The fourth collection of poetry from the literary and cultural critic Fred Moten, B Jenkins is named after the poet’s mother, who passed away in 2000. It is both an elegy and an inquiry into many of the themes that Moten has explored throughout his career: language, music, performance, improvisation, and the black radical aesthetic and political tradition. In Moten’s verseThe fourth collection of poetry from the literary and cultural critic Fred Moten, B Jenkins is named after the poet’s mother, who passed away in 2000. It is both an elegy and an inquiry into many of the themes that Moten has explored throughout his career: language, music, performance, improvisation, and the black radical aesthetic and political tradition. In Moten’s verse, the arts, scholarship, and activism intertwine. Cadences echo from his mother’s Arkansas home through African American history and avant-garde jazz riffs. Formal innovations suggest the ways that words, sounds, and music give way to one another.The first and last poems in the collection are explicitly devoted to Moten’s mother; the others relate more obliquely to her life and legacy. They invoke performers, writers, artists, and thinkers including not only James Baldwin, Roland Barthes, Frederick Douglass, Billie Holiday, Audre Lorde, Charlie Parker, and Cecil Taylor, but also contemporary scholars of race, affect, and queer theory. The book concludes with an interview conducted by Charles Henry Rowell, the editor of the journal Callaloo. Rowell elicits Moten’s thoughts on the relation of his poetry to theory, music, and African American vernacular culture....
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B Jenkins Reviews
At its most basic, B Jenkins, the newest collection of poems from literary critic and Duke University professor Fred Moten, is a requiem of shared experiences for the poet’s mother, who passed away in 2000. As Moten delves into understanding their relationship, he weaves through a line-up of different characters and memories, each one a stepping-stone toward his mother’s legacy, before ultimately culminating in the candid “b jenkins,” that mirrors the collection’s beginning. Little of Moten’s work, however, is at its most basic. As the poet realizes, his mother’s life was more than just the sum of its parts, and to truly capture it is to capture all the things left unsaid, all the gaps and pauses and intangible emotions they experienced along the way. In effect, the collection of Moten’s poems reads like his writing itself, lyrical and devoid of superfluous context, to create a song of her life rather than a mere story. With titles like “cecil taylor,” “billie holliday,” and “charlie parker,” Moten’s poetry reads like a “Who’s Who” of jazz innovators, past and present. Accordingly, his poems are themselves a kind of jazz improvisation, exploring sonic realms and experimenting with forms of language. This sometimes leads to a sacrifice in clarity (“yopie prinz” ends with the beautifully confusing line that “june…oboes the burdened palisade,”) but what Moten loses in explicit meaning he makes up for in sound, as the musicality of his words seems to carry a mysteriously powerful meaning of its own. In “eric dolphy,” the repetition of harsh sounds of “the ironworks on alameda. thala me/diron iron urn broke down. ironman/burned the factory,” embodies the roughness of the burning factory it describes. In another of the collection, “june jordan,” Moten explores these various phonemes of our language, sounding each of his “notes” like a saxophone player practicing scales: fleet fore gone here there pier mere pearl flew tear reet pear through tear bore sweet true lore flow quair Such musicality bleeds throughout the work itself, as each poem attempts to create a new language and, in turn, channel a new voice. The scholarly, prose-like writing of “barbara lee,” for example, is juxtaposed with the powerfully succinct “renee gladman,” which reads only, “it’s a little alone.” Again, the comparisons to jazz are evident; in using different poetic styles throughout the collection, Moten explores the various “instruments” of a composition, each one providing its own contribution to the song found throughout. Of course, Moten’s affinity toward music is no accident; as part of a series on “Refiguring American Music,” B Jenkins explores the overlap of music in poetry throughout the collection. “There is a metaphysics of budget,” Moten claims, “that aspires to strings...as we hear for music.” For Moten, this music can communicate perfect nuances on levels that words cannot, and to capture this music is to capture the moment itself. As he writes in “elizabeth cotton/nahum chandler”: this is the music of my own head and you can hear it in the way I sound when I come away from that for you, twisted away in being folded up when I move away from that to turnmy lines out for the other line inside. Channeling this music, Moten’s poems enter into and explore the emotions of a moment rather than simply describing them. Like any good song, this is equally moving and slippery, so strangely encapsulating that it is almost impossible to shake. “The phonograph is also a photograph of movement and what it bears,” Moten reminds us in his closing “b jenkins.” As he explores the music of his own memory, he recreates this image of experience. Yet