Symposium Introduction

Sonya Posmentier’s urgent and innovative book, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature, considers how a series of twentieth-century black texts portray the ecological relations that emerge in and through the geographies and material conditions of black diasporic life. Working at the intersection of critical race studies and ecocriticism, Cultivation and Catastrophe develops a compelling claim for the centrality of ecological thought to modern black aesthetics.

From the plantation and the provision ground to hurricane and flood zones, the sites and situations of Posmentier’s study foreground a collective history of environmental alienation, disaster, displacement, and survival. The book highlights the interrelated dimensions of cultivation and catastrophe, enforced agricultural labor and disasters at various speeds, as essential components of the socioecological conditions and experiences of black diaspora in the twentieth century. Analyzing a literary archive that reflects on the material forces of slavery, colonialism, and capitalist production as they shape and unmake bodies and ecosystems, Posmentier generates a capacious framework for approaching the environmental history of modern black literature.

Cultivation and Catastrophe also makes a sustained argument about the lyric as a literary form that affords particular insights into these ecological experiences and conditions. Posmentier focuses sustained attention on works of lyric, drawing on texts by black writers and musicians from Claude McKay, Zora Neale Hurston, Bessie Smith, and Gwendolyn Brooks to Kamau Brathwaite, Derek Walcott, and M. NourbeSe Philip. Posmentier frames these works as “lyric ecologies,” drawing attention to the ways they evoke dimensions of ecological experience in their forms and themes. Such lyrics attune readers to moments of temporal rupture and historical caesura, as well as to forms of interconnection between humans and ecological processes, often highlighting perceptual conditions that hover at the edge of representability. Posmentier’s expansive rubric of “lyric ecologies” crucially reorients histories of the lyric toward ecological concerns as well as toward histories of violence, exploitation, and dislocation that remain largely unaccounted for within studies of classical and Anglo-American lyric traditions.

This symposium brings together scholars of African American history and literature, critical race studies, and modern poetry and poetics who extend the lines of inquiry developed by Posmentier’s groundbreaking book. Engaging in particular with Posmentier’s emphasis on socioecological catastrophe, Joshua Bennett turns to the question of atomic apocalypse and the specter of the world’s end. Here, Bennett highlights a key component of twentieth-century environmental history that Posmentier’s book does not address at length. As Bennett argues, atomic fears present a generalized version of the forms of social death and fears of total destruction that persistently organize collective black life. A rejoinder to these annihilative logics, Bennett claims, can be discovered in the critical and creative work of black optimism and its “commitment to care for the least of these.” Bennett’s response to Posmentier’s book draws on the poetry of Lucille Clifton and June Jordan, along with the anti-nuclear writing of Barbara Omolade, to forward a claim for black ecological thought as a generative undertaking, a “practice of envisioning life on earth beyond human chains.”

In the symposium’s second essay, Juliana Chow asks whether Posmentier’s account of lyric ecologies can be applied to other diasporic formations. Highlighting Posmentier’s description of black diaspora of a “dynamic, cross-cultural, extranational zone,” Chow asks, “What do we call this zone? What is a term that can be capacious without losing specificity?” For Chow, Posmentier’s framework importantly draws attention to losses, displacements, and recessive forms—to the “interstices within.” Chow highlights works by Colson Whitehead, C. S. Giscombe, and Layli Long Soldier that explore the complex spatial motions and enclosures of indigenous and black lives, evoking what she calls a “grasslands ecology in the lyric.” Chow turns attention to the opacities, erasures, and openings that poetic evocations of “minor” spaces and sites can reveal.

Finally, Britt Rusert’s essay raises questions about the relationship between black lyric and the histories and forms of racial capitalism. She asks, “Does preservation and repair mark a poetics of the dispossessed or a poetics of private property?” Considering the forms of enclosure and containment that are central to lyric form, Rusert inquires into the possible limits of lyric, and poetry more generally, as a means of exploring experiences of dispossession. She points to the assertion by Tommy McKay, Claude McKay’s brother, that he had not read his brother’s books because he was “too poor to buy them” as a particularly poignant description of such. Highlighting how alienation can serve not only as a form of deprivation but also as the grounds for resistance and social change, Rusert asks whether and how the forms of relation that Posmentier charts might include these responses. Rusert’s review concludes by suggesting that these black poetic “claim[s] to the land” might be understood as elaborating a vital claim about the commons as shared inheritance.

Joshua Bennett

Response

We Who Can Die Tomorrow

Black Optimism & the Atomic Bomb

However, just as the sun shines on the godly and the ungodly alike, so does nuclear radiation. And with this knowledge it becomes increasingly difficult to embrace the thought of extinction purely for the assumed satisfaction of—from the grave—achieving revenge. Or even of accepting our demise as a planet as a simple and just preventative medicine administered to the universe. Life is better than death, I believe, if only because it is less boring, and because it has fresh peaches in it. In any case, Earth is my home—though for centuries white people have tried to convince me I have no right to exist, except in the dirtiest, darkest corners of the globe.

 

So let me tell you: I intend to protect my home.

 

—Alice Walker1

 

We are now identified as those who are about to die. We who can die tomorrow. And therefore, I think, this is

 

where modern scholarship must come in.

 

—Sylvia Wynter2

Midway through June Jordan’s largely under-theorized reflection on black cognition—or, from another angle, what we might call black thought as such—“A Poem about Intelligence, For My Brothers and Sisters,” the poem’s speaker offers up an extended meditation on Albert Einstein’s role in the invention of the atomic bomb, as well as the symbolic import of that historical truth in a present-day conversation about the socially imposed, ostensibly antonymous relationship between blackness and genius. Jordan writes:

Take Einstein

being the most the unquestionable the outstanding

the maximal mind of the century

right?

And I’m struggling against this lapse leftover

from my Black childhood to fathom why

anybody should say so:

E=mc squared?

I try that on this old lady live on my block:

She sweeping away Saturday night from the stoop

 

and mad as can be because some absolute

jackass have left a kingsize mattress where

she have to sweep around it stains and all she

don’t want to know nothing about in the first place

“Mrs. Johnson!” I say, leaning on the gate

between us: “What you think about somebody come up

with an E equals M C 2?”

“How you doin,” she answer me, sideways, like she don’t

want to let on she know I ain’

combed my hair yet and here it is

Sunday morning but still I have the nerve

to be bothering serious work with these crazy

questions about

E equals what you say again, dear?”

Then I tell her, “Well

also this same guy? I think

he was undisputed Father of the Atom Bomb!”3

Jordan goes on to further describe the interaction between the speaker and the neighbor they have unwittingly recruited into this conversation about ethics and legible intellect: one which doubles as a critique of the systematic derogation of the inner worlds of black folks, as well as the ubiquitous dis-valuing of the social practices and protocols which constitute the black social scene. Notice as well the way in which Jordan juxtaposes this conversation with the “serious work” that her neighbor is undertaking prior to her interruption. In Jordan’s hands, this becomes a moment of revaluation and repair, an occasion to celebrate the everyday intellectual labor of black women elders who might not have the time to, as my grandmother would phrase it, study—i.e., dedicate not only one’s intellectual energies, but worry or concern—Einstein or his colleagues in large part because they have countless other matters to attend to, many of which are bound up with the care of others. In a number of divergent ways, this ethic of care is embodied at the level of the conversation itself:

“That right.” She mumbles or grumbles, not too politely

“And dint remember to wear socks when he put on

his shoes!” I add on (getting desperate)

 

at which point Mrs. Johnson take herself and her broom

a very big step down the stoop away from me

“And never did nothing for nobody in particular

lessen it was a committee

and

used to say, ‘What time is it?’

and

you’d say, ‘Six o’clock.’

and

he’d say, ‘Day or night?’

and

and he never made nobody a cup a tea

in his whole brilliant life!

and

[my voice rises slightly]

and

he dint never boogie neither: never!”

