Tradition Is Not What We Think It Is: On Harmony Holiday’s “Hollywood Forever”
By Laura GoodeMarch 16, 2017
Hollywood Forever by Harmony Holiday
Holiday’s voice is composed of an encyclopedia of valences. She is not only an accomplished poet, but also works as a dancer/choreographer, an audio archivist for her site AfroSonics, and an experimental filmmaker. Indeed, thanks to Holiday’s archival sensibility, Hollywood Forever features a multimedia layer in its unapologetically black palimpsest. Holiday lays her text over a variety of primary sources, facilitating a living conversation between the poet and her historical context. Among these source texts are cover images from midcentury issues of Jet and Ebony, a news story of a man’s wife and mistress both placing obituaries for him, and a wide range of anti-black polemic — KKK sundown warnings, celebrity mugshots, and, in a recurrent and meaningfully deconstructed motif, a notice that begins “STOP! / Help Save the Youth of America / DON’T BUY NEGRO RECORDS.” Equally significant are more contemporary, but no less racially freighted, images of internet apocrypha — Bossip links about butt injection deaths, a lawyer’s ad: “FATHERS / DO YOU WANT / CUSTODY / DIVORCE / VISITATION / CHILD SUPPORT,” and tweets from Azealia Banks about Lil’ Kim’s bleaching.
Hollywood Forever’s poems are so revealingly connected to these “sources” that to separate poem from image risks betraying the collection’s intent; the poems must be seen in the way that some poems must be spoken aloud. That intertextual conversation propels Hollywood Forever into the realm of something breathtakingly new: its style draws upon past experimental poetic techniques of erasure, pentimento, and bricolage, yet arrives at a totally original command of form. Hollywood Forever is a dense, immersive collection, jaggedly structured into six movements, but unguided by formal constraints like a table of contents, numbered sections, or a clear divergence of poetry from prose. In its finely controlled sprawl, Holiday’s construction even troubles our expectation that a title will appear at the top of each page or will be clearly distinguished from the texts that bubble under the poems’ meniscus. But by the end of the book, Holiday has literally made her own headlines, or has placed her own form at the head of the line.
Among Hollywood Forever’s dazzling pantheon of informers, specters, and allusions are Miles Davis, Sun Ra, Bobby Womack, Angela Davis, Prince, Abbey Lincoln, Dr. Sebi, Billie Holiday, Malcolm X, Michael Jackson, and three Kings: Martin Luther, Coretta Scott, and Martin’s mother, Alberta Williams, who, Holiday reminds us beneath the collection’s first poem, was “slain in church” in 1974. The women of the beautiful struggle, given criminally scant airtime by the gaze of white male history, occupy hallowed ground in Holiday’s canon; as that opening poem insists, the redeemer is fiercely female, “covered / with the blood of wolves who had tried / to consume the lamb.” The soul of this unknown yet radically powerful woman is the soil in which Hollywood Forever is grown. Another poem, “Hypervisibility” (lain over a 1953 Jet cover: “Why Hollywood Won’t Glamorize Negro Girls”), asserts, “The point is what about the Invisible Woman his perfect compliment / where is Ellison’s finally treatise in honor of her. What is she like. The fierce one.”
Hollywood Forever is scored in the minor key of black history, and music plays a large part in the collection. Her father, the R&B singer/songwriter Jimmy Holiday, emerges less as motif than as métier for Holiday, both in Hollywood Forever and in her previous two books, Negro League Baseball (2011) and Go Find Your Father/A Famous Blues (2014). Jimmy died when Harmony was five, and the reader senses that her lifelong artistic and archival labor has been, in part, an attempt to memorialize, explain, explode, or contextualize him. Hollywood Forever reflects Holiday’s effort to interpret her father not only as an individual, but also as an avatar for his era, one node in a complex black anatomy of gifted, creative, famous, charismatic, and brutalized men. A dynamic tension emerges between the poet as a sophisticated, prodigious multimedia thinker and wounded child. The poem “Glowing with absence and merchandise” begins, “Father, Father,” and ends “looking for anyone who resembles you / to help me practice my scenes.”
Hollywood Forever witnesses Holiday’s black father’s abuse of her white mother, examining that violence from both personal and critical vantage points. The poet situates this private violence within the United States’s systemic violence against black men. In “What Jimmy Taught Me,” Holiday writes, “To be born yellow into a household where the black man rules with his fists / and the white wife body livid with a devotion hip enough to confuse / trouble with love or whatever it was,” superimposing the text upon The Atlanta Constitution’s headline “Dr. King Shot, Dies in Memphis; Curfew On, 4000 Guards Called.” Like a weary interviewee, she adds a trace of personal irony: “I wanted to say this more clearly In what ways did watching your / black father beat your white mother empower you as a brown baby?” Later, recalling a whopper of an intersectional conflict, she asks, “Did sex feel good in captivity? I watched / my black father choke my white mother when the greens weren’t tender, enough.”
