‘I’ve given up on prayer these days’, wrote Andrea Brady in a 2010 interview: ‘poetry may still fulfil a similar function, a space for reflection, penance, adoration, moved by inspiration or set form’. Born in Philadelphia in 1974, Brady studied at Columbia University and then at Cambridge. She is one of the foremost poets of the younger generation associated with the so-called ‘Cambridge School’. Brady’s own strain of experiment blends political dissent and public critique with a more intimate take on lyric tradition. In 2007, the Chicago Review featured her in its special edition on British poetry, alongside Chris Goode, Simon Jarvis and Keston Sutherland. With Sutherland, she is the co-publisher of Barque Press. John Wilkinson called her ‘one of the most impressive lyric poets writing now in English’ – ‘that rarest thing, a truthful poet’.
Her books of poetry include Vacation of a Lifetime (Salt, 2001), Wildfire: A Verse Essay on Obscurity and Illumination (Krupskaya, 2010), Mutability: Scripts for Infancy (Seagull, 2012), Cut from the Rushes (Reality Street, 2013) and Dompteuse (Bookthug, 2013). Together they make up an oeuvre that can move from the bombing of Fallujah to an infant’s first forays into language, bringing the same sensual precision and ethical intelligence to bear on both. Brady teaches Renaissance and contemporary literature at Queen Mary University of London. She once described her job as a literary critic and historian as one of ‘cultural preservation’. This historical sense frequently informs her poems, where the vocabularies of Fox News and Edmund Spenser might jostle in the same line. A desire to preserve the ephemeral is also the tenor of her work as director of the Archive of the Now, a digital repository of recordings of poets performing their own poems.
In February 2014, I met with her in a café not far from her London home to talk about ‘Song from Florida 2’, a new poem that sees Brady revisiting the racially divided Philadelphia of her childhood, among other memories and legacies of racism diffused through the wider culture. It’s a work that picks up Brady’s earlier enquiry into motherhood, and its too-often overlooked political dimension, in Mutability (2012): the book which is the focus of Sophie Read’s essay in this issue. Written on the occasion of George Zimmerman’s acquittal, in July 2013, for the murder of black teenager Trayvon Martin, ‘Song from Florida 2’ is a poem that provides a space for reflection, penance, adoration, at points not too far removed from prayer: ‘Oh Florida, protect his dear head forever’.
Your work has always been in dialogue with public, history-making events of one sort or another – from the Gore-Bush election, to Abu Ghraib, to the bombing of Fallujah. What was it about the circumstances of the Zimmerman trial that led you to write this poem?
Like a lot of people, I was shocked and horrified by the verdict. Even though my expectations of American racial politics are quite low, it still upset those expectations. I mean, it seemed almost certain that he would have to be found guilty. In the aftermath of the verdict, there were a lot of calls, especially from black feminists in the States, for white women to think about their commitment to intersectional feminism and about the kinds of racial privileges that they enjoy. There also emerged this movement first to identify with Trayvon Martin – ‘I am Trayvon Martin’. People wearing hoodies, carrying bags of Skittles, trying to show that his plight was somehow, if not universal, then at least shared by a group of people which wasn’t delimited by race. And then there was a corresponding movement – ‘I am not Trayvon Martin’, consisting of people who wanted to expose their own racial, economic and social privileges by writing long descriptions of themselves and of their privileges, and posting them on blogs.
I thought those two urges, to identify and dis-identify with the victim, were quite interesting in the context of the work I’ve been doing particularly around childhood and parenting. Of course the case made me think about the fortunes and safety of my own sons in the world. The poem goes on to consider the possibility of sympathising with Trayvon Martin’s parents’ experience – the possibility or impossibility of that empathetic identification. It’s also a sort of response to, or continuation of, an earlier poem of mine, ‘Song (for Florida)’, from 2000, which commemorated the Bush election and the whole hanging chads business. And so the poem is also excavating the forms of violence which are implicit in the political constitution of Florida, in terms of the Stand Your Ground laws, and the influence of ALEC (the American Legislative Exchange Council) and other conservative organisations on the legislative process in Florida.
At what point in the writing process did the connection with the first ‘Song (for Florida)’ start to emerge? This new poem picks up where the earlier one left off, not only in the title, but also through the echo of its last line which, slightly modified, becomes the first line of this poem. I’m also interested in those parentheses, which create a slightly different relationship between song and address/dedication.
