Devonte Travels the Sorry Route cover[Omnidawn; 2019]

Disclaimer: T.J. Anderson has been a friend and mentor to me for several years. As such, this review cannot, and does not, pretend to be free of bias. That said, Anderson’s work is so infused with the camaraderie he extends to those at the writing community’s margins, that it moots all question of impartiality. To read Devonte Travels the Sorry Route in light of Anderson’s generosity of spirit does justice to his philosophy, as he puts it in his dedication, that “all art is collaborative,” that poetry starves without the sharing of ideas and drafts, books and meals, misery and laughter.

Appropriately, it is a collaboration that sparks the fuse of Anderson’s latest collection. Devonte Travels the Sorry Route is, among other things, a work of ekphrasis or transmutation, a series of riffs on the oil painting that graces the book’s cover, “Sorry Route” by Brian Counihan. The painting portrays two figures against a lush backdrop of tropical birds and vegetation: one in Napoleonic garb, the other with a shackle at his ankle. Both appear black-skinned at first glance, but on closer inspection the complexly layered paints render race as ambiguous as the relationship between them. The soldier might be read as a Toussaint Louverture figure, or as a colonial enforcer. And what to make of the shackled figure’s pale legs and shoulders, his cobalt hand? Their postures could be friendly or antagonistic. Above their heads hovers what appears to be a date, “1632,” though it doesn’t refer to any obvious historical event. Anderson exploits these ambiguities in an act of extended interpretation — reading as form of writing, writing as a form of reading — to create a parallel work, in dialogue with its inspiration but not dependent on it. He draws on the painting’s Caribbean overtones for his imagery (“The New World is the way / of the waving arm that morphs to fist / conch shell viciously blown / The dance of machetes”) and refers to Devonte (the shackled figure?) as a “bubonic albino / traversing between the parameters of race.” He expands on 1632 in the poem “Devonte’s Dyscalculia (1 + 6 + 3 + 2 = 12)” to produce the “apostolic twelve,” a “Christ fugue” transforming the “3” of the Trinity into “Bird, Trane, Ayler” and the “2” into the “positive and negative of all aspects.” Anderson’s version claims for poetry the jazz ethos of repurposing — of expanding and developing themes or exploding them through improvisation. He transmutes a static visual image not only into lyricism but also narration, though by no means is it straightforward. The narrative of history as a linear process that we typically receive from textbooks, with their posture of objectivity, cannot account for the subjective experience of those oppressed, marginalized, or erased in the name of “progress.” Counter-textbook, Anderson taps the cyclical, discursive mode of dreams and mythologies.

His narration weaves around the archetypal figure of Devonte, whose procession back and forth along the “sorry route” of history occasions gusts of surreal insight, delivered in a syncopated syntax that tears our habitual language and perceptions inside-out. These poems spring from the tradition (or in Anderson’s parlance, ancestry) of poetic innovation, from contemporaries Nathaniel Mackey, Evie Shockley, and M. NourbeSe Philip, to Black Arts Movement mainstays Sonia Sanchez, Jayne Cortez, and Amiri Baraka, back to the Projective mythopoetics of Charles Olson and the Caribbean surrealism of Aimé Césaire. A lodestar in Anderson’s constellation of allusions, Césaire’s epigraph is one of three that heads the collection: “My memory is encircled with blood. My memory has its belt of corpses” (tr. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith). These two sentences offer a window onto Anderson’s concerns here: coming to grips with the historical and ongoing atrocities committed against black and indigenous cultures.

Devonte is a “stalker of history,” a spectral figure haunting the margins. He occupies history at multiple junctures (1632, 1791, 1970, etc.) in the company of other phantoms: the nameless victims of the Middle Passage, plantation slavery, the Mai Lai massacre. Jazz figureheads (Miles Davis, Cannonball Adderley) appear among a cavalcade of ancestral spirits and gods (Ptah, Nut, Anansi). For Anderson, these references establish an alternative to the white European canon and cosmology, rescuing names that history has threatened to expunge.

