MIRNA PERRIN-LOUIS Reviews
“Heart as Arena” from The Feeling Is Actual by Paolo Javier
(Marsh Hawk Press, East Rockaway, N.Y., 2011)
Feelings and thoughts tend to be somewhat subjective, change with every interpretation and
every different context. One would be tempted to classify them as temperamental as those who claim their ownership. A well known scholar, by the name of Confucius, once stated : "My works were designed to amuse, annoy, bewilder, mystify and inspire reflection." Many artists and poets share this same thought amongst them, Paolo Javier and Jean Michel Basquiat.
Jean Michel Basquiat was an American artist whose father was Haitian and mother Puerto-Rican. "At an early age, Jean Michel experienced art through his mother's eyes. She would take him to museums and the theater (Bosworth). He began as a teen-age graffiti artist bearing the name of Samo" (Same old Shit) who would come to use his real name as he underwent his metamorphosis into the acclaimed artist. He stayed true to his rebellious nature and incorporated his graffiti edge into his paintings through the use of collage, influences from black history and jazz, as well as the embodiment of Haitian Voodoo entities as bearers of his cryptic thoughts. This opened the door to a new art movement and catapulted him to stardom. Jean Michel's art although acclaimed by many was also subject to a slew of negative comments as well as controversy. Robert Hughes maintains:"He seemed to have some kind of graphic zip. But the stuff became incredibly repetitious" (Qtd in Bosworth). Yet, other critics still share the same opinion as Cathleen McGuigan: " ...Not only does he possess a bold sense of color and composition, but in his best paintings, unlike many of his contemporaries, he maintains a fine balance between seemingly contradictory forces: control and spontaneity, menace and wit, urban imagery and primitivism". Unfortunately, Basquiat 's life was cut short at the young age of twenty seven due to excessive drug use.
In The Feeling is Actual (Marsh Hawk Press, 2011), Paolo Javier, Poet Laureate of New York City Borough of Queens, introduces us to a world of ambiguous titles, wordplay as playful as profound in meaning, and accompanied by illustrative components. In "Heart as Arena", Javier intertwines his cryptic ideas with that of Basquiat's paintings. We are given the chance to experience a symbiotic relationship between poet and artist, incendiary thoughts and feelings including the quest for identity. In order to understand this relationship, I was compelled to gaze upon the work of the artist and that of the poet as if they merged at the first part of the spectrum.
Javier's text contains different types of font, bold and italics, abbreviations, the absence and
presence of punctuation in certain stanzas, including the strategic place each phrase occupies on the page it is assigned; for example:
walk right up to me
stand right next to me
stupid dumb white motherfucker
baggy jeans my ass ( Javier 107)
If we refer to graffiti, we can incur that graffiti artists have a talent for writing their phrases or simple words at places where it catches the attention of even the most wary pedestrians. This stanza illustrates the steps taken by the character as he walks. It also depicts a Caucasian boy wanting to resemble a minority black or Latino through his choice of clothing.
This use of imagery in "Heart as Arena" also gives the impression that words are moving as rapidly as thoughts invade the mind. For the poet the pen becomes the paint brush. In doing so, Javier creates the first aspects of this relationship between artist and poet where the movement of the words flow to the fluid strokes of the brush. Javier recreates an extraordinary visual language in order to match the painter's visual imagery. It looks as if each word is translated through the painting and vice versa. Through further analysis, the words propel us into worlds created by both Basquiat and Javier as they shift our attention to the relation between the words, their underlying meanings and the paintings.
Javier employs a title that is exactly the same as that of one of Basquiat's paintings:" Heart as Arena". The significance behind it lies in the marriage of the words heart and arena. If we turn to the Greek definition of the word heart, we discover that it is the center and seat of spiritual life, the soul or mind, the inner self. The word arena is Latin for sand; then came to mean the part of an amphitheater that was covered with sand to absorb the blood spilled by the combatants (Dictionary.com). Joining these two words, Javier and Basquiat alike create an enclosure (the canvas and the poem) where the inner being is unleashed in the raw and pitted against the conventional ideas of mainstream reality. But what can be found in this release of one's inner being?
