Tag Archives: In Print

Micro Essay 9 – Amiri Baraka’s “Somebody Blew Up America”

How do I enter a poem critically when I find it so perfect to the point of being confounded? Hearing “Somebody Blew Up America” being read by its author, Amiri Baraka, made me want to stand up in my cubicle and scream out “Whooooooo” myself – and for better or worse this wouldn’t be the first time my coworkers wondered just what the hell I was up to.

I suppose I’ll start with the sonics, of which brought about much of the emotional stirring for me. Baraka begins this poem with two beats reflecting their own sounds back.

They say {breath} its some terrorist,

Ey – Ay {breath} Itsso – Orist

These two quick-paced parts of the rhythm set up the beat for the whole piece, with only a few breaks to slow things down, and one major acceleration at the third stanza which sticks through nearly to the end. The reader – no audience – no listener – have a familiar repetition of only a few sounds in the line-opening phrases: Ihh, Orr, Th, Who; all of which seem to act as a grounding point, or foundation for the coming rhythm that strikes each line on the verb or the noun, depending on which Baraka intends to hold the reader’s attention. These in-line-rhymes occur not only within stanzas, but in several cases serve as a call-back to an earlier stanza and line-of-thinking.

For example in this stanza:

Who {foundational beat sound} the Beast in Revelations {interior reflected sound of East – Ev Ations},
Who {foundational beat sound} 666 {First S-S-ix sound},
Who {foundational beat sound} know who decide {without “s” creates first part of pairing and allows for a harder edged sound than had this been grammatically correct, i.e. who decides}; and then,
Jesus {reflects the S-S-ix sound with Esus} get crucified {Rhyme with “decide”, creating greater importance to the decision of who dies}.

The field that Baraka has laid out is far less about the page and almost entirely based around sonics. Each stanza tight to the left margin with a line break only between stanzas. Almost as if Baraka had no concern for the silent reader. The plainness of this poem on the page may or may not have been intentional, but it signals that the real punch is in what you hear with your ears more than what you see with your eyes.

Regarding word-play we do get a better idea of what is going on in reading the poem than, in some cases, hearing the poem itself. There are so many examples where Baraka has taken the common (or “correct”) spelling of a phrase or name, and altered it to heighten the meaning and passion behind the choice.

For example, the many cases of altered names of conservative black Americans in positions of power, such as “Tom ass Clarence” – inferring that Supreme Court Justice Thomas Clarence is an Uncle Tom. Or how instead of directly referencing General Colon Powell, he infers shit-talking or bull-shit-reasoning behind war and policy expressed by General Powell in the line: “Who doo doo come out the Colon’s mouth”. Furthermore, in that line the use of “Who” suggests that it isn’t necessarily General Powell’s own bull-shit, but someone else’s.

Content wise the poem begins with a very non-specific moment wherein “they” point to a “barbaric” act by a “terrorist” – blaming “A Rab, in Afghanistan”. Then, clarifying how the narrator is part of “they”, because “they” lay claim that: “It wasn’t our American terrorists”. Here is where the poem pivots from the vague to the specific; where Baraka spends about 200 lines calling out moments when the American leadership, society, citizenry, and economic decisions led to terrorism, not terrorism carried out by the “barbaric” other – but by America against that other.

By the end the poem makes one more move out of specificity and into a much more universal question about how we interpret the machinations of life and the universe. How the “they” make sense of the world through this lens of God and the Devil, Heaven and Hell. One of the most profound statements (in my opinion) happens here within these last few stanzas.

Who you know ever
Seen God? 

But everybody seen
The Devil

Like an Owl exploding
In your life in your brain in your self
Like an Owl who know the devil
All night, all day if you listen, Like an Owl
Exploding in fire. We hear the questions rise
In terrible flame like the whistle of a crazy dog

It is within this moment that Baraka ties all of those few hundred examples together with the string of hatred, of the “devil” – the fact that “they” know the devil; but Baraka also knows the devil, and every time a question is raised about “who” is responsible for a specific terrorist act, it is a sort of dog-whistle that anyone potentially within the other should be aware of and weary of; because “they” are coming for you, other.

