by Camonghne Felix
In the poem “Second Sermon on the Warpland,” Gwendolyn Brooks offers black people, and black writers in particular, an ode to survival. “Live and go out. Define and medicate the whirlwind,” she says, and through it, begs us to challenge the ideas of authority and autonomy of speech, to redefine survival and live. In a workshop at Cave Canem, Lyrae Van Clief-Stefanon used the poem to define the word adynaton -- “a hyperbole taken to such extreme lengths as to insinuate a complete impossibility.” i.e: “when the sun falls out of the sky, I’ll be loving you.”
Phillis Wheatley was a toddler when she was caught writing letters on the wall, during a time when slaves were still forbidden from writing or reading. Instead of punishing her, the masters were so confused and, of course, enamored with this “unusual, magical” phenomena that they decided to keep her and homeschool her.
At 16, she wrote a poem describing a black hole before anyone knew what a black hole was. At 19, she was published. In a world where her hands were to be cut off at the glimpse of an impulse to write, she chose to take the risk of imagination, to look for parts of the world and universe that she had no access to, and create the language by which to define it. How can a child slave with no “education” write letters on a wall? How could she even understand the connection between chalk and mark-making without example? How could she not have been dead? A child slave who learned to write letters on the walls out of nowhere, with no context, with no teacher, who then becomes the first published Black woman poet, ever. She is adynaton -- Black life is the hyperbole, Phillis’ story is a Black life of extreme impossibility stretching beyond the call of survival.
In my work, I try to create a world where survival is not a practice of escaping pain or leaving it behind, but a world where survival is affirmative. I am challenging my readers to recall who we are by being brave enough to retell and reimagine what we’ve forgotten. I am challenging us to look closely at what has died in order to tell the truth about what is being born. Survival is finite. It begins at birth and ends at death, but life continues beyond both of those endpoints, and there is something in the middle too. I write to find out what that middle is, what it means to live beyond the endpoint of survival, what it means to be beyond and ahead of death, about what’s next for Black life, about the possibility of Black life living infinitely. I call it the world of Post-Survival.
So many other black poets and writers have stories of impossibility, of impossible survival -- those who should not study but do, those who should not speak, but can. Black poets --- we are adynatons, little magicians, building language and the legacy of new worlds.
I have “say that the river turns, and turn the river,” from “Second Sermon on the Warpland” tattooed on my legs, because it is the foundation of my writing, and of my life. Gwendolyn is my Rabbi, the teacher who constantly reminds me of what poets know and have always known: what we say is powerful, is spiritual, is a ripple, and we manifest what we ask for when we say it out loud. She reminds me over and over again that lyric is mine to reimagine, that narrative is mine to complicate, that language is mine, that only I can build the world I seek to build, and that I have all the magic I need to do it. This is how I have learned to define and medicate the whirlwind.