Tuesday, October 16, 2012


Authors on Artists: Amy King on Leonor Fini, Leonora Carrington, and Frida Kahlo

Paint Is the Abyss’ Law, Living the Accent: Marginalia on Absorption
Paint Is the Secretion of Scene on Leonor Fini’s Set    
I now confer status on you. As in, everything is as
good as the next thing. Better yet, in this season,
I am implicitly requesting your death
on a platter. That said, should I begin without
interrogating the
great mystery that separates
dark matter from the everyday? Dive into beauty untinged by
the detritus of degenerative mechanics? But...


I cannot fathom that Walt Whitman was the first to write on a variety of controversies typically attributed to “Song of Myself,” including the complexities of slavery, the overt hand of eroticism, and the soul beyond the confines of religion, atrocities of war, etc.   In fact, a number of writers come easily to mind who preceded him on such matters (i.e.  William Blake, Phillis Wheatley, Ralph Waldo Emerson, Edgar Allen Poe).
It is my estimation that readers took offense to a primary feature that taste alone, presumably, should have dictated as unpopular: his form.  Whitman’s stylings were, of course, the undoing of form as tradition dictated.  As Allen Ginsberg noted, he ‘broke open the line,’ writing into the frontier, where no precedent had been set.  Whitman’s was Gertrude Stein’s notion of “contemporariness” – his form was “ugly” in its sprawling.  His non-adherence to tradition is as palpable as his lines are long utterances of street cadence.  Nothing contains them except the page’s physical limitations – and even then, they stretch over from margin to margin and margin again.  Whitman embraced the anarchy and energy of an abstracted American spirit, one that knew roots but reveled in where it could grow and co-habit with instead (“The Dude abides.”).
Despite the critics’ disdain, his work was read by the many.  Whitman is known for “cataloging” as form — the catalog that wraps arms around the crowd and enters it, gently and with force, shaking hands where they work, wiping death in soldiers’ tears and encouraging the child-like steps of people out of tune.  He asked individuals to exist aloud — for a lifetime.  His “Song” carried on for reasons beyond, but to focus on the “problem” of his lines would have been a legitimizing force…
Whitman touched the world in a fashion unsanctioned.  Or as Leonard Cohen puts such reverential reach in “Suzanne,” “Cause you’ve touched her perfect body with your mind.”   For critics to make much over his blatant disregard for and implicit undoing of respected poets who laid the groundwork in “expert verse” for centuries would have appeared at once trivial as well as requiring the articulation of a vision that could inspire  – ‘You mean, anyone can set off on their own without obedience to the motherland?’ — where fear still contained many.  We were no longer Europeans, but what could we be without holding onto a history?
Thus, Whitman’s lines heralded a fantastic anarchy that was neither chaotic nor reactive – his form was simply unabashed and pressing and has since charged many with possibility where nothing has been outlined.  I have quoted this sentiment elsewhere, but as it echoes in John Ashbery’s statement after reading Gertrude Stein, it is fitting again, “And if, on laying the book aside, we feel that it is still impossible to accomplish the impossible, we are also left with the conviction that it is the only thing worth trying to do.”  Whitman, whether certain or unsure, continued publishing the catalog of as many Americans as he could fathom without respect for past guidelines — and in doing so, he articulated and determined a spirit that did not kowtow to the popularity of the day.
It is far easier to censor from moral grounds (i.e. sex and soul disrespected!) than it is to put work out of print that disobeys in a more oblique and revolutionary manner.  In other words, one may remove or re-name pieces in the game at some risk, but to change the game entirely incurs greater efforts towards returning the offender to the original board.  The critics would have none of this loose woman-man scrawling her lines in the name of America!
If Whitman had presented his catalog in rhymed couplets, his verse may have stood in line with the then-sanctioned poetry trajectory, appearing less remarkable and offensive.  His would have been less dangerous, and who knows if we would know him now or not.
Of course, I am glossing over a host of other factoids that serve to enumerate accounts of why “Song of Myself” was so problematic and not ready to be consumed by the public-at-large: it has been debated that Whitman himself was homosexual.  He wrote of slavery but was not an abolitionist.  He self-published his now-famous “Leaves of Grass.”  He published a letter from Emerson as his blurb without permission.  Goddamn his lack of reverence!  And thank the monkey-shining heavens for it.
Controversy over Whitman continues in almost-silly fashion these days, with folks like the Westboro Baptist Church protesting in his name.  Perhaps they shudder that Whitman was so effortlessly feminine in contrast with how so many attempt to exhibit their masculine energy.   The latter often flex for fear-inspired respect.  Whitman’s muscular and emotional cataloging of people evokes a farther-reaching respect that holds both gendered energies in long embrace, an embrace that conflates and intensifies as the lines build and sing crudely and wax eloquent (Shakespeare was the soap opera lyricist of his day too, no?) – no wonder the church fidgets so loudly over his name:  lines cross chasms that order the world and make sense to them.
What would happen if a conflating disorder descended and we were all suddenly able to dance across boundaries with our kilts in our hands and lady beards down to the soles of our boots – what if we entered churches, those public platforms, and criticized our leaders securing the natural order of inequality?  Who could tell which power held then?  How would essays and sense-making find their way back to security?  My lines spilleth over; I am undone and undoing …
It is in his limbs and joints also, it is curiously in the joints of
his hips and wrists,
It is in his walk, the carriage of his neck, the flex of his waist
and knees, dress does not hide him,
The strong sweet quality he has strikes through the cotton and broadcloth,
To see him pass conveys as much as the best poem, perhaps more…

