Locating Dislocation

There is a problem with contemporary poetry, a problem that intrinsically stems from the issue of bewilderment. Poets and humans in general, don’t just feel lost, but disconnected from the world by being fractured in time and space. I understand and can relate to the idea of bewilderment, or the status that is prevalent in contemporary, (some would say post-modern) poetry, of being in relation to awareness of the Other. This quest is a vicious cycle. Searching for what cannot be found through words or even reality leads to confusion and the debasement of poetry itself. I believe that poetry needs a mast, one which will inherently guide the boat of the mind by the winds of emotion and thought. This is in contrast to the trend of scattered bursts of a faulty mechanical propeller. Poetry can be natural without having to be confined to the constraints of nature.

Poetry is inherently personal. This is even if the poem is detached, even if the voice is third-person omnipresent. The problem of being everywhere and every-when at once is one that Fanny Howe analyzes in her poetic and philosophical essay entitled Bewilderment. In introducing her poetics to the reader, Howe begins to explain how the characters in her fiction make her feel, as beings completely apart from her own construct and mind. Howe relates this concept to her poetry as well, and claims that the relation correlates in that she has to confront the same problem in expressing her thoughts on reality through the words she writes on the page. “I would have to say that something like the wave and the particle theories troubled the poetics of my pages: how can two people be in two places simultaneously and is there any relationship between imagination and character?” Howe reconciles this problem for herself by ending her essay with an oxymoron exclaiming that art is supposed to prove that life is worth living by expressing that it isn’t. Fanny Howe’s quest ends in a full, bloody circle.

However, poetry doesn’t have to be cyclical in order for it to stretch the limitations of conventional thought. Writing is an interpretation of life. And even though life in the 21st century is fragmentary and deterritorialized by the digitalization of even the most mundane aspects of life, (think checking your smartphone for the weather before going outside instead of looking at an analog thermometer, or even physically going outdoors to feel the temperature) the poet mustn’t succumb to the current poetic trend of expressing their perception of the world through detached mechanical incoherence. Yes, using technology may seem more accurate, and reporting on different perspectives of characters is difficult when not being able to convey multiple existences simultaneously, but attempting to express the ontologically inexpressible too often results in contradiction, and ultimately nihilism. This is what Fanny Howe does in Bewilderment.

Gabrielle Calvocoressi approaches bewilderment differently in her poem, Late Twentieth Century in the Form of Litany. This poet confronts the fragmentation of expression in a seemingly cyclical sense, because of her repetition of “I thought I heard voices.” Calvocoressi even ends her poem with the line “Over and Over I thought I heard voices”, which could be construed as a form of admission to mechanical detachment. And yet there is a clear progression in this litany that leads the reader from thinking about the character’s possible auditory hallucinations to knowing the voice’s source when the poet breaks from repetition. “Mother took all the pills and I looked at the clock.” Through this line alone, Calvocoressi locates the source of bewilderment.

Poetry, History, and Prophecy

Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.
Lamont Steptoe’s work has been featured in dozens of anthologies, including The Oxford Anthology of African American Poetry.

(This article originally appeared in The Gleaner.)

“They now call this place out if its name / After one of their own who trafficked in human flesh”

Philadelphia’s Congo Square lies a block away from the most historic building in America, Independence Hall, where the Founding Fathers boldly began their rebellion against the British Empire. The park, more commonly known as Washington Square, is advertised as a somber burial ground for Revolutionary War soldiers, Continental and British alike. However, thousands more buried in the square remain overlooked, including slaves, free blacks, Catholics, and victims of various epidemics. The Tomb of the Unknown Revolutionary War Soldier, the centerpiece monument of the park, marginalizes the unmarked graves of the oppressed by barely mentioning their presence underneath. This is in spite of the fact that the square had been a “stranger’s burial ground” (and consequently a gathering place for what Steptoe affectionately calls saltwater Africans) for almost a century before the Revolutionary War began. Through “Meditations in Congo Square” American Book Award Winner and Pew Fellow poet, Lamont B. Steptoe, undertakes the daunting task of providing a voice for disregarded human beings buried in the dregs of American history.

