[Wave Books; 2021]
How does a horse learn to trot? Does the jaw drop or do you clench it side to side? Jig with me to loosen it up a bit. Because we may find ourselves in the middle of a showdown. Something hits a nerve. When we lock eyes and immediately wish to drop eye contact, the moment grows uncomfortable, ever so close, ever too long. You may be able to reclaim the pace by listening to the beats. To break from the pattern, turn your head and hold your neck up, center camera view. Because we could be vulnerable. We could tell all. I imagine you know something about a showdown. I imagine you know more about this show than you realize. I imagine you know what happens when we try to buck the system. How does it work? I jig this way, and I jig that way until it’s a dance. I don’t know the steps. I make them up as I go. But that is so often unacceptable in this world. “Look alive!” the poet Doug Kearney exclaims. Welcome to the show! I wish we could, but we cannot stop the show, even though we can’t horse trot anymore. I’m afraid that the horse wants to trot free. A horse may trot all day, and enslaving horses is one of those colonial routines.
The subtext of Doug Kearney’s poetics of performance becomes blatantly apparent when read in relation to his book Buck Studies. In fact, an earlier poem by Kearney titled “Runaway Tongue” is an extended metaphor of the baited horse and freeing the enslaved tongue. Similarly, the title poem of Kearney’s newest project Sho centers in the mouth and commands the tongue. Thus, Sho may resonate with the urge to not only free the tongue but break language. Do we break language or does it break us? Is the tongue ever truly free? I am afraid the tongue is a weapon often wielded against our will, so we must play along with language and hope to convey some deeper affect. Kearney seems to suggest as well that there is no better way to play with language than through poetry and performance. The collection of poems demands to be read aloud, but I admit that I cannot perform it well. I have tried to rehearse lines from the book, while I listen to how he performs each poem — to note how the words come out of his mouth. The page alone cannot capture it.
Kearney’s powerful voice commands our attention through the exclamation of his performative voice. Indeed, from the moment Kearney steps on stage for a poetry reading, whether on zoom or in-person, you better pay attention. Every sound, every gesture, every pause alerts us to something; you may miss the turn of the sentence. You will not be prepared for the blow to the gut. As he begins by announcing, “Weeee,” over and over, he may appear to be warming up the vocals; bellowing from some place deep, he overturns the sounds in the mouth, so you see his whole body swaying with the consonant sounds. Where is this poem headed? Something about the rehearsal suggests an inability to speak. As an audience member, you may even feel ushered into the speech act, complicit in the act, because the presence of an audience demands an act. Is he in fact saying “weep”? We begin to overhear a voice chanting, “we are not free” and “we are overcome.” As his enunciation of each vowel commands attention to his mouth, there’s a change in tone. Harsher terms begin to emerge like “ain’t” and “I can’t.” Conflicting voices emerge, as he struggles to make the simple statement, “I am.” Then a “Shhhh” takes sway, over and over, until it provokes a laugh from a dark place in the speaker’s mind. We recognize the self-talk is the talk of the police silencing the black man. As the confrontation drives the poet closer and closer to the scene, now his forehead at the center of the zoom camera, we feel his rage as the air is literally sucked out of his furrowed brow in our very presence. The “Shhh” was not even just the hissing of a bully but the noise of a deadly weapon of warfare, armed to extinguish the fire of the #icantbreathe movement, the free speech in protest to the injustice against black lives.
Initially, not only the heaviness of the work but also the difficulty of his project prompted my consideration of the accessibility of the page itself. In fact, it isn’t really a book to be read in a traditional sense. Sho is but an archive of Kearney’s poetic utterances to see enacted. In fact, the page alone may not do justice to the work. As I return to the page, the energy hits the down low again. I feel numb. I can no longer hear the cadence of his voice driving me on. I remember he said something about “look alive.” That was a commanding line that stood out. I don’t feel alive. I feel rather dead inside again. Quite a turn triggered by contact. As you meet the poet deer in the headlights, Kearney himself lends his performative body to the archival page. His voice demands a reexamination of the artifice of poetry through the study of rhetoric and performance. Through a dance between performance and exegesis, the poet-critic may reclaim the musicality of language to extend access and translate a speech act as unspeakable as it is alarming: the showdown of the black body, made slave to the system.
