Dear Paul, I confused the pollen on the tree with ash. It was sundown and the light made the flowers burn. I couldn’t tell their color from the star. I heard a melody, brightmelody and the flake- slough’s enigma hymning the turfblack the rest of the day drifted to blue. // Dear Paul, The music plucked from your ghostbook has always been doubly-cancelled—first because the task of countermanding the German while expecting it to carry the shards of each syllable you pen is impossible, and second because that German (and yours) are foreign to me, and I hear them through another instrument. If your German is a cello, the English I hear is a violin. // Dear Paul, I imagine the taste of the Seine to be gold and deep jade approaching the shade of a forest. If enough ash is present, it can abrade the skin to rawness, no less the lungs. The palo verde are in bloom here, Paul. A month ago a brushfire swept briefly though this patch of desert forest. I expected no yellow blossoms on the tips of blackened trees, whose silhouettes, I discovered, composed notations against a high mountain, its peaks mirroring their forms behind them, though ordered and arranged as a horizon. There are ghosts of past trees all around. They together are flutter of the thorax. What remains as vestige of a plaint or description. There are also remnants of old sand below my feet. The Paiute once ranged here in the meadowlands in abundance. Large bees hovered over the flowers in the late spring dusk. The land vast the scars discreet telling the showing the fingertwig tracing was there another loop there. Another alphabet here. The breeze breaching letter-edge and verse. Lamina particle noumena. // Dear Paul, I must say your name repeatedly. I must chant your name a thousand and one more times. // Dear Paul, I’ve been reading recently about the planet. Did you know that we contain a thousand things? Did you know that each body has millions of histories, and that bodies and histories transpire together? Did you know that these hauntings make us all monstrously plural? . . . How can a tongue be attuned to a previous bone? How can an eye be trained upon the flight of an historical throat- bared merciless to a light-catching fugue? The stick I held in my hand in the ash-field was a try. Were I to write a translation of your translation of what is humanly possible, the way things and a people wrest grace. From. Toward. // Dear Paul, I had to round the palo verde to realize that it was in bloom. When I approached it, heading west, it was nothing more than a shape. The sun, setting just to its right, at a corner upon which the light touched it like a bulb lit at a tip of what I thought was a dead branch, turned the tree and its surroundings into an all-too-natural tincture, with an all-too-familiar aspect: crepuscular, oblique. I could smell the earth and the wood, the embers and their traces persistent, resilient. I’d been walking all day. The photographer Robert Adams (you don’t know him—I think you ended your life before he came to prominence) said something about trees I vaguely remember: that he didn’t know anyone who didn’t love—or couldn’t love—a tree. That he didn’t want to know someone who couldn’t love a tree. Maybe my confusion is telling. Maybe my reading of whatever his statement implied translates a universe. How a description becomes a normative statement. How they can be one and the same. Someone else I’ve read, Enrique Dussel (another person who came after your time, Paul), said just as much, and how the conflation of the two types of statements is when ethics is born. What does it mean to describe a tree, then? To say that the scent makes the soil come alive with a spray of black. How this aroma perfumed the collarbones of an elsewhere and anothertime. How the color is the hue of ink on books on which shibboleths are constantly renewed. How these shibboleths require a translation I’m incapable of performing. And how the ash is a planetary substrate where reckoning can never be completed. I thought of how old some of the other trees around me must have been. I thought of what they’d seen. If the Indian rosewoods had sheltered the crowns of sun-kissed people aeons ago. If the mesquite had smelled the smoke before the fire ate them alive. Whether or not the cholla are capable of wetting the skin with a liquid metabolized from a hundred thousand sunsets. Does the ash here know of this country’s bodies? Does it taste of the bodies of your family aus Deutschland the geologic swerve upon someone’s hair, your melody ihr aschenes Haar Schulamith. // Dear Paul, I don’t know how to end this letter. I think of responsibility and translation again. I think of how to end when endings are all there are in your words. I can’t read your German. I can’t read your German. I don’t know your blood and your suicide. Paul these rivers and clay abolish the world something cosmic an intercession that would belong to what us conspiring a hallowed curse. I can’t read your German. I can’t read your German. I can’t speak your German. // Dear Paul, Are “can’t” and “shouldn’t” the same thing here? I hear violins that aren’t yours. If we’re multiple, though, and planetary, are you also, Paul, symphony? I drove home, the perfume of the trees lingering in my throat.
As these United States of America stagger toward the end days of empire, I read in these Tea Party leaves less a cataclysmic future than an outlived past that refuses its closure, a point you made, perhaps in vain, repeatedly. Everyone who remembers your work remembers your vitriolic criticisms of Civil Rights integrationism but few remember that your target was actually premature integrationism. And who remembers that your other major target was black nationalism, against which you pitched cultural nationalism. Perhaps only someone of my generation, Civil Rights babies, can still defend and see merit in your work. Despite the criticisms directed against your ad hominem attacks on individual activists, thinkers and writers, your distortions of the actual history of the Communist Party of the United States, I still find value in your essential points from The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual: integration only makes sense from a position of power, not weakness. It took me a long time to figure out why I sympathized so completely with the basic arguments of your book.
