John Claborn

John Claborn: On "There Will Be Animals"

Disturbing the Human in Thylias Moss’ “There Will Be Animals” (1990)

Thylias Moss’ “There Will Be Animals” (1990) frustrates the reader’s desire for critical mastery, just as the natural world forever frustrates the desire of the human species to master it. On the one hand, the poem follows a strange logic that defamiliarizes our everyday notions of “humanity” and “animality,” thus critiquing our human-centered approach to the world. On the other hand, its combination of unrhymed couplets, anthropomorphisms, and unexpected shifts in imagery defy routine critiques of anthropocentrism advanced by animal rights advocates. This imbalance, this disharmony, refuses an easy and comfortable shift to an animal-centered or eco-centric worldview. Instead, the poem presses against the limits of human understanding and leaves the animal’s mysterious otherness intact.

The poem’s first half moves through a series of “lessons” that various animals will teach humans. It opens with a simple, yet puzzling declaration about the future: “There will be animals to teach us / what we can’t teach ourselves” (l. 1-2). Challenging humanity’s autodidacticism, its arrogant attempt to teach and save itself, the speaker suggests that animals know lessons humans can never learn alone, that they possess knowledge about life and the natural world that remains concealed to humans. Not always benign, some of these lessons amount to an uprising of the natural and animal worlds against humans. A baboon “paints his mandrill face for the war being waged / against his jungle” (l. 4-5), implying that animals will avenge both the slower, long-term effects of deforestation and the more direct consequences of the damage wrought on nature in human wars, as “jungle” alludes to the jungles annihilated by napalm in the Vietnam War. The pedagogical method is clear: the mandrill baboon will “teach” humans not to mess with his jungle.

Instead of dying out and becoming extinct, the egrets fight back by gradually evolving in order to evade human exploitation: “There will be egrets in a few thousand years / who will have evolved without plumes so we cannot take them” (l. 6-7). Here, the exploitation of the animal produces real effects in the history of evolution, as the speaker applies a Panglossian logic that reverses Darwin’s anti-teleological theory (i.e. the nose was made to hold one’s eyeglasses, egrets lose their plumes so they can no longer be used by humans). As with the baboon, the egrets’ “lesson” teaches against humanity’s destructive urges.

Rounding off these moments of animal pedagogy, the speaker tells us in her prophetic vision that ewes will teach us generosity, while macaws the importance of speaking the truth. The single line “There will be penguins keeping alive Hollywood’s golden era” disrupts the pattern of couplets (l. 14). It conjures up the absurd image of penguins in the director’s chair, coaching the tuxedoed (“penguinized”) Cary Grant to act out a screwball comedy gag. This comic effect deflates the importance humans (and specifically Americans) attribute to Hollywood and its frequently self-indulgent honoring of the “great films,” for surely the show must go on, so to speak, even if humans can’t. At this point, the poem’s critique depends on a teleological view of evolutionary history, as it envisions a messianic moment when animals overcome their supposed mastery by humans and become almost superhuman. The chaparral cock ironically embodies this evolution, for because it is “unconcerned with shortcuts,” it will “outdistance man”: a superhuman animal prevails against all-too-human humans (l. 15-16). Humans no longer stand alone at the apex of evolutionary progress.

Echoing these same themes in his book The Open: Man and Animal (1995), Giorgio Agamben calls the long intellectual tradition that simultaneously divides and articulates humans and animals an “anthropological machine” that ultimately condemns humans to the destructive quest for dominion over both nature and their own “animality.” Beginning with passages from Isaiah that inspired medieval artists’ depictions of a messianic banquet of humans with animal heads, Agamben traces the historical thread of a Judeo-Christian eschatological vision in which “the relations between animals and men will take a new form, and that man himself will be reconciled with his animal nature” (3). Such a reconciliation plays out to some degree in Moss’ poem. The various animals—the egrets, the ewes, the mackerel—will not mimic the human desire for mastery. Instead, they will teach humans how to live “superhumanly” with humility, generosity, and continuity—virtues that embrace the freedom and danger of what Rilke calls the “Open,” or the experience of the natural world as it truly is, an experience unavailable to us because we fear its danger. 

In a twist that threatens to unravel the poem’s anti-anthropocentrism, the final two stanzas produce a disturbing, messianic image of Holocaust victims reborn from animals. The final image invokes a scene from the Grimms’ fairy tale, “Little Red Cap”:

 

             Then once and for all

we will know it is no illusion:

The lion lying with the lamb, the grandmother

and Little Red Riding Hood

walking out of a wolf named Dachau (l. 30-35).

