“the impossible vocabulary of sorrow”

Richard Blanco’s inauguration poem spoke a necessary vocabulary, a needed vocabulary, a submerged vocabulary. Tavia Nyong’o tweeted that it exemplified what Eve Sedgwick theorized as the “periperformative”: “‘utterances whose complex efficacy depends on their tangency to, as well as their difference from, the explicit performances’ (of power).” Perhaps more than any other featured figure, Blanco incarnated the fierce resistance of Martin Luther King, Jr. On twitter, Teju Cole encouraged us to “skip the inauguration” and read King’s 1967 speech, “Beyond Vietnam: A Time to Break Silence.”

King writes, “the calling to speak is often a vocation of agony, but we must speak. We must speak with all the humility that is appropriate to our limited vision, but we must speak.” And his speech is radical, for peace, and against violence. As I listened to the inauguration speech, which reveled in U.S. might, in an “empire-is-US” logic, I needed to remember this from King: “I could never again raise my voice against the violence of the oppressed in the ghettos without having first spoken clearly to the greatest purveyor of violence in the world today — my own government.”

I have found the last few months of electioneering difficult to inhabit. Despite token attempts at inclusiveness, the citizen is so often defined against the “alien.” Political speeches are carefully calibrated to uphold citizenship, to defend its freedoms (perhaps?), a gesture that makes alien status, whether legal or illegal, threatened, threatening, and increasingly precarious. Because I live in the U.S. as an alien, I am attuned to how inclusion functions, to how it excludes, to what it makes precarious, to what it renders vulnerable.

And because I come to the U.S. as an alien, I am attuned (listening to, tuned to, tuned out of, tuned into) other soundings, other geo-histories, other sites of “sorrow.” The genre of the inauguration poem might not allow for an explicit critique of U.S. imperial aims, the terrible work of perpetual war and drone attacks, but Blanco created space for feeling, space for reflection, space for critique. I have yet to see the text of the poem, but its focus on the quotidian—the acts of waking up and working, living from day to day, maintaining kinship and affection—made palpable the “impossible vocabulary of sorrow” that could not be named.

King again:

This I believe to be the privilege and the burden of all of us who deem ourselves bound by allegiances and loyalties which are broader and deeper than nationalism and which go beyond our nation’s self-defined goals and positions. We are called to speak for the weak, for the voiceless, for victims of our nation and for those it calls enemy, for no document from human hands can make these humans any less our brothers.

To think beyond the space of nation and patriotism, to inhabit that other-elsewhere of feeling and care.

Yet, I must confess, listening to the inauguration events, I wanted to be swept away. Always, despite my best efforts, no matter how much critical resistance I muster, I am flooded by the call to join, to chant “U.S.A.” or “Obama,” or simply to inhabit the space of patriotic art: it was difficult not to be moved by James Taylor’s sincerity and Beyoncé’s restraint. At such moments, I would turn to twitter and see the critical resistance there: reminders about war, drones, deaths, about the worlds destroyed to make this one possible. And I resented those reminders. Resented their attempts to make my “happiness” less free, to embed it within logics and practices of killing and killability. I resented those who functioned as what Sara Ahmed describes as “feminist killjoys.” Those who refused to let feeling-national mean withdrawing from hurt, from pain, from the responsibilities we owe to other-elsewheres.

At a moment when the official U.S. narrative wanted cheers, other narratives demanded tears. But not easy tears. Rather, “impossible” tears, registers of our sorrow-saturated times, when we continue to make killable in the pursuit of something termed “freedom.” Chandan Reddy terms this “freedom with violence.”

I wanted to hold on to “good feeling” to “feeling good,” to suspend the “impossible” debt of feeling bad, feeling responsible, feeling toward, feeling about, feeling outwards. If possible, I wanted to inhabit the “pretty rooms” John Donne writes about (“We’ll build in sonnets pretty rooms”), to love unabashedly and unreservedly the promise of the inauguration.

But Donne does not suffice. And I must return to King as he invokes Langston Hughes’s “Let America be America Again”:

I am the poor white, fooled and pushed apart,
I am the Negro bearing slavery’s scars.
I am the red man driven from the land,
I am the immigrant clutching the hope I seek—
And finding only the same old stupid plan
Of dog eat dog, of mighty crush the weak.

I am the young man, full of strength and hope,
Tangled in that ancient endless chain
Of profit, power, gain, of grab the land!
Of grab the gold! Of grab the ways of satisfying need!
Of work the men! Of take the pay!
Of owning everything for one’s own greed!

I am the farmer, bondsman to the soil.
I am the worker sold to the machine.
I am the Negro, servant to you all.
I am the people, humble, hungry, mean—
Hungry yet today despite the dream.
Beaten yet today—O, Pioneers!
I am the man who never got ahead,
The poorest worker bartered through the years.

Hughes’s “America” is expansive, but never imperial. His vision is global, but never dominating. His allegiances are multivalent, and never homogenizing. He speaks in the register of the “impossible vocabulary of sorrow,” and like Blanco, but before Blanco, enfleshes the sorrowing and the sorrowful, embedding them within the daily rhythms of living and loving, of hope and desire, of expectation and potential. And if Obama and Blanco both spoke about futures yet to come, about dreams yet to be realized, they spoke in different registers: Obama within the logic of empire and state-craft and Blanco within the logic of queer utopianism. But not a utopia distanced from sorrow. Instead, a utopia that takes its point of departure from, and always reflects on, the “impossible vocabulary of sorrow.”

4 thoughts on ““the impossible vocabulary of sorrow”

  1. Thanks for this. I am enjoying reading your blog. I just finished a poem myself about refugees (Song for the Refugee see my blog: http://wyonstansfeld.wordpress.com/2013/01/18/song-for-the-refugee/).
    I am not a refugee myself or defined as an ‘alien’ (though as with almost everyone if I trace my roots back far enough I get to migrants). But even from the other side of the artificially drawn line I find no solace in the language of patriotism or nationality. And as a UK resident I am not proud to be British on account of the truely apalling way in which we treat those who come to our country asking for sanctuary and help.

  2. Having recently become a citizen, (read: “upgraded” from alien status) what you write about resonates. During the swearing in ceremony I was swept away into what this here land of the brave could be if it lived up to its ideals. My own activist work with various communities were my killjoys if you will; they kept me grounded.

  3. Because I’m a bit of a trekkie and a bit of sci-fi fan, this question of the alien has become increasingly pressing, when understood as a legal category but also as a category of feeling: this sense that alien emotion is estranging or somehow inappropriate or indecipherable. So the transition from “alien” to “citizen” is also supposed to be one of having the appropriate emotion: the pride in nation, the unflagging patriotism, the appropriate anger, the right causes. I’m intrigued to think about what thinking about “feeling” might do to make the “alien” present in practices of belonging.

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