“The Blood Work of Language” by Yusef Komunyakaa (from Thomas Glave’s Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh)
The following is Pulitzer Prize–winning poet Yusef Komunyakaa’s introduction to Thomas Glave’s essay collection, Among the Bloodpeople: Politics and Flesh, now available from Akashic Books.
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There are few voices as urgent as Thomas Glave’s. In Among the Bloodpeople, he neither hesitates nor attempts to prepare us for the unsayable “that” which divorces some men and women from their Jamaican families. No sooner than a quick leap, we are wound in the bloody, necessary realities of Politics and Flesh. We learn the cold, hard, naked facts up front, and Glave’s profound dialectical relationship to these subjects. He writes:
Speak with them [the locals] about the more than 1,500 people murdered in Jamaica in a recent year, one of these years in the early millennium—many of the victims eviscerated by machetes and otherwise butchered—but have the courtesy and common sense not to mention that at least one of those people so brutally killed was both a beloved friend of yours and a political comrade in the fierce struggle those people (your people) constantly have to wage for their survival on the island.
A graphic horror opens under the sky of a place once defined as a paradise, and through the passion of language and acute imagery we feel anger and rage. But Glave’s voice resonates in the plucked string holding each sentence together, an echo of James Baldwin and Jean Genet; his language carries the full freight of witness. Where Baldwin writes of being “condemned” to speak, Glave seems to race forward to accept the mantle of all the lusty details of human love and existence—arms spread wide—nimble as some guardian angel of reprobation. He writes out of need, every trembling detail unmasked. Little escapes the hawk’s eye driven by a prophetic heart in the deep mix of essential renderings. Glave is a seer in the old-fashioned sense and dimension: each essay here is a body-and-soul affair. His language is seductive and regenerative, critical and humanizing, almost mathematically gauged and encompassing, and it never fails to hold us accountable. But alongside the terror we witness, moments of sheer beauty seethe out of the landscape—not as a balm, but as needful epistles of reflection.
Among the Bloodpeople is woven with a similar muscular spirit as the poetry of that other famous Jamaican, Claude McKay, in a protest sonnet such as “If We Must Die”:
If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursed lot.
Yes, these essays pulsate with the same charged lyrical, moral authority. No one easily wriggles off the hook. But here’s one agonizing difference: McKay’s poem is carefully aimed at the bigotry in the USA during the fiery 1920s; Glave’s Among the Bloodpeople is calibrated toward the provocateurs of violence against Jamaican gays and lesbians. And in this anthem of we, Glave portrays this confrontation with the history one carries within:
For this moment, as he ponders that beckoning water into which scores of his enslaved ancestors leapt off ships to their deaths three hundred years before, he unremembers the fact that this country, for the most part, has never loved him . . .
In this sense, Glave’s voice is a show of force for the twenty-first century—sparked by a moral imperative. This writer calls out by name those citizens with governmental and juridical obligation who hide behind cloaks of cultivated silence, evasion, and sanction. Each is hitched to a rhetorical whipping post and shown the power of the word. At times it seems the girth and grit of language come close to curses hurled at those whose immoral violence has harmed these brothers and sisters. In so many ways, this is deep family business made of pain.
These essays are artistic and pragmatic, and Glave uses superb style as a device to ensnare those who would brutalize the people he loves and trusts in a world of scales rigged beyond any due process. He crosses borders of corporeality, timely and artfully, moving through painful territories of personal history that go back generations to his great-great-grandfather, and then he offers an elegiac embrace of the intangible “sound of all of them in the wind-language.” Through this lyrical pursuit of truth that humanizes and subverts, the essay is Glave’s weapon of choice.
The fleshed-out revelations here engage these contemporary realities: the inability for some Jamaicans to acknowledge a gay son, or daughter, or sibling; an open letter to the prime minister; a graphic insinuation of forbidden homosexuality; tributes to five literary forerunners; a poetry of deep reckoning with love; language as overlays to maps of facelessness; repression in the ivory towers of Cambridge University; picturesque moments in London as metaphor; poetic memory as the basis of empirical meaning.
The tension of poetry lives in Glave’s language. And this conceit is especially highlighted in “Against Preciousness” through tone and form. He questions with honed exactitude:
People who, across the centuries, were forced to admit into their bodies the engorged parts of those who owned them for centuries. There, one’s own infinite and deeply personal catalog of memory against the ultimately offensive, dishonest, precious stink and artifice of preciousness.
The experimental moments seem naturally holistic. Glave has done a heroic deed. Now that the cultivated climate of mayhem and violence has been clearly articulated, one sees this body of work as the blueprint for change in Jamaica. Now that the situation has been laid bare, with bones of the past edging through, there should be only one undeniable action: laws must be constituted on behalf of gays and lesbians in the Caribbean. This blueprint—this layered treatise—begs action. Clearly, something must be done in a place where violence seems so regimented and codified that it has become belief. Something has to rout the terror.
Some know of the play The Laramie Project based on Matthew Shepard—a twenty-one-year-old gay college student who died in 1998 on a fence in a small Wyoming town—but few people know much about what happens to these men and women in the Caribbean. Once, we could feign ignorance, but not after Glave’s sharply rendered Among the Bloodpeople. He has gone wherever wrongheadedness goes, always focused on what seems to be the underbelly of violence in worldly localities. His is a poetry of knowledge, of body and mind, which acknowledges and confronts tribulation, a longing for gestures woven through language, baring intimate details and vows of the night nudged into the broad daylight of knowing compassion. The problem of violence seems to be located in a false, symbolic manhood still situated in a concept of colonization of the heart that should prod us to the mirror.
With US President Obama’s fierce compassion for equality in his inauguration speech of January 2013, we know significant changes are in the forefront of the global psyche. Of course, especially after taking in Glave’s raw and eloquent language, one hopes that there are sobering turns in the compendium of hearts and minds gathered on the edge of the Caribbean Sea. And we know there’s no clemency now for passivity. There’s no slipknot for escaping responsibility as witnesses. We know who the enemies of truth are, and in our silence they look like us in life and dream. But deep within each of us resides an unrelenting sense of freedom, and it is from this place that we must move forward.
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Yusef Komunyakaa is the author of seventeen collections of poetry and a winner of the Pulitzer Prize. His latest collection is Testimony, A Tribute to Charlie Parker (Wesleyan University Press). He teaches in the Graduate Creative Writing Program at New York University.
Posted: Jul 9, 2013
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