excerpt from the chapter Knots, Near and Far, from Lillian is the Site of a Fire
—of which the body is one
There are shifting relationships between the figure of the negro and the contexts she finds herself in, and between self and others. We move from the perceiving and perceived negro and through a fleshy biological negro and a negro that is constructed social, to the local, the familiar and the abstractions of the global. This is a negro genetically and emotionally linked to the family and to the domestic spaces and familiar locales in which family relationships are played out. It is also a negro which is both a vehicle of a more conceptual travelling towards unfamiliar places which are ‘there’ rather than ‘here’, and a negro which is transcended by time and space and which transcends it.
—pleasurable though the abstraction might be
This earlier work by Lillian can be read as a raced and gendered account of the restrictions a (negro) woman might face in negotiating public space. Lillian combines the compromising and potentially contradictory roles of woman, man and woman, perpetrator and accomplice, and investigates the possibility of a freedom from those restrictions through a private exploration of a raced sexuality that also limits Lillian’s access to public space. Yet Lillian also describes the different corporeal and spatial relationships that unfold in the poems, and a clearer understanding of the relationships between those places, of which the body is one, can provide additional or supplementary readings. The poems move from being inside Lillian’s own body and looking out, to being outside Lillian’s own body and seeing herself as seen by others. The speaking self is in a relationship with a familiar body, both in the sense of being known and being a ‘member’ of the body of a family, yet it is a body that sometimes appears unexplored, a ‘blind face.’ Lillian’s body is also in a spatial relationship with the body of a stranger, while in a familiar public space as in a park. Through processes of abstraction and generalization, and through real and imagined geographies of possibility and exploration, including the geography of her own body, Lillian is also in a global space, the ‘whole long universe’, which is a space of liberation, of possibility, and of threat.
—the dream world is a place she can reach through her own body
For the negro, her body is both fleshy material, which exists in the material world, & social construct. It has a special place. As Maurice Merleau-Ponty said, “The outline of my body is a frontier which ordinary spatial relations do not cross” (2002, p.112), although for the negro it is a frontier always crossed, or at least threatened, by members of the “human family”, the gaze of men in a park, & in her own fantasies. The more present the negro, the more she responds to people watching her in a park, & enters a dream-world she can escape to the outside of the limitations of raced, gendered, & sexualized public space. The range of possibilities offered by the dream-world, as against the limitations of the daily, is illustrated by the repeated ampersand. From a particular person in a particular place & with all the restrictions that brings, & where she is located through her previous relationship to the place & the people in it, the negro & the poem about the negro become a space of possibility. Like the ocean. Like the Dark Continent. It is a place in which “I marry in, then out./ Under it I stroll, a sky so blue and visible and starred” (xx). It is a place that makes action possible, but not compulsory, a place in which she can do, or not do, what she likes. Yet for the negro, pleasurable though the abstraction might be, & whether it takes her to some place else such as the imagined geography of ‘over there’ or the eroticized fantasy of the dream world, the negro must still exist between the immanent experience of everyday life & the possibilities of the abstractions of the transcendent as when she says: “You hope it’s not true” (xx).
—a fleshy biological negro
Lillian is therefore in a relationship to the spatial context in which her viewing takes place, a space that includes both inside and outside of Lillian, and that Lillian is part of and also produces. The space is not a pre- planned grid system through which Lillian moves or is constructed to move, and nor is it a genetically programmed schema which she instinctively follows. It is not constructed prior to entering or moving through it, but is produced through the interaction and reaction between Lillian and world. And it Lillian who is always moving; Lillian who is never static, even for the duration of a single act of viewing. The narrative in the viewing develops a relationship by the end that is different from the beginning. The conceptual space of the succeeding, more abstract section of the viewing unfolds before us, weaving together her own physical experiences. She sees herself in relation to others within a symbolic order, and as Lillian in movement who is moving between things and towards things and who always has the intention of moving towards something. As a consequence she can see things, or imagines she can see things, from different perspectives.
—within a symbolic order
The process of viewing is therefore linked to the negro as she exists in a social world that provides a context for the viewing (although of course a negro never simply exists, she is always moving towards something, even in the process of leaving something behind).Viewing is not a process that negates the social or corporeal context but is part of it. The specific negro will be gendered, coloured, aged, etc., and these are characteristics which will affect the viewing process. The negro may feel safe or under threat, she may be ‘at home’, in a familiar village, town or country.
A few good words with Lillian
PDS: I know that Lillian is the Site of a Fire, mines a secondary text, which made me think about construction in the work and of the work. This excerpt focuses on the way that the black female body is socially constructed through the gaze of others, and also how the black woman experiences/explores the movements of her own body, the “shifting relationships between the figure of the negro and / the contexts she finds herself in.” The Lillian of the poems is also interested in the poems’ movement and their relationship to her body and to her viewer. What was the experience of reorienting the original text to suit your aims for poems that are particularly concerned with how bodies and language are viewed (the sort of meta aspect of the project)?
