Black and white are the primary colors artist Kara Walker uses. Shadow and light. Negative and positive space. Her tableaux are made of black paper, and they are silhouetted against a gallery’s white walls The archetypical imagery she uses–sordid scenes from slavery. The wild-haired pickaninny, the scheming Southern Belle, the oblivious Good Master, the slave’s body in chains… Referents are classic children’s books, the mythology of the Antebellum South, and black memorabilia. It’s work that is never kitsch or twee; it’s dangerous and graceful at the same time.
Walker’s work dismantles the Master’s House with the master’s tool, to borrow a quote from Audre Lorde.
Arthur Rimbaud’s brief meteoric rise and fall as poet is the stuff of legend. His writing career spanned five years and ended abruptly at 21.
His poems are more like incantations. Violent, mystical, always transforming itself–he thought words were like alchemical formulas. Poems were portals to both Heaven, Hell and all between. He created a new alphabet that reflected hidden energy of language. Illuminations, his final work, eschewed poetic form; they are prose poems full of sacred and profane images in an opiated language that hints of an otherworld.
The first Angela Carter fiction I read was her collection Saints and Sinners. I was immediately entranced by the dense, layered symbols embedded like diamonds in her stories, and the baroque prose with which she cloaked her tales. She became an obsession–I devoured everything she wrote, from The Passion of New Eve to The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman. Her work drew from a host of sources, from surrealism to B-movies to fairytales to Jungian psychology. Her work also addressed a variety issues, from feminism to racism without ever being didactic. Her work was fantastic and intellectually robust.
Angela Carter was one of the first authors to show me that fantasy fiction could as philosophically and social engaged as literary fiction. Her work used the tropes of fantastic and surrealistic fiction to examine challenge the mythological roots of our culture.
I first discovered the poetry of Aime Cesaire in a college class about surrealism and literature. I loved surrealist painting, but the actual literature left me cold. It was rootless and meandering, vaguely aligning itself with leftist politics and magic. Then I learned about the Negritude movement, a kind of offshoot of the Surrealist movement. The Negritude movement was comprised of people from the black and African countries colonized by the French. The subtext–the dismantling of the colonialist rhetoric–added passion to the magical imagery of surrealism.
And Cesaire was the chief sorcerer of Negritude. His poetry was full of galvanic imagery: serpents, swamps, decay. It was underscored by mythology and righteous anger. Words and images erupted from the page–even in translation, their power is awesome. Not since Rimbaud, had I read such a marvelous derangement of the senses. I was cast into a world as immersive as any fantasy novel. Here was truly revolutionary poetry, that set the soul aflame.
The first Nina Simone song I heard was “4 Women,” a hypnotic ballad that is a character study of Black American women throughout the generations, from slavery to the Black Power Movement. The lyrics were powerful, but the Voice–a rich, mournful contralto–was haunting. It was (and still is) one of those voices that could sing the phonebook and I’d still listen. The album was from my father’s vinyl collection–long since sold. (The collection was extensive–with many vintage and first edition jazz albums). I found out that my mother knew Nina as a child; they grew up in the same town and Mom knew her by her birthname–Eunice Waymon.
Simone has been dubbed the High Priestess of Soul. But soul music was only part of her repertoire. In addition to her own material, she sang jazz standards, Bretchian showtunes, and Dylan. She was also an accomplished piano player. The ‘high priestess’ tag was correct–there is something supernatural about her performances, both live and recorded. One of my (as yet unpublished) pieces, “Coalrose,” is based upon her.