Work This Thing
Jul 15, 2015
12 Min read time
Two new books by Fred Moten
Tintype by Kari Orvik
When something or someone is “in the wind,” it is fugitive, on the run. Poetry, by virtue of its adaptive vocality, the thrift of its economic footprint, is suited to being in the wind. But how does a poet turn that wind into a whirlwind, a revolutionary vortex? In many ways, Fred Moten’s work is devoted to fugitivity. The stance of his poems is grassroots revolutionary: undoing, by means of the everyday, the super-powerful default settings of a corporatized world and thereby reopening the case for what the work of poetry might look and feel like. His new books, The Feel Trio (a 2014 National Book Award finalist) and this year’s The Little Edges, demonstrate, as little else I’ve read recently, poetry’s capacity to conduct the energy of a whirlwind and to propel us into a new understanding of our social and poetic resources. How to work them, how to find their power. This kind of collectivity is not totalizing but decidedly partial: composed of the things to which we are partial and embracing the incompleteness inherent in our humanness.
To start with the obvious, The Feel Trio is a book in three parts and a book about parts. That does mean piano, bass, and drums (the trio Moten acknowledges: Cecil Taylor, William Parker, and Tony Oxley). But it can also mean maybe you’re not from these parts, so you might have to listen for a while before you get enough of a handle on it to take it with you. In fact, Moten’s work seems to claim a place for composition as listening, the way a musical improvisation engulfs and builds upon its own sounds. As a reader, you might find yourself tripping (in both senses) on the reverb of a phrase even after the music of the line has carried you elsewhere.
This is where “Block Chapel,” the first section of The Feel Trio, begins:
whenever I listen to cornelius I think of cecily
then fry then house then read the blacks with
In the “whenever” of repeated listening, the ability to explain what you hear can be a way of saying who and where you are, who is with you, and what shape your world is in. It can be the mark of an unfolding relation. This intimate gesture of tracking a perception is one way of accounting for the feeling of a thought. It closes the semantic gap between intellection and somatic experience. Listen to where Moten’s verbs go: “I listen . . . I think . . . then fry then house then read.” In the momentum of this sequence you can feel the changes: how one thing leads to—or springs from—another. Nouns (such as “house”) are animated or bent toward action. Other people (Cornelius, Cecily, philosopher Peter Pál Pelbart) are parts of these actions. The poem continues:
but sometimes it gets deep in the hold
and the cell’s hard pleasure curls up in the water.
so I sail the dark river in the mind by rocket ship
(my high water everywhere is outer space, alabama)
and stay alive in the concept with an outbound feeling
of refuge, I’ma run, I’mo run, I’m gon’ run to the city
of refuse, in russell’s anarchy, for angola, by soas.
then bright dennis morris take my baby picture
and I’m risen in the balmed-out underground.
I get preoccupied with the tonal situation. I got
to kiss somebody to end up in the original. it’s like
that outside drama is our knowledge of the world
and nobody claims it but us. we get it twisted
in the diagram. we know the score. we got a plan.
Fugitivity, refuge, and refuse: within a few lines the poem has moved from slave ship to mother ship, from hold to cell, traversing a deep history of transatlantic captivity and intergalactic flight. In that trajectory, I hear Sun Ra’s imprisonment in Alabama as a conscientious objector and his Afrofuturist tuning to an elsewhere brought to earth by his music. I hear the literal and figurative hurricanes of Kamau Brathwaite’s History of the Voice (1984), and I hear Katrina as a felt presence: a high-water low point in this country’s ongoing histories of race- and class-based neglect and straight-up state violence. There is running with and running from and running to here. There’s a twist, there’s a balm, there’s a kiss. The passage is at once a riff and a demonstration of know-how, survival, and informed resistance: “we know the score. we got a plan.” Where a reader anticipates pressure, she finds pleasure. In the compressed proximity of bodies in the block, chapel, hold, rocket ship is the transformative power of an underground.
Moten demonstrates poetry's capacity to conduct the energy of a whirlwind.
Moten’s book of essays written in collaboration with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), available both in print and as a free download, explores and theorizes these lived spaces as sites of ongoing study, where black culture remains both emergent and relentlessly under threat of disappearing into an assimilationist white hole. In The Undercommons as in the poems, Moten dismantles the poetics of witness. In place of the familiar formula—the presentation of what you believe because you have seen it—Moten offers the recognition of what you know because you feel it:
This feel is the hold that lets go (let’s go) again and again to dispossess us of ability, fill us with need, give us ability to fill need, this feel.
To feel is to make of understanding an embodied experience. When you have a feel for something, you get it. To feel need is human. When I feel you, you know I’m with you. And when you feel me, I feel that too. To do something real, you need to feel it. And that need means knowing that not-having-something is a way of having-something-else. The poem is not about answering need but valuing it, making it visible. This is one kind of “feel” in Moten, in motion, in the Trio. This is one turn of its revolution.
Parts of The Feel Trio are all over the page, and its structural arc is long, so it is difficult to capture its movement. The formatting varies in subtle ways—shifting between single-space and space-and-a-half within a prose block, for instance—that make one conscious of how much of literary form has been surrendered to globalizing software commands. Moten’s delays and repetitions may generate turbulence, but they possess a powerful and sustained coherence. The Little Edges takes a slightly different shape than The Feel Trio, though it is recognizably part of the same conversation:
Salim asked me what I liked about Cecil and I couldn’t say. So now let me say something about what I want from Cecil’s music or about the way that music tells me what I want. Can I get to that or do I need to get over that or are these motions of getting to and getting over connected, as in the second instance? . . . The incalculable
combination of extravagance and thrift,
Referencing another’s art is not just the eminent domain of modernist cryptography; it is how we build meaning, a process and experience caught up with desire: “music tells me what I want.” Citation and theft are part of the expression of shared space, the “speech secrecy” of how we communicate under duress and in the idiolectical patterns of love.
