handholding: 5 kinds by Tracie Morris
(Kore Press, 2016)
$22, 7 x 10″, 128 pgs, perfect bound
When we discuss art and artists we find ourselves readily referring to an artist’s “voice.” We ask one another what art is “saying” or “expressing.” We share what about a particular work “speaks” to us. Implicit in this language is the idea that creating a work of art is a mode of communication. I wonder, though, if too often this communication is mistaken for monologue, as if what is transferred through a work of art is unidirectional. Certainly, when one party is assigned the role of “actor” or “performer” and another party is cast as “audience” or “spectator” we affirm the notion of a work being monologue: there is one active speaker and everyone else involved is just a passive receiver. Though we regularly place ourselves in these roles when we attend concerts, readings, shows, or exhibitions, we are not really capable of being one without the other. As spectators, we can’t help but respond to a work of art, if only in our heads, or after the show is over when we reconvene in another location to share our opinions on the work over dinner, or while driving home from the venue.
In some spaces, like those in Latino communities, there is no need to even pretend to play the part of passive spectator. My father has joked many times that when he goes to see a movie when he is in Puerto Rico he has to read the Spanish subtitles because the audience is so loud while they shout at and tease the characters on the screen that he can’t hear the actors when they speak. And I know that my post-undergrad roommate was always irate with me when we watched films in the apartment because of my need to talk during the film to share with him, and the characters on the screen, my thoughts about what we were collectively experiencing.
And I would argue that, for the most part, artists don’t want their audiences to play the passive spectator role. I haven’t met many artists who don’t at least intuitively understand that the engine of their work is the act of engaging in conversation, of creating dialogue. Artists, of course, hope someone will talk about, and to, their work. In many cases they make a space for this kind of participation within the architecture of a project. Improv theater performers, for example, will ask the audience for settings and situations. Musicians will implore the crowd to “repeat after me” in a call and response or rally them to sing along. Angelique Kidjo ends her concerts by bringing audience members on stage to dance with the band. Visual artists like Keith Haring have made it a practice to invite the public to paint, scribble, and sculpt alongside them. Augusto Boal, in creating the Theater of the Oppressed, even invented a new term, the spect-actor, to make it clear that there was no distinction between the actor and the spectator. Everyone in the space where art is happening is an active participant. The artist may establish the dialogue, but the audience naturally must, and will, respond.
Artists understand intrinsically this relationship, but they sometimes are also aware that their work is not only in conversation with those in the immediate space, it is in conversation with the world at large; they are talking back to it, reacting to personal and historical events, places, collective feelings. And on occasion they find themselves “talking” directly to another artist or artwork.
This transparent act of call and response between artists across geographies, generations, languages, and mediums is the central conceit behind handholding: 5 kinds by Tracie Morris. Morris labels this manner of exchange between artists “handholding.” It is an apt term, one that speaks of the intimacy artists often come to feel with work by other artists, artists that they don’t necessarily know personally, could not know in some instances because continents and centuries separate them.
Here she holds hands with specific works from artists across art forms: the film Eyes Wide Shut by director Stanley Kubrick, the documentary Seven Songs for Malcolm X by John Akomfrah, poet Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons, the performance poem “Ursonate” by Dadaist Kurt Schwitters, and composer John Cage’s ubiquitous “4:33.” Each section of the book is a handholding with one of these works. In her first handholding, “eyes wide shut: a not neo-benshi reading,” Morris becomes the voice-over of the film, the commentary track that was once a common feature on a DVD purchase. Morris has recorded her voice-over to be synched up with the film (when you purchase the book you are sent a download code for the audio tracks) so that her voice becomes a kind of Greek chorus, an omniscient voice floating above the film’s narrative of images. Yet Morris elevates the language and content of DVD commentary convention. Instead of the trite and mundane (though sometimes entertaining) production anecdotes offered by actors, crew, or movie critics, Morris becomes the voice of the omitted, as people of color are almost virtually erased from Kubrick’s New York (ironic and troubling, coming from a filmmaker from the Bronx). Morris as Greek chorus is now the black woman artist-activist-scholar poking and prodding (and teasing) at the characters in the film, unpacking its notions of where power is created and who gets to wield it. Morris’s handholding unmasks Tom Cruise’s role as that of the foil, the ingénue, caged within the factory of male white privilege that has produced and maintains him. He is not a protagonist on a hero’s journey. He does not “act,” rather the world around him acts upon him, and as he has never been challenged or unsafe within it, he blankly and blindly accepts what is handed him without questioning the mechanism of the world around him, even when countless situations are presented that should have, or at least could have, snapped him out his torpor.
Morris’s poem/commentary exposes, though, how fragile his position in this system of privilege really is. So fragile that it only takes a single intimate moment of confession from his wife to shatter his illusions of himself and propel him forward into the film’s twisted network of power and deception. And as Tom Cruise’s Bill is pulled as if in a perennial dream state through room after room of corruption, Morris is there to remind us, her fellow viewer, that “The scariest people in the world are not black.”
“Songs and Other Sevens” is composed using the same device as “eyes wide shut: a not neo-benshi reading,” but with distinct differences in function and intent. Whereas the Kubrick piece becomes a POC criticism of that film’s problematic racial and gender positions, “Songs and Other Sevens” serves as a praise song for Malcolm X, the subject of John Akomfrah’s documentary that Morris is overdubbing here. This is not to say that her commentary on Malcolm X and the film is uncritical. Here, her handholding aims to take a sober look at the evolution of the man into an icon, and to examine the external forces that provoked this evolution. Neither Morris or Akomfrah are simply trying to deify Malcolm X. It seems, instead, that they both offer their fellow viewers of this historical figure the opportunity to see the man as the inevitable outcome of the experiment known as “America.” With this handholding, Morris is encouraging her fellow spectator to “Prepare for the world to come. / Prepare for the world.”
