Poetry & Race Roundtable        (page 6)

Farid Matuk (continued): Why doesn't Hoagland's poem work for me similarly? I could answer with a quick close reading. I could say that the poem is rhetorically sloppy, that the change it proposes (a recognition of whites losing some claim to supremacy or to normative privilege a la Dyer) is undermined by the speaker's indulgence in imagery and rhetoric that seems totally unfazed by this "change," thereby disavowing the very news he’s come to deliver. So I feel I can't take the speaker seriously. Even tricksters demand some degree of earnest engagement, otherwise they're dismissible, right?

That explanation works for me, but only to a point. I think I may just have a lower tolerance for trouble making in matters of race from white poets, or in matters of sexuality from heterosexual poets, etc. I think I may demand a little more civility and minding of boundaries from poets addressing a given field of experience when they occupy the normative position that itself determines the lay of that field. There's this film everyone seemed to have loved when it came out, American History X. In it, Edward Norton plays a white supremacist skinhead who changes his ways and tries to prevent his younger brother from following in his footsteps. Much of the film's first act, however, is devoted to idolatrous representations of Norton's young white masculinity: Norton violently penetrating his girlfriend while wearing combat boots popular among skinheads, Norton's chiseled muscular body walking in slow motion, his skin glowing an almost lunar white against the dark nothing of his suburban street at night, Norton crushing the skull of a black man by positioning the man's open mouth on a curb and then stomping on the man's head with those steel-toed boots. I get it. We're meant to be aroused by the young white man's power and then revolted when that power is put into action, the goal being to make the audience feel complicit in racial violence and thereby begin to unpack its own hidden fantasies of white desirability and white supremacy. I suppose this is what Hoagland means when he says he'd rather "get dirty trying to dig it [the subject of race in America] out of the ground, than make nice" or, maybe, what Duncan meant by tasking poets with imagining evil. But I hate this movie. I hated it since I first saw it. I hated it without thinking about it and I hate it after thinking about it. Tony Kaye and David McKenna, the film's white director and white writer respectively, make sure to domesticate the disturbing mix of erotic and violent white masculinity, complete with a too-late tragic ending meant to ensure we all leave the theater feeling the loss and pain caused by racism. For me the corrective is not enough. The pleasures the film asked me to enjoy early on are too difficult and, really, too familiar (when are we not asked to gaze admiringly at white male torsos?) to be instructive, no matter how the story unfolds. This is how I feel about Hoagland's poem too. It's transgressions too familiar, too stupid, and, here's my point, I think, too proud. In other words, I am starting to admit that I do not recognize Hoagland's or Kaye's or McKenna's artistic freedom. If we imagine a scale in such films and poems that invite audiences into "inhabiting" their darker natures, a scale that balances provocation and "evil" (Duncan's term) on the one hand with, one would suppose, "good" on the other, then when that work is made by folks whose experience sets the norm, I ask that the scale eventually tip decisively toward the "good," the "domesticated," the "politically correct." The recuperative gesture has to be more decisive, the ethical "play" or ambiguity has to be nailed down more securely by the end of the poem. This is difficult to type out now and make public. This assumes there’s a recuperative gesture at all. I love transgressive work, I love Ronaldo Wilson, I love Jean Genet, I love Burroughs, I love Ed Dorn, but, when Burroughs advocates for the end of all women, or when Ed Dorn uses AIDS as a punch line, my hackles rise. In the case of Dorn's poems, by the way, I find more vulnerability in that work, more of a capacity for sharing in human misery than I do in any Hoagland poem.

Maybe poets occupying a privileged identifier can make troubling work that deals with that identifier, but they should reach deeper, risk more, than Hoagland does. What would this look like? Dorn wrote about AIDS and disease within the context of his own imminent death due to cancer. That doesn't excuse for me what I read as his prejudice against homosexuals, but it does begin to help me read Dorn's poems on AIDS as a gesture toward finding points of identification in shared misery (I'm likely trying too hard to recuperate Dorn here). My point is that I don't ask Ronaldo Wilson to have lived anything close to the experiences of his narrator in Narrative of the Life… Hoagland's style, his commitment to distanced humor, seems to foreclose the possibility of familiar signs for earnestness, confession, for example. Kent Johnson’s Araki Yasusada would be another interesting point of comparison because I think it works in drastically different terms than Hoagland and is still a work by a white author (can we agree Johnson wrote it?) that makes a ton of trouble in matters of race.

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