I’ve been reading Duriel E. Harris’s Amnesiac these last few weeks. And maybe because I’m recovering from a bout of some flu-like illness, when I returned to the book this morning I found myself noticing how the body dominates the work.
Harris is a poet, performance/sound artist, and scholar, and Amnesiac is her long-awaited second book, out this year from Sheep Meadow Press.
To describe Amnesiac as a “book of poetry” is inaccurate and incomplete. It is also a soundscape that includes musical scores as poems/poems as musical scores. It is also a gallery of portraits and self portraits composed of dense lines and complex syntax or quick, deft strokes. Such as
self portrait as negro girl
the desire to belong
extracts what no one knows
remains, leaving enough to make
eloquent my polite decay
Harris’ first book, Drag, is a fiercely experimental and political collection, and Amnesiac continues Harris’s work to make explicit the ways that linguistic, poetic experimentation can resist systems of oppression. Harris explodes language, poetry, and sound in order to reconfigure how we think about racism, genocide, physical, and sexual violence. Reading Harris, I am convinced that we must find alternative ways into language if we are to remember and be able to speak. And there are ways ??? she shows us the ways ??? towards such a deconstruction-into-reconstruction.
Her work is always polyphonic and multilingual, insistently staking claim for bodies marked by race and gender to inhabit all ways of speaking. As in this title: “???Pourmore formore PoMoFunk dunk dun paramour’ or Duriel’s Bootybone Scattergram: scatty pas de quarter in one act.” These poems insist that nothing is off limits to speak about, and no way of speaking/sounding is off limits. Even ??? and especially ??? if we are women. Even ??? and especially ??? if we are people of color. Even ??? and especially ??? if our bodies hold the trauma of violence.
The body ??? the bruised, the messy, the exploded body ??? looms large in Amnesiac. The work opens with two epigraphs that lay out the scope of Harris’ project: a passage by Olga Broumas concerning “possible shifts of meaning,” and Eavan Boland’s terse line “The body is a source.” The implicit question raised by the Boland quote ??? the body is a source of what? ??? is partly what Harris sets out to explore.
That the body is a source of pain and suffering is clear. Poems in this book land on and burrow into the Rwandan genocide, child sexual abuse, cancer, and illness. The “pain-body,” described in the notes as “a ravenous parasitic entity that feeds on and seeks out pain,” is never far from these poems.
But the body is also a source of language. In “self portrait (with vial and corn tash)” the language of the body and the body’s language are inextricable.
My transformational grammar, a shaking,
gray passage, in the sentence: the darkest
layer of bone, a huddled shrug, a current.
Uncontained, uncontainable, dangerous and powerful. The body remembers what the brain cannot, holds trauma, and shapes the personal and societal self:
That which makes the body | makes the self | beyond which we are undone
This line comes from a poem titled “speleology.” Wikipedia tells me that speleology is the study of caves as complex evolving systems, and I was interested in the connection many of these poems made between the body and the earth. Body as complex system. Body as cavity filled with the mess of our guts. To turn the Boland quote around, to look to the body’s source, we find the earth, and there, perhaps, transcendence. In “bliss: geophagy,” as the speaker eats the earth, the earth consumes the body/bodied language:
My throat, elongated supple sponge
absorbs defiant syllables with soft resolve;
the earth bellows, rushing in.
There is much more to say about Amnesiac. I found the “self portraits” that appear throughout the book to be fascinating and linguistically dexterous. Singing back to Whitman in discord and harmony they negotiate the impossibility of constructing an accurate portrayal of the every-shifting, deeply complicated self. And, I’ve only touched on the ideas of memory and forgetting that of course are central concerns of the work.
That is to say, now it is time to go get yourself a copy of this engaging, discomforting, and marvelously innovative book and see for yourself. Go bodily spelunking.