GERALD MAA Reviews
“Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman”
from Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman and Other Poems by Raymond Patterson
(Award Books, 1969)
[First published in The Asian American Literary Review, Vol. 5, Issue 2, Fall/Winter 2014, Editors Lawrence-Minh Bui Davis and Gerald Maa]
An Occasional Reading of “Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman”
Now, as I see it, is an opportune time to look at Raymond Patterson’s neglected masterpiece, “Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman.”
Although “Twenty-six Ways” is the eponymous poem for his 1969 book, Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman and Other Poems, it stands out as an exception, aesthetically, in the collection, as it does in mid-century Black American poetry, and American poetry, more broadly. Virtually absent in scholarship, rarely anthologized, and rarely read, I presume, this poem can be lost to us at any moment, its masterful assumption of a high canonical style likely a primary cause for an uncertain, nervous reception—or rejection—of this black author, reminiscent of the travails of works by writers like Phyllis Wheatley, William Wells Brown, and Countee Cullen. The title does not advertise falsely. The poem comprises twenty-six gnomic verse paragraphs, enumerated like those of Stevens’ blackbird poem. The poem runs on high metaphysical style, rife with enigmas. Like the Modernist hallmark, the poem’s structure forms around a ghost of a syllogism, enabling its sections to ring familiar with haiku, at times, with a distilled sonnet, at others, or sometimes something akin to a Keatsian ode stanza. The syllogistic scaffolding is the structural apparatus by which the poem builds its distinct quality: the constant legerdemain that imbues Stevensian imagination with the heft of pure reason. In this way Patterson’s poem inherits the patina of a high modernist still life (a la Cezanne or Picasso) that is—here’s a banal claim—an exercise in seeing.
By now it is an almost irrefutable truth that race is first and foremost an epidermal experience in which a non-white body is seen and immediately registered with markers of race, most notably the color of the skin, enabling any citizen to immediately assume complete understanding of that now-racialized object. I would encourage everybody to remember that the spectatorial ground for race is not ontological. At best we could call it an ontological status accorded to black bodies within a certain historical framework. Even a mere hundred years ago, being black was a legal matter first for many in our illustrious country. Acknowledging this historical ground, of course, should not belittle the impact and import of the experience anecdotally theorized by Franz Fanon’s “Look, a Negro!” Since the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the individual body has been the site of political contest and political creativity. In our country the black body has been that horrifyingly expendable resource that has enabled and undergirded American prosperity. So to look at a black body—to really look, with hospitable eyes—inevitably critiques this American logic built upon the trivialized black body. This is what James Baldwin meant when he told a gathering of black teachers that “to develop a conscience, you must find yourself at war with your society.” Per the still-life mode, “Twenty-six Ways” does not exhibit Patterson developing a conscience, yet. As with the Modernist still-life, “Twenty-six Ways” is preliminary work, exercises to flesh out the phenomenological aporias, the trappings, the ineluctable indecisiveness of looking, in our times, at a blackman with Stevensian imagination.
Two words into the poem we know it’s about doubling. The doubling gives us a parallax view of the blackman, from within and from without. The blackman’s race is readily apparent, but the confounding relationship between speaker and blackman, spectator and object, muddles up the sense of the cogito’s race, laying bare the racial implications of some of poetry’s basic assumptions. Couched in a book written by a black author, whose every other poem is spoken from a pointedly black subject, the poem draws us to the assumption of a black cogito. But the sympathetic breach between cogito and blackman, the ultimately enigmatic nature of the latter to the former, gives us pause. The Stevensian style, this post-Imagist endeavor, entails a sympathetic breach with the blackened object. The incomprehensible nature of the still-life object smacks of Postimpressionism, drawing us to the assumption that the cogito is universal. But the racialized space of the poem redoubles the assumption to show what many of us know, and more suspect: the transcendent subject is inalienably white. “Twenty-six Ways,” thus, partakes in a tradition of radical black aesthetics that Fred Moten describes and himself contributes to. Moten underscores the fact that Immanuel Kant explicitly conjoins his seminal aesthetic theory with his lesser-known, racist theory of anthropology. As much as the Kantian notions of form, the sublime, and aesthetic autonomy dominate discussions in Western letters and arts, the overtly racist provenance of Kantian aesthetics have been almost completely forgotten, invisible now despite its germinal status. Like the writers and artists whom Moten trumpets, Patterson, here, contends with the racial underpinnings of high aesthetic style by critiquing its ideology. (We should remember that, as Terry Eagleton reminds us, critique occurs from within, and thereby presupposes the ideology’s incomplete domain.) He does so with an acute eye on racial dynamics off the page. The parallax view coincides page with world. Despite this doubled vision, the blackman stands as an incomprehensible object, regardless of the cogito’s race.
There are few verbs directly attributed to the speaking subject. The fourth verse paragraph says: “Always I hope to find / The blackman I know, / Or one who knows him.” A little more than halfway through, section XVII states: “If I could imagine the shaping of Fate, / I would think of blackmen / Handling the sun.” And the penultimate section muses: “As I remember it, / The only unicorn in the park / Belonged to a blackman / Who went about collecting bits / And torn scraps of afternoons.” To think, hope, imagine, and remember maps out the narrative arc, and the object of each of these verbs is the blackman, albeit in different forms. Although the fourth section’s first-person actions share an object, the blackman, we see that the blackman is often, but not necessarily, self-divided. The blackman found may or may not be the blackman personally known. It must be a particular blackman, known and/or found, as is the case from the beginning. Now, was the blackman met on the road the one found, or known, or both? Like multiple still-lifes, like multiple studies, the speculative world suspends us before full determination, in this case deciding which blackman this blackman is. Common parlance since, say, Descartes can mindlessly conflate “knowing” with “finding”: with the finding comes knowledge; discovery and understanding become a tautological circle. As Homi Bhabha has argued, to see and immediately know is the method of modern racism. “Hope” here opens up a gap between finding and knowing. To find, by sight, is not necessarily to know in this poem. Hope opens up a gap in which maligned minds must attend to the blackman himself, his black body, if we continue to hope to know the black man. Thus section four inaugurates an imaginative due diligence that handles the blackman with narrative, figurative language, and metaphysical inquiry in an attempt to find and then to know.
