“I need kai kai aha glass of akpetsie ahfrom torn arm of Bessie Smith ah”
Is how Jayne Cortez begins the poem “For the Poets (Christopher Okigbo & Henry Dumas)” an elegy/ode for two writers who were slain a year apart from each other in a decade that seemed to spare few lives: Christopher Okigbo, a Nigerian poet who was killed fighting for Biafran independ ence during the Nigeria/Biafra war in 1967, & Henry Dumas, a poet murdered by a New York City transit officer in 1968. Cortez leads with grand need, but nothing is too grand when speaking of a homecoming. For Cortez the homegoing is a “delta praise for the poets.” A praise that one can interpret as a praise from the land of Henry Dumas’ people, born in Sweet Home, Arkansas near, if not in, the Arkansas Delta, & can also be alluding to the arithmetic version of delta as a catalyst for change, to sing a song of change for the poets Henry Dumas & Christopher Okigbo. This isn’t a general charge for any kind of change, she is specific in her need for structures & proponents of white supremacy be burned.
Jayne Cortez, born May 10th, 1934 on the army base of Fort Huachua, in Arizona, was some of the first work that affirmed my restless rage. She passed on December 28th, 2012. Growing up my only reaction to rage was to bury it. There was no place for rage for a young woman, no matter the circumstances. I was gifted Cortez last summer a week or so before the state-sanctioned murders of Alton Sterling & Philando Castile occurred in the same week. Cortez’s work in poems like “Rape” & “Give Me the Red on the Black of the Bullet” are palpable & useful in their rage. She freed me to understand there is space for rage, rage can be magestic & marching-fuel. In “For The Poets” Cortez calls for limbs, “ashes from a Texas lynching”, “smell of Nsukka”, cockroaches, buffalo, & more in the wakes of their deaths. The list knows no bounds of geography, nor is it confined to the terrestrial world. She is restless, ceaseless in her gathering.
Because I can’t make the best of it uh-hunBecause I’m not a bystander uh-hun
Cortez’s “For the Poets” from her fourth collection Mouth on Paper, uses sound instead of traditional grammar, to punctuate a phrase. Throughout the poem there are these series of sound that are listed after each caesura. The sounds vary from stanza to stanza, but the opening & closing stanzas end with ah. Those ending gestures mimic both call & response, as well as the long linage of black writers citing the failures of English, bending & twisting language in order to communicate. In that way I put her in dialogue with two more contemporary examples Master P & DMX. Both rappers in the 90’s that cited the failure of English to accurately communicate specific sites of pain. Master P repeated uhh in order to express a feeling that is unmatched in English. Are there words for ingrained, generational pain? For the pain felt after a murder? For those shortcomings of the language Cortez & Master P invoke the soundto give grammar & communication to a specific kind of pain. In DMX’s Ruff Ryder’s Anthem, “what” punctuates each phrase. In an interview decades later Swizz Beatz revealed that the choral “what” heard on “Ruff Ryder's Anthem” was him & friends in the studio convincing DMX to record the hit single, they act as energetic affirmations. Both DMX & Master P’s hit singles were decades removed from “For the Poets”, but both borrow from this movement of sound articulating the unutterable.
Cortez’s work continues to instruct me in communicating the inarticulable & gave me permission to expand the idea of war. “What was Inez supposed to do for / the man who declared war on her body” she asks in her poem “Rape.” Cortez allows me to stand tall in my reckoning with wartime & what to do with all this rage that the war brings.