Restaged in poem after poem, the struggle against historical amnesia becomes a refrain that binds together disparate narrative strands. I read the second poem in the collection, “How to be Remembered,” as a core sample of how Anderson wages this struggle. The poem consists of a catalogue of nouns and noun phrases, each beginning with an indefinite article, each separated by an em dash, with a handful of phrases repeating. In this manner, the nouns move from abstract historical categories (“a name — a date — a place — a year”) to personal, concrete ones (“an abode — a body — body — a body”). The nouns unfold in chains of sonic association (“a window — a windbag — a slight — a slip — a read — a reed — a rhapsody”), as opposed to narrative cause-and-effect. From the catalogue’s severed elements, an occasion for the poem may be pieced together. The speaker pays a visit to his father’s grave and attempts to reincarnate him in memory. Given the lack of verbs (of movement), death is finally irreversible. The em dashes may be read as excisions of the verbs’ connective tissue, or as a through-line, “a genealogy” linking what remains — both cut and suture. The poem teaches its readers to take an active role in repairing the gaps, not only between individual poems, but between the severed images that comprise them. Reading is a reparative act, or at least, a registering of sensation with the “Black, blue, discombobulated, and disembodied” phantom limbs of Devonte’s “Miraculous Coat of Arms.”

This reparative aspect of reading is one way of approaching the collection as a whole. Anderson’s use of white space demands it, since the bulk of poems here incorporate more silence, more emptiness, than verbiage. Chunks of syntax wrench and float apart across the page:

The darkness of this music that punches through

 

canals of bodies,

avenues of bodies,                                                                                                     black
footways of                                                                                                                 black
bodies                                                                                                                          black
rivers of plasma,
lakes of thirst
Turbulence                                 unceasing

oceans . . . oceans . . . oceans . . . oceans . . . oceans . . . oceans . . .

Such displacement suggests, in its violence, the diaspora wrought by the transatlantic slave trade, which severed millions of Africans from their lands, cultures, languages, names, autonomy. Anderson draws the eye across that gulf, urging readers to make sense of what remains by restoring fragments to syntactic context. To do so cannot but produce discomfort, however, in the context of black bodies instrumentalized, dredging the canals, paving the avenues and footways that trace a sorry route. Another way of reading white space here, not exclusive to what I’ve just outlined, is to treat the gaps like rests in musical notation, as space for the breaths and silences constitutive of speech. Anderson’s work, always sonic, always gesturing back to the poem-scores of Jayne Cortez and David Henderson, begs to be read aloud, whether it takes the form of a celestial music in the case of “The Impossible Suture,” or a discordant mélange in the case of “Murky with Delinquent Notes We Insist! Freedom Now Suite.” The “darkness of this music” not only troubles distinctions between reading and listening, it offers a glimpse of the dialectic’s redemptive side, where words ring out, unshackled from the rule of syntax mobilized by racist ideology to rationalize enslavement and colonial domination. Speech is not an instrument of calculus in Sorry Route, but a “guttural scat.”

The aural/oral aspect of Anderson’s poetry strengthens his declared affinity with Anansi, a spider/trickster figure originating from Akan folktales and associated with oral storytelling. Slaves on the Caribbean sugar plantations adapted Anansi to their own conditions, spinning tales of Maroons and insurrections. As Anderson writes: “Anansi’s web neural vines the story’s translucent strands / makes the Jacob’s ladder ropes.” The free-associative “vines” and the “translucent strands” of white space that together make (and break) up Anderson’s images contribute to his project of undermining proper, literary English, the colonizer’s language. But colonial history (irreversible, though contested in meaning) has rendered English the tongue available to him, just as French was available to Césaire. And for both, the colonizer’s language is vulnerable to sabotage. Anderson hacks up English syntax, disrupts its rhythms, recombines the bloody scraps in a counter-poetics that overturns, decenters, the Anglo-centric histories of Devonte’s “Fine Education,” with its “series of dates and numbers, hints of atrocities . . . police batons and hoses . . . cat-o’-nine-tails . . . and smallpox laden blankets.” A closer look at the second to last poem in the collection, “Murky with Delinquent Notes We Insist! Freedom Now Suite” (named for Max Roach’s 1960 jazz album) will demonstrate how Anderson wields what he calls his “writing armaments.”

