Flirting with Poetry Analysis: Jayne Cortez

Posted 11/09/2010 by WHayes in Labels: , , , ,

Originally uploaded by arimajohn
Let's jump right in: Jayne Cortez is definitely not Harryette Mullen, but their work compliments one another. While the Black Arts movement heavily influenced Mullen, her experience came through the filter of being states away from its locales (Texas versus California or New York) and was assuredly tempered by her collegiate career at the Universities of Texas and California, Santa Cruz. Cortez, who is twenty years older (b. 1936), began her career twenty years earlier, coming of age artistically at the height and center of the Arts and Civil Rights movements. While Cortez would later begin her own academic career as a lecturer and eventually professor, and the passion both poets bring to their work unites them, they remain distinct via a near mind (Mullen) versus body (Cortez) duality.

I Am New York City, written after Cortez’ move to New York and first collected in her 1973 “Scarifications,” appears first and foremost on many a website dedicated to her work. After watching her perform it I understand why. She has a powerful way of reading the poem, a pushing momentum which communicates not only a familiarity with her work, but blends a tone both proud and searching for connection. There is a way select stanzas are arranged:

“give me my confetti of flesh
my marquee of false nipples
my sideshow of open beaks
in my nose of soot
in my ox blood eyes”

-- suggesting an interplay of statements and asides familiar to African American tradition. This call and response, a musical tradition transposed from African song onto the blues, is reflected in the poem’s delivery and format. As published in “Coagulations: New and Selected Poems,” I Am is broken into short lines arranged in stanzas varying in length: pinpricks of thought, each one celebrating an aspect of the New York environment, and provoking the next into a turbulent, but near seamless reading of the piece. The effect is not the stream-of-consciousness embodied by Mullen’s work, but it does not have to be to remain potent.

Like I Am New York City, Do You Think continues Cortez’ use of call and response, but extends the rhythm and organization through the entire poem. Your understanding changes with the format; those pinpricks of thought now hang like an army of independent clauses, forcing you to ponder each individual image and its connotations before moving onto the next phrase. From the first stanza:

“Do you think this is a sad day
a sad night
full of tequila full of el dorado
full of banana solitudes”

-- the poems tone shifts very visibly; “full of tequila” calls to mind a faulty remedy for weighty issues, and “el dorado” an image of both elusive fantasy and epic heartbreak for those standing in the way of attaining something so impossible. The terms “chorizo,” “cuchifritos,” and “barrio” reinforce the cultural blending seen in I Am New York City. Do You Think lacks, however, the celebratory spirit of I Am; its tone instead feels pained and nostalgic (“in the crème de menthe of my youth, the silver tooth of my age”). It is hard to explain where your mind goes with the poem’s last lines:

“Do you really think time speaks english
in the men’s room”

-- but you get the sense that image, that “men’s room” is a locus for metaphors of regret, shame, miscommunication, and sexual and ethnic politics.

So Many Feathers, first collected in 1977’s “Mouth on Paper,” continues the use of political metaphor through invoking Josephine Baker: actress, entertainer, and banana-skirted Twentieth Century political/sexual/racial powder keg. In tone, the poem embeds hints of the bitter nostalgia permeating Do You Think within unabashed adoration for Baker and her legacy. In the first of three large, emotional stanzas, Cortez’ Baker dances a “magnetic dance,” and possesses “such terrible beauty.” The praise darkens when the second stanza invokes the political terrors of Durban, South Africa. It feels like Cortez -- reflecting on her own life in racially charged 1960’s Los Angeles and involvement in the Civil Rights movement -- pleads with Baker, who was unaware (but must have known) about the “death white boers” (Afrikaans) and their “torture chambers made of black flesh and feathers.”

The repeated image of the feathers refers to one of Bakers more famous costumes, itself topless by design, a symbol of beauty, but also the baggage attached to black sexuality: is it art, or exploitation? Cortez never answers the question, instead moving toward another tier of Josephine’s life, and the third (and longest) stanza of the poem. Here, “Josephine of the birdheads, ostrich plumes, bananas and sparkling G-strings” is also Josephine the “rosette of resistance;” the concept of doubling and “double-jointed” repeated a dozen times, implying the cascade of dualities Josephine’s (the name itself would later repeat into infinity) black body twisted and expanded to satisfy.
Cortez’ poetry is not always as nostalgic and loving like So Many Feathers. As a product of turbulent times, she also created works reflective of the tension, frustration, and bitchiness (as she describes it) necessary for creative expression at the time. While Rape is one of the better expressions of that explosive passion, the idea of where giants like Cortez think we will go from here appeals more strongly. Tell Me, from the 1984 collection “On All Fronts” blends the lamenting passion shown for Josephine Baker with the free jazz rhythm begun in Do You Think, with the rage expressed on Inez’ behalf and all the struggle of 40 years of attempted civil progress. Through images of “plutonium sludge,” “contaminated puss,” the vexation of nerves, ideals of being a “nameless homeless sexless piece of shit” getting high off of neutron bombs, and a desperate plea for it to be all a dream, she asks if, after everything we’ve been through, is this all we have?

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