Negro League Baseball by Harmony Holiday
(FENCE Books, 2011)
reviewed by Steve Langan
Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball, winner of the 2010 Fence Books Motherwell Prize, is a difficult book, and it is, in many places, impenetrable. But after a more full immersion, these cryptic poems, most of which are in amped-up prose, deliver the reader with immeasureable energy into the future of medium. Set in landscape, rather than portrait orientation, to better hold long lines/stanzas/paragraphs, many poems are punctuated by varying taps on the space bar, which is one of the ways this poet holds the beat. It’s a book almost as idiosyncratic as Spring and All. The cover of this collection depicts a riotous orgy of music appreciation. Holiday’s expansiveness brings to mind C.K. Williams, but compared to her display of fullness and spontaneity, he’s counting iambs on his fingers and toes.
Music, heard through unexpected and thrilling word and phrase choices, is apparent throughout this bold debut. From Holiday’s far from run-of-the-mill bio, however, we are made aware that she’s a dancer and an instructor of dance, which may be the best way to frame how she should be read. In her poems, we
are made to feel the presence of the sinuous dancer, the lithe one who can move with ease—muscles and muscle groups that middle-aged men like me never were able to access—and with fluidity that approaches the level of danger. Now that she made this leap and that spin, how is she going to come, in one piece, down to earth? Over and over, Harmony Holiday’s poems defy gravity.
Told slant, Holiday has a story to tell, one that involves and serves the memory of her dad and mom. Dad, we learn in the poems and more directly in the bio, was “Northern Soul singer and songwriter Jimmy Holiday.” Mom, 30 years younger than he, was a writing student at the University of Iowa when they met. A trim early poem, “The Soonest People,” channeling her, ends:
My father was Jimmy, dad
was weeping so frankly it came like gazing had
Yes, we see that Holiday can do Dickinson, just one of many samples and references spliced onto these poems that are shot through so brazenly with multiple influences that, paradoxically, they find a sound—or layers of sound—like no one else’s. Another poem that appears early in the first section, “Assembly,” arrives—after playing around a bit with the metaphor of the “battery” and then, through free association, to the “body” via the “house” and then the “self” (this is how Holiday’s poems move; People get ready)—at mom. Part of the first stanza emits a valuable clue about how Holiday, from here forward, should be read:
recklessness became a dance and a dance became every battery lined up like ready
For a more full taste of Holiday’s hyper-charged mind in motion, I include the last stanza of “Assembly,” which achieves a full report of Mom, with so much love and tenderness and heartbreak, and includes a Dickinsonian victory salute:
Every battery lined up in a station as the police check for accidents, no my mother
hasn’t slipped when she had fallen that maximum down there is constant effort, we
feel it as agency one commits to behaving in a certain way and ceases to motor,
matter, my mother, with her casual sense of a language of the household scaffolded
by words for average moments by words for disaster, for happier, bywords, I can’t
think of any now but maybe purified by the effort hiding its failure watch her slump
into the one rubber chair until she amuses with the automatic of her own sacrifice or
fact or Edith Piaf or As you Like it, the right clothes, the right desperation looks
indignant and I am dizzy backwards each time I laugh about while I cry for her,
demiurgic as our mild sorrow it runs, bang! into ecstasy.
By dismissing the rote writing workshop dictate to trim the poem down, Holiday is able to access her particular genius. She openly explores and speculates—she says this, says that, how about this?—in messy unrelenting metaphoric free-form. I get the sense she periodically pauses to make what becomes an unexpected and ultimately wise editorial decision: to leave it all in. She lands not only with unexpected gentleness on her marks, but more often than not with complicated and resounding pathos. She seems to convey, “So how do you like that, arbiters of what has become, in too many circles, the denaturing creative writing roundtable?”
Throughout the third section (of five), Holiday clearly hits her stride. In “An Assassination from Appropriation Forms,” Jimmy returns:
that Jimmy finishes wearing his hat down that babbling lane [...]
And, near the end of the poem, he arrives in yet another form,
And then Jimmy steps in the from of him, lend me your teeth, lemme your teeth [...]
It is at this point that even the most jaded reader will want to step in and attempt to save the young woman who demonstrates her vulnerability through the stress she places on language, which keeps fracturing or flaring everywhere she looks, for her protean father, for herself.
However, in “Alltime,” also in section three and presented here in its entirety, Holiday seems to be telling us that, despite the worry her poems may cause, as
long as love and validation are options, she’s okay:
And every time I fall in love, what television, another obituary, I am three, trying to tell psychology about /
psychology: look at me, see me, watch me.
Because of this poet’s youth and audacity—or because Holiday’s is an original voice, which can obscure or upend readers’ judgment—others may argue that these poems are headlong, excessive, and “private” beyond what’s tolerable. Examining some poems or sections, they probably have a point. But I would happily counter this argument by saying the high virtuosity Holiday represents depends on excess. Though they could not differ more tonally and formally, I see the Derek Walcott of Omeros—and the epic poets to whom Walcott regularly pays homage—as ancestor to Harmony Holiday. She is mission- driven to lay claim, however fleeting the objects and subjects of her vision become—dissolving sometimes just as they are presented—to her own distinct contemporary epic of hurt transferred through music and motion into beauty.
Her project, in the end, is one of humanity’s oldest: the reinvigoration and reenactment of history through lyric poetry. By detailing the quest for her family and personal history in a fully imagined stream of crosscurrents, Holiday delivers to us the opportunity to begin to lay claim to our own complicated pasts. The difference between Holiday and many other contemporary poets is that Holiday is brave enough to transfer this information to her readers in an interactive form that upsets all they thought they knew about how poems look, feel, sound, and function. Holiday is energized by the spirit and need of discovery. It seems she can’t help but take ongoing formal, syntactical, and linguistic risks and leaps. Through Harmony Holiday’s daring first collection, we begin to feel what freedom really is; she makes us hardly afraid to reimagine and redefine 21st Century American poetry.