I concluded the Introduction to this series with a quote from Harmony Holiday’s “Cloves” to leave her image of Sisyphus—a Black female Sisyphus—as an emblem for the words ahead. Holiday’s Sisyphus, bearing citation of myth and of self, pushes her heart up a different kind of mountain, one that is both unstable and multiplicitous. She pushes her heart—not a stone—because, as her epigraph from James Baldwin says, “love is all that can save you.”
Or, as she writes/cites in Hollywood Forever: “You don’t know / what love is / And that’s how slaughter becomes a thought away / from the warmest shame in all our hearts.”[i]
As I read and re-read Holiday’s “Cloves,” I was reminded of a lecture Carrie Mae Weems gave at the Watermill Center in July 2017 while I was a participant in its international summer program. She sat in front of projected images of her photography and excerpts of her videos to, among other things, discuss art’s propensity to facilitate connection, healing. She said, inviting her audience to participate through her speaking: “breathe into your humanity.”
Who was Weems’ invitation for?[ii] Her audience that night was largely white and primarily European. Whiteness does not, after all, represent “the only way to apprehend the universe,” and Weems’ photography affirms that “it is often black folks, and other nonwhite viewers, who are most eager to shift their gaze—to make the leap and see with new eyes.”[iii] Furthermore, Weems’ artworks resist whiteness as “the starting point for all progressive cultural journeying” through a deliberate and total engagement with Black subjects.[iv]
While I’m not sure Weems’ invitation at Watermill—to breathe into your humanity—was meant to land solely on her white audience, to solely root into our respective subjectivities without active consideration of the invitation’s systemic implications, I am certain that a social transformation—a “new earth”—depends upon vigilant acts of intersecting personal healing. Weems’ photography and philosophy call for a leap “where the colonizing gaze has to shift itself.”[v]
Beyond (or because of) the urgent implications of a shared movement towards humanity as a complete social transformation—breathe into your humanity—Weems’ invitation allowed me to center myself in the murkiness I felt as a young woman working through a mess of embodied trauma. I couldn’t allow myself to recognize the humanity in the men who had violated me because the love I felt paralyzed my movement—my stumbling—towards healing. Ironically, it was through a selective form of ambivalence that I reached recovery: I could only consider the violence, not the person.[vi] I drew inward, writing in a way that placed my thinking alongside other voices that moved me, that compelled me to heal. I wanted to be surrounded. Only after years of selective ambivalence (against the masculine soil) and connection-making (towards Notley’s “beginning of the world”) could I confront the depth of feeling I had for the man who first violated me, could I recognize his humanity without assuming responsibility for his trespasses, his oppressive stumbling.[vii]
Ever since listening to Carrie Mae Weems’ speech, I have wondered if this “leap” (“to make the leap and see with new eyes”) begins in our breath. We breathe to learn, citing Harmony Holiday citing Billie Holiday, “what love is.” Weems’ speech was one of capaciousness, of generosity, of love—a performance of embodied breath.
Anyone on the receiving end of misogyny and patriarchy exists in an unstable social position, subject to direct or indirect reverberations of power that threaten to render their social position not just unstable but untenable. This lack of stability, this grey area, necessitates (to differing degrees) an ever-active form of identity and relation. Citational poetics, then, are a vital form of relation, a way to ground the self in the grey area that patriarchy damns its subjects into—and to freely conjure into and out of that space. So, when I say citational poetics are feminist, I’m reaching for anyone enacting connection from inside a grey area.
As Alice Notley wrote, as I already quoted: “the poem we can’t find is a whole new earth.” As long as this new earth doesn’t exist, or can’t, we must make our grey areas as frameworks for such newness.
In her essay “Relational Aesthetics and Feminist Poetics,” Shira Wolosky looks towards literature by women as enacting a space of interrelation, a space where aesthetics is no longer a rigid demarcation of self-referentiality but a “domain of mutual interrelationship among the variable functions that go into its constitution and experience.”[viii] Recognizing that gender is a “social, cultural and historical category” bearing “anthropological, psychological and political dimensions,” the text must then be understood as an “intersecting site of multiple domains and discourses.” Wolosky cites Marianne Moore’s poetics as an example of relational aesthetics, noting that “the heterogeneity of materials she introduces into her texts” facilitates a redirecting of attention towards “questions of interrelation.”
