Tuesday, May 16, 2006


THOMAS FINK reviews:

City Eclogue by Ed Roberson
(Atelos, 2006)

At the end of Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality, and Experimental Writing (New York: Cambridge UP, 1993), Nathaniel Mackey expresses the hope that “the quantity” and “quality of attention given to African-American art and cultural practices” (285) can be increased. Mackey, himself an important African-American experimental poet, wants “Ed Roberson’s Lucid Interval as Integral Music,” among other texts, “to win the sort of acclaim accorded to Rita Dove’s Thomas and Beulah,” thus confronting “neo-traditionalism . . . with a countertradition of marronage, divergence, flight, fugitive tilt.” Thirteen years later, Roberson may not be closer to the kind of widespread appreciation that Dove still enjoys, but the publication of City Eclogue, his seventh book of poems, published by Lyn Hejinian’s and Travis Ortiz's Atelos, is an excellent occasion for pointing out, at very least, that those in U.S. experimental circles should take strong notice of his work.

Much of City Eclogue has a political tinge. In “Sit in What City We’re in,” the Civil Rights movement’s lunch counter sit-ins evoke unusual questions about desire, individual and collective identification, and confrontation:

to know how those kept out
set foot inside, sat down, and how
                               the mirrors around the lunch counter
reflected the face
to face—the cross-mirrored depth reached
                                infinitely back into either—
the one pouring the bowl over the head of
the one sitting in
                                at that counter. (26-7)

Whereas southern white segregationists desired the maintenance of African-American invisibility, the plethora of mirroring at the restaurants ironically insists upon a plethora of visibility for all. Subtle comfort can be taken in the fact that the actions of those insisting upon an end to their subordination are captured by early sixties mass media along with the racists’ violent responses. For the poet, such mirroring occasioned by the African-American students’ courageous protests undermines any pretence of “imperial selfhood” and makes isolation from the challenges of community impossible. However, his carefully spaced strips of syntax, sometimes fragmentary, prevents sloganeering and a simple parsing of the situation:

                                this regression this seen stepped
back into nothing both ways
From which all those versions of the once felt sovereign
locked together in the mirror’s
march from deep caves of long alike      
march back
into the necessary      
we are
reflected in the face to face we are
a nation facing ourselves our back turned
                                on ourselves      
that reflection sat in demonstration
each face
                                mirror reflecting into mirror generates. (27)

“Steps” (stages) of multiple mirroring are a “seen” (scene) “regression”—like a deconstructive mise-en-abyme—into such layering that one can focus on “nothing” individual. Racism, too, constitutes a psychological regression into a “nothing” of unbridled id. The many “versions” dangling from the “From which” (that lacks a determinate antecedent) and the spatial separation of “sovereign” from “self” sit “in demonstration/ of” this visual and social confrontation shattering individualism’s foundations. “Deep caves of long alike” might signify the single racial origins of homo sapiens and, thus, a “march” into racial divisions, or it might reflect how the lunch counter protests can be identified as one of various pivotal movements away from the “long” institution of segregation. Whites and blacks must “face” each other, facing also their mutual inclusion in “nation,” but also, the mirror supposed to supply one’s own identity presents the individual’s “back” and offers the face of an “other.” So the mirroring-effect may throw into question rejection of the “other” as a denial of otherness within the “self.”

In the course of the poem, several other intricate formulations of the selfhood/otherness dialectic are offered, including a quasi-utopian transcendence of polarization without the sacrifice of individual agency: “the self not lost, shared/ being in common in each other” (31). At times, Roberson seeks a way of simultaneously incorporating perspectives derived from different points in history: “A here and not-here division of things,/ where the future is in the same/ place as the past, is . . . like these facing mirrors/ in which time is making faces/ at you from the elemental/ moment, the faced and yet to be/ faced/ in one frame” (29). “The elemental” is what makes history useful for confronting the present’s urgencies.

