They’ll see how beautiful I am
And be ashamed—
“I, Too”, Langston Hughes
A year ago, I was fifteen pounds lighter than I am today, but then I was living in an aberrant world—I had lost some forty odd pounds, and I carried a world-weary haggardness on my face, because a year ago I was living in the blurred shock of mourning sudden death. My Uncle Kofi, the Ghanaian poet Kofi Awoonor, had been murdered in Nairobi during the Westgate Mall terrorist attack. I was in Kenya when it happened. I returned to America talking about death and the poet, talking about the lasting things, and I returned curiously observing the strange pageant of performance and ritual, despair and confusion that is mourning. Even the word mourning seemed too melodramatic for this bewildering sensation of being in shock and yet alert, acutely observant of everything around me. I have written one poem about this time—I wrote it while I was still in Kenya, and when I read it, I think that it is not a poem but a rhythmic accounting of loss. Poetry demands such candor, such accuracy of feeling, that I do not trust myself to write a poem about this. This is how poems can fail us.
A few months after this, I watched a white middle-aged man in a supermarket in Lincoln, Nebraska, direct his staff in the supermarket to move away from he and I, to get back to work, and to step away from the scene of the “crime.” Earlier, I had asked him to answer one question—was it possible to run my store card through the system after I had already completed my transaction and spent two hundred dollars on groceries. Instead of answering, he ignored me, he threatened to call the police, he grew angry at the suggestion that I might regard his actions as inappropriate. And when his employees were outside of earshot, he got up close to my face and said, “Who the fuck do you think you are talking to?” And when I asked him if this was how he worked—swearing at customers—he opened his eyes wide and said, “Swear? Me? Nobody heard it.” In a few words, he reminded me of what power looks like. I eventually left, and I spent two months writing letters—to the owners of the store, to my Chancellor—and found myself increasingly disillusioned by how easily he proved himself right. They said he was a good man with an unblemished record, they gave me credit for my sales and coupons for free stuff. His letter of apology used that old language of blaming the victim for her offense: “I am sorry if my actions offended you,” he said. I told them this was insulting. They said, “We are done here. We have done all that we are going to do on this matter.” I felt shame and helplessness. I thought I would write a book of poems about it. I started to write poems, and they seemed trite and pathetic. It took weeks to tell my wife of it. It took more weeks to tell my children about it. I have only understood it all as a nick, the kind of small slash we should all get over and move on from, but those of us who know how these wounds fester understand them to be dangerous for their seeming tininess. Poetry demands weight, it demands significance, it demands scale. I have not written a poem about the incident at the supermarket. This, too, is how poems can fail us.
The truth is that for me, the making of poems is often the encounter with the hard thing. The making of poems begins with failure, the inability to articulate, the inability to do justice to the noise that surrounds me. I have a confession to make. I understand my body—my poet’s body—is a sensitive thing. It is alert to noises, sounds and clamor that happen around me. If I keep it alert, if I do not find ways to somehow mute its capacity to hear, see and feel, I find myself wanting to write down everything—to tackle all subjects, to engage all tragedies, all confusions, and all desires. Without being fully aware of how this has happened, I now know that I live my life rescuing myself from the tyranny of the poet’s body. I try to avoid the difficult things around me by distracting myself with books, with films, with a willful ignoring of the swirl of drama and complications that surround all of us. I have begun to hear of bombs destroying people’s lives only by accident, I have stopped myself from listening to the news, reading the newspapers, dwelling on the noises around me. Instead, I have hoped that my body will still somehow carry traces of the unheard and unapprehended world on it, and that when the time is right for me to make poems, it will know where to find the poetry. When poems fail us, sometimes they do so not because poetry is not enough, but because we are not able to carry the burden that poetry gives to us.
