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Listening to the Drum

From Go Ahead in the Rain: Notes to a Tribe Called Quest, by Hanif Abdurraqib

Cover image of Go Ahead in the Rain

The thing about percussion, which remains true today as children still pound fists on lunch tables to stretch a simple beat into something greater, is that all it takes is a surface and rhythm—a closed fist or an open palm and something merciful enough to be trampled upon. Without drums, slaves would make beats on washboards, available furniture, even their own bodies, finding the hollow and forgiving spots with the most echo. They would stomp and holler. The voice, too, is its own type of percussion—particularly when it is used to rattle the sky on a hot day, when there is endless work resting at your feet. The work is also an instrument—the way the wood can be chopped is a percussion and the march to the work is a percussion and the weary chants, when laid close enough to one another, can be a percussion.

From “Book Power” by Gwendolyn Brooks

Gwendolyn Brooks

     Books are meat and medicine
     and flame and flight and flower,
     steel, stitch, cloud and clout,
     and drumbeats on the air. 

Drum” by Langston Hughes

     Bear in mind
     That death is a drum
     Beating forever
     Till the last worms come
     To answer its call,
     Till the last stars fall,
     Until the last atom
     Is no atom at all,
     Until time is lost
     And there is no air
     And space itself
     Is nothing nowhere,
     Death is a drum,
     A signal drum,
     Calling life
     To come!
     Come!
     Come!

Langston Hughes

Marchers all over the world draw attention to insufferable violence: George Floyd . . . Elijah McClain . . . Brionna Taylor. . . . Feet stomp the pavement. Voices rap, knock, pound and break the silence. Bodies push against other bodies, making anger, outrage, and sorrow into a drum: Enough!  Enough!  Enough!

This month, A Space for Image centers on drums and images of drums. In Go Ahead in the Rain Abdurraqib recounts how enslaved people (denied access to drums by law) turned their bodies, their labor, and their lives into percussion instruments. The drum is first an instrument, a mode of communication, and then a drum is resistance: a refusal to be silent. The ability to drum and to make chaos into rhythm—something controlled, shaped, imagined—gives the weary a balm for weariness. And finally, Abdurraqib’s discussion shows that drums form community. Small voices and lived experiences placed side by side, shaped into a rhythm, and into percussion, evoke belonging: you are not alone. This is what we are together. Percussion transforms.

Brooks sees books—and thus language, story, poetry, the author’s voice—as drums. By reading, we turn our minds into drums. Or maybe reading, like writing, is a tool for producing percussion? For making music? That is, if music is chaos organized and reshaped to make pleasure, inspiration, or—you know—make us jump up to boogie or sing, sing, sing.

Hughes imagines the large, metaphysical ceaseless drum of death, which is not the drumming that most folks want to hear. What Hughes calls a “signal drum.” And a signal—a gesture, action, or sign to deliver information—now seems an especially apt image. Life too is a drummer, a percussionist, which Hughes also knew.

     Listen to it closely:
     Ain’t you heard
     something underneath
     like a—

The forces that made the drumming that Hughes heard in his time shape the drumming heard now. In “Dream Boogie,” Hughes knows, however, that some readers are not ready to hear it. The drumming frightens.

     Hey, pop!
     Re-bop!
     Mop!

     Y-e-a-h!

Marchers everywhere chant, lift the drums of their voices, pound the air with the drumbeat of names—Floyd . . . McClain . . . Taylor . . .—each name a signal drum, a talking drum, and so too, the deep pain that gathers to fill our television screens, city halls, neighborhoods, streets. Together, what might have been only quiet voices has grown louder than the silence—voices raised not to make noise (uncontrolled, chaotic, indeterminate, babel) but percussion.

JNH

A Micro-Interview with Michael Hurley

In response to Michael Hurley’s poem “Dear Maddie,” originally featured in Frontier Poetry.

Dear Maddie

Spring has been cold
but with newness
            on the buds and this summer
            if it’s anything like the last one
            I’ll need to tiptoe
            barefoot on the porch
            to avoid crushing

the snails; when it happens anyway,
the sound is so tragic, something so glasslike
destroyed, I have to bend down
and apologize out loud.