I’d like to add to Wolosky’s dynamics, recognizing the social, cultural and historical ways in which race also bears anthropological, psychological and political dimensions. In “Toward a Decolonial Feminism,” theorist Maria Lugones writes on the categorical nature of colonial logic and the complexity of interrelation within colonial logic, noting that intersectionality, particularly between the separate categories of Black and woman, is impossible. Given the strict singularity of each category within the colonial matrix of power, a woman isn’t permitted to be Black, nor is a person of color permitted to be a woman. A gesture of intersection, thus, reveals an “empty category”—there is no room for this woman to exist within capitalist society, in her assigned and impossible two-ness. For the colonizer, this “empty category” permits and seeks to justify violence. For a woman of color to experience the world “doubly,” through both categories of Black and woman simultaneously, is an act of resistance against colonialism and capitalism’s deadly logic. Her grey area multiplies.
Wolosky uses deconstruction to emphasize the dynamics of relational aesthetics and feminist poetics, citing Derrida’s belief that “language only means in context, but any context is never final.” In citational poetics, a form ever-originating from a grey area unique to each author, I see a deliberate assigning of contexts (social, cultural, historical, anthropological, psychological and political) by authors against the forces that sought to damn them, to erase them, to violate them. Derrida’s assertion that “any context is never final” becomes textural—becomes textual—in multiplicity. I picture layers of static in the grey area—ever-mutating, ever-catalyzing towards Notley’s “beginning of the world.” This newness is the context citational authors seek. The writing I turn to as representative of interrelation, then, the writing that I see yielding citational poetics, playfully postures in unfixed-ness and in double-ness, demonstrating the possibilities of connection as an anti-patriarchal, anti-capitalist and decolonial mode.
In her “Artist’s Guide to Herbs: Cloves,” Harmony Holiday turns from botany to memoir to music to myth. Songs echo: Nina Simone’s “I Loves You Porgy,” which also appears in her Hollywood Forever. Facts about parasites punctuate her movement towards cultural commentary: “There are over 1,000 different kinds of parasites that live in the human body.” Holiday writes that cloves, as flowers of confession, are “the most romantic segue there is into a discussion of parasites in the west, parasites we deny and cover up, because cloves are among a handful of herbs and spices that help kill parasitic invasions throughout the human body.” She writes about cleansing.
Through cloves, Holiday “refines and transmutes” her instinct to be consumed by love. She cites eros and parasitic behavior as “intertwined” since “we often use love’s performance to distract ourselves from any other depth that isn’t as instantly gratifying and gripping.” She writes of the teenage boy who first told her about Sisyphus. She writes about her instinct towards romantic overwhelm: “part dream, part punishment for the dream.” In American culture, Holiday notes a similar instinct: we want a circular movement with what we consume, allowing capitalism to grip our interiorities. We love owning things. We seek excess—an imbalance that can only be placated by increasing forms of ownership. We decide that to own is to have some form of control of our humanity, rather than embracing our ephemerality.
I’m reminded of a cello performance Thapelo Masita recently gave in the Unicorn Tapestries Room at the Met Cloisters.[ix] In his artist statement, Masita writes that our societal survival mechanism of focusing on what is most essential in our lives during times of unrest deludes us from change. We hoard what is essential and survive through distraction—not willing to see the unequal distribution of the things we hoard, or the inequality implicit in the ability to hoard. He writes: “Only once all danger has subsided do we try to heal.” Masita’s arrangement, consisting of selections from Black spirituals, J. S. Bach, South African hymns and Coleridge-Taylor Perkinson, seeks to transform the resonances of each composition beyond their initial contexts. Like Derrida, he knows that “no context is ever final.” Healing, gestured towards through Holiday’s citational movement with botany and Masita’s citational movement with sound, must begin in moments of danger—because there will never be a moment devoid of danger.
In “Cloves,” and in “Wild Lettuce,” Holiday indicts America. “America is a parasite infecting the world,” she writes, lamenting our cultural blindness towards origins in favor of a “fetishization of toxicity and helplessness.” We are a symptom-oriented culture, relying on consumerism to distract us from the origins and endless reverberations of racial capitalism. “Wild Lettuce” is an urgent piece of writing, coinciding with the police killings of Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and George Floyd. Here, Holiday writes about the natural opiate wild lettuce to explore Black pain as a commodity white citizens consume so that we might devote ourselves to the denial our ease of life comes from. This form of ownership-as-delusion is the ultimate parasitic force in our culture, and in a time of pandemic centering around what is most essential, we risk failing to rewire our country’s materialist and racist priorities.
