Truncated (Un)life

A few years ago, I started thinking about truncated forms in the Harlem Renaissance: sonnets that ended at 10 or 12 lines, stories that seemed to stop instead of ending, plays that were sharply elliptical, poems that seemed arrested in mid-composition, suicides and lynchings, characters who never quite seemed to develop. Some of this was spurred by a class I took with Jed Esty, where he taught me to think about the role of arrested development in British literature. Some of this was spurred by Neville Hoad, who taught me how to think about the role of arrested development at the nexus of race-sexuality-imperialism. Some of this was spurred by an ongoing interest in forms of fabrication and incompletion—the life of Project Runway and Face Off and a host of other shows where projects are never quite completed, never quite perfect, where, as Roland Barthes puts it, the seam shows. And, much of it emerged from an ongoing interest in how form works, the “narrative,” if you will, that emerges from what Gertrude Stein termed “composition.”

Although much indebted to Houston Baker’s “mastery of form” and “deformation of mastery,” (I never found HLG’s “signifyin’” very useful), now I wonder if the term “mastery” makes invisible much of the aesthetic labor in Harlem Renaissance works: the false starts, the hesitations, the circling, the pauses, the gaps, the arrests, the skips, the jumps, the leaps, the leaks, the fractures, the breakdowns, the incompletion, and the incompletable. Baker’s re-evaluation of the Harlem Renaissance begins with an anecdote about teaching James Joyce, about the wonders of “cracking” Joyce’s codes. I suspect this allegiance to a certain aesthetic accomplishment—achievement and completion, both of which come wrapped in a genealogical imperative he terms “renaissancism”—renders invisible the unmaking forms of (un)life (thanks to Sofia Samatar for this coinage) that obsess Harlem Renaissance writers.

It depends on where one starts, and where one lingers.

i. “wake work”

While in graduate school, my very good friend Melissa Girard—who has stuck with me longer than any reasonable or sane person should have—told me to read and re-read Angelina Weld Grimké’s play Rachel. I had read Rachel before, first as an undergraduate when I was working my way through work by Harlem Renaissance women, but I had not paused to read it. I did not yet know how to read it. I needed to learn how to read Hortense Spillers and psychoanalysis before I could read Rachel. (This was my trajectory; it’s not the only possible route). Even though Melissa insisted on this re-reading in 2004, it was not until 2009 when I started learning how to read the play.

My friend Christina Sharpe has recently provided the language to describe the shape of the play—it is “wake work”:

[W]e must be about the work of what I am calling “wake work.” Wakes are processes; through them we think about the dead and about our relations to them; they are rituals through which to enact grief and memory. Wakes allow those among the living to mourn the passing of the dead through ritual; they are the watching of relatives and friends beside the body of the deceased from death to burial and the accompanying drinking, feasting, and other observances; a watching practiced as a religious observance. But wakes are also “the track left on the water’s surface by a ship; the disturbance caused by a body swimming, or one that is moved, in water; the air currents behind a body in flight; a region of disturbed flow; in the line of sight of (an observed ob- ject); and (something) in the line of recoil of (a gun)”; finally, wake also means being awake and, most importantly, consciousness.

Rachel is claustrophobic, set in one room, full of ellipses and off-stage actions, suffused with the unsaid and the unsayable. It mourns a lynched father and son, mourns the truncated forms of (un)life that mark black children’s entrance into the racial symbolic, mourns the impossibility of futurity, and mourns the banal toxicity of the world outside the room.

The staging directions include a chorus of “(sadly)” punctuated with “silence”: “there is a long silence”, “(A silence),” “(A long silence),” “(There is a silence),” “(A short silence),” “(A rather uncomfortable silence),” “(There is a brief silence),” “(Another silence).”One imagines a director struggling to manage these silences: how “long” is a long silence? Are all “long” silences the same? What’s the distinction between a “short silence” and a “brief silence”? How does one communicate that these multiple silences, these staged ellipses, are part of the play and not simply moments when actors have forgotten their lines? What does one do with this accumulation of silences in a small room?

After learning about her lynched father and brother, and after hearing about the unhumaning racism directed toward Jimmy, her adopted son, and Ethel, a young girl new to the neighborhood, Rachel “breaks.” As her mother describes it,