The first ‘Song (for Florida)’ thinks about the judicial intervention in the electoral process. It ends with this notion that ‘you may be called to testify’: testifying or giving witness, either within the judicial process or within a broader social movement against this corruption – the illegality of the process by which Bush, with the interventions of his brother’s state, was elected. Although I didn’t know it at the time, the violence inherent in that sham electoral process in Florida in 2000, and the vacancy of that ritual of democracy, would be exposed by what happened following the election. That violence was then instantiated in Bush’s own presidency: in the following year, 2001, we had 9/11, and then of course the invasion of Iraq and all of the subsequent events.
In this second poem, I was thinking about the consequences of that violence as it was embedded in the state, and revisiting that moment of history in light of this chain of consequences. In both contexts, it’s thinking about the entangling of judicial violence, legislative violence, political violence, historical revision, paranoia and the relationship between rituals of justice or injustice: the appearance, the spectacle, of authority being worked out according to formal, approved principles. And then the sometimes almost comic travesty of actual justice that is revealed, for instance, in the way that George Zimmerman’s defence attorney opens his opening argument with a knock-knock joke. There’s this burlesque element, which would be comic if it wasn’t in a context which was so horrifying.
Thinking about the first ‘Song (for Florida)’ as a kind of source text, I’d like to ask you about your work with found sources in this poem. You’ve talked in the past about the way you use research in your poetry. Speaking about your verse essay, Wildfire, which lists its sources at the end, you worried whether that arrangement risked taking the reader out of the poem itself, or placing him/her in a weaker position relative to the writer. In Mutability, you seem to have moved to a slightly different way of thinking about sources: quoting Prynne and Denise Riley, Adam Philips, naming them in the poems themselves. Where have you arrived now in terms of how your poems relate to earlier texts?
My practices have long developed out of a documentary poetics, as a way of integrating the super-personal with the personally experienced aspects of the poem. One thing I’ve never been interested in doing, however, was enforcing an archival sleuthing – forcing legions of readers to go out to the archives and replicate my own search in order to understand the poem. I think that kind of hermeneutics, which can become quite obsessive, is probably not entirely healthy for the currency of poetry in our world, although it is a kind of scholarship that I’m professionally engaged in. But at the same time, I use in these poems lots of found material which is easily accessible. The sources that you cite in Mutability are all identified. In Wildfire, I provide a list of sources in the back of the book, but also a full range of the materials on the publisher’s website, for materials which are more obscure, harder for an ordinary person to access if they don’t have access to a research library. In these poems, and certainly in ‘Song for Florida 2’, I’m making use of aspects of the language used in the trial which are publicly accessible, and are being widely debated in traditional and social media.
Those debates, in effect, take the form of an exercise in Practical Criticism, trying to discern intentions, to reconstruct a valid, authentic narrative about past events out of the nuances of language. A lot of people dwell, for example, on the language that one of the jurors, in an interview with Anderson Cooper, used to describe George Zimmerman and Trayvon Martin. The fact that she was calling each of them by their first names, which implied a certain familiarity or even intimacy. Or she said that ‘George said’ things in the trial, although he didn’t actually testify. There were widespread attempts to scrutinise the jurors’ reasoning process, to determine how they arrived at the verdict, and also to poke holes in it. The poem also participates in examining those bits of language use, within the context of the trial, which stick out as being freighted with more than usual weight of meaning, phrases and slippages that already have a kind of poetic currency to them.
And that’s interwoven with other kinds of found text. There’s a lot of quotation from Wallace Stevens in ‘Song for Florida 2’. Stevens was, of course, the de facto laureate of Florida; and was also someone who, it could be argued, was deeply racist. He used the word ‘coon’ regularly to describe people of colour. The poem is attending to his chiaroscuro poetics, and its divisive visual imaginary, within this context of racist murder. And not just one racist murder, but several. The Trayvon Martin case was only one of several that achieved media prominence in that period, including Jordan Davis and more recently Renisha McBride, unarmed young black people shot by white people who get off, while Marissa Alexander got twenty years for firing a warning shot against her abusive husband.
I’m interested in your characterisation of Stevens’s ‘chiaroscuro’ and the way it lends your poem its politically charged patterning of dark and light. Could you say something about that passage around, ‘to fill their black hulls with white moonlight’, for example? The ‘white moonlight’ is picked up in the speaker’s ‘white fingers’ and a little later, ‘white gut’ (the interior of the body not being something we usually think of as having a racialised colour). How did you imagine the poem working through those binaries, and thinking through them afresh?
