June 2012

Trisha Red Campbell


Negro League Baseball by Harmony Holiday

On the front cover of Harmony Holiday's debut multi-sensorial collection, Negro League Baseball, a black man lying down on a stage plays the saxophone in what I can only imagine to be frenzy; he is surrounded by singing and screaming T-shirted young white boys who look caught up entirely in that moment. The title bears on the photo, almost as if explanatory, although an understanding of the picture won't come until well into the book. While Holiday admits in her afterward to being "afraid to evoke the word jazz," she nevertheless evokes the feel of jazz, the rhythm and polyphonic event of the music through baseball. These two -- jazz and baseball -- intersect for Holiday as America's two primary inventions besides the Negro. She plays here, in the space made by the nostalgia for all three of these categories in an "impossible/mythorealistic" room with her lost father who is cast as a "spectral shadow" across the entire work. 

Yet what Holiday achieves in these fully-sensed prose-poems, prose-tracts, and remixed-jazz-poems is an invention all her own. I struggle now to even call these poems, even though this is some of the most embodied poetry, as in human poesies, I have not read, but rather experienced phenomenologically. The piece presents as an elaborate choreography, each movement designed to make you feel different things, but in the end, the last lines to the last track, "invade areas where nothing's definite, areas micro and macro adjacent / It wont sound like music /serial or electronic/ it will sound like what we hear when we're not hearing music / just hearing whatever, wherever we happened to be" come together in an intersubjective relationship. Holiday creates in this work what we hear when we're not hearing and in that an invention of space.

The opening poem in the first section, "A Rumor About More Earth," introduces us to a father and a fire. She tells us one iteration of the story: "Dumbed Fire of carved pumpkin / you aren't my father." Then she tells the story again, this time differently: "Hunched father in a harvest lantern / ...You are my fire." The next poem, "My Thoughts on Fire," begins the slow burn of the section, where her father replaces fire and fire comes to mean that "tenuous scent of one lit on purpose... different than that of one that senses some superfluous earth then, hurry up and light." These aren't accidental fires Holiday is starting or continuing to burn, nor are they solely textual fires; these are fast and conscious fires that suggest affects conjured in sight and sound. As with all her pieces here in interplay, the second section offers "Choreography to Either," "Duets," and "Certain Ballads," best read, I think, with the track "I'm confused now / I love you all" featuring Wu Tang.

The third second explores "isolated togetherness," which I see as unbounded in many ways, resonates with images of blackness. In "Negro League" she asks in her last lines:

that remorse or prize for
Places to be
We need places to be

A declaration I see her composing in this work -- places to be -- but she goes on in "Industry" asking the minimalists to

suss a
sleek black wrist gathering the handles or clutching stacks of hourglass glasses to his grappling ribs at this
one endless shop.      We looted

She looks and does not find that sleek black wrist, the only places to be black and possible here are: "We looted."

And the absence of a period after "looted" leaves the future open, hanging or hinging off of this search for places to be. Sections four and five carry out the period infinitely. She ends these burning sections, which ask for a place, with "notes on a letter to the singer Abby Lincoln from her lover," Abraham Lincoln, with this complex causal phrase: "When it finally cannot be judged it will be judged as jazz." And the isolated togetherness of all her pieces -- baseball, blackness, the negro, jazz, words made into dance, dance made into words, the speculative room with her father and so on -- ring immanent in this phrase spoken by notes to a letter, not even a letter, about or to a lover. Jazz has resisted definition and any attempt to map other musical traditions onto it fail because jazz is felt and Holiday wants us to feel it both as an idea and an aural experience with the words.

Because Holiday's work is a piece that cannot be contained, because it is a piece so intimate and multi-sensorial, the piece almost doesn't feel finished, as if an end remains out of sight for right now. Instead, and I think it is ventriloquized best through one of Holiday's own remixes in the track "Third Wave," where a woman says

What does freedom mean?
Same thing it is to you / you tell me
It's just a feeling
It's like how'd you tell somebody how it feels to be in love

Negro League Baseball is a feeling; in this feeling of a work, while an end remains elusive, an opening of "places to be" begins its play. 

Negro League Baseball by Harmony Holiday
Fence Books
ISBN: 978-1934200421
88 pages