Moten places these thefts next to the transport of stolen bodies across the Middle Passage, where desiring subjects become things in an ongoing history that includes current practices of imprisonment and policing. Moten undoes this objectification by freeing up the multiple agencies a poem can hold. Agitate the line between aesthetics and politics to feel how Moten’s work turns between moments of surveillance and action. Watching, walking, being looked at, touching, and listening tumble forward in quick succession:
Our clearing is patrolled as a series of air, spirals in conjunction made by pointed
running. It was affirmation
where we learned how to talk by walking pointedly, to organize air offstride by tapping,
like a lion. My touch,
my mouth all fixed to say these words, my listening in winter, my mirror glancing. Big-
eyed cartoon, all this in
there as an audible surface that my eye wants to help you think about as you feel me.
Feel me? That’s why I
always ask you if you feel me. Because I know you feel me. I ask you if you feel me
because I know you feel me.
The patrolling of urban spaces and the policing of people of color are a big part of the feel of America. In the poem, what we know from the way a body’s movement organizes the air pointedly moves between sight, sound, and feeling into an implied conversation that insists on reciprocity, shared knowledge, touch.
So as not to marginalize those we love, we do our work in the little edges around them, and when we’ve worked all day, the little edges are where we find their love. We are here to “work this thing, because it is our pleasure.” Picture the work of the poem as a radical refusal of monetization. An elaborate undoing, whereby even the slave trade’s “atlantic underbridge” is re-marked by a connectedness that outlasts its rupture, that is capable of realignment.
Another alignment of questions and I could be having a coke with you. I could be riding
around with you, like
elements in an open field, spinning in ourselves till our supports collapse into a choir.
What “could be” is Moten “riding around” in Robert Duncan’s “open field” or “having a coke” with Frank O’Hara, two poets whose work built on affinities and differences in ways that are not unlike Moten’s own calling out of friendships, relations, alignments, emergencies. It is only when our supports (ideological, aesthetic, economic, or otherwise) collapse that they form a choir. “Free your mind,” George Clinton proposed, “and your ass will follow.” Paradoxically, when we let go, when we give it up, we find powers of resistance. We get art we can feel. Being here now begins with relinquishing the presupposed perfection of art.
Poetic form—like the form of the body—is not immutable; it is in motion. It cannot be divided into positive and negative space, as if it were a still life. And it cannot be reduced to a rhetorical gesture. In “Gramsci Monument” a line of critique and assertion evades binary opposition as it is shaped by the conditional:
if the projects become a project from outside
then the projects been a project forever. held
in the projects we the project they stole. we steal
the project back and try to give it back to them.
come on, come get some of this project.
Welcome to the “if” of urban development. In these lines, you can hear the way public housing as a social project embodies what could have been but isn’t. But it would be too easy to read failure in such projects without recognizing the value of the culture they produce—a culture generated by physical proximity and constraint. This poem’s field of meaning stretches from Marxist philosopher and activist Antonio Gramsci to the participatory sculpture titled Gramsci Monument by Swiss artist Thomas Hirschhorn, installed in 2013 at the Forest Houses project in the South Bronx. In the troubled domain between gift and theft, “you” and “we,” this later poem recalls The Feel Trio’s “Block Chapel”:
welcome to what we took from is the state.
welcome to kill you, bird. the welcome state
and its hurt world, where you been lost and tied,
bird . . .
sing a shattered self is just a shelf, young captain
sea? you perfectly welcome to what we give away.
Who and how we are—by what means our multiplicity constitutes a unity—are open questions that Moten doesn’t answer but opens further. A “we” may be at once resistant to and implicated in actions done by groups of which it is a part without having the agency to drive those actions (as, say, people disenfranchised by the state nevertheless share a national identity with those in whom its power is concentrated):
shit away to hurt people and build poor shelters that move and
The Feel Trio’s final serial poem—“I was running but I was still in it”—ends with a passage that, like the book’s opening poem, announces an arrival and a sign-off, caught in a torrent that is both virtual and analog, Katrina and outer space, multinational satellite and Afrofuturist transport:
I am foment. I speak blinglish. at work they call me
but I don’t come. I come when she call me by my
rightful name. I come to myself from far away just
laid back in the open. I ran from it and was still in it.
it’s a blue division on my goodbye window. I’m full
of outer space. I’m free as dred all night. I get clung
with a voice that gets held back by surge protection.
I’m daddy I come when he crazy he call me I’m crazy.
I come when he call me once upon a time in arkansas.
when the water come I come to the unprotected surge
and division in my old-new sound booth. I am fmoten.
What does it feel like to try to outrun something so large, so powerful, that even the U.S. government looks away? The last word of The Feel Trio is “fmoten,” the tag of the poet exiting electronically, stage right. He is pointing to a data body, to what is in a name. In moten, in motion, fmoten seems verboten, fomenting, what is the past tense of smote, and just a step away from mofo. These poems include all of it: divine disorder, sex, a demonstration of the deep intelligence with which a body can move in the world. They include so-called curse words, but curses have always been connected with poetry’s magic—and poetry, real poetry, insists on expanding its own event horizon. It insists nothing is verboten, insists the body is also its domain, the improper, the little edges that come undone. It’s here now, and it’s f’n in motion.
The music is on and the door is open. You don’t get more of an invitation than that. Get on up, and get on with it. Get up offa that thing.
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July 15, 2015
12 Min read time