Thursday, December 12, 2013

Domination of Black

My class is having a Week of Poetry right now, and I've asked them to both find, share, and explain some poetry with us for our Friday Seminar. This is our weekly conversation where half the class circles around some core ideas from recent lessons for an hour, the other half works on independent projects, then we switch for the second hour. I'm not sure I'll have time to present "my poem" so I've flipped it over here for the students, and also as an exercise for myself.

Here's a reading of the poem I put together a couple of years ago:

video

I came across the poem Domination of Black by Wallace Stevens in two ways. First, it was in a book of poems that belonged to my dad (the book now belongs to me!).  My dad connected with a number of poets while in university in the 1960s, including Stevens, T.S. Eliot, Dylan Thomas, William Carlos Williams, and the Romantics.  Books of these poets dwelt in our house when I as young, at first collecting dust in the basement, but slowly making their way onto my bookshelf. Thought the lens of these books, the smell and sparse artwork on the book, the poems and marginalia inside, I developed a sense that they were keys to unlock a portrait of my dad as a young man. And, as this kind of work goes, they were small signs of what I might be, pointing towards questions that I might ask about life, faith, love, purpose, and truth.  That's what poems should do... kick you in the existential ass and beg questions. I also prefer that they tell some kind of story. I can't remember if Domination of Black was one of the poems I stumbled across during this time of discovery, but other poems from Wallace Stevens stand out in my memory, particularly "The Man With The Blue Guitar." I wish I would have known more about jazz back then... the poetry would have made much more sense.

My second, more deliberate introduction to the poem occurred in university. My good friend Derk had heard his prof, Grove Powell, recite the poem in class and was particularly stirred by the experience. I planned to take Dr. Powell's class one day, but in the mean time we read the poem together and talked about a central idea: proliferation of resemblances, the notion that under examination, under poetic scrutiny, many things in life come together as one and it is possible to derive similar meaning from any subject if it is turned the right way. This was so important to us in our early 20s -- what did the world want from us, what did it all mean? Our close and intense observations of nature -- what was this telling us, what were we to believe if everything could be made into anything? The poem was a touchstone for memorable conversations over a number of years. Eventually the use of the word "turn" and the title itself became keys to the questions we were asking. The "turning" that occurs was a comment on poetic craft, on the act of using language to carefully consider separate images, like turning them over in one's hand, but also turning them into something, into each other, or something new (like a woodturner makes a bowl out of a burl).  Of course this led me back to the original dilemma, if "this" is like "that," and "that" is like" this," what has meaning?  Is the grand connection of all things, the ecology of meanings, the point of life? Or is the act of turning, of crafting images, or making poetic leaps, a necessary step for an "aware" person to make sense of the world?  This is where the title helped.  If all things can be made to seem like all others (through a proliferation of resemblances), what stands out?  In art, this would be the negative space, sometimes called the black space. Imagine a swirling jazz song, at times simple and melodious, at times raucous and doubling back on itself. How do we make sense of something complex. It is the small breaks in the music, or the line turns in poetry, or the background on an artwork, the things left out, the ideas we have yet to encounter or recoil from, the domination of black, that give shape and meaning to the main subject or set of images, to the part of life that is currently in focus. This still leaves me with many questions about the poem and also the topic of "resemblances," but that's where my thinking left off last time I delved into it.

I have deliberately avoided much on the topic of Domination of Black, i,e, literary criticism and interpretations.  I have such clear and meaningful connections with this poem and its meaning that I don't want to cloud it with what the experts have to say.  Not forever, mind you... I don't think my understanding of this poem is complete, nor am I satisfied with what I know now.

So that's the long way of saying that this poem has left a mark on my identity. To be a person that takes things seriously, that brings everything they know to almost everything that happens, is to be a person that is haunted by unturned stones from the past, present, and future, a person who is dominated by black.  I find respite in a poem that allows me to know this about myself, and at the same time gives me a sense of calm in making lyrically, emotionally, and intellectually elegant connections between the phenomena in my life.

I did end up taking Grosvenor Powell's English class in 1990 or 1991, but he did not read Domination of Black. He read a great deal many other things, though, and I think I still lean back on my chair and speak slowly with a deep register when reading poetry largely because he did. O to be that impressionable again!

Here's the text of the poem:




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