Beneath the whim
of a sun humming to itself, that other city’s portrait. It shrinks
around the blanket elephant river swallowing its tails. I guess
I’ve faded to recognize more of that city’s bone and twinge, let it
fill my ears full of overhearing.
Much in the way Langston Hughes’s Ask Your Mama: 12 Moods for Jazz (1961) renders pre–Civil Rights era race relations in musically dialogic terms, The Flayed City records the metropolitan and provincial cities of the global past and present through the sonic logic of antiphony, or call and response. In macro-structural terms, the book’s three major sections — dubbed “choruses” — foreground their musicality, each opening with dialogic epigraphs and building a worldwide web of intertextuality with what Alluri calls “poetic mentor-texts” (from, respectively, Marina Tsvetaeva, Venus Khoury-Ghata, and José Garcia Villa). Indeed, as one can glean from Alluri’s detailed acknowledgments page (a reverence he describes as “neither ancestral worship nor channeling”), the work resounds with a great buzz of the world’s poet voices, recontextualized and amalgamated — not exactly via the postmodern logics of bricolage or direct mash-up, but maybe something closer to inspired “overhearing” — rebuilding, line by line, brick by brick, a reverberant conurbation of original verse.
Alluri expanded on this feature in my recent interview with the author, limning his approach to writing The Flayed City in the terms of sonic homage and “immigration”:
I began … to read poets for their musical notes … to think of lines and images as notes … so interpolations grew in a musical way, something different from collage and different from imitation (I call this kind of listening and “writing beside” immigration, by the way). It took me to certain regions whose motifs were similar to mine in musically different ways … [which ultimately] helped me find notes in my own remembrances and imaginations of [The] City. That was one of my driving forces: I had been struggling with music in my work, and so I went toward it with everything — everything — remembering how, for example, a Curtis Mayfield composition … tells me an emotional story … [as can] the back and forth of emcees, the dialogic form …. [all suggesting] the transference of ways of being in ways beyond words that, in the poems, must somehow return through language.
More formal layers of “dialogue” appear throughout the collection, as in the consistent alternations of setting between night and day, city and village, the voice of the speaker/poet and the remembered speech of an Auntie, among others. Leitmotifs also abound, especially images of sweepers, brooms, and dust, suggesting, by turns, a metaphor of poetic (re)collection, a cultural multiplicity in the conception of time, a shared human arc toward disintegration, and the role of musical media (say, the grooves of the LP record) in directing our nostalgia:
with a throat’s boyish taboo to ancestry. A suspension
of bridges, a pounded yam, a throne, and famine’s
cheek bone smile. Also a broken record, like a melody halved:
my father, my son, the notes I am given, repeating
a broken count, a melody.
The “broken records” of Alluri’s work suggest not only the “hazardous pilgrimages” of Proustian reverie but also the very real issues of the immigrant’s cultural ancestry, complexity of origins, or outright statelessness — a kind of cacophonous existence. In Alluri’s words,
the shared physical, geographic space upon which memory and longing superimpose divergence and multiplicity (and, of course, City) … is always fabrication in all the senses of the word, the seeming/seaming of multiple into the appearance of one, [so] perhaps the Ganesh work is to bring the distant village and city into this one, which is what the migrant does (despite not quite themselves fully arriving in / becoming “part” of this one), [which] is both a violence and a beauty, because the migrant may not quite return — or may not even ever be from — but they always carry / convey / freight / traffic [those] places into each other … Those cities are sites of departure and return, [though] of course return is impossible for migrants because the sites change and the returner is also not the one who left … [So] there’s the way that easy nostalgia is dangerous because it allays the dangers of the past, but [then there’s] difficult nostalgia, nostalgia that contends with the layers at work, or troubles them, transforms them in the process.
