T.C. MARSHALL Reviews
The Feel Trio by Fred Moten
(Letter Machine Editions, Tucson, AZ, 2014)
The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study by Fred Moten and Stefano Harney
(Minor Compositions / Autonomedia, Brooklyn, 2013)
The Feel Trio has been getting a lot of attention ever since it came out because it is delightful and enjoyably challenging to read, because its author is delightful and often challenging to listen to, and because it moves just far enough beyond his other very fine books to challenge the world to give him the notice he has deserved all along. The core of his fans has broadened, and now the book is getting read all over the place mostly because it made the short list, and then the finalists list for the National Book Award in Poetry. It did not win, and that may in the end be a good thing. Besides the travesties at the ceremony, there are other dangers in that prize. Winning it can be a stamp of approval for reductive pleasures. The aesthetics of the poetry world obscure some interesting challenges, one way and another, and there’s at least one challenging thing about The Feel Trio that should not be missed.
Plenty of folks have been, and will be, writing about the many great things about this book of poetry. The one thing that puts some extra challenge into reading this book by Fred Moten is another book: called The Undercommons by Stefano Harney & Fred Moten. If we read The Feel Trio without an understanding of The Undercommons, we may be in for that reductive trouble. It’s the trouble that the National Book Award can bring, even without its ceremonial brouhahas and idiocies. That trouble is really about being somehow less troubled, but that’s the challenging thing. The Feel Trio is certainly in and of itself not a nice or easy book, nothing “lemony” in it at all. It can trouble your reading with passages like this one:
your coat is plain in light and the bottom is prepared to challenge
standing with texture and seeing but suddenly. that pattern on the
edge is graphic patience higgins on the edge so write him down like
smoke on paper and basic flavor. black smoke composition huddles
around the off chance, the sooty groove and the violent arco catalog.
That’s not simple and easy to read unless you hang loose enough to let the syntax gather what it may and you maybe supply a little reference point here and there; I make “higgins” out to be Billy who had a patience I could almost see when he was hanging back from hitting a beat at his drumset and putting it a bit off my regular sense of regularity. Much of this book is made from music, and it has its own musics in rhythm and sonorities of wording and even in syntactical moments left hanging like that. Its musical references are to black art mostly, but not all the references are lined up simply and not all the references are necessary for us to “get” in any particular way. A line like “detroit is in the water” has a reference now that may not have been there so pungently in the moment of writing. A passage like the following one cuts into the space opened in that reference to Detroit’s water shutoffs, the space opened by that other book’s subtitle:
the violence of coping strata is specific and seasoned. we give
shit away to hurt people and build poor shelters that move and
wrap around. we love to hold the continual failure in one another,
till new things come from that like bullets that catch bullets for
butter and chocolate. our thing event theme is doin it to death.
That passage can be read by itself as a bit of a poem or with the rest as a whole poem or with the series it’s part of as the stunning work called “Block Chapel.” But “Block Chapel” and the poem on page 23 and The Feel Trio as a whole can all be read more fully with the benefit of a reading of The Undercommons because of the way that book makes the terms of the argument turn around.
The relation between the terms “violence” and “coping strata,” for instance, is given immense depth in that study. Likewise, the sense of “give shit away,” referring both to social assistance from agencies and to assisting each other, is given a fresh twist in The Undercommons that makes how “we love to hold the continual failure in one another” a lot sharper. You can’t read The Undercommons without gaining a double-edged sense of these terms and “doin it to death.” Even just the word “hold” gets held in about three ways in that book. The very style of The Undercommons teaches us to read differently. Its content too is a fierce challenge to how we read our world and its arts.
