In 1933, B.F. Skinner published an article in the Atlantic entitled “Has Gertrude Stein a Secret?” According to the famed behaviorist, Stein’s disorienting language practices were easily explained as nothing more than a carryover from the automatic writing exercises she undertook as a college student, when she participated in psychological experiments at Harvard. Knowing this secret, the flummoxed reader could put an end to the tiresome search for meaning — as Skinner proclaimed once and for all, “meanings are not present, and we need not bother to look for them.” Yet for many readers of innovative poetry, treating the poem as a secret communique, a coded utterance, deepens one’s experience of it.
For instance, a 2018 essay by Brent Hayes Edwards that accompanies a selection of Fred Moten’s poetry in the American Poets in the 21st Century anthology, invokes the language of secrets. Edwards titles his essay “Sounding the Open Secret,” asserting that the all-but-apparent, undisclosed element is Moten’s “deliberate commitment to a musical poetics.” Edwards knows whereof he speaks; the recent collection all that beauty, with its gestures to “discographical accompaniment,” extends upon Moten’s longstanding theoretical and poetic study into the fugitive philosophy of Black sound. But there is something else, too, lurking behind the title of this new collection, a gesture to another secret, a biographical one.
Like Stein, Moten attended Harvard as an undergraduate. And like Stein, he spent time in a laboratory setting. But unlike Stein, Moten found his experimental scene off campus, on the opposite coast. Leaving school and returning home to Las Vegas for a brief time following his freshman year, he took up temporary employment as a janitor at the infamous Nevada nuclear test site. This episode is hardly a well-kept secret. Wikipedia mentions it and goes so far as to suggest that this period was crucial for the poet because it was as a janitor that “he discovered the works of T. S. Eliot and Joseph Conrad.” I’m not saying that this little hiatus explains away the bewildering tensions in Moten’s lyrical deconstruction of the Western canon. But I do think it was a significant time of learning, for reasons that have little to do with the classics. One of the central projects of Moten’s collaboration with Stefano Harney, The Undercommons: Fugitive Planning and Black Study (2013), is a reconsideration of what it means to study. “Study is what you do with other people […] working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice.” Custodial work is one such site of speculative practice.
To go one step further, I would say study, as outlined, represents a form of custodial care. From it we gain insight into the motivations informing Moten’s relationship to his subject matter. The central question that animates all that beauty is, how does one take care of things? How does one preserve a dispersed tradition of Black sociality without codifying it, without containing it, without, as Amiri Baraka would say, reducing the hunt to those heads on the wall? And so, difficulty ensues.
This custodial imperative takes several forms throughout the collection, none so regular or overt as the poet’s use of dedicatory subtitles. The long opening poem, “come on, get it,” takes its place alongside some of Moten’s strongest work, such as earlier poems like “barbara lee” and “the gramsci monument,” as all three reflect on the work of others, collaborating through commentary. As Moten tells it, “come on, get it” was written not for or after, but “with Michell Casteñeda, Laura Harris, Arthur Jafa, R.A. Judy, Julian Moten, Lorenzo Moten, Valeria Cassel Oliver, Elizabeth Povinelli, Denise Ferreira da Silva, and Wu Tsang’n’em.” The dedicatory statement is the poem on top of the poem, a shout-out. Some of the names are searchable online, some are not. But all succeed in showing how caring for the work of others means continuing that work, and continuing that work means losing track of where it began and how many hands shaped it along the way.
Moten accepts this sense of incalculable debt by ending each of these subtitles with the masterfully deformative contraction “n’em.” Where the searchable names give us some context for the cascade of references that is a Moten poem, the “n’em,” tells us that the conversation is not reducible to a set of topics, which include Latin-American migration, Afro-pessimism, and aesthetic sociality. Along with the names of Moten’s family, the “n’em” does more than add another academic discourse to the list; it sets the scene for the conversation. The study commences not in a classroom or university hall, but around a kitchen table, with everyone “n’em” talking at once.
