Monday, October 21, 2013

ModPo 2013 #44 The Left Hand of Language: On Baraka's "Incident"

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He came back and shot. He shot him. When he came
back, he shot, and he fell, stumbling, past the
shadow wood, down, shot, dying, dead, to full halt.

At the bottom, bleeding, shot dead. He died then, there
after the fall, the speeding bullet, tore his face
and blood sprayed fine over the killer and the grey light.

Pictures of the dead man, are everywhere. And his spirit
sucks up the light. But he died in darkness darker than
his soul and everything tumbled blindly with him dying

down the stairs.

We have no word

on the killer, except he came back, from somewhere
to do what he did. And shot only once into his victim's
stare, and left him quickly when the blood ran out. We know

the killer was skillful, quick, and silent, and that the victim
probably knew him. Other than that, aside from the caked sourness
of the dead man's expression, and the cool surprise in the fixture

of his hands and fingers, we know nothing.

Info from Amiri Baraka, “Incident” from Black Magic (Indianapolis: The Bobbs-Merrill Company, 1969). Copyright © 1969 by Amiri Baraka. Reprinted with the permission of Sll/Sterling Lord Literistic, Inc.

Source: Black Magic (1969)

I appreciated the video discussion that linked this poem to two other poems from the course: Countee Cullen's "Incident" (which this poem might be addressing directly, having the same title) and "Let Us Describe" by Gertrude Stein.

Once again, we are faced with the inadequacies of language. In this particular case, it is about a shooting. At the beginning of the poem, it is unclear who shot who and what events took place (time is confused). In the latter part of the poem, at the turn marked by "no word," the language of reportage comes in defining killer and victim. And yet the poem ends with "we know nothing," emphasizing that "no word(s)" could describe this incident.

Here, I see the role of poetry as the language of the indecipherable, the indescribable, the epiphany with no straightforward narrative. Poetry comes in where there are gaps too huge to fill or that cannot be filled.

Poetry is the singing that moves us and that we don't necessarily have to understand...the way our left brains do. Our left brains need labels, need sequences, need order. Our right brains are comfortable in ambiguity, make connections without following sequences, capture images without judgments. It is our right brains that can swim in a sea of language without drowning.

When I draw, I am in a meditative right brain state. I follow lines, I travel distances between curves and angles, I follow shapes and edges. There is no chair, no table, no face. There is that thing as it is. There are no labels. Those come after, when it is done. I think the same thing can be said of poetry.

This poem reminds me of that role of poetry. When the heartbreak and the grief is too much, the poem sings with the material of words. I call them the "material of words" and not words in their utility. The material of words grapple with what cannot be expressed in our everyday world: a world of reports, facts, pleasantries. Poetry lifts a veil and allows us to glimpse into our otherwise word-less joy or grief or terror.

I've found validation in this wonderful interview from about the book by Iain McGilchrist's The Master and His Emissary about the left brain (of literal truth) and the right brain (of metaphoric truth). What a fantastic conversation! The nature of poetry is to be hidden, its revelations coming together in a puzzle-like fashion, roundabout but ultimately, electrifying.

Baraka's poem points to the metaphoric truth that we know nothing and that no amount of pile-up of words will ever be enough to describe why brother kills brother. And yet, he attempts, nevertheless. Poetry is that ever-reaching out hand that acknowledges the gaps in our lives. The left hand. Of darkness (sorry, I couldn't help but insert Ursula Le Guin, here).

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