It was just a week ago today. I was down town all the morning. It was about one o’clock when I got back. I had forgotten my key. I rapped on the door and then called. There was no answer. A window was open, and I could feel the air under the door, and I could hear it as the draught sucked it through. There was no other sound. Presently I made such a noise the people began to come out into the hall. Jimmy was in one of the flats playing with a little girl named Mary. He told me he had left Rachel here a short time before. She had given him four cookies, two for him and two for Mary, and had told him he could play with her until she came to tell him his lunch was ready. I saw he was getting frightened, so I got the little girl and her mother to keep him in their flat. Then, as no man was at home, I sent out for help. Three men broke the door down. (Pauses). We found Rachel unconscious, lying on her face. For a few minutes I thought she was dead. (Pauses). A vase had fallen over on the table and the water had dripped through the cloth and onto the floor. There had been flowers in it. When I left, there were no flowers here. What she could have done to them, I can’t say. The long stems were lying everywhere, and the flowers had been ground into the floor. I could tell that they must have been roses from the stems. After we had put her to bed and called the doctor, and she had finally regained consciousness, I very naturally asked her what had happened. All she would say was, “Ma dear, I’m too tired please.” For four days she lay in bed scarcely moving, speaking only when spoken to. That first day, when Jimmy came in to see her, she shrank away from him. We had to take him out, and comfort him as best we could. We kept him away, almost by force, until she got up. And, then, she was utterly miserable when he was out of her sight. What happened, I don’t know. She avoids Tom [her brother], and she won’t tell me. (Pauses). Tom and I both believe her soul has been hurt. The trouble isn’t with her body. You’ll find her highly nervous. Sometimes she is very much depressed; again she is feverishly gay almost reckless.

To the chorus of silences, we can add “(Pauses).” Previously, when teaching the play, I’ve described Rachel as being in a “near-catatonic” state. I would amend this now. She is doing “wake work.” A work of lingering in proximity to, and in the space of, impossibility. This is not a removal from a toxic world, but a way to inhabit the world’s toxicity, as it breaches one’s psychic and domestic space. To be fully conscious of a racist world’s damage undoes one. Rachel is undone not simply by what a racist world has done to her—earlier, she offers an elliptical confession—but also by the reality of the damage enacted on seven-year-old Jimmy and the equally young Ethel, and the promise of damage to whatever children she might bear. This particular play’s “wake work” refuses the empty promise of a “better” tomorrow. Or, we might say, it sees the damage that promise might efface.

Any theory of the Harlem Renaissance as a space of “expression” struggles to accommodate this “wake work,” these awkward ellipses, these cumulative silences, these moments that acknowledge damage and refuse to perform resilience.

As with Nella Larsen’s Passing and Quicksand, Rachel ends by not ending: it’s not clear whether Rachel chooses to murder Jimmy and kill herself, or whether she chooses to persist in being undone. The same problem bedevils Quicksand: does Helga Crane die or does she persist and, if she persists—and we know, early on, that Helga is fully conscious of the world’s racism and sexism—how does she persist? How does one perform “wake work” amidst constant toxicity?

My return to Rachel was also a return to the possibilities of formalism. This time, I was looking for a way to think with form that pushed against the restrictions seemingly inbuilt into formal approaches. Certain formal strategies and languages could not help taming whatever material they encountered, rendering it inert—the many paragraphs of indexical close reading one skips because they simply make one’s eyes glaze over while removing the work from its active labor in the world. By indexical, I mean a kind of handbook approach that names specific formal strategies as though conducting a tour—and that’s metaphor and that’s enjambment and it’s significant because [name historical period and geographical region] that means this and this. Or, the “trick” of claiming that there’s “so much meaning” amidst the “ever-proliferating signifiers” that “meaning” is “impossible to pin down.” One can only read so many of such essays—and I’ve read many—before reaching for something more useful. To steal from Nietzsche’s conception of history: formalism should be “useful.” I simply echo Hortense Spillers:

There is little evidence to suggest to me that the methodology of formalism contravenes historical perspective or deep political commitment . . . a method is not inherently ahistorical, or endemic to a fixed, or divine, order. Formalism is, I believe, preeminently useful.

She adds,

With its intricate network of symbolic supports, the American event of race so thoroughly describes a grammar of negation that those who are subdued by its magic imagine that its traditional sign-vehicles and immanent referential content are not violently arbitrary at all.

I would push against her catalogue of formal categories—“filiation, advocacy, preservation, convocation”—and privilege what she terms “radical waywardness.”[1] Wake work practices “radical waywardness,” as Christina Sharpe explains, “To do what I am calling wake work would necessitate a turn away from juridical, philosophical, historical, or other disciplinary solutions to blackness’s ongoing abjection.” Wake work lingers on the “grammar of negation.” A grammar that is, in Grimké, the gap of and between silences—“short,” “brief,” “long,” “uncomfortable,” “another.”

ii. formalism’s child

What might “wake work” look like in Countee Cullen’s poetry? I turn to Cullen because he’s Baker’s example of and for “mastery.” Too, of all the poets of the Harlem Renaissance, he’s, alternately, loved and reviled for his formal aesthetics, described as derivate and innovative. In Kamau Brathwaite’s frame, Cullen might be “trapped” by “pentameter.” We might also consider how “wake work,” especially an attention to the “hold,” might produce a different orientation toward being “trapped” in form.

