The Latitude to Want: On Quenton Baker’s “ballast”

Jon Jon Moore Palacios reviews “ballast” by Quenton Baker.

The Latitude to Want: On Quenton Baker’s “ballast”

ballast by Quenton Baker. Haymarket Books. 150 pages.

[S]uppose that the recognition of humanity held out the promise not of liberating the flesh or redeeming one’s suffering, but rather of intensifying it? 
—Saidiya Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (1997)

ALTHOUGH POWER-WASHED from what is called “our national memory,” the truth is that, a few days after George Floyd was murdered, Minneapolis’s Third Precinct burned to the ground. Now, the rumor: Some Black organizers in Minneapolis on the front line of protests, for a diversity of reasons befitting any group of Black people, begged the night’s antagonists to keep the structure standing.

Another truth: When the officer alerted his peers that “[t]he front has been breached,” the “front” meant the front of the Third Precinct building, and it also meant a threshold structured and mediated by violence. Someone had “breached” the precinct, and this threatened the safety of the cops inside. And someone had dared to challenge, as Saidiya Hartman writes, “the breach instituted by slavery and the magnitude of domination” it demands.

Today, slave revolts are rare phenomena seemingly vestigial of a bygone era. In Quenton Baker’s second collection of poetry, ballast, a time-collapsing erasure and long poem, the only “successful” large-scale revolt of American-born enslaved people is remembered alongside another inconceivability: the end of anti-Black violence (which is, too, the end of Blackness) in our present. With terrifying clarity and awareness of their own exposed and fugitive being, Baker explores how a Black desire for something like freedom, without the will to take it, cannot help but reinscribe the arrangement of our world. The result is a text that mines the “language under language” constituting Black speech and finds not a way out of the duress but a desire to descend deeper into the hold—a charge, as Baker puts it, “to be honest to the slave.”

While the 1808 American ban on transatlantic slavery ended the import of Africans, the domestic trade in Black flesh thrived for decades. And in November 1841, two years after the more well-known Amistad rebellion, a small group of American-born slaves led a mutiny aboard the slaver Creole, killing a trader, wounding the captain, and forcing the crew to sail to the Bahamas, where they eventually disembarked, no longer legally enslaved.

Baker’s book begins with 94 pages of erasure—which I read both as one long poem and 94 smaller poems—using Senate Document 51 of the second session of the 27th US Congress in 1842. The original document is composed of letters between consulates and depositions from Creole’s surviving crew. There is no recorded speech, here or elsewhere, of any of the ship’s 135 captives originally bound for New Orleans. And spurred by this absented presence, Baker’s erasure reveals speech beneath the sedimented ledger. These uncanny utterances astound.

Much like M. NourbeSe Philip’s Zong! (2008) and Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection— groundbreaking works that inform the text—ballast invents and adheres to its own logic for minding the disappeared-and-still-here slave. Baker’s approach to erasure is methodical. In the Sharpied seas that saturate the pages of the first section, only whole words are used and sentences are sparse. The Black I that appears throughout the erasure (which is also the first word in the text) is insistently choral and intimate. Resisting narrative and selectivity, Baker’s erasure surfaces resonance between the enslaved rebel looking ahead and the Black writer regarding—from their present, and outside of time.

According to Baker, this method evolved from an early exhibition at Seattle’s Frye Art Museum where they initially attempted to produce 10-foot-high erasures of the document using Wite-Out:

Surfacing this language in a sea of white was absurd, and I found what was coming out when I was using this tiny brush was more narrative, and that wasn’t what I was looking for. But when I switched to the black Sharpie, it felt like purposeful engagement for the first time. It was dogged, it was subterfuge, and it was sabotage.

Black redaction, as Christina Sharpe has offered, allows Baker to produce what they call “a visible but unintelligible rage.” It is to this rage that Baker cedes their ear for diction and eye for space, and this possession moves us off our feet and across the sea throughout ballast. Under the pressure of a form that lends itself to argument and conclusion emerges a voice that is singular, guiltless, and rich with extraordinary observations and affects: “I have the honor / to / be / a portion of the cargo / lost to the owners.”

