Intersections: e pluribus unum with Sekou Sundiata

by Leslie Anne Mcilroy


Sekou.jpg

HEArt was the first to publish this poem by Sekou Sundiata, which I believe was central to his final performance piece, 51st (dream) State. 51st (dream) State premiered in 2006, a little more than a year before Sekou passed in July 2007.

The poem (then "Untitled"), and companion essay that follows, were first printed in HEArt's last print edition in spring, 2002. Today we reprint both, along with this brief introductory/explanatory communication he sent — all in response to 9/11 these 12 years later, with no less a sense of artistic exigency.

Leslie,

Here is a version of the poem-in-progress that I can live with for the moment. I am working on a final stanza. I suspect it will be published as a work-in-progress, which may be useful.

Part of the idea of the poem (and part of the reason I'm wrestling with it) is my search for language post 911. Having grown up in the radical political movements of the 1960s-70s, I felt that the language of that time had been exhausted. And that it is, in any case, unable to capture my sense of where we are.

By the way, I mention "guaguanco and quaquanco" (I have to check the spelling) a couple of times in the poem. That is a rhythm common to Afro Cuban/Afro Caribbean music. Its origin is in Africa. The "montuno" has a similar background.

By the way, did you ever get the photo that I sent by email?

Soon, 

Sekou

 

Untitled

Donny Hathaway was explaining For All We Know

and all the trouble in the world came down

to the essential energies swirling like tea leaves in the bottom of a cup

In the early days of the Aftermath, I was in hiding

from the lost army of protest calling from the 20th century

for something boisterous and skinny on the page

I began with the scratch and whisper of number two lead

spelling out the line from instinct to hand to eye: earth  water fire  air

Later that morning, I gathered myself in the thin rush hour to Manhattan

The inbound train stalled in a tunnel and we sat in abeyance

by consensus it seemed no one spoke or complained

The George Washington Bridge crumbles into the Hudson River

the city buckles from The Cloisters to South Ferry

and collapses eye-to-eye with its forgotten underlife

I follow horse trails through the secret pathways,

the indigenous ghost caves and African Burial Grounds,

a quaquanco echoes down the streets, the Untouchables

and Enchanters doowoop and do-rag in a spot of starlight

like they don't know they're dead, as if to say See this

is what we always wanted to be, the rivers come crashing

through the river walls and the fish begin their tales

por El Dia de Recuerdo, when the voice of God

which once said Transcend and then said Expand

is finally now saying Wow in an American creole

both mystical and clear speaking through history‚s anesthesia

I came to my feet at the Wall Street station and walked towards the door

like a reluctant witness to the witness stand

The crater recalled a lonely planet, a pockmarked moon of ridges

and man-sized valleys, earth movers, dump trucks and cranes,

a priest kneels in the powdered ash, the rescue stops

for the holy ghost and the angel of death to cross paths,

someone calls for the jaws of life: earth  water  fire air

The sky, Ellington blue, pours over the harbor, black smoke curling

into its soft watercolors mixing those burning isms

into a mute and inscrutable beauty

I stood citizen-to-citizen three rows deep

A man flipped through the Daily News, matching pictures to the scene

A couple in a doorway argued hop hop versus R & B in time like these

they look up from their ideologies to agree Mercury must be retrograde

A woman to my right worried a flag the size of a handkerchief,

the kind you get at the fairgrounds, and Yes, Little Emmett Till came to me,

a face that long ago cured my faith in that schoolboy lyric

so that I could no longer since with the voice of praise O beautiful for spacious skies

I walked the Avenue of the Americas, past the photocopy gallery

of the missing and the dead mounted on buildings, in store windows and lobbies,

posted on police barricades along the streets

I searched for familiar faces and found a few, but the names were wrong

Yet I knew them all by their fictions: the lighthearted Capricorn

from Seven Hills playing with her cat on a Crate & Barrel sofa,

the Hindu newlywed who immigrated from India to the golden city,

Nestor, the brother of Milagros, menacing the lens ringside at the gym,

a Miss Trinidad look alike caught in a calypso on Eastern Parkway,

and a pensive man in one of his moods red black and blue at the root

I could see my own anonymous face in that show, cut and pasted

above a word or two about my love

of swimming in the ocean and my taste for sentimental ballads

where what is missing and gone is half the song

I drowned in a flood of burning jet fuel

Down was looking like up when I jumped with my brains on fire

I ran from the falling tower and wandered for days

I heard a montuno y quaquanco calling from miles away

I followed horse trails through secret pathways

E pluribus unum  I went home and wrote history to the bone

I have been written

 

