Simone White, selected by Anna Moschovakis
INTRODUCTION TO THE WORK OF Simone White
"I wanted to write every day but didn't know why." So begins the second poem in Simone White's recent chapbook, Unrest. The title of the poem is "B. Who rode the bus discovered in its wet heat the rumpus room of inflationary cities." That first line—the blithe quality that contains within it, on the second beat of reading, a critique of desire and the structures that form it—exemplifies one aspect of White's writing that rivets me. The title—with its wildly ranging diction, its compressed syntax, and its images that hover between abstract and concrete, denotative and connotative—does another. As a reader, I am thrust between a sense of totally getting it and of not getting it at all—and this is one reason why White's work sustains uncountable readings. Why put the line "My hair badly needed cutting" in the middle of that same poem, set off as its own stanza, after a reference to Sebald and before one to the speaker's viewing, as a child, of medical cadavers? One doesn't idly wonder.
Unrest is White's response to David Walker's 1829 text Appeal: In Four Articles: Together With A Preamble To The Coloured Citizens Of The World, But In Particular, And Very Expressly, To Those Of The United States Of America, wherein he calls out "the Christians of America" for their mortal fear that black people will learn to read, and "enlighten our dark and benighted minds." "The whites have always been an unjust, jealous, unmerciful, avaricious and blood-thirsty set of beings, always seeking after power and authority," he goes on, before issuing this unlikely proposal: "Treat us then like men, and we will be your friends. And there is not a doubt in my mind, but that the whole of the past will be sunk into oblivion, and we yet, under God, will become a united and happy people."White's affective range is as explosive as is Walker's, from a guileless "Oh Goodness" to the frankest "Fuck you." Her cited sources for Unrest include Baraka, Melville, Moten, Althusser, Carly Simon, and Ghostface Killah—an example of what "being lettered" might mean (as in the poem "C. Thrown Into Silent Wonder and Adoration": "Grateful sharp, not low, for reading and being lettered under lamps and deeply affable at first light".) Or, a bit later on: "Henry James, yo." Affable, and yet.
In her first full-length book, House Envy of All the World, White laid ground for her lyric deconstruction of desire, entitlement, blackness, the domestic, language and diction with an epigraph to a poem that appears early in the book ("Drop a Schism") in which Milton condemns anyone who shall "distrust the judgment and honesty of one who hath but a common repute in learning … lest he should drop a schism or something of corruption...". "Drop a Schism" was my introduction to White's work and concerns, and I've been corrupted ever since.
At one point, Walker interrupts his address with a plea: "O! my God! I appeal to every man of feeling—is not this insupportable?" That plea, like his proffered vision of a united, happy people, is merciful, but with an edge. In the transaction of reading poetry, what I desire most is to be dislodged, with or without mercy. When it is present, as it is in White's work, a twin pleasure results. A pleasure that badly needs cutting, and gets it too.
No Drugs, No Diseases
The worst case scenario of inevitable return involves going home again and again. This
retrograde and fiendish instantiation of the principle of elliptical byways implies creaturely
In a recent, not bad black movie, Staggerlee's off-put butch cousin winds down the evening
in a blue jumpsuit too tight in the crotch. She smokes and revelates. He jus a reg'la DC niggah
that like to run his mouth.
I guess I got the joke because I laughed, plus, in terms of Being, reg'la DC and Philly look
about the same, which I saw demonstrated in The New Yorker the other day by way of
Barkley L. Hendricks' North Philly Niggah.*
It was beautiful, mind you. I wish people wouldn't presume to dismiss as paranoid certain
claims about cause of death. The government does kill people—just because you never saw
it happen don't make it right.
Obsession didn't come to me genetically, but Anthony has a chicken wing twitch of the right
arm. A succession of lunatic safe words whirl-a-gig the compulsive atmosphere of my
kitchen, some combination of baby talk, magic and the killing power of opium.