 

“Well,” say Mrs. Johnson, “Well, honey,

I do guess

that’s genius for you.”4

The stakes of the conflict that Jordan outlines are fairly straightforward. On the one hand, there is a dominant, post-Enlightenment vision of human intelligence—one that Jordan elaborates upon here not only through remarking upon the historical relationship between Albert Einstein and the atomic bomb, but also the sort of casual, everyday thoughtlessness she then ascribes to the metonymic historical figure she has built from the ground up—that is generally exclusionary, and thoroughly anti-black. What’s more, Jordan seems to assert, however subtly, that there is a competing vision of mental acuity that leaves space for high- level cognition in its normative guises, as well as other, less legible, distinctly social forms such as cleaning up the neighborhood, dancing for no clear reason, or making a cup of tea for someone you love. These are examples of intelligence by other names. Brilliance in every shade you can imagine. The varied forms of social and emotional intelligence invoked by Jordan, at least as they appear within the universe of the poem, show up in the world as care, and often operate in meaningful contradistinction to more widely celebrated modes of intellection.

If the sort of brilliance we are inclined, socially and otherwise, to praise in Einstein—which, it bears mentioning, is not reducible to his legacy as an individual historical actor, but in fact represents a more general set of economic and political procedures through which scientific research comes to serves as cog and fuel for state-sponsored war machines the world over—has led to widespread, unchecked devastation by the instruments of American empire, then what other approaches might be available to us? How might we identify, and ultimately celebrate, the modes of creative praxis that Jordan positions against more legible, widely venerated expressions of aptitude, interiority, and intellectual labor?

In one sense, Sonya Posmentier’s stunning monograph Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature is an attempt to wrestle with the irreducibly complex forms of black meditative tenacity, and radical imagination, that appear throughout Jordan’s oeuvre, and are on grand display in “A Poem about Intelligence.” The black optimism that animates Posmentier’s writing is also a prominent feature of the poems, songs, and works of visual art that she takes up as her primary objects of her concern. Yet there is also, alongside this optimism, the ever-present specter of the end of the world—one that operates, always, right alongside the countless new worlds that black art necessarily engenders—which demands our attention. The coda to Posmentier’s text foregrounds this issue with particular clarity and power:

In my discussions of disaster, I have restricted my study so far to catastrophes that nature causes (or at least seems to cause): floods and hurricanes as opposed to acts of terror, holocausts, oil spills, or nuclear accidents. But as Danticat’s book and as Junot Diaz makes explicit in his 2011 essay “Apocalypse” in the Boston Review, the Haiti earthquake and Hurricane Katrina were “social disasters” insofar as they revealed and intensified racial, economic, and global inequities, blurring the boundary between human and natural agency. . . . Can the natural formation of the social and the natural . . . help us to understand disasters we have more commonly understood as “human”? That is, what happens when we think of a political execution, a massacre, or a bombing as environmental experience?5

Following Posmentier’s line of argument, I am led to wonder what alternate, unexpected directions we might take the theoretical instruments she has offered in the text up to this point. What would it look like for us to attend to just the sort of catastrophes that are named explicitly here as those that were, necessarily, set apart from the floods, hurricanes, and earthquakes that take up the majority of the book’s critical landscape? In this vein, I am especially taken by Posmentier’s invocation of the nuclear. In no small part because of her multiple returns to Kamau Braithwaite’s magnetic phrase “nation-language” throughout Cultivation and Catastrophe as a productive shorthand for the simultaneously political and aesthetic projects of writers across the African diaspora. However ambivalently, we are, collectively, working toward a critical lexicon that might best capture, or else set free, the spirit of the spaces we call home. In the US American context in particular, there is no way to approach the possibility of such a language without thinking seriously about the decades- long, ever-expanding shadow of the atomic bomb. Our nation-language is, at its very foundations, apocalyptic.

Thus, any poetics worth its salt, and especially any poetics concerned with black social and political life in the United States, must wrestle with the specter of the end of the world. Not only in some larger, planetary sense, but also with the countless black worlds that are destroyed by the State apparatus on a daily basis. To be black and alive and call this place home is, in some sense, to always be thinking in a moment of danger.6 The persistent threat of an atomic doomsday comes to stand in, metonymically, as a more generally dispersed instantiation of the fear which is foundational to black sociality. Indeed, this is the way of the (anti-black) world: you lose what you love. Posmentier’s daring intervention is to ask what it might mean for us to analyze this ongoing precariousness through the lens of the ecological; to attend to the daily devastation faced by black people all across the globe as “environmental experiences.” For this too is the work of contemporary black poetics, ecological criticism, and literary studies more broadly: the examination of the formal elements of works crafted by those who have faced, or are presently facing, the threat of collective annihilation. This is where one turns for critical instruments in the Anthropocene. To those who have already survived against all odds; those who have already seen the end of the world, and have managed to build new ones in its wake.

On this front, Barbara Omolade’s engagement with the intersections of empire, nuclear proliferation, and American apocalypticism in her 1984 essay, “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” is instructive:

For people of color, the world as we know it ended centuries ago. Our world, with its own languages, customs and ways, ended. And we are only now beginning to see with increasing clarity that our task is to reclaim that world, struggle for it, and rebuild it in our own image. The “death culture” we live in has convinced many to be more concerned with death than with life, more willing to demonstrate for “survival at any cost” than to struggle for liberty and peace with dignity. Nuclear disarmament becomes a safe issue when it is not linked to the daily and historic issues of racism, to the ways in which people of color continue to be murdered. Acts of war, nuclear holocausts, and genocide have already been declared on our jobs, our housing, our schools, our families and our lands.7

The critical leap that Omolade makes here is vital. She argues that we must move from simply yearning to survive under the conditions of the present world to asserting the need for a fundamental reimagining of the larger social order. Campaigning for nuclear disarmament alone, she contends, is “safe.” Easy. And this in large part because not all forms of nuclear activism necessarily indict the world we are trying to save. Whose world is this? Omolade’s essay asks. And whose world do we mean when we say world? What worlds merit rescue? Over and against the vigor and endurance of the American death machine, Omolade and Posmentier alike dare to assert a vision of black critical imagination that is invariably bound up with a commitment to care for the least of these, to looking after the most vulnerable forms of human and nonhuman life on our planet. What mitigates the space between cultivation and catastrophe? Cherishment, perhaps: a blackened love that blurs the boundaries between life-worlds, and offers us a more capacious approach to the study of environmental literature, and the humanities more broadly.

In this sense and others, black optimism is inextricable from ecological thought. It is species thinking. Think here of Lucille Clifton’s aptly titled “the beginning of the end of the world,” a poem in which, on the day of the apocalypse, a group of cockroaches marches up out of the drains, not like soldiers, she says, but “like priests” only to be met by the speaker running water from the faucet at full force, “trying to drown them / as if they were soldiers.”8 By the poem’s conclusion, when the end of the world arrives, the cockroaches simply stare at the speaker, “faithless at last, and walk in a long line way.”9 Though the judgmental stare of the cockroaches in the Clifton poem is tied to the fact that they will live on beyond the apocalypse event, what she calls “the bang of the end,” what is also at play, I think, is the same sort of larger, incisive critique of human violence in the defense of private property that we see in the writing of Posmentier, Omolade, and others. Black optimism then, from this vantage, is the practice of envisioning life on earth beyond the limits of human dominion. It is our rehearsal for a world without chains. The end of the world is as close as it has always been. Another is on its way.

 

Works Cited

Benjamin, Walter. “On the Concept of History,” Walter Benjamin: Selected Writings, Volume 4: 1938-1940, edited by Howard Eiland and Michael W. Jennings. Boston: Belknap Press, 2006.

Dungy, Camille T., ed. Black Nature: Four Centuries of African American Nature Poetry. Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2009.

Jordan, June. “A Poem about Intelligence for My Brothers and Sisters.” In Literature: The Human Experience, edited by Richard Abcarian and Marvin Klotz. 3rd ed. New York: St. Martin’s, 1982.

Omolade, Barbara. “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 12.2 (1984).

Posmentier, Sonya. Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017.

Walker, Alice. “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse.” In Home Girls: A Black Feminist Anthology. New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 1982.

