[Unless otherwise noted, all quotations are from or, on being the other woman.]
Or is a conjunction. It functions as a signifier of equivalence or substitution, renders the approximate, and cues syntactical division. In Simone White’s book or, on being the other woman, the word “or” continually replenishes a dumbfounding heuristic field of selectivity. It becomes a propositional hinge or caesura, which brings forth alternatives and modulations, a compositional reflex by which we are “sensitized to beauty in iterations of being in stead.”
This is but one of many singular textual devices in the poet’s repertoire of inflection. Consider the formal jaggedness of the text, its orthographic mischief, wild parentheticals, rogue punctuation, and “prepositional weirdness.” Weirdness itself considered as a black aesthetic category, the sexual and racial contours of being weird, with their attendant history of improper conjugal and financial arrangements. What is “the cost of being strange” in this fickle life, how is it to be paid, and by whom?
In what follows I record one passage through the text, recognizing in advance that there are many others, as the book’s sites of address are manifold and lend themselves to a heuristic plurality. Or being an index of the poem’s excursive destiny, generally.
Those who have followed the unfolding of White’s poetic corpus have done so with pleasure and wonder. It is a body of work that has continually displaced itself, with a quality of restlessness that seemingly impels her to pursue a range of formal and compositional strategies, often within the same volume. Textures recur throughout however, principally those of a ridiculous erudition, not to mention an ineluctable glamour. “Methodologically, I should not be so beautiful or funny,” she writes in House Envy of All the World. The reversibility of proposition and beholding and the shock of the ad hoc furthermore characterize these irreverent verbal transmissions. I am particularly interested in monitoring the impetus throughout her work to “undo the poem altogether,” a tendency which I would argue culminates in the new book. I think it worthwhile, then, to revisit the previous endeavors before I proceed to what I think of as the “unformal” tendency of or. As White writes in her 2013 book Unrest,
WHO RODE THE BUS DISCOVERED IN ITS WET HEAT THE RUMPUS ROOM OF INFLATIONARY CITIES
Beginning with the abecedarian system of glimpses in Unrest, its epistemological humidity and pragmatics of intellection. Our age of “savage commerce.” The fumes of upkeep and the racial plight of the credential shape this adventure of consciousness and pagination. Its exertions are obliquely referential, exquisitely stubborn. Not to say humorless: “In our parade clothes, shall we go to business only?” Concurrently, White situates herself as a contributor to the longue durée of black enlightenment in the Americas, her interlocutors ranging from Olaudah Equiano and David Walker to Ida B. Wells and W. E. B. Du Bois. Ostensibly one of the projects with a greater degree of formal regularity, even here the equipment is somewhat erratic, for instance titular letters of the alphabetic sequence are passed over, conjoined, or simply missing. The implication already is of excerption from a plenitude withheld. As White writes in her 2016 book Of Being Dispersed:
Encircled .................. The circle was of being dispersed
Of trying to live
In Of Being Dispersed, the milieu is of the epistle, of the miniature, its diagrammatic impulse countertended by the surge of formlessness. Bursts of discernment constellate with ethical pronouncement and humorous asides, the decidedly open configuration of the work rightfully evoking Robert Duncan’s notion of field composition. Dispersal indeed. This poetics of reticulation is replete with “Speech that has wishes, wishing to be more than sound.” Of one who habitually “Was sliding vertically along the hard / Front of economic history.” The field undulates as though behavior of the sea, from which eject tremors, stipulations, conferrals of blessing and malediction. These holographic messages produce their own spacetime, rhythm being the constructive factor of verse language.1
So that the structure of the poem was falling down around me as were the constitutive
energies of what i was
More and more the writing has unstuck itself from the illusion of official verse culture that there is such a thing as “poems,” word structures that occur in epiphanic sufficiencies. Heaven forbid the intolerable nomenclature of the workshop which dogs us with such trite formulations as “the speaker of the poem.” What I find in or, instead, is a performance of lopsidedness, of “roughhousing perspective.” The writing freely oscillates between an unbounded strophe and a sort of ventilated prose, transferring itself from the onus of the narrative-in-verse to the free gamut of the soliloquy. Think topological squiggliness. Obstreperous mellifluousness. Its glitchiness implies digital composition, things perhaps needing to be written quickly or in transit, these conditions preserved by the artistic decision not to repress the processual messiness of things: “unsorted words please me so”; “ lol the irregularity of my thought.” The scene of writing is gratuitous, untidy, because “writing is as we are.” I think of White’s receptivity to the unfashioned as a refutation of mastery, as Dawn Lundy Martin suggests: a consent to be transformed, undone, obliterated by poetic divulgation. The unfurling of language.2 This black unformalism knows that every given writing is subtended by a field of transposition without origin or end. The poem comes apart because we do, she does.