 

The Brothers Grimm version of “Little Red Cap” reinforced the German paranoia of symbolically ambiguous wolves preying on innocent German peasant children, signified by the sexually curious girl in red who strays from the path to pick beautiful flowers. Thus, the choice of the “Little Red Cap” allusion seems to deconstruct from within the Nazi valorization of the preyed-upon, white German peasantry. German peasants and Holocaust victims are brought together when the speaker envisions Little Red Cap and her grandmother emerging from a wolf “named” as the concentration camp at Dachau. Seemingly against the poem’s previously anti-anthropocentric spirit, this final stanza metaphorizes Dachau as a sinister wolf that gobbles up entire generations of families, on the surface turning the “wolf”—the instinctual animal—into a coldly administered Nazi death camp, a twisted rationality unbecoming of animals’ more “rational” instincts.

Does the wolf metaphor rebuild the humanistic scaffolding that the rest of the poem has torn down? Does the poem’s first half not suggest that Nazism and death camps are anything but animal-like?  Because of the poem’s previous deconstructive work, we can no longer read the wolf metaphor at face value, as though the poem has “forgotten” what has come before. Rather, it reads as a calculated reinstatement of the conventional distinction between the human and the animal, a reinstatement that now exposes the moralistic clichés about the “de-humanization” and “animality” wrought on the victims of the Holocaust. Moreover, in the Grimms’ version of “Little Red Cap,” the wolf is anthropomorphized as more human than wolf. Not only does the wolf speak like humans in order to deceive and impersonate Little Red Cap’s grandmother, but also early illustrated versions of the fairy tales portray the wolf standing upright on its hind legs, wearing ornate aristocratic garb. The wolf’s ontological status is clearly thrown into question: is it a wolf at all if it behaves so much like a human? Thus, the “wolf named Dachau” hunts and devours humans, not as a wolf obeying its nature, but as a wolf imitating the human will to destroy. However one reads these lines, the overall effect disturbs rather than assures.

 

Works Cited

Agamben, Giorgio. Homo Sacer: Sovereign Power and Bare Life. 1995. Trans. Daniel Heller-Roazen. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1998.

 

Copyright © 2007 by John Claborn.

John Claborn: On "Patriarchal Poetry"

Gertrude Stein’s “Patriarchal Poetry” and the Atonal Detour

Krzysztof Ziarek describes Gertrude Stein’s quasi-epic prose poem “Patriarchal Poetry” as an exemplar of the “poetics of the event,” embodying the “idiomatic character of each happening, the particularity of its configuration and circumstances, which are lost in the generality of linguistic naming” (MAPS). While I’m intrigued by this notion and its aura of teeth-gritting intensity, I want to deflate the pathos of the “event” and come to the poem armed with a less grandiose concept: tone. Usually defined as the poet’s attitude toward her subject or reader, tone can be understood more precisely (or more nebulously, depending on your point of view) as the mood or emotion of the poem. But what exactly is the tone or event-ness of passages like this: “Once or two makes that be not at all practically their choice practically their choice. / Might a bit of it be all the would be might be if it of it be all they would be”? (59). Approached from this angle, Stein’s poem appears tonally ambiguous and ultimately, I argue, atonal or seemingly lacking in any identifiable emotional content. Further, the poem’s atonal artillery forms part of Stein’s challenge to patriarchal poetry: to evade representing or expressing any emotion that can fall under the power of Adamic naming and to return to a pre-emotional state (or “pre-Symbolic,” in the psychoanalytic jargon) by way of a detour through atonality: “As we went out by the same way we came back again after a detour” (79).

Although the poem strategically evades emotion, it does produce certain effects. In fact, its effects are exceptionally strong (maybe even psychosis-inducing). However, these strong effects are not as easy to identify as, say, Claude McKay’s rage in “To the White Fiends” or Lucia Trent’s “unstable mix of anger, anguish, and contempt” (Cary Nelson, MAPS) expressed in “Breed, Women, Breed.” While anger and contempt may have motivated Stein’s composition of the poem, they are not in any way evident in the poem itself. By themselves, possibly angry commands presumably directed towards men, such as “let her be,” lose their emotive force through their excessive repetition: “Let her be. / Let her try. / Let her be let her let here let here be let here be let here be let her be shy let her be let her be let her try. / Let her try.” Although repetition deconstructs anger, these lines still command an atonal force that unsettles men’s familiarity with female anger-resentment and instead launches into a strange, pre-emotional affective register.

A practical distinction between “emotion” and “affect” will prove useful here. “Affect” refers to a sort of pre-cognitive intensity, a bodily resonance that gets “taken up” into consciousness as it combines with ideas or judgments. That is, emotion is the “species” of the genus “affect,” or to put it another way: affect is the detour through which we come back to emotion. To use an absurd but illustrative example: rocks can be affected in various ways (e.g. ground up into dust or thrown through a window), but they do not, like humans, have emotions like anger, shame, joy, or disgust. In other words, the poem’s atonality is the detour through a pre-cognitive, affective zone. The poem’s opening suggests such a detour: “As long as it took fasten it back to a place where after all he would be carried away” (55). Quite literally, the poem seeks to “carry away” the (male) reader by fastening itself back to a new affective experience, namely a painful one, despite its occasional and inevitable “slippage” into melodious musical passages.

