from All Along It Was a Fever—a what poem
This week in the PEN Poetry Series, guest editor Brian Blanchfield features a poem by Ed Pavlić. About Pavlic’s work, Blanchfield writes: “In the infinitely fertile essaying of his recent book of poetry, Let’s Let That Are Not Yet: INFERNO, Ed Pavlić at one point finds himself returning to the American South from the Palestinian Literary Festival in Al Khlalil/Hebron in The West Bank; he’s seated next to a retired doctor returning from vacation to Winston-Salem, to ‘swerving streets and sloping lawns,’ that idea of territory. Long flight. Polite talk quickly reaches impasse since to speak to the man about life in ‘a city of racial checkpoints’ in Palestine, ‘a grid of detainments, false questionings, and harassment’ in Chicago or Athens, Georgia (where Pavlić lives), is to hear each remark ricochet and echo, given all the fellow passenger ‘will admit and will not admit about the life he listens with.’ The phrase is talismanic; it speaks of limitation but also supersensory understanding; it’s a good descriptor of the poet’s method: deep autobiographic mapping beneath constant reckoning of bearings. ‘The life with which he listens’ is again sounding and fathoming in his new work, excerpted here, ‘All Along It Was A Fever—A What Poem.’ It extends and deepens Pavlić’s long project: with James Baldwin on his mind, and Etel Adnan, Hilton Als, Miles Davis, Chaka Khan, to recur to the hyphen in Winston-Salem, the separating slash in Al Khalil/Hebron, the armrest between a and b in ‘Row 56 of an aging 747,’ the dividing line that ‘doesn’t exist except in the crossing.'”
from All Along It Was a Fever—a what poem
A what poem. So I’m what, 8? 1974. Going to bed, scared,
in my bright orange, Jimmie Walker J.J. Dy-no-mite
T-shirt. Listening to the radio. Scared of what? I don’t know.
My knee a dim-toned teepee under the white
sheet, Michael moving mountains, Marvin dance with me,
said, pretty baby, or, later, Chaka Khan
you act so undercover; under the covers
my summer body spilled thin
as the distance backward into a voice,
which is a distance forward,
no matter the mop, seeped through
the cracks in historical planks. Timpani. Clouds:
“. . . in the distance.”
2015. Are you Black? No.
2010. I’m what gets off a dhow
with Fazul Muhammad’s utterly peaceful
brother-in-law, and Binyavanga, at the lip
of a sandy, deserted island,
a stand of pines swept up out of a cirrus sea
above, off the coast near
the Somali border there being really no Somali border.
Though you might think so.
2013. Thanks to Hilton who wrote: “The something you want
to hear is the thing you already are
or move toward.” When I read this I remember
hearing Miles Davis talk
about his listening transfixed
by the bandstand on the radio, said he
listened like the last of the living
15 minutes he had, each morning before
school in Alton, IL. “The black bands,” Miles
said, “the white bands wouldn’t come
into my body” and before he said that his eyes fell
into his voice a scratch rasp full of shadows.
2016. Can anything you already are refuse to enter your body?
• • •
2010. A little less than a year before Fazul Muhammad
will be shot dead after refusing to stop at a check
point outside Mogadishu, I’m what walks with his brother-in-law
as, every fifteen feet, he meets another old woman on the streets in Lamu.
They greet by swipe-touching fingers, open
palms over their hearts and then kiss,
fingertips to lips, and then, poof, away from their mouths
just like the first-taste
gesture for the chef if you tasted something incredible.
2015. Wondering if anyone’s armed and holding
Baldwin’s No Name in the Street,
I’m what walks into a classroom at the University
of Georgia. On my mind, the sentence
“One tries to treat
them as the miracles they are, while trying
to protect oneself against the disasters
Are you white? No.
2014. I’m on a bus in no man’s land,
crossing the Jordan River leaving the West Bank.
Though you might think so.
Amid wavering, homemade rockets of asphalt heat
I’m what hovers in the shade of date palms waiting for a taxi to Amman.
Standing in molten blacktop, I extend my arms
pulsed by wings of heat that blow upward and outward
(1987. Rakim: “constant elevation causing expansion”)
and billow back over the border.
2015. I sit with Mzée, my six year-old son at breakfast.
Netflix. Curious George. Later, at home,
through the ceiling, I hear him upstairs, HIGH low HIGH,
intone: “I AIN’T got no TYPE. . .”. I make the WTF
face at his brother, seventeen; Milan
hears him too. He smiles at me and nods,
2008. I’m what walking a random street
in Kolkata surrounded by a waist-high cloud
of street kids? Fifteen sets of pitch eyes, fifteen
stick-thin bodies dart into the path
of any twitch in my glance.
It’s very clear they think so. But they don’t know. So.