Wynter, Sylvia, and Wayne J. Pond. “Afro-American Culture and Social Order.” Soundings Project. November 22, 1981. http://www.soundingsproject.org/index.php/1981/11/afro-american-culture-and-social-order/.


  1. Walker, “Only Justice Can Stop a Curse.”

  2. Wynter and Pond, “Afro-American Culture and Social Order.”

  3. Jordan, “Poem about Intelligence.”

  4. Jordan, “Poem about Intelligence.”

  5. Posmentier, Cultivation and Catastrophe, 212.

  6. I am borrowing this phrase, of course, from Walter Benjamin. See Benjamin, “On the Concept of History,” 389.

  7. Omolade, “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” 12.

  8. See Dungy, Black Nature, 141.

  9. Dungy, Black Nature, 141.

  • Sonya Posmentier

    Sonya Posmentier

    Reply

    On Giant Triplets of Evil; or, A Claim for Black Lyric (a Letter in Three Parts)

    Maybe because I read them first on the weekend when we celebrate the life of Martin Luther King Jr., I have read in these three generous, open, and provocative queries an echo of King’s questions for the United States in 1967. I think he first referred to “the giant triplets of racism, extreme materialism, and militarism” on April 4 in “Beyond Vietnam,” the devastating critique of that war he delivered at Riverside Church.1 It is one of his least-heeded and most-known speeches, the one whose grainy recording I play for my children every year on his birthday. A few months later he developed his analysis of these giant triplets at the National Conference on New Politics in Chicago, at which he acknowledged racism to be a core characteristic of the United States, and called for both “a radical redistribution of political and economic power” and an end to war.

    King’s analysis was poignant and controversial because he insisted on understanding racism, war, and poverty in connection with one another. King’s critics maintained that equal rights and war were “distinct and separate” issues,2 and rejected the economic and political ties between funding war and defunding communities. Even liberal allies were concerned that by joining these causes (in particular his opposition to the Vietnam War), King would diminish each in turn. Indeed, King’s anti-militarism and anti-poverty program were arguably the least understood part of his civil rights message. But his attention to the three evils as inextricable both reflected and informed a long history of radical Black thought.

    In their essays, Joshua Bennett, Britt Rusert, and Juliana Chow have asked me to extend the theory of Black environmental writing that I outline in Cultivation and Catastrophe to consider more fully its implications for the overlapping triplets of evil: specifically, to rethink apocalypse (or catastrophe) in relationship to the “nuclear”; to elaborate more fully the role of racial capitalism; and to consider whether my formulations of Black racial diaspora might bear a relationship to other diasporas, ecologies, and poetic responses to dispossession and displacement via white supremacy and settler colonialism. Each of these essays is also attentive to the formal and generic preoccupations of Cultivation and Catastrophe—that is, each rightly understands poesis to be the primary framework through which I analyze Black literary response to militarism, racism, and capitalism. This is particularly important to me, because, like my respondents, I understand the making of art as work that overlaps with (and creates) the fight for social justice in which King was engaged. While my focus in the book is on formal relationships between poesis and ecology, the poets and lyricists whose work I study—from Claude McKay to M. NourbeSe Philip—were and are crucially involved in imagining (and thus making) the more just world of which King dreamed.

    And so it is along these lines that I wish to proceed in my response to the thought-provoking essays by Bennett, Chow, and Rusert, beginning at the end of the world.

    I.

    If I begin at the end of the world, I’ll have nowhere to go but out. Or, I’ll have nothing to do but begin again.

    “What mitigates the space between cultivation and catastrophe? Cherishment, perhaps: a blackened love that blurs the boundaries between life-worlds, and offers a more capacious approach to the study of environmental literature, and the humanities more broadly.”

    What comes after apocalypse, Joshua Bennett has asked (both in his response to Cultivation and Catastrophe and in his own work)? What might come before it? What does the production of black art have to do with the “ever-present specter of the end of the world”? Through his reading of June Jordan’s “A Poem about Intelligence, for My Brothers and Sisters” and Barbara Omolade’s brief essay “Woman of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” Bennet demonstrates that for many of us the end of the world has already begun.

    As Omolade puts it, “For people of color, the world as we knew it ended centuries ago.”3 Bennett therefore invites us to think about Black diasporic writers as bearing particular knowledge about and having particular resources for living at and in the end of the world. This is one basic premise that Cultivation and Catastrophe announces in its title, but Bennett has asked me, here, to take a step beyond, or perhaps to the side of, that premise. If Cultivation and Catastrophe frames environmental violence in cultural and social terms, Bennet’s emphasis on the nuclear urges me (and all of us) to think more about human violence in ecological terms.

    Jordan’s poem and Omolade’s essay were both written and published during the resurgence of the nuclear disarmament movement that accompanied Ronald Reagan’s assumption of the US presidency in 1980. Reading Bennett’s reflection on their literary cherishment brought to mind for me a third writer of their generation who “envision[s] life on Earth beyond the limits of human dominion,” like Jordan and Omolade, out from under the shadow of (nuclear and other) apocalypse: their sister-poet and comrade Audre Lorde. Along with and as part of the constellation of poets and theorists Bennett has gathered in this essay—including Lucille Clifton, Alice Walker, and Sylvia Wynter along with Omolade and Jordan—Lorde articulated a Black feminist optimism from her position at the end of the world (circa 1980). Indeed, these thinkers have always been reminding us of the fourth evil that remains unnamed by King and many other male civil rights leaders of his generation: patriarchy. Significantly, Omolade’s essay is titled “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” appearing in a 1984 special issue of Women’s Studies Quarterly highlighting feminist responses to war. Omolade’s work was published by Kitchen Table Press, the feminist press of which Lorde was a founding editor, and some of Lorde’s own reflections on militarism appeared in feminist publications. Neither, then, was the fight against patriarchy “distinct and separate” from those other struggles King had named in ’67.

    Lately I have been reading and writing about Lorde’s written accounts of surviving Hurricane Hugo in 1989 in St. Croix (where Lorde lived for the last few years of her life): two open letters, a poem, and an interview with Charles Rowell in which she accounts for the devastation caused by the hurricane in personal, collective, and ecological terms. The hurricane itself is not the end of the world, as Lorde frames it, but portends it, for, she writes, “I do know that hurricanes are a way of cooling off the earth, and I also know we are burning down the rain forests, polluting the atmosphere, and heating up the oceans and the earth, not to speak of tearing jagged holes in her protective ozone layer.”4 Arguably, Lorde is also writing at the end of her personal world, at the end of her body. She moved to St. Croix as a survivor of breast cancer to recover from treatments; in 1992 she died from that cancer. But Lorde’s writings on Hugo are what I describe in Cultivation and Catastrophe as “Black ecological optimism.” Which is to say that in the midst of political and ecological catastrophe, Lorde imagines social and literary forms of freedom. And as Bennett suggests they must, these forms require “fundamental reimagining of the larger social order.” He names this imagination cherishment, “a commitment to care” for human and nonhuman forms of life.

    In a letter to friends published in the Bay Area Black Lesbian newsletter Aché, Lorde describes the hurricane itself as part of that network of care—the earth at once has agency, and demands human care.

    The earth is telling us something about our conduct of living as well as about our abuse of this covenant we live upon. Not one of us can believe herself untouched by these messages, no matter where she lives, no matter under what illusion of safety or uninvolvement she pretends to hide. Each one of us has some power she can use, somewhere, somehow.5

    Lorde’s ecological thinking is rooted in anti-war, anti-imperialist thinking that was part of the ongoing conversation among Black feminists of her circle. “I am not free while any woman is unfree,”6 Lorde’s famous earlier articulation of what has since come to be called intersectional feminism (from her 1981 essay “The Uses of Anger”), echoes here in the language of involvement and touch that characterizes the environmental “covenant.”

    Lorde’s experiences traveling in and writing about Grenada—where her mother was born and raised—shaped her understanding of the post-hurricane response in St. Croix. In an interview with Charles Rowell in Callaloo, Lorde wrote.

