Tiffany Austin, Sequoia Maner, Emily Ruth Rutter, darlene anita scott (eds.)
Revisiting the Elegy in the Black Lives Matter Era
Routledge Press, 2020
Reviewed by Xuan An Ho
Not melancholia but mourning is the unique offering of this book. Melancholia, in Freudian terms, is a feeling of perpetual, pathological grief, whereas mourning is the act of grieving to understand loss and become free. It is work, and in the specific case of Black mourning, it is what Christina Sharpe calls “wake work”: a way to “defend the dead,” to make Black lives and grief matter (2016). As the book’s editors write, “this collection’s interview, essays, poems, and additional resources elucidate how mourning feeds our political awareness in this dystopian time, as black writers attempt to see, hear, and say something to the bodies of the dead as well as to living readers.” While the desire to speak to the dead is no uncommon animator in many artforms, in the Black elegy, the address to the living combined with the political context of the death make the critical difference. The very decision to invoke in the title Black Lives Matter, our contemporary’s largest anti-racist movement, clarifies not only the historical framework of the book but also that these elegies are not about death at the hands of time but at the chokehold of the state. Furthermore, while the form of the address (apostrophe) as critical to the lyric has been thoroughly established, the writers in the collection hope to not only speak to the audience (dead or alive) but to see and hear them, suggesting the desire for dialogue, sociality, and—is it possible?—solidarity.
Against traditional understandings of the elegy as a lyric suggested by death and whose lament “finds consolation in the contemplation of some permanent principle,” the contributors of this collection prioritize other affects and actions. “Contemporary elegies carve out a public space for black grief,” write the editors, “while decidedly resisting the turn toward consolation that often characterizes the poetic form.” The implications of the rejection of closure and the commitment to openness are the subjects of the following pieces.
Divided into three parts, each mixing poetry with criticism, this collection makes a lucid case for further study of the elegy. The first section, “Elegiac Reconfigurations,” begins with poems by Tony Medina, followed by those of Angela Jackson-Brown, Anne Lovering Rounds, and Jerry Wemple. In Medina’s “From the Crushed Voice Box of Freddie Gray,” the poetic persona from the grave declares, “I am the Magic Negro / The Black Houdini / Who done it / Done it to him self.” The ironic voice satirizes how the media transforms victims of police brutality into criminals who “brought this upon themselves,” and shows how the Black elegy is constantly in conversation with and against national narratives of Black death. The section ends with essays, including Laura Vrana’s “Denormativizing Elegy: Historical and Transnational Journeying in the Black Lives Matter Poetics of Patricia Smith, Aja Monet, and Shane McCrae,” which explores how Black artists reconstitute the elegy in ways that defy hegemonic definitions of identity and belonging, and imagine a future in which the elegy might be less necessary. Vrana’s contributions have similarities with J. Peter Moore’s “‘in terrible fruitfulness’: Arthur Jafa’s Love is the Message, the Message is Death and the Not-Lost Southern Accent.” Moore’s beautiful prose, arguably as poetic as some of the verses in the collection, has hints of one of his theoretical inspirations, Fred Moten. Moore borrows from Moten to claim: “Elegy is black aberrant dwelling on spectacular display. Elegy is the articulation of the alienated who refuse the terms of their alienation and practice that refusal by remaining open to the contingency of improvisational commitment.”
The second section, “Hauntings and Reckonings,” features writings that “take an expansive view of ‘state violence,’ attending to elegiac responses to police shootings of unarmed black men, women, and children, alongside slower but no less pernicious forms of violence such as environmental racism and systemic neglect by the medical industry.” Danielle Legros Georges’s perceptive ‘‘Poem of History’’ emphasizes the institution of the University as a force of state violence, turning the “ivory tower” into a “dark flower. A guarding of history.” darlene anita scott’s crown of sonnets also takes a long view of white supremacy and its wreckage. Looking deep into the debris, Sequoia Maner extends Jahan Ramazani’s characterization of the Black elegy as “denying transcendence to seek further immersion in loss such that ‘modern elegy resembles not so much a suture but ‘an open wound.’” For Patricia Smith, the poet at the heart of this essay, “this open wound necessitates neither stitching nor cauterizing but, instead, the conjuration of a darker magic.” Rather than consolation, Maner and Smith are interested in summoning the spirits of the murdered to trespass into the land of the living; in other words, they see the Black elegy not as the language of comfort but as a way to disturb the peace.
The third section, “Elegists as Activists,” concludes the collection with a rigorous contemplation on the interrelation between art and activism. In an essay that captures the ethos of the section, Licia Morrow Hendriks argues, “The contemporary protest elegy, emblematized by Smith and descended from [Countee] Cullen, performs the transformative cultural work of raising consciousness and defining a generational agenda.” Whereas James Baldwin once discussed the “protest novel,” Hendriks investigates the “protest elegy,” and finds inspiration in Tracy K. Smith, who writes: “love is a language / Few practice, but all, or near all speak” (from “Unrest in Baton Rouge”). The desire for love to transform, to weld together practice and theory is clear. However, as Brother Yao, borrowing a line from Kendrick Lamar, says later in this section, “…Poetry my Love. / Loving you is complicated.” The collection as a whole refutes easy answers to the complexities of loving Blackness/loving poetry, and instead dwells in constant openness, creating a space for another to step in and speak. On the topic of conversation, it’s no coincidence that the final section ends with an interview between Sequoia Maner and Black Poets Speak Out co-founder Amanda Johnston; and beyond the final section, the book offers prompts for discussion as well as an appendix of elegiac works. These additional resources along with the book’s website are further examples of the contributors’ commitments to the pedagogical and, certainly, activist desires of the project.
The last pages, however, are not the true ending of the book. For that, we must return to the beginning—the Preface, which itself is an elegy to the late Tiffany Austin who died of medical complications in 2018. Emily Ruth Rutter meditates on Austin’s question, “Where will all that beauty go?” (readers may recognize the influence of James Baldwin’s 1963 collection The Fire Next Time). This statement is at once a query about the future of Black youth and an urgent reminder to defend those close to death. Where Revisiting the Elegy left off, many will want to continue the work to ensure that all that beauty is not lost.