Some of those are quotes from Stevens – ‘to fill their black hulls with white moonlight’ comes from ‘Fabliau of Florida’: ‘Fill your black hull / With white moonlight.’ It picks up on what reappears as a language of terror in the aftermath of the Martin murder. Really the poem is trying to work through my own experiences of racism, using, explicitly, the language of racism, which is supposed to be suppressed in civil American discourse, but is nonetheless implicit in so many of our social relationships. I forced myself to revisit the racism of my own upbringing in Philadelphia, which is a city which has always been deeply scarred by racist violence. You had, for example, when I was growing up, Mayor Wilson Goode – who was himself African-American – firebombing a house with women and children in it, who were part of a militant African-American civil rights group called MOVE. The city was also very stratified and segregated in terms of its geography. There was a small, almost abandoned business centre at the middle, surrounded, particularly on the north and west, by an area of deep economic deprivation, where many middle-class white Philadelphians never go despite living in this city for their whole lives. And then you have the privileged outer ring of the middle-class white suburbs. Neighbourhoods are very distinctly segregated by race in Philadelphia. I lived in a posh white neighbourhood that was right next to a much more deprived black neighbourhood. And there was a sense that you could never cross those boundaries without endangering yourself. And yet, at the same time, my mom taught in a school in a very poor neighbourhood called West Oak Lane, and the majority of her students were African-American. We ourselves were quite poor, and would always go shopping in the ‘black mall’. So there were ways in which we did actually cross those boundaries of segregation, but without that troubling our own self-identification as privileged, middle-class white kids.
The poem returns to these childhood initiations into the notion of race: I was thinking about my complete ignorance of how my African-American classmates experienced being bussed in to our primary school in this white neighbourhood, of how these forms of alienation came to seem ‘natural’ – and of my own subconscious induction into the language of racism, which wasn’t used explicitly within my own immediate family but was certainly used by other relatives and neighbours. For example, there’s a reference in the poem to going to the cinema in an African-American neighbourhood and being warned by my mom not to rest my head back on the seat, because somehow it was dirty. Those very ugly aspects of my thinking, and my own personal history, came to the fore in the aftermath of this verdict, and particularly in light of demands by black feminists – and of course the jury that acquitted George Zimmerman had five white women and one Latina woman on it – that white women needed seriously to examine their own racial fears. It was trying to be explicit and blatant about my own racist paranoias through the application of Stand Your Ground, which is a law that justifies the use of deadly force if a person has the reasonable assumption that they are in danger. That law raises key questions around what is ‘reasonable’. ‘Is it reasonable to be afraid of a young, unarmed man, who’s just walking through your neighbourhood in the rain?’ is the question on which the trial really turned. And so the poem is, in this sense, a self-scrutiny or enquiry into my own reasonable – or in fact deeply unreasonable – assumptions about race and fear, and the deep and poisonous association between black men and fear within that context.
In the cinema section of the poem, that childhood recollection shades into a series of epithets set apart by quotation marks: ‘choose / “friendly,” “hardworking,” “violent” or “lazy”’. What’s the connection between that mockery of ‘choice’, in the realm of underlyingly racist language use, and the stanza beginning, ‘who makes a choice, / how underqualified by law / the stupidity of the electors…’? A stanza that ends with the electoral travails of Iraq, and the hanged man ‘dangling in the ashes of the future’.
Those different epithets are drawn from an Associated Press survey about implicit racial attitudes. The experiment engaged lots of different viewers and showed them pictures of people from African-American, white and Latino ethnic groups and asked them to ascribe one of these adjectives to each of those pictures, trying to expose their racist associations. It also showed them pictures of people from those different ethnic groups, and then showed them a Chinese character, and asked them subsequently to express their feelings about that supposedly neutral Chinese character. The premise was that a kind of afterimage of the feeling of comfort, or discomfort, from the image of the person that they had just seen, would be projected onto the Chinese character. I think those adjectives themselves are quite interesting as a way of gauging how we measure social goods. The sociable nature of being ‘friendly’ or ‘unfriendly’; ‘hardworking’, of course, taps into this American ethics of labour as having an inherent dignity and moral value, with ‘lazy’ as its obvious inverse; ‘violent’ is part of the paranoia about crime and its racial identifications.
