I remember the initiates,
their gesture, their calm glance.
I have heard how in rapt thought,
in vision, they speak
with another race,
more beautiful, more intense than this.
I could laugh—
more beautiful, more intense?
Perhaps that other life
is contrast always to this.
I have lived as they
in their inmost rites—
H.D., “The Gift”
Agosta, the Winged Man, and Rasha, the Black Dove, 1929
There were very many beautiful and heartbreaking moments from Friday’s “Evening of Poetry,” but I was especially grateful for what Hettie Jones called to mind that night. Jones mentioned how she had been recently thinking of Elizabeth because she came across the word “stray” in a poem, one she could only recall reading in verse one other time - in a poem of Elizabeth’s. “Stray” was one of the first poems I read by Elizabeth Alexander and it broke my heart then as it does now.
On the beach, close to sunset, a dog runs
toward us fast, agitated, perhaps feral,
scrounging for anything he can eat.
We pull the children close and let him pass.
Is there such a thing as a stray child? Simon asks.
Like if a mother had a child from her body
but then decided she wanted to be a different child’s mother,
what would happen to that first child?
The dog finds a satisfying scrap and calms.
The boys break free and leap from rock to rock.
I was a stray man before I met your mother,
you say, but they have run on and cannot hear you.
How fast they run on, past the dark pool
your voice makes, our arms which hold them back.
I was a stray man before I met you,
you say. This time you are speaking to me.
Charles White, Awaken from the Unknowing, 1961.
Ode to janet.
Summers spent chasing fireflies and chalking hopscotch lines, pleading with “phone guys” for excess telephone wire-cum-double-dutch rope: extra-long for doubles, extra-painful if struck. Summers spent anticipating chimes of ice cream trucks, grandma, uncle, and mother’s melded quarters yielding ninja turtle-head-shaped popsicles, red bubble gum balls for eyes (tomorrow, a slow-melting tweety bird for the novel taste of yellow.) Summers spent in hyper-real time, the always present, on Queens blocks wherein “going inside” felt like a punishment equivalent to imprisonment, elbows staked out by windows wistful for eternal sun. In one of those summers—1993—I passed my perennial days with Janet Jackson.
in the thundering rain, you stare into my eyes …
Following the news of her recent marriage, and with the release of Kendrick Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” video, I’ve been thinking a lot about Ms. Jackson of late. Borrowing from her suggestive, subdued fifth single off of the janet. LP—“Any Time, Any Place”—I’m still rather surprised by the fact that I actually like Lamar’s “Poetic Justice” (a title which acts as double-referent to the singer). I am disproportionately overprotective of ’90s R&B sampling in millennial music, (not unlike the cinephile to the remake), yet Kendrick’s version manages to retain the spirit of the original all while adding a distinctively 21st c, West Coast edge that rendered a classic anew: It shoved me clear out of the 20th indeed. But “Poetic Justice,” in turn, also precipitated my nostalgic return to that decade. Or, more specifically, a return to a time and a place, or further—still—to a moment in my life when I couldn’t distinguish the two from each other. When time and place were one.
A better dancer than I (less certainly then, but definitively now), my brother Andrew, and I took shifts by the radio, our full intentions of tape-capturing Janet’s “That’s the Way Love Goes.” Press the red circle button no later than “burned by the fire,” or you’ll miss it, we’d learn after so many failed recording attempts. But what intrigued us more than the song, still, was its music video, with Janet epitomizing cool by passing time vibing in a loft with a cluster of friends and occasional dancers, some kind of multicultural enclave back when I saw the world only in terms of “dark-” and “light-skinned” distinctions. I saw myself in Janet, or at least I yearned for the future Janet that I knew I would grow to be, the first orders of business in the way of janet-becoming being thus: collect attractive friends, that Manhattan rent.
“That’s the Way Love Goes” initiated the intrigue, though shortly after the fourth of July my brother and I would find our season’s amusement, our complete obsession, in the form of the second single off the janet. album: Sexually explicit and audacious to boot, Janet initiates her rock/pop hybrid “If” with the quasi-interlude epigraph spoken in her idiosyncratic amalgamation, the whisper-command: “Be a good boy and put this on,” she crooned, the track breaking into electric guitar, and then, into the quasi-militant cadence which defines it: dum, duh-duh-duh, duhduh, dumdum.