Sho confronts the atrocity in which black lives are used and disposed of by the system. The opening lines of the title poem, “Sho,” utter an astounding message: “Some need some Body / or more to ape sweat / on some site . . .” The poem explores how black lives have been lynched for the pleasure of white supremacists, as he announces, “They clap.” He gives voice to the traumas of police brutality, exclaiming, “Be misunderstood,” hand brushing the very spot of the throat where voice is choked. While “Sho” is the title poem, Kearney’s poem, “The Showdown,” may wrestle for the central place in the book, as Kearney invokes the divine with all seriousness. But does he act as actor or witness? There seems to be a spirituality to the poet’s intervention, evident in later poems in the collection like “Fire” and “. . . Say the Sacred Words,” even as Kearney’s exact religious beliefs are undefined. Thus, the work carefully challenges the religiosity of a racist society by showing the hypocrisy of white churchgoers and celebrating how the African-American community has always been God-fearing.
Through extended metaphor and performance, Kearney embodies the very brutality of the showiness of white supremacy. We may become consumed by the showiness, consumed by social media, and it reaches beyond Twitter, to every town and every college. It is not in the past. “The Showdown” confronts the signifying power of the gun in a God-fearing society. It begs the question — how did the gun get its power? Kearney imagines the gun having a voice: “would it speak?” He contemplates the potential for harm: “Could it / whisper, not meaning nothing by it.” In contrast, he also notes the lack of vocal confrontation with the truth, describing how there will be those “judged by spans / of silence.” He invokes a grander perspective of history with reference to the divine, “There’s God’s index.” In addition, through multimedia experimentation, the cinematic view of the gun across time is amplified. As we gaze upon guns, he interestingly describes the gun with eyes, so it also takes on an animal quality, compared to the brutality of a horse “bug-eyed” and “Bucking / but not kicking accuracy cock- / eyed.” As the line breaks with the word “cock,” the signifying power of the gun becomes pronounced as a phallic sign. Yet the gun is also described as “cooning,” almost romantically feminized as a “virgin” with a “gun-virgin’s hand.” Why would a gun ever be romanticized? Only in a land like ours where western films become classics and cover up the horrors of conquest and genocide.
Because of Kearney’s attention to spirituality, the poetic voice wrestles with the ethics of the language we use to describe both human suffering and the fight for change. His bold address challenges how Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi strangely painted George Floyd to be a “sacrific[e] . . . for justice.” In fact, published in the wake of George Floyd’s death, Kearney’s book cannot be read without the murder of Floyd in mind. The tragedy could have unfolded with the poet’s very own town. As a professor at the University of Minnesota in the Twin Cities, Kearney writes in the “Acknowledgements” to the book, “I write this the same week officers of the MPD murdered George Floyd. But the poems in Sho have been written over the course of years.” Kearney writes against an ethos that believes we have entered a “post-racial society” when clearly we have not.
Furthermore, Kearney’s stake in the performative murder of black lives to serve white supremacy resounds ever more deeply with the context of his professional training in theatre. How much of the posture of self on stage is refracted in the performance of the poet on stage? Kearney’s poem “Just Wanna Be Like” offers an intimate picture of performance for the poet. As Kearney shares during his reading of Sho at the Raymond Danowski Library, he began his career in theatre before becoming a professional poet. One of his roles was Jesus in Godspell. “Just Wanna Be Like” recounts a piece of his memory of that performative experience, namely the advice that he received about how to capture the audience’s suspension of disbelief: “The audience doesn’t have to believe that the king is on stage. They just have to believe the rest of the cast believe the king is on stage.” So, Kearney writes, “I was directed: / If the actors believe you’re the king . . . / [ . . . ] / . . . the audience will believe.” His response to this advice is to “belt,” he shares, “at the strain of my range.” As we are swept into the poem, there is a felt-sense that the becoming of the Savior King recurs again and again, such that “the King dies every year —.” Anyone may habitually fall into the role-play; so often we perpetuate the savior complex in our everyday unconscious patterns of behavior, but we cannot save anyone and no one can save us. The poem urges a reckoning with the truth. Kearney warns, “who seeks / to save shall lose.” On the one hand, we are prompted to process pain through the shared language of suffering, “Find your suffering in His.” On the other hand, we are instructed to perform: “Break a leg!” The poetic speech act reveals the constraints of both, as the poem itself takes a surprising turn in the end, revealing its own conceit: “for love / for craft.” The single word, “craft,” announces the performativity of not only a past theatrical scene but also the current writerly moment. We “Suspend” with him in the moment, willingly. Kearney urges us to be present with all our past worlds because they inform our present thoughts: “Now here’s where you’re there then.” A past self wonders what it means to be “Jesus” in academia, let alone the world. Why does Kearney make a point to document in his poetry that he has played the role of Jesus? No poet wastes a word, let alone a page. The inclusion of this moment seems significant to the archive — the black poet has played Jesus, and Kearney is not a savior. Indeed, his poetic voice may know what it is like to take on the posture of a human sacrifice, and a show is supposed to be a willful performance. The murder of black lives is not. Why oh why is it as routine as a rehearsed performance for the police?
