ON IMPERIAL POETICS: BARAKA’S DEFENSE OF OLSON

I

“…most recently Amiri has lent his support to Il Gruppo, a gathering of writers initially convened to debunk a recent book claiming that Charles Olson was an exemplar of U.S. imperialism [some members of the audience laugh]… and that projective verse was based on a military paradigm, in that somewhat macabre light [some members of the audience laugh]… because Amiri actually published “Projective Verse”, meaning that if Olson is a big imperialist perhaps by association Amiri is a small one [some members of the audience laugh]… in that macabre light, let us without further due give it up for Amiri Baraka…” [8:40-9:15]

Ammiel Alcalay’s introduction to Amiri Baraka
4th Charles Olson Lecture, Cape Ann Museum, October 19, 2013

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II

I’m the “dude” from México
“whatever his name is”
–as you dismissed me, Baraka
because my poet’s theory book
explored how Charles Olson’s subjectivity
had strong imperialist components.

You and your audience can laugh
all you want. I’m Mexican.
North Americans, from all colors,
are State trained to laugh at us.

I have heard that laughter
so many times
I have managed to break
some of its sounds down.

I can now, for instance, hear the pain
and the xenophobia co-giggling
along with the arrogance and self-sufficiency
of finding ridiculous any claim
about the existence of imperialist poets
in the U.S.A.

Hubristic laughter precedes us.
But not history.

When critique hit home
you became counter-insurgent
and welcomed the leukotropic smile.

Anti-imperialistic self-criticism (opt-out).
You too were Charles Olson.

[Some members of the audience laugh]

Laugh all you want (enjoy your teeth).
Dismiss the anti-imperial critic
if that helps
pretending Charles Olson’s specter
is not haunting you.

As if all those verses and paragraphs
where Olson poeticizes imperiality did not exist.

O dear Baraka, you too wanted us to think
poetry’s eunoia
erases poetry’s servitude.

Poets’ beautiful contradictions are engendered
by cruel geopolitics.

First you, Amiri, vowed to destroy
the United States as you knew it,
and then you ended-up embracing
the imperial harpoon,
loving some inches of it.

It is phallic violence replying
love of violence—it trapped you.

Who in this colonial context is not Olson?
Certainly not us.

Baraka loved Olson. Not today, but someday
this little history will say much more.
The wound screaming inside
Likes to threat others—and unfolds in delight.

Voice is mostly murder.

Vengeance will always turn you into authority.
“Small imperialism”, said your
xenophobic presenter
in an accurate and macabre description
of your relation to the Larger One.

Unapologetic (historic) love of large things
without mercy, large “SPACE”.
How to say no to the ballistic
force? How to refuse being propelled
by the All Mighty Spirit Missile? Tradition
depends on the breath of the Lord.
You—who so beautifully worked in behalf
of the paranoid patriarchal machinery—
how could you not hear
the accompanying bullets?
The projectiles and explosions
participating in the plastic co-production
of emergent form (then and now)?

How could you not see, hear,
all the typewriters, presses, tape-recorders,
fast hands scribbling and ample chests
working in accordance
with the rhythms of the Republic?
Love among warriors, heroic wedding vows
did not let you hear more closely
the inner-workings of these subtler bombs.

Where do you stop to breath, you ask?
Where war scares you
Where war scores you
Where war scars you

That’s where you stop breathing, Amiri.

Where the Line breaks. And the U.S.A. prevails.

You still were so proud of “America”, right?
You can hear the Big Pride
when you clarify the U.S.A:
“it’s not a little island like England, you know…”
[Some members of the audience laugh]
“a huge place…”
[12:36-12:39]

And when you (again) publicly deny
the validity of a foreign book
on imperial poetics inside
and outside the U.S.A.
“…that dude who wrote that book on México
“whatever his name is
“saying the Olson was imperialist
“he just need to read this passage…
[25:05]

I’ve read it, Amiri. And don’t buy it.
Even though your voice seems to believe
the Man’s words.

You were deluding yourself.
Raising ideology high up in arms
and wanting us to celebrate it
as a praiseworthy mirror.

Sometimes, you were so full of it, Baraka.

That’s why you got angry at the Mexican
writing Olson was imperialist.

You, even more than others,
were supposed to understand
we all sing inside imperial structures.

—But you probably remained
so deep in them
or believed they only exist Out There.

You could both sing against them so tremendously
—suffering their attack—
and on the other hand be even incapable
of hearing or repeating
a Mexican name.

Empire distorts the senses.

Empire is pain and rape.

Violence, war, the father of All
(according to that “eternal” source). Co-control.

Love for Empire is the rubbish
that divides
those who should be comrades.

And poetry, that weak
and gripless double edged sword
we were able to pick up
in this ruined time-space
where aesthetic form
still is an extension of war.