Arts & Culture / Convergence / International / Politics / Vol. 2 No. 1-2

Black Apocalypse, Tonight at Noon

Virgie Ezelle Patton, Black 'm-Oceans: Mourning Day & Night

Image Credit: Virgie Ezelle Patton, Black ‘m-Oceans: Mourning Day & Night, (1985-2012), Oil on Canvas, 72 x 48, Courtesy Ezelle-Patton Family Collection

Recalling his first encounter with Martinican poet Aimé Césaire’s writing in 1941, André Breton observed that “what was said there was what had to be said,” thus placing under the sign of necessity the audacity and expressive freedom he perceived in that work. Breton quoted Césaire’s declaration, “We belong to those who say no to darkness” (Breton, “A Great Black Poet,” in Césaire 2001, x, xi), and that darkness – of Fascism, of the colonial order, and of the capitalism that makes both these aberrations possible — can, in Césaire’s poetics, be overcome only by a negating, incandescent Blackness. With the end of World War II and the eruption of the anti-colonial revolutions that would sweep the world, under the shadow of the A-, later H-bomb and its threat of universal catastrophe, this self-conscious Blackness would emerge as a poetic force in the Negritude movement spearheaded by Césaire and, subsequently, in the work of Beat-Surrealist poet Bob Kaufman. Exorcising the desolation of postwar (White) Euro-American consciousness, both Césaire and Kaufman articulated an insurgent imaginary that, in Hegelian terms, carried out a thoroughgoing “negation of the negation” through torrential, exploding-fixed imagery and corrosive humor. In the process, they deployed an apocalyptic counter-poetics that, in Kaufman’s words, “acknowledge[d] the demands of Surrealist realization” (“Sullen Bakeries of Total Recall,” in Kaufman 1965, 43), while grounding itself in the historical and cultural universe of Black diasporic consciousness.

The African diaspora in the New World has always been marked by apocalypse, from the slave trade’s cataclysmic uprootings and the Middle Passage’s “voyage[s] through death / to life upon these shores” (Hayden 1985, 48), to the traumas of enslavement, the miseries of colonialism, and the persistence of racialized structures of domination. In turn, Black cultures of resistance have often drawn on apocalyptic Biblical sources: Joshua bringing down the walls of Jericho; Daniel in the lion’s den; Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego in the burning fiery furnace; Samson pulling down the temple pillars; Ezekiel’s wheel; the fire next time; and of course that most surreal of New Testament texts, John of Patmos’s Revelations, an incendiary attack on the Roman Empire whose rhetoric and imagery undergird much of the anti-imperialist, anti-authoritarian Rastafarian denunciations of Babylon. Likewise, prophetic thought has not been the sole provenance of Christianity-derived worldviews. Aimé Césaire, though occasionally making use of Biblical imagery, was an atheist in the true Surrealist tradition, and Bob Kaufman was somewhat of a Buddhist; neither renounced the poet’s prophetic vocation. But if there is a consistent thread, a walking bass line, in the Black radical imagination, it would be the desire not only to “tear this building down” or to engage in “burning and a-looting tonight” but to forge in the process a transformative consciousness capable of reclaiming and redeeming the life-world. Robin D.G. Kelley, in an effort to answer the important question, “How do we produce a vision that enables us to see beyond our immediate ordeals?” turns to poets (“no matter the medium”) as potential creators of “works that take us to another place, envision a different way of seeing, perhaps a different way of feeling” (Kelley 2002, x, 11). In the realm of poetry, therefore – and specifically in that seriously surreal realm inhabited by Césaire and Kaufman – the language of apocalypse, of a complete rupture with the institutional and psychic structures of oppression, is simultaneously oriented towards imagining a reconstructive project constituted “on the basis of love and creativity” as Kelley puts it, or in Césaire’s words, “to liberate the space where bristles the heart of things and the advent of man” (“Millibars of the Storm,” in Césaire 2018a, 361). This space is located on what Césaire calls in the Notebook of a Return to the Native Land “the other side of disaster” (Césaire 2001, 1), but that space can only be reached through reliving that disaster and fashioning from it a miraculous weapon against the latter-days of its perpetrators – “Hope when the children cut up in pieces the men killed by pickaxe blows the women cut up into breasts are knotted into incendiary grenades” (“Commonplace,” in Césaire 2018a, 445).

