For Lawrence White
The man in my dream said, Let me live, but that
was too much of a sacrifice, and I was never
just, like you; he was working for the infidel,
his domino mask said that, blue turban with one
black feather and a ruby set exactly
in the center: entitled to his own sedan chair
with four bearers. An unlikely forebear.
Venice perhaps, betraying anybody’s lovers
to sell more of the sea, body of cold
salt water warming in the sun. An heirloom
brooch my mother never owned
is waiting for me when I wake up: Honi soit
qui mal y pense, it says in French that no one
speaks any more, medieval as the patience
it takes to go blind coaxing these raised letters
out of hammered gold and ivory filigree, a full year
of travel and expense: someone waited the entire
fourteenth century for this, no doubt. He’s dead
by now, still waiting for that final shipment
from Bukhara, Samarkand, or the Tarim
basin. Shame, indeed. I should think evil of the man
who could command such labor, but
my ancestors weren’t involved, and it was
just a gift, passed down like a secret
or a kiss from mouth to mouth: by the time
it’s come to me it’s been forgotten what it
was, what that man’s lips could possibly
have tasted of. Who knows who
he stole it from, who knows who he is now, or
where. This amulet, charm, or medallion
against shames not to be named never was
my mother’s, never belonged to anyone
I could mistake for mine. My mother
had nothing she could hand down; I lost it
centuries ago. In my dream he kissed me (I forgot
to say), begged that I not think evil of him
for what he had to take. I won’t forgive you, world
I won’t survive.
The poem “World,” from my third book, Wrong, was inspired by a brooch given me long ago in the New Wave Eighties by my club friend Joe. The brooch was rather evocatively inscribed with the medieval French words “Honi soi qui mal y pense”: “Shame be to him who thinks evil of it,” the motto of the Order of the Knights of the Garter. It seemed oddly fitting, as there were and are many aspects of my life to which such an admonition might apply. Shame be to him who thinks evil of me.
Knowing Joe, I’m sure that he stole it from someone or somewhere, or both. I have no idea where that brooch is now. (I think I gave it away in turn, or lost it; it might even have been stolen.) I don’t know where Joe is either, or even if he’s still alive. So many men and boys I knew then aren't. Whoever that brooch belonged to, it clearly wasn’t mine, nor, for that matter, was it Joe’s.
This supposed heirloom (which could well have been a fake) given me by someone likable, attractive, and well-intentioned, but not entirely to be trusted (and of course white, like most of my friends and/or objects of desire), came to seem a perfect emblem, the objective correlative, of my relationship to high culture. It’s something which is in my possession but which doesn’t belong to me, a thing that I have but don’t own, and of whose authenticity I have no proof. I have no inheritance of my own, but only this emblem handed down or over to me by someone whose claim to it is itself in question. Much of my poetry is engaged in working out what such ownership would mean for me, how I can claim this heritage for myself, disentangling it from its implication in social injustice and freeing its liberatory potential.
Art offers the possibility of liberation, though that possibility is not always realized. It offers in its form, in its valorization of each element, its insistence that every word of the poem matters, a vision of a world in which people and things exist for their own sake and not as objects of what Adorno calls instrumental reason. I’d like to separate out what Russell Berman calls form and domination, to divorce artistic order from the oppressive social orders with which it has too often consorted and with which it is too often and too easily identified. (“What is art?” asked jesting Robert Scholes in a graduate class on modernism and modernity. “A bourgeois mystification,” an earnest student replied. Why study it at all, then? And why would art be more of a bourgeois mystification than, for example, refrigerators? Both are the products of a bourgeois society and a capitalist economy.)
My poetry operates within a literary tradition and a literary language to which I owe my formation as a writer, yet which is not “mine” (as a black gay man raised in Bronx tenements and housing projects). I wrestle with this necessary angel and rise renamed, blessed but also lamed. This language, the language of Yeats and Stevens, Eliot and Hart Crane, has both made me possible as a writer and made being a writer an asymptote. It is a language to which I aspire in the act of writing it and being written by it (every writer is as much the tool of language as its wielder). Thus my relationship to my own language (simultaneously mine and not mine at all) is haunted by the questions, “Can I speak this language? Can this language speak through me?” Eliot wrote that the poet must always mistrust words; to “be” a writer is an asymptote for all who engage seriously in the practice. But the problem of language is foregrounded for me in ways it needn’t be for writers with a more settled, if illusory, sense that language is “theirs,” though Eliot reminds those who care to listen that tradition “cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labor.”
I’ve no wish to smash the canon (as if there were such a single and singular thing), any more than I wanted to break that brooch. My relationship with it, a long and happy agon, has always been paradoxical: there is both no place assigned me there and more of the possibility of creating such a place than the world at large has ever offered. I have made that literature and that language mine, a part of me, in a way that brooch never was, and I don’t intend to lose it or have it taken from me, even by its “rightful” owners.