To Know By Heart: Workshop, Whiteness, and Rigorous Imagination of Ai

“Because [once I knew a poem by heart] I had the ability to do something no one could take away from me. The library could take the book back. My mom could say ‘Go to bed’ at night. But I could keep the poem so close? Something changed when I was able to do that.”

— Nikky Finney

“It has always been much easier (because it has always seemed much safer) to give a name to the evil without than to locate the terror within.”

— James Baldwin

Outside, the rain …

9:25 a.m., and the third-floor classroom fills with students. We have come for what Yale’s course catalog unceremoniously calls, “Advanced Poetry Workshop.” We look out rain-streaked windows, sleepily shed dripping layers, check email, stare into space. Then: the clack-clack-clack of high heels. Something in us rises to attention. It’s the distinct sound of our professor, Elizabeth Alexander, who loves to quote June Jordan: [R]ain or shine, I made myself wear very high heels. Let the hallowed halls echo to the fact of a woman, a Black woman, passing through! As for the students, we are mostly sneakered, serious and shy; but now it’s the middle of the semester, and we have begun to peel back self-deprecation and irony and those other more useless layers of ego. We are working, ready.

Professor Alexander has immaculate reverence for art and an aptitude for cleaving the sacred from the precious. (She will insist you take a blunt instrument to your poem if something need be uncaged.) She has no tolerance for ego or attitude or anything else that fattens the bone of the work. She makes us stand, one by one, and face the class and sing. One by one, we clutch the backs of our pushed-in chairs, warble, tremble, forget the words to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Fear’s soft stench has barely dissipated when we find ourselves singing together “Michael Row Your Boat Ashore” — harmonies emanating from the front left corner of the room. We trust and are transformed.

We read at least one collection of poems a week. We write at least one poem a week. We choose our favorite pens. We offer critique. We blog. We go to readings. We pore over writerly superstitions and come back, always, to the blank page. We memorize poems, which I’d loved to do since Mr. O’Rourke’s sixth-grade English class, where I’d learned “Stopping By Woods on a Snowy Evening” and then learned that I could say it twice to myself before being picked nearly last in the boys basketball game I’d insist myself into at recess. So when Professor Alexander tells us, “You’ll learn a poem by heart to recite to the class,” my sixth-grade self throws up her gangly arms. I’m thrilled. Then, finally, the day I’ve been assigned arrives. When Professor Alexander asks if anyone has a poem for the morning, I recite nothing.

Specifically, what I do not recite is Ai’s “Child Beater,” the poem I’ve been sitting with for weeks. In college, I heard Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon read and, during the q & a, a question I no longer remember prompted the answer: “I was in the car, and in front of me was a truck with dead animals. I closed my eyes, but then I thought, ‘I’m poet. I have to look.’ I opened my eyes.” I am in this class because I want to be a poet. I want to bring that act of difficult looking into the task of learning a poem by heart. For weeks, I search for the right piece — rejecting the well-thumbed pages of books whose poems I have already taken in, whose words I send to friends and family when I want to bless their days. That is deep and gorgeous terrain, but it is not the difficult witness.

Then, in The Penguin Anthology of Twentieth-Century American Poetry, I find Gerald Stern’s “Behaving Like a Jew.” In that poem, the speaker comes across a dead opossum in the road and staves off the temptation to sublimate through language the material confrontation with death. No, the speaker seems to say, poetry will not wrap in silk the terrible ordinariness of new death trembling unpicturesquely on the side of the road:

— I am going to be unappeased at the opossum’s death.

I am going to behave like a Jew

and touch his face, and stare into his eye

I am not going to stand in a wet ditch

and praise the beauty and the balance

and lose myself in the immortal lifestream

when my hands are still a little shaky

from his stiffness and his bulk

This, I think. I will learn it by heart. It has all the components of Van Clief-Stefanon’s story: the hard act of looking, the animal carnage — an ars poetica of sorts. I love this poem for its craft and ethic but, as I sit with the poem, I realize that I also love it because it tells me a flattering story about myself. It calls me by the name I call myself in public and in private. I am going to behave like a Jew. Do the hard and right thing by being what you are. Difficult, often, to do; but comfortable to consider. I enter the poem and emerge in tact. I’m still thinking of Van Clief-Stefanon’s words. Be a poet, I tell myself. Learn your other names. I want to find a poem that sits uneasily in my body and teaches me something about the shapes I am and the shapes I might become. That night as I’m falling asleep, her name comes to me. I grab a pen and a neon pink post-it off my nightstand. I write it: Ai.

Born Florence Anthony, Ai (1947–2010) — who claimed her whole Japanese, Choctaw-Chickasaw, Black, Irish, Southern Cheyenne, Comanche self — worked prolifically in the dramatic monologue. In seven collections of poetry, she forged an unlikely constellation of personae, claiming the voices of, among many others: former F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover, Elvis Presley, fourteen-year-old Jack who murdered his parents, Robert Oppenheimer, James Dean.

In the introduction to The Collected Poems of Ai, Yusef Komunyakaa writes that her poems manifest “the terrifying beauty of pure candor.” For Ai, trespassing is ethic. She is a poet for whom the boundaries of the nation, the home, the body, are violable and violated. Her speakers’ acts are intimate and violent, gorgeous and brutal — deep-seated human contradiction cast in unblinking language.