There are no fireflies here,
but back home, where our mothers
still cry, there are no snails;
just slugs, which as you know,
are easier to kill without knowing.

Micro-Interview

JNH:
Michael, I know that you teach. How do you teach imagery?

cover image of Michael Hurley's Wooden Boys
cover image of Michael Hurley’s Wooden Boys

Michael Hurley:
I think rooting the image manifestly in the senses is a wonderful start—to make those tendrils grow out of the fingertips, get them to meander and spin and search for a trellis. Teaching is so mysterious, it can be hard to tell at times whether we’re climbing or just winding around some ideas which is okay too. One of those ideas we wind around might be remembering that each image is not an isolated spark but the work of a dense and busy maker—the imagination. Sure, the metal is glowing—but look at that blacksmith’s hands. And how do you teach imagination? I don’t think you can. And I don’t think you need to. But I do think you can emphasize it, examine it, exercise it, and advocate for it. I try to do that. First through naïve emphasis on process over product, much in-line with teaching art to young children—it’s a matter of experiencing the making and gaining joy from that, squishing the mud in your digits. This alone opens up a space for risk, play, and experimentation that moves the writing from the merely creative toward the fearless imaginative. We wander caves not knowing what’s inside. The difference I think has something to do with the degree of immersion.

Michael Hurley is the author of the chapbook Wooden Boys, available from Seven Kitchens Press.

On Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “the river it shines pure white”

from Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin and Lauren K. Alleyne

          I want to know              what in all         it’s been
whispering about prosperity all this time about freedom
coming in waves like heat off tar I search the Illinois skies
for funnels stand three days a week in front of twenty two 
students stand like a strip of its not personal like a strip of
black electrical tape pressing wire to white wall I listen for
the storms        the storms they say sound like imagine you
are facing a train

Cover image of Furious Flower

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram’s “the river it shines pure white” looks at the rural spaces of central Illinois, a landscape broken subtly and not so subtly by racial division. The poem builds to a closure layered with images that suggest destruction, threat, vulnerability, and charged restraint: a strip of black electrical tape pressing wire to a white wall. But strip has so many meanings: a narrow piece of fabric, an act of undressing, a comic strip. If something is stripped, it is left naked or empty. A bullet can be stripped, making it lose its original surface. The speaker stands “like a strip of its not personal” and like the pressure-sensitive tape used to protect materials that conduct electricity. The poem deftly weaves the poem’s mantra—the claim that the racism the speaker has encountered is not personal, not directed at the speaker—through a series of broken lines, strips, in effect, of words. But of course, the thought that it’s not personal is also self-protection, a form of self-defense that helps the speaker endure the circumstances. Yet it is impossible to feel safe while pressing a wire to the barrier and architecture that whiteness represents to feel safe: I listen for the storms. Midwestern tornadoes are fierce, destructive forces that leave ruin in their wake.

Lillian-Yvonne Bertram, “the river it shines pure white,” from Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry, edited by Joanne V. Gabbin and Lauren K. Alleyne. Foreword by Rita Dove. TriQuarterly Books, Northwestern University Press, 2020

JNH

On Ángel García’s “Suspect”

from Ángel García, Teeth Never Sleep

This is not you, but your body forced to feign prayer. A curbside confession: Forgive me officer, for I have sinned. On bended knees, arms raised, hands reaching for what little you know of god, you assume the position. Cruciform. Know what you have always assumed: you are just one breath away from breathlessness. This is not you, but your body made brilliant in orbs of blue and red light. This is not you but your body. Shrouded in Siren-call. This is not you but your body. . . .