...................... trap has developed as a means figuratively to represent in
and beyond words (oo, oo, oo) an emotional notation system for desire in our lifetime …
i have used this music, its metaphorical aliveness, as a proxy for the unbearable ways my
body declares itself irrepressible or central to anything that is.
or, on being the other woman also extends White’s inquiry into the hermeneutic purchase of music for the theorization of black experimental personhood. Through her ongoing scrutiny of trap music, she has modulated the conceptual terrain on which the black musicological object has been situated heretofore, questioning in particular the presupposition of free jazz as a controlling referent of its elucidation. In Dear Angel of Death this meditation obtained its patterning through an inhabitation of Nathaniel Mackey’s novels, whereby she desedimented a now orthodox paradigm for the treatment of black unorthodoxy. Contemplation of blackness’s “infolded” condition furthermore made the case for epigraphic (therefore written, discursive, spatial, and compositional) rather than musical-sonorous definitions of black avant-garde practice. These critical postulations are endowed in or with stunning textual dimensionality, as the poem reconfigures the very boundaries of commentary and performance.
...................... Trap has required me to pretend to believe in sexual
difference in order to become intelligible but the machines
ever obliterate a sui generis feminine
White does not describe or historicize the productions of Future and Chief Keef, but becomes coplanar with them, physically ricocheting off their noise environments. It’s sort of the denouement of the ekphrastic. Trap music, with its synthesis of grandeur, dereliction, and masculinist bombast, thus becomes the unlikely (to whom?) “surround” of this work of black feminist thought. That putative unlikelihood is effectively displaced, however, by the actual behavior of the work. This music’s combination of percussive twitchiness and operatic burgeoning corresponds obviously with White’s scriptorium. What does it mean for someone (someone like Simone) who lives with and through this music to prognosticate the pleasures and dangers of black social life? What do its tonalities foretell for post-Black Arts Movement infrastructures of experimentalism? I suggest White’s inquiry poses the problem of contemporaneity itself for literary and art criticism, her concern being ultimately neither for the dominant nor the residual but the emergent. One thinks of Fred Moten’s question in In the Break, “What will blackness be?”
I do not know whether knowledge about sexually inflected dependency (the economic
emotional and racial matrix that forms black women as persons who carry, fuck, never
tire and remain impoverished) is related to knowledge about who this writing is for …
If I am writing a script it is a script for performance of the intellectual status of the art
The other woman is a position of enunciation with at least threefold significance. Simultaneously, she calls forth the melodrama of heterosexuality, the political economy of the conceptual artworld, and the emplotment of black femininity within the social choreographies of capitalist dispossession. The other woman is the one whose generativity and labor are siphoned by the socius to reproduce itself, which is, in part, how Joy James defines the figure of the “captive maternal.” Insight into the mutual presupposition of these orders distinguishes White’s performance. Reading the poem, that is, one follows the real movements of personhood through a fierce historical embeddedness. Textual manifestations such as “flayed vestibularity” and “dissolute facticity” evoke this not only symbolic and iconographic misfortune. The motif of “dependency” is also used throughout the book to name the “matrix” of surrogacy, fungibility, and captivity that punishes black women intellectuals.
I am interested in how these tensions of world order are elicited through a poetic “unsheathing of memory,” inscribed, in other words, by the motives of survival on the terrain of the diurnal.3 Living is itself theoretical. It would be generative, moreover, to think about the book in terms of a poetics of black social reproduction. The supposed trivialities of the quotidian, for instance, have hardly been expunged from the poetic surface, as these mundane expenditures proliferate in the account. The cleaning of toilets and payment for domestic labor, the strategics of parenting and the costs of childcare, financial transactions and salary negotiations: “effective means of housekeeping categorically interest me.” The depiction of White in profile on the cover of the book, which is a theory of portraiture and adornment, visualizes this tight fit between literary production and the lifeworld’s actualities. The poetic social reproductive vantage on the order of things illuminates how “laboring women,” in Jennifer Morgan’s phrase, reproduce the global present—in White’s words, “the black present, which is the present.” So too does its angle of reflection bear upon the art, university, and gig economies, recontextualizing such phenomena as labor flexibilization and adjunctification. The effectively pulverized concept of bohemia. On every level, the reproduction of the forces and relations of production can only be sufficiently addressed by reckoning with black maternity and the ongoing history of racial slavery, which White refers to as “the history of being worked to death.”