music is not the only object of Moten’s exploration. His journey along his mother’s legacy includes a look into the mind of death row victim Wanda Jean Allen and an analysis of Georgetown basketball coach John Thompson, who Moten suggests, as one of the first black head coaches of a highly successful NCAA program, was a “blacksmith” in shaping and creating new perceptions of black culture. In these moments, the critic in Moten shines through. Moten is well versed in the worlds of academia, music, and race relations, and he rarely slows down to explain his sources, which range from Johnny Cash and Woody Guthrie to Kenyan political exile and murder victim Njeeri Wa Thiong’o. These names only add to the story, however, as the focus of Moten’s attention becomes less on the person behind these names and more on the emotions and ideas they represent, less on the semantic content of his writing and more on the musical composition of it. By showing that there are common themes in poems that are so diverse, Moten effectively blurs the various subject matters he addresses, highlighting instead the importance of what these moments meant as a whole. Some of the most enticing parts of B Jenkins are the savory, enigmatic phrases found throughout. In “walter benjamin/julian boyd,” Moten plays with the sounds of language, producing such phonetic treats as “funhouse implicature,” “polish logician,” and “philosophical grammarian.” Accompanied by the “sharp bradleys and whipporwills” of “sleater-kinney” and the “omnibus volume with fluxus” of ‘john work,” these reinforce Moten’s point that music can have meaning in itself. Moten also experiments with wordplay, exploring the relationship between a “nomad” and a “monad” in “arthur jafa and greg tate” and punning on the percussive words of “rim,” “kit,” and “trap” in his poem about blues drummer James “Peck” Curtis. The most powerful lines of the work, however, are found at the intersection of this musicality and the semantic emphases of Moten’s collection. In addressing how to convey what words alone cannot, Moten notes that “the scarce-saved something sweet is nothing but the music.” He later remarks in “frank ramsay/nancy wilson,” about the effect of this communication, that “the unutterable will be – unutterably – enjoyed in what has been enjoyed.” These profundities, each a thesis of Moten’s work in itself, are sprinkled throughout the collection, often too subtle to notice how they got there but too piercing to be able to ignore. A hallmark of many of Moten’s poems is that they are titled twice, with a name at the beginning and the name at the end. Sometimes the relations of these names are clear (Cecil Taylor and mother Almeida Ragland); other times, they are more indirect (jazz drummer Tony Oxley and Frederick Douglass.) In all, however, the words of Moten’s poems seem to form a sort of bridge between the people and ideas represented in the two titles. In the same way, Moten’s collection serves as a bridge between its first and last poems, both addressed to the poet’s mother and both titled “b jenkins.” In the first, Moten writes to his mother, “in the names away in blocks with double names…you’ve been waiting for a preferential song.” After navigating the network of memories between them, he finally comes close to capturing the essence of this relationship, concluding in the last poem that “this is the cluster song of our romance.” But more important from Moten’s exploration than the answers he finds are the further questions he raises. Moten’s musical style not only allows him to capture different emotions; it also adds a shroud of complexity to understanding the collection as a whole. Any unnecessary context omitted, Moten’s poems leave only the essence of his emotions, making the work difficult to enter but also difficult to leave. Consequently, the music conveyed in Moten’s poems seems so perfect that no words, even those of his “conclusion,” could ever fully respond to them, leaving us mulling over the sounds that remain. Over time, this can provide understanding in itself. There is a sense that no reading of B Jenkins could ever become stale; each time there is immeasurable depth so enticing yet so removed that, no matter the steps we take toward its understanding, it always feels unachievably distant. Perhaps this is Moten’s real thesis. Asked about the experience of his poems, Moten once remarked that his mother, in her lifetime, could not relate to his poetry- their relationship was too complex for even his best efforts at communication. In creating the “cluster song” of romance through the various people and ideas that Moten’s mother introduced him too, B Jenkins is still only one attempt at transcribing this history. Still, it’s hard to imagine a better way to personify a legacy than in Moten’s work. As Moten shows, to capture a relationship between two people is to capture a whole network of people, memories, and voices, each one an integral part of the piece as a whole. It is to fully embody a moment rather than to describe a moment, to recreate the subtle mystery rather than try to explain it. Throughout the collection, Moten tries to harness this power through his experiences, and each step serves as part of his final requiem.And, as B Jenkins proves, that scarce-saved something sweet is nothing but the music after all.
