Re-Reading John Keene II

Hyperbole: I have always found the second section of Annotations the most difficult to read. If one figures Annotations as a sonata—one of several possible forms—one might say the improvisation of the second part is harder to follow. But that’s not quite it. Always is hyperbole as this book entered my life at a very specific moment, but as with Essex Hemphill’s Ceremonies, it feels as though it has always been part of the world of signs I inhabit. And now, as so often, I fall into its forms and rhythms. And attempt some distance.

It might be that the second section inhabits more fully desire and its expectations, desire and its impossibilities. That the wonder of the discovering child in the first section is replaced by the more knowing subject who can name alcoholism, homophobia, normativity. Who writes within the urgencies of “our current plague era,” into a world where expectation is a cruel trick played on those who ventured and those who waited. Whatever the case, I find this second section hard going, cognitively and affectively.

It is, perhaps, the sense of invasion and irritation: “Picnics swarmed those summers as fervidly as bees,” “Holidays, folks buzzed and flitted about like fruit flies, yet as a child you lacked the power to shoo them,” “Reality, that rude intruder.” Objective correlatives for a body being invaded by knowledge and sensation, a naming of place and relationship, a desire to be “the next Percy Shelley,” to forge a world: “he derived from these stories, those poems, maps to realizable liberty, and took in each finished text a step ever closer to the zone of deliverance.”

What, a student asked, is this “zone of deliverance”?

Restlessness pervades this section, or my experience reading it, disallowing me to linger, or even to repeat. I have read the first section at least 8 times over the past month. I have read the second about 3 times. And I’m trying to understand what makes it feel so unrepeatable. Is it the word “oppression”? An awakening into the world? Is this second section akin to that other foundational moment in black letters when children discover they are black? A moment of rupture, where the play of the first section now contends with the less magical scene of other discoveries? Or perhaps it is a certain gushing: “From his mouth words rushed like richly fed rapids, leaving him ever vulnerable to ascription”; “One’s mouth is the runway from which the possible taxis, alights in words, or the hangar in which life’s verities, lies lie dormant.” Or the breaking of Eden as he enters “The prisonhouse of cogito.”

Were I to be more honest, it might be this: “As the child of an alcoholic one tends to retreat from conflict, which engenders further conflict itself.” I’m paralyzed by identification. I would prefer to rush on. I cannot linger here.

It is, perhaps, that the more “confessional” nature of the second section solicits my own confessions, my own admissions, and makes me itchy. That the form of the confessional compels the act of confession. And what had been playful nakedness in the first section is now situated within “our current plague era.” This ongoing plague era, where the violence against black men and the genocide of HIV/AIDS continues to ravage.

And, so, confession.

Annotations was published in 1995, the year I arrived in the U.S., and the year Essex Hemphill died. I remember the incredible pleasure of discovering Hemphill’s work in downtown Pittsburgh, and the incredible sense of loss I experienced when I realized that I could never meet him. It was less that I would ever have chatted to him, but, perhaps, like other authors I have read—Thomas Glave, G. Winston James, Randall Kenan, James Earl Hardy—I might have seen him at a reading, sent him an email, been on the same listserv. He might have been one of any number of men with whom I debated terms like same-gender loving (sgl) and gay, and, eventually, queer. With Hemphill more than anyone else, I feel as though I arrived just a second too late.

Keene writes: “And so in an effort to make so many shorter stories richer, these overtures ought to be read as a series of extended annotations.”

“so many shorter stories richer.”

In my Harlem Renaissance class, we’ve been discussing how poets adapted traditional forms through metrical variation. Most often, the variation is a kind of truncation: a hexasyllabic line with eleven syllables; a sonnet with 12 lines; a sonnet in couplets; an incomplete rondeau. Fred Moten writes of how a certain black male falsetto approximates the voice of the lynched man: the formal strategies of Harlem Renaissance poets repeat the “cutting off” of lynching. The breaking line, the incomplete thought, the unmusical rhythm, the missed beat. Over and over, these poems index the logic of lynching, the “shorter stories.”

Among many other things, parataxis is a cultural logic of “shorter stories,” of truncation and juxtaposition, of the cut off and the scrap-booked, of the syncopated and the unrecorded. That “plague era” haunts this book, with its list of too many names, too many gone, too many lost, too many missing, too many listening for their names.

But also too many unavailable to desire and undesire: “Desire, among other things, derives its force from repetition, or so your general pattern of behavior would lead you to believe.”

We get small glimpses: “One need not overlook the beauty cast by a man’s hands, though, as with women the face and lower regions usually garner the most attention.”

I had hoped to write something more eloquent, more shaped and shapely, in tune with Annotations, but I find myself out of tune, awkward, unnerved. Truncated. Perhaps caught in the logic of the variation as it takes off and heads elsewhere, seeking a home key, or a place to land.

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