Micro Essay 8 The Beats and Bars of Mackey

In Nathaniel Mackey’s poem “Sound and Sentience” I found a familiar connection between the field of composition captured by Olson and the field of tonal dynamics brought to life in the broader Splay Anthem collection. “Sound and Sentience” is placed on the page in such a way as to remind the reader of the registry of a scale, moving up and down, with ellipses and commas placed strategically throughout to perform the duty of a rest, or half beat. Each stanza ending on the right margin as though a whole note was being held over to maintain the connection between one thought and the next. As an aside, this feels like an obvious point given the word “scales” appearing as the first word of the poem – even if it is utilized with an alternative meaning.

Mackey remarks in his essay, “Sound and Sentiment, Sound and Symbol”, how it was Farris Thompson who defined the “ancient African organizing principles of song and dance [as] … suspended accentuation patterning (offbeat phrasing of melodic and choreographic accents)”; which it feels to me Mackey has done expressly here in “Sound and Sentience”. Mackey notes that the “black music” is a “critique of our [black people’s] concept of reality” and, “because of racism, one finds oneself deprived of community and kinship, cut off.”

To this end I find it interesting that “Sound and Sentience” bounces between the physical world and the spiritual, where in the physical world it would seem that there is a struggle to remain tangible – for example in the opening stanza:

Scales which would once have been / skin … feathers which would once / have been cloth … There that / claiming heaven raised hell, fraught / sublimity, exists ever more to / come …

From here Mackey moves out of this physical skin and into what he refers to as a state of being as “protoghosts”. The feeling throughout the rest of the stanzas is this desire to be physical, to be some-thing instead of a ghost, or protoghost, or “spook”. I’m reminded of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man in these specters presented by Mackey. Invisible Man having also been referenced by Mackey in his essay where he connects Ellison’s concept of invisibility as a “two-way cut”. As such, in the poem, Mackey’s protoghosts are both invisible to the world as in excluded, or cast out of society; but, as in the second half of the poem the “protoghost entourage” weren’t: “tied to what had been wood” — both a comment on their freedom of being, of their own metaphysical sentience; and also, a comment on no longer being worried about the “would once have been” that repeated itself in the first half of the poem.

Sonically each line of this poem rings less rhythmically – or as Mackey put it – ythmically, although it does that, and more like a staggered beat. Mackey of course is drawing this from ancient African musical traditions. For me, as a fan of early punk rock and hardcore music, I am being awoken further to the appropriation of this technique from the African tradition into euro-centric white anti-establishment music like punk, hardcore, etc. Specifically, for me, I hear echoes of the songs of Fugazi and their earlier work as Minor Threat. Regardless, the point of this digression is that the appropriation by rebellious white Americans (in this example) did not lose the spirit of the “black music” pointed to by Mackey, insomuch as Fugazi was equally expressing a frustration for being outside of acceptable society.

The selection of words used for these staggered beats manage to roll from alliteration to alliteration via not only the sound, but the descriptive patterns and running-words-together to form syllabic patterns found today, more commonly in certain rapper’s lyrics.

Just read this stanza out loud and consider how these words create their own backbeat:

We wandered into, circling wind we / considered moot, a way we had of / running in place… Phantom limbs they / were we ran on, ghost feet that / they were. Nubs that’d once been feet /lost their numbness. Feeling it was / made /

Breaking this down into beats and bars[1], I came up with this:

1                                 2                                 3                                 4

We wan                  dered                       in                                to

Circ                           ling                            wind                         we

And this first line is interesting because the word “circling” is the pivot between two similar sounds: i.e. we wandered and wind we.

1                                 2                                 3                                 4

con                            sid                              ered                          moot

away                         we                              had                            of

When you break things down like this – assuming I’m not breaking some sort of rule of poetry here – it becomes more evident how Mackey plays with syllables to capture these half beats, or off-beats referenced in ancient African musical tradition. Here looking at line one, the first beat and a half is “We wan”; then, in the second line we see a similar extra syllable in the beat for the word “away”.

All of this reminds me a bit of an Ornette Coleman piece “Freeway Express”, from one of my favorite jazz albums The Empty Foxhole. You can give it a listen here: https://youtu.be/rHplFiz22-w

“Freeway Express” includes three layers of rhythm, the drums keeping one beat, the bass/strings another, and then the trumpet a third – yet all of them are in sync with one another. Much the way Mackey loops together rhythms based upon words and context, on rhyming sounds, and finally on breath and beat.

[1] Admittedly something I understood very little about until last year when Vox posted up this video: https://youtu.be/QWveXdj6oZU