Will Alexander’s most recent publication, Refractive Africa, is out now with Granta Books. Noted by the New York Times as ‘mixing politics with mesmeric, oracular lines’, and by Momtaza Mehri ‘as a diasporic invocation of world-historical and cosmological dimensions’, Refractive Africa is a searing pas de trois of poems.
James Goodwin is a poet doing a PhD in English and Humanities at Birkbeck, University of London. His pamphlet, aspects caught in the headspace we’re in: composition for friends (2020), was published by Face Press; and his book, Fleshed Out For All The Corners Of the Slip (2021), was published by the 87press.
They wrote to one another in light of Refractive Africa’s imminent publication, discussing Black life, openness in poetry and breath as poetics.
I recently read your contribution to Big Other Magazine, ‘George Floyd: Protracted Elevation That Raises the Sun’, and I was drawn to this moment in the text: ‘Because George Floyd has been sacrificed, he invites planetary kindling, he has magically woken the dead, he gives off vapours that issue breathing.’ A secret part of me wonders about what is happening to the sacred in the word sacrifice. Something about the sacrality, or the sacredness, of the dead black body – in the case, here, of George Floyd – being carried by the violent ferment, but also becoming enspirited through his last words. And in that flight out-from-within the mysterium (unknown element(s) that make up existing forms of matter), our spatiotemporal sense of the world – through the gratuitous logics of global capitalist modes of extraction and exploitation and colonial-imperial predominance, the subordination of earth as a resource and psychic site for intersubjective validation – shows up as eschewed, disconnected and strained. I think what I’m trying to conjecture is that the sacrality of the unerring occasion of George Floyd, constituting a certain displacement of the super stimulating experience of the ritual, real phantasmatic sacrifice of black life, is one which a context is being unmade, de-created, resisted and simultaneously, under George Floyd’s last(ing) breath, makes us formative witnesses to the moment that unmakes us.
Humanity at present principally remains injured although it seems that this injury may transmute and self-explain itself via a higher array of wisdom. Not that I am denying discomfort as we are presently being forced to journey through confusing alchemical kinetics whose outcome at this hour remains pointedly uncertain. It seems the energy that continues to erupt from George Floyd is not unlike activity that both seeds and erupts from disparate powers such as polar bears or volcanoes. An eruptive power not just as a treatise for the moment, but pre-human energy analogous to the solar system non-conjoined to date or structure. George Floyd in his strengthening remains empowered as a wise and forceful significance not only as cognitive social argument displayed by current pundits but as power over and beyond the containment that is rhetoric. When I think of George I not only feel his power soaring from African psychic volcanoes, but also powers that signal mystery that European cognition principally fails to explain. Let me posit an almost simplistic question: what European power is responsible for igniting the hexagonal structure that exists at the North Pole of Saturn? The Indigenous mind would never pose a question within this structure or limit. It is a question that implicates dominance. The indigenous spirit naturally lets things understand that its power embodies a subsequent custodial character where activity is characterised by conjoinment-with rather than as energy imposed according to commandment by imbalance and menace. The latter remains for me the spirit by which the Indigenous mind (and by extension my own mind) commingles with the unexplainable.
Watching your poetry reading for Chax Press on YouTube, there was something subtly clarifying and made clear to me when you said (and I’m paraphrasing) that we, as humanity, are killing off species of animal (non-human) life that we don’t know anything about. The offshoot of this also entails, to my mind, our severance from the very animating principle of living as the earth that makes consciousness a real thing that we both inhabit, and through which we are enfolded with other beings: a disconnection, to invoke Edouard Glissant, from the earth’s imaginary. I return, in having never left, to what you remarked in Towards the Primeval Lightning Field as a ‘resonant aural poetic’. That is, what I often try to glean from this is something about how our entanglement with other life consists in a poetics of cosubstantiality engendering modes of expressivity that enliven forms of living beyond our individual registers, but not understood as separate(d). Reading and listening to you, there’s always the presence of other life that speaks of and through you from somewhere else that is also here, the here that is also somewhere else. Breath, here, as the poetic substance of and for our thinking, speaking, reading, I feel somehow bespeaks of this moment that we’re experiencing, reflexively and in/corporeally, as a moment tied or corresponding to black life augmented by our founding disappearance in and by poetry in George Floyd’s wake). I wonder if poetry and/or poetics can survive, can desediment this contempt for black life, which is to say any and all life that makes us think and exist differently?
