To Float in the Space Between: A Life and Work in Conversation with the Life and Work of Etheridge Knight.

By Terrance Hayes

Seattle Wave Books | 2018

Reviewed by Jerry Ward

terrance hayes

From the "Acknowledgments" of this book on page 205 we learn that "The Bagley Wright Lecture Series on Poetry supports contemporary poets as they explore in-depth their own thinking on poetry and poetics and gives a series of lectures resulting from these investigations."

Terrance Hayes is a contemporary poet, a MacArthur fellow (2014) and a Chancellor of the Academy of American Poets (2017).  He is gifted, prized and credentialed man to speak about American poetry.

As an arrangement of his Bagley Wright lectures, Hayes's book is a walking tour in the Republic of American letters, a bagatelle for the super-literate, and a wonderment, a puzzling for readers who insist on occupying less elevated ground. The book gives an American voice to Jean-Paul Sartre's question—Qu'est-ce que la littérature?

Hayes chose to dig into and meditate on poetry by way of the elusive genre of autobiography, which he garnished with facts, speculations, fantasies, photographs, and drawings that pertain to the biography of Etheridge Knight. His choice is existential.  His book is a soup, a mash-up, a blurring of text, pretext, and context; the reworking of the original lectures from 2014 and 2015 tempts one to contrast the result with Kevin Young's The Grey Album: On the Blackness of Blackness  (Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2012) and to compare the result with Nathaniel Mackey's Discrepant Engagement: Dissonance, Cross-Culturality and Experimental Writing (Tuscaloosa: University of Alabama Press, 1993) and to evaluate the three works through the lens provided by Michelle Alexander's The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (New York: The New Press, 2010).

Hayes avoids the excess of data imprisoned in The Grey Album, however, much of the excess comes with good intentions; he deals with what Mackey made explicit regarding engagement:

“I relate discrepant engagement to the name the Dogon of West Africa give their weaving block, the base on which the loom they weave upon sits. They call it the 'creaking of the word.' It is the noise upon which the word is based, the discrepant foundation of all coherence and articulation, of the purchase upon the world fabrication affords. Discrepant engagement, rather than suppressing or seeking to silence that noise, acknowledges it. In its anti-foundational acknowledgement of founding noise, discrepant engagement sings 'base,' voicing reminders of the axiomatic exclusions upon which positing of identity and meaning depend."

The evaluation might illuminate, to a certain degree, for readers who are inmates of one system or another, how but not why "history" (as process and record/narrative of process) makes a relentless assault on consciousness and knowing.  Why is a mystery immune to reckoning or consensus.  Ultimately, one concludes poetry and poetics have been and shall continue to be fraught. We are incarcerated.

The "in conversation" device used so freely in the Twenty-First Century exposes the extreme reluctance of some American poets to admit that real-time conversations with one another are more valuable than the shadows or ghosts of conversations that can be sold to readers and listeners.

They are abetted by their publishers. Perhaps the reluctance is grounded in dread of the political or of the class-based enmity that readily obtains when aesthetics must navigate among realities and actualities. The life and work of Etheridge Knight (1931-1991) demands more digging into a history of American crime and punishment, into addiction and trauma, into incarceration as metaphor and as material state of being than some American poets can stomach. They can't take the weight of the funk. They seek sanctuary in the academic cloisters of being "in conversation" with, of being in accord with the designs of American literary politics.

The title of Hayes's book is taken from the last six words of Knight's famous poem, "The Idea of Ancestry."  After playing with the implicit pun in the phrase  "biography of the cell," borrowed from a scientific article by David A. Shaywith and Douglas A. Melton, Hayes asserts that Knight is "a muse and mystery," and promises to not write a biography of the prison poet who was not a prison poet while in the same breath he would encourage a future biographer to do so.