    The point is, what happens on these islands is directly involved with what is going on with Black people on the mainland and all over the world. I am speaking politically and economically as well as socially. For example, how many people are aware that on this tiny Caribbean island is the largest oil refinery in the Western hemisphere, Hess Oil of the Virgin Islands? Larger than their refinery in Jersey, larger than the one in Texas. What does that mean? What does it mean that two days after Hugo leveled St. Croix, when there was no electricity, no telephone, no water, no food, no diapers, when 98 percent of the dwellings on this island were totally destroyed, the United States government came onto this island with MPs and U.S. Marshals and the F.B.I., and immediately guarded Hess Oil? What they first brought down were not emergency disaster relief supplies, but M-16s and military personnel. The U.S. military takeover of St. Croix reminded me of nothing so much as the U.S. military invasion of Grenada.7

    Lorde is not merely making a comparison between “U.S. military takeover” and “U.S. military invasion” but also pointing out the shared aim of extractive capitalism that drives so-called disaster recovery and military incursion. While Lorde does not refer specifically to the “nuclear” or the atomic here, she cites Reagan’s 1983 power-muscle-flexing reaction to communist influences in Grenada, evoking the broader specter of the nuclear haunting cold war. The rhetorical structure of the passage is significant, asking, “What does that mean?” “What does it mean . . .” She invites Rowell and her other listeners to draw lines of signification from the petroleum power of the refinery, to the lack of power (electric) on the island, to the military power of US Marshalls and the FBI. The work of interpreting “what does it mean” seems to be for Lorde and her sister-poet-activists the work of poetry, the Blackened love of cherishment they imagine and enact in their writing.

    Perhaps this kind of love and practice must emerge from the scene of the apocalypse. But in Cultivation and Catastrophe, from the title forward, I have tried to maintain otherwise, have tried to insist on a temporality of meanwhile rather than after-the-fact. As I have written elsewhere, Black poetry is often grieving, but so too is it provisioning, traveling, staying home, collecting and of course cultivating.8 And as I note in the book’s introduction, the etymology of “catastrophe”

    suggests, among other things, the turning of soil before the planting of a new crop. It’s root word “strophe,” of course, is not only the Greek word for “turn” but also for the poetic unit of a stanza, “a series of lines forming a system.” Catastrophe, then, is always involved with art making. It contains not only the finality of death and displacement but the making of form in the first place. (23)

     


    1. Martin Luther King Jr., “Beyond Vietnam” (audio speech, April 4, 1967), https://kinginstitute.stanford.edu/king-papers/documents/beyond-vietnam.

    2. See “Kr. King’s Error,” New York Times, April 7, 1967, https://timesmachine.nytimes.com/timesmachine/1967/04/07/90316200.html?action=click&contentCollection=Archives&module=LedeAsset&region=ArchiveBody&pgtype=article&pageNumber=36. See also Charles H. Rowell and Audre Lorde, “Above the Wind: An Interview with Audre Lorde,” Callaloo 23.1 (2000) 53–54, https://doi.org/10.1353/cal.2000.0062.

    3. Barbara Omolade, “Women of Color and the Nuclear Holocaust,” Women’s Studies Quarterly 12.2 (Summer 1984) 12.

    4. Audre Lorde, “A Letter from St. Croix,” Aché: The Bay Area’s Journal for Black Lesbians 2.1 (February 1990) 5.

    5. Lorde, “Letter from St. Croix,” 5.

    6. Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider: Essays and Speeches, Crossing Press Feminist Series (Trumansburg, NY: Crossing, 1984), 132.

    7. Rowell and Lorde, “Above the Wind,” 53–54.

    8. Sonya Posmentier, “A Language for Grieving,” New York Times Book Review, December 21, 2015.

Juliana Chow

Response

An Ecology of Décalage

In Cultivation and Catastrophe, Sonya Posmentier theorizes a lyric ecology in modern black literature whose form holds the tensions of an environmental awareness of possibility and limitation. The lyric, so oft thought of as an organic form, a poem that is a little world unto itself or a well-wrought enclosure turning in upon itself, is also an opening out to relations outside, a turning that turns out a substance for holding and conveying.

“I sing my song, and all is well,” sang Paul Laurence Dunbar, the African American poet whose career bridges the uneasy subsumption of nineteenth-century slavery into the modern era.1 Of course, all is not well, and his refrain of “I sing my song, and all is well” at the end of each verse in “The Poet and His Song” emphasizes how necessary the artifice of the work-song is to making “well.” In this poem, disaster and tranquility are bound together with a tempo—hours, seasons, and weather—that brings work and song together in an eerily pastoral suspension. Its lullaby rhythm of iambic tetrameter metes out the hardship of toil and sweat, the disasters of drought and blight, with the same cadence as it offers “zest” and “rest,” “spirit’s spell” and “all is well.” How do we read this a tempo that is also a return to the plantation pastoral? Absent the forces that propelled black migration north and into cities, Dunbar’s work of refrain may seem static as his laborers return again and again to the South’s country districts. However, the bareness of and exposure to the land where “Sometimes the sun, unkindly hot, / My garden makes a desert spot; / Sometimes a blight upon the tree / Takes all my fruit away from me” are not the universal effects of an indifferent Nature upon the human, but rather the compounded results of the historical and material conditions of systemic violence and racism, resource exploitation and exhaustion that characterize the plantation economy and its aftermath. But the poet does not give an account of this history, except to give pause to an easy reading of all’s well that ends well. Punctuating a life that follows in the break, Dunbar disrupts the biopolitical bind of the post-plantation: “But—life is more than fruit or grain, / And so I sing, and all is well.”

For the particular historical context of the modern Black diaspora in which the texts examined by Posmentier are situated, environmental awareness is shaped within and without by both the geography and the theories of the plantation zone, the provision ground or plot, the circumatlantic, the regional, and the archipelagic. The slave trade and plantation economy of the previous centuries are the material and metaphorical grounds of this diasporic literature; the seemingly innocent hope of green growing things can never be separated from its history of cultivation within a system of forced agricultural labor, and environmental events from forced displacements to natural disasters that magnify the slow violence of structural inequalities nevertheless yield the fruit of artistic traditions. As Posmentier notes, “cultivation” and “catastrophe” “do not oppose one another but intersect.”2

The question that came to me as I read Posmentier’s own elegantly wrought arguments is whether lyric ecology is able to migrate to other particularities? Or rather, I think what I’m trying to ask is why that migration is so difficult, and in cases, impossible, beset as it is with so many casualties, and how our critique can mark rather than fill in these losses.3 That is, can we understand the theorization of lyric ecology to be a theory of diasporic writing that can resonate with, even as it remains distinct from, other diasporas with their own particularities—oftentimes intersecting and intertwining with the black diaspora? I ask this question even as I already begin to chart out how this happens—reading Colson Whitehead’s The Underground Railroad with a class this semester, I marvel at how this novel’s “plot”—and yes, this is a plot that takes up the jarring dissonance of the plot as a fertile pocket of subsistence amidst the horrors of slavery—intimates the co-constructed natures of African and Indigenous peoples being fed into an American machinery of modern development. For as its protagonist chases the ever elusive freedom, the plot moves slowly and methodically West: the antebellum divide between North and South is tied to the compromises that would turn the western territories into contested grounds of slavery and freedom, and this connects the turning of African peoples into property that must be transported securely and kept from running to the moving and containing of Indigenous peoples into increasingly smaller and smaller spaces.

