By Richard Oyama I lie down and writhe on the grass. I invent myself again. Deeply. --Lester Afflick, “Deeply”
This is a brutal country for poets, because poetry, like classical music, seems destined to be a marginal art form even after the spoken-word explosion. I’m reminded of the recent deaths of poets Ai, Lucille Clifton and Maisha Baton. A book of poems is launched into the world and, more often than not, sinks into the big cultural pond without a sound. The most one can hope for is that the book, the poems, may resonate with an anonymous reader and eke out a tenuous life.
One night I read I Dream About You Baby (Fly By Night Press 2008), by Lester Afflick, edited by Marci Goodman, in a single sitting on the red couch. These are the facts: Affick was born in Kingston, Jamaica in 1956. He emigrated to New York City at 16 and attended Brooklyn College. He was in demand in the NYC downtown reading circuit when he died in 2000.
What’s arresting in this volume is the self-divided voice, what John Farris correctly calls the “anti-hero” of the poems. He is both faithless (“encountering / no hymn on the road— / gives himself back / to the black”) and faith-seeking (“God gleams, God glistens”). In “Homage to Claude McKay,” the African American poet, Afflick admits to being forgetful of his native land: “I, too, have forgotten, & much, / too much, / of what & by what / I was sustained.” And in that disremembering he is repentant: “It’s America out there, / & so stark & so heedless / the avenues resurrect only shame, / this shame, that shame, my shame.” The America he evokes with a Frank O’Hara lunchtime casualness is duplicitous and pitiless: “Hydrangeas howled from yards, walkways. / Rosebuds waved from sills. / I was beginning to like buses. / How lovely I thought, America was growing kind; I / didn’t need money. And then mercy. She made me cry / out for mercy” (“Wooing”).
The persona can be romancing or unconsummated, but in this case singing the praise of the beloved’s singularity: “You were fetchingly yourself, / not someone else or / anyone else, and more / comely than advertised, / especially by your own agency” (“Comely”). In “If This Is A Poem, there’s the awful lonesomeness of a Hank Williams song (that peculiarly American loneliness): “I never in my life / Thought a man could be this / lonely.”
Afflick’s work reminds me of Salman Rushdie’s claim that the immigrant suffers two forms of displacement: the physical dislocation from the homeland, and the fixity with which the migrant encases it in memory. Deeply, this poet understood his condition in the repetition of “mongrel” (“that bastard maniac mongrel”); all colonials are mongrelized products of the indigenous and the imposed cultures. This is why Afflick can write such self-flagellating lines: “my language let me down— / I colluded, punishing myself” (“The Price”).
Elsewhere, the landscape itself expresses inarticulateness: “gist of a tongue-torn horizon / stumbling from wheeze to wheeze” (“Drought”). And in the recurrence of the colors black and yellow (“just as the moon surges / into another token / yellow phase”), the poet likely alludes to the color caste system in the “Commonwealth” countries. The notion that a Jamaican black man can bend the “King’s English” to his purposes is akin to Joyce’s Stephen Dedalus asserting that the English “cake” and “ale” don’t suit his Irish tongue. Caribbean writers Derek Walcott, Edwidge Dandicat, Jamaica Kincaid, George Lamming and others have refuted such racist-colonialist assumptions, but Afflick’s anguish in the face of such assumptions is either nakedly evident or encoded in his poetry.
Afflick arrests the city in its unceasing motion and noise: “”with one bitter red / eye blinking, as the 3:05 westbound / train pulls out jackhammer-jeer-snarling / up from the wheel-well while my eastbound bus / has just shot past like a bullet leaving / nothing tender tethered in its wake” (“Red Eye”). But he’s equally as good at re-visioning his ancestral landscape: “Bamboos edging the trails. Wild / mountain grapes. Goats. Rain. Rain for more hours. / Jacanas walking on the lily pads under the jacarandas / by the mountain lake. The good women with dark / hair and dark eyes and sandals. Their black shawls . . . / The sun. A shank!” (“Born in the Mountains”).
According to Hal Sirowitz’s introduction, Afflick sought a poetry audience at parties. He had a practiced shtick. He’d pull out a folded poem from his pocket and read it aloud. If the interested party was a woman, he’d recite the poem “from the heart.” While visiting New York, I met Afflick once at, where else, a party at my friend Kevin Jordan’s Park Slope apartment. I don’t recall the poem or my response (it was over a decade ago), but found Lester’s macho bluster and belligerence off-putting. Now I get it.
Afflick was a very fine poet. When the stanza-less, compound-adjectival poem gyres into a coherent delirium, an ecstatic flux, as in “Inner City Blues,” “By and By,” “Doomed,” “Urn” and the first stanza of “I Heard The Spirit-River Hum,” at those moments I believe he was possibly a great one. It’s as John Farris said: some of the poems had “begun to build to hurricane density.” At the same time, in “I’ve Looked Too Long,” he employs the couplet’s economy to render self-doubt to great effect: “I am still afraid / it’s the slab of years.” The word/soundplay is often quite beautiful: “The exacting light, exceeding expectations, exalted / itself, exacted its due” (“Called Back, To Serve!”). Toward the end the poet’s voice becomes self-admonishing: “I have to stand there, / & stand there, / amongst / the what was, what is & what’s to come” (“I Have To”). Even in an overtly spiritual poem, the poet anatomizes weakness and hybridization: “I heard the spirit-river hum. // This shambles I am, woe-carved, honed down to fortitude / --concluding nothing, I concede confluence. // I heard the spirit-river hum.”
I’m immensely grateful to the editor, the poet’s friends and his family for publishing I Dream About You Baby, a worthy, posthumous “labor of love.” If there’s any justice—and, sadly, I sometimes side with Afflick’s faithlessness—some of these poems will be smuggled from hipster downtown straight into the American heart where they belong. Because they matter.
(I Dream About You Baby is available from Fly By Night Press, P.O. Box 20693, Tompkins Square Station, New York, NY 10009 for $9.99).