Poetry by its very nature escapes delimitation; it cannot be segregated from what I consider to be the meta-rotation of language, not only via synonym by individual word, but synonym according to phrasing. I will emphasise in this context the latter example of synonym according to the realia that is phrasing. Let me take as an example a phrase from my book Towards the Primeval Lightning Field where I choose ‘lightning struck incarnadine frigate’, instead of a more prosaic phrase such as ‘the ship came into port.’ This is not a translation but a transmutation via poetic tenor. In this context, my poetic preference remains within the field of recognisable non-technical language but still magically conjoined in such a manner that its cadence will inhabit a resonant ether that ignites and partakes of what I understand to correspond to the sattwic, or highest plane: the three gunas or qualities that exist in Indian psychology. Due to such praxis, an inner lingual contagion transpires where language creatively transmutes through synonym, not through brusque or ostentatious cognitive device, but according to higher lingual resonance. And this resonance begins to attract vocabulary not only from various fields of human study but also to sense and explore the true plasticity of sound itself. A plasticity that the late British critic Martin Seymour-Smith recognised as hearing at its highest order. A praxis that he associated with the poet Cesar Vallejo. He considered Vallejo’s ability to represent the poet’s seminal aptitude for hearing, never restricted by the eye, as is the wont of journalism. The latter (from which I’m not detracting) seems to require skill that relates to immediacy, to a tactility more related to transactional grammar. This grammar retains, as its necessary asset, a level outside the poetic scale not required to fulfil itself over protracted time. Thus it fails to register the imaginative freshness that perpetually scales the immediacy of the moment. In this sense a book like Vallejo’s Trilce (written one hundred years ago) registers as a natural pulsation not unlike an explorational grammar, capable of transmuting sound that can inhabit the sea or rise into the heavens, to imagine possible seas on outer moons of our solar system, such as Enceladus or Europa, yet all the while never excluding our feeling or relation to nature as we inhabit it on Earth. What I am speaking of here is the magical commingling of language via spell that no technical veracity can possibly predict.
I get this sense, thinking and reading some of your work, that a social poetics of marronage emerges and disappears. For example, I’m thinking about how in The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, your prefatory note reading ‘To the spirit Césaire has left us’ consciously opens the idea of marronage to imagining in corporeal modalities of non-human and more-than-human existences that are irreducible to a priori or delimited notions of the human. There’s this compelling line in Aimé Césaire’s poem ‘The Verb “Marronner” / for Rene Depestre, Haitian poet’ from his collection Noria where he writes: ‘marronnerons-nous Depestre, marronnerons-nous?’ The general consensus around its revised translation is ‘shall we maroon on them, Depestre, maroon on them?’ His deployment of the word marronner lexically retains itself as a noun and a verb evoking, on the one hand, a movement consisting of resistance to dominant paradigms of discursive thought; and on the other, it registers a conceptually decreative mode of flight as releasement, as fugitive activity beyond even its own historical and social phenomenon. Being marooned, to be a maroon, speaks of the dialectical phenomenon of escape from the threat of capture. But the predication of marronner already moves us away from such subject-object relations. It evinces an enspirited movement not strictly in or of the ones on the move, but a movement as that substance (without predication) in black poetics (spirit, or breath) which makes it possible to move without the possibility of containment at the level of the word.
Coming back to The Sri Lankan Loxodrome, to the solitary (perhaps maroon?) Sri Lankan sailor on his lone, meditative journey across the expanse of the Indian Ocean. Their monologue, although coming through you, seems to also come through as you. This excerpt from the poem is but one of many examples of such a way of listening to something on the move through somebody present to my act of reading:
as I meander from zone to zone
I seek to rid myself of these terminal equivalents
which electrify the carcass with dysfunctional edicts
which annuls one’s fauna at the moment of maximum resistance
to forms which seek to congeal obscurity
but it is through this obscurity that I sail
borderline with bradyarthia
expectation is drowned
near a curious rising of the sand to the sea
which blends into vapour
commencing movement beyond the rhythms of the local planetary solace
Loxodrome’s polydimensional movement reads as if it configures one in which Loxodrome and yourself constitutively occupy a mode of futurition, which is kind of an archaic but useful word defined as ‘the state of being about to exist’. It doesn’t refer to that which conforms to the temporality of the future, as always being on the vestibule of existence, not as potentia in being predisposed or subordinated to the emergence of and for something else to manifest. Loxodrome seems to find no material, or end in other entities, however they’re mediated. Reading, here, isn’t just this mode of deciphering symbols and relaying information, or a verbal, performative extension of language as a tool for communication, but functions as a passage through different forms of life, being and existence through a constitutively compositional movement, as and through breath, entangling us with other life. I’m imagining that breath has inseparability as its condition of im/possibility, existing within the plenum of already actualised socio-poetic possibilities as an animaterial element of black poetry that un/makes us out of and out from its own mysterium to give expression to the living, to animate reality of the ineffable, as well as the present alternative. All this conjecturing to say that I believe the spirit that Césaire has left is you, and Loxodrome through you.
