A Review of Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN / Radical WRITING, edited by Erica Hunt and Dawn Lundy Martin (Kore Press) — December 20, 2018
It might be redundant to call Letters to the Future: Black WOMEN / Radical WRITING visionary, though it most certainly is. While the work it contains could easily be dubbed experimental, the right word is transformative: exposing convention in order to dismantle it. Not only do the voices gathered here work to see past the forces of oppression—“yawning inequality, wars of surrogacy … global migrations and climate change” among them—that define the context in which this collection was composed, but, in Hunt’s words, they help us “know beyond the knowing (the as if, art’s impulse) that keeps Black people in their place.”
To that end, a wide range of registers of language are deployed, interrogated, contorted. From the excerpts of Duriel E. Harris’ Simulacra, which place text within the structure of sheet music; to excerpts from Robin Coste Lewis’ Voyage of the Sable Venus, comprised, as its prologue explains, “solely and entirely of the titles or catalogue descriptions from Western art objects in which a black female figure is present”; to Evie Shockley’s “What’s Not to Liken?” delivered in the form of a quiz:
the girl’s braids flew around her head like:
(a) helicopter blades.
(b) she’d been slapped.
the black girl was pinned to the ground like:
(a) an amateur wrestler in a professional fight.
(b) swimming in a private pool is a threat to national security.
Shockley’s poem is in reference to the “Texas Pool Party Incident” of June 2015, where fifteen-year-old Dajerria Becton was video-recorded being aggressively restrained by a white male police officer in MicKinney, Texas, outside a suburban pool party. The perversity of the quiz format executes something sinister. There are, of course, no wrong answers, making either comparison in any of the questions possible. Like much of the work gathered here, Shockley’s poem flaunts how conventional forms of knowing mediate our understanding of race- and gender-motivated violence. The choice is an illusion. And the title, with its implicit “what’s not to like,” exposes the one-letter line between voyeur and participant.
But even in the work where formal innovation may not be apparent at first glance, as in the prose poems of Harriette Mullen, meaning is nonetheless multidirectional, reliant on what is misread as well as what is read. In “Coals to Newcastle, Panama Hats from Ecuador,” sentences riff off one another, making meaning through linguistic jubilance: “This scene performed in real time. In real life, a pretty picture walking and sitting still. It’s still life with fried spam, lite poundcake, nondairy crème. It’s death by chocolate. It’s corporate warfare as we know it.” No sooner than the singular, discernible self appears does it seem to be subsumed into the language of consumer culture and televised anxieties. And in thumping lines like “Fax back the map of your spiritual path,” Mullen concretizes the intangible—as Hunt describes it, “thinking through the mulch of noise.”
Something similar could be said of the taut, columnar poems of Betsy Fagin, also immersed in the noise, where one has the flying over a landscape shaped by the language of capitalism in search of some alternative. Take the closing stanzas of “Elimination of Currency”:
make me ruler
our one single currency
a rainbow hologram
of coin for the citizenry
all civilized knows
a center radiates
as any river
always the ocean toward
this is proof
There’s a kind of exchange between natural occurrences and human abstractions, seen in the sublime coupling of “rainbow hologram” and especially in the pun made on “currency” (currents-e) with the imagery of rivers. In a way, for Fagin, Mullen, and a host of other contributors, language turns material. By listening for phonetic links between words and blending modes of communication, these writers steep themselves in the work of undoing the dualisms between private and public, personal and political, that are built into language and provide us with ready-made ways of making meaning.
What differentiates Letters to the Future from other anthologies is a convergence of word and image. At so many turns, works either explore the space of the page or are pictures themselves. giovanni singleton prompts us to “focus on the words, as physical shapes, before considering their meaning.” Her poem “Time : being,” a clock made with the letters of Alice Coltrane’s name and with the words “eternity” and “infinity” as its hands, explores how several lineages can be represented on the page. There are, too, the collages of “Time Squared” by the poet and performance artist Julie Patton, which make use of letters from her mother, the late painter Virgie Ezelle Patton. And Kara Walker, whom readers may know as a visual artist, has a place here as well. The inclusion of her work feels unsurprising since, as Martin notes, Walker “interacts with the tension between language and image.” The postcards she has contributed here are short, handwritten lyrics that unflinchingly spell out the violence they depict. While they are text, they are also pictorialized by being in postcard form, suggesting that we are seeing something happen. But the postcard is also a means of correspondence whose function is to cross spatial and temporal distances. Walker’s poems are moments of a past come back to haunt us.
Praise is also due to the afterwords that appear throughout the anthology, where Martin and Hunt beautifully yoke together the handful of writers who comprise each section. These brief closures function less like interpretations or summaries than essays in miniature. Complete with its own title, each one offers us the seeds of close-readings and delicate handling of these artists’ visions, and it’s wonderful to have their minds at work in the service of such a wide range of voices. Both the brevity and frequency of the afterwords feel appropriate to the project, which itself is wary of any efforts at canonization. Frequently returning to the editors’ voices helps maintain a conversation, a process of exploration and return. That conversational quality is furthered by the inclusion, toward the end, of “An Elder Homage,” comprised of a conversation between Lucille Clifton and Sonia Sanchez, an interview with Wanda Coleman, and a conversation with Jayne Cortez, all from 2002.
So. Can a review properly encounter, address, or describe a work so formally inventive—one that, suspicious of the effects of anthologizing, in turn might resist description? Simply put, this resistance makes Letters to the Future one of the most exciting, challenging, and significant texts to have been released all year. While showcasing a continuum of black women writers who have and will continue to reimagine the relationship between language, self and community, Letters to Future succeeds, in palpable ways, at pushing out against (en)closure and Eurocentric modes of fixing tradition, making it so necessary.
Which makes me wonder if the best way to end may be by acknowledging all of the contributors, only a few of whom have been mentioned thus far, by naming them here: Betsy Fagin, Ruth Ellen Kocher, Robin Coste Lewis, Lillian Yvonne Bertram, LaTasha N. Nevada Diggs, r. erica doyle, Adjua Gargi Nzinga Greaves, Duriel E. Harris, Harryette Mullen, giovanni singleton, Evie Shockley, Khadijah Queen, Adrienne Kennedy, Wendy S. Walters, Adrian Piper, Yona Harvey, Harmony Holiday, Tracie Morris, Claudia Rankine, Deborah Richards, Metta Sama, Kara Walker, Renee Gladman, Tonya Foster, Julie Patton, Akilah Oliver, Simone White, M. NourbeSe Philip, Lucille Clifton, Sonia Sanchez, Wanda Coleman, Jayne Cortez, Tisa Bryant.