“What gender should I be in this sound?”
I’ve never heard anyone ask a question like this, which makes me think it is a real question. Often I feel weighed down by questions that get a poem from Point A to Point B. In Inheritance, I feel the questions are collapsing space and sound into one plane, and instead of guiding me from one vertex to the next, they configure into impossible structures and leave me, not in answers, but in awe.
The wonderful thing about questions is the implied space after the question mark. The human halt after curious momentum, and as I read “Containing Continuity,” implied and implanted space, between stanzas, between pages, and between punctuation, mimics the oscillation of how people reconcile closeness, distance, sameness, and difference. The poem itself spans four pages, leaving massive blank pieces of paper between each stanza, as if inviting the reader to take the time to inscribe their reactions into the experience of reading before confronting more.
“Who’s your daddy?”
Inheritance declares its proximity to family in various valances, pessimistic and nostalgic, familiar and foreign, always tethered to some floating lesson of self. It is full of the kind of doubles that make you believe in language as the best approximation for t h i s, when t h i s is systematically and categorically different for all. I think of the poem “Club 2718” as an example of a poem within Inheritance that traffics stealthily in doubles. Johnson writes, “Thirst is a way of knowing, not knowing.” They have taken the principle that every force casts its equal but opposite into existence and made it real, visible, and legible through poetry, without adding unnecessary weight. In fact, this opens the poem up to double the possibility.
“Bless the boys I wanted to be
What Sophia says: “the principle that every force casts its equal but opposite into existence.” In the poem “Pennsylvania ave SE,”
“...the boys riding their bikes straight up, at midnight, touching”
“Straight up” cuts several ways, not just two: the boys might be popping wheelies, sitting straight up, as in riding with no hands, or simply taking the long thoroughfare, Pennsylvania Avenue, straight up/through Southeast D.C., a predominantly and historically black quadrant of D.C., also known as Chocolate City. This line thus creates both transverse and parallel possibilities for lines/vectors for movement within the poem’s space, whose initial boundary is given in the title as the four quarters of the District itself. The poet is looking at the boys “from the side,” which is not the posture of recognition/witness. The sidelong glance or gaze is the way one looks if one is flirting, or the energetic route along which an incantation moves toward its intention. In turn, the boys “nod,” seeing them seeing them. “Bless the boy(s),” the poem repeats. What does the poet want? Movement; movement that is more like the mind’s limitless splicing, as the alchemical arrangement of “red bike” and “redbrown hair” might allow two humans in momentary contact to slip their identities. (In “Roundtheway”: “a chorus of black boys chewing bullet with their gold fronts ---// that’s alchemy”). If the speaker wants to blow out the walls of the “hallway” they are “always going through,” I guess I want to suggest they already know what to do.
Inheritance stretches a range of forms, from the slow amble of “June, DC,” a prose poem, to the quick gasps of “States of decline,” a sonnet composed of couplets. I’m more drawn to Johnson’s prose poems, such as “This Sign is Available.” I’m interested in the way in which its form performs its content. Clauses are separated by extra gaps, leaving space for the processing of each previous thought. The poem appears to stutter as it grapples with the large concepts of family, legacy, and language. Each new thought has room to breathe before and after falling into the next one.
“The black proletarianization of the bourgeois form isn’t Kanye West’s gospel samples”
The history of the struggle to understand this poem’s title is the history of all hitherto existing societies 🤣.
To paraphrase: Black proletarianization is a distinct form of proletarianization; millionaire (and erstwhile Trump supporter) Kanye West’s use of gospel, sacred music of the black folk, is not an example of black proletarianization. This poem goes on to proffer an example of proper embodiment of “black proletarianization of the bourgeois form” --- the poet’s mother: “O, Death, my mother is elegant alive, entering the blue hole of evening, alone.” Death where is thy victory? Ok? Some of you will remember the “impossible domestic” of a poem Fred Moten published around 2008, [Mestroike]: Her air black city / in her hand blew up inside.
But I’ve buried the lede.
This becoming-object of the object, this resistance of the object that is (black) performance, that is the ongoing reproduction of the black radical tradition, that is the black proletarianization of bourgeois form, the sound of the sentimental avant-garde’s interpolative noncorrespondence to time and tune … .1
See: “The black proletarianization of the bourgeois form isn’t Kanye West’s gospel samples” is a titular revision of Fred Moten’s statement in “Interpolation [“vicious revision of the original that keep on giving it birth while keeping on evading the natal occasion”] and Interpellation.” It is important to say that Taylor is in conversation with Moten’s now-essential oeuvre and aligned in whatever manner with the genealogy to which their works mutually belong. But I’m mostly interested in the way Taylor’s invocation of the “black radical tradition” enacts the mobilization of Moten’s writing as generative of a formal possibility that the poem draws into and around itself as its primary method of producing meaning. We can think of this poetic relationality as a manner of cloaking; cloaking, in order to slip unnoticed into the space opened by the magic words “black radical tradition” (that’s one room) and Kanye West (a room nearby or maybe inside but cordoned off). I’m trying not to say Moten’s language is a sign or that “black radical tradition” signifies or that “Ultralight Beam” does, but maybe they do. I don’t know, I’m thinking about it. Because what I wish for these phrases is to operate as a kind of material substrate for Taylor’s declarations regarding the mother who is not dead and regarding the mother. I ask myself, what is her industry? The poem does not giver her to domestic labor; it gives beauty and longing (“for touch”) unto her, and it leaves her, inconclusively. It uses the word “cruel.”
1 Fred Moten, Black and Blur, Duke University Press, 2017, 33.
Inheritance by Taylor Johnson (Alice James Books, 2020)