When I was on the high school newspaper staff, I wrote an editorial criticizing school busing as a means to integration, seeing in the strategy only justification for the erosion of inner city public schools and, at best, erosion of black dignity (now that white kids attend your school you will receive more state and federal funds). Those were not the only arguments I mounted against forced busing as a means of integration. I also pointed out that as the focus was primarily on blacks moving into white domains of the public sphere (I didn’t use that now fashionable word, of course), the strategy seemed less like integration than assimilation, if not acculturation. Perhaps I was still thinking of my visit out to Cranbrook Academy outside Detroit, that all-white prep school I could have attended if I’d wanted to do so. Or the fact that I passed on the invitation from the Ford Motor Company engineering school after mailing them some of my ideas for solar car batteries. When I started at Wayne State University I was intimidated by the sea of whiteness in which I was immersed, but despite the time I put in in at the “black table’ in the cafeteria I gradually made friends with my teachers and my white peers at the school newspaper. I remember thinking, where were all the black kids as I took one English class after another, not realizing that the black table was primarily representing the social sciences and medical schools.
I think what I most admire about your intellectual agility is that second book, Plural But Equal, where you move on from the lost opportunities of black empowerment as depicted, however problematically, in The Crisis. In the second book you accept the fait accompli of black capitalism and its thorough absorption of black popular culture. With little hint of bitterness Plural But Equal ponders the problem of black power within—not against—white capital and its attendant political, economic and social structures. Along with Ralph Ellison you remain one of my twin towers, buckling but still erect.
Letter to Tony Hester
We never met, and so you never knew me, never knew how much your songwriting meant to me in my teens and early twenties when I dreamed of becoming a songwriter along the lines of Holland-Dozier-Holland, Ashford & Simpson, and, more grandly, Smokey Robinson. Just as I was able to identify Hanna-Barbera cartoons long before the credits appeared at the end of a show, so I became adept at recognizing your signature lyrics and melodies before confirming my hunches by peering at those little names, often abbreviated, between parentheses on 45s and 33s. I have no doubt that among the typical baby-I-love-you filler that constituted so much Sixties and Seventies r & b music I found your literate, not to say literary, metaphors and images captivating. And so I began telling people I wanted to be the next Tony Hester, but of course, no one knew who Tony Hester was. I’d have to mention one of your songs you wrote for The Dramatics before some, not all, would nod, yeah, I think I’ve heard that one. When I started hanging out at Groovesville Productions with my partners in music, Williams-Malik (Karl)-Hester (Major—a relative?), our version of Holland-Dozier-Holland, I hoped to run into you at some rehearsal or recording session. It never happened. It would be years before I found out you were strung out on dope most of the time, unable to do much other than compose some of the most compelling lyrics and melodies I’d ever heard. And by the time I heard you’d been killed in a drug deal gone bad I’d long surrendered my dreams of songwriting fame to the exigencies of life. Still, though you never knew it, perhaps couldn’t even imagine it, you were one of those angels, however bedeviled, that made me think, yes, I can.
— Tyrone Williams
It’s Halloween, Samhain, Dia de Muertos; it’s the time of All Souls, including the living and the dead. Perhaps during these spirit days, the membrane between our world and other worlds feel particularly delicate, as we invite ancestors back to our side of time. But for most people I know, the borders between the living and dead are always porous. I know no writer, thinker or artist who is not in ongoing conversations with the dead. Our ancestors are many, our lineages continually branching both forward and backward in time.
In the fall of 2018 I wrote to a group of writers with an invitation from No. 1 Gold: “please send a letter to a dead writer, artist, thinker or public person who is important to you — someone you’d like to write to. Think of it as an opportunity to be in conversation with the dead who live with you– your literary, artistic, and intellectual ancestors, guides, or friends.” I was interested both in “spirit” – the question of who people felt in contact with and moved to write to, and in “letters” — a form of writing that can be intimate or formal, but which is a gesture, and which gives the reader the feeling of being with the writer. A letter as a burst of thought or narrative or a hand held out, as opposed to a polished work of fiction or argument.