To know the blackman is not to know any metaphysical truth. The stubborn opacity of blackness precludes any self-understanding of the black body from universal status and particularizes any of these insights. This we know from Kant, expounded by Moten. “Twenty-six Ways of Looking at a Blackman” is a series of still-lifes; however-many ways of looking at a whiteman is the multitudinous tradition of Western metaphysical arts and philosophy. The black skin is too material for the sublime, Kant recognizes; thus black subjects have been the foundation for anthropology, not metaphysics. Patterson too acknowledges the pure exteriority of the blackman—in this way too blackness is merely skin. Only with the blackman as pure exteriority can children secret the man away by “pretending he was a blackman.” This dissembling has no access to the interior—and the aftershock from this passage is that all the blackmen in the poem are possibly pretended, and also pre-tended, that is, handled previous to the encounter. The blackened corporeal object blackens several of the poem’s objects, like well water, tapestry, sun-shadows, and even the cogito. Here one can see the scare of miscegenation: blackness can rub off with and onto the imagination. This is race as color line, epidermal phenomenon dictated by arbitrary structural violence. This is the color line as DuBois conceived it and as William Wells Brown saw it when they both recognized the color line in China and other developing countries. To see the children’s loving act as sincere, as I do, one must see the stress placed not on action, but recognition: this heart-felt pretending comes from knowing that the ontological inferiority of the black subject is constructed; that the accordance between the skin’s opacity and the soul’s damnation is not natural, but arbitrary and naturalized; that the color line is not descriptive, but prescriptive, and violently so. What recourse do these naïve, politically ineffectual children have to care for the blackman but to hide him from this shitty, violent world? This precocious utopianism hides him from the world of the colorline into another one, fantastic. This is imagination as bombshelter. This is scurrying into the aesthetic for fear of the violent world in which these bodies live. Just before the children’s loving act, Patterson says: “The possibilities of color / Were choices made by the eye / Looking inward.” “The possibilities of rhythms / For a blackman,” he continues, “are predetermined.”
So what is the difference between a blackbird and a blackman? Simply this: the blackman can speak. There is no world merely of inflections and innuendos unless we divest from the blackman the power of efficacious language. This is far from unprecedented, though: we as a country barred black folk from the right to testify in court for more than a century, needless to say the myriad ways black speech is trivialized in our very day. If Robert Frost is right in the basic description of writing poetry—to have a feeling first, then find a thought for the feeling, then a word for the thought—then leaving the black body salted earth for speech also leaves the body dead of thought and feeling as well. Appropriately, the still-lifes end with the blackman’s words. The poem is a pantomime no more. The blackman would not, cannot, in good faith, proclaim any stable metaphysical truth. Race is epidermal: all at the center of Being is tangential to the fact of the matter: that identity is given from without.
Readers of these pages expect, especially from the prose contributions, proclamations and/or demonstrations of poetry’s supreme status and capacities. Readers also expect one to read contemporarily, but think generally.(1) I don’t know if I can match either of these expectations perfectly, if at all. Like Patterson, I don’t propose an outright rejection of the American Sublime, for which Stevens serves as bellwether. This imagination—any type of imagination—is merely an inert tool, politically neutral by nature. A hammer can build a house or kill a man; high modernist aesthetics can sustain a career’s worth of decolonizing work, like Robert Hayden’s, or it can justify racial supremacy, like Richard Wagner’s. Although any type of imagination is politically neutral by nature, it is imperative for anyone engaged with a type of imagination to understand the legacies of political thought that have technologized that imagination into its present shape, attuned it specially for this or that endeavor. I value Patterson’s qualifications of and caveats about the Stevensian imagination, for with them I can see what worth it can have for artistic projects built with a social wherewithal that I prize. On the most basic level, imaginative sight requires more time and attention than racist sight, although imagination does not necessarily undermine the racist heuristic of seeing and then knowing, completely and immediately. As we know from countless examples, imagination can in fact embolden racist vision. Recently there have been far too many high-profile stories that demonstrate even today a blackman is seen as a threat de facto. It’s hard to quantify, but if we take Trayvon Martin as an example, justifying George Zimmerman’s action as self-defense makes the threat of blackness at the very least equal to forty-two pounds, thirteen years of manhood, a documented past of violence, that phone call with the police, and a loaded gun. I do not have the optimism to say, especially at this time, that an explosion of readership for poetry would cure, or even stymie, the long crisis that has only broken the surface. Why anybody would turn to poetry at a time when the public is generally sensitized to political outrage—whether it’s the storied revolutionary year of ’68 or our current week of shame and protest—I cannot say with any accuracy. But I have been an invested participant in poetry for some time now, and I have been overbrimmed with a mixture of unsettling feelings these days that amount to “this laughter, [my] tears.”
(1) This essay was written with the express intention of submission to Poetry magazine.
Gerald Maa is co-editor-in-chief of The Asian American Literary Review. This was written 25-26 November 2014, Los Angeles, CA, In loving memory of MB, TM, ET et al