It’s a very good question, because that experiment confirms the very obvious premise from psychoanalysis and social sciences that our linguistic choices are based on unconscious identifications which we are inclined to suppress. There’s also a complex relationship between choice and the political process, which includes the election of judges (something that happens in the US that doesn’t happen here): judges, district attorneys also, are dependent on winning the popular vote, which puts a political torque on the whole judicial process which can be quite pernicious. The elevation of free choice to a kind of ultimate good within neoliberal society has of course been widely critiqued. Within the poem, choice takes several forms: the constrained linguistic choices posed in the experiment, the choice of judicial and political representatives which is, again, constrained, because the political process is so distorted – nominally by Big Money, as well as by interest groups like ALEC, who are referred to in that stanza, and who use their substantial resources to put pressure on legislative agendas and try to promote the priorities of new liberalism in terms of deregulation and suppression of workers rights, along with advancing the agenda of the National Rifle Association, for example. ALEC took Florida’s Stand Your Ground law as a model for legislature in other states. In both instances, the poem is exposing the constraints on ‘choice’ and ‘election’. Obviously that then applies to the kinds of choices that the jurors can make in their verdict, where their sense of actual justice can be constrained by the technicalities of the law or of suppressed personal histories and dispositions.
I’d like to move on to a series of questions about form. The repetition of ‘teen’ in the second part of the poem uses that very loaded term (politically, sexually) to create an almost incantatory, song-like effect. Why are the two poems for Florida ‘Songs’? And did thinking of them in that way – as in some sense ‘sung’ – have an effect on their prosody, or their lyric orientation?
I think they’re songs because Florida – where I’ve never been – conjures up in the aesthetic imagination a land of plenty and a lyrical softness, and warmth, and sunshine, and oranges…
‘She sang beyond the genius of the sea’…
Exactly. And so the poem is contrasting the light-hearted lyric longing, which might be associated with a song, with the commemoration of quite dreadful events. In the second section of the poem, all the words there are from Stevens, but I’ve inserted the word ‘teen’ as a substantive. Stevens regularly uses ‘black’ and ‘white’ as nouns, and so making ‘black’ into a modifier, through the word ‘teen’, shows you the mobility and force of those concepts of black and white within his poetics, and utterly changes the implications of his lyric voice, I think.
This ‘stepped’ stanza form is something that has come through, in part, from the poems in Vacation of a Lifetime (2001), the collection in which the first Florida poem appeared. Why were you drawn back to this visual shape on the page? In my mind, it became connected with the audio recording of Zimmerman’s 911 call: at points the poem similarly breaks down into square brackets representing the ‘[unintelligible]’. What’s the relationship between the poem’s layout and some originating, gap-ridden spoken event? Is there a link between poetic fragmentation and forensic process here?
That sort of stepped, Williamsy form is, in the poem, a way of breaking the authoritative certainty of a poem which is entirely left-justified, and also a representing of sudden switches of voice. ‘It looks like / no good’ introduces a kind of uncertainty, and fragmentation, and a switch which I think is also present in Zimmerman’s own language when he’s speaking to the operator. It is about the polyvocality of that source material, but is also a way of trying to undermine a sense of… certainty, which comes with transcription of spoken material. So in this conversation [laughs], the way that I’m presenting my answers to your questions must sound very different to you than the way it’s going to look when transcribed on the page. Those moments of hesitation and uncertainty, revision, spontaneity, improvisation, that come from spoken language are often obliterated in written testimonies. One of the points of the poem is to undermine the authority of written testimony by returning to it the disruptions and uncertainties and negotiations of speech. The form forces different kinds of interruptions in the reader’s processing of this language. It’s meant to be disruptive in that way, and to show the way that the poetic voice also revises and undermines or challenges itself.
That 911 transcript was, at the time, thought about in terms of a text that might be chopped around and manipulated. I’m thinking of the potentially misleading edit in early NBC reports that ran together, from different portions of the call, the phrases ‘he’s up to no good’ and ‘He looks black’. As you’ve just reminded us, that first snippet (‘no good’) also lies behind your poem’s third section, but its resituating there feels very different in intent to NBC’s. How do you figure the poet’s role in relation to such distorting interventions by the media?
