LUCY BIEDERMAN Reviews
Negro League Baseball by Harmony Holiday
(Fence Books, New York, 2011)
I am interested by Harmony Holiday’s inclusion of an afterword to her excellent debut Negro League Baseball, winner of the 2011 Motherwell Prize, because one of the things I love most about this book is how little Holiday seems to care whether her reader understands her direct meaning. As her speaker combs through the sounds, sense, and senselessness of memory and family, she leaves the reader behind in a way that is interesting and beautiful. What the reader can “get” out of this book will not be increased by knowing details of Holiday’s upbringing or receiving a broader theoretical context; rather, Holiday, in delving into her own depths, invites or encourages a kind of parallel process in the reader—or invites us to know her mind as opposed to her experience. So it seems somewhat strange that of all poetry books, this one would include a mission-statement-like final page. Because some of the poems in the book could be read as mission statements (like the wonderful “Negro League”), the afterword—or the very fact that there is an afterword—could feel almost like an apology or an explanation for the book’s idiosyncrasies, even as it echoes and recounts them.
Much of the emotional and poetical force in Negro League Baseball comes from the brilliant way Holiday introduces or contrasts those idiosyncrasies to various formal devices, creating poems that feel mysteriously and defiantly composed. In how she seeks to exert maximum control over how her reader hears her, Holiday recalls for me both Frank Bidart and Gwendolyn Brooks. All three of these poets are concerned with the sounds of American speech and all three are ingenious employers of punctuation to convey speech. And yet, Holiday’s prosody is loose, prose-like in a way that feels contradictorily laissez-faire and unlike Bidart or early Brooks. She excels at conveying the sound of a mind racing. For example, in “Assembly”: “my mother, with her casual sense of a language of the household scaffolded by words for average moments by words for disaster, for happier, bywords, I can’t think of any now”. It feels so beautiful and true-to-thought how Holiday just keeps going after this—the sense of propulsion through each poem, and throughout the whole book, is immense and powerful.
Holiday uses not only punctuation but synesthesia, soundplay, and plenty of other techniques to evoke feelings threaded back through memories, discarding sentence structure and our expectations about what a sentence should or will do to evoke more purely the experience of memory. In “A Rumor About More Earth,” the book’s first poem, she writes, “you look stepping, you look the pleasure feet burgundy.” In “Death by Then,” “I’m listening green, not like splendor, like latitude”. Even though I do not know exactly what she means in either of these passages, the sense of the speaker moving toward something specific in memory, throwing up words like going through old clothes, deciding what to give away, drives these moments. One of the most moving passages for me in the whole book appears in “Death by Then”: “Iowa wasn’t green, shag carpet green, still thinking the grass which gross out of tar shoulder, the carved shrug toward our such slick road.” I love this passage for the strong sense it gives me of a scene or image just beyond understanding, but many times return to in memory. The phrase “such slick road” feels like something once overheard that has become part of a child’s private language of description. This passage feels so true to me, so movingly close to the way I experience language and memory.
There is a sense that the core of these poems cannot be uncovered or recovered—a feeling of swirling around rather than getting closer to a truth or a direct experience. Rhyme is used like events from the day returned to in dream, or like a deliberate misunderstanding, or like a child learning words by repeating them over and over, getting them a little bit wrong. In addition to sonic rhyme, there is image rhyme, such as in “A Rumor About More Earth”—the first stanza’s “Dumbed fire of a carved pumpkin, starting the threshold of a Virginia porch” becomes “Hunched father in a harvest lantern starting the threshold of an antique porch.” Or the repetition of the sentence structure and many of the words at the end of “Certain Ballads”:
How we were staggering together through the streets where they keep flags and yachts until the morning watched us lean indoors, a terrible ordinary day How we were staggering through the streets together between flags and yachts, forming calluses we wouldn’t even notice on the bottoms of our empty footage how bearable you’ve made it, beyond my wildest motives
The way Holiday goes over and over this scene, even using many of the same words (“How we were …” “How we were…”), feels to me like strokes, caresses—an enactment of (or trying to convince herself or someone else?) just “how bearable” it really is. The rhyme/repetition is a kind of palliative. Here even “beyond my wildest motives” becomes a kind of rhyme, with the expected beyond my wildest dreams. This poem begins with the line “It’s said that he resisted and they beat him with sticks”; as in many of the poems here, a shadow of racial violence, tension, or fear is cast across the rest of the poem. In “Like I’m Simple,” Holiday again uses sound to create a new level of meaning, writing, “laughter is permanently in a middle, and why can’t his haunt me, in / fact, I forget how it sounds” This moment is staggeringly gorgeous for me because of Holiday’s incredible metrical control—that strong stress on “sounds” creates the feeling that there should be a full rhyme here, but there just isn’t. That sense of absence evokes wrenchingly the absence of her father’s laughter.