“Beauty’s Standing,” the book’s second part, consisting of a ten-section, seventeen-page poem and a kind of coda, examines various trends in contemporary African-America. Since its title recalls the sixties slogan, “Black is beautiful,” one can read it as an affirmation that, despite continuing oppression, this “beauty” still “stands.” This is indicated in two examples from section 2: “The lovely women styled in as no other/ time are not the body of this space they make/ only the flow through it”; “a park/ of the highest form of pickup/ basketball in The Village a Harlem sound. . . “ (42). Yet this “beauty” is endangered. From the outset, Roberson calls attention to harsh environmental conditions, including images of urban clutter that, far from signifying abundance, indicate poverty and the effects of a community’s lack of political clout : “re: the water the heat/ is out of control the land toxic.// Building up more junk on more/ junk doesn’t pay the bills & get the light back on” (41). The couplets of 6, “(the first casualty is where you live”), one of the most compelling sections, depart interestingly from more direct treatments of racial profiling and police brutality found in Black Arts and other earlier African-American poetry:

The quiet of the house evacuates into the street
leaves all the rooms to follow the haunting

concern without yet subject    the ghost with its cradle
floats across the walls red revolving patrol

lights a spun radiant weapon a night-
stick elucidation      
a beating without a given reason

that just shows up at a door
in the neighborhood      
just happen

to be
Who this time. (49)

The strange personification of “quiet,” along with the mention of “haunting” and “ghost,” indicates how precarious encounters between an African-American community and the police undoes domestic serenity. The deliberately awkward phrase, “concern without yet subject,” underscores free-floating anxiety hovering in the neighborhood. Perhaps evoking Toni Morrison’s most famous ghost story, Beloved, the apparition floating “with its cradle/. . . across the walls” not only suggests the squad cars’ “lights” rudely infiltrating the house of a family just trying to relax, but also memories of many similar intrusions and their consequences. Metonymically aligned with the menacing “night-/ stick,” “patrol// lights” impose a particular, disturbing visibility (“elucidation”) but provide “the neighborhood” with a lucid understanding of racially motivated, authoritarian violence and its lawless, un-reason-able disregard for due process, etc. This passage’s concluding phrase makes innovative use of grammar and pauses indicated by spacing to energize the truism that, for racist white policemen, all black men in such an area are rendered anonymous; they are “suspects.”

Countering the elucidation of sociopolitical hopelessness are demonstrations of the resourcefulness of poor urban African-Americans. Recognizing that black (and white) conservatives’ “bootstrap” ideology in reference to the elusive “American dream” is no match for the exploitative force of “bosses,” some of the folks represented in Section 9, whose “territory” is “on the other side of the idea/ of having anything/ to throw away to be collected” by the sanitation department, do what they can to narrow economic and opportunity gaps by acting as pragmatic ecologists: “After empties us/ out into the local dump/ to turn what we can find over// to make up/ into something we can use” (54). Their benefit is obviously extremely limited, and they are subject to what Roberson eloquently identifies in section 4 as “that powerful level of segregationists/ the civil rights movement never reached,” those who impose “the great weigh of wealth’s want/ that moves other men’s hands// and feet and leaves its own clean” (45).

In order to combat the very exploitation they suffer when they try to make an honest living in “this” allegedly “great countryland/ of opportunity,” others in the community feel justified in resorting to nonviolent theft: “The catch/ up in what/ we catch off the truck.// That we should catch up/ or make up any losses in the floor/ the union boss wants/ for his house” (54). And they are aware that the corrupt “union boss’s” subversions of democracy are not aimed exclusively at black workers: “him who’s/ gonna get paid/ and twice to put it in/ for the vote to/ stay ahead/ of the niggers/ of all colors other than” (54-55). It may be too simplistic to fill in the blank left implicitly at the end of the sentence with “white”; if, perhaps, the blank remains, it is a reminder that such bosses want to find ways to expand the pool of the exploited to maximize his own profit. In response, the workers maintain their own ironic version of Booker T. Washington’s “bootstrap” philosophy: “Get me/ a piece of that/ fall off the back of a truck first/ economy/ I can pick up like/ Y’know, with the bootstraps! (55)

One of the most troubling, challenging passages in this long poem of numerous troubling manifestations is the complex, ambiguous moral critique in the second half of section 2:

The kind of walk that’s always taking cover
instead of steps that gets to the corner
and can see what’s around it by the faced
direction targets cite the shooter’s placed,

by where people look for what’s against them,
we slouch that walk eye on our government
without thinking because we can’t think
without our common term yet      
just a stink

of sense that something’s wrong here we always
used the word for      
about our enemies:
dictatorship, takeovers, military
class rule, compromised legitimacies

These words hide as understood      
our denial of such
with exclusive meaning      
by definition never the us

         or) By

our self-referent definition      
none of these words
admits us and are (still in our habit      
Colored Only. (43)