2015. My daughter, 14, sings Rihanna’s “Stay”
at a local café. She and Milan argue
about music. I’m what tells him that Suci doesn’t listen
to what songs sound like, she’s what hears
songs for what they’ll sound like when she sings them. Milan nods.
Suci sings, “All along it was a fever.”
Under my breath I say a prayer of thanks for the music
my children love.
2012. The tires hit gravel as I become what enters
a driveway in a sun-flooded Istrian vineyard
with my eighty-three year-old father,
the owner’s arms outstretched to greet us.
2013. Thanks, again,
to Hilton for writing “the true
nature of difference: something stupidly defined
so as to be controlled.” I think the Istrian
vineyard owner, Pilato, thinks so
because it’s probably never even crossed
his mind to think so. So—
• • •
—dark energy: float this page wherever you want—
In 1972, Baldwin wrote: “Time passes and it passes. It passes backward and it passes forward and it carries you along . . .through an element you do not understand into an element you will not remember. Yet, something remembers—it can even be said that something avenges: the trap of our century, and the subject now before us.”
For years I sat mesmerized by the poetry of that passage. I recalled it and re-read it over and over again and again and again. Until I realized that there are events, in the life of a nation, in the life of a person, which cause time to split, simultaneously calling forth the future while re-casting the past in the fluctuating and anarchic image of itself, in the prism of a life.
In early August in 1987, I was working in Los Angeles when my mother called me to say that my best friend and roommate, Riccardo Williams, was dead of a sickle cell crisis in Chicago. At that news, I thought my world went dark and my body disappeared. I drove to the beach. I looked at the disappeared ocean. I feared I’d become an absence happening. That didn’t happen.
What had happened to me was that an event, a death, the death of the one person (though there were many, of course) I’d have said was absolutely necessary to my life, had cleaved open time. I thought it was the forward future vanishing when, most likely, it was that event reeling backward changing the reality of everything that had ever happened to me.
I became what felt like my body boiling inside my body. Everything changing since I was born, changing in the place I was born before I was born.
• • •
2003. I’m 37. Pulled over on I-94 north of Chicago. We’re what
waits. Then two more cars arrive. Then a fourth.
My car is exactly my age. I know it
can’t go fast enough to be stopped
for speeding. My oldest child, then 6, asleep in my car.
And, while they circle (what?) us,
looking in the windows, one trooper, finally:
“we had a call about a child
in distress. Has your child been in distress?”
And, me, scared, “well, he’s been asleep.”
One by one the police leave. Then, it’s just (what?) us again. Alive.
The violence (always?) inherent in seeing
people for what they are, in history, which means
seeing them for what they aren’t which
means not seeing them. And which means seeing
them which means us. Like, what
were they all screaming at what,
exactly, are they (you think it matters who?) shooting at what
are they really aiming at and there just ain’t no who
without that what. And it’s not only the police.
Stop thinking it’s just police. Every single American
institution aims itself at what it imagines (because it won’t imagine what)
goes on between us. Every single one
of us. Which us? Whichever us, all of us. At bottom,
the police defend, and the military
extends, and the prison system—which, no matter what
the law says, imprisons people according to what
they have in common—defines this basic American
institutional force: the genocidal (always?) system of individuation
which is policed by violence against what’s between us.
Polices an unmapped, trans-personal power: the illicit dark energy
of modernity. That image which is us which is
the only image we have in history which is ours simply
because the simplicity of its complexity is unrecognized in history.
And so a blackness exists at the core of the piece of that American
thing that hates what’s at the core of the American thing;
that’s part of it the code between us, and that’s part of what
goes on within us, a line that’s always already
been crossed—doesn’t exist except in the crossing—into what
can’t ever be bought and has always—constituent in the core fibers of what
American means—has always has always been for sale. The price
of the heartbeat in every single one of us. Because part
(and only part, but part) of what’s black here became what
it is exactly—and hideously—because it was for sale.
And exactly because it was hideously for sale it had to be what
was transformed into something that couldn’t be
bought even when it had already been sold. Sales pitch
in the mic check, sold out in the egg sack. Sure,
but not bought. And that not-bought what—fibrous rhythm
and half-visible fabric made of us—is the fugitive what.
And its fugitive status is also its power. Why? Because,
according to the stakes of historical power,
that not-bought & fugitive what is far truer than it is real.
Which what? 1972. Baldwin: “an entity which, when the chips
were down, could not be located—i.e., there are no American people yet.”
So what? 1971. Adrienne Rich: “There must be ways, and we
will be finding out more about them, in which the energy
of creation and the energy of relation can be united.”
Then what? July 7, 1968. Baldwin: “because people are always in great danger
when they know what they should do, and refuse to act upon that knowledge.”
2016. And, no matter what what,
still the criminal (always?) intimacy of listening
like rolling a single raspberry seed between
tongue and tooth. Obsessed with the mortal sky.
The skin of they lion. That sky under what
Earth? The rhythm of that listening coming and going from my body.
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