Cursory Thoughts on “BIRTH OF A NATION” by Jameka Williams

For the last few weeks, I have been thinking about Jameka Williams’ poem “BIRTH OF A NATION.” It so vividly ranges from eroticism to histories of violence, from the vitals of the “erotic self begun” to the slavery and extinction brought to bear by the nation. These elements are not merely juxtaposed but intercalated through Williams’ language, providing a prismatic view of their intimate implication.

For example, “Midnight’s moaning music / sweeps” proceeds with a pleasurable, sensual alliteration that transitions after the line break into both an extension of its original context and a new discursive plane: servitude. This imaginative fragmentation is a proliferation into new contexts that still retain powerful, accumulative threads. It’s one of the things I admire most about this poem and poetry in general.

Take, for another example, what follows after the speaker’s refutation (“Keep it.”) of the nation’s terms: “If / fucking is like the founding of an empire, let us fuck like we are the / patient American bison, lumbering toward hysterical extinction, from / the Rockies to the eastern seaboard, ecstatic & grieving at once that we / have run out of country over which to drag our vulgar bellies.”

Instead of directly reproducing the simile of empire, the speaker turns askance: “let us fuck like we are the / patient American bison.” This turn to another imaginative field is not sanitized of the established links and linkages of empire deployed earlier in the poem, but carries them forward into a different context where encounters with violence can play out anew.

What’s so brilliant about this turn to the bison is its immediate familiarity with the violence of American settler colonialism. I remember the first time I saw old photos of bison skulls piled into mountains–I could feel the solidity of things around me blur a little, and I felt the pull of the question: what other bones have we piled and forgotten? As the years passed and I saw that photo over and over, those immediate feelings dulled into hopelessness or cynicism or futile anger that lives like irritation. Through Williams’ poem, however, the surprise surfacing of the bison as a simile for fucking made me re-confront those congealed immediacies in a way that even direct photographic evidence cannot. The vicissitudes of life and death under empire–homelessness, ecological destruction, endangerment/extinction, survival–all are brought out in the space of just a few lines.

To put it another way, this poem really has what Mary Gaitskill defines as style, delivered through an interaction with a bookstore owner:

He considered style to be the “inevitable by-product” of the writer feeling their way through the shape of their creation, through word choices and small decisions as well as big ones. I didn’t like the term “by-product” because it didn’t sound central enough — style mattered to me even then — and he said that he meant it in the way the appearance of a plant or flower is the by-product of its most essential inner workings, that there is simply no other way for the flower or plant to look according to its genetic structure.

The beauty and imagination of Williams’ poem, along with its unwavering, multi-eyed gazes at histories of violence, could find no other form while achieving the same things.

Furthermore, I appreciate Williams’ achievement here as a kind of intervention to Gaitskill’s definition of style, and to the ways in which many writers approach craft–as fundamentally deracialized and de-politicized. If something like race does appear, it appears as ornamentation, epiphenomenal.

In Gaitskill’s essay “The deracination of literature” (which I quoted above), she takes to task the notion that language in stories should only be deployed in service of plot–that descriptions of scenery or secondary characters or anything else seemingly superfluous are no longer justifiable in the lean economy of contemporary prose. In direct opposition, Gaitskill valorizes eloquent, lengthy descriptions since they can, in addition to “practical and useful functions,” also “give words to what is wordless and form to what is formless through creating pictures and images that irrationally make a connection to the deeper body of the story.” Language is more than the propulsion system for a plot–it textures and contextualizes forward movement into a journey.

She continues:

Writing is a rational process of connected thoughts and ideas, but great writing comes from a stranger place; an interface between the intensely intimate perception of an individual and the social and natural worlds. It is related to the rational mind but in a way that dreams are related to thought—  poetically and irrationally. It is through poetic and irrational means that the unseen world of your story gets radically illuminated, like a burst of music can illuminate a scene in a movie or TV show.

Needless to say, I quite like the distinction she makes here. But this definition of great writing is also couched within a criticism of (what she feels like is) a societal misperception brought on by “iPhones and the constant staring there at.” At the heart of Gaitskill’s critique are the ways in which the interface between the individual and the world is disrupted.

This brings us to a rather strange place when she mentions teaching a novel by John Updike: “I was teaching a novel by him which was hard for students to read partly because he was sexist and backward in his racial attitudes, but even more because he described his worlds very, very densely.” The major factor was that students today are apparently no longer attuned to deep perceptions of the world around us. This interfacing failure is the heart of bad craft, yet it’s strange to me that Updike’s racism and sexism are relegated as an ancillary difficulty in reading rather than his own fundamental failure of writing. In other words, the failure of perception that inhibits the students’ appreciation of Updike’s work eclipses his own fundamental failure in interfacing with the world.

To be clear, I think the quick passing over of Updike’s sexism and racism was to retain a focus on the essay’s scope and rhetorical positioning–I am not attributing a malicious intent on Gaitskill’s part. Yet it’s disheartening to see such a relegation regularly performed in essays on writing, and there are many craft essays that locate bigotry as a surface-level distortion one must wade through to get to the real, analyzable elements of writing. If writing is an elaborately constructed building, bigotry is just a bad paint job diligent readers should ignore, so they can step inside and truly assess its structure.

For example, in one of the most annoying tweets of all time, Joyce Carol Oates wrote, “‘Othello’ is a great enough work of dramatic art that, if the racial element were entirely removed, the play would still be a profound accomplishment. That Othello is a ‘Moor’ could be made–almost–irrelevant. Disagree?”

What’s so revealing about Oates’ tweet is that she views the racialized component of Othello as an external ornamentation that could conceivably be “removed” from the play. In addition to the essential historical context of how contemporary English dramatists and audiences perceived blackness, Othello’s racialization is discursively embedded at every level of the play. One of the most basic readings of Othello is that Iago introduces him to the ocular regime of racism–that truth is immanent and read on the surface of things. Othello falls for Iago’s deception (and falls within the general structure of the play) precisely because he has been inducted into the logic of truth-as-surface (he believes the appearance of the handkerchief is evidence of his wife’s infidelity), when the play begins with him doing the exact opposite–eloquently defending himself in front of the Venetian senators, forcing them to confront him beyond the surface of his skin.

But for Oates, there exists a great play and then a draping of a racial element. What kills me is the coy “almost” in her tweet–which seems to barely cover an obscene “I wish.” In Oates’ imagination, the play is equally as compelling as simply a deception of cuckoldry between two nondescript white men. I would argue that it is a fundamental failure of perception to flatten Othello in such a way. Imagine how little I was surprised when Oates tweeted, a few years later, “all murders are ‘hate crimes.'”

In short, I have been thinking about what does and does not qualify as a crisis of craft, and why. Jameka Williams’ poem really resonated with me because its composition is so indelibly contoured by an understanding of race and histories of oppression, and it shows how those elements give meaning to the technical moves she makes throughout the piece.

Finally, I think of the American bison, dragging itself through an empire of the dead and dying, and all the writers who see and feel nothing but a vague contempt for bad craft.

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