Intersections: e pluribus unum with Sekou Sundiata

I. Poetry, wearing the time worn hat of Memory, called me to witness  

Almost as soon as the news of the attacks reached me, I began a struggle for language. Not poetry, just language that could help me figure out what I was experiencing. Last week, I gave a keynote speech at a conference called Intersections: Future Aesthetics. The conference was organized by Roberta Uno at New World Theater at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst. In the speech I talked about the need to address the future by acknowledging some new realities that have been long in the making, but that were formally introduced on September 11th. And, I recounted the story of my whereabouts (literal and figurative) during that time to set up the reading of this untitled poem.

I was in the hospital on the morning of September 11th, having been admitted through the emergency room a few days earlier. For some reason, they put me in a private room so unless I had visitors, it was just me and the television, the news. I was washing up and had trouble getting out of the gown so I buzzed for assistance. But no one came. Finally, I went out onto the ward to get help. But the unit was bustling with the business of changing shifts. It was like standing at a crowded intersection at rush hour. A fresh team of workers from housekeeping, maintenance and food service was coming in with new doctors, nurses and physical therapists . . . all setting up for the day. The overnighters were on the way out, relief and fatigue written in their faces. I decided it was too busy, so I went back into the room and the news was reporting the first plane attacking the tower. I went back into the hallway and told one of the nurses about what I had just heard. She spread the word, and soon my room was full of people, watching in silence as the second plane hit. People drifted in and out of my room between the news and the beginning their workday until the towers collapsed.

This memory is vivid in my mind because it set the tone for my struggle to respond. I knew that at the time of impact, the activity in the World Trade Center probably resembled the shift change at the hospital, involving working people like the ones who crowded into my hospital room: immigrants; Christians; maintenance, security and food service workers; Jews; professionals; midnight shifters; Hindus; Muslims; atheists; people who just happened to show up. And if they were not all Americans before, they became Americans by virtue of history and its flames . . . which is to say, it could have happened, it can happen to any one of us.

No sooner had the terrorists hit their targets than my telephone began to ring.  The “lost army of protest” calling me to read poetry at rallies, calling on me to denounce US foreign policy.  The emails came streaming in as if they had just been released from call waiting: angry poems, fighting poems, anti-imperialist poems, peace poems. But I didn’t have a poem. I couldn’t organize my thoughts with the kind of certainty being demanded at that time. For me, it was a given that Malcolm X’s words upon Kennedy’s assassination in 1963 was a penetrating blues scripture that could be carried over to The Year of Our Lord, 2001: the chickens have come home to roost.

BUT, I WAS TROUBLED BY A DEEP AMERICAN FEELING THAT ROSE UP IN ME SEEMINGLY OUT OF NOWHERE. AND IT HAD NOTHING TO DO WITH RED, WHITE AND BLUE.

But, I was troubled by a deep American feeling that rose up in me seemingly out of nowhere. And it had nothing to do with red, white and blue. It was a feeling that I had not known since I was a kid, when my views were whatever views my parents held. They were democrats, so I was a democrat . . . even though I couldn’t vote. They were afraid of communism, so I was afraid of communism. I had thought this feeling had been hyphenated, manipulated and betrayed out of my consciousness back when I got my first Afro, overthrew the Negro and called myself black. Yet, there was a spot with my name on it at the protest.  

The protest was over there, and I was over here, in a less clear, troubling place . . . along with most of the people I knew, with so many of my students, with the lost and the sufferers. I don’t mean that in any noble or self-righteous sense. I mean that the Left seemed irrelevant and unconcerned about the well being of ‘the people.” And I was feeling like I was one of ‘the people,” as opposed to some warrior-poet or prophet set aside by ideology or self-appointment. 

There was, no question, a need for political mobilization, to oppose the madmen who wanted to drag the world through their cowboy fantasies of conquest: we’re gonna’ get the guys that knocked over those buildings, hunt ‘em down, smoke  ‘em out, get ‘em running. But there was also a need for the Left* to put forward what it is for, to demonstrate all the humane possibilities of what it could mean to be an American. But it didn’t, and it couldn’t. Because it does not know.  