Rather, the poem’s atonality challenges the possibility that at some level the expression or representation of all emotion is inherently pleasurable, even when such emotions are negative, however anguished they may be. The pleasure derived from patriarchal poetry’s use of the logic of comparison to transfigure all things into beauty is subverted: “Compare something else to something else. To be rose. / Such a pretty bird” (57). Instead, the poem ensnares the reader in the circular logic of the same: “Patriarchal Poetry and left of it left of it Patriarchal Poetry left of it Patriarchal Poetry left of it as many twice as many patriarchal poetry left to it twice…” (70). The constant doubling and leftward turning produces a sort of dizzying effect, a nausea that decisively subverts pleasure yet also seems to take pleasure in this subversion. The poem, like atonal music, seems seductively turned away from the reader/listener, enjoying itself in its own alterity and actually being (rather than expressing or representing) a new tone, a new affect.

Copyright © 2006 by John Claborn

John Claborn: On "Mulatto"

A Comparison of Langston Hughes’s “The Mulatto” and Claude McKay’s “Mulatto”

Reading McKay’s traditional poetics alongside his contemporary Langston Hughes’s open-form, experimental poetics brings out the specificity of the sonnet’s formalizing force. Consider Hughes’s “Mulatto” (1927) and McKay’s earlier 1925 sonnet, “The Mulatto.” Since slavery, the problem of the mulatto child disavowed by his/her white father-master has been a site of intense emotion and trauma—a problem that these two poems address head-on from the perspective of the mulatto son. Hughes’s “Mulatto” embraces a hybrid form structured by interpolations, multiple voices, and polyphony—in short, the poem is “mulatto” in form as well as content. McKay’s raging sonnet could not be more different: in tapping the “white” tradition of the Shakespearean sonnet’s iambic pentameter, a b a b c d c d e f e f g g rhyme scheme, the poem at first seems constrained and less formally inventive than Hughes’s. Although McKay’s black voice singing in a borrowed white key is in a sense “mulatto,” its unambiguously raging tone and the sonnet’s overall worldview of warring, “unreconciled” binaries—love and hate, black and white, kill or be killed—follow a logic of synthesis that significantly differs from Hughes’s jazzier mix of poetic voice.

Initially, Hughes’s poem seems to break down into three voices (father, son, and an elusive third voice) that cut in and mutually interrupt each other, causing abrupt shifts in style and tone that, in the end, disarticulate voice from identity. In the opening lines, the son asserts his mulatto identity and pleads for recognition from his white father. The unnamed son’s address to a generic “white man” suggests that his voice oscillates between the particular and the general, between the son as individual and the son as representative of all mulattos:

I am your son, white man!

 

Georgia dusk

            And the turpentine woods.

            One of the pillars of the temple fell.

 

                        You are my son!

                        Like hell!                                    (1-6)

Instead of immediately giving us the father’s response to his son’s accusatory plea, the poem then shifts to an “objective,” racially unmarked voice that describes the natural setting of the “Georgia dusk / And the turpentine woods” (2-3). While this three line interpolation give us terms—dusk and turpentine—that signify nature’s own color-mixing of night and day, it also folds back in on the father-son dialogue and naturalizes the supposed unnaturalness of racial mixing. Some of these more descriptive lines show nature as constantly commingling: the night is full of mulattoed “Great big yellow stars” (10) and mixed smells: “The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air” (18). The fourth line’s mysterious reference to a partially ruined temple—only “One of the pillars of the temple fell”—disrupts our expectations about the action’s geographical location in Georgia: where are there temples in Georgia? Given Hughes’s concern with ancient Africa/Egypt in “Negro” (1922) and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921), the temple obliquely evokes these ancient ruins, thus interjecting into the poem a subtle yet trans-historical, trans-geographical twist: a collapsing of distance in space and time. This third, descriptive voice, seemingly transcendent, then hovers over the father-son dialogue throughout the rest of the poem. As the poem unfolds, it deconstructs itself. The father’s voice becomes more ambiguous, making it difficult to discern his from the son’s. His initial response to and denial of his son—“You are my son! / Like hell!”—inadvertently betrays some level of recognition that begins to destabilize the father’s identity. When the father asks, “What’s a body but a toy?” (11), the abrupt shift to a macabre jingle about bruised black bodies suggests that another unidentified voice answers the father’s question, though presumably in a way that would be satisfactory to the father:

Juicy bodies

Of nigger wenches

Blue black

Against black fences (12-15).