What I am interested in, while wanting to remain attentive to historical, experiential, and aesthetic specificities, is the diasporic and minor consciousness that Posmentier also chases. In placing her texts, she hesitates to settle on a place, writing, “I don’t call this zone the postocolony. . . . Nor am I describing only a black Atlantic, circumatlantic, or archipelagic region. . . . It is not my goal to establish a fixed geographic region of study but rather to bring into focus a dynamic, cross-cultural, extranational zone defined by the shared processes of growth and destruction to which its inhabitants are subject and in which they participate” (5). In this sense, the geographical and environmental, while very material, also serves as a heuristic for organizing critical thinking around cultural forms. What do we call this zone? What is a term that can be capacious without losing specificity? Perhaps it is not so much a location as a dislocation like “removal” or “fugitivity” or an orientation or style that is “minor,” “diasporic,” “racial.” Posmentier herself leans toward “racial diaspora”—the “constitutive differences” of transnational formations noted by Brent Hayes Edwards—as well as the “minor” of the minor literature theorized by Deleuze and Guattari as a “line of escape” from territorialization. Brian Roberts and Michelle Stephens have positioned the archipelagic as a way to decontinentalize America. What would it mean, as Paul Giles proposes at the end of their anthology on Archipelagic American Studies, to reflect the scrutiny upon interrelations and the irretrievable losses and lacunae of these dislocations back into the American continent itself, to re-view the dispersive and relational exchanges—and casualties—in between continents and islands as animating the interstices within?4 What would it mean, as Edwards proposes at the end of his essay on “The Uses of Diaspora,” to imagine an ecology of décalage, of dislocation or disjuncture, of “that which cannot be transferred or exchanged”?5

This practice of mapping spaces of diminishment, ebb, and flow in the continental mass does not, however, fill in historical and political spaces but rather lets the recesses emanate. The environment brims with both unexcavated and undeveloped spaces; it leaves earth and artifacts to softly erode, it leaves weeds to fill in and bury, it leaves opacities, it leaves the region itself as an opacity, the grasses spreading but also opening to this view. At the beginning of Layli Long Soldier’s collection of poems in Whereas is the invocation:

Now

make room in the mouth

for grassesgrassesgrasses6

Of the grasses, she recounts elsewhere the history of the Dakota 38 hanged on December 26, 1862, for attacking settlers and traders who refused credit to the Dakota people for purchases of food and goods even though they were starving and had no other way to survive after their lands were allotted and reduced to a ten-mile tract: “If they are hungry, let them eat grass” (“38”). The grasses are, then, the sustenance offered by a history and geography of starvation—the grass songs and scent that one swallows “[make] a mind / wide makes it / oceanic blue a field in crests / swirling gyres the moving / surface fastened in June light” while careful of the “grass needle tips / around the edges / of wounds” (“Steady Summer”). The grasses soothe and hush but they also sere and sting; they mark a space boxed in and a space that becomes an opening: a mouth, a window, a plot of land. Even as this history is told, one senses the cry smothered, the grass filling the mouth, the grassesgrassesgrasses.

Perhaps I am tracing a grasslands ecology in the lyric. In Prairie Style, C. S. Giscombe’s poems follow, among the foxes, rivers, vacancies, neighborhoods, tribes and fugitives along the way, the racial tensions and eros crisscrossing the highways of the American Midwest. He researches the Ben Ishmael Tribe of early nineteenth-century Indianapolis, the supposed poor white community that also becomes the imaginary of a nomadic mixed-blood community of Africans, Native Americans, and fugitives from the South. He goes inland and he goes sub rosa. In the wind’s gyre through the grass, what catches and gathers is swept away in susurration even as it begins to define an edge. “The prairie,” he writes, “appeared suddenly, like it was a miracle or a fortification. Trace to predicament. The trees gave way—no surprise but it was further than we’d imagined. Servantless, shoreless, nothing to it when it met the horizon.”7 What do I like about this? The surface tension of the prairie, everything rising but not breaking, held in abeyance.

I am playing too fast and loose with associations—intimations and adjacencies of texts I happen to be reading—in order to pose this question of capaciousness that is also a question of vacancy, and a question of where that feeling of surface tension fits into an ecology. Situating minor Caribbean poems within their publication in a literary journal and also within their geographical history in the former plantation economy of the South Atlantic, Posmentier says this of its environmental form: “I have suggested that we might read a periodical as a partially closed system, a self-sustaining provision ground affording a small degree of freedom within the constraints of the plantation, but looking for a line of escape, we might need to read instead with a broader geography in mind: the archipelago that connects but does not contain the diffuse regional geographies and literary styles” (72). Closed but open; connects but does not contain; cultivation and catastrophe. A lyric ecology of caesura, of tenuous lines of rupture and return; a lyric ecology of diaspora, of precarious intersections and entwinements; and also, a lyric ecology of lacunae, of grasses, of horizon.

 


  1. Paul Laurence Dunbar, The Collected Poetry of Paul Laurence Dunbar (University of Virginia Press, 1993).

  2. Sonya Posmentier, Cultivation and Catastrophe: The Lyric Ecology of Modern Black Literature (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2017), 3; hereafter cited in text.

  3. I find resonance here with Lisa Lowe’s words concerning her work on the Chinese laborer in the colonial setting: “My purpose in observing the elision of the Asian actors in the modern Americas is not to pursue a single, particularist cultural identity, not to ‘fill in the gap’ or ‘add on’ another transoceanic group, but to explain the politics of our lack of knowledge” (“The Intimacies of Four Continents,” in Haunted by Empire, 206).

  4. Brian Russell Roberts and Michelle Ann Stephens, Archipelagic American Studies (Duke University Press, 2017).

  5. Brent Hayes Edwards, “The Uses of Diaspora,” Social Text 66 Vol. 19.1 (Spring 2001) 45–73, 65.

  6. Layli Long Soldier, Whereas (Graywolf Press, 2017).

  7. C. S. Giscombe, Prairie Style (Dalkey Archive Press, 2008).

  • Sonya Posmentier

    Sonya Posmentier

    Reply

    On Giant Triplets of Evil: Part II

    II.

    Doesn’t Blackness challenge the very idea of a border?

    How do we take the charge to say the state is not us?

    —Eve Ewing, February 16, 2019 (National/International Panel at Black Poetry: A Conference)

     

    It’s February 2, 2017, the second meeting of a graduate seminar Phil Harper and I are teaching on Black Theory. I am looking for a video recording of M. NourbeSe Philip reading from Zong!, her 2008 book-length experimental poem about the 1781 massacre of enslaved Africans aboard the ship of the same name. The PennSound archive page for Philip says that in this recording “Zong #1 begins at 22:26,” but by accident I press play on 22:26 of a different clip, a recording of a lecture Philip had given at the same event.

    Listening in the dark room, we find ourselves in the middle of the wrong poem at the right time. Philip is on the screen speaking about poetic freedom and constraint. She says she is interested in “limitation and its potential resources” for poetry, and then the word constraint moves from one thing to another—from the body of the poem to the body of the poet.

    She takes us into the story of her travel the day before through Pearson International airport in Toronto, describing her fearful anticipation of the trip and then the physical experience of the airport itself.

    So they send you off to one side and then they send you to another side and we’re in these rows facing each other and turning you know the way they use the space you have you’re in a—you’re actually kettled. This was a word that came up in the G 20. You’re in this small area and so forth for two minutes. I’m facing this lady in pink and then I’ll be, she’ll be facing someone else and so on, and there is this overwhelming acquiescence.

     

    You can feel it.1

    As Philip creates this feeling of constraint in her recollection, the architecture and choreography of the airport becomes a double for the architecture and choreography of the slave ship Zong. She acknowledges the slipperiness of the comparison between crossing the border willingly and the violently enforced migrations of enslavement.

    Yes, this is very, very different from slavery. Yes, it might even be offensive to broach a comparison, but we live under the pretense of liberty under systems of control and thus create from that place.

    What Philip gives us here (and in her poetry) is not simply a basis for comparison between eighteenth-century Black Diasporic experience and the twenty-first-century border. Rather, she reveals the structure of those experiences to be connected through related though not identical geographies, economies, and histories.

    I offer this example from Philip’s work as one answer to the question Juliana Chow has posed in her response to Cultivation and Catastrophe, and a model for answers to come. Chow asks “whether lyric ecology is able to migrate to other particularities? Or rather, I think what I’m trying to ask is why that migration is so difficult, and in cases, impossible, beset as it is with so many casualties, and how our critique can mark rather than fill in these losses?”

