A Blur of Wings: The Diaphanous and the Dissonant in Political Poetry

Ciahnan Darrell reviews Myronn Hardy’s Radioactive Starlings

Myronn Hardy. Radio Active Starlings. Princeton University Press. 2018.

Myronn Hardy’s Radioactive Starlings is aggressively opaque. Written in a multitude of poetic forms, it draws upon three continents, two religions, appropriates the voices of a half-dozen public intellectuals, and drops references to Albert Camus, Mahmoud Darwish, Miles Davis, and others. Yet whereas T.S. Eliot’s synthetic density was part of a project intended to unify cultural, mythological, and religious elements of human life within a vision of the whole, Hardy deals in dissonance and incongruity, moving to dissolve illusions of homogeneity and explode false monoliths in historical, political, and linguistic discourses. Starlings tears at the veils of hegemony woven to blind us, scrapes its wax from our ears.

Poetry is inescapably political, and Hardy’s performance in Starlings blazes the poet militant, transgressing boundaries and vivisecting organs of hegemonic discourse on sexuality, race, religion, and class by means of a scrupulous refusal to do violence to the breadth of voices he has called forth, a refusal to silence emergent others in order to effect a fraudulent harmony. Starlings summons a diversity of voices through a concatenation of free verse, ghazal, pantoum, sonnet, and villanelle irreducible to a single voice or rhythm. The effect is cacophonous, even painful, yet it is pain well spent, if for our suffering we come to understand that the roil and rut of humanity demand a vigilant ear tilted to the rhythms and voices of the many—that we must always leave room in our thoughts and words and deeds for the unanticipated other to step out from behind her curtain of silence. We are not alone, Hardy shows, can never be alone. Every rhythm and voice sounds from within the simultaneity of its co-existence with others.

Hardy’s medium is the deconstruction of images, the shattering of illusions of familiarity and simplicity. He works by juxtaposition, by placing familiar image beside familiar image, and allowing them to dissolve each other, to paralyze the reader’s faculties of apprehension. In The Barber Soloist he writes:

Not two people  not two gifts   clippers
Vibrate in strands until they fall
Gracefully to the floor  like petals
Concert stagehands sweep  wonder

Two people, two gifts, clippers: we understand these images, but then the clippers become like flower petals and fall to the floor gracefully, and the known world begins to wobble, and when concert stagehands materialize from the ether, the world we thought we knew runs between the fingers of our grasping hands, and the world of the poem eludes us. Circles functions similarly:

She bathes in sun over the avenue.
Her hands spin  an ushering.
She doesn’t see the boy on that same
Avenue selling paper geraniums in plastic tubes.
The shadow of the clock on his back   the numbers
Subtracting red   oh  red.

Ushering? Paper geraniums? The images Hardy summons appear without context, frustrating the reader’s attempt’s to link them together, a difficulty Hardy exacerbates by elongating the space between words by his placement of the physical text. There is aggression in this denial, in his semantic austerity, his repetition of the word “red” on either side of an “oh” cossetted by triple spacing. Even in moments of relative transparency such as The Inescapable Escape, and The Breaking, Hardy evokes a fatalism reminiscent of Maurice Blanchot’s The Writing of Disaster, attesting to the failure and suffering that precedes us, and which is our inheritance and fate because

We breathe it.
We drink it.
We are…

Hardy’s avoidance of the lyric in Radioactive Starlings is a matter of principle, and commendable, although it imposes a certain hardship on his readers. He eschews rhythm because of its effects on readers, because its sonic qualities and familiarity often imbue the images it delivers with an illusory, underserved gravitas. If Hardy’s poetry is frequently jarring and cacophonous, it is because such qualities demand engagement rather than acquiescence.

Be that as it may, there are moments when Hardy allows visions of grace and clarity to rise from the page like morning dew, to dance and shine until they are consumed by the sun. Consider You: An Apparition:

The you I think of beneath yellow leaves.
The you I love beneath yellow leaves.
The sun’s yellow rendering me
Without courage to appear where
You are    the apparition
I am where you sleep.
I’m the intensity in the room.

 The words’ beauty creates a womb of melancholy, satin sheets. The poem is an injection of the same sweet opioid sorrow that draws us to Anna Karenina and Les Miserables, again and again, the reassuring shattering of our hearts that proves to us, despite all we have endured, that we retain the ability to feel.

Radioactive Starlings, like all poetry, is meant to affect the reader. It conjures an ever-churning roil in which language, geography, mythology, and cultural perspectives are simultaneously locked in combat, coitus, synthesis, dissolution, and desiccation, and the human world emerges as that which cannot be known, that which is unsayable. Hardy uses violence to demonstrate the violence inherent in stasis, homogeneity, and hegemony.

