The Uses of Memory

Ecstasy in the midst of struggle

Roger Reeves
A Black woman raises her fist at a protest against police violence. Joyce by Miki J / Creative Commons
Miki Jourdan / Creative Commons

So, ecstasy. In the third section of “Little Gidding,” the last poem of Four Quartets, T. S. Eliot counsels us toward something like ecstasy—or rather, something both like it and totally distinct, as “attachment,” “detachment,” and “indifference” are said to be at once “alike” and “differ completely” from one another:

There are three conditions which often look alike
Yet differ completely, flourish in the same hedgerow:
Attachment to self and to things and to persons, detachment
From self and from things and from persons; and, growing
between them, indifference
Which resembles the others as death resembles life,
Being between two lives—unflowering, between
The live and dead nettle. This is the use of memory:
For liberation—not less of love but expanding
Of love beyond desire, and so liberation
From the future as well as the past. Thus, love of a country
Begins as attachment to our own field of action
And comes to find that action of little importance
Though never indifferent. History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could,
loved them,
To be renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

What interests me in Eliot’s “use of memory” is the way it both subverts and extends Wordsworth’s definition of poetry and memory in the Lyrical Ballads: “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings: it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquility.” Eliot’s use of memory ventures, to my mind, beyond the reproduction of kindred feeling or emotion as fodder for a poem. Yet this is not all it does. In gesturing toward something beyond affect, Eliot also points toward something that might be beyond the future, that does not uncritically carry with it the past, as the future tends to do. A beyond that transcends desire, history, nation. A beyond that establishes a “renewed, transfigured” pattern. What Eliot calls for, I came to sense, is a secular ecstasy that subverts, troubles, disarticulates, and rearticulates the imagination and memory—and with them the old order, the “older pattern” of politics and intimacy.

But I also came to sense something else (and this might be provocative): Eliot’s pronouncement is ontologically black and queer. Yes, I’m putting Eliot’s modernist poem in conversation with scholars, philosophers, and poets like Fred Moten, Judith Butler, Essex Hemphill, José Muñoz, and Aliyyah I. Abdur-­Rahman. I suggest this neither for shock value nor to reify any patriarchal notion of lineage that seeks to trace an idea back to its source. On the contrary: I do it as a means of disarticulating the smooth sequestering of ideas to culture, race, or historical moment only, or what Abdur-­Rahman calls the “logics of teleological progression.” As such, this meditation is aligned ontologically and epistemologically with what Eliot and these queer and black scholars, artists, and philosophers cajole us toward in their wonderings, poems, and essays: a beyond, an inhabitation that allows us to “feel beyond the quagmire of the present.”

Those last words are not from Four Quartets (though they sound as if they could be), but from the late Latinx queer theorist José Muñoz’s articulation of a queer ecstatic in Cruising Utopia: The Then and There of Queer Futurity. Similar notions haunt the theoretical work of Abdur-­Rahman. In “The Black Ecstatic,” Abdur-­Rahman declares: “As an affective and aesthetic practice, the black ecstatic eschews both the heroism of the black past and the promise of liberated black futures in order to proffer new relational and representational modes in the ongoing catastrophe that constitutes black life in modernity.” We hear a similar disinclination to aggrandize the past as heroic in Eliot’s declaration in the stanza after the one quoted above: “We cannot revive old factions / We cannot restore old policies / Or follow an antique drum.” The ecstatic, both the black ecstatic and Eliot’s, requires disentangling the past (as nostalgia) from futurity, and vice versa.

This is, of course, easier said than done. As Abdur-­Rahman notes, channeling Judith Butler, the future—“the old-­fashioned future,” as Terrance Hayes has called it—is not a break from the past. Often, this future traffics in the “losses of the past,” carrying them forward without subversion of their traumatic ends. Here we can think of Faulkner’s famous ko¯an: “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” According to this logic, the past becomes both the seedbed and grave of the future. The future is nothing more than the already achieved and archived past, a past apt to be heralded back into existence via nostalgia—as in the Trumpian carrion-­call “Make America Great Again.” Both Eliot and Abdur-­Rahman push us to consider how the logics of such attachments reinscribe that which we sought to escape, bogging down the present in “old,” inefficacious “factions” and “policies.”

