Douglas Kearney’s buck studies (Fence Books, 2016) remaps the 20th century in a project that is both lyrical and epic, personal and historical. The work references a cacophonous range of topics including vintage pop songs, modernism, #blacklivesmatter, and Italian Futurism. Fiercely committed to identity politics, Kearney recasts historical personae to create a chorus of complex identities throughout the text, reassigning sacred figures and characters to the circumstances of a later time. In a section called “Ecce Cuniculus,” a humorous retelling of the Stations of the Cross, Jesus becomes Brer Rabbit. In “Mane,” the first poem in the collection, Stagger Lee’s “hard bad rock song” guns down Billy Lyons, a tragic misuse of bravado inserted into the same imagistic plane as Eddie Murphy’s “The Nutty Professor” character: “what a man what a mighty badman. / Lee as some Herakles! Herakles!”
Throughout buck studies a polyphonic diction pulls history apart, recombining it to reveal an alternative less whitewashed by enfranchised power. Divided into roughly six sections, the work relies on avant-gardism and modernist aesthetics. Kearny uses the tropes of these traditions, though, only to critique them. In “Shot,” he redirects the modernist tendency toward epic-writing and mythologizing, to the more populist realm of the Western:
On the surface, this poem is a Zukofskyesque combination of classical allusion, vintage pop lyrics, and eschatological Futurist noise that is thunderously moralizing: a chorus condemning Lee for the irrevocable crime that is the murder of Billy Lyons. On a deeper level, Kearney is flouting modernism’s militaristic compulsions and the worn out ideals of masculinity it espouses, imputing the complicity of a Eurocentric Artemis in compelling a black man to murder. The more obvious (but less discussed) critique here is that blacks do not conventionally figure into accounts of the American frontier, despite their historical role in shaping its landscape, history, and culture.
In Kearney’s more pictorial poems (which seem influenced by Susan Howe as much as F.T. Marinetti) language is spatialized; some words are placed in the foreground of the page and others in the background. Few artists working today use the black-and-white precedent of print on paper so eloquently. What Kearney achieves is a visual and voluble performance deriding repressive elements of the Western canon. “Runaway Tongue” provides a striking example of this. Featured in the section entitled “That Loud-Assed Colored Silence,” the poem reads like a diagram of internalized trauma. Racist abuse, disenfranchisement, and sexual frustration all center on a flip Jocyeanism (“a welwet coach / for coonilingus?”), suggesting canonical literature’s complicity with casual racism:
Most of the visual maneuvers in buck studies invoke the Futurist style; only instead of announcing a brave new world that celebrates war as a cleansing ritual, Kearney re-configures Futurism into a bluesy, lamenting poetics, using wilding typography to engage in serious moral reflection on racial identity.
Whereas Futurism generally downplays the past in the name of the future, Kearney’s “Afrofuturism” shows how historical injustices cannot simply be erased. Lines like “zip zip zip off the planetation, beyond the stairs to nigga heaven,” and “are we there yet? / are we we yet? are we we there?” question the likelihood of a future utopia eradicating all race based grievances. “Afrofuturism” is a far cry from Marinetti’s statement: “We will glorify war—the world’s only hygiene—militarism, patriotism, the destructive gesture of freedom-bringers, beautiful ideas worth dying for, and scorn for woman.” Kearney preserves only the intellectual freedom and formal beauty of Futurism, separating it from colonization and misogyny.
Throughout buck studies Kearney makes allusions to deadening ideas of blackness and masculinity only to torture them for their refusal to give way to a more environing and embracing intuition of personhood. This kind of poetry finds its antipode in T.S. Eliot’s famous statement: “the progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” Kearney, a black poet, realizes himself in his poems. He infuses his allusions to Modernism with a performative, embodied self, just as he reworks Futurist cacophony to respond to identity politics. In the wake of our recent election, and the failure of the established Left to become a vehicle for hope and renewal, it’s especially important now to have a poetics that preserves the avant-garde’s impetus to change life and society, purging it of any and all complicity with the destruction of progressive values. Kearney’s buck studies, which stages the explosion of repressive histories, discovering kernels of authentic life in the ashes, provides exactly that.