JUNE 30, 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:
I mean we say we mean it
because it feels nice to be mean
it feels childlike a newborn
lost in a beautiful cave on the way to
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.
The book’s title should not be taken literally: there are no references here to the Kansas City Monarchs, Newark Eagles, Pittsburgh Crawfords, or Homestead Grays. Rather, Negro League Baseball is, for Holiday’s purposes, a metaphoric space wherein her speakers’ identities are allowed a temporary freedom of passionate self-expression. Most of the book’s speakers are not athletes but musicians, another kind of performer held in high esteem by the black community, and thus a useful vehicle for poems dealing with race, identity, and political power (as well as a figure for her own father). In “Duets,” Holiday alludes to the saxophonist Cannonball Adderley, who serves as a catalyst for her own elegiac remembrance: “Each pulse struggling to release the other, we make an archive or tumble parts of starved blood, the fullest laughter two bodies can muster ours record and do, playing spoken for each other.” Playing with “record” as both noun and verb, Holiday calls out to her father over the vistas of time and circumstance in a duet that will “blotch and strange and land / in the conversation.”
Plenty of other voices are here as well. In her closing poem, “(Afterward) Notes on a Letter to the Singer Abby Lincoln from Her Lover, Abraham Lincoln,” Holiday likens the socially conscious singer, best known for her politically volatile work of the 1960s, to a fugitive slave: “The fix-blue mind could operate like a fugitive. Running from what. Running to something. Grace / the front row. And when you reach it. It doesn’t exist.” In a metonymic move typical of the book’s logic, Holiday links Lincoln, via her last name, to a very different symbolic presence in the African-American imaginary: Abraham Lincoln. (The misspelling of Abbey Lincoln’s first name, like Cannonball Adderley’s last, is, as far as I can tell an unfortunate error on the part of her editors.)
Symbols are important to Holiday, but symbols, for her, are never simple: “Like I’m symbol / so that I have become competitive with my history,” she writes. This competition with history is perpetual for Holiday’s speakers: it’s an exhausting feat for the speaker of “Like I’m Simple” to switch between the role of educated artist who must serve peoples’ expectations and free autonomous artist. Even the book’s cover illustrates this dynamic: it shows an ecstatic white crowd gawking at a black saxophonist, who is bent backwards and in the middle of a sweaty, vigorous solo. Holiday’s poems can be read as a kind of defense against someone else’s desire, whether it’s the desire of a white audience or a black one. Like the Langston Hughes character Simple, Holiday’s speaker interrogates her duality, her eagerness to please: “Still (so that I have to think of my father) to continue or unless I prefer to hear you assimilating your sensibility to anybody’s, telling-clean-joke like you’re a phony, still.”
Negro League Baseball may be tough going for the average reader, yet its rewards are bountiful. The poems are deliberately opaque and dense, and there is little handholding that some readers (perhaps those who appreciate a Billy Collins or a Jane Hirshfield poem) will surely miss. Holiday conceals and reveals by turns, yet is consistently engaging and vital; these are poems for a serious, patient, and attentive reader who wants the richest possible experience.