So, ecstasy—ecstasy as inhabiting a beyond that liberates from future and past through nonattachment. Ecstasy as that which can detach us from the teleological. Ecstasy “not less of love but ­expanding / Of love beyond desire, and so liberation.” Memory, for Eliot, allows the love or lover of the past to be recalled without desire for that love or lover. Conversely, an attachment to the past circumscribes and delimits the potential for a new pattern, a new truth to emerge as something beyond the moment, a greater love. Eliot’s notion of an expansion of love finds its echo in Abdur-­Rahman’s extension of ecstasy beyond pleasure. As she writes: “Ecstasy is not mere pleasure or inevitability or even necessarily sexual. Ecstasy exceeds pleasure and sex. More importantly, it resists the logics of teleological progression by opening an immediate space of relational joy for black and brown people, for whom the future is yet to come and already past.” Abdur-­Rahman’s dislocation of ecstasy allows for a productive defamiliarization. No longer tied to notions of progress, either in the form of satiation and resolution or some purifying end that will fix past and current wounds, ecstasy can be experienced and inhabited in the wound, in the tumult, bearing out the black vernacular adage that states, “There’s a blessing in the storm.”

Ecstasy is a pinching, a theft of beyond-­pleasure while being surveilled, prodded, poked, and persecuted. Here we might consider two moments from the literary critic Saidiya Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection, which analyzes the opaque relationship of black bodies and their subjectivity to pleasure and the banality of subjection: the coffle (the marching of a caravan of enslaved black people to market, an internal Middle Passage) and stepping-­it-­up-­lively for the master during forced dances on the plantation.

In both situations, enslaved Africans were told to dance joyfully, cavort for the master, or, in the case of the coffle, for the purchasing parties. Generally, dancing is thought of as an act of pleasure, or at the very least as an act that has the potential for pleasure. It is quite difficult to dance in a lively, expressive, or joyful manner if one is being compelled by a whip or a master’s surveilling eye—when the end result, as in the case of the coffle, is to be sold away from friends, family, and children. In the case of slave dances on the plantation, the master gave no consideration to the fatigue of the enslaved or whether they felt like dancing in the first place. They danced until the master tired.

Yet Hartman also suggests that we consider whether there might have been fleeting moments of pleasure drawn from these everyday acts of oppression. A subversion and a corroboration occurring simultaneously. Property stealing property. A stealing away while being stolen. As she writes:

Pleasure was fraught with these contending investments in the body. As Toby Jones noted, the Saturday night dances permitted by the master were refashioned and used for their own ends by the enslaved: “The fun was on Saturday night when massa ’lowed us to dance. There was a lot of banjo pickin’ and tin pan beatin’ and dancin’ and everybody talk ’bout when they lived in Africa and done what they wanted.” Within the confines of surveillance and nonautonomy, the resistance to subjugation proceeded by stealth: one acted furtively, secretly, and imperceptibly, and the enslaved seized any and every opportunity to slip off the yoke.

Pleasure was not deferred until some later moment outside the master’s gaze but was stolen within it. Memory and artifice (storytelling) also participate in the furtive disruption of subjugation and inhabiting pleasure. To dismiss as mere nostalgia Jones’s testimony of black folks discussing their life before enslavement would be a gross misreading. Memory, in the space of the plantation dance, subverts domination. And thus allows for “another pattern” (to bring back Eliot), one that appropriates and contests the pattern of injustice and oppression that the master seeks to imbue. A subversion appearing as corroboration. Ecstasy, joy, does not have to be delayed until some amorphous future. Ecstasy now. Ecstasy whenever.

Inhabiting ecstasy in the middle of abjection might be not only an aesthetic act but a political one. Ecstasy as protest. Ecstasy as a type of protest aesthetic. Insisting upon itself in the middle of the wound, the break, the ecstatic subverts and opposes the disciplining and oppressive act. Here I am thinking about Civil Rights Movement rallies and our current political moment under the Trump regime. Right now many citizens—those recently inaugurated, those who have yet to have their citizenship conferred yet are seeking it, and those who have fought for their citizenship over decades and centuries—feel aggrieved and overwhelmed by this regime’s assault on civil liberties, civility, and rights. Often their response takes the form of marches, rallies, die-­ins, and other demonstrations (such as sit-­ins on Capitol Hill by disabled activists). I understand the impetus for these sorts of protests. And yet it cannot be denied that such protests and their attendant calls for change are subject to the grace offered by others. Redress of pain still lies outside the agency of the pained—with political entities like Congress, the president, or the judicial branch. Pleasure, agency, and liberation are thus again deferred to some amorphous time in the future.