* * *

Outside, the rain, a pinafore of gray water, dresses the town…

I was eight years old when a Holocaust survivor came to my Hebrew school class to tell his story — a story I loved to tell myself for years afterwards. His family was sent to Auschwitz, where they were murdered, but an SS officer took note of the then-boy’s painting skills and kept him as a portraitist. An ever-doodling child, I clung to the man’s words. They seemed to me to be a literal manifestation of art’s lifeforce. Now, when I look to that story, a disconcerting lesson wells up: the capacity for beauty is not the capacity for good.

* * *

A pinafore of gray water, the Child Beater names the weather. What a delicately anachronistic image. Pinafore. Not a word haphazardly swiped from the quotidian, but the language of someone who pays attention, who revels. The language of someone who loves language — which is to say, the language of someone who loves. Pinafore. A word sourced from, perhaps, a little girl’s fantasies of quaintness.

And now, in Wednesday morning workshop, looking out the window at the rain and silently shaping my mouth into pinafore, I am already tumbling into the poem’s next lines:

Her body, somehow fat, though I feed her only once a day,

reminds me of my own just after she was born.

The violence enters together with the beauty. Across the table, someone is talking about ghazals. I gnaw at the top of of my pen. I am filled to the brim with disquiet.

The speaker beats his daughter to retrieve the self he was before her. He wants her out, out, out; but his poetic testimony reveals how the Child Beater and his daughter are always already entwined. Her language is in his mouth; his body, marked by the time they’ve shared. “Child Beater” not only exposes the speakers indissoluble bond with the daughter he beats, in whose body he sees his own; the poem also forges the unlikely platform where he, as speaker, and I, as reader, meet. This poem is gathering ground.

Sharifa Rhodes-Pitts says that the first question of non-fiction is, “What am I doing here?” I love poetry for how far in I can come before I even know to ask that question — so immersed on all sides I have to draw the map out anew. Poetry refutes the myth that language can ever be only one thing. Poetry revels in double-meanings, language as sound, as shape, as at once interior and exterior, and all of the shifting intersections of those categories. It is raining — which brought me into the poem — but the lilt of language moved me along so that, in the middle of a workshop on a gray and Wednesday morning, I am shaping in my mouth the words of the Child Beater. I am holding his language. I am making possible his testimony.

* * *

“I can’t imagine,” my white family and friends tell each other so many times it sounds like a plea, or an incantation. “I just cannot imagine,” they say, meaning they cannot imagine how the massacre happened; how, on June 17, 2015, Dylann Roof, a 21-year-old white man, entered Emmanuel A.M.E. Church in Charleston and murdered Cynthia Hurd, Susie Jackson, Ethel Lance, Depayne Middleton-Doctor, Clementa Pinckney, Daniel Simmons, Tywanza Sanders, Sharonda Coleman-Singleton, Myra Thompson — nine black people, who had made a space sacred and welcomed him in. “We,” my family and friends insist, “cannot imagine.”

But. Can you imagine hearing and not intervening in a racist joke? Can you imagine attending a university that invests in private prisons? Can you imagine being an American and never learning black history? Can you imagine studying the Holocaust without talking about Japanese internment? Can you imagine teaching a science class without Henrietta Lax, without the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, without any thought at all to whose bodies have produced your knowledge? Can you imagine living on land stolen from native peoples? (‘But I worked hard to make the down payment on this house!’) Can you imagine buying something, ignorant to the conditions of its production? Can you imagine crossing the street at night so as not to be within arms length of a black man who threatens to share the sidewalk with you? No, maybe you’re saying. I don’t do that. But can you imagine?

because white men can’t

police their imagination

black men are dying

— Claudia Rankine, Citizen

“I can’t imagine,” my dad tells me, my uncle tells me, my cousin tells me. There’s something in the act of iterated disavowal that limns the space we share. A border is a contact point. We turn away, not because we don’t recognize Dylann Roof’s actions, but because we do. If the seething hate of Roof’s manifesto is language we can easily situate ourselves outside of, Ai’s speakers take us in, demand that we reckon with a poetics of citizenship in which we are complicit. How do we participate in Roof’s testimony? In what ways do we perpetuate the violence that makes his actions thinkable?

I grab the belt and beat her across the back

until her tears, beads of salt-filled glass, falling,

shatter on the floor.

“We believe Ai’s speakers even when we don’t wish to,” Komunyakaa writes. In Ai’s work, we are the speakers’ accomplices, if only because we are enrolled as witnesses to their confession. The beautiful language of Ai’s speakers’ makes a meeting place where I find myself unlikely and open with all of the danger and possibility of that posture. The language is violent and precise. It’s the chaotic sweep of anger alongside the careful precision of noticing. The words don’t sit comfortably in my body. I am opened and raw.

Ai’s is not the didactic language of politics. Hers is the political language of relation — multi-sited, complex, and shifting. I am not the Child Beater, but neither do I stand outside of him. I see him there with all of his language and, because recognition marks shared territory, I am restless. Is it only in the beauty of his language that I see myself? Or is there something of his abjection, his violence, that shows me something of me that I already know but will not name?

When Professor Alexander asks, “Has anyone prepared a poem for recitation today?” I hold my prepared poem in my chest and say nothing. In part, I don’t want to reproduce the violence that the poem enacts but, if I turn the difficult looking toward myself, I see that I am quiet, too, because in speaking the poem aloud I am calling my own and hideous name. I am quiet that day, but I am holding the poem. I have joined the Child Beater through language, entered through the beautiful word, and found myself waiting in the wreck.

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