The notion of poetry as words written on a page and read silently is a relatively recent historical development. Older, and perhaps more exciting, is the tradition of poetry as performance. Ancient epic poets recited human and divine wars to intent audiences; Sappho sang her songs of love and loss to the accompaniment of the barbitos, a bass lyre; the medieval troubadours wrote their intensely complex lyrics first and foremost as performable songs; West African griots sang (and still sing) to the kora and other instruments, weaving local, family, and national histories into a kind of folk memory. Amanda Gorman’s reading of her poem “The Hill We Climb” at the 2021 Presidential Inauguration, watched by millions of viewers who had never bought a book of poetry, reminds us of the power of poetry performed.
Douglas Kearney knows a thing or two about poetry and performance — he’s written the libretto for an opera (Anne LeBaron’s 2012 Crescent City) and he performs his own poems with electric timing, energy, and shifts of voice. The title poem of Kearney’s latest collection, Sho (Wave Books, 2021), is all about such performance: “sho” is a vernacular pronunciation of “sure” (as in “sho’ ’nuff”), but it’s also aurally identically to “show,” as in “putting on a show.” “Sho”’s speaker is the poet stepping up to the podium (“Thus they clap / / when I mount banc’, jig / up to the lectern”). But this isn’t the exhibition of “authentic” inwardness so many poetry readings seem to promise; it’s precisely a performance of poet-ness, and a performance of male Blackness. As he speaks, the poet knows he has become a mountebank, is performing a “jig” for his audience, is running through a range of the expected tropes of Black performance:
Nobody knows the trouble. Rig full o’ Deus. “Sho gwine fix dis mess.” Spit in tragedy’s good eye! “This one’s called…” Jig ger gogglers then bow housefully. They clap. “…be misundeeeerstooooood!” Hang notes high or deep, make my tongue a bow— what’s the gift?! My good song vox? The gift?!?! Jig gle nickles from deep down my craw. They clap. I’se so jolly!
This is high-spirited, lively — though with an increasingly grim undercurrent. What might not be immediately evident in hearing the poem “Sho” performed (see Kearney read it here), is how cunningly crafted the poem is; as he explains in a note, it is “a torchon, a form created by Indigo Weller. It incorporates aspects of a sestina; however, teleuton sequence is modified to follow particular variations of lace weaving patterns.” (Kearney here performs the role of a creative writing professor.)
As in the medieval sestina, where six line-ending words are presented in different orders, the torchon “Sho” juggles the words “body,” “bloody,” “jig,” “rig,” “bow,” and — of course — “show/sho.” The poem’s headlong momentum, its broken, idiosyncratic syntax, its vernacular deformations, make it feel less like a formal exercise than an Anthony Braxton-like improvisation: “Braxton’s sweat // y brow syndrome®, spit / out a sax bell
wri ng / a negrocious show // of feels.”
If “Sho”’s first three pages walk a tightrope between the poet as canny improvising craftsman and Jim Crow performer, its ending brings us jarringly down to the conjunction of modernist tradition and the horrors of history:
“This one’s called…”—they clap— “’_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _barrow.’ So much dep ends / upon / dead _ _ _ _ _ _ _”;… They clap—"Rig ht?” some ask, post. Spit tle-lipped: I said: “Sho.”
William Carlos Williams’s “Red Wheelbarrow” was about an agricultural implement; the subject of Kearney’s poem remains unspoken, un-spelled-out — one way of filling in those blanks is “The [N-word] Wheelbarrow” — an emblem of how American history has elided the reality that the nation was founded on the labor and lives of enslaved Black people.
The African American poet, Kearney reflects, is inevitably performing his own Blackness, whether or not he’s at the lectern putting on “a negrocious show of feels.” In the savagely funny “The Post-,” he plays on the idea of a “post-racial” America as a matter of pulling off his own dark skin, then imagines uses for “my obsolete wrap” (“bungee jump from sturdy limbs of Southern trees”; “trade it for right-to-work at harbor-based auction blocks”):
America is different now, isn’t it. The circling birds are tracing hugs, yes. They want us all inside? There, a pink child flies my skin, a kite! “Look mommy,” they said and mommy did. “See how high it can go?” mommy said. America is so different now, yes?
The poem “Manesology” (the study of ghosts and hauntings) revolves around the poet’s weariness at being asked, by some media outlet presumably, to “speak on The Problem.”
The Problem, I said I been saying like we must mule some pallid-ass hearts, our backs, carts, or our blood a soap for shit that’s their ashes made ours, then be the brain their spectral mulling can murmur in like a house they call to beck: speak on The Problem.
Kearney can phone in his interview, “could do it from home.” “Sure,” he acquiesces, “I’d speak on The Problem, / since we do, as always been.” But even the domestic space he shares with his partner and children is haunted by the ghosts of race and history: they make love (“we fucked like a burning church … Phone ringing like poltergeists wrecking a pantry”); their daughter climbs into bed with them, frightened “after reading about ghosts”; their infant son continues to sleep, under a ceiling fan that circles inexorably into the past: “fan spinning back to where it started and / back to where / and back to / and.”
Sho immediately impresses with its mid-length poems: the title poem, “Manesology,” “Demonology,” “The Showdown,” and “Fire,” a breathtaking evocation and exploration of “spirit” in Church music; in this poem Kearney is performing the Day of Pentecost, with the Holy Spirit as both comforting inspiration and frightening demonic possessor — one that he finally rejects: “the Word don’t do me— / What I do / what I do now.” Just as impressive, however, are the volume’s shorter poems, whose subjects range from the poet’s worn-out sneakers (“Eulogy for a Pair of Kicks”) to his memories of childhood PBJs (“The Drifters After School”), to his own loved ones, addressed in a trio of achingly beautiful short lyrics entitled “‘…say the sacred words.’” Throughout, Kearney’s language — exquisitely torqued and modulated, sheering from the formal to the vernacular — keeps readers aware that we are in the hands of a masterful performer.
That’s perhaps what Sho most forcefully shows us, in the end: the poet isn’t performing only when he’s on the stage or composing the poem. Everyday life is itself a continual performance — of race, of gender, of relationships. The profound goodness of Sho lies in how Kearney self-consciously performs all these roles, showing how in the end the persona — a word itself derived from a theatrical role — cannot be separated from the “real” person. We are, finally, the sum total of our performances, the roles we have chosen or have had forced upon us. Freedom lies not in the refusal of all performativity, which would amount to a kind of absolute stasis, but in our recognizing, exploring, and subverting the “shows” by which we are constituted.