What if ecstasy were practiced publicly, employed as a liberating force, reminding both ourselves and those who would strip away agency through legislation and executive order that our joy and our bodies are our own?

Yet what if we practiced a type of protest that deploys ecstasy in the middle of struggle—even in the middle of the grief of protesting police brutality. What if ecstasy were practiced publicly, employed as a liberating force, reminding both ourselves and those who would strip away agency through legislation and executive order that our joy and our bodies are our own? Consider the Civil Rights Movement. Hours, sometimes even the night before a speaker like Martin Luther King, Jr. or Joseph Lowery would climb the rostrum, participants in the marches would arrive to sing and chant in order to buoy up their bodies and spirits before facing the water cannons, dogs, tear gas, and batons of the police. Contradicting the violence that would be inflicted on them the next morning, their singing also produced a counter-­pedagogy, a counter-­protest of time-­independent reveling in the body even as it stood at the precipice of its violation, one that did not require a future or the achievement of a solidified, calcified liberation. What was being built, instead, were the “new relational and representational modes in the ongoing catastrophe” described by Abdur-­Rahman: an ecstatic relationship to the present, in the song, in the singing.

These defiant possibilities found in singing are notably similar to those associated with lyric poems, which likewise display an ability to contest time and teleology and enact a mode of joy in the midst of ongoing catastrophe. As the literary critic Jonathan Culler notes in Theory of the Lyric, the lyric poem resists mimesis through its ongoing-­ness, its sense of “now,” which does not end. In a poem, an event that took an hour, three days, or a year can be invoked in a single line. Or an instant in time can be expanded or arrested—for instance through rituality, rhythm, and refrain. As Culler notes in an interview in the Los Angeles Review of Books, “While many lyrics do have minimal narratives or events in some sort of causal consequence, the stanzas of a lyric are often not arranged in a narrative temporality; they may be different takes on a situation, or utterances that are not temporally situated in relation to one another. (Think of the case of the refrain as the most obvious.)” Or, as Culler puts it in Theory of the Lyric, “Nothing need happen in the poem because the poem is to be itself the happening.” More interested in evocation, in making something happen in the moment of reading rather than merely representing a memory or history, the prototypical lyric thus brings us back to Eliot’s entreaty on the uses of memory:

History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could be,
loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

Like Eliot’s memory, the lyric poem vanishes the faces and places of history “to become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern”—not through mere erasure but through the ecstatic. Eliot himself liberates memory from the old factions and patterns for the possibility of a renewed, transfigured pattern through the imperative and the declaring them vanished in the same sentence.

In this one sentence breaking over three lines, Eliot both erases and renews, enacts a liberation, a beyond in the present (through the use of the present tense). This compression of the past, present, and future reminds me of the relational joy of the black ecstatic in the space of ongoing catastrophe that Abdur-­Rahman articulates. In Eliot, the ongoing catastrophe would be attachment, and, as he makes clear, the break is not clean. The renewed, transfigured pattern, though liberatory, will bear residue of the past—memory. The instantiation of the memory toward a transfigured pattern is not a state of purity but one that plays in and with both “freedom” and “servitude.” Like the black ecstatic, Eliot’s notion plays in abjection but is not constrained by that abjection.

Eliot’s use of the imperative—an implicit apostrophe or address to an unseen presence—performs an additional enactment, one that makes us, the readers, complicit in the ecstasy, in the creating of the renewed, transfigured pattern, in the vanishing of history as servitude, history as freedom. In fact, without us, the readers, the pattern is not made. The act of making the new pattern and vanishing the old pattern occurs through the operation of reading, through the poem being made in the reading, which is itself a new pattern. “They vanish” because we, the readers, inhabit the moment of the sentence, thus enacting the action of the sentence.

