Fence Books, $17.95 (paper)
The narrative voice in Harmony Holiday’s latest book, Hollywood Forever, straddles the line between the throwback and the archival. The throwback, a black colloquialism concerned with once-popular culture momentarily reclaimed, reflects on the present through the lens of the recent past. The more historically-oriented archives, a field of practice Holiday operates deftly within, informs the complex visual composition of the work—much of which features long-lined verse or prose superimposed on decades-old magazine ads, posters, and other curated ephemera—as well as the poetic and critical aims of the project itself. Working within these modes creates space for innovative dialogues between what is canonical in black culture and what moves us at the moment.
The archive of Hollywood Forever is a warehouse of quotidian pleasures and horrors viewed through multiple screens. The formatting of the book—in which photos, signs, search engine results, and other ephemera form the background for poems—can make the reading experience difficult with its visual clutter, but it also renders the book a sort of analog Afro-vaporwave. It operates in communication with other forms of contemporary black art, notably Kameelah Janan Rasheed’s How to Suffer Politely (And Other Etiquette), a text-based public installation which satirically presents advice for those who wish to fight oppression without rocking the boat. One of the most memorable of Rasheed’s signs read “Lower the pitch of your suffering”; an interlocutor in Holiday’s “That’s Entertainment,” whose text is superimposed on an anti-communist flier produced by the KKK in the 1930s, begs an unnamed speaker “Please tell your story / faster,” an imperative Hollywood Forever rejects time and again.
Hollywood Forever employs the pop-cultural archive in service of complicating black history.
Hollywood Forever, like Holiday’s previous book Negro League Baseball (2011), is father-haunted and bolstered by the archives. It employs the pop-cultural archive in service of complicating black history and interrogating the shorter cycles of remembering and forgetting that typify the present day. In “And fetish objects will fight you,” the ghostliness of the absent father becomes a musical presence and guiding light: “The salt in the way could light up a room the / voice on the radio could bloom into daddy” (Harmony’s father was the late soul musician Jimmy Holiday). The shade of Miles Davis also returns from the previous work, entering as an extended interrogation of how and why great music emanates from troubled men. Martin Luther King, Jr., becomes one of these case studies, too, in the poem “Adultery,” in which the tension between cultural expectation, marital duty, and fame are evidenced through King’s final moments. In “Medicine for Soft Times,” the scrutinous tone grows intimate and explicit: “Turns out all my heroes beat their wives. How redundant. And my anti-heroes shove / them into the footwork like diabetic soldiers.”
This arc burns out in a long-lined stanza formatted as a paragraph in “What Jimmy Taught Me,” which recounts the speaker’s birth, parentage, and home life: “I arrived as a kind of vengeance, the many versions of war worn / raw by their sex, come to be as the treacherous peace of empty pacts and / broken chessmen were scattered all over the room.” The poetic voice retains the spirit of Negro League Baseball’s Jimmy in poems such as “The Soonest People,” which proclaims “Jimmy’s my dad. / I didn’t see the was coming.” The reference here is to Holiday’s much-mourned father, but the black majestic is littered with Jimmys prone to violence and addiction. The Jimmy of Negro League Baseball and Hollywood Forever serves as a metonym for black men who make good before spectacularly coming undone.
Equally haunting are the forces of respectability politics, which the speaker at once accepts, replicates, and rejects. In “We shook that in Los Angeles,” the speaker works to convince the reader that she has “come here to lash out / I’ve come here to reclaim my tenderness / Which is not linear and I’m trying to remember / the white mink coat I wore on the plantation, but it all fades to war paint and we wake up / in Los Angeles.” The poem’s text is superimposed on a promotional ad for Bobby Womack’s 1973 cover of Jimmy Cox’s blues classic “Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out.” Below the poem is a screenshot of search engine results bearing an article from Bossip, a black tabloid news site, titled “15 Women Who Died From Butt Injections.” Never are these conflicting if not contradictory impulses more obvious than in “#Goals/ Hello, Your Quietness,” whose speaker chides us to “Live with it,” then asks:
Is the ghost a risk you / didn’t take that haunts you like cupcakes do beautiful fat bitches. / It feels great to say bitches and be a woman. Not derogatory at / all. Insult preys on your phony misguided morals. Bitches wanna / fight themselves through a tunnel of coalshine. Sounds like the / ghost’s a hunter disguised as our sun god.