That difference in reading is part of what makes The Undercommons a necessary companion book to The Feel Trio. If we merely read The Feel Trio as we have been reading other advancing work in recent decades, we risk consigning it to the same kind of aesthetic arguments that continue to simply help keep the world as we know it afloat. Art has its place in that world, and mostly is kept in it, contained in it, but The Feel Trio exceeds art and aesthetics—just as its namesake musical combo did. Another part of that companion volume’s necessity is that if we read The Feel Trio without the difference created in the hard work and play of thinking in The Undercommons, The Feel Trio just might get turned into a “manageable,” understandable book. Giving it a prize might turn out to be domesticating it. That’s what the challenge is: as usual, resistance, kept alive beyond hope of any prize.
The Undercommons, through its title alone, designates a space underlying the common concept of what we “have in common” and points toward the way we have already begun to go beyond that into the commons we create in acting together (v. Giorgio Agamben’s The Coming Community (Minneapolis: U Minnesota P, 1993). This is the concept of the voice in The Feel Trio that wants to be “unfurled in tongues that won’t belong in / anybody’s mouth, mass swerving from the law of tongues” (74 and back cover). The Undercommons enacts in its thinking and wordplay a reversion of terms against the common sense of things that we are used to, and used by, like that “law.”
Its chapter titles sketch its doings and un-doings: “The University and the Undercommons,” “Blackness and Governance,” “Debt and Study,” “Planning and Policy,” and “Fantasy in the Hold,” all lead to startlingly refreshed views of where and how we take hold of our lives and histories. Each takes a term we are used to seeing positively and exposes its faux-naif negativity. The play of positively toned terms like “credit” and “forgiveness” are shown in their fight against the positive sense of the social “debt” we cannot repay to all those who have helped us along the way. Chapter 6: “Fantasy in the Hold” proposes a stunning idea about logistics as the basis of Capital’s logic in our lives; that idea exposes that logic’s thrust and then its breaking point.
Anything I reduce it to here will be bereft of the web of shifting terms that The Undercommons builds. Its claims sometimes come out very plainly, but they are also poetically constructed in altering the common surface meaning of terms and exposing what’s in plain sight. Words like “governance” and “policy” get turned around on themselves, and we see the way they are used in public thinking to dupe us into joining the plan. The Feel Trio shows how our own plans might take another shape:
I burn communities in shadow, underground, up on the
plateau, then slide with the horny horns, vision’s festival
is folded in overtones and outskirts. j tizol, harry carnival
and feel lines out around an open forte, an underprivilege
of the real presence, curled up around an outlaw corner.
curling around corners puts me in mind of jean toomer.
I think I’ll change my name to gene tumor. I want to be
a stream tuner, unfurled in tongues that won’t belong in
anybody’s mouth, mass swerving from the law of tongues,
let me slip my slap-tongued speech in your ear, the burnt
starry star of all love in your ear. o, for a muse of fire music.
That “won’t” says it all. “Will not,” the future, contracted is also present will in resistance or refusal. On the first page of The Feel Trio, “refuge” turns into “the city of refuse” where trash and resistance combine in that word that equals “won’t” and designates how so many of us are treated too. That first poem starts with listening to the songs of those who Curtis Mayfield called the “people who are darker than blue.” It goes to where
… sometimes it gets deep in the hold
and the cell’s hard pleasure curls up in the water.
so I sail the dark river in the mind by rocket ship
(my high water everywhere is outerspace, alabama)
and stay alive in the concept with an outbound feeling
of refuge, I’ma run, I’mo run, I’m gon run to the city
With John Lee Hooker’s flood songs and Sun Ra’s future perfect Saturn as references fore and aft, this poem sets out. But it warns us too of the dangers, “balmed-out underground” in one line and “preoccupied with the tonal situation” in another. There is people’s history and jazz and blues history here right from the get-go, but there is more than a little bit of danger in the telling of that too. One side of the danger is falling into the simply lyric tongue and aestheticizing the music just as expressive rhythms or praises and leaving the justice out. They give prizes for that. The other side of the danger is telling histories everybody has rehearsed, and leaving the trouble of justice out
The Feel Trio shows great capacity for avoiding these traps, both at the level of its technical poetics and at the level of its social reckoning. The next page starts:
welcome to what we took from is the state.
welcome to kill you, bird. the welcome state
and its hurt world, where you been lost and tied,
The troubling of justice is doubly present right there in the awkward wording that focuses on the state and the state it will put you in. The address to “bird” calls up Camarillo State Hospital and Charlie Parker’s incarceration there, but this is not told in some sentimental or exemplary way. It is done through naming what the trouble is and in naming the response: “you perfectly welcome to what we give away” (4). As the first poem has said:
… it’s like
that outside drama is our knowledge of the world
and nobody claims it but us. we get it twisted
in the diagram. we know the score. we got a plan.
