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.

14 comments:

My Talking Beginnings said...

I like how you point out the seeming difference between heterosexual and homosexual aids and thier mentions in todays press, It is a very pertinent issue that should be explored further.
Here, what really does it for me is the issue you have raised about identity. If you remember, when iwrote about the who steven lawrence affiar, i asked several times why he was refered to as the murdered black teenager...of what particular reference was this description.
I would say, identity remains a very complex concept, made even more so by societies such as modern day Britain!

Unsane said...

variations on themes: we have all seen the movie philadephia, but we have never seen the movie wherein the black bohemian decides the there is no point in being Half-sicK' and decides to live a more extreme bohemian life whilst not being fully apprised of the possible consequences.

eshuneutics said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
eshuneutics said...

Unsane--I wonder which writer you are thinking of? Could you imagine Hollywood trying to make that!!!!!I found Philadelphia unwatcheable, though I watched it politely with a friend who adored it. I did not see this, but you have probably detected (for me) what first made me stop and read all of Hemphill. There is this will, willingness, to face--through AIDS--the complete sickness of middle-class life. The fact that Hemphill's Earth Life opens with a drawing by a leading Black Panther visual propogandist shows where his poetry is rooted: terrorism without apology.

eshuneutics said...

I sort of knew what you would say if you made a comment, mtb. You were in my mind as I wrote this. I remember pointing out that "black teenager" was needed because it referred to the context i.e. it was anti-black hatred that killed Stephen and so the recognition of him as a "black teenager" remembers the cause. Probably, as you suggest, this is the only sense in which "late" makes sense here--it refers to the cause. But "late" also is a euphemism, a sweetening of something bitter, it has a terrible polite Englishness to it, as in someone speaking at a dinner party about her "late husband" and his love of trout-fishing. Would "AIDS murdered black gay poet" be closer to the mark? That little word "late" opens up all kinds of issues about identity. AIDS treatment has moved on, but for Hemphill is was a death sentence. His final poem facing death is horrific, not because it his horrible, but because he turns the body of language inside out, as he tries to face his own dying body; and he tortures the English language--as did Marechera--to make it give him back his African identity. He did not want to die an American Christian...not be part of the religion that disowned him...ultimately, there is an existential struggle beyond black, gay, almost beyond poetry, as he wishes to die a man.

Jennifer said...

I was talking about Marechera: He said one has to be completely sick, not half sick -- he meant it as a metaphor. Apparently Paul Mann? said that artists were all sickly creatures -- I guess socially?

Jennifer said...

oh--Thomas Mann.

I have been feeling impossibly vague today. I'm too irregular taking my nominal dose of hormones.

eshuneutics said...

I guessed you meant Thomas, but Paul sure as hell got me! Who? I was racking my thoughts to find him.

Jennifer said...

I think I was thinking of Paul de Man.

Jennifer said...

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_de_Man

Id it is said...

I never really gave the title 'late' so much thought until this post, but now on I will. It's amazing how that word draws attention to the fact that the death of the person went unnoticed and thus has to be announced (by the word 'late'). On the other hand the same word could also substitute a sigh of relief; thank goodness he's no more, thus drawing attention to certain aspects of the person that brought him notoriety. Either ways the word 'late' before a person's name obviously has no positive connotation; something I never realized until I read your post, and I thank you for that.

Unsane said...

I think "late" before a name can possibly be positive, too. It's like you can believe that the person's force is secondary on you, rather than being a direct force. It still feels that powerful and contemporary. So, you add the extra signification to remind yourself, in front of their name.

eshuneutics said...

"late" as ironical distance?
I am not so sure--at least, I haven't come across this kind of usage.

Unsane said...

I think I may have used the term in this way once -- but not ironically.