What ‘is’ is is ......... determining the terms of exaltation, praise, and defilement, the turning off and on of the pleasure and pain centers. Subjectivation.
Profanity’s nonce forms engage linguistically in what sound people call muddiness, pro-
fanity’s imbrication with epithet is a richer form of meaning making that taps into sign
at a zero level, incredibly powerful, elementally so
Demetaphorization equals desubjectivation. This would seem to be what Joan Retallack might call another “wager” of the book, its theory of linguistic subjugation. With metaphor understood here as “a form of patriarchal / control over language and a currency of poetic power.” Thus when the poet’s ex hurls insults at her that induce the scene of racial caricature, this word behavior cuts immediately into the psyche, not metaphorically. The vituperative effectivity of slurs renders a more general sociolinguistic (therefore ontological) predicament: the immurement of persons and things by words. Considered in this light, White’s poetry intervenes directly upon the workings of the semiotic in the operation of the real. This writing is not a transcendent reflection of the plane of immanence, but is completely flush with it, which confirms the equality of thought and extension. This black Spinozism, if you will, profoundly escalates the poet’s work.
i think the unfitness of words is the
base from which we might understand such concepts as barbarity, the crudeness of
words, their impingements
such rough modifications
Inscription yokes. However, and luckily for that matter, “You cannot really ‘inscribe’ anything on the surface of flux,” as White writes in Dear Angel of Death. In or, on being the other woman, the surface of flux is where one finds the ontological wiggle room necessary for the enunciation of the singular, which is freedom from impingement. Practically, this involves the multiplication of the verbal with coefficients such as speed and duration, whereby black poiesis abuts capitalist semiosis, R.A. Judy, for example, might contend. This I find to be a generative formulation, yet my other feeling is that the procedure White performs is not one of abutment (implying the possibility of being heterogeneous with capitalist exchange which at this point I do not think exists) but of convulsion from within. Indeed, the “black ontological truism” of this “language game” is that its semantic units are ever laden with pejorative capability: “the / gathering or clearing in which verbalization will begin to take place ..... is already jammed / up.”4 One does not exit from the sludge, but toils within it, which is where we are, through to a temporary supersession or hiatus. There lies, perhaps, the ontological shimmering of black virtuosic speech and writing.
i have been given a vision of it, life beyond use
The title of my commentary gestures toward a moment in the text when Simone fuses together the two words heretofore and uncontemplated. This portmanteau occurs to me as a precise descriptor of or, on being the other woman itself. One could say the heretoforeuncontemplated is the epistemological register of the poet’s work. Myung Mi Kim refers to it as “the unfathomable.” In this book, White has invited us to linger with her heretoforeuncontemplated thoughts, to join her in the consideration of heretoforeuncontemplated problems, and to behold her heretoforeuncontemplated gifts. The project is to bear and distribute light.
Throughout the text, I have not capitalized the words black or blackness, the intention being to distinguish blackness from the grammar and orthography of the proper.
- Yuri Tynianov, The Problem of Verse Language, trans. Michael Sosa and Brent Harvey (Ann Arbor: Ardis, 1981). See also Lyn Hejinian, “The Rejection of Closure” in The Language of Inquiry (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2000), 40-58.
- Myung Mi Kim, “Interview with Myung Mi Kim,” Bayou Magazine. bayoumagazine.org/interview-with-myung-mi-kim
- In conversation with Lorna Simpson, White uses this phrase to describe the project. She also notes that while the book begins with the question of “ what a wife is … it’s not inside of me, that question.” artforum.com/video/the-poet-and-artist-discuss-how-to-protect-one-s-own-interiority-8936
- Harryette Mullen’s poem “Denigration” encapsulates this. Darius James’s Negrophobia being the extreme case.