Sometime in the early Aftermath, the students at the college where I teach organized a teach-in, and they invited me to speak. Up to that point, I had been passing on those kinds of requests because when the organizers say they want a poem they really want a speech. They don’t want reflection, contemplation and pensive silences; they want answers. I didn’t have either. But I decided to participate in the teach-in and to speak from wherever I was at the time. (This was quite a distance from the poems of my undergraduate days, which went something like “if anything stands between you and freedom, burn it down”).

On the subway going to the teach-in, the train stopped near Ground Zero. Something told me to get off the train and go to the site to see for myself. As much as I dislike the term “ground zero,” there is something compelling about it and its origins in the Cold War era. The dictionary defines it as the site directly below, directly above, or at the point of detonation of a nuclear weapon. It conjures ideas about total destruction, an end point and a starting point. I have come to think of it as what the critic Stephen Henderson called a “mascon image.” “Mascon” is a term he borrowed from the jargon of the US space program meaning “massive concentration of energy.” He was setting forth a critical theory of black poetry at the time, but I have found other uses for the term over the years.

THAT HOLE IN THE GROUND WAS MY SUBPOENA. THAT AND POETRY.

There are many mascon places throughout the world, some of them commonly recognized, other not. Sites that are highly charged with political, cultural, and spiritual energy. In the case of known sites, they may become places of ritual enactment or remembering. In other cases, the sites are waiting to be seen by the seers and transformed into useful ritual spaces. We could call them Intersections. Ground Zero. A potential source of interlocking narratives that shed light on the future. But this is all hindsight. I wasn’t thinking about any of this when I got off that train. The power of the crater was enough, in and of itself. That hole in the ground was my subpoena. That and poetry. I know it sounds romantic to say that it was poetry that told me to get off that train, nevertheless I believe that poetry, wearing the time worn hat of Memory, called me to witness. Five months later, I started working on a poem. It is still in progress and still untitled.

IT SEEMS THAT I AM BEING FORCED TO CONFRONT, TO IMAGINE, TO INVENT WHAT IT MEANS TO BE AN AMERICAN . . . AGAIN. FORCED TO THINK ABOUT WHAT IT IS THAT MAKES US DIVERSE, BUT ALSO WHAT IT IS THAT MAKES US ONE. AND WHAT DO I MEAN BY “MAKES US ONE” ANYWAY?  

Here’s how the story of my visit to Ground Zero ends. I went to the subway station to catch an uptown train to the teach-in. The station was in a remote location and it seemed to be empty as I started down the stairs. I could hear footsteps coming up the stairs and towards me. When I turned to go down the second set of steps, I saw and Arab man coming up. He passed without looking at me, and didn’t say a word. All you could hear was our footsteps. The faces of the Al Queda suspects who hijacked the airplanes and carried out the suicide missions came into my mind in the fashion of a police photo book. Something told me that this guy had just planted a bomb in the subway, and that it was going to go off as soon as I got down the stairs. The odor of melted steel, concrete dust and week-old underground fires where heavy in my nostrils. I stopped and told myself I would be a fool to walk any further. I turned to see the man standing street level at the top of the stairs. He was looking around to one side then the next. I started to walk back up the stairs when I got a good look at his face. Suddenly, he became a Puerto Rican. I laughed that “funny, but it ain’t funny” laugh at myself, went downstairs and caught the train. 

I am a life long New Yorker. I grew up with close ties to my family’s roots in the South, but I am a New Yorker . . . which is a very involved and contentious identity. I am bound to the land, to the city, the streets, the cityscape, the neighborhoods, the people, the languages, the waterways, the open spaces, the corruptions, the driving habits, the impatience, the sudden flashes of brutality and unexpected flowering of kindness, the racism and poverty . . . all of it. As a kid I used to play at the Polo Grounds, the home of the New York Giants. And I could see Yankee Stadium from my living room window. I have been eating Puerto Rican and Cuban food, Italian and Indian food, Japanese and Chinese food ever since I was a teenager. I used drugs and sold drugs on those streets. I went to jail on Rikers Island. I joined the revolution on the campus of City College. I always understood that these things, and more, made me a New Yorker. I didn’t understand until the Aftermath, that they also made me an American. I didn’t understand until I saw the flames from the burning towers and smelled the smoke from the crater that you could see from miles away.  