The book’s anchor and its apex (and its ars poetica) is “If I Re-Viewed Her,” the author’s conversation with Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. This poem is not composed as an overdub or commentary to the film. It is written more like one jazz musician’s virtuosic interpretation of a jazz standard, one that transcends the source material, like Coltrane’s “My Favorite Things.” Morris here seems interested, like Stein, in poetry as etymological experiment, and she attempts to get underneath the skin of language and peel off its multifaceted meanings. It is a playful yet revelatory sort of exploration filled not only with profound musings but also with the kind of sonority and wit that has long been Tracie Morris’s trademark. Each turn of phrase is masterfully inverted and transformed until all possible sounds and meanings have been exhausted, with thrilling riffs such as:
Seeing us all those colors (only) I wonder if they ate us. I wonder, if there was
another reason we were roasted. I wonder what Leopold hosted? Why’d he
burn the evidence? What I’d like to see Conrad write about: the heart, the
heartlessness. What did they do with it? How’d it taste? I mean, if we were
chattel. If they were cackling. If they were as crackled as the prepackaged
snacks in store. Like the scalping, like a head scratched clean off, they said
the Reds did, they did against Red. Against. Red. A contrast. A ghast. I wonder
what they ate? I wonder why they talk about Aztecs like that? I wonder if
they are saying something again? Something in ink again? Something about
Incans? About the spilling.
Using Stein’s devices Morris does something much more profound than Stein. The three sections of “If I Re-Viewed Her” build into a dense architecture that teases and analyzes. The stream of consciousness opens up quickly into an ocean of historical, political, psychological, and cultural referents woven together, then dismantled and reconfigured again into meta-meta-metaphors of spliced narratives and musical measures:
So much is about the surface. The superficial, the serenity it causes. A cloth,
a kind of clothtrophobia. There’s the seed and then there’s the surface. What
we define as something is something that comes through the surface or
something that is waiting to break the surface. We don’t describe it as the
thing that is not superficial. We see a seed for what it’s waiting to be, not
what it is. Flesh is what we see. Triglicerides by the surface. We see skin on
top. Not layers. We don’t see skin as a depth thing except what breaks it.
And this is where mud comes in. Mudders, muddy boots, mud halls? You
know it’s more than top. Mud is not the tip but insides. Mud is the inside,
In “If I Re-Viewed Her,” and in this entire collection, Tracie Morris is offering up “mud,” a mud of language that blossoms when seeded by her intellect and watered with her season musical ear. Like Nathaniel Mackey’s “Nod House,” or Derek Walcott’s “The Prodigal,” so much is compressed into single lines, singles phrases, one could spend weeks excavating the layers of themes and references in a single verse.
Where Stein’s experiments, like Tom Cruise’s Bill, are awash in the superficiality of privilege, Tracie Morris adopts this poetic mode and makes it both relevant and a useful tool for speaking truth to the texts of power. Here Morris makes material Audre Lorde’s claim that “poetry is not a luxury.”
And this is where her work diverges from the other poets labeled as “sound poets” or “performance poets.” Like Kurt Schwitters, who she also converses with in “Resonatae” her explorations are not superfluous play for surface pleasure—there is always intent, a searching, and a pushing forward into new territory, an impulse to evolve. It is at its core Afrofuturist poetry, nuclear/cold fusion properties applied to the word.
In her piece “5:05,” Morris develops and moves beyond John Cage’s “4:33.” With “4:33” Cage wanted to present the notion that when instruments are not played the atmospheric noise of our lives becomes the music. While his composition focuses on a single moment in time and the atmospheric music that environment possesses, Tracie Morris has recorded five tracks of environmental sound from five different times and locations, creating density and layers and therefore new contexts to these minutes of silence that would not exist if they lived only in isolation, a kind of unity of ideas, cultures, and eras that comes naturally to artists of color who have been instinctively juggling and synthesizing disparate contexts for the entire history of our colonial world.
In this colonial world, artists of color have had to be educated (indoctrinated) with primarily white American and European figures and concepts to build upon. In the absence of a broad fielder of nonwhite artists and historical iconography to draw from, artists of color have had to either invent themselves from nothing, as Aimé Césaire and the founders of hip hop did, or they have had to sculpt from the colonial materials and risk erasure through assimilation. With handholding: 5 kinds, Tracie Morris offers a third option: use your craft to dismantle the materials left for you by the colonial world, repurposing the most useful and relevant parts, and then use the rest as fuel to burn for your trip to the next star.
Vincent Toro is the author of “Stereo.Island.Mosaic.,” which was awarded the 2015 Sawtooth Poetry Prize. He is also recipient of a Poet’s House Emerging Poets Fellowship, a New York Foundation for the Arts Fellowship in Poetry, and a Metlife Nuestras Voces Playwriting Award. Vincent has an MFA in poetry from Rutgers University, and is a contributing editor for Kweli Literary Journal. Vincent’s poems have been published in The Buenos Aires Review, Codex, The Acentos Review, The Caribbean Writer, Rattle, The Cortland Review, Vinyl, Saul Williams’ CHORUS, and Best American Experimental Writing 2015.