Perhaps as a surging up of the father’s and son’s mutual unconscious, a memory triggered by the “Sharp pine scent in the evening air” (22) mentioned later, these lines return the poem to the primal, traumatic rape scene of the son’s conception. Yet even as the father repeats his question, implying an association of the female black body with mere toys, this voice of the unconscious interpolates another song:

A nigger night, 

A nigger joy,

A little yellow

Bastard boy            (23-26).

The “joy” both folds back on the night of conception—the rape of the mother-toy—and plunges forward into the mulatto “Bastard boy,” thus forming a toy-joy-boy rhyming constellation. The playful tone of the songs and the toy-joy-boy rhyme suggest that the father’s feelings towards his son vacillate, thus defusing any straightforward rejection, even if lines like “Git on back there in the night, / You ain’t white” imply such a rejection (36-37). Unlike the speaker in McKay’s poem, who sets out to murder his father, the problem for Hughes seems to involve mutual recognition, or rather a conscious recognition of an unconscious recognition—an overcoming of a repressed recognition that the white father must feel at some level. The poem’s unrecognizable form, too, demands recognition from readers more familiar with conventional forms like the sonnet. Although the poem ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the son to continue his pleading, its mix of mutually haunting voices at least implies that some kind of reconciliation is possible. In McKay’s “Mulatto,” the father-son forces cannot be reconciled or rescued by the identity-vertigo induced by the work of interpolation in Hughes’s poem. Hughes’s poem may sit more comfortably than McKay’s with those who value becoming and ambiguity, fluidity, and the interconnectedness of all things which, in turn, supposedly corresponds to a socialist-democratic politics of pluralism and openness. McKay’s poem, on the other hand, challenges us to rethink this melting pot ontology of becoming and its political efficacy, to think a world where reconciling might mean murdering. In its blunt acceptance of violence, the poem is Fanonian decades before Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean-born revolutionary who advocated the use of violence to overthrow colonial regimes:

Because I am the white man’s son—his own,

Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face,

I will dispute his title to his throne,

Forever fight him for my rightful place. 

There is a searing hate within my soul,

A hate that only kin can feel for kin,

A hate that makes me vigorous and whole,

And spurs me on increasingly to win.

Because I am my cruel father’s child,

My love of justice stirs me up to hate,

A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled,

When falls the hour I shall not hesitate

Into my father’s heart to plunge the knife

To gain the utmost freedom that is life.

While a number of words in Hughes’s text are “marked” as mulatto (dusk, turpentine, yellow), for McKay, the mulatto mark is a birth-mark owned by the white father, suggesting an irremovable blemish or stain on racial purity, the manifestation of the white man’s shame that the mulatto must “bear” for his entire life. At the same time, the physicality and undeniable there-ness of the “birth-mark” testifies against the white father’s absurd denial of his son, allowing McKay to bypass the problem of recognition altogether (a bypass also implied in the recognizable sonnet form). Instead of mutual recognition, there is mutually violent rejection: the speaker-son first fantasizes about regicide—“I will dispute his title to his throne” (3)—before turning in the final lines to a more detailed scene of patricide. The “searing hate” (3) that burns in the son’s soul also gives him a coherent identity and vitality that makes him “vigorous and whole” (5). The speaker again qualifies this hate that “spurs” by asserting its origin in a “love of justice” (8), suggesting that his acute awareness of the gap between justice and reality fuels his anger. “[L]ove of justice” also differentiates the son’s hatred from his father’s, an arbitrary hatred that makes him abandon and oppress his own son.

With the son’s reference to himself as a “child” in the first line of the final sestet, McKay sets up an oblique revision of the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael drama that caps off the poem. “A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled” invokes not only the Biblical but also the Qu’ranic stories of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham and his slave, Hagar. In the Biblical version of the story, God establishes his covenant with Abraham’s younger legitimate son, Isaac, and ostracizes Ishmael: “He shall be a wild man; / His hand shall be against every man, / And every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). Ishmael plays a more positive role in the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. Indeed, Abraham and Ishmael, father and son, are equally prophets (217), charged with the task of building the Ka’bah at Mecca: “We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael to cleanse Our House for those who walk round it, who meditate in it, and who kneel and prostrate themselves” (17). If we combine this positive appraisal of Ishmael with the biblical one, then my argument that McKay substitutes Ishmael for Isaac in the final lines becomes plausible. Unlike the passive Isaac, who unknowingly awaits his execution at the hands of his father, the rebellious Ishmaelite son “shall not hesitate / into [his] father’s heart to plunge the knife” (12-13). It is important to note that the moment of reversed sacrifice is suspended indefinitely: “When falls the hour,” the speaker says. The sonnet does not occur within the moment of violence, but rather in the anticipatory resolve or readiness for some future violence.

