream about making a wish (perhaps to return her lover). Before melancholy can set in, Iris (very randomly) stumbles upon a flyer about the screening of Justine Cable’s films and “journeys” to Cambridge, while giving us her solemn observations of her surroundings. I reread the sentence: “The negative space is daylight, far away beyond this dark shield”—it is almost like a dialogic bridge to Morrison’s Playing in the Dark, which Iris refers to in the previous page. “Am I at risk of spiraling into the unknown realm of faux black noise . . .?”—signals both a parodied anxiety of a writer who is afraid that she won’t leave a trace in the vast world/void of Literature, and the anxiety of a black American who is radically annoyed at constantly playing (who is made to play) the sideshow, the voiceless, the token. And the final destination, as it turns out, was never meant to become actualized: “The Orson Welles Cinema came to an end with an electrical fire at 2 pm on Saturday, May 24, 1986.” (But it’s not clear why EXACTLY it closed). This, for me, might function as Bryant’s response to Morrison’s Nobel lecture, in which the established author challenges young writers to discover without predetermining the outcome: “Language alone protects us from the scariness of things with no names. Language alone is meditation.”

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