- Nonfiction, Writing

Only a Cry Absent Its Mouth, by Tyrone Williams

Juxtaposition and parataxis are key techniques of composition across the traditional genres of fiction, drama, and poetry. The former refers to the strategy of placing words, phrases, or sentences next to each other for comparison or contrast, while the latter refers to the non-coordination or non-subordination of adjoining words, phrases, or sentences. An example of juxtaposition is the opening to Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness.” An example of parataxis is this passage from Toni Morrison’s Sula: “Twenty-two years old, weak, hot, frightened, not daring to acknowledge the fact that he didn’t know who or what he was…with no past, no language, no tribe, no source, no address book, no comb, no pencil, no clock, no pocket handkerchief, no rug, no bed, no can opener, no faded postcard, no soap, no key, no tobacco pouch, no soiled underwear and nothing nothing nothing to do…he was sure of one thing only: the unchecked monstrosity of his hands…” These rather traditional uses of juxtaposition and parataxis can be found in the short stories of Raymond Carver and Jayne Anne Phillips, in the novels of Orhan Pamuk and Laila Lalami, in the drama of August Wilson and Yasmina Reza, and in the poems of Amiri Baraka and Louise Glück.

The construction of literature according to identifiable genres often proceeds by indirection, adding stanzas, scenes, chapters, and acts that, at first, may not appear pertinent to what has preceded them. This is one reason why writing an entire story, novel, play, or poem rarely proceeds A to Z. This is also why the so-called first genre of composition in the West, poesis, literally, “making,” suggests that even storytelling—and poesis begins, we recall, as an oral tradition—is a type of making, perhaps a kind of making up, or as was said in early twentieth century Southern black cultures, a way of telling lies. On the other hand, song, connected to the lyre, from which derives the lyric, often strikes us as a more direct, immediate, and sincere expression of affect without the apparent trappings of artifice. Because we know that affect has a history, and that history is indissociable from the forms (cultural, social, etc.) through which affect is expressed, what we understand as artifice has little bearing on what we experience as affect. The gap between cognitive and affective experiences has important implications: among other things it means the history of affect is inseparable from the history of genre.

As the forms of orality and writing have changed over centuries and, in this century, over decades due to the rapid acceleration of technical innovations, so too the very nature of our affective, to say nothing of our cognitive, responses to oral and written expressions. Put another way, and as one example among several, the “rise of the novel” from the ashes of the romance (e.g., Spenser’s The Faerie Queen) cannot be understood without, as one example, the rise of mercantilism, colonialism, and what we call the middle class. Juxtaposition and parataxis, writ large, are thus more than techniques with social and cultural implications; they are, per se, ethical, and perhaps, even political, acts. Moreover, the contemporary popularity and relevance of a “traditional” novel like, for instance, Jane Eyre, suggests that juxtaposition and parataxis, along with other elements in a writer’s toolbox (character development, dialogue, setting, action, the narrative of gradual revelation—key elements of the detective and mystery genres—and so forth) are strategies common enough to be “sourced” by a wide range of popular music artists, from the cred-seeking rapper or auto-tuned pop diva/boy-toy to the Tin Pan Alley-cum-Nashville (by way of L.A. Seventies pop) country songwriter. Juxtaposition and parataxis in general transcend genre.