This is the lyric par excellence. The lyric poem acts as a way of knowing, as a way of making the invisible visible, as an enactment of possibility. The lyric, in Abdur-­Rahman’s formulation, resists “the logics of teleological progression by opening an immediate space of relational joy.” Yet it is often the space of relational joy that is relinquished in the march, the sit-­in, the die-­in, the occupation, because in those moments what is prioritized is the teleological, a future-­looking, the other side of struggle when the action or result is achieved. Joy must wait for the resolution of the struggle.

But why? Why must our joy be delayed for some amorphous, unguaranteed future? Why not enact it, live it in the moment of the protest as protest. After all, our joy is the reason we are there. Here I am thinking of the dancing protests by queer folk when vice presidential candidate Mike Pence visited Philadelphia and Columbus, Ohio. Much like enslaved black folks who furtively “slip[ped] off the yoke” of slavery during dances under the master’s eye, the dance parties thrown in front of Pence’s hotel windows similarly inhabited that space of relational joy. Enacting an ecstatic subjectivity, their queer bodies also performed a critique of Pence’s homophobia through radically making themselves present. In literally dancing before the master, but not for his pleasure (much to his displeasure, in fact), these queer protesters enacted a beyond in the space of abjection, offering themselves a non-­sovereign sovereignty and agency that was not beholden to any normalizing or mastering discourse, not beholden to the state and its governance for recognition. For the aesthetic act of dancing does not follow the logics of protest or that of the infantile citizen who must beseech the politician for rights and redress. Instead, the dancing creates a din, a discourse that is both legible and illegible: a beyond without a necessity of a future.

This dancing in the midst of struggle continues today, despite the ongoing catastrophe of state violence committed against marginalized bodies. During the protests against anti-Blackness in Los Angeles, Atlanta, Newark, Durham, and Washington, D.C., following the recent killing of George Floyd in Minneapolis, Minnesota on May 25, 2020, demonstrator-dancers have juked, krumped, and danced to the Cupid shuffle in the middle of intersections while holding signs that read: “HANDS UP / DON’T SHOOT” and “LET JUSTICE FLOW LIKE A RIVER.” Electric sliding while chanting “no justice no peace / fuck these racist-ass police,” the protesters commit themselves to two simultaneous actions: civil disobedience and joy. In fact, their bodies in motion make the case that these two phenomena should have never been separated. Although white supremacy and police violence would literally like to take the breath from black people (think of Derek Chauvin, the officer who killed George Floyd, kneeling on Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes), these protesters, in the luxuriant reveling in their bodies, produce a counter-lyric. This counter-poetic wallows in embodiment—in breath, in the flexed arm, in the arched back, in the hop and turn, the black body dancing subverts its disposability and ironizes the notion that it must be surveilled to death. This dancing is a refusal to be yoked. Black life will not be curtailed. In taking place in the face of the state, in the helmeted faces of the National Guardsmen and police, it fugitively calls back to the coffle, those internal middle passages to auction blocks and slave markets during slavery, reconvening that history while subversively repeating it. Whereas before we danced unwillingly and with fear of the lash, now we dance willingly despite the lash.

History may be servitude,
History may be freedom. See, now they vanish,
The faces and places, with the self which, as it could,
loved them,
To become renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.

I hear something else in those last three lines: a push toward understanding memory as a way of knowing, an epistemology, possibly even a theory and metaphor. That the goal of memory is to find something beyond recollection, something that is both an arrival and a disappearance, a beginning and an end, something “renewed, transfigured, in another pattern.” Might this push to participate in a beyond that is devoid of attachment, this seeking another pattern be helpful in writing in persona, writing in and about a body, language, culture, social position, and class that is not the poet’s? I am referring to the appropriation and misappropriation of black, brown, and disabled bodies, their conflicts, labor, and aesthetics, in text and other media. Over the past several years, social media has erupted into multiple heated debates over the question of who has the right to write and make art about black and brown bodies—­from Kenneth Goldsmith’s found-­poetry-­performance-­piece appropriating the autopsy of Michael Brown to the dustup over Anders Carlson-­Wee’s persona poem, spoken in the voice of a homeless person, inThe Nation, to Dana Schutz’s painting of a mutilated Emmet Till in the 2017 Whitney Biennial. Often there are two sides: the free-­speechers, who believe we should allow artists to say and make whatever they want and that any attempt to curb this right is to censor, and those who believe that to deploy the materials of another culture, whether it be its language, aesthetics, or struggles, is a type of colonization, further proliferating Westerners’ extraction of the labor and materials of black, brown, and indigenous bodies. Yet there are also people in the middle, which is the position I would like to think from now. How might we think about deploying discourses, aesthetics, and bodies in our poems and art without reinscribing patterns of colonialism and cultural imperialism? This, we might say, is another use of memory, another pursuit of the ecstatic.