Obviously, if the solution to injustice that “The Mulatto” proposes (i.e. patricide) were carried out, such a gesture would be, in the grand scheme of white-dominated capitalism, useless. Given McKay’s involvement with Communism, both in his stint as assistant editor for the leftist journal The Liberator and in his grand tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, there must be some other way, some alternative to father-son quarreling or to-the-death knife-fights. One such answer is hinted at in the suspended act and implicit attitude towards futurity of the line “When falls the hour.” While the violence of “The Mulatto” is direct and uncompromising, such violence is also deferred and thus remains open to the coming future.

Copyright © 2007 John Claborn

John Claborn: On "Mulatto"

Reading McKay’s traditional poetics alongside his contemporary Langston Hughes’s open-form, experimental poetics brings out the specificity of the sonnet’s formalizing force. Consider Hughes’s “Mulatto” (1927) and McKay’s earlier 1925 sonnet, “The Mulatto.” Since slavery, the problem of the mulatto child disavowed by his/her white father-master has been a site of intense emotion and trauma—a problem that these two poems address head-on from the perspective of the mulatto son. Hughes’s “Mulatto” embraces a hybrid form structured by interpolations, multiple voices, and polyphony—in short, the poem is “mulatto” in form as well as content. McKay’s raging sonnet could not be more different: in tapping the “white” tradition of the Shakespearean sonnet’s iambic pentameter, a b a b c d c d e f e f g g rhyme scheme, the poem at first seems constrained and less formally inventive than Hughes’s. Although McKay’s black voice singing in a borrowed white key is in a sense “mulatto,” its unambiguously raging tone and the sonnet’s overall worldview of warring, “unreconciled” binaries—love and hate, black and white, kill or be killed—follow a logic of synthesis that significantly differs from Hughes’s jazzier mix of poetic voice.

Initially, Hughes’s poem seems to break down into three voices (father, son, and an elusive third voice) that cut in and mutually interrupt each other, causing abrupt shifts in style and tone that, in the end, disarticulate voice from identity. In the opening lines, the son asserts his mulatto identity and pleads for recognition from his white father. The unnamed son’s address to a generic “white man” suggests that his voice oscillates between the particular and the general, between the son as individual and the son as representative of all mulattos:

I am your son, white man!

Georgia dusk

            And the turpentine woods.

            One of the pillars of the temple fell.

 

                        You are my son!

                        Like hell!                                    (1-6)

Instead of immediately giving us the father’s response to his son’s accusatory plea, the poem then shifts to an “objective,” racially unmarked voice that describes the natural setting of the “Georgia dusk / And the turpentine woods” (2-3). While this three line interpolation give us terms—dusk and turpentine—that signify nature’s own color-mixing of night and day, it also folds back in on the father-son dialogue and naturalizes the supposed unnaturalness of racial mixing. Some of these more descriptive lines show nature as constantly commingling: the night is full of mulattoed “Great big yellow stars” (10) and mixed smells: “The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air” (18). The fourth line’s mysterious reference to a partially ruined temple—only “One of the pillars of the temple fell”—disrupts our expectations about the action’s geographical location in Georgia: where are there temples in Georgia? Given Hughes’s concern with ancient Africa/Egypt in “Negro” (1922) and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921), the temple obliquely evokes these ancient ruins, thus interjecting into the poem a subtle yet trans-historical, trans-geographical twist: a collapsing of distance in space and time. This third, descriptive voice, seemingly transcendent, then hovers over the father-son dialogue throughout the rest of the poem. As the poem unfolds, it deconstructs itself. The father’s voice becomes more ambiguous, making it difficult to discern his from the son’s. His initial response to and denial of his son—“You are my son! / Like hell!”—inadvertently betrays some level of recognition that begins to destabilize the father’s identity. When the father asks, “What’s a body but a toy?” (11), the abrupt shift to a macabre jingle about bruised black bodies suggests that another unidentified voice answers the father’s question, though presumably in a way that would be satisfactory to the father:

Juicy bodies

Of nigger wenches

Blue black

Against black fences (12-15).

Perhaps as a surging up of the father’s and son’s mutual unconscious, a memory triggered by the “Sharp pine scent in the evening air” (22) mentioned later, these lines return the poem to the primal, traumatic rape scene of the son’s conception. Yet even as the father repeats his question, implying an association of the female black body with mere toys, this voice of the unconscious interpolates another song:

A nigger night, 

A nigger joy,

A little yellow

Bastard boy            (23-26).