There is obviously a kind of fuzziness in the interpretation of evidence within that judicial context. So much depends on the ability to discriminate aurally between ‘coon’ and ‘pin’ or ‘cold’ – which were the different suggestions of things that Zimmerman might have said in that unintelligible portion. Or similarly, there were many attempts to interpret the digitised images of Zimmerman going into the police station, trying to determine whether he had any blood on the back of his head or not. Looking at this very pixelated, black-and-white image of a person in motion, and trying to discern in that some truth about the original encounter.
The business of poetry is to amplify noise, I think, in language, and by magnifying those instances of distortion to unsettle our sense of moral priority or certitude. What the example you’ve just named brings to mind is that, in fact, the interpretation of this case by the mainstream national news media in the US, with the exception of Fox News, tended to be prejudiced in favour of the victim. There were several instances in which particular news channels were disciplined for distorting the evidence to make Zimmerman’s culpability seem more absolute. That’s not to say that the media industry in the US isn’t institutionally racist, but it is, I think, a salutary reminder to us as onlookers that we can wrongly assume a kind of agreement within our social and aesthetic communities – or that we all start from a position of sanctitude with regard to race. But when we amplify the noise and distortion in our perception of events we can begin to understand their larger consequences and test out our proclaimed solidarities.
Can I take us back to the start of the poem and its self-conscious process of ‘setting the scene’? Again that seems to have something to do with imaginative reconstruction, with filling in gaps in events. That parenthetical ‘(setting the scene)’, and then ‘(set)’ a couple of lines later (which, intriguingly, could be a past participle, but could also be a noun as in ‘film set’), made me start to think of this text as a kind of script or score – the narrator’s prologue. That association took me back to Mutability, whose subtitle is Scripts for Infancy. Though it occurs to me, ‘the scene’ might make us think of forensic crime drama as much as the theatre…
The poem starts with that cliché of the kind of gothic opening sentence that is parodied in the Peanuts cartoon: Snoopy sits on his doghouse writing a novel, ‘It was a dark and stormy night…’ But here it is the temporal setting for the execution of Trayvon Martin. This opening demands that we consider how a narrative is being spun, and tapping into fiction, into gothic narratives. And also the association between darkness, obscurity and race, and the way that that association distorts perceptions of what is real.
Mutability is called Scripts for Infancy in reference to the notion of a ‘social script’ – the ways that we are inducted into social being, conventional roles and interactions through the repetition of certain linguistic, gestural or behavioural scripts. The irony, of course, is that the infant doesn’t yet know those scripts, and part of the work of the parent is to initiate them. The impulse to novelty, to the challenging of boundaries, to innovation, that is intrinsic to my poetics, is actually contrary to the work of my parenting, which is all about enforcing conformity to expectations, to notions of what is appropriate and decorous within particular situations and what is not. There’s a sense that my success as a parent, as well as my children’s safety, depends on how thorough their conformity is to the right scripts.
Mutability thinks a lot about the inculcation of violence, from the naughty step to the playground and its social codes…
Exactly. And the way that, in fact, infants are taught to be violent, to be possessive, through those prohibitions. Children are actually morally indifferent. That’s probably not, in fact, completely alien to the discourse of ‘Song for Florida 2’ – the way we inculcate forms of violence through socialisation. Perception is not neutral. It is a learned bias.
Having come back round to Mutability, this might be a good point to take up the questions you raised at the very start about motherhood as a political relation. Can I ask you about that turn, in the last section of the poem, from the public event to the personal, or apparently personal – to your own son? It’s a movement that seems very important to your wider body of work.
It’s the aspect of my poetics which I feel is the most morally complicated and difficult to describe. Incidents like the death of Trayvon Martin remind you of the personal stake that you have in public events, and the connection between your own feeling body and the body of the stranger, which is splayed on the grass in the rain. There’s an impulse to want to identify, if not with the victim, at least with someone within that victim’s context, in order to show that you have something personal at stake, and to turn a generalised model of witnessing into something which has a stronger affective justification. The poem is really yearning to put my feeling body in that scene. But I think it’s also important to stop myself from doing that. I talked before about the ways that this incident sparked rituals of identification and dis-identification: Obama made a very public intervention, and said, ‘If I had a son, he’d look like Trayvon Martin.’ That was seen as quite a pivotal moment, in which Obama was meant to be expressing a more general, national feeling of despair at the level of the personal, and of kinship, which knit together two individuals from very different ends of the social spectrum. Of course, the perpetuation of racist discourse in the US is facilitated by a media focus on the particular, particular incidents and particular encounters, and a deliberate effort to ignore larger structural inequalities. This refusal to engage in a larger political and economic critique is enacted in this tendency to pick out symbolic figures, martyrs and scapegoats.