Banned Books Month: Amy King on Alice Walker’s The Color Purple

Epigraph to The Color Purple

September is all about banned books here at PEN American. We reached out to writers, editors, literary illuminati, and PEN staff to write about the banned books that matter to them most. Today’s piece comes from poet Amy King, author, most recently, of I Want to Make You Safe.
The ban on this book reminds me of the ban on Judy Blume’s Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret. I very much appreciated the girl-specific content found there that was not sanitized for a health class. I also surely could have benefited from The Color Purple when my hormones were ramping up and I knew boys were expected to enjoy Playboy in bed but had no clue as to what girls were permitted, except to be “lady-like” and modest. The Color Purple is no more “graphic” than what is implied by billboard ads on city streets or overtly depicted on television or in superhero comics (during the “romantic” scenes). Instead, this scene with Celie is female-affirming and instructive in ways that girls, and even a few women, might benefit from: 
Listen, she say, right down there in your pussy is a little button that gits real hot when you do you know what with somebody. It git hotter and hotter and then it melt. That the good part. But other parts good too, she say. Lot of sucking go on, here and there, she say. Lot of finger and tongue work…She say, Here, take this mirror and go look at yourself down there…I lie on my back and haul up my dress. Yank down my bloomers. Stick the looking glass between my legs. Ugh. All that hair. Then my pussy lips be black. Then inside look like a wet rose…
I say, Where the button? Right up near the top, she say. The part that stick out a little. I look at her and touch it with my finger. A little shiver go through me. Nothing much. But just enough to tell me that this right button to mash. Maybe. She say, While you looking, look at your titties too. I haul up my dress and look at my titties. Think bout my babies sucking them. Remember the little shiver I felt then too. Sometimes a big shiver….But when I hear them together all I can do is pull the quilt over my head and finger my little button and titties and cry.
Never did telling such an American story raise so consistent an ire as that of Alice Walker’s epistolary novel The Color Purple. The list of school board meetings and library debates conducted over the availability and consideration of this book, especially in relation to the youth across the country, is historical as well as contemporary. Put your finger randomly on a U.S. map. Chances are, the debates carry on somewhere in that state over which aspects of this text deem it most worthy of shelving for “mature” eyes only. The hypocrisy is racial and gendered. In high school, we sat riveted by the jealous, money-grabbing, womanizing exploits of fellows in The Great Gatsby and via Hemingway’s skirt-chasing, bull-running, and hunter protagonists, but when a story primarily about poor black women trying to make their way rears its head, it becomes a target of “worthiness” and “offensiveness” meritorious discussions, seemingly permanently. We live in modern day America where video games and graphic “Law & Order” episodes depict, or at least describe on the daily, some of the most brutal violences we may never have heard of, but this book remains a focal point of contention. Is it the rapes? Dealing with the daily difficulties faced by blacks in a town run by whites and a court system that denies the former’s humanity in favor of the latter? Or could it be the unapologetic homosexuality? “Graphic sexual content?” Learning how to self love? Pick your issue; eliminating this book from most curriculums and libraries, even now, is a cakewalk.