The “joy” both folds back on the night of conception—the rape of the mother-toy—and plunges forward into the mulatto “Bastard boy,” thus forming a toy-joy-boy rhyming constellation. The playful tone of the songs and the toy-joy-boy rhyme suggest that the father’s feelings towards his son vacillate, thus defusing any straightforward rejection, even if lines like “Git on back there in the night, / You ain’t white” imply such a rejection (36-37). Unlike the speaker in McKay’s poem, who sets out to murder his father, the problem for Hughes seems to involve mutual recognition, or rather a conscious recognition of an unconscious recognition—an overcoming of a repressed recognition that the white father must feel at some level. The poem’s unrecognizable form, too, demands recognition from readers more familiar with conventional forms like the sonnet. Although the poem ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the son to continue his pleading, its mix of mutually haunting voices at least implies that some kind of reconciliation is possible. In McKay’s “Mulatto,” the father-son forces cannot be reconciled or rescued by the identity-vertigo induced by the work of interpolation in Hughes’s poem. Hughes’s poem may sit more comfortably than McKay’s with those who value becoming and ambiguity, fluidity, and the interconnectedness of all things which, in turn, supposedly corresponds to a socialist-democratic politics of pluralism and openness. McKay’s poem, on the other hand, challenges us to rethink this melting pot ontology of becoming and its political efficacy, to think a world where reconciling might mean murdering. In its blunt acceptance of violence, the poem is Fanonian decades before Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean-born revolutionary who advocated the use of violence to overthrow colonial regimes:

Because I am the white man’s son—his own,

Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face,

I will dispute his title to his throne,

Forever fight him for my rightful place. 

There is a searing hate within my soul,

A hate that only kin can feel for kin,

A hate that makes me vigorous and whole,

And spurs me on increasingly to win.

Because I am my cruel father’s child,

My love of justice stirs me up to hate,

A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled,

When falls the hour I shall not hesitate

Into my father’s heart to plunge the knife

To gain the utmost freedom that is life.

While a number of words in Hughes’s text are “marked” as mulatto (dusk, turpentine, yellow), for McKay, the mulatto mark is a birth-mark owned by the white father, suggesting an irremovable blemish or stain on racial purity, the manifestation of the white man’s shame that the mulatto must “bear” for his entire life. At the same time, the physicality and undeniable there-ness of the “birth-mark” testifies against the white father’s absurd denial of his son, allowing McKay to bypass the problem of recognition altogether (a bypass also implied in the recognizable sonnet form). Instead of mutual recognition, there is mutually violent rejection: the speaker-son first fantasizes about regicide—“I will dispute his title to his throne” (3)—before turning in the final lines to a more detailed scene of patricide. The “searing hate” (3) that burns in the son’s soul also gives him a coherent identity and vitality that makes him “vigorous and whole” (5). The speaker again qualifies this hate that “spurs” by asserting its origin in a “love of justice” (8), suggesting that his acute awareness of the gap between justice and reality fuels his anger. “[L]ove of justice” also differentiates the son’s hatred from his father’s, an arbitrary hatred that makes him abandon and oppress his own son.

With the son’s reference to himself as a “child” in the first line of the final sestet, McKay sets up an oblique revision of the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael drama that caps off the poem. “A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled” invokes not only the Biblical but also the Qu’ranic stories of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham and his slave, Hagar. In the Biblical version of the story, God establishes his covenant with Abraham’s younger legitimate son, Isaac, and ostracizes Ishmael: “He shall be a wild man; / His hand shall be against every man, / And every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). Ishmael plays a more positive role in the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. Indeed, Abraham and Ishmael, father and son, are equally prophets (217), charged with the task of building the Ka’bah at Mecca: “We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael to cleanse Our House for those who walk round it, who meditate in it, and who kneel and prostrate themselves” (17). If we combine this positive appraisal of Ishmael with the biblical one, then my argument that McKay substitutes Ishmael for Isaac in the final lines becomes plausible. Unlike the passive Isaac, who unknowingly awaits his execution at the hands of his father, the rebellious Ishmaelite son “shall not hesitate / into [his] father’s heart to plunge the knife” (12-13). It is important to note that the moment of reversed sacrifice is suspended indefinitely: “When falls the hour,” the speaker says. The sonnet does not occur within the moment of violence, but rather in the anticipatory resolve or readiness for some future violence.

Obviously, if the solution to injustice that “The Mulatto” proposes (i.e. patricide) were carried out, such a gesture would be, in the grand scheme of white-dominated capitalism, useless. Given McKay’s involvement with Communism, both in his stint as assistant editor for the leftist journal The Liberator and in his grand tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, there must be some other way, some alternative to father-son quarreling or to-the-death knife-fights. One such answer is hinted at in the suspended act and implicit attitude towards futurity of the line “When falls the hour.” While the violence of “The Mulatto” is direct and uncompromising, such violence is also deferred and thus remains open to the coming future.

