In Confucian philosophy, there is a passage called Ta Tung, or “The Great Harmony,” which describes the ideal relation between things: that the best leaders are elected, wealth is shared and not left idle, and every man, woman, and child belongs to each other — and to itself. On my way to work, I often stop by a large statue of Confucius off the Bowery, in which this passage is emblazoned. There, one finds a multitude of trees growing up from stone, and flowers in the spring and green all summer. Yet not once did I ever see a Chinese person stand beside me and gaze at the man, much less read the inscription, for to the Chinese, he has become a kind of furniture, and the Chinese (at least here) live in a ghetto of their own construct.
The poet James A. Emanuel died on September 28th, 2013. The last few days, I’ve stopped at this statue a bit more often than usual. I’ve read the inscription carefully; I’ve tried to feel what it means to not regard oneself as “merely” oneself — as the words seem to exhort — but as part of something extraneous to it, something unnecessary, unimportant. Perhaps this is because I’ve been having trouble at my job and needed to stabilize. Or perhaps it is because, with James Emanuel more and more on my mind, now, I’ve realized that the content of those words was actually the content of his own life’s work: to keep the world from getting stuck on itself — that is, in its own skin, its own ghetto — and to bring it out of the enclosure.
Like many young writers, I’d first discovered James Emanuel’s poetry through Cosmoetica, and this essay, in particular. In reading his Whole Grain: Collected Poems, James Emanuel — a black American poet and academic most recently living in Paris — immediately struck me as an artist of immense talent, even as his work (despite its strong identity) did not seem to “mark” him as a black writer, or as any “kind” of writer, at all, except one of talent and breadth that went beyond questions of race, and into deeper ideational concerns. Of course, he is not unique, here, for other black writers have routinely bemoaned their forced ghettoization into purely (and, even worse, stereotypically) black concerns: Charles Johnson, a Buddhist who wonders why blacks are so little concerned with “deeper” questions, even now; Claude McKay, who had his popularity stripped for his refusal to toe a political line; Ralph Ellison, who fictionalized these kind of subtly racist interactions; and James Baldwin, likely the richest of all black philosophical thinkers, and who — atheist, gay, and critical of everyone around him — did not ever comfortably fit into any school or methodology, save that of honesty and the striving for excellence, which have their own methods, separate and individuated for each human being, as opposed to merely having some personal ax to grind.
Perhaps the best way to show just what I mean is to look at Emanuel’s art, itself. Take, for instance, the following poem. It is not only one of the greatest sonnets ever written, but also encapsulates both his mission, as well as — alas! — the mission all writers of consequence ought to have, if they could only get themselves the hell out of the way:
Sonnet For A Writer
Far rather would I search my chaff for grain
And cease at last with hunger in my soul,
Than suck the polished wheat another brain
Refurbished till it shone, by art’s control.
To stray across my own mind’s half-hewn stone
And chisel in the dark, in hopes to cast
A fragment of our common self, my own,
Excels the mimicry of sages past.
Go forth, my soul, in painful, lonely flight,
Even if no higher than the earthbound tree,
And feel suffusion with more glorious light,
Nor envy eagles their proud brilliancy.
Far better to create one living line
Than learn a hundred sunk in fame’s recline.
Could anyone reading this poem guess Emanuel’s race? More importantly, why would anyone want to? What kind of contemptible, self-limiting mind would — when faced with the above — do little but immediately force the thing into a style or tradition, capsule, or expectation, when the poem’s accomplishment is so universal, and will remain so, centuries on, when blackness is a mere curio (if, in fact, it’s still around), a kind of quaint reminder? At that point, our socio-political struggles will mean so little, and only those that have extrapolated themselves into something bigger will subsist. Yet the feelings expressed, here, will remain regardless, infecting artists that, too, wish to do exactly what the poem espouses: to “exce[l] mimcry,” re-create “a fragment of our common self,” and not be content with what’s been done, but try to better the example for the sake of — well, the species, I guess, if it’s to ever truly grow out of its shell.
There are many such moments in Emanuel’s work. Consider the simplicity of the following poem, which is belied by the unexpected word choice, near the end, and child-like feel:
I Wish I Had A Red Balloon
I wish I had a red balloon
Clinging to my wall
Filled with spouting, boyish breath
Tied up when I was small.