But what about what we might imagine as straightforward, linear narrative, unadulterated lyrical expression, unencumbered by juxtaposition or, worse, parataxis, that wayward parent of modernism and postmodernism? We know that straightforward description or expression are often key strategies within stanzas, scenes, acts, and chapters. None of these terms, however, are as transparent and obvious as they might appear. Understanding what’s meant by linear or straightforward narrative and lyric expression requires learning, demands the acquisition of certain forms of grammatical and syntactical knowledge. Learning to speak and write “English” means one thing in Boston, Massachusetts, another thing in New Orleans, Louisiana, and something else in Pocatello, Idaho. Of course, there is overlap, some common elements of spelling, syntax, and grammar, which is why someone from Chicago or Cleveland can usually understand the written, if not always the verbal, expressions of people from these cities. In short, there’s nothing more “natural” about linearity or lyric immediacy as the bedrocks of what’s sometimes called “mainstream” writing than the weird mixing and matching, juxtaposing, paratactic techniques of those deemed outliers, those writers that deploy nonlinear strategies within stanzas, paragraphs, and, more discomfiting, within sentences, lines, or even words. Anyone who’s spent time with the metaphysical poets of the seventeenth century, or pre-imperial novels from lands today known as China or Japan—never mind the kabuki dance and Noh drama of the latter—knows that what is called postmodernist writing is less the practice of elitist artists and academics out of touch with the “people” than it is evidence of uneven developments and “delayed” cross-cultural influences. That is, in relation to the so-called East, the so-called Orient, Western writing is as belated as it is post-historical. Even within the cultures of the West, the “English” of Brixton has little in common with Cockney dialect, never mind that of Baton Rouge, LA. In practical terms, this means the writer’s toolbox has changed and expanded: what we call “imagination” today is not the imagination of Wordsworth, much less that of Dante or Horace. And unlike Shakespeare who had to copy by longhand what he stole, cribbed, and repurposed themes, ideas, characters, and images from the historical chronicles, stories, and plays of strangers, friends, and rivals, writers today can, with a few clicks, access and download texts from virtually any library, museum, or archive with a website. In that sense then, the kind of writing that depends on accessing library and archival sources by surfing the web has become the twenty-first century version of eighteenth and nineteenth century travel writing. We know too well today the risks of these kinds of cross-cultural mining and appropriation (myopia, condescension, reductionism, etc.), but the relative achievements and failures of, say, William Faulkner or Wallace Stevens, Tony Hoagland or Anders Carlson-Wee, Vanessa Place or Kenny Goldsmith aside, I’d argue that these risks are well worth the price of notoriety, censure, and shaming.[1] I’d rather read any of the authors above—and in fact, I have read them—than the non-risky successes that fill too many journals and periodicals and therefore will never have to worry about being called out for not staying on their lanes.

Am I saying then that what is called a writer’s “style” or “voice” is simply an index of comfort, of having settled in, settled for, a certain kind of mastery, however difficult to achieve? Yes, I am saying exactly that, but to a certain extent this kind of comfort is unavoidable if the writer is attempting to work out or work through aesthetic, social, cultural, and, above all, psychological problems and issues. But all of that constitutes just one side of the ledger. For the writer who wants to be published, all the above issues meet head-on the limits of the publishing world, limits that are as formidable within the world of small press publishing as they are within the world of the major trade publishers. What we think of as craft is imposed upon us by the histories and traditions of both worlds, which is why the raw “outsider,” in the art world and in the writing world, is often celebrated for pouring new wine into old bottles. The dialectic between innovation and mastery is thus more important than choosing up sides, than defending the virtues of a well-worn thesis against the irreverence of an upstart antithesis or, conversely, celebrating an ahistorical know-nothing antithesis as “freedom’ from the constraints of a stuffy thesis. None of this means that, at certain moments in history, it doesn’t become necessary to take up a cause, to pick a side.

Taking sides was complicated for me almost from the start. On the one hand, when I was in college in Detroit, I wrote essays for one of the cultural magazines, Solid Ground, which covered innovative jazz, radical politics, and experimental literature. Edited by Kofi Natambu, who also had a jazz and talk show on our local college radio station, Solid Ground ran from 1975—when I was a junior at Wayne State University—to 1985, two years after I moved to Cincinnati, still an ABD. At the same time, in the seventies, I was pursuing a traditional degree in English. I don’t recall thinking of these avocations as evidence of necessarily contradictory impulses, though that may simply indicate I’d already internalized the compensating rationalizations of every double agent. More likely, and less melodramatically, I was simply a typical Civil Rights baby, hedging my bets on a number of different fronts. And as we know, these fronts, these different sides, constitute what we construct as cultural history. Within that history, there is literary history, and within that, the contested category of the literary, itself a child or invention of what we call belle lettres. All this bears on the question of craft, whether we imagine ourselves writing “within,” “outside,” or at the “edges” of the literary, as much a shapeshifter as the genres that comprise it. Let me give you an example, not of craft per se, but of the procedures that have guided my own poetry writing since the turn of the century.