The musician and philosopher Sun Ra, before heading back to outer space, famously declared: “It’s after the end of the world! Don’t you know that yet?” On a live recording of his Arkestra made in Germany in 1970, this chant emerges from a primal orchestral scene, with instruments buzzing, blasting, roaring, squealing, and heaving like a planet coming to life, all introduced by vocalist June Tyson proclaiming a “strange dream” of a Black myth and a Black world, “a world, a world, a whirl, a whirl.” The apocalypse has already happened, but our consciousnesses have not kept up with that solar-mythic reality; we are still in the world as we (inadequately) know it. Out of the dead world comes a Black world, where “Space is the Place.” Already in 1939 Aimé Césaire, in his Notebook, had raised the issue: “What can I do? // One must begin somewhere. // Begin what? // The only thing in the world worth beginning: // The End of the world of course” (Césaire 2001, 22). For Césaire, that “end” was prefigured by the 1902 eruption of Mt. Pélée, which destroyed the then-capital of Martinique, St. Pierre, a city famed throughout the region as the “Paris of the Antilles.” In a 1978 interview with Jacqueline Leiner, Césaire remarked: “Poetry is certainly a descent into oneself, but it’s also an explosion! […] I once explained to you that deep down, my poetry is a Péléean poetry” (Césaire 2018b, 177). In so doing, Césaire identifies himself with the elemental geophysical forces of continental drift, the grinding of tectonic plates, which have shaped his native Caribbean, turning a bridge between continents into a chain of islands which remain at the mercy of earthquakes, hurricanes, and floods. “The volcanoes will explode,” he prophesies at the beginning of the Notebook, “the naked water will bear away the ripe sun stains and nothing will be left but a tepid bubbling pecked at by sea birds – the beach of dreams and the insane awakening” (Césaire 2001, 2). The balance of the Notebook will in fact deal with this “insane awakening,” the incorporation and transcendence of destructive power into a Sun Ra-like flight into space and intimations of a new language of “motionless veerition” (Césaire 2001, 51). It is, then, the End of a very specific world that Césaire aims at: “the white world / horribly weary from its immense efforts” (Césaire 2001, 36). Or, as Bob Kaufman pithily says of America, “You must have been great / Alive” (“Benediction,” in Kaufman 1965, 9).

Kaufman, like Césaire, whom he surely read — in fact it could be speculated that his own invented attribution of a Martinican family origin on his mother’s side was a way of establishing a more direct line of filiation with his elder contemporary – undertakes a Plutonian descent into himself, the “man in inner basement core of me, maroon obliteration smelling futures of green anticipated comings” (Kaufman 1965, 65). Second April, published in 1959 as a broadside by City Lights Books, comes closest to the erupting, cascading imagery proper to the Césairean mode; here too, the poem strikes an explosive chord at the outset — “Hollow out trees, release captive satans, explode roses […] stab rivers, rage down insane clouds, unchain snowy lamaistic peaks, dehydrate oceans, suck up deserts, nail sky to scattered earth, in air, we come, to second April” – and at the fiery conclusion, which intimates an end of days and a Dadaist flight out of time: “Burning in torch surrender to auto-fantasy, we illuminate the hidden December, seen, flamelit in the on core of the second April, come for the skeleton of time” (Kaufman 1965, 65, 74). In between, in a series of variously numbered “sessions,” structured like verbal jazz improvisations befitting his New Orleans origins, Kaufman unleashes progressively more manic bop solos traversing a variety of moods and increasingly apocalyptic images, punctuated by and pivoting around a few recurrent phrases – “they watch” (always shadowed with paranoiac overtones: who are “they”? the cops who obsessively and vindictively persecuted him? the authorities who subjected him to electroshock treatments?), “look out for green” (the regenerative powers of nature and love), and “that’s a thing” (a cool commentary on an individual word held up to the black poetic light). And in Session Nine, Kaufman anticipates Sun Ra’s whirling ending world: “they question us, we answer them, spit, black, blue, inside a spiral, a whirl, cross around…only one conversation, the world ends, the unworld begins, they watch” (Kaufman 1965, 71). Precisely how this world ends is made clear at the conclusion of the Abomunist Manifesto, published the same year as Second April, when a satirical “ABOMNEWSCAST…ON THE HOUR…” signs off with a friendly reminder: “Remember your national emergency signal, when you see one small mushroom cloud and three large ones, it is not a drill, turn the TV off and get under it…Foregoing sponsored by your friendly neighborhood Abomunist…Tune in next world” (Kaufman 1965, 87). This indicates that the Abomunists, like Sun Ra’s spaceways travelers, will be stockpiling their “Abomunitions (n. Love, commonly found in the plural mode, very)” (Kaufman 1965, 81) in preparation for a next, resurrected world where people will be able to “tune in” on higher frequencies. Or, as Kaufman himself succinctly put it, “When I die, / I won’t stay / Dead” (“Dolorous Echo,” in Kaufman 1965, 30).