Could this be precisely the problem—the inability to imagine the other in ecstasy? In the examples I’ve given above, all three artists sought to encounter black subjectivity or the racial, economically disenfranchised other solely through woundedness, annihilation, and the elegiac—quite simply, through eradication, as if pain is and was the only way to make the other legible. What if the pursuit of writing about the other means understanding the other as a body in the possession or position of ecstasy, rather than sorrow? I am not arguing that racialized others’ sorrows or struggles should be off-­limits to a writer or artist from a different subject position; rather, what I am petitioning for is a rendering of the other that allows for ecstasy, pleasure, and joy to be within moments of struggle and sorrow. In other words, to think of the black, brown, or disabled body not simply as a body only in pain but also as one complicating and contesting pain and subjection. Think again of the testimony of Jones, the enslaved man who describes the brief moments of pleasure and agency stolen while under the surveillance of the slave master at Saturday dances. Even there, in the most brutal of situations, we find a complicating of the bifurcation between pain and pleasure.

In pursuing this line of thinking, I would like to put Eliot’s passage in conversation with Christopher Gilbert’s “Listening to Monk’s Mysterioso / I Remember Braiding My Sister’s Hair.” Christopher Gilbert is a poet who died of polycystic kidney disease in 2007, and whose work is woefully understudied and underdiscussed. Born in 1949 in Birmingham, Alabama, he grew up in Lansing, Michigan. A psychologist by trade, in 1977 he participated in the Free People’s Artist Workshop, which was established by Etheridge Knight. In 1983 he won the Walt Whitman Award for his first book of poems, Across the Mutual Landscape, which was published by Graywolf Press the following year. I came upon Gilbert’s work when Terrance Hayes emailed me several sections of the poem “Across the Mutual Landscape” in 2010 and asked if I had heard of him. I hadn’t. As soon as I could, however, I found a copy (used) of his book and immediately was entranced by the thinking, the music, the ability to move in and out of several linguistic registers. (In 2015, Graywolf reissued Across the Mutual Landscape together with a previously unpublished manuscript Gilbert wrote before his death, Turning into Dwelling.)

Gilbert’s work is suffused by his sense of wonder—wonder at how to be part of something that is not one’s own, how that wonder can pull someone into a place of joy. It is that wonder we find in a poem like “Listening to Monk’s Mysterioso / I Remember Braiding My Sister’s Hair.” The poem offers us a lesson on how to get to “it,” the lyrical space of the beyond, the not-­yet-­seen but opaquely known. But Gilbert and Thelonius Monk’s “it” is also the “it” of the other, the other’s pleasure, the other’s ecstasy.

The poem begins with, and in, the illegible, the unknowable.

What’s it all about is being
just beyond a man’s grasp,
which is a kind of consciousness
you can own, to get to
be at a moment’s center
and let it keep on happening
knowing you don’t own it—

which is moving yourself close to, being
particular to that place.

The enjambment of the first two lines emphasizes the first half of the declarative statement—“being” as opposed to anything else. There is no desire to traverse—to subject—this unknowable territory. In other words, what “it” is all about is being, not knowing. This “being” that Gilbert is describing reminds me of Eliot’s nonattachment to memory and history, in that Gilbert does not call for an “owning” of the unknown, the ungraspable, but rather allows for its mystery, its unfamiliarity. And it is this which then allows for one to become “particular to that place,” which I read as a type of renewed or transfigured pattern because it creates a relationship that did not exist before. The term “particular to” is important here because it nods to a type of nonhierarchical simultaneity that Gilbert will later call a “mutuality” existing between the foreign and native, between two disparate entities, in his poem “Kodac and Chris Walking the Mutual Landscape.” This mutuality transfigures and critiques the American notion of tolerance, that “I tolerate you and your ways, and you tolerate me and mine” which always seems to carry with it the connotation of disgust and disapproval, our tolerance erecting a fence between us.