"Simplicity is the final achievement. After one has played a vast quantity of notes and more notes. It is simplicity that emerges as the crowning reward of art," said Frederic Chopin (Brainy Quotes). In wanting to espouse the blunt expression that is graffiti, the author's "elegant simplicity" revels in his choice of crude words (stupid dumb white motherfucker, and tangina, a Filipino slang meaning bastard) and helps unveil a division of the psyche called the "Id", which according to Freud is the embodiment of instinctual impulses. By doing so, the reader encounters bouts of aggression for example : " I'd love to break the jawbones of an ass..."(109), "stupid white boy dumb motherfucker want your face smeared across one of his paintings?"(107) The idea of a face being smeared across one of his paintings also refers to a face being painted without perfection, appearing grotesque and fitting Basquiat's childlike pattern.
Staying true to the idea of being in the raw, through his simplicity he attempts to capture the artist's essence and seems to embrace the chaos unleashed by Basquiat onto the canvas by letting his ideas run freely, and overlapping in a sort of ordered chaos through each allusion to a painting. This dynamic is first introduced here,
I'm sorry, I didn't brace up
to receive you in writing
but I awoke groggy this morning
One of six philistines missing (Javier, 109)
Here he apologizes for paying homage to the artist without preparation for he has awoken groggy. His feeling of grogginess can also be associated to the chaos that ensues when dizzy with ideas and facts that life and your subconscious has thrown at you just as the painter must have felt when he awoke gazing at his paintings of ordered chaos and obscure meanings. The poet makes an allusion to historical and biblical elements in order to resemble the style used by the painter( one of the six philistines missing) and in the process introduces his second allusion to one of the artist's masterpieces: "Philistine". Yet are the allusions and references to a painting used only to illustrate a point of view or is there an even deeper meaning?
There is always a deeper meaning in all paintings and text. Basquiat is known to introduce his ideas in every one of his paintings. He uses his "primitive" style to embody a sort of innocence, yet the ideas contained in each line, color, image and text is devoid of naiveté. The artist himself confirmed this when he clearly stated: "Every single line means something"(Basquiat). In the same light the poem itself hosts a great number of ideas hidden in each line. One of them is a political aspect.
The phrase, "Before belts beliefs were in fashion"( Javier,109), illustrates the idea that beliefs were approved long before both artist and poet were born. Therefore, they were born into a world where beliefs were already established and fed to them regardless of their respective opinions. This phrase introduces the link between the ideas of racism and power in Basquiat to the ideas of superiority ,and prejudice towards a culture that is undermined in Javier. The Filipinos as well as the Africans xperienced this sense of helplessness. The Filipinos, firsthand through the Spanish and the American occupation, during which laws and beliefs belonging to the occupants were imposed upon them. The ideals, laws as well as the beliefs that the natives had lived by were alienated. The same applies to the Africans as they were taken into slavery, and is further illustrated in the painting: "Irony of a Negro Policeman". A more modern aspect of slavery is also portrayed later on in the poem with the historic arrival of the Chinese to help build the railroads:
Built by men of China
For chump change in 1850 (Javier,114)
A few small remains
drivel nails into
your cough (Javier,115)
Now both artist and poet take a stand using their talent to express their ideals, and beliefs while offering us a chance to reflect on the collective thoughts and rules dictated by the oppressors . On page 110, the author makes a clarification and specifies that he harbors no ill feelings toward the Caucasian men as a whole but instead is frustrated because most of them have steered away from the fact that all men regardless of race, ideals and beliefs are above all human. This is further illustrated through the painting CPRKR where Basquiat draws a tombstone for Charlie Parker and on it corrects the date of the jazz musician's death in order to emphasize the fact that we tend to give glory and praise only posthumously instead of giving each his or her dues while still alive. Another example is found in Javier's collage of "Irony of A Negro Policeman". In this case he focuses on the words :"black tar and feathers" ( Javier,112). If we turn our attention to the latter, historically speaking, it was a punishment used in the 1800s to humiliate thieves. The irony for the African American policeman lies in the fact that he is being used to impose laws that have been created by those who have been oppressors and many methods used by these institutions are based on stereotypes. These are not laws established by African Americans.
The phrase "black tar and feathers" is also an example of juxtaposition when placed strategically with "Irony of a Negro Policeman". Javier 's use of the meaning behind tar and feathers creates imagery and produces juxtapositions that reveal conflicting situations. While the painters use of juxtapositions exposes the latent power structures and the arbitrary traits that permeate our society and history within his illustrations. What other aspects can be highlighted throughout the rest of the poem?