For both Césaire and Kaufman, the poet bears and suffers a particular responsibility; in his 1945 essay “Poetry and Knowledge,” Césaire proclaims the poet as one who “at the limit of dream and reality, of day and night, between absence and presence, searches for and receives in the sudden triggering of inner cataclysms the password of connivance and power” (Césaire 1990, lvi) Particularly in his extraordinary postwar poetic outpouring, mirroring anti-colonial upheavals and freedom dreams worldwide, and initiated with the revised second version of the Notebook and continued with The Miraculous Weapons (1946) and notably the first (1948) edition of Solar Throat Slashed, Césaire transforms himself into a verbal storm-bringer who will “utter the great black scream so forcefully that the foundations of the world will tremble” (“And the Dogs Were Silent,” in Césaire 2018a, 253).

Of these creations, Solar Throat Slashed is perhaps the most volcanic and opaque in Edouard Glissant’s sense of the word – “that which cannot be reduced, which is the most perennial guarantee of participation and confluence” (Glissant 1997, 191). The title of the collection itself is an appropriation and détournement of the last line of Guillaume Apollinaire’s pioneering modernist poem “Zone”; whereas the French poet prefaces this conclusion with a description of “fetishes from Oceania and Guinea” as “inferior Christs of dark aspirations” (Apollinaire 2015, 15). Césaire pivots on that last line and, exorcising both inferiority and the specter of Christ, harnesses the searing power of the tropical sun: “When the sun of image reaches its zenith,” he declares in “Poetry and Knowledge,” “everything becomes possible again.” His sun is not that of Apollo (whose name Apollinaire used as a basis for his own pseudonym), because for Césaire, “the Apollonian era [drew] to a close” in French poetry with the coming of Charles Baudelaire, who carried out “the revenge of Dionysus against Apollo.” The poet embodies at once solar divinity and its ceremonial sacrifice; the “solar throat slashed” gives rise to that “poetic knowledge [which] is characterized by humankind splattering the object with all its mobilized richness” (Césaire 1990, xliv, lv). Like certain dimensions of Sun Ra’s sonic universe, the world of Solar Throat Slashed is in constant ferment, erupting, exploding, swarming, rumbling, whirling, in a perpetual-motion metamorphosis that at once harnesses, surrenders to, and melds with the plant and animal realms. And throughout, there is the remembered dream of Africa and the hope to “reinstate a black god ill-born of his thunder” – an apparition of Shango in the opening poem (“Magic,” in Césaire 2018a, 311) which anticipates appearances of Legba and Ogou in other moments, as well as evocations of vodou possession (the serpent-god, unnamed but incarnated in the Vodou lwa Damballah). The poet dies and is resurrected – “when killed near Ophir leaving me mute forever / out of my teeth out of my skin let there be made / a ferocious fetish guardian of the evil eye” (“Ode to Guinea,” in Césaire 2018a, 451). Civilizational – i.e., colonial – constraints are jeered at – “Screw you jailer” (“Dwelling I,” in Césaire 2018a, 345), “Europe / eminent name of the turd (“At the Locks of the Void,” in Césaire 2018a, 437), and the literal and figurative chains of oppression are “stripped bare like you Volcano who at the peak of your crime hurl yourself / into suicide to rejoin in the sea depths your accomplices the pensive / porpoises yet to be born and who wait” (“Dwelling I”). Borrowing the prophetic language of Revelations, the poet beholds a procession of monstrous hybrid animals, a “motley army” which explodes at the unfolding of the poet’s word, clearing the way for a vision in which “we built on tomorrow having pocketed the sun’s very violent knife-stab in / the back of the surprised cities” (“The Sun’s Knife-Stab in the Back of the Surprised Cities,” in Césaire 2018a, 347).