In contrast, Gilbert’s way of “being / particular to a place” as a form of not-­knowing implies a broader openness. One does not have to be of that place, one does not have to be native to be particular to it; one can be “of” it via one’s consciousness, even if the consciousness is in doubt. In other words, doubt as a way of being at home.

Gilbert finds a way around this ethically fraught territory of
possession and knowledge.

I read this moment as an intensification of Keats’s negative capability, the ability to sit in doubt and allow that doubt to be part of the creative process. Gilbert would have us think of doubt and confusion not only as a way of knowing (epistemological) but as a way of being (ontological). A way of knowing and being that allows the unknown its opacity and illegibility without recasting that illegibility as dangerous or reprobate. Gilbert starts his poem in statement, a statement that contests the notion that knowing something requires being able to hold it, possess it completely. As such, he addresses the byproduct of knowledge production and accumulation. Often, in the pursuit of knowing we fix or arrest the event’s—“its”—motion. This pursuit foregrounds the desire of the pursuer and reifies what is being pursued. The objectifying then leads to a type of fungibility that moves knowing into the territory of commodity and control, thus bringing us back to subjection.

Gilbert finds a way around this ethically fraught territory of possession and knowledge. Rather than focusing on the confounding, “ungraspable” event, he would have us think about our consciousness, about the inability to grasp as a type of consciousness, a type of place to be, something to own as in claim rather than possess or administer over. The move toward claiming a confused consciousness rather than the event is a shift of burden and an offering of grace. Often the confounding event is blamed for its perplexity, its opacity. Gilbert wants us to understand that such a transference is misplaced, not because the event (in this case the braiding of hair) is inherently ungraspable but because “you” (the narrating poet) lacks sufficient skill and experience in braiding hair. The hair slipping the grasp is not a failure of the moment but the moment as it should be.

It might seem as if I’m arguing that the Gilbert poem is offering two competing models of ecstasy, one that involves sitting in the position of the outsider and allowing the ungraspable aspects of the moment to be the way into ecstasy, into knowing and being, and the other one that suggests that ecstasy resides in not corralling or arresting the unknown but allowing its illegibility. What I am pushing the reader toward is embracing both. Ecstasy in the ungraspable, in rendering the unknown, is recognizing one’s outsider-­ism while simultaneously understanding or embracing the ineffable of the act itself—the hair resisting the braid, for example—­which skilled practitioners of the act would know. And it is thus that Gilbert offers that confusion, that inability to grasp as a place to dwell. In the unreachable, the unattainable: grace rather than anxiety.

What Gilbert also acknowledges in that long first sentence is that being a stranger does not necessarily mean being estranged or alienated, conditions often accompanied by discourses and technologies of violence and containment. In letting the event “keep on happening,” allowing ourselves to be nonnative to the event and yet at its center, Gilbert offers a distinct kind of arrival. This is an arrival that critiques the expansion of Europe into the erroneously named New World, critiques Europe’s imperialist move into Africa. Gilbert’s arrival is an arrival that does not require mastery, mastering, or extraction. His sense of arriving at the center of a moment has to do with a mutuality of differences, but the differences do not require a reconciliation. They happen alongside each other without contestation. They co-­perform. They exist without seeing the other as impinging or threatening. In arriving without the need to subject or control, we arrive at the center of the event because the event is large enough to invite in the uninitiated. There is no outside or outsider.

But exactly where are we, what is the impetus for this claim about consciousness and knowledge at the outset of Gilbert’s poem? Gilbert’s opening is similar to Auden’s in “Musée des Beaux Arts”: “About suffering they were never wrong.” Who is this “they?” Just as Auden clarifies who “they” are in the next line (“the Old Masters”), through a shift in diction, Gilbert grounds his philosophical assertion in a narrative scene.

Like my two sisters
taking turns braiding each other’s hair—
hair growing against their weaving, they formed
a flow their hurt and grace could mean
as each took turns pulling the comb through
the other’s knots and their little Vaseline.

Whereas the poem begins in the public realm of the rhetorical and philosophical, the simile moves the reader into the visual and the domestic. This switch vernacularizes the opening sentence and stanza, locating the philosophical in the realm of the everyday. And as such it indicates the intellectual rigor and possibility in an act such as braiding hair, an act many would characterize as without intellectual substance or difficulty.