Bossip, with its eye ever toward the horizon of the salacious black zeitgeist, is just the library I hoped to see exalted within Holiday’s poetry. Like Hollywood Forever, Bossip is obsessed with black celebrity, particularly black public figures and entertainers. Its value is derived from indulging readers’ desires for the tawdry side in black show business: who didn’t pay their child support, who is getting divorced, who has a mistress. It is exactly the archive of unfiltered life to match the intensity of Holiday’s poetry. To see Bossip headlines among many other ephemeral symbols of black culture resists social pressure to sanitize folk heroes and celebrities. What results is an irreverent vision of complicated heroes, undertheorized geniuses, and quotidian black strivings.
Holiday’s panoramic rendering of black culture is made all the more ambitious by her use of archival photos. Often, the pictures are historical advertisements and signs, but Barack Obama, Ella Fitzgerald, and Coretta Scott King make appearances, too. While I recognize the necessity for an indictment of white supremacist power structures, I also appreciate the nuance with which Holiday deconstructs intracommunity conflicts and contradictions. This ratio is brought into balance through the graphics, which sometime work to reify the sentiments presented and other times undercut the poetic claims for a more texturally rich work. The images form a secondary poetry through free association with the text that they precede, or in some cases, mount. The mood of the work expands and contracts conversationally, reminiscent of the way dominant leitmotifs—Afrofuturism and, yes, the controversial Pan-Africanism of “hoteps”—are debated at the present, both in community and online.
Holiday presents a logical argument in place of what could have otherwise been a dense, tediously theoretical detour.
Perhaps the most timely recurrent element in Hollywood Forever is the conspiracy theory, whose rhetoric Holiday cops. “The Immorality of Innocence” adjusts the historical record and proclaims “Muhammad Ali, poisoned / Michael Jackson, poisoned / Easy E, poisoned / Dr. Sebi, poisoned // by the resident, by the fame toy.” In “MODE FOUR: Abbey Lincoln senses when niggas is redundant,” the poetic voice informs readers that “Polygamy is a Black African technology. It is also a health practice. A poetic form / and force and civilized.” Regardless of any reaction to the content of these lines, Holiday’s turn toward poetic essay is an effective choice for material that will be unfamiliar to readers who have not followed the arguments on the merits, origins, and longevity of Pan-Africanist and hotep philosophies. Hollywood Forever presents a logical argument in place of what could have otherwise been a dense, tediously theoretical detour.
I want to be clear that I am not attempting to make light of the conspiratorial strains within Hollywood Forever, but rather situate them within a developing philosophical vein. It is true that the word “hotep” is sometimes weaponized and mocked as lacking rigor and as exemplifying a crude, anti-feminist doctrine; Hollywood Forever reveals what it could mean if these emergent philosophies were taken completely seriously and allowed to inform arts and culture. While I do not always agree with the claims made in the dominant narrative of hotep discourse or within Hollywood Forever, Holiday’s choice to evaluate the finer points of a proliferating thought movement too often smugly dismissed should be lauded for its courage and authenticity.
