- Books, Reading, Review, Writing

On Poetry, Community, and Heroes: Reading Tyrone Williams

By Jill Darling

 

In “Reviewing Reviewing: Ethos and Praxis,” published in Big Other in April 2019, Tyrone Williams reflects on writing book reviews as a way of participating in poetry community and engaging in conversation with other poets and their work, and as a means of thinking through one’s own ideas in writing:

My motivation for doing so then is the same as now, one I think most reviewers of books, art shows, and music and drama performances can understand: I am always trying to figure out, or just wrestling with, a problem—aesthetic, cultural, political, etc.—by way of a specific object or performance. But of course, for poets, writing poetry is also, if only partly, about wrestling with, trying to figure out, some aesthetic, cultural, and/or political problem.

After reading this essay, I look around at the stacks of books on the table across from me—books that I am in process of reading, of thinking about, maybe of writing about, and the many other books stuck in an endless holding pattern. The books sometimes move, from one pile to another, or get put away onto shelves, new and other books always coming in. But Williams encourages me to prioritize more actively. He writes:

Then I read—somewhere—an interview with the poet Lisa Robertson…about how academic critics tend to ignore contemporary poetry, and that it was up to poets to review books of poetry…Robertson’s comments really resonated with me, perhaps because around this same time I’d been thinking about the late Lorenzo Thomas, about the standard for social and aesthetic activism set by his exemplary career. Instead of following the usual trajectory that most American poets take as they enter what Nathaniel Tarn calls the “po’ biz,” this Panamanian American poet left New York City, moved to Houston, and began working in the local arts communities.

It can be easy, I think, to get lost in the business and miss the poetry and the people. I know I’ve spent a lot of time worrying about things that don’t necessarily contribute to writing, thinking, or engaging authentically in community. Doing local community work and writing book reviews as an activist practice can take on many forms, and have also helped me to focus less on the business of “success” and more on meaningful engagement.

Williams has written many reviews and essays on poetry, and like his creative work, they sometimes sneak up on you. His own books are powerful and under-referenced. His essays float on the web, and then disperse. He’s also kind of like this in person: brilliant, quiet, understated. I’ve known Tyrone for a while, from our Wayne State connection to re-connecting at events in the Detroit area or at conferences. We are also both kind of reserved and private people who can chat up a storm at any given moment. This is all to say how much I appreciate Tyrone, as a person, and as a critically thinking poet; and I think about how sometimes social media gives us something unexpected, like a smart and quiet essay that makes us sit back and think.

Williams also reflects on writing a series of reviews on Jacket2, explaining that he wanted to consider both new and older books, though the editors at first didn’t like that idea. I find this a strange situation in the poetry world, that there is so much emphasis on new books, that once a book has been out in print for a year or more it’s like it’s no longer relevant. This, to me, is the poetry world reiterating the kinds of market demands of consumer and social media culture that the poetry world might or should reject. Williams rightly points out that so much poetry goes unnoticed upon publication. And so maybe—not maybe, I firmly believe this: as poets we should read and review not only “hot” new books, but also any good work that may have been missed in previous years.

Williams’s series of “mini-reviews” on Jacket2, called “Hunches, Hedges, etc.” focuses mainly on chapbooks. Here, he is working through “to be read” stacks of books in order “to introduce readers to authors they may be unaware of, authors they might be willing to take a chance on.” Though he considers the reviews “hasty generalizations [that] are modest introductions…” they open us into worlds that we may not have before encountered, into moments of poetry otherwise missed.

While considering Williams’s ideas about poetry reviews, I remember that I have wanted to write about his book, The Hero Project of the Century, for some time. I’ve been thinking about this book at least since the summer/fall of 2016, not coincidentally in the weeks leading up to the election. It’s a dense and difficult and intriguing and important book, and I’ve been picking it up and putting it down for a long time now. From his website, I notice that although many of his other books have links to reviews, there seem to be none of The Hero Project, published in 2009. When I google the book, I see only a short note from Barbara Henning, basically the same as her blurb on the back of the book. And so, in consideration of a “hero project” that slipped beyond some notice, I offer the following reflections.

I decided to re-read The Hero Project while riding the bus to and from Ann Arbor to teach a late summer class and, in the fall, work at a writing center. I don’t otherwise work in Ann Arbor, and usually instead drive to my regular job in Dearborn. What I especially love about the bus is catching up on reading along the way. The summer program I regularly teach for helps to thoughtfully prepare incoming UM students, from sometimes under-resourced high schools, for the academic and social challenges that many first-year students experience. Since the system is set up to reward those already given the most resources, and to continually discourage those from whom resources are withheld, even the best performing students in schools with less sometimes need extra support in order to simply compete. That’s part of the idea behind the program, and once the students arrive, most just take right off and excel.