Cover image of Teeth Never Sleep


Using visual imagery, these opening words of García’s prose poem, “Suspect, merge a police stop with the act of Catholic confession, Christ’s crucifixion, prayer, and the Christ sacrificed, in Christian faith, for human sins. An odd, intriguing mash-up between the procedurals of police authority and the liturgy (public worship) and rituals of faith. García enacts a poetic transubstantiation: the suspect’s body transforms into the body of Christ. But the relation of power between the officer and the suspect also produces a transubstantiation, more secular, that alters the suspect’s humanity. The rituals of stop and frisk, or apprehension and arrest, turn the suspect from a thinking, sentient humanity into a mere body, physical structure, meat, or, if the worst happens, a corpse. Fortunately, the speaker can go on, and the end of the poem points toward a modest hope: “A bottle of glue in your pocket to teach your daughter that what’s broken can be mended.” Even so, this poem requires a nearly impossible faith to believe that the procedures, rituals, and power-relations that dehumanize us, and literally bring us to our knees, will ever be fixed so easily.

Ángel García, Teeth Never Sleep, University of Arkansas Press, 2018

JNH

On Quan Barry’s “habeas corpus as confession”

from Quan Barrycontrovertibles

Let my confession start here: I too am innocent & black but millennial, my fear
    academic & secondhand. Like the yellowed photograph in the New Yorker
    of two men hanging like piñatas above a crowd,
    the teenaged girls dressed for cotillion.

Images & stories. Strange fruit.

Barry’s speaker admits that the lynching and mob violence familiar from the first half of the twentieth century is distant history. How can the speaker even find metaphors to address such distant horror now? A child’s party game? Violence rewarded with sweetness? The formalities, gender reinforcement, and class-consciousness of a cotillion? The poem suggests the difficulty of trying to connect with the country’s difficult racial history, and that trying to do so perhaps can even get surreally comic.

Cover image of controvertibles

Barry’s juxtaposes “Images & stories” with “Strange fruit.” On one hand, the poem alludes to Billie Holiday’s plaintive vocals and Abel Meeropol’s poem protesting the lynching of African American men and mob violence, and to the horrible metaphor that dead and violated bodies of African American men are fruit. Who would taste such fruit? Who would purposefully grow the fruits of hatred and injustice? But this line also suggests that the images and stories—of racial violence, racial injustice—are also strange fruit. History has grown into the dread pictures and stories that we cannot escape. We are automatically removed from an image, outside the story. We are individual readers, listeners, viewers, at times producers, and more largely we are members of a national audience and at a distance. Maybe the poem suggests that history (stories and images) that has grown distorted, unnatural, or unfamiliar brings an additional violence and harm to our imagination. Empathy requires intimacy.

Quan Barrycontrovertibles. University of Pittsburgh Press, 2004.

JNH

Tommye Blount on Spencer Reece’s “Interlude”

from Spencer ReeceThe Clerk’s Tale

Interlude

We are two men on a park bench
in Palm Beach oblivious to the two men

who start their truck with that boy
from the bar inside dragging him

in the dark to the fence strapping him
with a rope to a post in Laramie,

Wyoming, where he freezes and dies
over five days. My dear, it is late.

The Flagler Museum is shut.
Stay with me. Remain here with me.

Because of its hierarchical image structure, Spencer Reece’s “Interlude” destroys me.

Restrained by geography, yet omnipresent, the speaker is one of two gay men sitting together “on a park bench / in Palm Beach oblivious to the two men….”

Cover image of The Clerk’s Tale

Shamelessly smitten with each other, the two lovers are oblivious to what’s around them. It’s the start to a familiar romantic image. Or is it?

A secondary image develops; complicates the primary image: “oblivious to the two men // who start their truck with that boy / from the bar inside dragging him….” Two men intent on love dissolves into two men intent on violence.

It’s no accident the first punctuation (comma) appears, like a signpost’s stake, after “Laramie” in couplet three. Given the how, what, and where, one familiar with the details has now identified the players: Aaron McKinney, Russell Henderson, and “that boy,” Matthew Shepard—a gay man too far from the lovers in Palm Beach.

Shepard “freezes and dies / over five days,” ending the secondary image and also, finally, the first sentence. Then, in a forced attempt to lighten the mood, an abrupt volta returns the poem to the primary image: “My dear, it is late. // The Flagler Museum is shut.” Eschewing omnipresence, and some omniscience, the speaker returns to his lover—to do what? How can he still claim love’s oblivion and its tenderness after witnessing, at least psychically, a gay man’s murder?