The poem opens by dismantling a series of advertising images that recycle racial stereotypes. “But, I am looking / not at you   but rather / through you,” the speaker declares, refusing to accept at face-value the images that follow. Who is the “you”? The lines “your butter brimming Aunt Jemimas / in the dew-rag dawn / of maple syrup,” referring to the brand of pancake mix owned by Quaker Oats with a mammy-archetype logo, assume a white representative of American consumer culture. The “dew-rag dawn,” punning on doo-rag, disrupts a syrupy domestic idyll and prompts a reread of “brimming” to suggest a hat brim (pork pie?) as much as surplus. Signaled by white space, the syntax breaks off into “slave shack to / log cabin to / shake master’s breakfast in a quake / in a Quaker Oats shuffle / a soufflé of indigo screams.” In the progression from slave shack to log cabin (Uncle Tom’s?), Anderson shakes out the history of “indigo screams” that undergirds white idealizations of blackness, concocted to sell this or that consumer good (indigo being an important cash crop in colonial South Carolina, cultivated along plantation-system lines.) Those screams lead us into “whip of cane by sugar harvested.” Besides the pun on cane as both sugar and corporal punishment, the grammatical inversion promotes sugar from grammatical object to subject, as if cane(s) harvested slaves and not the other way around — an image of the slave economy’s self-perpetuating, absurd rationale. Anderson wields the surreal twisting as a “machete to cut my way through / the dense verbiage of your language,” a reprisal for:

                                                                                                                 the morning assault
of yet another
newspaper splattered with black                                                                   body counts

— against a journalistic lingo that sensationalizes police brutality while concealing causes behind symptoms. Hence, the speaker’s seeing/hacking through. “I got Uncle Ben’s rice converted / to a Congo harvest ripe with severed hands,” the speaker says, concluding this movement of the suite.

In just a handful of lines, we’ve seen how organizing words based on sonic doubling — as opposed to surface-level, everyday signification — exhumes buried connotations to “convert” words away from their advertising utility. Anderson takes signifyin(g) to where the “glossaries of impending legislation” hold no sway. In the poem’s second movement, we get a counter-image to the bloodied advertisements:

I am just around the corner where
boys play hoop
& leave the ball midair

They are basket weavers,
the showboaters,
tail spin and wolf
fake to the right
then the twirl behind
the back jazz body aesthetic
smoke and mirrors
Anansi’s arrival.

That’s the court
I pledge allegiance to.

Now we see black bodies under their own power, playing by rules of their own devising, unfrozen from stereotype and breaking gravity itself by leaving “the ball midair.” Anderson draws on Anansi’s spidery associations and exploits a slippage in “basket weavers” to infuse the image with the resonance of myth. He traces style, “the black jazz body aesthetic,” back to the stories of resistance recounted on Caribbean plantations. Stories without which slave rebellions could not have grown into, for instance, the Haitian Revolution. Anderson subtly recalls “Anansi’s arrival” on the basketball court at the close of the poem, in the lines “Take note, I sport a bandoleer / of guttural scat” [my italics]. Crisscrossed with an ammunition belt of smuggled connotations, the “Blue Mountain Maroon” mounts a linguistic sabotage. A guerrilla poetics that lays its ambushes from within occupied consciousness, just as Toussaint Louverture turned the French Revolution’s Enlightenment ideology against French colonial interests in Haiti, revealing the limits of Liberté, Égalité, Fraternité in a system of primitive accumulation.

“What is writing but a struggle to employ / the limits of speech?” Devonte Travels the Sorry Route is rich with the lessons of that struggle. No doubt I have merely scratched the surface. These poems are poised — to borrow a motif of the collection — on the outer edge of language, history, consciousness. A fertile zone, and one that won’t reveal its full potential without fuller discussion between a community of readers.

William Repass lives in Pittsburgh, PA, where he works as a projectionist at an art house cinema. His poetry has appeared in Bennington Review, Denver Quarterly, Hobart, Small Po[r]tions, and elsewhere.