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What We’re Reading: Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball

2013 February 21

What We're Reading

Harmony Holiday’s first collection of poems, Negro League Baseball (Fence Books, 2011) is an experiment, a textual cacophony, and a landscape of language. She sets out to find or create— “to clear a field/invent a field/demolish and reassemble” as she says in her afterword —a space in which to explore personal and collective memory, so that she can examine her relationship with her prolific jazz-composer father. Whether or not Holiday’s experiment is always successful aside, Negro League Baseball is often fascinating, and occasionally stunning.

The pieces here are mainly prose poems, and since the book is wider than it is tall, Holiday’s lines are long, stretching all the way across the page. This lack of pressure on form creates a “pressure of idiom” as Holiday calls it in “Errand boy for rhythm[.]” She free associates through the pieces, turning “fast sin” into “fascination” (“Which Crosses You, Which Covers You”), and generally riffing on a theme like a musician.

While many poems are prose-like, line break is used throughout the collection as an disruption or cutting in. These interruptions seem to deconstruct the piece, pointing out the ragged edges where the text is collaged together. Interestingly, the text is rarely sampled from outside sources, so Holiday relies on cutting together her own generated text. Take “Vision Statement      about the name Menelik”:

the Gospel is not primarily that at all,     pretty champion

Prince, conqueror, pretty dancer

buggy, pretty dancer

university university university

put me to sleep

I was gone a solitary octopus/ pretty dandy

I didn’t wear any long purple or long

It helps to think of these lines not as being in sequence, but existing within one another in a way that the page doesn’t allow.

Included with the book is an audio CD that builds on the collaged theme found in the text. While Holiday’s text is her own, the audio draws more from found elements, including Nina Simone, Amiri Baraka, Antoine Dodson (yes, that Antoine Dodson), Mos Def, and many others. It’s helpful to reread Holiday’s text in the context of the audio, which gives a better idea of how the poems should be experienced.

And they should be reread, and read out loud, to better follow the leaps of sound and rhythm collected here. They should be read, occasionally, without any thought toward making sense, but rather toward making sounds. It is when these poems are read out loud that the reader gets a sense of Holiday’s musician father. As musical as the poems are, though, Holiday rejects the word “jazz” which leaps so readily to mind. The word has become “vapid and spangled through overuse and misuse[,]” Holiday says in her afterword. Perhaps she’s right. The poems (and accompanying audio pieces) have more in common with Laurie Anderson than with Louis Armstrong.

In a number of ways, Negro League Baseball is structured like a textbook, from the introduction and afterword, to the included audio. While these elements are interesting and helpful, they distract from the music of the text. There’s something to be said for poems that can exist without a theoretical framework to prop them up, and I wonder if Holiday’s experiments with language would hold up without the context she’s provided. I hope they do, and I hope she gives us an opportunity to experience them in such a way.

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