On “Blackness and Nothingness”

We play puppets, we eat cheerios. As Frankie naps, I read Fred Moten’s “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” a “taking up” of Afropessimism through attention to the ideas of Frank B. Wilderson III and Jared Sexton. “I have thought long and hard, in the wake of their work,” writes Moten, “in a kind of echo of Bob Marley’s question, about whether blackness could be loved” (738). I think of my cousin, locked away all these years while the rest of us go free. Let us continue our correspondence. Unlike Fanon, from whom nonetheless all of these thinkers take their inspiration, Moten prefers “damnation” to “wretchedness,” as he prefers “life and optimism over death and pessimism” (738). Many of my communications have led to this, all the lotuses I’ve been eating, all the books I’ve been reading: “blackness is prior to ontology…it is ontology’s anti- and ante-foundation, ontology’s underground, the irreparable disturbance of ontology’s time and space” (739). Blackness means choosing to stay social. Or choosing, as Frank B. Wilderson said, “To stay in the hold of the ship.” Yet it somehow also means “avoidance of subjectivity” (743). So it is: let us “trace the visionary company and join it” (743).

The Labyrinth of Stuck Desire

Where something taken to be history takes the form of a world on fire, catalog of events adding up in tedious barrage, as in Billy Joel’s grim 1989 song “We Didn’t Start the Fire.” Joel grew up on Long Island, along the beaches, as did I. Beaches were closed the summer prior to the song’s release due to “Syringe Tides.” Hypodermics from Fresh Kills Landfill in New Jersey washed up along the shore — an event Joel cites in his litany. The fears stirred by the event were compounded by the era’s Reagan-administration-escalated AIDS crisis. The event filled me with concern — motivated the pen of my middle-school self to draw a political cartoon: a small surfer dwarfed by a wave of waste. Surfer stares glumly out the picture toward the viewer. And here I am now, most of my day spent grading student responses, thinking about it again, not just because of the Joel song, which appeared as the subject of a student’s response, but also because a colleague submitted for approval a course examining literary imaginings of the end of the world. The Jewish festival of Sukkot minds me to be grateful for my home, and all who help me to maintain it.

Upon a whim, I pick up and read from The Complete Poems of Emily Dickinson a poem selected at random, as in wherever my thumb happens to land, containing the lines:

Prayer is the little implement

Through which Men reach

Where Presence — is denied them.

They fling their Speech

By means of it — in God’s ear—

If then He hear

This sums the Apparatus

Comprised in Prayer—

“Why must longings be irreconcilable — why ‘Presence denied’?” I wonder afterwards.

“Why ask why? ‘Tis so,” sayeth the Fates in reply. Yet one can make of Fate a place one avoids, a spatiotemporal coordinate that one eludes like a fugitive. With Fred Moten, for instance, we can “consent not to be a single being.”

Thoreau’s Demand

Thoreau demands that the good person, the ethical subject, refuse complicity with evil. In so doing, he reveals the nature of the bind in which we find ourselves: none of us able, it seems, to meet his demand. That’s why we’re here, trapped in this labyrinth of stuck desire. Rather than there, where lovers go as lovers do, and none are bound.

“Do Things” (For Tess)

Frankie gravitates toward particular books of poetry, pulling from among a bookcase of several hundred the same ones these last few days: Joan Retallack’s How to Do Things With Words and a Penguin Classics reprint of the first edition of Walk Whitman’s Leaves of Grass. What can I say — the kid’s got great taste. She hands them to me, and the look in her eyes suggests I should read them, so I do. When I’ve taught Whitman in the past, I’ve used a different edition. Perhaps I should change it up. Celebrate that opening stanza of “Song of Myself” — but question its atomic physics. Though it’s as if Whitman knows of what becomes of and follows from his Manhattan and its projection in the next century. Yet he rejects it as mere talk:

“I have heard what the talkers were talking…the talk of the beginning and the end,

But I do not talk of the beginning or the end.

There was never any more inception than there is now,

Nor any more youth or age than there is now;

And will never be any more perfection than there is now,

Nor any more heaven or hell than there is now.”

My imprisoned cousin and I have begun an email correspondence. It is to him that I write the following:

Does write make right?

“Damned sure it does! / so one hopes”

seems inappropriate as a response.

So what is?

Gyres, Vortices

Adjusting to the work regime, hours clocked responding to emails, the subject muses upon what it means to be “COLLEGE RULED,” the phrase atop his notebook. One would rather dwell among gyres, vortices / brightly drawn in chalk. Gazing into one, I dream of fugitive study: texts read and discussed in the secret gatherings of an Undercommons. I read poems and hear them as they speak to me, their voices flitting about, “quick-winged / with women’s faces” (4), as in poet Alice Oswald’s Nobody. “It’s not all about you, Dad,” they say with a touch of vocal-fry (as do the rich college girls in Mike White’s HBO miniseries The White Lotus). “It’s time to recenter the narrative.”