Those three thoughts above are only half-truths. They tell only part of what I am as a poet and what I do as a poet. The rest of the truth is that for the past year, I have been writing poems—pages and pages of poems, I have lost track of how many—but I have not arrived at a theme that will help me to explain to people, in some sensible way, what I am writing about. Two days ago, I started to read the poems I have written over the last year. I realized that my poet’s body has been tormented with sensation, has listened to the things I thought I was avoiding, has been trying desperately to work me through the terrible consequences of our world—the wars, the economy, the racism, the murders, the ways that people speak of the president, the gossip, the blindness of my mother, the shame, the questioning of home. I am too close to these poems to know if they are any good. But this does not panic me. I have faith in my poems—in my process—because it has worked in the past. What I do know is that the making of these poems has felt like a failure. But that is not new. I have always left a poem’s draft feeling like someone who has failed. Sometimes I blame myself for this, and sometimes I blame poetry. But the problem may be language’s inadequacy. I say, this is how poetry fails us. But that may be merely because I am expecting the poem to do more than it is made to do in my life. And that may be because I do not quite understand what I have wrought as a poet when it is still so present, so near to the core of what I am living at the moment. Poems will fail but it is a splendid failure, a necessary failure, because the very act of trying to make language speak to experience is a beautiful and important one. And this is why there is such great comfort in T.S. Eliot’s statement, one that ended his own elegant lyric about the inadequacy of poetry in the movement “East Coker”: “For us, there is only the trying. The rest is not our business.”
I am always alive to the world around me as a poet. The processes that go into making poetry for me do not change. When I travel to Haiti or to Jamaica or to Sumter, South Carolina, and I find myself with poems that emerge out of the conversations I have had with people living with HIV AIDS or with the memory of Jim Crow or with the legacies of war, I am simply responding to my poet’s body that desperately wants to make sense of what I have seen. I am mostly in search of beauty—a way of seeing that allows me to find language that is beautiful for the things that are bombarding me. This is always what I am doing when I am making poems. And maybe this is why I think that poetry is constantly failing me. Because poetry is the impossible equation of trying to turn that which is often horrible, hard, unremarkable, into something that is beautiful, and that is, therefore, lasting and meaningful. Or maybe it is because of this business that I get into so often as a poet of trying to introduce my poems as if they are truly about something specific, something that can be reduced to a few words. Were I to be honest, I would have to admit that whatever I say about a poem is understood only after the poem is finished, and even then, I am not sure if I am talking about the poem itself. What I really mean when I say, “This is a poem about X,” is “I’ve realized that perhaps I was trying to write about X, and now I think this poem has helped me to understand X.”
And so, when I think about Nairobi and the death of Kofi Awoonor, or about the manager of the supermarket and me, and I say, poetry has failed me, I have failed to write poetry about these things, what I am saying is not at all accurate. I know, now that I have looked at the hundreds of poems that I have written in this year, that I have been writing about all of these things and yet none of them. I have been scrupulous in this essay about speaking for myself, about not speaking for all poets. So here is what this poet knows of his poet’s body: it wants things to come at it as a glancing blow, it wants to encounter the world as a fluttering of feathers at the corner of the eye. When this happens, the poem is a revelation to me. Other writers have talked about this, and I find it to be true. When I write, I am as intrigued by the discovery of what I know and feel as I expect anyone else to be. This is how this poet’s body knows, how it behaves, how it carries poems.
This physical body is large, soft, breakable, and when I stood in the supermarket my black body was exposed and vulnerable, and yet this manager, a white man, turned it into a threat by invoking the myth of his aggressive and necessary self-defense. And then he said, “I bet you are angry now,” because he wanted me to be mad, he wanted my body mad, dangerous: “Who the fuck do you think you are?” What happened to this body then is no unique thing—it grew tense with shame and affront. But, at the same time, my poet’s body was consuming everything, waiting to tell me what happened, waiting to tell me where I am in Obama-America where white people have turned the word “racist” into a greater insult and affront than the violence of racism. If a white person says something racist, blatantly racist, calls me “nigger” and I say “Hey, that is racist,” somehow, my retort has become the obscenity, the act of violence, the attack. It is the most cynical jujitsu of turning the victim into the attacker. This is the new American violence against the weak. My poet’s body wants to know what all of this amounts to. That is my art. I am trying to lose weight again. But I will not let my poet’s body shrink—instead it eats well, grows strong.
Ghanaian-born Jamaican poet Kwame Dawes is the award-winning author of nineteen books of poetry and numerous books of fiction, non-fiction, criticism and drama. He is the Glenna Luschei Editor of Prairie Schooner, and a Chancellor’s Professor of English at the University of Nebraska. Kwame Dawes also teaches in the Pacific MFA Writing program. He is the recipient of a number of awards, including a Pushcart prize and a Guggenheim fellowship. Dawes’ most recent book, Duppy Conqueror: New and Selected Poems, was published by Copper Canyon in 2013.
11.03.14 by Kwame Dawes