In many ways As Iz, my 2018 book of poetry, was written using the same procedures as my other Omnidawn book, On Spec, published eleven years ago. That is, I gather notes from my journals and assemble them into poems, going back and forth between juxtaposition and parataxis so that “meaning” is often as dependent on a poem’s syntactical interrelationships as referents external to the poem. In “Incant (®)x” and “Arapt,” for instance, you might notice that the arrangement of the words drives meaning as much as the words themselves. In the first poem, the dashes indicate subordinate clauses, and this subordination is reinforced by the word “subset” and phrase “subset of the subset.” The redundancy is meant to indicate the futility of remedies however much we prioritize the magical incantations of modern medicine, indicated by the description of a typical prescription drug, “cylindrical amber.” The second poem, ”Arapt,” is even more radically paratactic: every line juxtaposes incommensurate images because the referents being compared and contrasted here—a computer, a boat—involves a substitution: instead of comparing surfing the net with a person surfing on the ocean, I compare, or rather, contrast surfing the net with a boat being rowed. There are no personal pronouns in those short, paratactic phrases; that reinforces the passivity throughout the poem; no one is rowing the boat; rather, the boat is being rowed. The exhilaration implied in surfing is here reduced to the drudgery of rowing even though no one—only a cry absent its mouth—is present to row.

At the level of book organization, On Spec is divided into two major sections; As Iz has three. In both cases, every section was written independently of the other and, in As Iz, the interval between sections can be measured in months and years. The last section, Library, was written almost entirely during the summer and fall of 2017. The middle section, To Market, was written over a period of years, probably between 2011-2015. And many of the poems in the first section were written while I was working on Howell, that is, between 2004-2009. However, if there is a “voice” that threads its way through all the poems it’s because my procedures are fairly consistent and predictable.

I am a reader who writes. My ideas, phrases, themes, etc., tend to come from whatever I happen to be reading. Some of that reading is, of course, intentional. I knew as early as 2003 that As Iz was going to concern my interest in Egyptology, in Islam, in part because I wanted it to be my “response” to Western xenophobia before and after 9/11, a response that in many ways goes back to the ramifications of the 1967 Six Day War between Israel and a bloc of Arab nations, including Egypt, Jordan, and Syria. In other words, I’d been thinking about the Middle East for decades. However, after the assemblage that became Howell, my 2011 book, I wanted to go in a more narrative, even lyrical, direction, especially in the earliest poems. That decision was driven by two concerns, one formal, one ethical. The formal one was that I wanted these poems to mirror the tendencies in the West to “narrate” the East as a complex but ultimately “knowable” or “understandable” region, susceptible or available to certain modes of knowledge and values. At the same time, I felt uncomfortable treating the East as a mere “resource” for showcasing my dazzling displays of technical wizardry. Moreover, in addition to bracketing the juxtaposed and paratactical elements of genre, form and language that inform Howell and On Spec, I was interested in disrupting the narrative of what counts and doesn’t count as black poetry. Craft, then, as I understand it, involves all kinds of technical and thematic decisions, to say nothing of their ethical, cultural, and political implications. But since writers often have little control over how those implications will play out for their readers, these non-technical considerations have their limits. In short, as this entire essay has implied, I ultimately will always choose risk even if it means stepping on toes, embracing ethical, cultural, or political transgressions.

[1] I concur with the general argument of Brian Morton’s essay “Why we should read classic works of literature that also offend us,” published in the January 13, 2019 edition of the New York Times Book Review section.

 

Incant (®)x

Let cylindrical amber be the set—
square/triangular white the subset—
do’s and don’t’s as dosage—subset of the subset:

Exhibits A, A and B (plus) enabled.

Consider the contents of the container—
do they not don’t they do—
how much more the bottle of the body:

There are many crosses in the lean-to.

 

Arapt

Oars at rest (backed-up
sloop), logged out.
blank screen, slack
sail (hedged canoe). Listless
list, save for sleepware
error—snore [sic] snort—[sic] pitch, yaw-
nth boot. Broken
link, a wake
hog-tied to this hand-held
(ahoy)—please God—heliport.

Tyrone Williams is the author of a number of chapbooks, including Convalescence, Futures, Elections, Musique Noir, and Pink Tie, among others. His full-length collections of poetry include As Iz, c.c., On Spec, The Hero Project of the Century, Adventures of Pi, and Howell. Williams is the editor of African American Literature: Revised Edition. He teaches at Xavier University in Cincinnati.

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