There never exists for me a state of mind that remains chronic or habitual, nor superimposed by a theoretical state conjoined to the inert. Never a borrowed nor an embrangling quiet that juxtaposes the mind as though it had solely embraced abstraction. When I titled an essay I wrote on Bob Kaufman, The Footnotes Exploded, this is what I understood to be a plane of language not entangled or balanced by the psychic architecture of the exterior. Not an ideological non-embrace, but forms that seem to restrict the imaginal as they dazzle what I understand to be the cognitive skill set. Poetry addresses itself to me all at once, not unlike the manner that Chaim Soutine embraced painting without preliminary planning. For me, there is never systemic buildup, but instead the pressure of language that needs to amplify itself. This is when prior study comes to bear – not unlike a farmer who has prepared his soil so that crops can organically explode. Certainly not language summoned from haphazard debacle but as amplification of one’s psychic neurology never pre-destined (according to language) as brusque apparatus that forms from a separate heritage unto itself. Instead, my language comes into consciousness unbidden, or summoned over and beyond rules that seem to serve no other purpose than one of intellectual harassment. Say an image comes to me such as ‘eradicated owls who hover above the plains of a ghostly Tranvacore’*. It emits itself via sonic obliqueness without rational conjecture. According to linear skill, it gives the notion that one’s mind is unkempt and improperly prepared. In other words, immediacy is understood to occupy a lower rung or status. I’ve always considered myself to be a psychic marron never consumed by the desert that appropriates energy by winning the mind. I call this widening logic that advances itself through programmatic expectation. By igniting the owls above Travancore it seems I listen to myself through the lens of error.
According to Occidental concern, African consciousness spins circles and remains masterful at defaming itself by always embracing the haphazard. What seems most valued remains to the mind always conquered and tamed by precedent, by the mind that registers itself according to clarified habituation. This is what makes the writing of Kaufman and Césaire so thrilling. They escape the iron leggings wrought by the bondage of logicians, all the while remaining parallel and ghostly, their lines suffused by what I’ll call a quantum metrics, not unlike the fertility of weeds rising from random cracks of pavement. In this sense poetry can never be stillborn and debated according to merit provided via drainage that is logic, or by debate that de-hydrates momentum.
It seems my mind remains analogous to what astronomers understand to be the uncountable. To the Occident I remain the darkened / reddish human who has retained the experience of the uncountable. I am, then, at bottom realia that always signals threat because I can’t be organically contained or mimicked. I mention Kaufman and Césaire not only because they represent the African diaspora, but for their incalculable language that remains transcendent via code. An indigenous code, if you will, that undermines linear conformity always signalling the ineffable. Because they remain poets at a certain plane or magnitude, their language never panders to journalism or quotidian displacement that populates compromised attention spans. Their language embraces the code of ritual. This being language un-scalable with magic, its mystery always remaining unsquared while partaking of impalpable glare that can never be consumed by partial or beleaguered kinetics. Thus it signals the plane that inhabits the unnerving.
*former Kingdom of India; existed from 870 until 1949.
I’m thinking about emanation, as an experience of a phenomenon that cannot be withheld by, and is irreducible to our own cognitive capabilities. One that simultaneously undermines and overmines our subjectively and institutionally imposed aims at reforming poetics as a stultified category of knowledge and a programme of universal (which is to say individual) discovery grounded in logics of exclusion, preclusion, occlusion. The contemporary imperative for a transcendental aesthetic experience of poetry holds poetry as an artefact of their human expression, even though [black] poetry seems to enjoy a ghostly, quantum other life as both less real and more real than our conscious world of objective phenomena, because it can’t be reduced, finally, or from the start, to what is real and what is presented as real to us. Still, the superimposition of institutions on the black social life of poetry strains precisely on its emanation, because it doesn’t entail immediate recourse to the prerogatives of the critically or aesthetically imbued subject to revalorizing literary discourse for our current times. So what comes to us is full, plenitudinous, dispersed, on the move from somewhere else that is before (infront of) and ahead (away from) us, on the way and taking us somewhere we are yet to arrive, that we can’t yet call the future, or black poetry’s futurition.