I haven't the stomach for adultery. Talk to me about the day's news, or better yet, put it in a
postcard because I've forgotten the sound of your voice and might hang up on you. Nothing
clears a room like cocaine and listening devices.
Sun Ra, you purple-haired madman, I saw you outside a convenience store in our hometown
coming from that Fela show everybody went to in 1986. Fuck you, old dead genius black
Jesus, hair falling out in clumps, rhyme, excessive material wealth, mental incapacity, slavery,
the rectum, alternate side parking, Stanford, fried shrimp, Edgar-suit—these are the butt of
Give me the satisfaction of absolute attention and watch it roll down a muddy hill in a city
park. Give me a credential a porkchop a gutted boy in camouflage who smiles. Give me
some toilet paper to blow my bloody nose on. Watch Jacob the Jeweler
on his way to prison apologizing to your unapproachable America. A passport and a Nobel
Prize universal misshapen what am I chopped obnoxious ballerina without dairy toast or
church hat] swallows whole the head of her male companion [he wears a fur coat, a simulacrum,
it seems, of the fur-collared coat swaddling the figure in Hendricks' North Philly Niggah], her jaw
swung open, nose flared, brows arched with demonic effort." What style must be gobbled in this
unearthly manner? Which persons-in-clothes will eat, and which will be eaten?
The only question is where and when to say "I am thankful for small mercies," letting the rest fall about that Emersonian problem. For having been led to the Ralph Waldo Emerson of "Experience," I'm thankful to Joan Richardson but for whom, but for Wesleyan (a mythical place where I was born thanks to my mother from way way outside Jackson and my father from Philadelphia providentially colliding there) and the example of a certain genius (Jerry Gafio Watts), the merciful possibility of the poem as an attitude for resolving problems relating to causation – the cause of being black & related questions of building mercy that are core obsessions of all my study and writing – might never have come to light.
I make a lot of mistakes. As a very young woman, I mistakenly imagined that I could do a kind of work that did not allow me to rest my mind on these obsessions basically all the time. Obsessions are a mercy, then, in that they tell us the way of ourselves. I do not think that I have been mistaken in being led to understand with a kind of insane seriousness the stakes of being oneself with all the trouble that kind of commitment involves.
I have wanted to show how grateful I have been and I have wanted to be in service in a certain way to mercies that are, really, not at all small, but rightfully shocking. I would be afraid to turn away from the capacity to think philosophically (isn't that the case?) about the magnitude of surprise I experience as myself just from walking and talking. Writing doesn't come easy. To write even one word requires coming out of the experiential stupor that I'm in most of the time. The poems teach me that it is possible to "come out of that" which denies my ongoing struggle with wordlessness, by which I do not mean to suggest anything about the unspeakable, which, frankly, I don't believe in. I don't believe in impersonation either. In love, remaining unembarrassed about how I am when I am fierce and ignorant has been something to live up to.
Every word I have ever heard contributes to the poetic arrangement of things. I have tried before, unsuccessfully, to talk about the difference between being interested in "poets of the past" as something like the organizing principle of my writing impulse and being interested in a range of practices of inquiring/writing that are both analytical and drop-dead gorgeous. There is verse, there are sentences, there are exclamations punctuated by electronic sounds in contemporary music, there is language so technical it baffles; what could never be mistaken for poetry, until it is. When I am waiting for a poem to get started, I am waiting for an arrangement on behalf of all of us based upon my happening to be here, among all these practices today. No poet of the past can provide me access to this makeshift will, unless it were as a personal obsession with descending along a particular vector, as William Carlos Williams describes, with which I am fascinated and also positively want to be involved in criticizing. To travel quite far along a vector necessarily excludes some other course and must furthermore exclude a soft broad vista. I'm confounded by the relation between depth and ruthlessness.
If I am confounded, how can I be sure? Perhaps there is a history of an idea more complex and unforgiving than the idea of race that we are still making every day. If I were to discover tomorrow that I need neither stay black nor die, I would have to say, 'OK, thanks. I didn't know.'