The concept is not so difficult. Is the concept so difficult? Maybe we would rather not confront the truth. The reception of Kearney’s work is only further complicated by the literary tradition of religious writing. Perhaps because Kearney’s work is both heavy to hold and difficult to dissect, his work has even been termed “As dense as John Donne.” In response, Kearney opens his reading from Sho at the Raymond Danowski Library with a full exegesis of his own poem in direct response to critics and reviewers who have demanded it needed further explanation. Does he bend to criticism in this act? Why must he dissect each line and word? It is clearly unfair to expect a poet to awaken white readers to the truth like a savior or a saint. Yet, when he does so, the audience is confronted with what they probably do not find pleasant to hear: the multiple words that are hate speech spewed at blacks, that jab and prod. He carefully and kindly explains what each dig means, how it is intended to cut down the speaker, reclaiming power through the critical moment of his poetic speech act.
Kearney’s commitment to tracing the linguistic history of hate speech against black lives shows that his critical stake in black arts and the avant-garde cannot be bounded by the page. So if you pick up his book, know that it is but a reproduction of his poetic work and we are lucky to have a performance archive. You cannot reasonably expect to know it in totality. When we analyze poetry, often we approach the poem as a container, so we assume that the textual body is finished, perhaps a memory crystalized, sealed tightly. But the contemporary poem is a performative text, so it is actually more like a script, to be acted upon, ever shifting in meaning, dead and alive. Clearly, Kearney’s voice shapeshifts when he performs his poetry. In almost slow motion, we discover connections as he forms words and sentences in his mouth. In collaboration, added digital filters to his Zoom performances may only deepen the solidification of meaning and illuminate what resonates for the collective.
Through his own investment in the talkback with performance, Kearney poses a question for writers and artists alike: how are you “innovative” and “intelligible”? In discussion about his work, during a performance for the MFA program’s Reading Series at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, Kearney shares his stake in black innovation and liberation. As he approaches the challenge for himself to write, publish, and sell books, he concludes that the key is to “frame the new thing as a brand new dance.” Kearney’s dance-like approach to poetry also may inform an openness to experimentation across genres and an embrace of invention. Kearney even credits his own students as the inventors of some of the new forms that he explores.
While many of Kearney’s poems begin as dances, they often take a surprisingly darker turn by the end, much like a sonnet. In fact, he may invite you into the poetry through the dance and trick you into discovering an emerging tradition of darker sonnets. Indeed, both dances “Do the Cruiseline-Up Slowgrind-Up!” and “Do the Six-Foot Jump Down!” are exactly fourteen lines with a turn in the end. However, he does not announce them as sonnets. He welcomes you into a dance and locks you in line. As I am reminded of Terrance Hayes’ American Sonnets for My Past and Future Assassin, I find the affect of Kearney’s dances is much like Hayes describes, “I lock you in an American sonnet that is part prison, / Part panic closet, a little room in a house set aflame.” As Kearney’s commanding cheer leads us into a jig, we are similarly “lock[ed] . . . in a form that is part music box, part meat / Grinder” (Hayes). Indeed, Kearney’s work is as obsessed with the body in motion, “grind / in tight.” Manipulating colloquial speech, he beckons a crowd, “you gonna BREAKDOWN show them / what you got nobody still standing up.” Like Hayes dissects the purpose “to separate the song of the bird from the bone,” Kearney’s dance uplifts the soul and then cuts to the bone. He addresses our black brothers and sisters: “to my peeps in black don’t wave / your hands at the drop crisscross look alive!” Even as the poet performs, we may miss the foreshadowing until we are overcome with the foreboding — a dark humor the poet may or may not revel in.
