Wednesday, May 27, 2009

The making of a poet

the making of a poet
for amiri baraka at 70
the rocky mountain’s gateway yawned on a land rich in
lumber & hardworking white folks. i am sure they heard me
coming, the blue green streams, rich with yellow perch,
cutthroat trout, awaited the angler years before becoming
inflamed by contact with sewage, pcbs, lead, arsenic, zinc,
& cadmium. & the mountain trails carved by the civilian
conservation corps called out to the hiker, & the lakes in the
area out-numbered only by the coniferous trees growing
large & tall in the mountain sun – sang to the outdoors
lover. the problem was, i couldn’t hear them. i didn’t fish, i
hated hiking, & if the truth were told, i didn’t even like the

i came to spokane from the soon to be murder capital of the
country to play manhood making basketball & in the
process, go to college. i was a writer-in-the-making with
nothing much to write about. a chance encounter with an
image in a freshman english class – an andrew marvell carpe
diem enclosed a few lines i’d never heard, but made to me
exquisite sense; that
“worms shall try that long preserv'd virginity/yr
quaint honor turn to dust, / & into ashes all my
i knew what the poet was talking about; up thrust my puerile
wishes into the womb of his verse dead three hundred years.
my eyes were opened wide. i saw & scried coition in every
man-wrought poem: in ejaculating bullets; in the prow of a
boat riding on the tide, moving in & out of the narrow
harbor slip; & in the pollinating power of a dripping
hummingbird’s bill.

i thought i was ready to write, but alas & (literally) alack, i
had to get laid first. 18 yrs old & still a virgin, i could not
unlock the lusty verse swelling up taut in my soul; if wishes
were horses then even virgin boys could … write.

i wanted to write; i really & truly did, but could not. there
was basketball to play; there was school & there was the
learn-as-u-go-like-yr-life-depended-on-it oh jay tee of the
seduction frustration/ humiliation/triumph/jealousy/heartbreak/
dejection dance.

there was, too, the modern day circa 1967 artemisia
absinthum, the elixirs of poets cross-dressing in cans of
coors beer & bottles of loganberry, white port & ripple
wine, one dollar joints & ten dollar lids, orange barrels,
peyote buttons & blotter paper acid inspiring choric
cassandra-crying siren songs of addiction & future recovery
“cry o mother, father, family cry, lend me ten
thousand eyes & i will fill them with prophetic
i wanted to write; i really & truly did, but could not. there
was basketball to play; wine, women, bawdy song & …
marriage. there was adversarial blackness walking about,
seeking whom he might devour. i got bit; gnawed &
chawed, masticated & swallowed & spit back up; renewed.

u came to me then, my teacher, my lyrical mentor, in the
rustling of pages & images in a volume of poems & a book
of plays. when the student is ready, the master surely

i was ready! lying semi-comatose in an apartment above a
tavern, musically awash in monk’s “epistrophe,” (originally
named ‘fly right” & then “iambic pentameter”) playing over
& over again on the phonograph (his percussive quarter
tones hammering in the dissonance of a souring
modernism), i held in my hands a borrowed volume – yr
book of poems, “a preface to a twenty volume suicide
note.” i struggled with each of yr words as they fought to
focus in my blurry eyes, in my inebriated brain.

the rising sun (a voyeur looking in on the dead soldiers who
had spewed forth liquid pleasure/punishment from their
glassy bellies, the roach-filled ash trays, the empty bags of
potato chips & the sleeping couples in various stages of
undress reduced & fractured into abstract, geometric
structures – a set of discrete planes intersecting, in which
successive outcomes end the same again & again,
mimicking the angry, despairing & repetitive pain in yr
poetic lines) bore witness to the birth of insight. & in yr
flagship poem, i heard u:
lately, i've become accustomed to the way
the ground opens up & envelopes me
each time i go out to walk the dog.
or the broad edged silly music the wind
makes when i run for a bus...
the geography of my life then was littered with barrows &
barrowwights & i was routinely swallowed up by any &
everything new. the only dogs i chose to walk, rufus thomas
notwith-standing, were a ferocious new black persona that
kept slipping off its chain & a tentative sexual identity afraid
of being unleashed.

i found myself in yr proverbial “toilet” – not the battered &
bloodied karolis or the conflicted ray foots, but looking out
through the eyes of the gang of boys who turned their backs
on the audience to pee: who pulled on their whatchama--
callits; who beat up karolis because he was gay;because
they knew of no other way to love him.

yr verse taunted & tortured me like a prison guard; i thought
i had no other choice than to be like u; to write like u. i
devoured everything u wrote. u were the target at which i
arrow-aimed myself; yr verse the model for my own. u were
the horned god, the loa, the òrìşà who circumscribed the
sacred & purified space where all writes, magic & otherwise
were fashioned & crafted.

u were my initiator, leading me to & past each warden’s
station, beat/bohemianism in the south, cultural nationalism
in the east, scientific socialism in the west, post-modernism
& beyond in the dark & dreary north. u showed me in
“dutchman,” like yr hapless clay, how to relieve my
insanity, assert my blackness through the blunt force trauma
of narrative; how to make my poems projectiles & bullets.

offering up yr own life as a passion play, an initiation
drama, u showed me – not unlike the christian’s sacred
cannibalism – how ideated murder could be sanctified, even
sacramental; how redemption might be found in the
passionate slaying of fundamentalism, romanticism, self-hatred
& progressive myopia.

u taught me the futility of ideology & the ascendancy of
change; that human beings can change & change their
minds; that black was merely a color not a cultural absolute
& all manner of siblings can be found in the human family;
& that self transcendence, though a choice, was the rule not
the exception in the cosmic plan.

u taught me to stretch the outer boundaries of all the curves
that describe convention & made me write through my
personal pain until i broke through, cleansed & tempered on
the other side. u bade me lay down with my anima &
perform the great rite, my hieros gamos, where i plunged
my throbbing knifepoem into a chalice of wine & my
lifepoem took shape in that sacred, life-changing moment.

thank u, amiri, for my poetic life. though i walk through the
valleys & the shadows of my own path, u have given me &
others like me the baraka. yr tariqa, the entire ritual system
of yr verse lives on in me & my like; will be passed down
through the sisillah, through the great chain of scintillating
poetic figures that comprise yr spirit & yr grace.

Joseph McNair; 2009

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