Part of the impulse of the poem is a desire to wager something and, even speculatively, to encounter the possibility of loss, to imagine how that might feel.
‘I want to risk wounds…’
Exactly. Earlier, the poem invokes my own racist fears. It represents specific incidents where I have found myself in a dark and rainy context with a man who happens to be African-American, the kinds of emotions those encounters provoked in me, and the impossibility for me of reading that encounter from the other person’s perspective. Then in the third section of the poem, it’s addressing something which bothers me even though my sons are very young (almost three and almost one), which is their future: when they are teenagers, travelling through the violence of London, and they happen to look at somebody the wrong way on a bus, what’s going to happen to them? So the poem approaches that which cannot be thought, which is the death of one’s own children.
It is a kind of black hole of thought, the death of your children. And while the poem wants to risk encountering that as a sort of ethical limit, it also at the same time shies away from the false heroism of staging such an encounter poetically. It needs to annotate its own privilege in being able to experience it only imaginatively, rather than actually. And so there’s a kind of push and pull in it, as a dramatic enactment of a mother encountering the murder of her child. And of course, it’s not as though this has happened to my boys, and it’s not something which hopefully is likely to happen to them – in part because my boys are middle-class white boys growing up in England. But part of the effort to imagine that moment in its most heartbreakingly real specificity is the encounter with that image of Trayvon Martin’s dead body: thinking about the posture of his body with his ankles crossed, and allowing myself to experience what those little details – the punctums of that image – conjure up.
Seeing that association, the crossed ankles, puts the speaker into the position of a kind of Pietà Mary…
Which would be a position you would have to disavow immediately, but the impulse is there. In a way, the work of ethics is to unveil each of those stages of identification and dis-identification, empathy, compassion, revulsion, relief, confusion – to examine each of those stages and refuse to rest on any one of them, identifying neither with the victim nor with the perpetrator, but in no sense allowing yourself to be an impartial witness.
The poem’s meditations on the limits of identification call out for us to think about its pronouns: the way the ‘I’ works, but especially how the ‘you’ (or ‘YOU’) works. Each time we read ‘you’ in the poem, we test out different provisional identities for it – whether singular or plural, human or abstract, inclusive or exclusive of oneself as reader – because the addressee doesn’t remain stable. Could you talk about the way the poem plays with that traditional lyric address?
By the way, on the question of whether or not the ‘you’ is sometimes plural, I’m interested in the kinds of collectivity and community the poem imagines. Those definite articles in ‘the community’, ‘the majority’, seem very carefully judged, and could be read as fiercely ironic. I was struck by the idea of the ‘six coded women’, the female jurors, as a kind of ‘chorus’, invoking a tragic model of collective witnessing – but also perhaps the idea that, like a chorus, they’re effectively helpless to intervene?
The poem is, I suppose, a kind of elegy, and one of the conventional elements of elegy was apostrophe to the dead. The final section of the poem allows itself the intimacy of direct address to the dead Trayvon Martin, but in order to expose a kind of obscenity in that imaginative intimacy. It is trying to situate myself, my own subjectivity, as specifically as possible, in the range of ethical privileges that I enjoy: so I can be your mother, your friend, your victim, your juror. I can’t be you. I can’t be so quickly and inevitably dead. It’s acknowledging that, were circumstances slightly different, I could have been a member of that jury – which itself liberates all sorts of fantasies fed by the film industry: in those circumstances, I would have done something different; I would have used my powers of rhetoric to change everyone’s mind; I would have somehow saved the day. And that hero fantasy prevents you from even thinking, momentarily, about the privilege of being a member of the social, ethnic and economic group of people who tends to participate in this legislative and judicial process, which is entirely corrupt and bungled, on the side of the execution of power and the right to decide. This goes back to our discussion of choice and election.
It’s thinking about the value of life and the way that individual lives are commemorated: who gets to be commemorated, who holds a place in public memory. Young black men are killed in America all the time and remain completely anonymous, so what was it about this particular young man that enabled him to come to figure for all of those other dead? And what would happen if I were the person who’d been executed? But that thought goes too far, and provokes the assertion that ‘I perjure myself’, attempting to turn, in a bathetic way, the poetic forensic process into a mirror for the judicial one.