The “two sisters / taking turns braiding each other’s hair” teach us how to sit in the unknowable and be. In the sisters’ braiding, in the patterning, they materialize the ineffable of “hurt” and “grace.” And for a moment they make a motion, a “flow,” that allows the “hurt and grace” to be known. It is an improvisational moment, a moment of pinched ecstasy. In grasping each ­other’s hair, they create a new consciousness, a transfigured pattern, even as the hair resists the legibility of the braid: “a knowing which makes the world / a continuity.”

Just like the speaker of the poem, we are constantly embarking upon a process that is amorphous, vanishing, renewing, and transfiguring itself into another pattern, even as we seek to make one. Gilbert’s wave metaphor at the bottom of the third stanza addresses this process of constant change.

As in your core
Something calls to you
at a distance which does not matter.
As in the world you will see yourself
listening to follow like water
following its wave to shore.

The water following the wave back to shore must take on the shape of its varying formations, rushing toward what calls it even as it is moving toward its own dissolution. In the fourth stanza, Gilbert declares that this following of one’s calling is a type of “letting,” which we are to understand as a type of being. In following this process of being, we move into “something else,” into becoming an “other.” I would argue that this is the position and disposition of the writer. This becoming other is neither smooth nor easy. In fact, Gilbert describes it as a type of drowning: “it flows into always something deeper and / over your head.” Though he lightens the moment a bit—likening the one in this state to “a kid with ‘why’ questions”—Gilbert swiftly submerges us again, transforming the “‘why’ questions” into something that can drown us. Yet the drowning is the only way we come into life:

Your answer is a moment struggling to be
more than itself, your straining for air
to have the chance to breathe it free.
It’s alive you’ve come to,

this coming into newness…

In what might seem like a contradictory moment—coming into life while drowning—we encounter another echo of Eliot’s notion of the transfigured pattern that results through nonattachment. We also witness a moment of ecstasy. This ecstasy is one of relational joy, in which struggle is not banished or eschewed, an ecstasy that accepts contradiction, the oxymoronic. For Gilbert, this oxymoronic moment—the struggling for air, the struggle for answer—is the quintessential moment of being alive. While earlier in the poem Gilbert suggested that this process is illustrative of the continuity of the world, he now presents it as simultaneously discontinuous: a way one comes into newness, into a mind that can perceive an otherness. Quite simply, one becomes fractured, transfigured—though into what?

Here again, at the poem’s moment of greatest abstraction and uncertainty, Gilbert moves us back into the world of the real, of his sister’s offering: “You want to learn to braid my hair.” The request moves him into the center of the event, and recognizes his desire to be part of it, a mutuality signaled by Gilbert’s use of a period rather than a question mark. The sister’s offering is both a request and an acknowledgment, a moment of ecstasy. It is at this point that Gilbert presents, for my money, the poem’s most sublime and humble insight: “there are circumstances / and you are asked to be / their member. Not owning but owning in.” Here again I hear an echo of Eliot’s notion of nonattachment, transformed into a way of being part of an event without colonizing it. As such, it is liberation. Ecstasy as “not owning but owning in,” a getting to “it.” Learning “to /  be at a moment’s center /  and let it keep on happening.”

For those interested in writing about people and lives other than theirs, this moment is instructive. Primarily, we must be asked or called to the task the way Gilbert’s sisters requested and acknowledged his call: “You want to learn to braid my hair.” The writing of the other then, is the learning of what is beyond desire: “not less of love but expanding / Of love,” learning to braid, walk, talk, love, cry, run, and hurt like the other without usurping the moment. So liberation. So ecstasy. Ecstasy, then, becomes not a possession of the other but a mutuality, a recognition of a simultaneity such that “The moment of the rose and the moment of the yew-­tree are of equal duration,” as Eliot writes. “If you can, get to it,” writes Gilbert. Another pattern, another love. Ecstasy.

Roger Reeves is the author of two books of poems, King Me and Best Barbarian, a finalist for the National Book Award in Poetry. His debut book of essays, Dark Days, will be published by Graywolf Press in August.
Originally published:
June 1, 2020


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