Re-reading The Hero Project in that 2016 moment, I saw the current and continuing tragedies of history all around. The cover of the book shows an enlarged black and white photo and a smaller color version of the same Detroit landscape, of an overgrown field with slightly visible railroad tracks running toward a large empty factory building, and behind which is the shiny Renaissance Center. The top photo in color is clear and crisp, the bottom is stretched, blurred, and repeated on the back cover. I think these offer multiple ways of looking at the real and symbolic Detroit, and point to the complex mingling of nostalgia; the realities of class, race, and social inequities; and the unexpected beauty found in the seemingly un-beautiful. In some parts of the city, nature is taking over long unused buildings or empty lots, histories literally overgrown by trees, plants, and flowers, and giving shelter to animals, like pheasants, peregrine falcons, and even coyotes.

The book is organized into four sections and the poems touch on themes like memory, religion and God, Freud’s fort/da story, music, MLK, art, and more. Poems sometimes focus in on Detroit, like the poem for Tyree Guyton, “Tradition and the Individual Talent: A Translation,” and more often cover wide ground where “interpretation” and “meaning” become both located in specifically crafted language on the page and an open constellation of resonances, connections, associations, and ideas that can move somewhat with each re-reading. A simultaneous pressure on language—compressing and tightening—or as music through which the language floats, fill the poems.

Tyree Guyton is a local Detroit artist most known for The Heidelberg Project, that since 1986, has transformed a neighborhood into community public art installation.

Armed with a paintbrush, a broom and neighborhood children, Guyton and Grandpa began by cleaning up vacant lots on Heidelberg Street. From the refuse they collected, Guyton transformed the street into a massive art environment. Vacant lots literally became “lots of art” and abandoned houses became “gigantic art sculptures.”

The Heidelberg Project’s vision is to inspire people to appreciate and use artistic expression to enrich their lives and to improve the social and economic health of the greater community…What used to be a diverse, working class neighborhood over the years became a community characterized by violence, racism, abandonment, despair, and poverty. (https://www.heidelberg.org/history)

Williams’s poem “Tradition…” brings T. S. Eliot’s ideas about poetry out from literary canon to the streets. Eliot, in his “Tradition,” claims the present of poetry is infused with literary history, and that the history and present of poetry thus displaces the “personal,” so that instead of personal experience or emotion, the poem resonates and re-works what has come before. Williams’s “Tradition” captures a constellation of voices, like reports from the street. Instead of canon, the poem embodies the margins and voices not traditionally heard. They are the voices of people living everyday lives and inhabited by real histories. The poem begins with a question, evoking a personal conversation. And then presents a disparate list of images, ending with a reference to the four Hebrew letters that reference God, and finally the idea of hearsay:

Is that Bill or Ben Picket behind bars?

The nervous system of tomato plants.

A fire escape behind a burning bush.

A phone call from unexpected quarters.

Tetragrammaton.
Hearsay.

Questions about Bill or Ben begin each of the first three sections. The rest of the sections further including lists of seemingly unrelated, though sometimes resonating, details. They read like pieces of conversations, whether heard or imagined. For example, section 4 begins:

All these fathers, some of these parents.

Someday he’ll meet a gun faster than his.

For Jennifer and June “Jumelles”—a Luger in one hand, a mandolin in the other.

The last section ending:

How many no’s go into a scream?

What is a molecule judged as an ion?

Exhibit

A

The questions and voices speak, in a way, to Eliot’s focus on the poet as conduit or vehicle, through which histories and lineages come together to create the present (poem). I think it also exceeds Eliot in how it engages audience. The poem, like a community art installation, is open to all; instead of having to rely on specialized literary and philosophical knowledge, and then setting aside one’s own experience and ideas in order to produce poetry or art, the poet/artist is one part of a community informed by the histories of its members.

There are also poems that reference art, some titled with colors like “Green and Brown” or “Green and Black,” and some with subtitles that describe a medium, like “ink on paper” or “oil and watercolor on paper.” The movement between themes, images, references, and the extra spaces between lines and words on the page gives us, as readers, space to consider connections or resonances not explicitly stated.