Although the mood’s less ominous, make no mistake, the speaker’s breath has shifted—the last couplet contains three short sentences. Barely sentences, the last two imperatives (“Stay with me. Remain with me.”) are laconic, cautious, and measured.

In the wake of the elegy’s interlude, love grows sober, fiercer. The speaker understands what happens in Laramie can happen in Palm Beach; happen anywhere.

Tommye Blount is the author of Fantasia for the Man in Blue, Four Way Books, 2020.

On A. E. Stallings’s “Epic Simile”

from A. E. StallingsLike

Like a kestrel or a contrail. The hero’s death,
The prize, elusive quarry of his life,
Stands stock-still in her coven tracks in snow
And turns, one ear tuned to the creek’s far bank,
One dished towards him. Her unstartled gaze
Beads on him like a sniper’s sights, until
At the clean report of a cracking poplar branch,
She leaps away like luck, over rapid water,
And snowfall scrims the scene like a mist of tears,
Like a migraine, like sweat or blood streaming into your eyes.

Cover image of Like

Stallings makes winter’s well-trod canvas (ending, death, transition) paint a setting for her poem. She also makes winter personify grief and physical pain. The poem’s last line triggers its final and unexpected transformation when the reader (or the speaker) bears the blood of wounds and thus directly participates in the hero’s metaphorical death and hunt for glory. We are the foolish hero?

Yes! A grand, extravagant epic simile for starting out the New Year. How not to admire the transformations that the poem’s epic simile sustains to its very end? (The simile at the beginning of the excerpt invites readers to compare a hero’s death to a kestrel or a contrail, just one of many amazing moments in this poem.) But Stallings does nothing by half-measures. The glory and vanity of pursuing a hero’s death transforms into a deer, and the hunted deer wondrously into the hunter, and then again into chance. The poem figuratively alters nature so that it is no longer merely a victim of human violence but has a danger of its own (the gun suggested by the crack of a clean report). Stallings refuses to separate hunter from hunted or to distinguish violence. And pity our hero.His great glorious “hero’s death,” that chance to matter, to be remembered, and thus escape time and death, leaps away.

Suddenly, the poem feels different. Maybe it’s not just about the hero’s death, but the death of heroes. Perhaps maintaining these mythologized personas enacts a kind of violence. Hunting for heroes, believing in them, can wound or hamper our sight.

A. E. StallingsLike. Farrar Straus Giroux, 2018

JNH

On Kathleen Graber’s “Postscript from the Heterochronic-Archipelagic Now”

from Kathleen Graber, The River Twice

In another life, I once held a palm-sized chip of driftwood
shipworms had laced in just this way. I can still peer through it

in my mind, but I cannot raise it up, here, today, in this quiet light.
Yet, sometimes it seems as though I have only just now set it down,

beside the thin gold bangle my mother gave me, on a little table,
beside the iron bed in which I used to sleep.
                                                                                Yesterday a student said,
I do not know what you mean when you say image. My stories,
she insisted, are only made of words.

In “Postscript from the Heterochronic-Archipelagic Now” readers follow Graber’s mind through long winding lines of associative connections. Graber moves easily from personal reflection and lived experience to the socio-political (a child behind a chain-link fence grasping—“not a mother’s hem / but the silver corner of a Mylar rescue sheet”).

In the excerpt above, Graber’s craft moves the reader’s eye from the specificity of a driftwood chip to the poignancy of a childhood memory, images that grow even larger when she juxtaposes them against a student’s befuddlement. What is an image?

Cover image of The River Twice

The poem answers the question. Images—shaped with concrete detail and sense memory—anchor time and enable our imaginations to transform lived experience. But the poem also shows that images are not reliable, they are not events that we control, though they often connect to and trigger other images. Graber’s movement from the worm-riddled driftwood, which like memory is no longer living or rooted, but a broken fragment with parts missing and eaten away, to a childhood memory of valued belongings, the maternal love, and the safety of home gives another lesson in making images. Poetic images are stronger when they are not static. The driftwood chip allows Graber’s moves through time. But the image of the chip changes from a miscellaneous natural object riddled with shipworms to a possession that a child keeps safe. But of course, the poem’s childhood is only a set of images: memory: emotional driftwood. Time is a shipworm.