Though the uses and abuses of nostalgia appear thematically throughout The Flayed City, the collection’s third and final chorus, “Because We Aren’t Still,” most closely examines the double-edged or multifaceted nature of nostalgia for the diasporic immigrant experience. As the subtitle’s double entendre suggests, the section presents a series of recollected vignettes of the “other sides” of the city divides — a “not yet” or incomplete reconciliation of political, socioeconomic, and personal subjectivities, as well as a backward-looking restlessness at the heart of both past and present. “Let’s leave our shadows, Uncle said, to those who forget theirs. / The seams are showing, showing like they haven’t since.” Forgetfulness and remembering, the shadows and light of mind and heart — and the uneasy or sometimes inverted relationship between those pairs (à la Borges’s Funes the Memorious, for whom forgetfulness was a blessing and remembering a dark torture) begin to bridge the personal and the political.
The “seams” between the shadows and light of personal memory extend, too, to the poor and rich boroughs of a populace divided:
His shirt stiffened by the washing line — he put on that shirt.
Tarred with mosses rounded upon the tar, the city. We wish to
garland our parts of the city with the ashes of the parts we loathe.
The city huddled onto the block.
The daily uniforms of the working class, besmirched with the permanent stains of a coarsening drudgery, spark the inward fires of a quieted rage — the desire to level the city, in both senses of the word, to burn it down, to invert the city’s binaries, to remind those with privilege not to forget the past, the slave-ship auction, the judgment block and its ongoing resonance.
A bother to your leaves, I remain foreign to this wind, and he
swept up more leaves. No longer able to cover the branches in
our stomachs, the fog dissipated. The city was flayed.
The fogs of foreignness and alienation — from each other, from our pasts and presents, from ourselves, from the city and its memories — do not so much dissipate here as further reveal a naked, raw anatomy of difference and inequality within and between the city and The City.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Alluri’s own biography parallels the backward-looking experience of global migrations and border-crossings at the resonant heart of The Flayed City. Born in Nigeria to a family of Indian and Filipino ancestry, his early childhood saw him cross the borders of those three countries before immigrating to the Canadian Northwest. He finished grade school and community college in Vancouver before pursuing undergraduate studies in Victoria, spending a year in Toronto as a mentor for arts outreach, and then earning an MFA at San Diego State University, near which he began to write this most recent book of poetry on Kumeyaay tribal land. Thus, from an early age and as an ongoing part of his experience as an adult thinker and artist, a broadly international perspective — on borders, privileges, differences, and universals, among other things — shines through his work.
Given the above themes and Hari’s globally rich genealogies of exclusion and belonging, it seems only fitting that The Flayed City should be published by the Kaya Press, a consistent champion of globally minded art and a self-described publisher of “cutting-edge Asian and Pacific Islander diasporic writers.” Founded in 1994 and initially launched in New York City, the Kaya Press now makes its home in the Department of American Studies and Ethnicity at the University of Southern California, where it releases a broad spectrum of artistic projects — studies of film noir, documentaries, fiction, nonfiction, performance pieces, and poetry — some of which have garnered prestigious awards (either for the authors or the press itself), including the American Book Award, the Gregory Kolovakas Prize for Outstanding New Literary Press, the Association for Asian American Studies Book Award, the PEN Beyond Margins Open Book Prize, the Asian American Writers’ Workshop Award, and the PEN Oakland Josephine Miles Literary Award.
It’s too soon to know whether or not The Flayed City will bring further accolades to the already-impressive rostrum of the Kaya Press, but make no mistake: Alluri’s work makes a vital contribution to the artistic dialogue of and about our times. In the context of the 21st-century present, in a world where climate change, war, genocide, poverty, and dictatorial intransigence spur mass migrations from periphery to metropole — border-crossings met frequently with a concomitant rhetoric of anti-immigrant populism and cultural polemics — Hari Alluri’s The Flayed City asks us to consider the many ways the concept of immigration, and the hope and memory and enrichment and seduction it carries, resonates across the imaginary lines that divide us.
Dr. Mark Young teaches in the Warren College Writing Program at UCSD and serves as Editor of the LARB Music Section.