The Toxic and the Lyric III: On Hearing; Sound and Damage; Suzan-Lori Parks and Douglas Kearney; A Cicatrice; Billie Holiday; Strange Fruit and Damaged Plants

Joyelle McSweeney



CONTENT WARNING: Discussion of lynching; reproduction of the ‘n-word’ in quoted material


1. I wrote in my last column about Hell and Hearing, but I’ve left out a critical term: damage. For it was the idiopathic damage to my hearing that led me to walk this Infernal path, and to investigate a kind of Hearing that cannot always be mapped directly onto Cartesian or anatomical coordinates—an infrahearing, an ultrahearing, a Hearing sublimely, simultaneously, both more and less than its conventional counterpart. This path is pathetic. A pathetic fallacy. A fake path. A path.

It’s hard to believe, but I was born in a neighborhood called Los Empalados: The Impaled. The name glows like the moon. The name opens a way through the dream with its horn, and man follows that path. A quaking path.   Invariably harsh. The path that leads into or out of Hell. That’s what it all comes down to. Getting closer to Hell or farther away.

–Roberto Bolaño, “Prefiguration of Lalo Cura”, trans. Chris Andrews


2. Darkling, I listen, with my broken ears. I proceed by echolocation, yet my Hearing captures sound but not sense, noise but not signal. I reel and I wander. In Suzan-Lori Parks’s America Play. Lucy, a ‘confidence’ woman in both senses of the word, in whom the dead and dying may or may not confide, and Brazil, her son and protégé, stand at “an exact replica of the Great Hole of History”. Ear trumpet in hand, she “circulates”; he digs. They are listening to the echoes of gunshots; they are listening for the whispers of historical figures—and/or their ‘fake’ doubles—, for the dead coming back to ground level. More particularly, they are listening for Father, a Lincoln impersonator and the Original Digger of the exact replica of the Great Hole of History. He is ‘the Foundling Father’, a ‘foe father’ and a ‘faux father’, original and fake, like the exact replica itself. The play unfolds entirely in dialogue, and the dialogue is rendered in a lyric idiom that is itself a sound-map, every longed-for apparition rendered via sound, via sound’s duplicity, via pun, malapropism, and homophone, via language’s ability to connote more or less than its surface-level denotation.


3. Parks’s Hole/Whole is a sonic palimpsest; in this sightless site-as-homophone, plenitude and lack are revealed to be thanato-identical to each other. Such is the regime of modernity, but this duplicity is more damaging, more fatal for those whose compulsory labor and sacrifice built and build wealth and power for an America which then and now excludes them from its wealth and power—slaves, the indigenous, the indentured, migrants, immigrants, the exploited, poisoned, experimented upon, sterilized, marginalized, disenfranchised, incarcerated, murdered, trafficked, and the descendants of all of these. This is why I think Suzan-Lori Parks gives her play the ambitious title ‘The America Play’ (which also, to me, begins to sound like the name of a con—‘The Spanish Prisoner’, ‘The Pigeon Drop’). This paradoxical double condition of presence and absence, plenitude and dispossession forms a terrible sublime, producing the current of pain that runs through all her work as well as, confoundingly, its exuberant virtuosity.


4. But what is the ‘exact’ relationship of sound and damage? Could we imagine Sound as a kind of immune response to damage, an inflammation, an excrescence of artifice, a cicatrice, a latticing of scars? The exuberant, pain-fueled blossoming of Sound in Douglas Kearney’s work is, like that of Parks’s, a fleur du mal, a paradoxical thing, simultaneously soaring and impaled, a whole that indicates a hole (Sublime), a Hearing of the damage done to Black bodies and particularly Black male bodies under regimes of enslavement, incarceration, murder, lynching, modernity’s casually detrimental extraction of labor and value.