That “twist” and that “plan,” both have a larger context and depth if you couple The Feel Trio with The Undercommons.
The poems allow themselves to work a lot of the latest aesthetic moves and sometimes create fresh variations, which could be celebrated as coming from black vernacular and acknowledging its force. This might be seen as enough by some prize-winner readers, but the bridge to the poetics of the prose book is not to be missed here. That poetics allows the terms of the official world no quarter. It expands the world of reference for the poems as it runs those terms to ground within their own conceptualization.
Late in The Undercommons, the concept called “borders” is exposed through its implication in Kapital’s international logistics of shipped goods and laboring people. That term’s use in mastering both people and things is deftly personified in an inversion of its own functions of objectification:
These borders grope their way toward the movement of things, bang on containers, kick at hostels, harass camps, shout after fugitives, seeking all the time to harness this movement of things, this logisticality.
The twist that The Undercommons unfolds lies in this impersonal personification and the recognition of persons implicated in that objectification by policy and “borders.” This book uses an image of blackness as “the site where absolute nothingness and the world of things converge” that comes neatly from the mind of the slave in the hold, though it could be that of the wage slave on board or smuggled in some container these days. This gives that ‘nothingness” embodiment. Whoever crosses money’s borders between home and statelessness is in this mind-frame: the mind that holds out for something more yet is held in a nothingness, kept in the dark as some shipped thing. That’s what makes for the chapter-title phrase: “Fantasy in the Hold”; at the same time, that phrase exposes the hollow fantasy of Kapital’s logistics—that it can objectify any of us. With this handle on that “nothingness,” we are re-positioned among the terms of that logistics and its logic of what is and is not nothing. “We are the shipped, if we choose to be, if we elect to pay an unbearable cost that is inseparable from an incalculable benefit” (95). Phrases like these can illuminate the poems with a darkly re-conceived vocabulary and an awareness of inverting and converting terms.
Even the musics in The Feel Trio are lit up by The Undercommons. To get them as “the antiphonal accompaniment to gratuitous violence” (96) that is perpetrated in such a logic of logistics, and not just as someone’s simply sad moan, is to rise to being “absolute about abolition” (82). And though “we don’t know what we mean by it,” exactly, “because it is neither a category for ontology nor for socio-phenomenological analysis,” we begin to ask each other what it might be “for this to be understood in its own improper refusal of terms” (96). That’s the impetus of The Feel Trio whether you’re talking Taylor/Oxley/Parker’s refusals to conform their jazz to describability or the poetry’s “terror of enjoyment in its endlessly redoubled folds” (95).
The middle passage of The Feel Trio, “come on, get it!,” starts with a gist of this:
Performers feel each other differently,
as material things that never happen,
in persistent substance and their risen cities,
even if there’s no escape. their training in certain clinical tendencies,
or in the general structure of being a problem,
because of the pivot they never disavowed
in thrownness, begins the world where we are fallen,
falling down together in an accident we dream
It is no accident that these books hinge together as pivot for each other. The thinking play of The Undercommons, before its final interview piece, lands in the concept of “hapticality” (97-99)--how we know by feel. The Feel Trio cues up on that in answering its own rhetorical question: “how do we read this? this is what it’s for. to claim catastrophe” as “we revel in what breaks us up” (59).
The Rev. Dr. T. C. Marshall is one pseudonym of Yeshe Norbu, an activist in the realm of the hungry ghosts.