In the poem that opens Color, “To You Who Read My Book,” Cullen stages “wake work” by focusing on truncated life. Here’s the first stanza:

Soon every sprinter,
   However fleet,
Comes to a winter
   Of sure defeat:
Though he may race
   Like the hunted doe,
Time has a pace
   To lay him low


He continues, “Time will outsing / Us every one.” It is a carpe diem poem:

This is my hour
   To wax and climb,
Flaunt a red flower
   In the face of time.
And only an hour
   Time gives, then snap
Goes the flower,
   And dried is the sap.


The awareness of one’s mortality runs through the formal traditions Cullen engages: time has long been an antagonist in poetry. In this particular stanza, I’m struck by the shift from ownership—“This is my hour”—to arbitrary dispossession,–only an hour / Time gives–an arbitrariness suggested by the “snap” that “saps” the “red flower.” The shift from “my hour” to “an hour” suggests different measures of time might be at work: is one’s hour measured the same way as time’s hour? What happens when these different temporalities meet?

The notion of incommensurate times is not that far-fetched:

(I run, but time’s
   Abreast with me;
I sing, but he climbs
   With my highest C.)


In a poem composed predominantly of octaves—8-line stanzas—this truncated and parenthetical stanza stands out. It is an aside, a sigh, a moment when the “sprinter” of the first stanza looks to the side to see that time is “abreast.” Yet, to think of time as “abreast” is also to map a different relationship to time: one is not in it or circumscribed by it. One lives aside or beside, waiting for time’s arbitrary “snap.”

(I’m dissatisfied with where I’m headed, so let me try again with a different poem)

Perhaps I’m simply trying to avoid the moments when Cullen most registers his “radical waywardness” within and from the time-space he occupies, moments most fully present in his critiques of Christian modernity. In “Heritage,” he departs from a longstanding tradition that situates black pain in relation to biblical suffering by “Wishing He I served were black, / Thinking then it would not lack / Precedent of pain to guide it.” Biblical pain, Christ’s pain, is not “kindred woe.” Instead, in “Gods,” Cullen claims,

God’s alabaster turrets gleam
   Too high for me to win,
Unless He turns His face and lets
   Me bring my own gods in


The “God-shaped” world—the space-time it imagines—cannot accommodate Cullen’s “flesh” (a term he uses often). Anticipating Fanon’s, “O my body, make of me always a man who questions,” Cullen parses the world he’s inherited through his dark flesh.

In Cullen, “wake work” is always this encounter with the “flesh,” the impossible demands, set in incommensurate time, that make (un)life always too proximate. Thus, Color ends with “Requiescam”:

I am for sleeping and forgetting
   All that has gone before;
I am for lying still and letting
   Who will beat at my door;
I would my life’s cold sun were setting
   To rise for me no more


The same volume includes an epitaph dedicated to himself. Perhaps the question I’m not yet sure how to answer—thinking is still in progress—is: what forms does proximity to (un)life and incarnation as (un)life produce? What kind of “wake work” inhabits the unending elegies of black poetry?

iii. incompletion

I turn, finally, inconclusively, to Georgia Douglas Johnson, another poet I’ve been trying to think with for many years.

“Wake work” is exhausting work—the work of lingering in the hold erodes emotional and cognitive capacities. One is left wondering if one can continue to see, to name, to inhabit, to think around the forms of unmaking termed banal life. Perhaps this comment describes the cognitive and affective failures I’m experiencing now, as I try (and fail) to describe wake work, understanding that failure as crucial to wake work, but lacking the frames and languages to offer more legible conceptual paths. Tangles abound.

But back to GDJ, and the final stanza of “Black Woman”:

Don’t knock at my heart, little one,
     I cannot bear the pain
Of turning deaf-ear to your call
     Time and time again!
You do not know the monster men
     Inhabiting the earth,
Be still, be still, my precious child,
     I must not give you birth!


We return to a multiple pain found in Rachel: the pain of turning away from an ethical call—ignoring one who is to be loved, who is to have been loved, and, here, tense is difficult; the pain of living in a world full of “monster men”; and the pain of knowing that every “precious child” must discover this monstrosity—that to be born into the world, to inhabit it, is to encounter monstrosity. That “wake work” is often an encounter with monstrosity, an attempt to navigate it, inhabit it, “make something” with and despite it.

The line “Time and time again” is truncated—5 syllables instead of 6. It speaks, eloquently, to the forms of truncated (un)life I have been trying to gesture toward. It exemplifies Saidiya Hartman’s argument that “black lives are still imperiled and devalued by a racial calculus and a political arithmetic that were entrenched centuries ago. This is the afterlife of slavery—skewed life chances, limited access to health and education, pre- mature death, incarceration, and impoverishment.” To be “in the wake” requires temporal negotiations—jumps, slips, breaks, slides. Ways to think in and against time’s arbitrary incursions. Ways of inhabiting short, brief, long, and other silences. The pauses and rips, the moments of unmaking—the “snap,” as Cullen has it.


[1] Here, a massive nod to Sarah Jane Cervenak’s work on “wandering,” which has made “radical waywardness” newly visible and useful.