The final poem in Radioactive Starlings is both a microcosm of Hardy’s method and intent, and an intensification of both. Gwendolyn Brooks Sitting In Tayeb Salih Park Sixteen Years After Her Passing is the first prose poem in the collection and summons a myriad of half-images that blur geographic and linguistic distinctions, dissolving one into the other, and denying the reader a stable (con)text in which to anchor any meaning his or her reading produces.

“We occur,” Hardy writes, “Are occurring among hibiscus.”

Who are “we,” the reader wonders, and if we are occurring does that mean we do not yet? Hardy suggests as much.

Question: Who are we?

Answer: We are occurring

We are occurring, and so, it appears, is Ms. Brooks, and Tyeb Salih, though they have both long since departed.

Are they occurring within us? Because of us? Despite us?

It is hard to say, hard even to know if there is any value in such questions. Despite the seeming concreteness of historical figures and oak benches and starlings and boys, meaning eludes us. Not only do Brooks and Salih make a mockery of time as they weave their ways in and out of death, but the poem refuses to assemble itself in place and space. Hardy writes:

This is the north   but I call it south    not the South
Side but the south. South of Chicago   the oldest south we will never recall
… We met in Chicago…
They see me   the south
In me     think we occur everywhere…

The global South, the American South—a mythic South; the Southside of Chicago, Topeka Kansas (Brooks’ birthplace), Salih’s Sudan: Hardy’s reader is adrift, assailed by the knowledge that any moor she clings to, any horizon she establishes in order to impose order and sense on the world, is violence. The world at large, and the individuals in it always already overrun the distinctions and organs of understanding she has erected. Human lives, in Radioactive Starlings, unfold amidst hibiscus and tea, and lights that do and don’t work, on balconies overlooking starlings and the sea and a waterless fountain.

And it cannot be resolved into an essence.

The poem, and the collection, end with a contradiction: “They are settled   leaping,” and reading this, we are confronted by a terrifying truth, that our rage for order can only end in defeat, that even the most beautiful images it conjures will wither and die. We must create images of the world, and of meaning, and no matter how beautiful the images we create are, no more how great an understanding of the world we think they permit, they will always be inadequate to all they mean to encapsulate.

The project Hardy undertook demanded the creation and maintenance of a perfect tension between intellect and soma that Starlings misses. The collection takes transformation, culture, and politics as its subjects, but seems to forget that they are first and foremost about exerting control over bodies and the ways in which those bodies are organized and positioned in relation to one another. Hardy pays too little attention to the somatic and material aspects of human existence, rendering it diaphanous and unsatisfying.

Hardy is not unaware that human beings are embodied creatures; there are a half-dozen and more passages in which he acknowledges the physical existence of the men and women upon whom his poetic eye falls, and thus it bears stating that my qualm with Starlings has more to do with Hardy’s execution of his craft than the substance of his poems. The scant, sporadic acknowledgements of matter and flesh fail to counterbalance the massive hermeneutic edifice he constructed from dribs and droppings of literary, philosophical, and cultural elements. I am not unwilling to work in order to extract meaning from a text; however, the experience of pulling away from a poem once or twice per page to look up a reference creates a progressively intense detachment that marks the text as a semantic game, rather than a site of encounter with a visceral other beyond my powers of knowledge and control. Yes, works of literature are always already in conversation with the texts that have preceded them, but summoning Pessoa—writer, translator, publisher, poet, philosopher, and literary critic extraordinaire—borders on precious, his seventy-five heteronyms notwithstanding. Moreover, it is entirely unnecessary, given Starlings’ superlative conjuration of the irreducible conflict, diversity, and messiness intrinsic to human existence.

Criticism aside, what Myronn Hardy attempts in Radioactive Starlings, few dare to dream of doing, and rightly so, for rare is the poet that is capable of the breadth, depth, and density that characterize his explorations. I know this because, reading it, I am overrun. I feel it viscerally, deep in my craw, and I know that it is the feeling of my own smallness, and of the comic inadequacy of the concepts and boundaries with which I attempt to domesticate life, and at that moment, I am unable to escape the fact that the being of meaning overruns, exhausts, and swallows the meaning of my being, and I marvel and shudder. I am one, and there are many; my voice is a voice, and there are a billion others that are not dissimilar; I know what I know, and there are a great many who know differently. And here we are: cacophony, dissonance, and confrontation, Hardy shows us, are the molecules of the human animal.

Ciahnan Darrell is an adjunct professor in the English departments at King’s College (PA) and Wilkes University. He holds a doctorate in comparative literature from the University at Buffalo, an MA in philosophy from Stony Brook University, and an MDiv from the University of Chicago. An Africanist, he currently researches representations of racialized and gendered violence in Southern African fiction, and examines the implications of neoliberalism on depictions of subjectivity in Southern African fiction. A contributing editor at the Marginalia Review of Books, he has also published fiction in Gone LawnRum Punch PressThe Legendary, and elsewhere.

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