David Stein4/12/10Moten’s MethodFred Moten’s work derives squarely from the Black Radical Tradition described by C.L.R. James, Sylvia Wynter, and Cedric Robinson as “the critique of Western Civilization.” All of his work, but especially his poetry, should be related to trying to hear the “tonality of the totality.” This is a reference to Cedric Robinson’s argument that the obligation of the Black Radical Tradition is to exceed the dominators’ categories of property, and the human, and move towards the ontological totality. Robinson suggests, “the Black radical tradition had defined the terms of their [the dominators:] destruction: the continuing development of a collective consciousness informed by the historical struggles for liberation and motivated by the shared sense of obligation to preserve the collective being, the ontological totality.” The movement of this consciousness is what Moten reaches for in his work as part of the task of “recalibrating the senses.” The goal of this is the re-writing of the self and the social in both a deconstructive and reconstructive relation over and against the dialectic of capitalism and slavery that formed the Black subject; for Robinson (and Moten) the central point is that “we are not the subjects of or the subject formations of the capitalist world-system. It is merely one condition of our being.” This knowledge, what Moten might call, “the knowledge of freedom” evokes the “question of the human,” or to invoke the phrase that from the opening poem of B Jenkins, “the theory of who we are.” Sylvia Wynter would suggest that these writings are acts of auto-poesis—self-writing, or modes of self-institution—that are always collective, and fundamental to the political project of sloughing off the subject formation formed within that dialectical of capitalism and slavery. It is impossible for me to separate B Jenkins from the overall project of Moten’s work. However, at the same time, I want us to think about the role of the poetic, and what Aimé Césaire called “poetic knowledge.” Césaire, in this 1946 essay-lecture “Poetry and Knowledge,” presents an indictment in which he refutes our present biocentric conception of what it means to be human. Césaire suggests that “poetic knowledge is born in the great silence of scientific knowledge…scientific knowledge enumerates, meaures, clasifies, kills.” Later, Césaire maintains that, “the time will come again when the study of the word will come to condition the study of nature.” It is this mode of investigation of the study of the word, which Moten in preoccupied with. In the interview with Charles Rowell, he notes, “reading a poem is a mode of inquiry into a mode of inquiry; it is, hopefully, a response to a creative and questioning call that is also creative and questioning. Such reading is best characterized by the word ‘generosity.’” Between this style of reading there is the problem of language and its limits to articulate reality which Moten engages in his work; it is this space that his work on music opens. In the interview he notes, “I want to challenge the law that language lays down while taking advantage of the opportunity that language affords.” In In the Break and throughout his poetry, Moten is consistently reaching for ways to experience reality; and in his writing, I think he is interested in the experience of the sonic as something momentary, that flashes and flees, that can never be wholly captured even within recorded music. His poetry reaches towards the ineffable and the utopian. Throughout B Jenkins some of the consistent themes are movement, flight, and fugitivity away and though to find those new-old ways of knowing, perceiving, and being.In his discussion in In the Break of the photograph of Emmet Till, he writes of the “affectivity of the ghost.” Moten suggests the political task of questioning ontological formations through a study of sound. He writes of the “political imperative that is never disconnected from the aesthetic one, from a necessary reconstruction of the very aesthetics of photography, of documentary and, therefore, of truth, revelation, enlightenment, as well as of judgment, taste and, therefore, the aesthetic itself.” This is the