    As Chow notes, the difficulty of critical and artistic migration is already a thematic of Cultivation and Catastrophe. In thinking of ecology I have been equally interested in places (plantations, watersheds, apartment buildings) and in migratory processes (fugitivity, removal), roots and routes to borrow Gilroy’s formulation. Insofar as I have focused on “racial diaspora” and more particularly still on Black diaspora, what I have been after is a sense of how geography has shaped representations of Black location and dislocation—how roots and routes have not merely been metaphors but have left a material residue in the cultural forms of black poetry and poetics. We can trace, for example, the migration of names for Jamaican flora into Claude McKay’s supposedly “African American” poems. But Chow rightly suggests that “lyric ecology” might offer us a way to read into and of the earth’s fissures and fault lines in zones other than the Black diaspora.

    To take Chow up on the full promise of this invitation, we would need go beyond comparison of one to another, beyond projecting the frameworks for Black lyric ecology I’ve outlined in Cultivation and Catastrophe onto “other diasporas with their own particularities.” What Chow calls for, really, is a sense of lyric ecology that allows us to imagine, represent, sing, chant, and narrate the interconnected environmental histories and aftermaths of settler-colonialism, transatlantic enslavement, and colonialism.

    Chow finds “a grasslands ecology in the lyric,” one that allows us to read Layli Long Soldier’s Whereas alongside C. S. Giscombe’s Praire Style. In Long Soldier’s book, Chow observes, “the grasses are, then, the sustenance offered by a history and geography of starvation.” It is worth noting further that Long Soldier draws an explicit connection between this history and that of the expansion (and eventual abolition) of slavery in the West. In “38,” the speaker directly historicizes execution of The Dakota 38 in relationship to slavery:

    The hanging took place on December 27, 1862—the day after Christmas.

     

    This was the same week that President Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation.

     

    In the preceding sentence, I italicize “same week” for emphasis.

     

    There was a movie titled Lincoln about the presidency of Abraham Lincoln.

     

    The signing of the Emancipation Proclamation was included in the film Lincoln; the hanging

    of the Dakota 38 was not.2

    Although she would seem to be drawing a contrast between what can and cannot be represented in history (Black freedom: yes; murder of Dakota people: no), Long Soldier at the same time formally draws attention to the limits of representing either history, or their intersection. For the poem has begun:

    [Poetry EXT]Here, the sentence will be respected.

     

    I will compose each sentence with care, by minding what the rules of writing dictate.

     

    For example, all sentences will begin with capital letters.[/Poetry EXT]

    Opening onto the devastating pun between legal (death) sentence and syntactical sentence, and between capital letters and capital punishment, the poem keeps its sentences separate, following syntax and punctuation rather than meter and shape for the measure of its line. By staying “responsible to the orderly sentence,” the speaker would perhaps keep the hanging and the signing separate, as historical memory does. But the poem also brings them into a dangerous and uncomfortable proximity, emphasizing same—the cruel irony of historical coincidence that is not coincidence but shared history. One precipitating incident of the battle between the Sioux and the settlers that ended in the mass execution was hunger. Because of the strain on government spending created by the civil war, the government failed to keep its treaty promise of money for food (necessary because of their now-contracted land for fishing and hunting). Hence:

    The Dakota people were starving.

     

    The Dakota people starved.3

    The sentence of the struggle for Black freedom that was (at least in part) the war and the sentence of the Dakota starved and murdered do not end. History refuses to separate itself into blades of grass, or leaves of grass, as it were. It is impossible not to think of Whitman, and how his Leaves of Grass also had to let the war in.

    In Long Soldier’s grassland lyric, racist settler violence finally breaks the sentence.

    Describing both the executions and the poet’s need to end her poem, she writes,

    Sometimes, when in a circle, if I wish to exit, I must leap.

     

    And let the body                                             swing.

     

    From the platform.                                          Out

    to the grasses.4

    A poet leaping risks a death sentence. Here are King’s triple evils in full blossom as (civil) war, poverty (starvation) and multiple forms of white supremacy collaborate. Having made explicit comparison to Black history, the poem also evokes US history’s most prevalent lyrics and images of bodies swinging: those that narrate, preserve, and circulate the country’s history of anti-Black lynching. Long Soldier may have in mind Meerepol and Holiday’s collaboration “Strange Fruit,” displacing the “southern breeze” through “poplar trees” with a wind through the grasses. Or Claudia Rankine’s more recent recirculation of those images in Citizen in the form of an infamous photograph of a lynching, in which she and her collaborator John Lucas have edited out the image of the body of the person being lynched—“I wasn’t interested in including the lynched bodies partly because I feel like they’re always there,” Rankine has said of this image5—thereby directing our attention instead to the complicity of the crowd in witnessing, creating, and generating the racist violence.

    Chow worries about playing too fast and loose with associations. I worry about this too (particularly as a non-Black person of color who writes about African American and Caribbean literature), lest I diminish the particular intensity and history of anti-Black racism as my research in Black literature and culture influences my reading of other twenty-first-century poetries of migration. As Philip notes in her border reflection, comparison between one situation and another can be dangerous. It is necessary to remain specific. Philip’s work in Zong! is a case in point. For example, it has been necessary for Philip to describe and reiterate the specificity of Zong! (the poem) and Zong (the ship) in response to artist Rana Hamadeh’s unauthorized use of central aesthetic concepts, practices, and textual forms from Zong! in the very different context of her own meditation on legal testimony, “The Ten Murders of Josephine” (2017). In response to the (mis)appropriation of her work by Hamadeh, Philip has repeatedly emphasized the specific basis and origin of her poem.

    Zong!, the poem, is both rooted in and springs from the experience of enslaved Africans forcibly removed from their homelands and brought to the Americas and the Caribbean through the transatlantic slave trade, the Maafa. . . . During the 7-year process of composing the work MNP sought permission of the Ancestors by visiting Ghana, departure point of the slave ship Zong, and speaking with traditional elders and spiritual leaders. She also visited Liverpool where the Ancestors of the crew would have come from to pay respect to those people.6

    The poem is not, she reminds us, an endlessly transferrable meditation on lacunae in the archive or conceptualism writ large, but a specific marker of losses (of language and life) to the middle passage. Pointing to her collaboration with Ancestors and elders and other processes of “co-creation” through which Zong! inserts itself (and the memory of those Ancestors) into the legal text—Gregson V. Gilbert—Philip theorizes what we might think of an ethics of association (as opposed to appropriation) that respects and honors the history beneath a text.

    In Cultivation and Catastrophe I have been inspired by and hope to provoke further associations such as Philip’s, Long Soldier’s, and Chow’s. If, for Chow, reading about a Black lyric tradition brings about a reading of Whereas, and if, for me, Long Soldier’s book-length meditation on settler colonial violence in turn evokes a Black lyric tradition, it is not so much in the mode of comparison as in the mode of connection. Metonymy, in other words (a comparison where association already exists), not metaphor, is the proper figure of relation among ecologies of plantation, Atlantic and grassland; and among histories of enslavement, reservation and migration.

     

    And so in this spirit, one final set of associative swerves.

     

    Listening in the dark room we found ourselves in the middle of the wrong poem at the right time. My students and colleague and I watched the recording of M. NourbeSe Philip’s lecture on February 2, 2017. Just a few days earlier, on January 27, the newly-inaugurated president of the United States, Donald Trump, had signed an executive ban on travel from several predominantly Muslim countries.

    In the Q&A after M. NourbeSe Philip’s 2011 lecture, an audience member asked if there was a space for resistance at the border, poetically or otherwise. Philip acknowledged that at Pearson she had felt only the control and constraint, without wiggle room. But she went on to note that in Zong! she found herself experimenting formally, pushing at the limits of constraint (in this case, the provoking constraint of the poem: writing a book of poems made from only the words in the single legal text recounting the massacre of enslaved Africans aboard a ship).

    On the PennSound recording Philip says, “It’s almost as if all bodies have become Black now.”7 I don’t think she means that histories or bodies are interchangeable—far from it. Rather, she names the process through which acquiescence to what she calls “globalization of skin” in the recording, echoing a term she learned from Joan Anim-Addo, has become acquiescence to “globalization of finance and technology.” Black as metonym also names resistance to the same.