Regarding the hybridity of Basquiat's style, the critic John Russell noted: "Basquiat proceeds by disjunction that is, by making marks that seem quite unrelated, but that turn out to get on very well together" (John Russell, qtd in Jean Michel Basquiat by Louis Armand). In this poem, the writer proceeds also by disjunction, for example: die pork
Die as in death represents the fact that blacks died as if they were objects (pork product), tossed aside and replaced by another during slavery. That same connotation can also apply to the Filipinos who were slaughtered during both occupations. Although the words do not seem to be connected they still convey a similar meaning.
We must always remember that :"A poet's autobiography is his poetry. Anything else is just a footnote." as stated plainly by Yevgeny Yevtushenko . The poet even if he tries would be unable to distance himself from his poetry for it becomes one with him and is an expression of his deepest thoughts. Keeping this thought in mind, Javier links himself to Basquiat in a quest for identity through "Santo Versus Second Avenue". Javier as a poet, Basquiat as a painter and Santo as a wrestler are all fighting in order to make the artistic side of their talent accepted in an arena where the rules are dictated by the Caucasian race. I noticed that both Basquiat and Javier share different aspects of a" monolithic identity dilemma." To be more precise, I must take into consideration the cultural and racial backgrounds of these individuals.
Basquiat who is half Haitian, half Puerto Rican and born in the United States refuses to identify to only one race. His Puerto Rican side embraces Santo's struggle for recognition, while his Haitian side wants to take part in Afro- Americanism but is unable to identify to all the aspects of African American ideals as a whole. The painter is unable to choose one side for that would mean rejecting the other. On the other hand the poet faces the same dilemma but on the basis of culture. Javier expresses it by focusing on the" Bleeding Man" and the Chinese menu pictured upside down in Basquiat's painting. Javier seems to want to keep the artist updated as to what scenery is now being painted in New York City especially the lower East Side of Manhattan and Second Avenue.
Nowadays the Chinese are no longer the oppressed and have used the economic niche to incorporate their culture to that of the Americans gaining in the process recognition and acceptance. Meanwhile Latinos, African Americans and Haitian Americans have gained their place in politics and sports. Now it is Second Avenue that is facing a monolithic identity crisis where each minority is fighting to earn a place and once obtained , claim Second Avenue for themselves. Will they create the same attitude of supremacy if given the chance to dominate?
Towards the end of the poem, the title changes its meaning to adopt yet another aspect. “Heart as Arena” now depicts a confined space where our feelings, ideas and thoughts create their own arena. At times our feelings, thoughts and even ideas tend to confine us because we are misunderstood by both strangers , relatives, friends alike. Javier refers to Prometheus, the Greek titan known for his intelligence and regarded as the figure of hope and inspiration for Greek revolutionaries. He was also considered a general symbol for socialism and communism by Karl Marx. Through Prometheus, he sees Basquiat as a person who was misunderstood but kept on depicting the ugly ideas that to this day plague our world. It is his way to emphasize that even after the artist's death, he is still revered and his ideas transcend the years. The painter is his muse, his passport to freedom of expression in a world filled with boundaries. Fuego, meaning fire, and flores, the Spanish word for flowers, symbolize the fire that fuels hope for change and new ideas.
Javier is able to put into focus different aspects of the turmoil that each ethnicity is facing in the struggle to reach the American Dream. All the while, he opens our eyes to the injustice perpetuated by Western civilization to many foreign cultures as well as those orchestrated by the local supremacy. The violence that seeps through every word, painting and imagery serves to help us understand the deeper meaning behind the dynamics at play each day in every corner of New York City.
Marshall, Cora. "Jean Michel Basquiat, Outsider Superstar."
International Review of African American 16.4 1999:32-6
Academic Search Complete. Web. 18 May, 2012
Bosworth, Patricia. "Hyped To Death". New York Times. Aug. 1998.
Web. 18 May, 2012
Armand, Louis. Reprinted from "Litteraria Pragensia". 11.21(2001):94-106.
Web. 20 May,2012
Troy, Philip. "Review of Galatea Resurrects" 22 December, 2011. Web. 20 May, 2012
Javier, Paolo. The Feeling Is Actual. East Rockaway, NY: Marsh Hawk P, 2011, Print.
McGuigan, Cathleen. New York Times. 10 Feb. 1985. Web. May 20,2012
Mirna C. Perrin-Louis, born in Brooklyn, New York, is currently pursuing a degree in Nursing at LaGuardia Community College.