Three epigraphs from James Baldwin define the parameters of the book as a whole. In one of these epigraphs, Baldwin provides the book’s title: “When I was very young, and was dealing with my buddies in those wine- and urine-stained hallways, something in me wondered, What will happen to all that beauty.” This is the defining question of custodial writing: how will we care for that which has been cast to the wayside, zoned for renewal, marked for development? This concern abides throughout Moten’s thought. In Arthur Jafa’s filmic essay Dreams Are Colder Than Death (2014), Moten, riffing on Bob Marley, wonders aloud “When you say that black people are just an effect of slavery, you raise the question: Can black people be loved? […] Not desired, not wanted, not acquired, not lusted after. Can black people be loved?” The question of how to care for things carries critical weight when those things are people. Moten’s question echoes Baldwin’s: To love Blackness is to reconceive of what is worthy of our care. What groundskeeper doesn’t keep a secret stash of neglected forms, things picked up along the way that just need a little love?
This imperative to see beauty as that which is everywhere denied is nothing new for Black studies. It is one of its oldest refrains — think of Bessie Smith exclaiming, “I don’t care it’s muddy there.” In such a tradition, pledging fealty to filth is one way of calling into question modern classification values. On this note, Moten comes clean:
Our regular shit is muddy
and irregular. Our shit is the shit, in this regard. Regardless, we started walking the floor of the sea to turn it over, plowing the muck, low, country, just like mules of the leafy green, sempiternal in sodden underground, thinking the sudden thickness of our steps, infused with periodic swimming to get the air we can’t breathe, saving breath in the muddle of our passage, as Mullen says, or been fixing to say. Fixing we say like f’i’n—imagine a little swelling into place after the consonant, just a little bit broader time before the x turn to a t, which is implied, then silenced, then acts that same little hollow before the n, because the end won’t come, then one last breath, and keep writing that shit underneath the floor, as our commune.
The poem is a series of unstable iterations; things shaped in and out of mud fall back into muddiness. Within a theoretical framework, mud is what happens when fluidity, a hallmark value of vernacular Black culture, meets opacity, the notion of irreducible particularity and difference, per Édouard Glissant. Muddy is akin to blurry, another of Moten’s embraced anti-categories, as both bear constitutive relationships to Blackness. Later in the collection, Moten says as much, “Black is the revelation of that which makes a people uncertain, unclear and awry in their action and knowledge. I think I been thinking ‘bout that for ‘bout thirty years.”
“The shit” is an embrace of the fertilizing power of funk. Out of this alluvial field, Moten imagines a muddled passage, conjuring an image of enslaved Africans marching through the mud at the bottom of the sea — each giant step a warbling uncertainty.
With “f’i’n” comes the muddled tongue. Consonants melt into liquid diphthongs and linguistic variation takes shape as a landscape. The little silences signaled by apostrophes become hollows prone to flooding, like the Great Dismal Swamp that straddles Virginia and North Carolina, a place devoted to alternative models of custodial care. Moten here moves past purely appreciating muck, placing mud at the center of the structure and historical development of Black cultural expression.
In the end, to care for the muddy is to muddy one’s own categories.
Naw, we gotta learn to see through things. That’s movement, seeing through; gotta learn to love that. Gotta learn to love being seen through. Things are apparencies, lenses, not like open caskets through American pictures but what, in turning from the illusive, delusional density of that thing, let lovers get down in the environment. The work is alleyway in its disappearance, when disappearance ain’t just vanishing but radical indivisibility that apposes, in radical presence, the merely apparent.
This is not the transparency Skinner went in search of, delving to the depths to understand, in order to dispense with difficulty. Moten states “art only works if it’s seen through, till it’s gone, through.” To this end, transparency means to see through the work, to see the world it sees, which is a world of messy connections. Caring for such complexity means contributing to it, using it as fuel for the gathering: “Just be making something all / the time so you can use it / to be making something with somebody / all the time.
all that beauty (2019) by Fred Moten is published by Letter Machine Editions and is available online and in bookstores.