One poem, “Merican for Cliché: Self-Portrait” evokes the passing of time, memory, writing, and possibly some kind of romantic relationship—literal or figurative or both—as well as faith or religion. For example, the two-page poem includes this:

Write soon you wrote

a hundred years to come

and though I do

assume the position

of memory and hope

aka
the posture of prayer

as I sketch these im-

permissible and thus

impossible mutations

and then ends:

between the onset

of sunrise and sunset

and earthturn earthturn

The poem for Miles Davis, “How Like an Angel,” is in seven sections, and formally plays with language as music in ways that evoke Davis’s style and sound. In the third section, Williams points to Davis’s unboundedness, references to lineage or expectations, and creating art that transcends rules or institutions. In section 3:

the lines—thrown in relief—lineage
curving away like the back of a world
for miles and miles and miles

who can’t get down to it, here,
where the sky is not a box of glass
in some museum or institute of art.

And in section 7 the revolutionary surpassing of tradition is hardly contained to the page:

backing way from Julliard to Minton’s and then
floored it, plowing right through the flames

brakes failing

wrapping it around a needle

wandering from bump shops to junkyards

for all the parts you would never find us

still learning how
to listen
around corners for

the future paragon of animals

Black beauty of the world

Section 3 of the book, 4 x 4, ends with the poems “The Hero Project of the Century” and “A Wager on Transcendence.” In the book’s title poem, the idea of “the hero project” seems to cynically reflect on the idea that there could be a hero to fix anything, particularly in terms of race. Although the references and details are not clearly expository, it is hard not to read MLK into this poem, especially since a poem titled “MLK” appears only a few pages earlier. The figure of MLK, like that of the potential “hero,” might comment on the idea of progress interrupted by backstepping, or romantic notions challenged by reality, and that even climbing a ladder, “like all ladders, had to end.”

“So much for the hero project of the century” Williams writes, “the chewed-up lives, the spat-out dreams, a pile / of wreckage” Later, he again refers to the ladder, but this time it is “crawling across the ground.”

In section 2 of the poem, humanity is described as imperfect; and imperfect humanity is captured in art and used as catharsis. Or imperfect is how we are created, perfect in our imperfections. Like the ladder that ends, or lies on the ground, hope has to be brought back to earth; hope becomes “hedged, mediated” even while “we build by wanderlust,” though it is hard to say if wanderlust is a bright-eyed moving forward, or a simple kind of wandering that may or not result in heading toward anything. Although it is inevitable that “we stride // into the future which awaits the body,” that movement only comes after or “across decay, misunderstanding” or history, “the talisman then.” The section ends: “Who would speak for hope must speak / without the solace of hoping,” because maybe hope is only possible without history. Or without history, one can only have a naïve hope.

In section 3:

… The hero

project of the century slumps to its knees,
steeped in ice. It will not collapse or dissolve.

It remains as always in the posture of prayer,
hope without history. And then a few words,

some flag goes up, and it all begins again:
The building and unbuilding, another project,

another hero who will lead us home—
Or at least out of these circles that we keep

going around in. Or is there nothing but
This going around, nothing else except

a series of concentric circles, expanding,
diminishing?

Finally, “A Wager on Transcendence” at first seems to offer a bit of optimism, until we read for multiple meanings. It begins, “We created perfect not infallible.” Perfect here again includes imperfection, while infallible is to be incapable of making any mistakes, of never failing; it isn’t humanly possible to be infallible. Perfect can also be defined as having all of the desired elements, to be as good as it is possible to be—contextualized by what is within the realm of the possible. Perfect can also simply mean complete, like in the grammatical perfect tense. The stanza continues: “the snake-eyes of history: / crux on which the argument hangs.” Snake eyes can mean bad luck when gambling, the dice landing on two single dots, the lowest possible combination. Or it can be an altered state, or signal ill-will, treachery, or betrayal.

The poem ends with:


If we read the story or the other

from a book that has no intention
of ever letting us out of its sight:
cross-hairs of a long-range rifle

locked on the backs of cripples
doubled over under crosses
we must envision as wings.

The last line directing us to envision the oppressive weight of crosses (the literal and symbolic racist crosses of American history), the cultural narrative directing “we” to make the most of it, to transcend, imagining the burden as possibility. The image of wings, or the idea of transcending here contradicting, instead of offering, hope. Like Detroit, or contemporary America, infused with history and in which hope is necessarily tempered by realistic and cautionary limitations. Or, we might ask, how good is it possible for (American) humans to be?

 

Jill Darling is the author of a geography of syntax, Solve For, and begin with may: a series of moments, and (re)iteration(s). Her critical poetics essays, poems, short fiction, and creative essays have been published in many journals. Darling teaches at the University of Michigan-Dearborn.

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