challenge that Moten enacts in his methodology that demands to exceed the conceptual categories of a disciplinary paradigm one the one hand, but more broadly of the epistemological apparatus of the human/ Man as it is governed through the academy on the other. In the interview he argues that, “In the end, I want my criticism to sound like something, to be musical and actually to figure in some iconic way the art and life that it’s talking about. At the same time, I also want my poetry to engage and to intervene, especially, in a set of philosophical and aesthetic questions that are, I think, of profound political importance. This is, for me, a specifically Afro-diasporic protocol.” This Afro-diasporic protocol is reflected, for example, in multiple lines in the poem “elizabeth cotton/ nahum chandler.” Lines such as, “microdances in held bodies in the warehouse…the shrift and tide of black study…saving, sewing...music in the air…the new general strike is jumpin! this is the flavor of our region…we were/ thinking on the open lines and found a word we hid to start this new system of lines for you. will you and yours come see how much is hid in us?... yes. I do believe in the world, the edge, the stage is a complement and we are held together, saved, my love. that’s all I’ve been wanting show you along these lines.” Through these passages, lines of flight, Moten’s poetry is located in the Black radical tradition. For example, the line about the general strike gestures to DuBois’ argument in Black Reconstuction that it was a general strike of those who were enslaved that vanquished the regime of slavery, not the Northern Army or Lincoln; Moten also conveys the joy of this project within its crucible of violence, what he has elsewhere called the “terribly-beautiful.”In the Rowell interview he suggests that “poetry is what happens or is conveyed on the outskirts of sense, on the outskirts of normative meaning. I am trying to work on that edge, and I assume that the content that is conveyed on that edge, on that fault line, is richer, deeper, and fuller than those things that are given in writing that passes for direct.” This is the impulse and the demand that I discussed earlier as the recalibration of the senses—which is to say, the affective register—which is to say, one’s onto-epistemological subject formation. And it is this recalibration that is at the core of the Black radical tradition. Likewise, in his poem, “barbara lee [the poetics of political form:]” he writes that ““poetry investigates new ways for people to get together and do stuff in the open, in secret. Poetry enacts and tells the open secret.” So, for us, what is the secret that we are reaching towards in our work? Where do we find this poetic impulse in our knowledge production?
"Come from some of everywhere, somewhere so deep that some ofeverywhere come with you."
How do you encompass a person in words? Moten looks for the forever evasive origin (a topic which is an eternal return of sorts in his critical work) of himself in his mother who is always already come to through others. "b jenkins" as a person and as poem-title bookends the other names which fill this collection, while operating as the relational matrix and point of return which binds together this otherwise loose arrangement. We move (with intermittent skips) from "b jenkins" herself (the initial point) to "billie holiday/roland barthes" through "james brown," "gary fisher," "henry dumas," "james baldwin," "jose muñoz," "audre lorde/kara keeling," and back again to "b jenkins" herself (the return by way of the others who populate this book as poem titles). It is a challenging and evocative format, and a daring indirect choice in the verbal portrait of a loved one, and it works! oh, how it works!Take the time, read and re-read, move through it—feel what it means, and feel what B Jenkins meant to Fred.
What can I say? Fred Moten invokes magic by calling forth ghosts, living and dead, onto his pages to sing in cacophonous harmony. Some of the best poetry I've read in these pages. Their speakers commune on some otherworldly level, echoing each other and yet talking to themselves and the reader. This works so well as a collection.