Coursing throughout the book is a strong sense of resistance. Sentences refuse punctuation. Poems refuse line breaks. In “Assembly” Holiday writes, “Nor is my house a house nor is myself a self in the way they mean one occupant of one place called a body” Here and elsewhere, in bits and pieces, Holiday’s impulse toward refusal recalled for me Shakespeare’s sonnets, their frequent use of “nor that, nor that” construction (Holiday even uses that old-fashioned sentence structure) and enduring theme of what contradictions and multiplicities a single consciousness can contain. In “Home Negations,” a crushing statement of refusal that deals obliquely and simultaneously with poetics, race, place and personal identity, Holiday writes, “Not to want what they know, but to have the nerve to want it or not / the nerve but the bravery of shape to take place which is to contradict affection similies” The ability to “contradict”—to be both formal and wild throughout and at once—is a freedom Holiday performs brilliantly throughout this book.
It can be difficult to know how to read certain effects, especially variations in typographical inventions—for example, in “My Thoughts on Fire,” Holiday plays with the spacing around colons in a way that I am unsure how to interpret, giving us combinations like “texture:shine and a swimmer: saint and a wielding air and a dancer: remembered breeze and an end: in and an end (in), andanending: never.” The language throughout the rest of this book is so rich and inventive (instead of “from morning until night,” Holiday writes, “from can’t see in the morning ‘till can’t see at night”) that Holiday’s repeated “and a” sentence structure here feels flat; even the word “remembered” feels unnecessary given the context of the poem and the book—we are living in a remembered world here. Similarly, “Which Crosses You, Which Covers You,” begins with the phrase “Starting to go-to-law”; then, at the end of the poem, the phrase reappears as “starting to-go-to-law.” I don’t know how or whether to parse the slight variation between these two appearances. In “Two Tiered Alliance,” Holiday uses typographical invention more successfully to my mind, with erratic spacing perhaps suggesting pauses in breath of different lengths. The poem is about the speaker’s mother’s wedding, the start of an unrecognizable new life for the speaker, and Holiday’s spacing also feels like a memory, or a relationship, nearly slipping away. In some of the poem’s gorgeous final stanzas, Holiday writes, “from the beginning flung into looking on the freeway, in a wedding dress made of favors and birth / Hey Runner, run like you’re never // gonna be her wearing that black gaze on your step wait stop”
Of the book’s five sections, the second and third are the least speaker-driven, though in every section, the focal point of these poems is the language they are composed of and the movement of the mind they are composed by, rather than the self making the poem. It’s thrilling how this poet employs the music of language. Typical of these middle sections is “Absolutely,” a poem I didn’t know how to parse, but its rich soundplay allowed me to access it on a different level:
…This one was just glancing at the vinepiece, mise-en-scene, beat machine, the same person jumping land into building—an electronic volume, tight jeans wearing-thinking maybe we’re
brand new scape immediately translated into dub from debut into
Objectively rooted …
I marked the return to a more speaker-driven poem with the beginning of the book’s fourth section, with the wonderful poem “High Concept,” which also has more narrative coherence than most of the other poems here, as it traces and retraces with various lenses and apertures the affect of her father’s death on her family. Elsewhere in the fourth section, in “To My Paloma, My Tough Dove” Holiday repeats and reworks a series of words and sounds—locusts, “the things we know,” Gigolos, corners, whistle—to create an atmosphere of inevitability, stuck-ness, and sex.
More moving than the strong net of sound Holiday creates are the silences, or more quiet moments, that contrast against them. For example, in “Ambassador,” which opens the final section: “Wear house shoes to the market and grab your daughter’s hand in traffic and catch her stacking rivers in / yard dirt merrily, my father, a front a sea a flood, a Marxist, I love you.” I love this poem, this book, and this stunningly original poet, for how hard-earned this I love you is, refracted against the rigorous rhyme and unreason preceding it.
Lucy Biederman (http://lucybiederman.blogspot.com/) is a doctoral student in English Literature at the University of Louisiana in Lafayette. She is the author of a chapbook, The Other World (Dancing Girl Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared recently or are forthcoming in The Literary Review, Parcel, RHINO, Ping Pong, ILK, Shampoo, and Gargoyle.