It is exactly because Holiday is such a brilliant poet, academic, and archivist that I am confident that she is aware of the nascent tradition she seems to be working within. For instance, the book is peppered with the word “nigga,” but at least once, in “Kanye in fox fur at the urinal,” it is substituted for the similar, yet differently yoked, term “negus.” In Pan-Africanist thought, of which hotepism is a thread, negus is used both as the opposite of the term “nigger” or “nigga” (which are related to one another, but not direct synonyms) and as a historical throwback to an Ethiopian term for “king.” The poem goes on to assert another hotep article of faith, the belief that black people are being murdered so that our organs can be sold in underground economies: “They kill us and sell our organs and / stem cells on the black market in an effort to become more like us. And all of our / artists are so preoccupied with outcry and vengeance and hipness / disaffection, / that we enter into a numb frenzy of performed resistance.”
The most important of these conspiracy theories and of the “MODE” series toward the end of Hollywood Forever is “MODE SEVEN: The State of New York vs. Alfredo Bowman.” For the uninitiated, Dr. Sebi was a black Latino herbal healer who gained notoriety for his nutritional guides to wellness. His guidelines are gospel to thinkers who compose the natural wellness end of hotep Pan-Africanism. The hybrid essay/poem asserts “Alfredo Bowman is Dr. Sebi, he saved your life, he died for your sins.” And goes on to list his accomplishments, which include his power “to cure AIDS, Parkinson’s, blindness, all forms of cancer, every so-called disease you can name or conjure.” How? Why, through “repudiation, the innerstanding that there is no such thing as disease, / in the way we imagine, there is only obstruction of the lymphatic fluid which / eventually poisons the blood or robs it of minerals and creates the abnormal cells / we call sickness.” Goody! I hope sick and disabled readers take note of these potential miracle cures hidden from us lo these many years. I have Systemic Lupus and never knew that the only thing keeping me from full remission is a failure to innerstand that my immune system is not attacking my body, I’m just hampered by negative thinking and malnutrition!
In “MODE SIX: Your Mukbang Made Me Weep” Holiday recounts a YouTube video of what she calls “a morbidly obese black boy named Jasper” who eats hot wings for forty-five minutes straight. In response, the narrator asks, “Who does the fetish object fetishize? Men watch women eat / dick night after night, women watch men devour wings. Now who’s flying. Now / you get to watch a Korean woman eat Obama Fried Chicken, live from Seoul.” (Jasper Hicks, a.k.a. Jasper Daze, the Penn State student in the video, died of complications due to undiagnosed diabetes in late 2016.) In an untitled poem that appears roughly a quarter of the way through the book, a voice insists “Don’t you paint any blackness / for me, neat.” At times, Hollywood Forever deals coarsely with difference: fatness is pathologized, sickness and disability are pitied. At times, Hollywood Forever is what African American Vernacular English speakers in Greater Philadelphia may call “being joe,” a variety of over-familiar posturing that comes off as cloying. For instance, in “He watches himself as if he were an enemy lying in ambush,” Holiday writes, “Her hair is tied into a ponytail, slicked back with the good gel.” In a community with so many types of hair that they are referred to with an alphanumeric code, there simply is no one good gel to rule them all. On these occasions, although rare, Hollywood Forever is limited by an archival approach to black life; images are so quintessential that the book struggles to free itself from the ink of what has already been written about the subjects which form its central images. Hollywood Forever punches down in the name of education, and in these moments the book falters.
Hollywood Forever shines when its human connections are specific, rather than general. “Stills from the Tiger’s Mind” digs through the pessimistic humanism of the zeitgeist: “at the risk of sounding mystical, we belong on this thin wire of our / need for one another just about to buckle when the phone rings” and “I could hug my shins and wait for the world to end. A shout out to the g steady selling / jars of bubbles on 103rd, though. Even in winter, clear tendrils of soap blowing in the / putrid air.” These moments of genuine affection for blackness and black people display an embeddedness, an inherent dedication to parsing out, honoring, and shaping black culture. In “Glowing with absence and merchandise” these words appear in bold: “Do you still blame black angels? Their pathological confessions and broken tambourine candle sinking in the glass. Black / English, I love you. Black man, I love you.” This is the love that Hollywood Forever offers; even a casual read proves its faithfulness.