The Poetry Project

All That Beauty by Fred Moten (Letter Machine Editions, 2019)

Review by Harmony Holiday

When that vengeance was achieved.

I start out wanting to defend the beauty of “Allah’s vengeance,” the Black Beauty of something retaliatory that exceeds us, quoted and incited as this collection’s first muse and accompanist. How does a people so prone to love and poetry that we sabotage ourselves to avoid revenge, survive the coming cosmic balancing, how do we survive our impending rise to a power we come by too effortlessly to flex. Ecstatic modesty, as cadence, is the first tool this work offers, signified by the singing of the blackbird “the smile of life is a blackbird,” Fred writes this and I hear Nina Simone’s why you wanna fly blackbird, you ain’t never gonna fly, as the smile’s scaffold or b-side. The smile of life as impossible unfolding, which is disappearing, our darkest matter shining in gash. A double-exposed smile lights the interior voice in furtive imperatives, “just be making something all the time so you can use it.” We learn early in this world that Jimmy Baldwin wanted a camera with which to make experimental films, he called this his solitary ‘interest.’ We learn that Jimmy’s eyes, by reflecting more than they scrutinized, have given Black beauty a place to be and last, a genealogy of subtle instincts to recognize as ritual magic no matter how common— a love of watching LeBron move, an inattention to cruelty that can be cruelty itself, the way forgiving what still needs to atone can be, and we do, out of a love of solitude together, so that we can be ourselves together. If we autopsy Black beauty and find it wanting, it’s our greed impeding our truer nature we sense here “are we gonna lose all of what we found and lost in all this hoarding and citing.”

Black is the color of when the sky starts to shine.

Naw we gotta learn to see through things. To see things through. This collection of accompaniments, of impromptu jazz bands, All that Beauty, on the stand, at the impossible club, the Black-owned club, Ra’s other headquarters, Detroit, Philadelphia, Birmingham, enacts a giddy, seductive, sometimes secluded unmasking that reveals new mask after new mask, new member after new member, as if to say our beauty is so endless it’s a ruins, a disaster, a heap of us touring the mundane together to locate its music, and we have to learn to love that process, to enjoy it, to let that be beautiful without becoming accomplices in our own oppression. We reach what is called “univocal return” in that allowing, or demanding. We learn how to speak in a joined voice, a seizing unison, how to be less greedy, generous enough to let ourselves be haunted by that voice. “We got an ear for unbearable detail.” As we hear it, so we set it free.

Our song of ascents

There’s an echo of Satchmo at the barber shop, beauty parlor, everything, about to mouth off but deciding to grin and take it backstage. In the middle of all this seeing or looking, peering out to get in “how can self-absorbtion’s cure be more or better self-absorption,” we all get our hair did. Violent care and precise two-way gazing ensues. We see how we’ve been seen, as tender and desperate wannabe model citizens/ wanna be revolutions sharing a private fantasy in pursuit of its recognition in sound or sight beyond itself, objectifying ourselves. The beauty of this texture of the collection is literal and greasy and frizzy and heroic-mute, no outcry or backlash against the effort it takes to reach itself, and exceed itself. “If you marvel at a thing without critiquing it, it changes from flawed to true.” Attempting to inspire a collective upward spiral knowing full well some dead weight will have to go, some energies will be martyred to their desire to look a way or look away— this attempt is the surrender that brings the everyday into conversation with impossible pleasure centers throughout all this beauty and Black rhythm happening.. You’re looking at a photograph trapped in a gallery, a soul is unraveling, you’re asking Octavia Butler to enter the archive of souls, she’s swooping in with Antigone and the longed for sisters to say no and do yes in tone, Miles Davis.



There is a longing to improvise together, to demonstrate collective improvisation as the grandest Black action, the one that belongs to Julius Eastman’s field negro, the one that does not wane under any circumstance. Whether in the physical world, on the page, or in the zone of simulations, Black social life is autonomous and dysfunctional at the same time because every element of it is impossibly improvised, instinctively playful to be serious because we know play and spontaneity, unchecked and varied reflexes, are the most serious tools before us. All our electric beauty depends on the chaos of those tools surmounting any other societal expectation. All That Beauty invites us to remember this skill, line by line, and find in it a will to gather and make tones together. Everyone we love or forget to love right is at the party or coming up and about to be. If Black autonomy were encroaching on the west this would be its guest book. If Jimmy Baldwin had his camera these would be its salted scenes, its tossed blur becoming true reason. “Solange lays her performance on—

The river is overflowing and there can be no portrait

Against all our desire to keep a record, to compete with the west’s obsession with telling the story and hoarding its evidence, music and memory are the true archives, what happens to all that beauty depends on how we remember to become and imprint it in sound, which never disappears, is indestructible. Fred spends this collection remembering Black beauty in sound and enshrined shreddings, ensuring its survival in microtone and mumble and yield and spirit dance and fray and fragment and wayment and bent notes and straight lives and straight straying, less striving, more playing. “That holding out of our hands when the night gets thick. Mess and mass.”

Fred’s beauty is one of the answer’s to Jimmy Baldwin’s question at the start: what would happen to all that beauty then? Would we remember how to play then? Would we hear and reflect one another’s tones then? Would we still chant with the Panthers Black is beautiful, set our warrior free? Would we still be talking about Angela Davis? Would Black beauty survive late capital? Would we be early to the slaughterhouse? Would we lamb? Would we lean south about it? Back to Birmingham? Back to Sun Ra in Egypt? The greatest work leaves us with questions and a world in which they are either answered or undone by the impossibly coiled gesture of the sound of the blackbird’s smile inventing life over and over. This work is beautiful because Fred is. Fred is beautiful because he too is compelled to ask in the open: what would happen if the scattered uprooted ensemble of us survived the disaster of the death drive the west tries to impose and could sing about it together knowing “improvisation is how we make a way—

“Black thought is a feather brush of switchblades
At stake is a general problematic of separation
Come on,

#261 — Summer 2020