- photo: ©2008 Charles Bernstein/PennSound
f rom American Poet (vol. 35, Fall 2008)
In Harlem, one can
never get a room dark enough
to lose sight of things.
In Harlem, one can
or can seem to make peace with
a tour bus of eyes.
I first heard Tonya Foster read at St. Mark's of the Vieux Carré church in New Orleans on December 29, 2001. It was one of our annual “off-site” readings during the Modern Language Association convention, this one sponsored by Lit City and coordinated by Camille Martin. About 15 poets read and Foster was the only one entirely new to me. When she read the place lit up, and I lit up with it; the echoing cadences of her voice filled the church space. Her poetry was rooted in New Orleans, where she grew up, but it wasn’t a New Orleans legible from the outside. As she’s shown over the years since, to be a poet of New Orleans is to be a poet of an actual place but also of a place of the imagination. Her work is site-specific but also re-citing, re-splicing, and re-sounding.
The disaster has no single origin, no single moment of birth. Like the wave bruising the shore, it is an unapologetic accretion of uninterrupted motion.
Foster now lives in New York (where she is a graduate student at CUNY) but some of her recent work revisits New Orleans post-Katrina, in particular a long mixed-genre work called “A Mathematics of Chaos: Pay Attention to Where You At/From,” which, when she presented it at a recent reading (you can hear the audio on PennSound), was accompanied by photographs and a short video. The work comes off as part elegy and part reconnaissance. Reconnaissance turns out to be crucial for Foster: second site, knowing again, diving into a wreck that is not only all-too-real but all-too-imaginary.
Foster’s engagement with repetition and lists in her work is a mark of her continual return not to the same but to the site as reciting. She is a poet of a place that is displaced: the place of her place is its displacement, her emplacement and replacement of it, as she returns and turns away, as she turns. Here / not here, the fundamental rhythm presence and absence, take center stage in Foster’s emerging poetics of emplacement.
My sisters and I could drive each other crazy by mimicking each other, repeating every word and gesture again and again. We took pleasure in making language we all knew strange, pleasure in accentuating the strangeness of words and in holding up that strangeness.
This is a series devoted to emerging poets and I don’t want simply to be coy in locating Foster’s poetics as emerging; but I take that as a tenet of her approach, as we used to talk about process. There are a number of ways that Foster’s work can be located within a contemporary moment of site-specific poetry, which often focuses on the environmental context of a work, how it situates in terms of its surround. Indeed, Foster’s work is at the intersection of site-specific writing, ecopoetics (poetics read or written as an ecological system), and the poetics of identity. But what distinguishes it from these approaches is its insistence of emergence, which means that site and identity have not yet been actualized and the system not yet realized. Emergence here is a sign of crisis, of emergency, in which the provisional is valued for its register of immediacy. Repetition and lists in Foster’s work is not a legacy of modernist composition so much as a mapping device.
sitting in a dark lit by
t.v and streetlight.
at play on the court of your skin—
The work often leads by ear, by sound, but not primarily because of an aesthetic engagement with the sonic for itself or as an ethnographic grounding in documentary, but rather because sound is a primary locating device, as in a sonogram. The echo is not toward the autonomy of the poem or the reality of the language outside it. The echo is a probe.
Black is black taint
that marks the linoleum tile
she Mop and Glo’s clean
“Black is black”—t’aint
that the color line—
“just cause” as refracted light?
My comments on Foster are abstract and technical. But Foster’s work doesn’t feel abstruse or conceptual (two qualities I often like in poems). What I am suggesting, in this brief introduction, is that Foster’s work is constructed as a system or environment, and that it explores the emergence and disappearance of identity and place. It’s not a poetry of, or about, fixed points of reference that are described. The sites emerge and submerge in the flickering probes of Foster’s accumulation of voices, her collection of verbal markers and shifting signs. Ain’t taint. In “A Mathematics of Chaos” she writes, “Geography can be transformative—the way a bullet to the body can be transformed.” Words wash over her work like the rain pours down, flooding a city (“water like language”). Speech is collected as tangible evidence of an imaginary home.
a girl who looks like her father is born for luck, alcohol, Algiers, alligator, Amazing Grace, Amelia, Angola, Atchafalaya, Aunt Noni, Aunt Sister, Azerine, back a town, bayou, because her daddy died or left, because the first-born baby died, beignets, bitch, Butsie, café au lait, … Father John’s, file, first-born, first-born done died, fleur de lys, flood, “for true?” front porch, Galvez, Gerttown, “gimme some,” “girl, gimme got shot,” “git up in here,” “God don’t like ugly,” good hair, gran’ma …
The poetics of emplacement must be imagined before it can be real, so that it can be real. We listen and we see what we hear. Or, we hear, and dive into ourselves to avert the brute reality of what we have heard.
That is what we mean by going home.
This is the secret place of poetry.
This is the way Tonya Foster matters.
Extracts from Tonya Foster. The italic extracts are from “A Mathematics of Chaos: Pay Attention to Where You At/From.” The verse extracts from her ms, “A Swarm of Bees in High Court.”