But this novel is no light consideration of such fragmented controversies; they are aspects of a well-wrought story. The Color Purple hit me, a native Georgian like Walker, but on the other side of the proverbial fence as someone who grew up indoctrinated in the ideology of whiteness, with a palpable fear that the book inspires in my kind. This fear is charged by the realities the story brings to light, ones that expose the underbellies of histories long hoped to have been forgotten or pardoned and vacated, even as they are repeated through lore or in the guise of friendly family gestures (“Grandpa’s gonna trade you for the lil pickaninny down the street, you don’t work harder!”). Upon reading Celie’s diary entries and letters, I understood that the myopic, one-dimensional notions I had learned about African Americans while growing up had left me bankrupt in a way that Walker’s novel would not allow. Celie took me through violence hoisted on her and other women she knew and loved, she drew me into the depths of depression and confusion, she charged me with her own efforts away from self pity and towards confidence, she overtly carried me into the arms of a love that “dare not speak its name” without shame and with joy (a feat still treated cursorily or glossed over whereas Walker gave life to lesbian sex as well as deepening it with Celie’s pain: “She say, I love you, Miss Celie. And then she haul off and kiss me on the mouth. Us kiss and kiss till us can’t hardly kiss no more. Then us touch each other… Then I feels something real soft and wet on my breast, feel like one of my little lost babies mouth. Way after while, I act like a little lost baby too.”), and more than a paragraph can encapsulate. However made up Walker’s story may be, I knew that the parts were true for many, including some for myself, and this knowledge deepened my own interrogation of what I had received as well as what I continue to receive in the culture I move in. Celie’s story doesn’t end when the book closes or a library board shelves it in locked recesses. I live in a world that resounds with stories of young girls being raped, experiencing first love, where court systems rule against poor blacks and further commit violence against them. The Color Purple speaks to such events, boldly celebrating some while condemning others. This story’s power lies in its believability and truths; they are perhaps uncomfortably familiar still.
The book continues to be banned, not really for the reasons cited, but because of its affinity with the many realities children and adults alike experience today. In other words, the book might still be too relevant for some; it is no fairy tale and stands as a critique of a country that has advanced in technological terms but perhaps not so quickly via social relations, especially as they echo with unexamined class, gender, and racial strife.
Even today, I meet forms of attempted censorship of the book. Some contend that their children don’t live in proximity to the issues Walker raises, thus it has no bearing—or that the book doesn’t speak to them because it isn’t about them. I reply to those readers, often in my own classes, that they’ll be in for a shock when the bubble they have designed to protect themselves from what their children may or may not know or be able to handle fizzles and fades before their lovely, hopeful faces. If their children can’t process such stories delivered in the medium of this moving story told in diary entries and letters—on paper only—then they are selling their children short and lessening their chances of learning to navigate a very complex and nuanced planet in the process—and they are not developing their empathy muscles. Besides, The Color Purple is a redemption story finally, something we could all use at some point to pull us out of our own ruts, however occasional or different they may be.
To read more pieces from Banned Books Month, click here
Amy King’books of poetry include I Want to Make You SafeSlaves to do These ThingsI’m the Man Who Loves YouAntidotes for an Alibi, and The People Instruments. She is currently preparing a book of interviews with the poet Ron Padgett, co-edits esque with Ana Bozicevic, works with VIDA: Women in Literary Arts, and teaches English and Creative Writing at SUNY Nassau Community College. Find more here.