LYB: In many ways, the original text is already concerned with how bodies and language are viewed. But this concern is located within the reading of specific poems by authors who are not me. I think this process relocates that concern in the process of reading, writing, and viewing the black female body (an Other) as a both lived and live person, and social construct.
That said, it’s a complicated experience. At some points I wonder if I am taking the lived-in black female body and abstracting it away from the lived experience. If so, what are the consequences of that? At the same time, to be a brown woman existing with all the social constructs and weight that comes with it, can at times be abstracting and alienating particularly when one is conscious that they are being viewed as an outsider, as an Other, that “twoness.” The text already concerns itself with reading the bodies within poems, my substitutions turn the text into being concerned with bodies themselves, reading bodies in the world and not just in poems. The text was meant to elucidate something about post-modern poems and poetry, but it can also elucidate something about race and gender and sexuality. It could actually elucidate, and articulate, something about me and my experience, that I hadn’t previously considered. This is a selfish project. The Lillian in the book is me, the negro in the book is me.
I still don’t know what to call this process. I have experimented with calling it a modification, an appropriation, a rewriting, a permutation, a matrix. It might even be something of an anti-erasure, or a substitution erasure. Mary Ruefle calls an erasure “the creation of a new text by disappearing the old text that surrounds it.” Erasure involve only choosing “words out of all the words on a given page, while writing regularly I can choose from all the words in existence.” In my case, I am choosing words “from all the words in existence” and substituting those words for specific words on the page. Of course, it gets a little more complicated. I substitute pronouns, proper nouns, quotes from poems with quotes from my poems. This latter move requires that I go back into my own work and determine what of my work could be elucidated by the criticism at hand.
This project is very invested in meaning-making and making (a kind of) sense. To that end, each line is laborious, and a labor I didn’t anticipate, which is multiplied by making meaning of each paragraph, chapter, and so on. It just keeps multiplying, recombining in different ways. Perhaps this is the matrix element—change a single number in a matrix, and the equation multiplies in different ways. Now that I’ve become acquainted with Friedlander’s work, I am inclined to call my process, though a substitution, to be a type of “simulcast.” Substitution foregrounds the collision of the intentions of the original text and my own, and allows for seeing how far a text can be deformed or pushed out of its current status and structure and into a liminal status, occupying at once the text’s original intentions and my own. These intentions are partly to extend the text’s original field of view, which did not include any African-American poets, to one that does; and from a text about poems to a text that is also about a lived body of an Other, a memoir. The result of pushing the text into this liminal status through highlighting the social location of its interlocutor (an Other) is the simultaneous intertextual event of a poetry criticism that performs as poetry, and a poetry that performs as social criticism. So far the criticism generated examines how black bodies view themselves and are viewed in public and private spaces, and how their global circulation becomes emblematic of postmodernity itself. The text created through substitution thus fashions “Blackness” quite literally as described by Fred Moten in In the Break: The Aesthetics of the Black Radical Tradition, as “an ongoing irruption that arranges every line”.
PDS: The title of each poem is pulled from the prose of another poem in the series. How did you see these through-lines functioning in the texts? Repetition of key words throughout the excerpt (negro, body, space, viewing) served to highlight the recurrent nature of the construction and experience, while also deepening their contexts. How did you imagine the repeated titles and lines speaking to each other?
LYB: The repetition of space and viewing actually occurs in the preexisting text. Where negro is, there was another noun, but I don’t think I add in negro unless it’s taking the place of another noun, same with “Lillian”, although in some cases “Lillian” might take the place of she or it. Ideally, this excerpt (and perhaps the chapter as a whole) is meant to be read digitally so that the hyperlinks work. For this you need a PDF or a Word Doc or just the plain ole internet. More than just emphasizing how one viewing, space, or substitution leads to another, you can experience and be inside that linkage. Because it’s not a closed loop, the way it works now, I think you could go from link to link and actually miss an entire section. I also like to think that I’m working with the notion that one of those lines in turn explodes into its own kind of body, like what is the iceberg to the tip that is “a fleshy biological negro”?
PDS: We all have books that continuously challenge us and reveal new secret doors with every reading. What books keep opening up for you?
LYB: I don’t think I’ll ever be done reading N.H. Pritchard’s The Matrix.
Lillian-Yvonne Bertram is the author of But a Storm is Blowing from Paradise (Red Hen Press 2012), selected by Claudia Rankine as winner of the 2010 Benjamin Saltman Award. Her forthcoming books are a slice from the cake made of air (Red Hen Press) and personal science (Tupelo). She is a recipient of a 2014 National Endowment for the Arts Poetry Fellowship and is a Cave Canem alumna.