    And on Saturday, January 28, 2017, in cities across the United States and especially in New York City where I live thousands of people flooded the international airports: LAX, SFO, Newark, JFK, shone a light on them as border spaces, “kettled” spaces, spaces of constraint and limitation. That Saturday night I stood with thousands of others outside the courthouse in Brooklyn as Lee Gelernt and the other attorneys from the ACLU walked out with their fists raised in victory, having successfully argued for a stay of the order.

    For a moment, the people had transformed the constraints, controls, and surveillance of the airport-as-border, and had filled that space instead with the spectacle of their resistance.

     


    1. M. NourbeSe Philip, presentation at North of Invention: A Canadian Poetry Festival, Kelly Writers House, 2011, PennSound, http://writing.upenn.edu/pennsound/x/Philip.php.

    2. Layli Long Solder, “38,” in Whereas (Minneapolis: Greywolf, 2017), 49.

    3. Long Solder, “38,” 51.

    4. Long Solder, “38,” 53.

    5. “The History Behind the Feeling: A Conversation with Claudia Rankine by Aaron Coleman,” The Spectacle, http://thespectacle.wustl.edu/?p=105.

    6. Philip, M. NourbeSe, “Backstory,” Set Speaks (blog), accessed March 27, 2019, http://www.setspeaks.com/backstory/.

    7. M. NourbeSe Philip, presentation at Kelly Writers House.

Britt Rusert

Response

“I have not read them for I am too poor to buy them”

Black Lyric and the Question of Dispossession

Sonya Posmentier’s Cultivation and Catastrophe feels urgent and contemporary even as its turn to black lyric asks readers to pause, sound out, and reflect on a long history of poetic engagement with ecological catastrophe, forced migration, and the afterlife of the plantation. Early on, Posmentier cites Édouard Glissant’s observation that the boundary of the plantation enforces enclosure and captivity but is also its “structural weakness,” and thus, “becomes our advantage” (qouted in Posmentier 19). Posmentier meticulously excavates that history of poetic “advantage,” showing how the boundary, and transgression of the boundary, has been central to black lyric ecologies across the diaspora and in multiple generic forms, from more traditional lyric poems to the flood blues. Moving from plantation enclosure to the environmental disasters they exacerbate under a system of capitalist extraction, accumulation, and exhaustion, Posmentier writes about the hurricane itself as a powerful poetic figure, one that is able to account for both shared histories and forms of difference in the diaspora:

[Hurricanes] play a central role in black diasporic literature, and in this book, because they retrace the motion of the transatlantic slave trade and the violence and loss of the middle passage, forming off the coast of West Africa and making landfall in the Caribbean archipelago and the southern United States, taking different forms as they touch different shores. . . . These storms are an apt figure for an understanding of the black diaspora as constituted by a shared history, on the one hand, and by distinctive, at times uneven, geographic, economic and cultural forms on the other.

The dialectic of cultivation and catastrophe that Posmentier locates across black lyric is navigated deftly throughout the study, not as a pair of terms from which to choose or on which to settle, but as an open question and sometimes as a site of contestation. Beginning with a poetics that values repair, amelioration, and preservation (cultivation), she ultimately moves to the generative possibilities of catastrophe itself. At the same time, Posmentier rightfully recalibrates the kinds of climate change anxiety running rampant today by turning readers to the strophe—the dramatic denouement and overturning—located within catastrophe etymologically and in its attending poetic forms. Indeed, for readers wondering “why poetry?” it seems to me that poetry’s refusal of both fear and anxiety makes it an invaluable mode through which to reckon with environmental degradation and disaster at a diasporic scale.

Posmentier’s meticulous study further shows how lyric’s mode beyond “emplotment” (17) is particularly well suited to grappling with the textures and contingencies of black environmental experience. Moving away from the theory of lyric as overhead speech, she instead encourages readers to think about black lyric subjectivity in terms of “collection,” “archive,” and even as a kind of “symphony.” The book also contains a chapter on mid-century Caribbean little magazines like Savacou and BIM that will be a crucial resource for researchers long into the future. In this chapter, she moves us from the territorialized provision grounds of Claude McKay’s poems to the deterritorialized acts of provisioning in the rich and intertextual ecologies of West Indian periodical poetry, as well as in Phylon and Gwendolyn Brooks’s “In the Mecca” (1968). A chapter on the Mississippi Floods of 1927 dilates black lyric to include a range of verse and song created in the long aftermath of the storm, including Ma Rainey’s “Back-Water Blues.” An extended coda on M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong (2009) is a stunning rejoinder to the recent valorization of ambient poetics in eco-philosophy, while suggesting how black poetics challenges assumptions about what constitutes environmental poetry more broadly.

Posmentier is carefully attentive to how the shift from plantation to post-plantation agriculture shaped and indeed demanded a transformation in literary form, but I wonder if she can talk more specifically about lyric and its relationship to racial capitalism? For example, how does black lyric reflect, deflect, or otherwise interact with the changing forms of appearance (but not modes of production) of capital? She reads in black lyric an expansive dialectic that often moves toward preservation, but in my reading I wondered: does preservation and repair mark a poetics of the dispossessed or a poetics of private property? Insofar as preservation links to survival, collectivity, and community care (as well as care for the earth), it may be a mode that speaks to the conditions and concerns of the dispossessed, but I kept thinking about Fanon’s arguments about how the formerly colonized petit bourgeois continue to reproduce colonial structures through claims to private property and the wielding of colonial norms after independence.1 Here, it’s hard not to think about lyric’s association (even if constructed this way historically by critics) with (en)closure, stasis and resolution, terms that we would be more likely to associate with the protection of property rather than its abolition. How then do we / can we think about the politics not only of race but also class within lyric? Does lyric express the conditions of racialized dispossession or seek to manage them? I love Posmentier’s coinage of colonial lyric shame and I wonder how this concept might speak to such questions about class, property, and precariousness.

Another way to ask this question might be: How do we understand the role or limits of poetry in transforming the material conditions of people’s lives? Posmentier writes about Claude McKay’s disdain for literary elites, embrace of the masses, and staunch Leftist commitments, but I was stopped in my tracks by her citation of Tommy McKay, who once remarked about his brother’s novels: “I have not read them for I am too poor to buy them” (37). Posmentier writes about the crucial role played by Caribbean periodicals in democratizing access to poetry and acknowledges that McKay’s poems were themselves “commodities in their own right . . . circulated within a Jamaican economy as well as a British and American one” (37), but I did here wonder how a language of transnational circulation and even of diaspora itself obscures an opportunity to engage with different types of black labor, subjectivity, and aesthetic expression. Does the turn to diaspora potentially fetishize geography and space at the expense of thinking about other forms of difference, including class, gender, and sexuality? This raises a broader question about alienation. Throughout, Posmentier is interested in how black lyric ecologies mitigate alienation from the land, but this presumes that alienation is an unequivocally bad thing. Indeed, alienation is central to the commodification of land and labor and Posmentier turns and returns to Wynter’s crucial argument about how the enslaved endure a brutal structure of “double” alienation. But we also know that alienation can be, and historically has been, a crucial enabler of organization, resistance, and revolt. Here, I love the moments when Posmentier locates a subterranean refusal of labor in McKay’s poems, but I still want to know how and if black lyric can account for Tommy McKay’s claim that he was too poor to buy his brother’s books.

I also wondered if a legacy around the New School and the academic depoliticization of poetry matters for this project? What about those pesky Southern Agrarians? I would love to hear Posmentier expand a bit on the work she does in her endnotes to talk about how she understands the status of lyric today. How does she understand Cultivation and Catastrophe to be contributing to or possibly challenging a broader critical conversation around lyric? Here, I’m thinking of Jordy Rosenberg’s recent argument about the “becoming-lyric of theory”—the “compression of lyricism and analysis”—which he reads as a “two-for-one kind of efficiency ‘solution’ to the labors of writing and of interpretation that surfaces as a response to an increasingly defunded humanities.”2 What then are the stakes of making an argument for black lyric in 2019? I am convinced by its ecological implications, but I wonder how we might understand it symptomatically in terms of broader shifts in academic labor and disciplinary formations as well as transformations in the market for poetry and poetry criticism?

