The Use of Lyricism
This morning, the dim skies are halting
the passage of time. An error in the weather.
I am in two places, torn between the clouds
outside and some photos on my screen.
James Baldwin's former house in the South of France.
The first thing the developers tore down was his writing
studio—to make way for luxury villas they will name
"Le Jardin des Arts," bidding up to thirty million dollars.
Only the Jardin will not be Baldwin's garden,
will not have the round table at which he took
reading breaks. Three years before his death he admitted
"I certainly have not told my story yet." This mimetic silence
drums with hope, waiting to sound out in the many
more decades he thought were to come.
"It's hard for me to recognize me," he said.
"The way the world treats you is unbearable."
Le Jardin des Arts will carry luminous myths
of Baldwin the artist, stripped of any locatable color
or weight. Popular psychology keeps pumping out optimism
via anecdotal studies, see how art can save lives even if it kills
its maker. Baldwin wrote of someone questioning Miles Davis
giving money to Billie Holiday—why did he do it
knowing she'd just spend it all on heroin?
"Baby," Davis only said, "have you ever been sick?"
and that answer stretched into the most buoyant footpath
I'd ever set my feet on, never mind where it led or came from.
I don't think it's as simple as temptation that pulls us out
every time the street ahead turns a dark corner. You could master
your destiny every waking hour and the bell curve
will still get you at night, that's how Thatcher was dead
wrong to say "there is no such thing as society &
people must look after themselves first."
The biological essentialist argument for selfishness
flew out the window the moment the first human
carved a piece of dead wood into the likeness
of the animal she was supposed to hunt, and who did it
neither to attract a mate nor to generate food.
The task of creating representations
of reality drove a quivering stake into the ground that day,
and have since doubled as an abandoned
pilgrimage site for theorists who make grand claims
about utility or victory or hardwired instincts, as in
every time I walk my dog toward the Mississippi
levee I have to pass a shiny plaque that reads
FREEDOM ISN'T FREE. Who knew violence
struggled to believe in its own surety and sought
for comfort too? The theater of imperialism is always
weeping over its self-inflicted wound, while I stroll
away my days trying to become everyone's best American girl.
Even the most compelling means of escape winds up
being just a metaphor—after the house is dismantled and
the invasive weeds rooted out, were you supposed to
transcend language and never worry about falling in love
with your aggressor? Sometimes on these long walks
I try to trot with light steps for fear of putting
too much bodily pressure on this earth,
because what would I do with anything more?
Holiday had seventy cents to her name
at her deathbed, her liver rock hard and bleeding
out at forty-four, a fact unconcerned but completely
entwined with what the world had done to her.
Without greatness she'd written, "Don't explain . . . /
right or wrong don't matter," and I imagine her voice
rising up round and fat and pomegranate-sweet,
billowing toward the clouds
up where I cannot see.
Today's heaviness is already thinning out,
ready to fall again as rain.
- Grace Shuyi Liew (from The Kenyon Review)