5. Consider Kearney’s series “Stagger Put Work In” from his recent volume Buck Studies. This brief 12-poem cycle feels massy and epic and is difficult to paraphrase. On a macro level, this exhilarating and intoxicating hash of sound palimpsests the figure of Stagger Lee onto the figure of Herakles, via an antic mash-up of hip-hop, pop, gospel, classical and classical blues references, as well as literary ones. Take “Bully”, the poem corresponding to Herakles’ seventh labor:

bully and bull stagger the city levee round round round.
who say: let’s walk down
and china shop the Hellenic Belluthahatchie,
cut antic in antiquity’s Diddy Wah Diddy,

As with Parks’s play, here the setting is entirely mapped by sound, pieced together from scraps of sound. If Kearney’s effervescent sonic method defies gravity, we are not to forget its grave destination: Billy Lyon’s death, the destruction of a Black male body, the scuttlebutt of each new rendition of the Ballad of Stagger Lee. As Kearney insists via endnote, “Belluthahatchie and Diddy Wah Diddy are suburbs of Hell”.


6. Kearney’s work entails a breathtaking sound-stage where it will be the ‘work’ of one Black man to kill another, again and again, in precedence and in aftermath, in version after version. As the title “Stagger Lee Put Work In” suggests, Kearney’s mashup of Herakles and Stagger reveals the John-Henry-like compulsory labor of both—Stagger compelled to repeat and repeat, to fulfill and overfulfill the terms of his balladic immortality, to be a barely agential conduit of the damage done to Black bodies: “a live nigger just a past due sacrifice like a bull too pretty to die./bully Stagger’s longhorn brimspan and oxblood crown crown him bad bad bad bad and bull.” When Stagger’s victim, Billy, finally speaks (in the poem ‘Fruit’), his dead voice has a paradoxically heroic presence, in contrast to the manic Stagger, who, apart from brief ejaculations, is only (and incessantly) spoken about. Billy croons like Keats odes Autumn then rues, like Keats, his doom:

summer pass blameless and dumb-assed to autumn,
           lousy with apples,
red as streetlamps to Hell […]
I hold my shit like a wound.


7. In “Fruit” as in other poems, the mirroring of Stagger and Billy, their interchangeability as ‘heroes’ and ‘victims’ of a pre-written script, takes on homoerotic dimensions and evokes the subterranean sexualities that flower beneath and above the pre-written scripts of (pathologized) Black male sexuality. In this regard the series resonates with Jack Spicer’s homoerotic elegy “The Death of Billy the Kid”, which also initiates from an otherworldly Hearing (“The radio that told me about the death of Billy the Kid”) and then resolves to build a ‘fake’ landscape, “Let us fake out a frontier – a poem somebody could hide in with a sheriff’s posse after him”, “a place where Billy can hide when he shoots people.” Kearney’s poem forms a Cocteau-like reflection of Spicer’s, with the shared name “Billy” a sonic mirror allowing passage between the two “faked out” worlds.


8. But, tonally, the poem “Fruit” channels another Billie, another radio wave, another immortal electrified sonic current: Billy’s tone can be described as “strange and bitter”, evoking the final line from Billie Holliday/Able Meeropol’s Strange Fruit: “here is a strange and bitter crop.” The legacy of lynching and the permanency of the cultural logics that produced (and produce) it seize Kearney’s (and Parks’s) oeuvre with unbearable urgency, activated by the simultaneously grave, accusatory and otherworldly swell of Holliday’s voice in her final phrases—notes which seem to sound forever and forever and not conclude when the recording does. The inflammation of those notes indicates a wound that cannot heal while the conditions that created it persist.


9. The association of speech and damage is, finally, a classical one. In the Aeneid, Aeneas is busy hacking away at some myrtles to clear an altar and is surprised when they first bleed at the root (“Blood on the leaves/and blood at the root,” as Holliday reels/unreals), then scream, and then speak: these plants mark the grave of his murdered countryman who intones (through them) his sad tale. Then, in the Inferno, Dante hurts a tree into speech; such trees imprison suicides who can only speak through such damage. These plants form infernal alternates to the reeds and winds which, in classical thought, bind nature, beauty and poetic invention; instead, these damaged, speaking plants are unnatural prostheses through which Virgil, Dante—and Kearney—fake out an Infernal frontier which allows the silenced to speak.


10. From which it follows:

Exuberance is Inflammation
Song is Inflammation
& rises from the Infernal Grove of Damage
& is a cicatrice; an immune response to Damage
& Sounds Forever
& issues uncannily from the cut or crushed throat
of Fake and Damaged Nature