In this passage of casual rhymes (“think” contaminated by “stink”) and off-rhymes (fervor against “enemies” compromising “legitimacies,” in which the use of the pronoun “we” makes the speaker (if not necessarily Roberson) implicate himself along with others, who is the target of disgust and/or pity? Who “walks” with such defensiveness, fear, and, as the pun on “steps” indicates, lack of positive social purpose? In 2000 and 2004, it can be said that the Bush campaign, capitalizing on the fact that many U.S. citizens had “a stink// of sense” of something awry in and with the U.S. yet lacked a coherent ideological critique of their nation’s ethicopolitical flaws, “sold” them vague abstractions that gave them something external to blame and made them overly comfortable about “America.” That many European-Americans, since the Civil Rights and Black Power era, have failed to identify the insufficiently corrected “habit” of institutional racism and thus perpetuate a form of segregation (“Colored Only”) may label them as the culprits at whom Roberson is pointing. The Charles Olson-like play with parentheses, however, might signify a useful uncertainty about boundaries: “we” “Americans” of various races and ethnicities, however divergent our economic status from one another, often uncritically utilize a “common term”—and “term” implies a temporal limit as well as a verbal expression—without perceiving how it limits “our” thinking and thus blunts possibilities of overall amelioration of national and international difficulties. Persistently, “Beauty’s Standing” solicits uncomfortable admissions and disrupts “exclusive meanings” and inadequate “self-referent definitions.”

No less than the late playwright August Wilson, another Pittsburgh native, Roberson in City Eclogue exposes how the environments of the urban poor are undeveloped, diminished, ecologically and otherwise devastated. For example, the title of “The Open” signifies that a neighborhood is “opened,” not to opportunity but, “their buildings razed,” to the perception of emptiness (figured as the number “zero” [66]), a clearing away that teaches loss:

their blocks of bulldozed air opened to light
take your breath as much

by this kind of blinding choke as by the loss felt
in the openness

suddenly able to see
as if across a drained lake from below

a missing surface: the knowing everyone
by some common

immersion schooling you. (63)

The trope of “bulldozed air” bespeaks the extremity of violence done, not to mere buildings, but to a cultural milieu and to literal “atmosphere conditions,” to allude to the title of Roberson’s 2000 collection. The poet seems to tell us that this “immersing” vision, elementally painful as the synesthetic “blinding choke” is, permits the benefit of a political insight. The wild impossibility of having the “privileged” vantage point “below” “a drained lake” underscores the sense of acute consciousness of a former presence through a current absence. Roberson laments the trials of “a people whose any beginning is disbursed/ by a vagrant progress,// whose any settlement/ is overturned for the better// of a highway through to someone else’s/ possibility” (64). That this “betterment”—this laying waste, “old houses moved down/ to vacant lots of garbage lawn”—is perpetrated by those whose economic good fortune contrasts mightily with those they are displacing receives the full weight of irony through modification of the noun “progress” by the adjective “vagrant.” And the play of “disbursed”/dispersed emphasizes the financial causes of disruption. From a sense of segregation (“distant separation”) by neighborhood comes knowledge of bitter interconnectedness.

Both “open” and dense areas can be equally problematic. “Eclogue,” the book’s final poem, juxtaposes an urban area, “flat and densely packed with people” and “the empty open of the plain,” where “the grown over dumpsite/ of the meadowlands wetlands or the shore/ is corps of engineered the bulldozer beetle’s/ ball of dung shines in it. . . “ (131). Roberson’s “city eclogues,” bearing a trace of the pastoral in evocative flashes of imagery, frequently account for socially induced devastation of what could otherwise flower. If, as he puts it in the last line of “Counsel of Birds, “the alarm is our alarms are not working” (116), the poet is working hard to revive the alarm.


Thomas Fink, Professor of English at CUNY-LaGuardia, is the author of two books of criticism, including A DIFFERENT SENSE OF POWER (2001), and three books of poetry, most recently AFTER TAXES (Marsh Hawk, 2004). His work has appeared in JACKET, VERSE, TALISMAN, CHICAGO REVIEW, DENVER QUARTERLY, x-Stream, MORIA, MILK, AUGHT, OCTOPUS, CONTEMPORARY LITERATURE, AMERICAN POETRY REVIEW, and numerous other journals and ezines. Fink's paintings hang in various collections.


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