Sri Aurobindo writes in his book The Future Poetry, that the:
‘intellectual, vital, sensible truths are subordinate things; the breath of poetry should give us along with them, or it may even be apart from them, some more essential truth of the being of things, their very power which springs in the last resort from something eternal in their heart and secrecy, hrdaye guhayam, expressive even in the moments and transience of life.’
I’m taken back to your writing in Across the Vapour Gulf, specifically to this aphorism: ‘To create by means of nonlocal observation, one is always sufused with the brilliance of supernal intuition’. Something about creation without individual subjective acts of will opening us, following Aurobindo, to the eternality in what you called, in your Singing in Magnetic Hoofbeat, our ‘praxis of spiritus’, ‘praxis of breath’. What’s galvanised, for me at least, is the eternal as our means; breath as the eternal means of our living, our life and our lives that not only outlive, have outlived and will outlive us, but mobilise our endless, ongoing arrival into black poetry’s harbour and dissent. I wonder lastly if thinking through emanation, which encompasses the ungraspable horizon of our poetic experiences that suffuses and immerses us in the breath of poetry, is to figure the real potentia of becoming very different beings without having to constantly re-figure the human as a closed system obscuring essential truths felt by and given in the black life of poetry.
Poetry is capable not only of that which is trenchant and corporeal but by language that emanates from what is considered, by most, the incorporeal plane. Especially in the industrial countries (with exceptions), poetry seems expected to register via an immediate and popular ferment that never takes account of itself as a relevant and ongoing willingness. Instead, there exists the squall of trends that co-relate with the pressures of the moment. This is not to say that interesting language never occurs, but consciousness in the future can say that that was so 2017 or this was how they expressed themselves in 1963. A timed container that remains marked and dated totally unlike indigenous verbal marking that retains its incandescence in whatever date it was invoked. First of all, I have never been swayed by the precarious blinders of trends, of superficial verbal weather only capable of granting the moment. When we read Sri Aurobindo we are never swayed by the hindrances of human consciousness as they occurred in 1917 (and they were considerable) or hear in his writing the beginnings of the automobile or of advertising. We are strictly confined to issues of the moment, to grammar beholden to popularity. Unlike indigenous popularity, post-industrial consciousness seems scripted by secular figments, that in turn procure their niche within cul-de-sacs. There are certainly states of consciousness beyond British or American predilection. As I continue experience via inner lingual research, I find that states of interjacence can be conveyed, or states of the impalpable can be conveyed through the palpable via synonyms that shift psychological colouration. Invisible states can be triggered through the timing and use of this word as opposed to that word, not unlike intuitive grammar when conveyed through mathematical symbols of higher mathematics. By stating myself in this manner I am not attempting to convey something dry or listless, but the possibility of opening human neurology to other planes of awareness. In other words, language can expand or contract this awareness. In my case expansion remains the key intuitive germination via lingual exploration. I may have mentioned this at a prior time but there are around 250,000 words in the English language, yet within the utilitarian scale they seem consumed according to advertising and profit. What I’m getting at is there needs to be pursuit of reality via lingual revelation, not akin to rockets, say, just to Mars or Venus but language in pursuit of the deepest strata of consciousness. Because language is so open, we need not resolve ourselves according to its former practitioners but to evolve new synaptic connections of possibility. Not devolution via former embitterment as lessening but as searching not unlike the dazzling of spectacular trapeze artists creating unknown physical architecture from the unforeseen. When the hummingbird was first acknowledged according to Western perception it was initially understood to be an exotic phenomena yet it had already been acknowledged by, I think, the Aztecs as a higher reality. I could go on a tangent of naming and classification and about who saw what first. This is not a time to embark upon such an endeavour but begin to acknowledge language as a living entity not unlike lightning. Poetry remains living and evolves as a skill. It cannot be properly institutionalized. It can be taught (within the institution) but not felt. Perhaps a scholar can know more about poetry than the actual poet but the latter remains the one who feels language and invigorates its power far beyond the precipice of its seeming limit.