From A Comparison of Langston Hughes’s “The Mulatto” and Claude McKay’s “Mulatto”. Copyright © 2007 John Claborn

John Claborn: On "Mulatto"

A Comparison of Langston Hughes’s “The Mulatto” and Claude McKay’s “Mulatto”

Reading McKay’s traditional poetics alongside his contemporary Langston Hughes’s open-form, experimental poetics brings out the specificity of the sonnet’s formalizing force. Consider Hughes’s “Mulatto” (1927) and McKay’s earlier 1925 sonnet, “The Mulatto.” Since slavery, the problem of the mulatto child disavowed by his/her white father-master has been a site of intense emotion and trauma—a problem that these two poems address head-on from the perspective of the mulatto son. Hughes’s “Mulatto” embraces a hybrid form structured by interpolations, multiple voices, and polyphony—in short, the poem is “mulatto” in form as well as content. McKay’s raging sonnet could not be more different: in tapping the “white” tradition of the Shakespearean sonnet’s iambic pentameter, a b a b c d c d e f e f g g rhyme scheme, the poem at first seems constrained and less formally inventive than Hughes’s. Although McKay’s black voice singing in a borrowed white key is in a sense “mulatto,” its unambiguously raging tone and the sonnet’s overall worldview of warring, “unreconciled” binaries—love and hate, black and white, kill or be killed—follow a logic of synthesis that significantly differs from Hughes’s jazzier mix of poetic voice.

Initially, Hughes’s poem seems to break down into three voices (father, son, and an elusive third voice) that cut in and mutually interrupt each other, causing abrupt shifts in style and tone that, in the end, disarticulate voice from identity. In the opening lines, the son asserts his mulatto identity and pleads for recognition from his white father. The unnamed son’s address to a generic “white man” suggests that his voice oscillates between the particular and the general, between the son as individual and the son as representative of all mulattos:

I am your son, white man!

Georgia dusk              And the turpentine woods.              One of the pillars of the temple fell.

                        You are my son!                         Like hell!                                    (1-6)

Instead of immediately giving us the father’s response to his son’s accusatory plea, the poem then shifts to an “objective,” racially unmarked voice that describes the natural setting of the “Georgia dusk / And the turpentine woods” (2-3). While this three line interpolation give us terms—dusk and turpentine—that signify nature’s own color-mixing of night and day, it also folds back in on the father-son dialogue and naturalizes the supposed unnaturalness of racial mixing. Some of these more descriptive lines show nature as constantly commingling: the night is full of mulattoed “Great big yellow stars” (10) and mixed smells: “The scent of pine wood stings the soft night air” (18). The fourth line’s mysterious reference to a partially ruined temple—only “One of the pillars of the temple fell”—disrupts our expectations about the action’s geographical location in Georgia: where are there temples in Georgia? Given Hughes’s concern with ancient Africa/Egypt in “Negro” (1922) and “The Negro Speaks of Rivers” (1921), the temple obliquely evokes these ancient ruins, thus interjecting into the poem a subtle yet trans-historical, trans-geographical twist: a collapsing of distance in space and time. This third, descriptive voice, seemingly transcendent, then hovers over the father-son dialogue throughout the rest of the poem.  As the poem unfolds, it deconstructs itself. The father’s voice becomes more ambiguous, making it difficult to discern his from the son’s. His initial response to and denial of his son—“You are my son! / Like hell!”—inadvertently betrays some level of recognition that begins to destabilize the father’s identity. When the father asks, “What’s a body but a toy?” (11), the abrupt shift to a macabre jingle about bruised black bodies suggests that another unidentified voice answers the father’s question, though presumably in a way that would be satisfactory to the father:

Juicy bodies  Of nigger wenches  Blue black  Against black fences (12-15).

Perhaps as a surging up of the father’s and son’s mutual unconscious, a memory triggered by the “Sharp pine scent in the evening air” (22) mentioned later, these lines return the poem to the primal, traumatic rape scene of the son’s conception. Yet even as the father repeats his question, implying an association of the female black body with mere toys, this voice of the unconscious interpolates another song:

A nigger night,  A nigger joy,  A little yellow  Bastard boy            (23-26).