Perhaps the most emblematic poem of this collection is “Noon-Knives” (Césaire 2018a, 419, 421), which opens with an allusion to the Haitian Revolution in which the insurgent Blacks assume titanic powers at the moment of the sun’s apogee, powers which the poet absorbs into himself as he invokes the filao, one of the many trees with whose upright splendor Césaire identifies in his work, as a guarantor of his pact to bring about a day of liberation, the Blacks’ quest for “the splinters from which mica is made from which moons are made and the fissile slate out of which sorcerers make the intimate ferocity of the stars.” Solar Throat Slashed may well be exhausting in its verbal and imagistic prodigality and challenging in its molten density, but had not Césaire spoken earlier of “poetic violence, of poetic aggressivity, of poetic instability” and of “the climate of flame and fury that is the climate of poetry” (Césaire 1990, l).

Césaire’s destructive, liberating poetic persona was given its multiform life on the page and was thus, properly speaking, a literary creation. This should not, however, be allowed to cast excessive aspersions on his fundamental human integrity, which managed to withstand the constraints of a political life to whose demands he voluntarily sacrificed himself even as he managed to keep his poetic voice from being contaminated by the prose of everyday politics. Kaufman, on the other hand, living as he did in a United States where he directly experienced the everyday, multifaceted violence of racism, and refusing the siren songs of “the great American windmill, tilting at itself” (“Jail Poems,” in Kaufman 1965, 57), lived as much as wrote the Beat life – “Beat” here seen as short for “beatitude” and the beat of jazz, the beat of the heart and the silent drum, and the beat of the clubs of the “guilty police” (“Bagel Shop Jazz,” in Kaufman 1965, 15). He described his body as “a torn mattress / Disheveled throbbing place / For the comings and goings / Of loveless transients” (“Would You Wear My Eyes?” in Kaufman 1965, 40) and identified, however ironically, with a poet-hipster avatar of Jesus who shrugs his shoulders at the prospect of crucifixion: “What a drag. Well, that’s poetry, and I’ve got to split now” (“Abomunist Manifesto,” in Kaufman 1965, 83). The A-bombs dropped on Hiroshima and Nagasaki haunt his work; in “Plea,” he calls on the “Voyager, wanderer of star worlds, / Off to / a million tomorrows, black, black: / Seek and find Hiroshima’s children, / Send them back, send them back” (Kaufman 1965, 22). The “million tomorrows” are also “million midnights,” a conflation of James Weldon Johnson’s “Creation” from God’s Trombones, where the chaos before creation is described as “blacker than a hundred midnights / Down in a cypress swamp” (Johnson 2000, 15), and of a Hiroshima survivor’s comparison of the atomic flash to the light of “a million suns.” Both tomorrows and midnights are black (“One thing is certain I am not white. Thank God for that. It makes everything else bearable,” wrote Kaufman to the San Francisco Chronicle [Kaufman 1969, 80]), and that blackness is the space and place where the murdered children of Hiroshima will be found and restored to life. In his paean to jazz, “War Memoir” (Kaufman 1965, 52-53), the music is seen as fundamentally alien to a violent, bellicose social order: “What one-hundred-percent redblooded savage / Wastes precious time listening to jazz / With so much important killing to do? // Silence the drums, that we may hear the burning / Of Japanese in atomic colorcinemascope / And remember the stereophonic screaming”. The modern entertainment technologies drowning out the “primitive” drums of jazz (“an African traitor”), and the spectatorship to which it caters, are seen as kin to militarization and patriotic violence. Amiri Baraka observed that Sun Ra considered Earth and the life thereon as primitive, hence his drive to venture forth into deep space, and Kaufman’s “redblooded savage” who refuses to hear the existential truth of the blues, which “blow life, as life blows fright,” is one of those whom Kaufman recognized elsewhere as “Teevee People,” the “creeping cardboard creatures” dwelling in a “cold land [which] breathes death rattles, trembling” (Kaufman 1965, 50).