The difference between a detail and an image, Franz Wright writes, is resonance: images evoke or suggest memories or feelings and other images. They reverberate.

Kathleen Graber, The River Twice. Princeton University Press, 2019

JNH

On Hanif Abdurraqib’s “How Can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time Like This”

From Hanif AbdurraqibA Fortune for Your Disaster

Abdurraqib offers a fascinating series of poems all entitled “How Can Black People Write about Flowers at a Time Like This.” The fourth poem of the series describes a young woman—or a teen—the gum-smacking Jasmine, whose name suggests a flower, a flower known for its lingering scent. The memory in the poem seems precise, but the speaker admits,

                                                i would be lying
if i said i recall the color of the dress
or the way her hair spread its many arms
along the blacktop.

Cover image of A Fortune for Your Disaster

The metaphorical transformation of a woman’s animate hair, hair that has a body of its own, seems a lovely image, at first. But why is her hair spread along the blacktop? The poem reveals the memory that the speaker has tried and failed to revise: Jasmine is yet another victim of gun violence. A young woman struck down by a bullet cannot be disguised by a metaphor. The speaker knows this, despite summoning memory as a kind of resistance. When he says “with my eyes closed long enough, / I can at least remember,” he sees that memory fails, that it’s not enough.

Abdurraqib is kind to his readers: he doesn’t make us attend the funeral. We know, as mourners do, that funerals suggest flowers, flowers to honor those we’ve lost, or, perhaps—as the speaker had hoped—to bring forgiveness. Jasmine flowers symbolize love, our bonds with each other, and so love also lies slain, metaphorically, by gun violence: lingering losses, a death stink that will not fade.

Hanif AbdurraqibA Fortune for Your Disaster. Tin House, 2019

JNH

On Jake Skeets’s “Drunktown”

from Jake SkeetsEyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

Indian Eden. Open tooth. Bone bruise. This town split in two.Clocks ring out as train horns, each hour hand drags into a screech—
iron, steel, iron. The minute hand runs its fingers
through the outcrops.

Drunktown. Drunk is the punch. Town a gasp.
In between the letters are boots crushing tumbleweeds,
                                                           a tractor tire backing over a man’s skull.

In a six-part poetic sequence, Skeets describes the difficult lives that young Indian men often face in Gallup, New Mexico. The first section of “Drunktown” uses telling details to reveal life in what it calls Indian Eden. But of course, this is not paradise. Like the bodies that seem to inhabit the town, Indian Eden is injured, “split in two.” It is a town where even time—physical and animate—is driven by the come-and-go of freight trains and more concerned with the “outcrops,” the spaces outside its human lives. The first stanza foreshadows what readers eventually learn: that Indian Eden is a space where the bodies of young men (drunk, ill, suicidal) are torn apart by trains. Time, equally brutal, also rends lives apart.

Cover image for Jake Skeets’s Eyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers

In the second stanza, Skeets describes Drunktown. “Drunk is the punch,” he writes, comparing the town to a physical blow as well as the punchline of a joke, though nothing Skeets describes in the town feels laughable. Abandoned, rural, a place where a body (dead? drunk? sick? a victim of violence?) might be run over by an unsuspecting driver. Not the suburbs.

Further on, the poem reveals that a relative of the speaker, drunk and tired, has chosen a poor site to sleep. But at this moment, readers see a man’s skull broken by a tractor. The story, context, and the additional emotional weight come later and deepen the horror.

Town a gasp,” Skeets writes, a gulp, an exclamation, a cry, as if words only fail in this place of bone bruise and broken skulls. Skeets shows readers that names (also a kind of imagery) destabilize or alter meaning or shift perspective. He critiques the connotations and plumbs the meanings in the place names that surround us, revealing both historical and contemporary pain, revealing where we make our lives.

Jake SkeetsEyes Bottle Dark with a Mouthful of Flowers. Milkweed Editions, 2019

JNH