The “joy” both folds back on the night of conception—the rape of the mother-toy—and plunges forward into the mulatto “Bastard boy,” thus forming a toy-joy-boy rhyming constellation. The playful tone of the songs and the toy-joy-boy rhyme suggest that the father’s feelings towards his son vacillate, thus defusing any straightforward rejection, even if lines like “Git on back there in the night, / You ain’t white” imply such a rejection (36-37). Unlike the speaker in McKay’s poem, who sets out to murder his father, the problem for Hughes seems to involve mutual recognition, or rather a conscious recognition of an unconscious recognition—an overcoming of a repressed recognition that the white father must feel at some level. The poem’s unrecognizable form, too, demands recognition from readers more familiar with conventional forms like the sonnet. Although the poem ends on an ambiguous note, leaving the son to continue his pleading, its mix of mutually haunting voices at least implies that some kind of reconciliation is possible.  In McKay’s “Mulatto,” the father-son forces cannot be reconciled or rescued by the identity-vertigo induced by the work of interpolation in Hughes’s poem. Hughes’s poem may sit more comfortably than McKay’s with those who value becoming and ambiguity, fluidity, and the interconnectedness of all things which, in turn, supposedly corresponds to a socialist-democratic politics of pluralism and openness. McKay’s poem, on the other hand, challenges us to rethink this melting pot ontology of becoming and its political efficacy, to think a world where reconciling might mean murdering. In its blunt acceptance of violence, the poem is Fanonian decades before Frantz Fanon, the Caribbean-born revolutionary who advocated the use of violence to overthrow colonial regimes:

Because I am the white man’s son—his own,  Bearing his bastard birth-mark on my face,  I will dispute his title to his throne,  Forever fight him for my rightful place.  There is a searing hate within my soul,  A hate that only kin can feel for kin,  A hate that makes me vigorous and whole,  And spurs me on increasingly to win.  Because I am my cruel father’s child,  My love of justice stirs me up to hate,  A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled,  When falls the hour I shall not hesitate  Into my father’s heart to plunge the knife  To gain the utmost freedom that is life.

While a number of words in Hughes’s text are “marked” as mulatto (dusk, turpentine, yellow), for McKay, the mulatto mark is a birth-mark owned by the white father, suggesting an irremovable blemish or stain on racial purity, the manifestation of the white man’s shame that the mulatto must “bear” for his entire life. At the same time, the physicality and undeniable there-ness of the “birth-mark” testifies against the white father’s absurd denial of his son, allowing McKay to bypass the problem of recognition altogether (a bypass also implied in the recognizable sonnet form). Instead of mutual recognition, there is mutually violent rejection: the speaker-son first fantasizes about regicide—“I will dispute his title to his throne” (3)—before turning in the final lines to a more detailed scene of patricide. The “searing hate” (3) that burns in the son’s soul also gives him a coherent identity and vitality that makes him “vigorous and whole” (5). The speaker again qualifies this hate that “spurs” by asserting its origin in a “love of justice” (8), suggesting that his acute awareness of the gap between justice and reality fuels his anger. “[L]ove of justice” also differentiates the son’s hatred from his father’s, an arbitrary hatred that makes him abandon and oppress his own son.

With the son’s reference to himself as a “child” in the first line of the final sestet, McKay sets up an oblique revision of the Abraham-Isaac-Ishmael drama that caps off the poem. “A warring Ishmaelite, unreconciled” invokes not only the Biblical but also the Qu’ranic stories of Ishmael, the illegitimate son of Abraham and his slave, Hagar. In the Biblical version of the story, God establishes his covenant with Abraham’s younger legitimate son, Isaac, and ostracizes Ishmael: “He shall be a wild man; / His hand shall be against every man, / And every man’s hand against him” (Genesis 16:12). Ishmael plays a more positive role in the Qu’ran, the holy book of Islam. Indeed, Abraham and Ishmael, father and son, are equally prophets (217), charged with the task of building the Ka’bah at Mecca: “We enjoined Abraham and Ishmael to cleanse Our House for those who walk round it, who meditate in it, and who kneel and prostrate themselves” (17). If we combine this positive appraisal of Ishmael with the biblical one, then my argument that McKay substitutes Ishmael for Isaac in the final lines becomes plausible. Unlike the passive Isaac, who unknowingly awaits his execution at the hands of his father, the rebellious Ishmaelite son “shall not hesitate / into [his] father’s heart to plunge the knife” (12-13). It is important to note that the moment of reversed sacrifice is suspended indefinitely: “When falls the hour,” the speaker says. The sonnet does not occur within the moment of violence, but rather in the anticipatory resolve or readiness for some future violence.

Obviously, if the solution to injustice that “The Mulatto” proposes (i.e. patricide) were carried out, such a gesture would be, in the grand scheme of white-dominated capitalism, useless. Given McKay’s involvement with Communism, both in his stint as assistant editor for the leftist journal The Liberator and in his grand tour of the Soviet Union in the early 1920s, there must be some other way, some alternative to father-son quarreling or to-the-death knife-fights. One such answer is hinted at in the suspended act and implicit attitude towards futurity of the line “When falls the hour.” While the violence of “The Mulatto” is direct and uncompromising, such violence is also deferred and thus remains open to the coming future.

Copyright © 2007 John Claborn