That Baker locates this speech under speech within a text structured by the prohibition on Black subjectivity is not a testament to the alchemy of erasure. Rather, ballast succeeds because, as Baker suggests, “erasure is an allegorical form” when thinking Blackness. Baker erodes the archive with an obsessive regard for captive, thinking property, and this obsessive regard allows the reader to hear someone, some things, that suffered an impossible fate and made an impossible decision: “I / turned / a / knife / into / morning.” Of cultivating their regard, Baker says, “I thought that if I hit this fucking text enough, I could hear some type of echo […] like a piñata, something might fall out.” What does Baker’s treatment of the slave allow to fall out, or rise up from the text? After spending time with the end of the erasure, I realized I’d been gifted a wildly concise treatise on agency, anti-Blackness, and desire: “Murder / or / a / door.”

Just as the speaker(s) in the erasure arrive on the page from a multitude, the speaker(s) in the epic long poem that completes ballast arrive, ambivalently, together. The first stanza of this section:

there can be no end to us
we are not kinfolk with time
our clocks read nightmare and relief
are bright/variegated things
hands that reach toward redress

Baker turns their attentive diction from the decisions that took the Creole off its predestined course toward the everyday oblation and “compromise” that keeps us, Black people, drowning and afloat in slavery’s wake. Pages in the second section alternate between those with four to six stanzas each and those with scant lines and blocks of text. Wherein the erasure of the first section might train a reader’s eye to meditate on how, as Frank B. Wilderson III suggests, “all Black speech is always coerced speech,” the white space of ballast’s second section suggests that we are not, now, home free. Guided by Baker’s antagonistic, sensual, and “lustral” language, we make our way through the present—and the afterlife of the Creole mutiny—like a dimly lit hallway: “this ship / this pit for touch / this hospice / this thief of the haptic / this marronage / this slaughterhouse for bloom.”

If the world navigated by the speaker(s) in the erasure was the ship at sea, this ship, “this slaughterhouse for bloom,” has become the world in the second section. Our needful inquisition continues:

this knife
into drum

this skin:

and then what?

The stanzas of the second section bear witness to Black life: all that we decide, do, think, and stylize under existential constraint. We write; we fuck; we kill; we are killed; we tire; we continue; we change our minds. We attempt redress, and we fail. These poems honor how we treat one another—and the invention with which we hold ourselves—amidst incessant brutality. But critically, they insist that no abstract otherwise or renegade resilience will derange modernity. Baker’s speaker(s) do not believe that Black people are, or can become, wholly human. We were made to live and die for others to live, and this antagonism remains:

who will at least kill us right
kill us shut
in a finished way

In unpublished remarks delivered in absentia at Strategies of Critique: Care and Cure at York University, Toronto, in May 2023, Jared Sexton, professor of African American studies and film and media studies at UC Irvine, offered a provocation: “As for us, we are ultimately incurable, but fortunately, not untreatable in the meantime.”

With ballast, Quenton Baker considers what is to be done, and the news isn’t good. And isn’t this the good news? No longer on the hunt for a Black humanity proof of concept, they model what can be done in the meantime. Baker belongs to a generation of Black poets eschewing our discipline, refusing the perennial call for antidote, and confronting the truth before us with awe, humor, and, perhaps most graciously, doubt.


Jon Jon Moore Palacios is a poet and general antagonist from Detroit.

LARB Contributor

Jon Jon Moore Palacios is a poet and general antagonist from Detroit. He is working on his first collection. Visit him at


LARB Staff Recommendations

Did you know LARB is a reader-supported nonprofit?

LARB publishes daily without a paywall as part of our mission to make rigorous, incisive, and engaging writing on every aspect of literature, culture, and the arts freely accessible to the public. Help us continue this work with your tax-deductible donation today!