We were dancing along, then he slams the brakes, and the last word breaks you. Throughout the work, he has been inviting us in, urging, “come,” “come,” “come.” “Do the Cruiseline-Up Slowgrind-Up!” begins, “Line up every body for the rockin / ‘n’ rollin you all.” It sounds like a dance party: “hump that back bend them knees grind / in tight on the one you’re with it down to the floor.” As he performs the piece for a Zoom audience, the aid of media filters affirms the spirit of a jig because we see a black man dancing. But then why does the poet warn us to step “not too fast”? We fall into a down low, which the poet himself may know all too well, exclaiming, “naw too low might catch the blues.” As he gently draws the mind and body back into focus, through the sonnet, he chides, “don’t lose the rhythm / gonna bring that beat back.” What beat? That beat is not just the dance beat. A voice, from outside, commands the “know how.” Suddenly, we are not free; we belong to that voice, a master commanding a “crew,” possessively named “my crew.” As the poet reaches the final line, the focus of the Zoom stage shifts from Kearney’s face to a projected film. We are in the presence of black slaves on a slave ship, sailed away. The slave master’s voice is overpowering: “I do best believe gonna see y’all work it!” You may be wondering: What just happened? A single image triggers memory, and the horror comes to overshadow the entire dance. In this dance, even language is broken, because a “back bend” in an act of love feels the very same in a world of terrors. So we willfully constrain ourselves; we perform through the page and on the stage, but for whom, why, to what end?
We may tend to narrate how this world breaks us. In fact, traditionally, we are supposed to bend to the system, to the state, to academia. I can’t. I have often felt like a horse that bucked and maybe he sees because he does too.
These words I write for Doug Kearney because he is a marvel, if I’ve ever met one. We met on Zoom. In the middle of a virtual conference where I was just a guest, I raised my virtual hand to ask a question. To my surprise, I was unmuted to speak, so I turned on my camera where I found myself quite embarrassingly rambling about my artistic aspirations, while appearing to be unmasked on a NYC subway car (which was my Zoom background), in front of an unknown and nearly invisible audience (of all black squares or avatars). The host was most academic, and have I ever lacked such formalities. Hence, I thought I could maybe carry on like a poet (or maybe not). I found myself admitting to the whole audience that I am an artist. It was Kearney who saw me, and somehow he eased my nerves by turning my question back to me. What was I after? I suppose a conversation, which minutes later shifted to text chat, then email, because the show must go on. Mind you, I was typing with my fingers, logged onto the meeting with my iPad mini. This is how much I wanted to talk to the man. This is how much I felt touched — how intimate sharing art can be.
But the show must go on. After all, this was a performance; this was Q&A. And what if I stutter? Because I cannot regurgitate in terms I don’t understand. So often we discount chatter and stigmatize informalities, but there’s something intimate about getting a glimpse behind the curtain. A backstage view. I’ve noticed how he even crafts the moments he takes to breathe between poems into micro performances. Somehow in Kearney’s imagination, the ordinary act of putting on lotion to soothe the lips, nose, and forehead, becomes a poetic performance of care. To me, an overflow still seems like nonsense talk, as do the emails I’ve exchanged with him. When I fell into writing him a very long email, perhaps almost a memoir, perhaps too poetically for email, he answered so on point. This pause in time and space — but a few words shared — was care.
I return to the page that stopped me in my tracks, where I felt an exorcism, perhaps as the poet is just speaking of what it means to “exorcize” and “conjure” or “later, drive out.” I fill in the blank: “madness.” A page holds space in between two empty quotations. My inclination has always been to doubt. Is that it? It could work. It could mean something else. Nonetheless, regardless of our interpretation, the page follows all the same: “Come here. Come here. Come here. Come here.” This felt like an embrace of open arms.
Doug Kearney does not need me to tell you to buy his book. As poet-performer and teacher-scholar, he reveals how impoverished literary publishing truly is, and yet he celebrates how lucky we are to be able to add to the archive through academic research and digital technology. Sho is not breaking language. Kearney’s poetic performance is breaking the very institutions that claim to define it — and bend us all, like a horse. To lift students as collaborators and inventors of form, Doug Kearney will embrace you and your journey and your work. Seek after him as you would a professor — to listen and feel heard.
Kara Laurene Pernicano (she/they) is a multidisciplinary artist and poet-critic. Through hybrid arts, she seeks to awaken an interpersonal approach to trauma, grief, talk therapy, and mental wellness. Kara has a MFA from Queens College and a MA from the University of Cincinnati. Her creative work has appeared in Snapdragon, Waccamaw, The Humanities in Transition, Full Stop, the winnow magazine, ang(st), and Passengers Journal.