|Los Angeles Review of Books|
Sean Singer on Negro League Baseball by Harmony Holiday
Glimmers of Family
June 30th, 2011
IN NEGRO LEAGUE BASEBALL, her debut volume of prose poems, Harmony Holiday wrestles with the perplexing question of how a black artist can live and work without drawing attention exclusively toward race, while returning regularly to the death of her father, the soul singer Jimmy Holiday. In an afterword, Holiday tries to explicate some of what she was attempting in this beautiful, confounding, and at times perilous book:
It is reconciliation without reconciliation. I had to invent an impossible/mythorealistic space wherein [my father] and I could have and insinuate the conversations he and I never got to finish in this realm, a place not too drastic, but not too casual either.
Not too drastic, not too casual: a place of simultaneous freedom and constraint. Here as elsewhere, Holiday has inherited her father's musical legacy: the intensity, rigor, and playfulness with sound in her poetry is immense, as loving and complex a tribute as a parent can imagine. I quote one exemplary passage, from "Death by Then":
A wizening, a new shrewd issuing sing, for him. I'm listening green, not like splendor, like latitude, for you a cleft gruesomeness treading itself scentless poppies seeping us noxious, my favorite hue and the context you care in, the color you carry the color, cousin the color, cousin and color, for lust towards husk sounds, carboned around the paranoia of ignoring a lever and a mother and a sister as inert glimmers of family grow vulgar or oliver, vinegar green, I'm thinking of two passings growing back, growing one verde arrogate, thinking it irritates me to pursue a canyoned longing to rural green renewal, drawl green, Iowa wasn't green, shag carpet green, still thinking the grass which grows out of tar shoulder, the carved shrug toward our such slick road. I'm last green of an August funeral, struggling to depict what's kept thinking.
The main "characters" here — the speaker and her dead father — are secondary to the landscape, and to the fleeting, mysterious sounds and images of a personal memory, which becomes a public space. Informed by her own communities' relationships to reinvention of language, and to the children's relationships with language, a relationship fraught with creativity, quickness, and error, Holiday deliberately "worries" the threads of her sentences. For example, in "Dixie is a Two Beat Thing/11:11," she writes, provocatively: "A number counting down coming down rubber rung hill eleven one too, one two quilted pigtails fell below shoulders all vestigial like I'll call him a fellow as it holds enough of a pillar of a formal illness distilled is this love..." Holiday's wordplay takes a young girl's counting game ("too" and "two") and throws in a disruptive half-rhyme ("illness" and "distilled") to imitate the surge of difficult emotions this childhood event conjures for the adult speaker.
Energy is difficult to maintain in a poem, still harder in prose. Without using terza rima or blank verse, Holiday offers a knotted, textured tone; her poems show an interior consciousness that overwhelms everything, most successfully in the prose poems that make up the bulk of the book. Since its invention in mid-nineteenth century France, poets have conceived of the prose poem as a unique kind of space, suitable for working out their most inchoate ideas. "A room that is like a dream," Charles Baudelaire called this hybrid form in 1855 when writing Paris Spleen, "a truly spiritual room, where the stagnant atmosphere is nebulously tinted pink and blue." Holiday's prose poems often have that dream-like feel, and their meanings must necessarily be kneaded out slowly. Her poems not written in prose, by contrast, suffer from an absolute lack of formal scaffolding:
This, like the rest of Holiday's verse, is more or less awful. Ironically, these stabs at stricter form feel like incomplete thoughts or notes; they lack both the clarity and rigor of Holiday's prose poems. It is as if the content of Negro League Baseball was so bubbling and inchoate that the forms took on extremes: to become prose or to end as formless capsules of ideas, untethered to any skeleton.