No. 1 Gold is committed to working in ways that feel joyous and nourishing; this means allowing our work to be slow – not only as a resistance to efficiency driven models of the culture industry and it’s glut of content – but also as a way to be thoughtful and intentional. We do things because we want to do them, we have said to ourselves. So when the deadline neared and writers asked for more time, it was no problem. I offered this by way of an extension: “The dead have time, I think, and will wait.” And yet, somewhere in the mix, we lost our own thread of time and the project was delayed for much longer than we anticipated. I have come to see that the dead may have time, but we the living are quite constrained. Our lives are marked with particular time stamps, and many of the letters that were sent to us contain these markers. There were letters written in 2018 to those who had just been lost, letters with the bright, painful energy of keen loss. There were letters that were less concretely inscribed in time, too, those written across great distances, to the dead who had always been dead to the writer. In all these letters, though, there is a bending of time and space (isn’t this what writing does in any case?) to draw our dear ones near.
I should add, though, that despite anything I’ve written here “spirit letters” did not begin as an abstraction or idea. First came the letters that I myself wrote without much thought, and then later came the thought. Here’s the first letter I wrote, to John Berger, on January 2, 2018.
I don’t know what to do but to write to you.
Yesterday, Genya and Ilana came to visit from around the corner and from Glasgow. When they left I was thinking of a possible city in which you might walk for thirty minutes and find yourself in the hills, or in the desert, or by the sea. Ilana described the Isle of Bute. My mind wandered to Shetlands, Hebrides, Faroes. I’ve never been to any of these places, but I always end up in the Faroes in my mind. Ilana had spoken about deep time, about James Hutton, the Scottish geologist who informed the Europeans that they had been mistaken about the earth, that it was incomprehensibly older than they had imagined. Ilana talked about her own artistic practice, which involves juxtaposing objects that are 14 million years old with objects that are four days old, and making fresh marks on handmade washi paper that will last 1000 years.
After they left I came across this on Instagram: “It’s no metaphor to feel the influence of the dead in the world, just as it’s no metaphor to hear the radiocarbon chronometer, the Geiger counter amplifying the faint breathing of rock, fifty thousand years old…. It’s no metaphor to witness the astonishing fidelity of minerals magnetized, even after hundreds of millions of years, pointing to the magnetic pole, minerals that have never forgotten magma whose cooling off has left them forever desirous. We long for place; but place itself longs. Human memory is encoded in air currents and river sediment. Eskers of ash wait to be scooped up, lives reconstituted.” It was posted by Maaza Mengiste and is a quote of Anne Michaels.
Four months before you died, I wrote: “He is old enough to be my grandfather, and I am not young. We have dwelled in time together– nearly forty years now.” This shared timeline, a source of so much courage in my life, broke one year ago today.
It’s no mistake to feel the influence of the dead. You know. You know how essential it is (to sustain a psyche and a politics) to have an overlapping memory with something earlier than yourself. You allow that reading can be a kind of visitation. That’s what writing is, too.
So I am visiting.
Here we are in a new configuration of time. Still, I wish you were here.
The Small Beauty Book Club occurred in my life at a time of intense isolation and reflection. After a joyful year of artistic hobnobbing, I’d come back to Ohio on a generous fellowship. While grateful, I missed the camaraderie and synergy of my brilliant, artsy pals. Moreover, a car accident two weeks into my return made me feel especially vulnerable, house-bound, and distant.
Books are always my friends. So, I proposed a book to activate community. Described by Morgan M. Page as “a quiet, gorgeous meditation on grief, race, and community,” Jia Qing Wilson-Yang’s Small Beauty seemed the perfect book club choice. I liked that it was set in a small town in Canada; that it would feature cousins; reveal family secrets; engage grief; and support both a small, independent press and a trans woman of color author and protagonist. It seemed to be a book grounded in identity, without rehearsing the same tropes or formulas about identity. I also really liked the cover. (So pretty!)
I hadn’t read it but had heard good things.
In late January 2018, I sent an e-mail to a large group of folks, set up a Facebook page (which almost no one used), and a Google Doc (more successful) to share introductions, favorite quotes and emerging creative ideas. After some logistical Jenga, we had our book club meetings in March. I facilitated four conversations in multiple states and time zones. Each conversation consisted of 4-5 people along with me, some of whom were very close friends (or lived together), others who had never met.
We talked about the significance of the goose and the dog in the text, queer history, the rural as harrowing, the missing mother, the United States as a southern space, Chinese-American visibility, trans-solidarity, grids of shadow and light, French exits, and other juicy things. We also made connections to Renée Gladman’s Calamities, Adrian Piper, Bebe Miller, Xavier Dolan movies, the Bespoken Bones podcast, We Want the Airwaves, and more.
I loved every minute! Our book club meetings materialized heart-centered artistic community and yielded dances, poems, letters, and art works. I can’t wait to continue this project with other books through the No. 1. Gold collective. For now, I want to thank Jia Qing Wilson-Yang for her rich novel and my fellow members of the Small Beauty Book Club for reading, discussing, and creating with me. It took a minute to gather everyone’s creations, and even longer for me to compile them. But it was so worth it!
This small project brought large beauty into my life.
To view the Small Beauty Book Club as a PDF click here