I note in passing that neither Martin’s name nor Zimmerman’s feature in the poem. In fact, there are very few proper names in it. The most prominent ones are those of the Senators who sponsored Florida’s Stand Your Ground law: ‘I count / on you // Baxley / Peadon / women’. Their two names take on a kind of inscriptional quality – almost like a placard? – at that point where the poem narrows right down…
Mmm, no, I see that. There’s one other direct reference, which is to ‘Rachel’ – Rachel Jeantel – the woman who was on the phone with Trayvon Martin when he was being followed. Of course, there’s the biblical Rachel as well (my sister’s name is Rachel as it happens) – the deeply beloved second wife of Jacob, who gives birth to Benjamin and then dies. Rachel Jeantel is somebody whose testimony was scrutinised for its reliability on the basis of rhetorical polish, or lack of polish, and her supposedly ‘uneducated’ way of presenting herself. That moment in the poem is thinking about the way linguistic authority, rhetorical authority, is constituted – and her very admirable, and in fact heroic, unflappability in the face of such questioning. So there are only those three invocations of personal names.
Thinking again about commemoration, I know that in your academic work as an early modernist you’re very interested in the rituals surrounding death and funeral. Could you say something about your new academic project on ‘keening’, and whether it has any relationship with this poem?
Some of the research I’ve been doing recently has been on early modern Ireland and keening, as an excessively passionate response to death which was criticised by many early modern English colonial commentators as a symbol of the pagan, or occult, or even bestial nature of the so-called ‘wild’ Irish people. Their keening is a form of improvised song which has a very complex and very artful lyrical content, involving call-and-response between the mourning women, the mna caointe, and the community of bystanders. When it’s described by early modern English commentators, however, it is emptied of that lyrical complexity, and in fact of any semantic meaning at all – so it becomes mere ‘howling’, like dogs. That is representative of a discourse around the writing of mourning, which persists into the present, that introduces certain affective norms as formal constraints on the passions of grief. Lyric absorbs as formal constraints a model of ethical or affective temperance. The most famous example of this is Samuel Johnson’s remark about Milton, ‘Where there’s leisure for fiction, there is little grief’: Johnson argues that ‘Lycidas’ couldn’t have been an authentic lamentation because its rhetorical and metrical organization are too complex.
‘Grief brought to numbers cannot be so fierce’.
Exactly. So there’s a sense that true grief is wild and unconstrained, opposed to the formally organised and temperate expressions of reason, which cannot be mournful. It raises a question, in the context of this poem, about the relationship between passion and commemoration, and whether it’s possible to perform rationally organised forensic enquiry in terms which still retain some of the passion and formlessness of grief.
One final question: perhaps it’s early days still, but do you see ‘Song for Florida 2’ taking shape as part of a new project, following on from Mutability?
[laughs] I’m conscious of a debt to my other two sons, and that for the good of my family I don’t want them to grow up with only their sister having been commemorated in poetry. Now, it has to be said that when presenting my daughter with Mutability, she got a bit tearful and said, ‘You promised you were going to give me a good present!’ Like a sweet or some ice cream or something. She describes it as ‘a very boring book’.
I’m sure she’ll grow into it…!
I’m not so sure! But it will be an interesting process within our family to see how her response to it changes and hardens as she grows up. It was difficult enough for me to write one book about infancy, and I don’t feel like there’s necessarily room in my oeuvre for another one – difficult from the perspective of how a book which is so personal and so minutely domestic might relate to the broader political concerns of my work. And yet I want to find some way of engaging with my sons’ experience, and making our relationships part of my ongoing practice. I don’t know if, in future, I’ll find myself writing poems about masculinity. For ethnological purposes I have deeply immersed myself in a masculine culture. I’m not sure if this poem is going to form part of a sequence, but certainly it is relevant to the work of trying to think through and commemorate my relationships with my sons. And I’m not entirely sure what form that will take in the future.
[ 1 ]
You may be called upon
to testify to your worst fears:
it was a dark and rainy
(setting the scene)
was dark and
and mangling the apparition can’t be
gated, dog whistles, blocks
these assholes always get the specter of
the elevator, shadow of
grass and graven recess down
The sea an appearance of danger
of a son, so real it could not be avoided
like minor high-schoolers
reach out to procure
firearms or whatever they may be doing,
that they have some kind of help
to fill their black hulls with white moonlight.