What Kind of Monster Are You?

Self-fashioned life. No more a monster than Lovable, Furry Old Grover in The Monster at the End of This Book.

“Why should I be scared of you?” asks DC punk guitarist and vocalist Christina Billotte near the end of her band Slant 6’s song “What Kind of Monster Are You?”

Several more of the group’s songs turn up on the eternal mixtape soon thereafter.

“Ladybug Superfly.” “Babydoll.” “Partner in Crime.” “Don’t You Ever.”

Am I a victim of my own desires?

The lyrics to a song of theirs called “G.F.S.” stand out to me today, causing me suddenly to hear the song anew, its references to “stars going retrograde” and “recollection starting to fade” far stranger now than I ever knew them to be before.

The perfect guitar solo on “Time Expired” leaves me mulling my past in the hours afterwards, the song’s words forming a hieroglyph, echoing if not quite rhyming slant with the words on your necklace.

The Spread

Tarot: great modular graphic novel, arranged in a spread and read by super wise super cool Sacred Expanse rock-witch Michelle Mae. I’ve been a fan of hers since 1995, when I saw her band the Make-Up on a bill with Fugazi and Slant 6. Michelle has me set intentions. I share with her my questions for the cards — “What should I be open to? How do I make the best of the year ahead?” — and, upon her instruction, also voice them again silently, eyes closed. She pulls the spread: lays it out on a table, explaining that it can be read both linearly and holistically (i.e., taken as a whole). The two of us then proceed to do so as follows. She introduces the cards one by one, naming them, raising them into my field of vision one at a time, without my knowing at any given point until the end how many there are in total. “Some difficult cards,” she reports. “Two of them major arcana.” Michelle helps me make sense of what she admits with a laugh is a bit of a crazy spread. She sends me afterwards a sacred Tibetan meditation practice, urging me to approach it with utmost respect.

I am to visualize my demons sitting across from me.

I am to ask them what they desire, and I am to feed it to them.

By these means, the instructions suggest, we convert out shadow self into an ally. We become whole again, filled with a sense of power, compassion, and love.

The Session

Mind blown by the experience of seeing musician Michelle Mae’s group The Make-Up perform at Irving Plaza in the spring of 1995, the Narrator had kept up with Michelle’s bands over the years. Never, though, had he met Michelle in person. Life is like that sometimes, especially for those of us with rich fantasy lives. Rarely do we get to sit down one-on-one to converse with the heroes of our youth.

“But early last September,” notes the Narrator, “I did exactly that.”

Thanks to a most excellent gift from his friends, he had the pleasure of meeting with Michelle and working one-on-one with her on Zoom in her capacity as a tarot reader.

She appeared onscreen sitting at a table in her home in Tucson. “I remember noting in the room behind her,” notes the Narrator, “a handcrafted besom leaned upright against a gray stone hearth.”

“There were some difficult cards in my spread,” confessed the Narrator to his friends in the days that followed. “But Michelle is super wise, super cool. She helped me see what the cards might be trying to teach me.”

News from Tucson

There came a time in the Narrator’s life when the best thing he could think to do was to seek the help of a tarot reader.

And sure enough, he was confronted soon thereafter with a way to do so. The opportunity presented itself, he recalls now in retrospect, at a backyard barbecue one afternoon last summer. “I was there chatting with my friend Saylor,” says the Narrator. “The latter, newly returned from the desert, leaned in and shared some exciting news with me.”

“You’ll appreciate this,” said Saylor with a grin. In the course of his summering in Tucson, he explained, he’d begun to hang with tarot reader Michelle Mae.

“Saylor had good reason to assume I’d be wowed by this news,” adds the Narrator, “as indeed I was, for as I’d confided to him in the past, I’m a longtime fan of Michelle’s band The Make-Up.”

So much so, in fact, that when asked to name the best rock concert of his life, the Narrator always refers to a Make-Up show — one he caught in high school. Make-Up shared a bill with two of their Dischord Records labelmates, fellow DC punk superstars Slant 6 and Fugazi. “What a night,” says the Narrator, recalling the show proudly now in hindsight. “Seminal. Life-altering. I was sixteen years old at the time. The Make-Up were a new band, so I hadn’t heard of them prior to that evening — but I liked and admired frontman Ian Svenonius’s former band Nation of Ulysses. As for the other acts on the bill, Fugazi and Slant 6 were as good as gods to me in those days. All of it blew my mind.”