In this time of “nature’s retaliatory grace, which is eating us alive,” Holiday urges for a social “giving and receiving.” I see the form of her essay on cloves as a gesture towards this dynamic of embodied citation, and her essay on wild lettuce as a demand for attention—against Americanism, against toxic masculinity, against white supremacy. Like Carrie Mae Weems, Holiday approaches humanity from personal, relational and social levels, demonstrating the scope of transformation necessitated by this political moment.[x] In her writing for BOMB as well as in her book Hollywood Forever, Holiday effectively and dynamically performs the scope of social transformation through citational poetics, calling for a “cosmic reordering of the universe.” At the end of Hollywood Forever, a hyper-saturated book of collage—of poetry as well as family and sociopolitical histories superimposed upon racist propaganda, midcentury media and “internet apocrypha”—she writes:
“Then I found I needed words again. Then I found I needed something else. I needed people. As instruments. To be part of the cosmic reordering of the universe. To heal the black/diasporic imagination with counterhistories that destabilize the West and make room for a way of life that serves us here or lets us go elsewhere in peace.”[xi]
Or, from her piece on cloves:
“The naming is most important because it forces a form.”
Through this naming, through this form-forcing process of citation, Holiday demonstrates the instrumentalization of the self for transformative ends—for “cosmic reordering.” Her writing is an ongoing answer to Alice Notley’s question: “What is it like at the beginning of the world?” Holiday’s poetry and essays, reaching towards a “beginning,” perform the very seeing with new eyes demanded by Weems’ photography: through Holiday’s performance, the reader is tasked to map her connections, to be bewildered by her connections, to imagine the author’s hand as she pulls material together and culls through memory and experience to activate her citational poetics.
[ii] From Evie Shockley’s “ex patria”: “like carrie mae weems asking institutions like the british museum when and where i enter showing that she’s the answer.”
[iii] From “Talking Art with Carrie Mae Weems,” by bell hooks, p. 81.
[iv] From “Diasporic Landscapes of Longing” by bell hooks, p. 66.
[v] From “Talking Art with Carrie Mae Weems” by bell hooks, p. 81.
[vi] Citational poetics is inherently collaborative. As I wrote in the introduction: citation facilitates a dynamic voice that resists solipsism and yields connection. In sharing this writing with my close friend Lauren Turner, a disembodied feeling became an embodied knowing. LT wrote to me: “[your ambivalence] almost feels related to the utopian feeling/question of an impossible world—feeling ambivalence toward the male one and reaching the beginning of a new one?”
Later, LT – a librarian, musician and poet – sent me “Diasporic Landscapes of Longing” and “Talking Art with Carrie Mae Weems” by bell hooks. hooks writes on the decentering of whiteness through postcoloniality: “[postcolonial] discourse disrupts accepted epistemologies to make room for an inclusive understanding of racial subjectivity that allows recognition and appreciation of the myriad ways individuals from oppressed or marginalized groups create oppositional cultural strategies that can be meaningfully deployed by everyone.”
[vii] Citational poetics is inherently collaborative. In a conversation with my close friend Kate Bermingham, she articulated the ambiguous violences of patriarchal experience, saying: “The world feels like you owe it your particularities.” The male soil: “the world.” We bend and we bend. We ask—are we being empathetic or exploited? Kate and I agreed that we have to help each other process and unpack. We help each other from the perspectives of our own individual grey areas. She said: “the letting go – the acceptance that we are not responsible and that we did not deserve it. For me, this has to be an insistence.” I’m thinking, now, about what one of my students from Interlochen said this summer: “memories are continuous.” We move through that continuity, that continuousness, with others—it can’t be done alone. We cite each other’s knowing. We share in our survival(s).
[viii] … where, according to Roman Jakobsen, the poetic “[does] not refer beyond its own composition.”
[x] From bell hooks’ “Diasporic Landscapes of Longing,” p. 67: “Carrie Mae Weems’s photoworks create a cartography of experience wherein race, gender, and class identity converge, fuse, and mix so as to disrupt and deconstruct simple notions of subjectivity.”
AM Ringwalt is a writer and musician. Her words appear or are forthcoming in Peripheries, the Washington Square Review and the Bennington Review. Called “unsettling” by NPR and “haunted” by The Wire, she has performed her music at the Watermill Center and the New Yorker Festival. @amringwalt