Against this, Kaufman proposed the philosophy of Abomunism, which he laid out in his 1959 Abomunist Manifesto (Kaufman 1965, 75-87). At that time – following the Chinese invasion of Tibet – sightings were reported of a massive apelike creature in the Himalayas who walked upright. Variously called the “Yeti” or “Abominable Snowman,” it joined the legion of fabulous, elusive mid-20th-century seen (or hallucinated) but never photographed monsters that included the Loch Ness Monster and Bigfoot. Kaufman, renaming himself “Bomkauf” for the purposes of the Manifesto, combined Communism with the Abominable Snowman and embraced himself and his kind as abominated outcasts. The pseudonym “Bomkauf” blends “bomb” and the German word for “buy” – the twin pillars of American society, then and now. Abomunism itself advocates an anarcho-Dadaist policy of disengagement, but underneath it simmers the “black dada nihilismus” that Amiri Baraka would conjure up five years later. The primary activity of Abomunists is “frinking,” another portmanteau word (as Lewis Carroll would call it) that combines fucking (the definition Bomkauf gives is “[censored]”), thinking, freaking, and drinking. The Abomunist literary movement of “Footprintism” (after the only evidence of the Yeti’s passage) advocates the freeing of the artist “from outmoded restrictions, such as: the ability to read and write, or the desire to communicate. […] Abomunists never compromise their rejectionary philosophy.” After all, “Laughter sounds orange at night, because reality is unrealizable while it exists.” The utter irrationality of what passes for reality in the age of the Bomb can, for Kaufman, only be met by a “rejectionary philosophy” and by a “rational anthem” in bebop zaum: “Derrat slegellations, flo goof babereo / Sorash sho dubies, wago, wailo, wailo.” Compare Césaire’s occasional flights into sound poetry: “Helé helelé,” “Voum rouh oh,” “Likouala likouala.”

“ABOMUNISTS BELIEVE ONLY WHAT THEY DREAM ONLY AFTER IT COMES TRUE,” proclaimed Kaufman/Bomkauf. Césaire spoke in the past tense of a “year when the seeds of humankind chose within man the tender / approach of a new heart” (“New Year,” in Césaire 2018a, 393). Through the refiners’ fire in which they plunge and purge a colonized language, they propose redemptive visions that, decades later, many of us in what Kaufman called “the gray universities, / Dripping false Greek dirges from tweedy beards, / While all the Troys are consumed in mushroom clouds,” or by drones, or by smart bombs, have still not caught up with entirely (“Tee-Vee People”). Perhaps it is time to recover a sense of not only a radical but an openly insurgent imagination that can start sweeping away the cobwebbed prose of entrenched ideologies and create new ways of looking at the world, frinkily, abomunistically, surreally. Understand this: if indeed it’s after the end of the world, it’s well past time to start building a new, fully human pluriverse on its ruins.

Works Cited

Apollinaire, Guillaume. Zone: Selected Poems. Trans. Ron Padgett. New York: NYRB Poets, 2015.
Césaire, Aimé. Complete Poetry. Trans. A. James Arnold and Clayton Eshleman. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2018a.
—. Ecrits politiques 5 (1972-1987). Eds. Édouard de Lépine and René Hénane. Paris: Jean-Michel Place, 2018b.
—. Notebook of a Return to the Native Land. Trans. Clayton Eshleman and Annette Smith. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2001.
Glissant, Édouard. Poetics of Relation. Trans. Betsy Wing. Ann Arbor: U. of Michigan P., 1997.
Hayden, Robert. Collected Poems. Ed. Frederick Glaysher. New York / London: Liveright, 1985.
Johnson, James Weldon. Complete Poems. New York: Penguin, 2000.
Kaufman, Bob. Golden Sardine. San Francisco: City Lights, 1969.
—. Solitudes Crowded with Loneliness. New York: New Directions, 1965.
Kelley, Robin D.G. Freedom Dreams: The Black Radical Imagination. Boston: Beacon Press, 2002.
Sun Ra and his Intergalactic Research Arkestra. It’s After the End of the World: Live at the Donaueschingen Music Festival. MPS-BASF: 1970; accessed through YouTube: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=f607blZ5cOY

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