Entwined with this violence is one of the most loaded, prismatic words in Holiday’s lush poetic vocabulary: “casual.” “Do any black children grow up casual?” asks the title of the most circulated poem from Go Find Your Father; in response, the speaker recalls being carjacked with her mother and sisters on the way home from Spago. In Hollywood Forever, the “casual” often links arms with death, as in “Recognition Scenes” — “Mama is no mulatto / casual swinging from that oak” — or in “MODE SIX: Your Mukbang Made Me Weep” — “The eating show must mimic the killing field, casually, we are at war with / our desire and the chicken isn’t winning.” The “casual” also consorts with commodity, capitalism, vice, and materialism, as in “Kanye West’s poverty is immaterial and arrogant, stylized, casual,” “you pretend cake is a casual delicacy,” or “the second hand glamor of your casual bad habits.”
But the most poignant valence of the “casual” is vertical, pointing to healing and heroism. In “Good Time People,” the speaker remembers “the one ally we made / in our shelter, Mr. Williams,” naming him “redeemer, redentor, casual healer, recalled / in the field of my most perfect nightmare on earth.” And in one of collection’s tour de forces, “MODE ONE, Charles Mingus: Just go on your nerve,” she confides, “we aren’t casual about much, keep our intensity on the hush, but we casually / announce the pathologies of our heroes in the tone of accolades. That Nigga’s Crazy!” “Crazy,” here, belies itself just as “casual” has throughout the book: what’s crazy is not actually crazy, just as what’s casual is not at all casual. Holiday makes us question everything: “Tradition is not what we think it is. Do we think it is?”
Holiday tempers what could have become a document completely mired in the past with a counteractive strain of Afrofuturism. The jazz polymath Sun Ra appears as another forefather. On the book’s opening page, which bears the headline announcing Alberta Williams King’s murder, there issues “A Space Warning from Sun Ra to the Planet Earth.” Indeed, Sun Ra is just one of a wide constellation of black polymaths, almost all of them deceased — including Abbey Lincoln, Charles Mingus, Prince, and Dr. King — who preoccupy Holiday.
Focusing on this multiform black excellence, Hollywood Forever’s palimpsest interrogates how black stars in American society repeatedly try and fail to “transcend” the constructs of race and marginality. There is thirst for reparation here, as well as a deep, justified suspicion of contracts, trademarks, and other corrupt means of exploiting intellectual property — especially black music and art — for profit.
In “Masthead / Masked Dance,” Holiday unpacks Hollywood Forever’s cover image of Miles Davis leaving jail, “his / suit covered in blood, head / bandaged, eyes downcast in / arrogance before shame or / arrogant shame”:
This is an autopsy of
that event, across eras
and causes. This image/
document is our refrain
and our excess, embattled,
reconciling one another,
bloody and wiser, the tonic
that occupies our hearts
whenever we dance in the
risk of showmanship with
Embroiled with this frustrated transcendence is the mantra that precedes it and cycles through Hollywood Forever: “I want a land where the sun kills questions.” It appears as a wish (“I want…” or “I need…”), a declaration (“The Sun kills questions”), a question (“But then where do we bury the questions killed by our / benevolent sun”), and, in the collection’s final poem, a pilgrimage:
By the time we reach this valediction, the flourish of Hollywood Forever’s final movement has spun the book’s animating themes and conceits — the myths of transcendence and the casual, shadows, the blues, black angels, sugar, Don’t Buy Negro Records, violence, infidelity — into six virtuosic “MODE” poems, addressed to Mingus, Lincoln, Mos Def, and a cache of internet shadows, that, forgoing all irony, can be called nothing so much as transcendent.
Where is the land where the sun kills questions? Is it Sun Ra’s Saturn? Is it Africa? Is it Egypt, the desert where the enslaved built pyramids? Is it Camus’s desert? Is it Los Angeles, where the sun’s spotlight bakes skin and earth? This radiant collection’s answer is as plural as Harmony Holiday herself. It is, of course, no coincidence that prodigious and divinely inspired black polymaths obsess Holiday, for, as Hollywood Forever proves, she is one of them. These poems achieve a radical synthesis — polyamorous, reincarnatory, monumental, and explosive — which launches Hollywood Forever into the stratum of American genius. “I step into my father’s solitude and it works. Now we share a big idea together,” writes Holiday in an untitled fragment late in the collection. “A Harmony in infinite parts.” Yes.
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