But as with “That’s the Way Love Goes,” Andrew and I were more interested in the music video than in the bare track, but now to a new extreme: We exchanged our coveted days passed on lawns for the rust brown carpet of our grandmother’s den, insistent upon learning the dance moves to “If,” held to a timeline dependent upon our shifting levels of optimism and mood. By then we’d known Tina Landon, choreographer, by name, (and indeed, I’d learned the very word ‘choreography’ synchronously with “Janet”). In the world of us, we were just another two of Janet’s back-up dancers, our days our rehearsals, our den a studio space, where we’d stay preparing for the awards circuit, for the inevitable, impending world tour.
Audience of pillows and chair cushions, we’d practice our moves for hours, much emphasis being placed on the entrance, the across-the-body, diagonal arm sweeps that announced our claim to the space. But even more than the entrance, we found ourselves preoccupied with the intricacies of If’s breakdown, rhythm skills put to test as we worked to lock our arms into perpendicular body guards, shifting them and our feet into center stage from opposing sides of the carpet, all while endeavoring to embody the cool confidence of our Janet, keeping step with the dum, duh-duh-duh, duhduh, dumdum that disclosed we got it.
Andrew was a good dancer, much more quick to pick up the moves than I, yet even so, he was to me as equally remarkable as an instructor, whether teaching by the slow scaffolded care of direct instruction or by the quiet example of his movements in real time. Our practices accumulated, beginning to feed our increasingly expanding zones of performance: first the living room, (where fire place pokers served as our microphones). Then to the big one, the main event, us positioned at the tallest point on the bell of our lawn, friends as far as 130th st. invited to come watch. Our performance of “If” would inaugurate our return to the grass, this time with our newfound purposeful steps.
be a good boy and put this on …
Between “If” and the release of “Any Time, Any Place” nearly a year later, Janet released two of her most popular love songs, “Again” and “Because of Love,” and I remember the former especially for its consummately melancholic tone. (They were words I would learn much later, and only come to even feel much later.) While real love (and loss) was many years out, Janet was my primer, “Again” my ante-love.
It was after realizing that I still retained each line, from “I heard from a friend today,” to the very last of “Again” that I decided to reference janet.’s release date to provide some context, some reason for the clarity of my memory; I couldn’t recall a date that would make sense. But what I found confounded me more, as its 1993 release date means that (having been born in October 1987) I was just 5 years old, making it unclear to me how I processed the overtly sexual content of songs like “If,” “You Want This,” and “Throb.” But what I figure, in reflection, is that more than sex, my mind sifted Janet’s songs for their latent confidence, their parade of black female power. I could feel that in 1993. I felt that at five.
any time, any place …
Halfway through March in 2013, we’re now just two months shy of the 20th anniversary of the janet. LP. At the time of its release in 1993, Janet was 27 years old, just two years older than my current age of 25. And though the accumulation of life experiences assure that I’ve closed some of the gap that seemed to exist between five-year old me in my small green house in Queens and Janet in all of her glory on the stage of Mtv, I still don’t feel anywhere near a mere two years shy of janet.-level swagger, of Janet snapping-fingers-in-the-loft-“That’s the Way Love Goes”-cool attitude, of Janet “Be a good boy and put this on”-kind of command.
But though it’s tempting to revisit my janet. summer for confirmations of progress, use it as an opportunity to consider how much I have grown, the development that time yields, I recall that summer now not as a measure of maturity, but with supreme fondest for a time in which time itself was measured by alternative means, childhood-worldly ways: our time kept by radio dials, by track listings, by B-sides, by constellations of dancesteps coordinated to match the “world-premiere video” for Janet’s second single “If.”
- ashley n. james
You know how i know
you’re not a true romantic?
I’ll tell you:
you said wordsworth,
’s what your words were—
Not Byron, not Keats,
I’ve always been taken by Alma Thomas’ color field paintings (how they pulsate), never quite connecting my interest in her with Loïs Mailou Jones’ work. But a dip into the archive, and lo & behold: the two (and other contemporaries) in Jones’ Paris studio in 1948! A photograph that is remarkable in its providence.
For Pound, Cocteau & Picasso
so you sit
robes and all
you old ones
and having broken
they ever made
ain’t you the cool ones
- Diane di Prima