How much worse
can I be than my image, chorus
of six coded women, afraid of a block
with the foot falling behind them also:
what you call yourself is just
clickbait hold or drop your head
on the seat back in the cinema, trying
on long pointy shoes, choose
“friendly,” “hardworking,” “violent” or “lazy”
skittish on the bus with the purse
my eye studies its black lid
splintered I desire
to withdraw, and signal my desire
the torrid hateful struggle on the
pavement is underneath the viral beeches
the weaponised sidewalk flattening sweets.
My memory of violence isn’t imaginary,
isn’t exclusive to elevators
or the abandoned business districts of minor cities
though it hasn’t come to this
rivalry either I want to risk wounds entry or exit
sexual and physical pestilence annihilation from life
or memory in minimal suppose before I live
safely for a universalising hatred:
who makes a choice,
how underqualified by law
the stupidity of the electors
the elected law stuck its own neck
out ALEC to a reasonable appearance
of feeling for danger and cannot avoid
force. The hanged man on ballots
where Iraq was dangling in the ashes of the future.
So here I am, in the community.
I have exhausted every reasonable means
my white fingers sweaty on metal picked
a fight my white gut ballooning one hundred
pounds my white forehead posting hallelujah,
to walk out strongly into the rain
coltish to the dispatch
chasing down fear and stalking it
like under hideous words of ‘hotly’ and ‘leafy’ and
that word you abhor down to a single letter but still hangs
like a feeling for danger in your waistband
like a movie with its fateful remedies in the rainy
for the pain of our rootless occupation of Seminole County,
its first plaguy others: so now then
scholars of darkness sequestered over the sea
your twitchy ministering the minimum
sentence as we do
Rachel, you speak beautifully
or less to this boy of color,
this color which is not one,
this color which does not run,
cruisers on hot prowl will amend our chances
they gaslight other fathers’ girls for dim kicks and vigilantes.
Taking care of my people, white
rage wears its hood of Adderall
then sequel tops off silences
thug music with take-out
Rosewood forever raised to a ground.
[ 2 ]
So now where secretive hunters, black teens
flying and falling straightway for their pleasure
all bright-edged and cold; the lost
black teen vehemence the midnights hold
the black teens as stars fall with one eye
watching sleep, darken speech
in dusky teen words and images.
There will never be an end to this droning
the teen is dead, go on through the darkness
to feel sure and to forget the bleaching sand.
The teen is like a man
in the body of a violent beast,
the darkened teen cloven by sullen swells.
Darkness shattered, turbulent with teens
to return to the violent mind
that is their mind, these teens, and that will bind
the ever-hooded, tragic-gestured teen
to the mask that speaks unintelligible
teen things. If it was only the dark voice of the teen
repeated in a summer without end
the meaningless plungings of teens
the teen actutest at its vanishings;
who mastered the night and portioned out the sea
in ghostlier demarcations, keener sounds
of teens who would not die a parish death
their every ghost choking with acted violence,
to be free again, to carry me teen
carry me teen to the cold.
[ 3 ]
Return to Retreat View Circle. It looks like
it’s raining and he’s just walking around
looking at houses
Knock-knock who’s there [unintelligible]
all right. All right. You don’t need
All right. You’re on What do I do with this
assholes they always get away
I can be your mother, your friend, your victim, your
juror I can’t be you I can’t be so quickly and inevitably dead
quick quick turn and face the pursuer. His face
is as masked as any stupid immediate death but that
is the sound of your voice bursting its blister
in the dumb uncolored rain. That is the cross of your ankles,
they are tender to each other and to the hands that washed them.
You [snap] that’s all just here, instantly, this is your grass
blackened and deadly. The snack you happened to
symbolize, the caressed target.
That is not my son. It is someone else’s,
I perjure myself and commiserate with the state
look haggard as I grip the up
every one of us agreed for the defense
of our community somewhat gleeful or at minimum
important ready to sell our story
has this been sold on you yet: your son,
not mine, my son unhoods himself
for the summer his hair is white
his head is so dear and so expansively loved
then he flashes invisibly and safely
into the grass we own.
Oh Florida, protect his dear head forever
from the likes of YOU I kiss him into life
I go with the majority if the majority
never bleeds I have to hold out
my hand to catch his blood if I’m
to get any
First Published by Prac Crit.