Monday, September 18, 2006

The Lateness of Being? Essex Hemphill.
(Essex Hemphill--top left--from a photo by Rotimi Fani-Kayode).
San Francisco has just staged a challenging play entitled The Hard Evidence of Existence. The title comes from Hemphill. The publicity for the play acknowledges this fact rather interestingly; totally unaware of the context in which Hemphill wrote. So, the title is from a poem by the late black gay poet Essex Hemphill.

As a poet, Hemphill faced, as he saw it, a triple exile. And there was a fourth exile made from trying to make sense of the three. Simply, Hemphill was an exile because he was black—he belonged to a minority ethnic group symbolically governed from the WHITE house. He was an exile because he was gay—he lived on a daily basis under the laws of heterotyranny. Finallly, he was a radical(black gay) poet—Hemphill would have said raDICKal—no publishing house was likely to put his words into print freely. Hemphill’s existence, like Red Annie who speaks these words to the USA, was founded on a hard struggle: Am I more black than gay? Am I more gay than black? Am I more a poet than black and gay? How does the black poet speak to the gay audience? How does the gay poet speak to the black audience? The permutations build a complex sense of identity in crisis--all of which were imposed by patriarchy upon Hemphill.

By adding “late” to “black gay poet”, unintentionally, the publicity blurb suggests that death too is a hard fact of existence—for Hemphill. This attaching of “late” to poets is becoming quite fashionable, but why?

Would we say the “late Shakespeare”? Well, no, because his death is a well-known fact.
What about, then, the “late white gay poet Thom Gunn”. That sounds ridiculous. Again, the phrase is a kind of tautology because everything stated is well known.

So, what is that “late” supposed to say about Hemphill? He just died? Well no he didn’t: it is some 10 years since his death, so the “late” is not an obituary notice.
He died from AIDS? * Is it the nature of the death that is important? Certainly, that would make sense as it was Hemphill’s gay-black status that placed him wide open to such a virulent and opportunistic disease. Yet, the “late” only contains this sense if a person knows the biographical facts—not much point in telling what is already known.

But this still begs a question, for me? Hemphill is a great poet—as good as Ginsberg, whose work exists in the present tense. His work is not dead and attributed elegiacally to a dead poet. Ginsberg is Ginsberg. Why can’t Hemphill be Hemphill?

This use of “late” is a form of modern, linguistic nonsense. It does not belong to Hemphill in some existential sense. It belongs to him in one sense only: the critical world has been late in its recognition of a significant gay, black, poet.

* Marechera, like Hemphill died of AIDs... and in the mid 1980s, 40% of Zimbabweans were HIV+. Interestingly, this is not always mentioned about Marechera, but always mentioned about Hemphill. Heterosexual AIDs is best not mentioned whereas homosexual AIDs always has to be mentioned. There is also a tendency, now, to speak of Marechera as "late"...but this is from a different angle, as if critics would like the bad boy of African literature to take his ghost elsewhere. Perhaps, it would make more sense to speak of the living poetry of Hemphill and make sure the ghost continues to haunt.

Friday, September 08, 2006

Black Sunlight,

We had only that single year at Oxford together, full of study and hugs and shit and that somnolent afternoon…
On the mantelpiece fragrant sticks were burning. Their thin curls of air-sweetening smoke somnolently plucked upwards seeming to pause contemplatively before the framed print of Bronzino’s An Allegory. Blanche sat before the electric fire wearing nothing but her scholar’s gown. Through the wide open curtains, thick handfuls of snow digressed slantwise against the windowpanes. The transparent lattices of that somnolent afternoon. I lay naked face down on the bed, my mind utterly blank, my body languorous, my feelings a sheer perplexity. The silence was even nastier than the experiments we had done on each other’s bodies. The best had emerged from the sunken depths and we had clawed, scratched, bit, drawn blood till our eyes had enflamed and frightened the dragon back into its lair in our bodies. And the distant bells of St Mary’s had to clang the hour, letting loose upon the slate roofs and spires a peal of golden sparks. (BS. P.5)

This is an early reminiscence of Christian, Marechera’s “protagonist”, in Black Sunlight. Its subject is the anthropologist Blanche Goodfather.

What exactly is being said?

At this moment in time, Christian is hanging upside down, tied to a rope, as a punishment. He is well aware of the different levels of meaning. He refers to his swinging thoughts. And yet, the reader is not given an oscillating stream-of-conscious narrative, but this weighted prose. The weighting of the language is calculated, it would seem, to match the gravity of the moment—for Christian. The very formal descriptive prose also measures Christian’s state of mind. A reminiscence is something ordered tightly by memory. And here, the reminiscence is pictorial. Like a painting.

