“Are you beginning to feel that bleeding could be reciprocal?” Harmony Holiday (2017)
The poet and cultural theorist, Fred Moten, has devoted many years to developing a black aesthetics promoting “improvization” as the conceptual framework of black Art. Beyond aesthetics and philosophy, Moten has attempted to integrate Art and radical politics relative to the black diaspora. Moten’s subjects belong to a tradition of black avant garde work and black cultural nationalism, including, but not limited to, the overt anger reflected in the Black Arts Movement of the 1960s (e.g., Sonia Sanchez, Amiri Baraka, Nikki Giovanni). In his 2003 book, In The Break, Moten adopts an epistemological perspective to investigate the relationships between radical black critique, lyrics, and performance. An academic and scholar, Moten’s analysis draws upon semiotics, deconstruction, critical theory, radical history, and psychoanalysis in order to demonstrate the fundamental import of improvization to black aesthetics and Art. An extension of Moten’s ideas is the notion that black politics and black aesthetics are united in service to self-determination and freedom from oppression.
Harmony Holiday’s poetry glorifies improvization as a mechanism for coping with pain. Her writing is often raw and depressing, as if her craft is a method of expiation and therapy. Holiday’s work can be placed in an avant garde genre of radical publishing whereby innovation (“improvization”) represents a personal good or a good in itself. Unlike Moten’s agenda, however, Holiday’s improvization seems cloistered, personal, and anti-intellectual rather than social and political. Holiday is sharing her demons, as shown most clearly in her 2011 book, Negro League Baseball (Motherwell Press). The daughter of jazz great, Jimmy Holiday, the poet’s words verge on randomness, as if reality is almost too painful to face (“…The tenuous scent of/one lit on purpose is different than that of one that senses some superfluous earth then, hurry up and light.”; “My father was Jimmy, dad/was weeping so frankly it came like gazing had”; “And every time I fall in love, what television, another obituary, I am three, trying to tell psychology about/psychology….”). Negro League Baseball seems to scream that the world doesn’t make sense, that it is chaotic. There is lots of babbling—baby-talk, perhaps; each poem seems like a crie de coeur—somewhat crazed though not completely out of linguistic control (“The things we know are rigged giddy, pornographic/the already things—jigjig, slow-slow/”; “Then one disappears in the forward and we have become somebody—“). The 2011 collection reveals the poet’s experience; life is improvized like jazz…like her late, haunting father’s chosen way of being.
Holiday’s new book, Hollywood Forever, is a compilation of text art—language superimposed upon text in the form of racist posters derived, apparently, from the 1940s as well as upon photographs of various known and unknown figures from black entertainment and political domains. Again, jazz features prominently in this collection, though this book links the personal, social, and political in more overt ways than in the 2011 volume—signs of nascent insight (“I’ve come here to lash out/I’ve come to reclaim my tenderness”; “There is this ambivalence that I must deal with/How do I deal with it—how?”; “I begged you/to come in/the costume/of a dead/American hero”). Some of the first poems in Hollywood Forever seem to bear a spiritual mien, as if to say that sinning is a way to receive grace—but, for whom (“Here’s this unidentified, but/identifiable for some, black/man, walking out of a dingy,/ominously lenient jail cell, his/suit covered in blood, head/bandaged, eyes downcast in/arrogance before shame…”; “We hit the pitched Iowa road like convicts in his landless motor saw a white god in/Texas and black one in shackles and we still woke up in Los Angeles the choked/up mecca of our carbon black masks this fame that ass etcetera”)?
Hollywood Forever is a pastiche of fragments, prose, prose poems, and what one would conventionally term, “poems.” The book classifies as radical publishing because it is a performative, oppositional act (“Forensics outside of Miles Davis’ jail cell”). The text art design is potentially effective as a radical statement of novel black art; however, of the approximately 78 pieces in the volume, at least 22 are printed in a virtually illegible manner, detracting from the potentially powerful effect of the collection. Nonetheless, Holiday’s new book demonstrates a maturity missing from Negro League Baseball. In 2017, the poet takes her place as a citizen of the United States commenting as a member of a marginalized race though her “voice” remains emotionally wounded and relatively flat intellectually with a nascent sense of agency. Harmony Holiday has received recognition for her novel treatment of themes and for her unique linguistic formulations. Reading this poet’s work is an entry into a psychological discourse of one damaged young woman to herself and, tentatively, to her readers. I have never read anything quite like these writings that are recommended as gateways into one very interesting mind.
Bio: Clara B. Jones practices poetry in Silver Spring, MD (USA). As a woman of color, she writes about the Arts, Sciences, Technology, and the Environment and conducts research on experimental poetry, as well as, radical publishing. Clara is author of four chapbooks, and her poetry, reviews, essays, and interviews have appeared or are forthcoming in various venues.