I am perhaps most compelled by how Posmentier’s study points us to a long history of black poetics that has made a claim to the land even under the most devastating conditions of ecological ruination (the question of the claim to the sea/water is another interesting question that might bring us back to questions about indigeneity and the processes of indigenizing that Wynter discusses). In this way, we might think about the politics of enclosure within black poetics, not as a critical re-territorialization of the land as property, but as a rightful and righteous claim to the commons itself. Today, fear is being constantly deployed to scare people about eco-catastrophe (just open up your favorite social media platform), and, as Sayak Valencia notes, fear is an extremely effective tactic through which states, now under a phase of what she calls “extreme neoliberalism,” declare states of exception.3 These unending and violent states of exception help to justify, among other things, a range of forced migrations (that, I would add, often happen in conjunction with the need to remove people from the last frontiers of resource extraction on earth). In other words, fear is being relentlessly wielded for Trump-era dispossessions by a political regime and media that wants to convince us that the earth is already destroyed, and that the commons are already gone. But as Posmentier’s study shows forcefully and crucially, black (ecological) poetry has long insisted otherwise.


  1. Frantz Fanon, The Wretched of the Earth (1963; New York: Grove, 2004).

  2. “Jordan Alexander Stein in Conversation with Jordy Rosenberg,” Social Text, July 3, 2018, https://socialtextjournal.org/jordan-alexander-stein-in-conversation-with-jordy-rosenberg/.

  3. Sayak Valencia, Gore Capitalism (South Pasadena: Semiotext(e), 2018), 52, 281.

  • Sonya Posmentier

    Sonya Posmentier

    Reply

    On Giant Triplets of Evil: Part III

    III.

    If Juliana Chow wonders whether it might be necessary to adopt a more expansive view of diaspora, one that attends to a broader range of communities and cultures gathered under the signs of fugitivity, maroonage, displacement; Britt Rusert worries that perhaps “racial diaspora” may limit our frames of reference in another sense, obscuring our view of King’s third evil: materialism, or, put differently, capitalism. Struck by the image of poet Claude McKay’s brother, Tommy, who confesses he is “too poor to buy” his brother’s books, Rusert asks, “How does black lyric reflect, deflect, or otherwise interact with the changing forms of appearance (but not modes of production) of capital? . . . Does preservation and repair mark a poetics of the dispossessed or a poetics of private property?”

    Rusert rightly identifies “preservation and repair” as major concerns of Cultivation and Catastrophe, and of its subjects—from Zora Neale Hurston worrying over the recorded reels of song she may have lost in a hurricane, to Kamau Brathwaite fretting over the well-being of his library, to the persistent question of how oral and aural language and experience might (or might not) survive in print, recording, memory, in archive and repertoire. I have argued that poetry might constitute “an archive of black culture, a way of preserving the sonic, visual, textual, and kinesthetic forms in response to the material destructions of extreme environmental experience” (Posmentier 101).

    I am mindful, however, of the concern Rusert raises about lyric’s association with “(en)closure, stasis and resolution, terms that we would be more likely to associate with the protection of property rather than its abolition.” To the extent that this is the case—that is, to the extent that lyric carries such associations for some readers—writers of lyric poems illuminate the various economies (as well as ecologies) of such closed places: Claude McKay’s sonnet of the provision ground depends on reference to the geography of the plantation; the constraint of legal language defines the enclosure of what I have called a book-length lyric poem, M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! These examples offer a counter-history of genre in which lyric closure is a constitutive category of existence, not in a universal sense but rather as historical and lived constraint. McKay and Philip acknowledge and refer to the historical association between lyric closure and economic enclosure, between poetry and the “protection of property,” while still using, manipulating, and experimenting with lyric forms.

    Surely, property haunts these poems and poets, and it is the haunting to which I hope to have to draw attention: whether Hurston, in a letter to her friend Langston Hughes, longing for a “plat” of land for Black writers to call their own, or Derek Walcott in the “The Star-Apple Kingdom” recognizing that even “reconceived within the nationalist postcolonial state under” the political power of formerly-colonized subjects can, à la Fanon, mimic colonial dependency on structures of private property. “What was the Caribbean?” Walcott asks, linking the newly imagined federation of states to colonial power, plantation power, and US Imperialism in one fell swoop,

    A green pond mantling

    behind the Great House columns of Whitehall,

    behind the Greek facades of Washington.1

    In my reading of Walcott’s poetry I argue that he not only exposes the tenacity of private property in narratives of political resistance, but also, through his sensory poetics offers a way of dwelling in an environment without occupying it, of knowing without naming—a rejoinder to the politics of possession and expansion through a poetics of fragmentation, compression, and break.

    Walcott’s dialectic of reflection and refraction echoes almost perfectly one of historian Walter Johnson’s recent salient definitions of racial capitalism as

    a history of the interconnected process by which economic, geographic, and racial differences were seeded, take root, and finally grew up to such an extent that they obscured efforts to search out their common origin: a history, at once, of integrative connection and divisive particularization.2

    Writing in a recent issue of the Boston Review dedicated to understanding racial capitalism for our times, Johnson turns to a late work by W. E. B. Du Bois, Africa and the World, as a counterexample to historical work on slavery that overly emphasizes dehumanization, as if the humanity of enslaved people is up for debate, and at the same time as if humanity alone was at stake in colonization, enslavement, and the slave trade. Du Bois, Johnson insists, helps us to see on a larger scale. “As much as anything,” he writes, Africa and the World

    s an account of the spatial aspect of racial capitalism. It emphasizes both the intimate, violent proximities and the material and cognitive distance of region, race, and scale (global and imperial, intimate and proximate). Du Bois’s account is particularly interested in the material culture of racial capital, of how the suffering of dead elephants and enslaved Africans we reassembled elsewhere, as sensory pleasures for the parlors and pool halls of imperial London. It is an environmental history of the resource-extracting, race-differentiating, world-wasting race to the end of time. (emphasis mine)3

    I intend Cultivation and Catastrophe to follow in and from a tradition of environmental history and literary history that is attentive in this way to the mutual devastation of “resource-extracting” and “race-differentiation.” If Johnson’s turn in this essay on Black history and racial capitalism mirrors a concomitant turn in ecocritical studies from emphasis on the “anthropocene” to the “capitalocene,” he also writes in such a way (not least through his attention to Du Bois) that demands we think of them together. Although a theory of racial capitalism is not the terrain I have named for Cultivating Catastrophe it is perhaps its hoped-for future proper subject. Or perhaps it is more accurate to stay that the poems and songs and lyrical breaks I have read make an environmental history of racial capitalism.

    But whether the poetics of dispossession can counter the politics of property is as open a question as whether the poetics of anything counter the politics of anything. Yes and no. I am not sure, one way or the other, whether or how “black lyric can account for Tommy McKay’s claim that he was too poor to by his brother’s [Claude McKay’s] books.” “What then,” Rusert asks, “are the stakes of making an argument for black lyric in 2018?” It is true that poems have often been thought inaccessible, rarefied, elite, and academic, and thus insufficient to the work required at what sometimes seems the end of the world. It is also true that poems can circulate more broadly and more easily than other forms of literature (Tommy could read Claude’s poems—but not his novels—because they were printed in the newspaper); they can be printed and passed, hidden in pockets, slipped under doors, memorized and recited, recalled and forgotten, recorded and played, carried around in bodies, painted, danced, sung and chanted. This is not to say that lyric compression is purely symptomatic, material evidence of economic compression and constraint. Rather, to make a claim for Black lyric in 2019 is to say that these poems give us a way to feel and be in the world, even and especially when they (and we) cannot stave off its end.


    1. Derek Walcott, “The Star-Apple Kingdom,” in Collected Poems, 1948–1984 (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1986), 393.

    2. Walter Johnson, “To Remake the World: Slavery, Racial Capitalism, and Justice,” Boston Review, February 20, 2018, http://bostonreview.net/forum/walter-johnson-to-remake-the-world.

    3. Johnson, “To Remake the World.”

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