Christian recalls an afternoon in Oxford University. (Marechera is drawing upon his own experience in the city of dreaming spires). His experience is pointedly related. The reader expects “study”, “hugs” not so much, “shit” even less. Quickly, the academic world is reduced until all that remains is a “somnolent afternoon” that explains the mixture.

“Sticks” burn on the “mantelpiece”. Not candles. The two words pin-point the older-world homeliness of Oxford and a modern decadent(ism). Marechera is writing a language with an irony that touches on the mock-heroic (of Fielding). Like hair (sexually) the “smoke” is “plucked” upwards. Cleverly, the hair image rises through a verb that means to pull hair (from the Latin root pilus, hair). There is the poet’s eye. The fragranced air becomes religious as it pauses to contemplate a painting on the walls of Blanche Goodfather’s room.

Marechera is creating a joking religious tone in Christian’s mind, a joke that becomes apparent at the moment when “Bronzino” is included. Instead of some religious icon, the wall holds sexy paganism. And Marechera is specific about which: it is one that he would have known from the National Gallery, London: An Allegory of Venus and Cupid (1540-1550). Bronzino’s painting is a Mannerist allegory and the style now takes on the quality of the painting: it has a veiled eroticism in which the figures are distorted and figures assume a symbolic stature.

In Bronzino’s allegory, Eros incestuously fondles Venus, behind which a tortured face hints as the dangerous side of Venus, venereal disease and infection, whilst two figures bring rose petals and a honeycomb—these probably refer to the honey that led Eros to be stung and the fallen rose petals of Venus's desire. The exact meaning of Bronzino’s painting cannot be known, but that doesn’t really matter, for Bronzino is being re-interpreted by Marechera. Themes emerge from the painting, eros, incest and infection, an individual’s distance from original desire (the image is only a print) but the immediate comparison is between the divine beings and Christian and Blanche.
Sitting naked in her Oxford gown, Blanche/White is a representation of Venus, her name connecting her to the skin of white civilisation and to the glowing white goddess painted by Bronzino. In her black gown, by the fire (of desire) she repeats the academic eroticism of An Allegory. White snow is seen through the lead-glazed windows of academia and in front of them Christian lies naked. He is prone, not supine, not an accidental detail for it shows his passivity. Suggestively, Christian relates his mind, at this moment, as “blank”, whitened, empty, as if his blackness has been lost. (At Oxford, Marechera felt that he had been reduced to a student of whiteness, an “Uncle Tom").

This sexual experiment is one of the many in Black Sunlight—“experiment” is a key noun. And in keeping with the rest of the passage, Marechera's writing advances through a pun that functions like a false perspective famous in Mannerism. Within this world of allegory, the reader is prepared for a sexual beast, instead s/he is given “be(a)st”. Christian relates a view in which the best is inseparable from darker, less likeable layers, but in these levels life exists without any form of check—carte blanche? Unbounded desire?

In the final image, Christian (Marechera) recalls the Church of St. Mary’s, an image central to Oxford’s history. The ringing of “golden sparks” from the Church of the Virgin is a beautiful piece of Decadent pastiche, but also a description that parallels religious ecstasy and ringing the orgasmic bell. This pictorial covering over of “clawed, scratched, bit” intimates the veil that Western civilisation has cast over sexuality.

But not all of Black Sunlight is like this!
Is this the "best"?
No, it shifts with the mind, as it critiques the Western novel.
There is still the beast.

Friday, September 01, 2006


Probably, we all have objects that irritate us personally. Mine would be the mobile phone and its omnipresence in daily life. I was surprised to see a prologue to Heading South which read, in cosmic letters, PLEASE TURN OFF YOUR MOBILE PHONES AND THINK OF OTHERS BECAUSE RINGING PHONES SPOIL THE FILM FOR THEM. It hadn’t even occurred to me to bring my mobile phone. Who did I want to talk to? But having said this, walking phones and mobile people do have their moments. In a world of respectability (without respect) they have a wonderful way of cracking open life’s surface. Nothing like the mobile phone to show the static nature of the human mind!

Scene. A bookshop. A father is talking pompously to his son/daughter about University choices.

Going to university is very important, you know, such a privilege!
Yes, I am in the bookshop.
So, which offer do you think you will accept?
Well, I am checking it out now.
(For five minutes he has been sat reading An Introduction to Philosophy).Are you sure about Philosophy?
It doesn’t seem like a real subject to me.
Isn’t it one of those sort of padding subjects, you know, one that other people do to make up their A Levels?
Don’t you think Psychology would be the better option?
I mean, Psychology is all about the brain.
Employers…you have to think about that…always want people with brains.
I’ve looked at some Psychology books and it looks hard, like a real subject.
You still want to do Philosophy.
Don’t you think you’re brighter than that though?
But one goes to university to stretch one’s mind.
This Philosophy stuff won’t teach you to think.
Wait until I get home!

“Whereof we cannot speak, thereof we must pass over in silence.”