Steptoe’s poetry uses meditation and spiritual creativity in order to shed light on the everyday life of not only his African ancestors, but also everyone else buried in Congo Square, including, “…the hearts brains and bones [of soldiers]…” and “the corpses felled by plague.” The underworld of Philadelphia’s hidden history comes alive from the very first line of Steptoe’s book, when he proclaims, “I dance with the ghosts of Congo Square / Meet and marry what isn’t there.” Readers come to understand that writing Meditations in Congo Square was no mere pet project for Steptoe, as the poet mentions in the book’s introduction that his three days a week meditation schedule on the burial ground lasted for a period of five years. Each poem in the collection conveys the poet’s psychological descent into an otherworldly realm, while managing to guide the reader along with him much like Virgil did for Dante in Inferno. Throughout the book the poet digs deeper and deeper into the square’s sacred grounds until his voice ultimately becomes one with the departed, culminating with the collection’s final poem, Untold Stories, in which Steptoe calls for the whispers of the forgotten dead to be “…loud enough to enter history’s ears!”

Reading Meditations in Congo Square is not a front to back cover endeavor, as many of the poems in this short book can easily stand on their own. This is because Steptoe’s “Meditations…” functions not only as a testament to colonial people’s history, but also often as a warning against war and oppression in the present and the future.

Steptoe’s ability to translate the humdrum of an average day into existential prophecy is frankly impressive, “…we are snowflakes falling on a / summer day vanishing in air while the unborn await their turn / to imagine our lives we are empty vessels dreaming of fullness.” In another poem Steptoe muses that when he was young he never would have thought the subject of weather would be a topic of conversation for him, let alone a metaphor for the transcendence of physical to spiritual. In this respect, Steptoe refers to the path of tropical storms originating in West Africa and crossing the Atlantic, the same route that saltwater Africans were forced to take. In No Name Worthy to Claim Steptoe speaks for a dead African joyous of being able to journey back home across the Atlantic, “I rushed across waves and plowed through storms / I entered the tabernacle of my youth.” Altogether, Steptoe’s Meditations… focuses on balancing historical and contemporary forms of life and death in Congo Square, and his unique method of meditative writing transforms the mundane into something spectacular.

(Steptoe recently read on campus in support of Rutgers Camden professor Ewuare Osayande’s anthology Stand Our Ground and stated that it is important for Meditations in Congo Square to be made available everywhere. The book is currently on sale at La Unique bookstore on 6th and Market in Camden, and the Penn Book Center on 34th and Sansom in Philadelphia.)

Fluid Interrupted

The Delaware is green

except where she

meets Camden

at the site of a

demolished prison.

The muddy swirls at her banks-

clouds inside water,

each hurricane of dirt

chaotically aligned by

the many strings which

thread the fabric of this river.

Little umber hurricanes violating

otherwise solid green movement.

Above which stands a fence

crowned in razor wire.

Securing us from ghosts

of prisoners.

Around us stands a fence

crowned in razor wire.

The only monument left

on an empty lot.

Inside us stands a fence

crowned in razor wire.

A phantom testament situated

on a barely populated urban peninsula.

We are a fence crowned in razor wire.

The muddy swirls are the tears of christ himself.

Fucked Up

Etheridge Knight’s poem

Lord I’m gone I left myself I’ve packed up

and split and I with no way to make me

come back and nowhere the world is full

faded fallen black     coal dirt darkens

whiskey death dead dying and diving down to

the next bar taking myself away stealing

my own smiles and laughter and solitary

computer screen derived midnight sighs-

 

Fuck Cobain and music and cars

drifting in the street and buildings

and rats and dogs and cats and

all the animals that roam the city

fuck cohn-bendit and focault fuck chomsky

fuck assange and anonymous fuck technocracy

fuck alcohol and wet fuck pills fuck molly

fuck obama and boehner and paul fuck

the internet and the digital revolution

fuck the whole muthafuckin thing

all i want now is myself back

so reality can sing