Referencing the character Charles Kinbote from Nabokov's novel Pale Fire, he stresses the difference between a scholar assessing a poet and a poet assessing a poet and dares to ask if imagination can be a form of critical study. Thus, he shows how a poet can drift toward and then away from his announced subject. He might float away from dedicated speculations about Etheridge Knight into appreciative speculation about the life and work of Christopher Gilbert.

The answer to Hayes's rhetorical question about critical study is, "Yes."   Nevertheless, there is a bit of shock in his saying that Arnold Rampersad’s "pages of clear-eyed scholarship" on Langston Hughes “are altogether dull,” because his own book so plainly betrays how much he yearns to be a scholar as well as a poet. Rampersad’s prose is never exactly dull, so one must ask where Hayes is coming from?

Hayes, a poet who longs to be a scholar, tests the literacy of his readers with allusions to Shakespeare, Roland Barthes, Gustave Freytag, Zygmunt Bauman, and Giambattista Vico and has a romp with the idea that liquidity makes a “relationship to poets and poetry renewable and sustainable.”

To Float in the Space Between is not exactly dull.  It is annoying in a way akin to the annoyance one might have through engagement with Young's The Grey Album.  One is annoyed by the artifice of pretense, the lightweight attention Hayes accords to the gravity of what incarceration determines about life and creativity in the United States. That gravity was never lost on Knight nor is it lost on the many accomplished writers who reside in American prisons.  As far as one knows, Hayes has never been to war or to prison, so he can blithely turn to Wordworth's notion of “recollection in tranquility” and extend it to the angst of imprisonment.  There is something that is deliberate (a negative liberation) in Hayes’s claim that Knight sold himself as “the artist with a critique of incarceration as well as the artist with an endorsement of rehabilitation.”

Tell us how willing slaves should be to sell themselves. As if to remind himself and his readers that he has not exactly dismissed the centrality of incarceration from his project, Hayes mentions quite humorously that his mother was the warden of the household and that a house is a poem.  Faint reminders of what a panopticon is, of what “negative capability” can be. (Hayes abandoned before the election of 2016 the “irritable reaching after fact & reason,” the Romantic idea foisted upon the world by John Keats, the idea which currently enthralls millions of American citizens in the Age of Trump. Strange are the ways poetry and poetics inform discourses contemporary life.)

By coincidence, Terrance Hayes and Kevin Powell have roots in South Carolina and a certain kinship in the commonplace American male enterprise of accounting for ancestry. They are the sons who must quest after many years of wondering for their absent biological fathers. One does not question the legitimacy anxiety about knowing who one's father is and questions how the racialized American publishing industry perpetuates the stereotype of anxiety.

Powell and Hayes remind us of how poignant it was of Knight to say in, “The Idea of Ancestry” that his paternal grandmother had “no place in her Bible for ‘whereabouts unknown’.”  In The Education of Kevin Powell : A Boy's Journey into Manhood (New York: Atria Books, 2015), one of the most poetic moments is the paragraph wherein Powell describes speaking to his father's tombstone in Laurens County, South Carolina.

Hayes is also poetic in describing conversations of discovery with his father, Earthell "Butch" Tyler, Jr. in Columbia, South Carolina. His father reassures him that he definitely has the Tyler head.  By coincidence, one is reminded that contemporary narratives of being an African American male are so necessarily and so ironically saturated with discovery. Perhaps it is useful to revisit what Stephen Henderson wrote about saturation in Understanding the New Black Poetry (New York: William Morrow, 1973).

Would it be obscene to find an omen in the name of Hayes's father, Earthell  (Earth/Hell), to find in the name a subjective correlative for what the site of incarceration is?  After all, an in-depth investigation of poetry and poetics deals with the final couplet of Knight's poem "The Violent Space"

So, I grab the air and sing my song.

(But the air cannot stand my singing long.)

Without malice, one might conclude that To Float in the Space Between is at best a tool for knowing what literary history brings to us in 2018 in the form of Etheridge Knight's poem "Feeling Fucked Up."

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