I have been trying to get at this American feeling that surfaced in me. My writing life began from the outside looking in. I wrote as the un-American American. That’s how I think and feel to this day. But that feeling is complicated by the Aftermath, and it will have implications for aesthetic choices I will make It seems that I am being forced to confront, to imagine, to invent what it means to be an American . . . again. Forced to think about what it is that makes us diverse, but also what it is that makes us one. And what do I mean by “makes us one” anyway?

I began answering that question by noticing a number of transactions took place in that short period of time on those subway trains. The most important to me was how willing I was to flip the script. How the profiled became the profiler. How the victim became the victimizer. What if he was Puerto Rican but had greeted me with Asalaam Aliekum, papi? Now that I’m feeling all American, what kind of American am I going to be? What’s that song from back in the day?   

paranoia strikes deep   

into your life it will creep   

it starts when you’re always afraid   

step out of line the man comes   

and takes you away   

stop, yeah what’s that sound?   

everybody look what’s going down  

What kind of intersection was that?  

 

II. Earth, water, fire, air

Earth, water, fire, air — what I call in the poem essential energies — have been on my mind for a few years. I am on the up side of a prolonged personal battle with illness, disease and injury. And for several months I have been working on a one-man performance piece based on that experience. So much of what went on during this period came down to essential energies: blood, minerals, chemistry, respiration, metabolism and so forth. The rest of the world fades into the background as these basic things come up front. They take center stage with an undeniable force and presence. Not just for me, but for all of the patients I met. Whatever titles we wore, whatever categories we attended to or praised, were qualified by our hospital gowns and I.V poles. An absurd and poetic unity of possibility.

I guess that I felt there was this same kind of unity in the experience of the attacks and the Aftermath. It is a kind of awareness that war sharpens and heightens in a ways that peace has not . . . yet. Or, put another way, we don‚t know what peace can do.  

III. Past and present: the terrors leading to the terror 

As an incurable insomniac, New York City is a dream catcher if there ever was one. But everybody thinks their dreams are different. And they are. But they’re also the same (Blue Oneness of Dreams).** This dream life includes memory and history and their ghosts. In the poem I refer to it as the underlife. I believe that this underlife animates the city day to day, moment to moment, as much as its conscious life. The city would be impoverished and unsustainable without its ghosts, without its history. And that history is in and on the buildings, in the neighborhoods, in the rock and soil beneath the streets, and it’s in the people. Although it is an underlife that is largely out of view and forgotten, it is active. It initiates and mediates; it petitions and it spills its guts. It wants to be reckoned with.

It is a kind of awareness that war sharpens and heightens in a ways that peace has not . . . yet. Or, put another way, we don‚t know what peace can do. 

There are aspects of that underlife that are like the so-called phantom limbs of amputees that have a felt presence even though they are no longer there . . . having been cut off from the dominant narratives that guide the city. In the poem, I try to suggest these “phantom limbs” with images of secret pathways and street gangs and burial grounds. But New York is also a city of Now, a fast paced, ever changing Now. So, the habit of power has been to build and layer over its memory. The marketeers will sell nostalgia, but nostalgia is an airbrushed memory without consequence. For me, there was something about those towers being razed and brought low that implied not only the moment but the accumulations of moment that led to the event. The terrors leading to the terror.  

On the flip side, that section of the poem reminds me that the city is also a microcosm of a civilization. A very particular place that is a repository of memory for the country — a mascon site. I’m saying all of this, but really the image of the crater brought up the idea of the descent of the Now and the Next to the level of the past . . . maybe there is some notion of necessary reconciliation coming out of that but it’s not so evident to me right now. 

IV. An American synonym for nothing

“Wow,” is a thoroughly American, consumer-size bite of sound that, on good days, speaks to wonder and mystery. On most days, Wowism reduces very complex, incomprehensible happenings to a cynical pop denominator. I guess it sits in for silence. So, suppose God spoke American and whereas God might have told Thoreau to transcend and Timothy Leary to Expand, the message now is Stop! Behold!

The truth is, it just had the ring of something when I wrote it. It could be an American synonym for nothing.  

V. Hate is jealous

Ground Zero. Yes, I do believe that hate, as a characteristic quality of the human heart as it has evolved so far, is thoroughly at home in America. Hate, it seems, is jealous and does not like Americans to stray too far way from its embrace. And maybe it is most jealous of not love, but of indifference, complacency. And takes them as invitations to reassert its passions. I think the indifference of this country to the rest of the world and its complacent attitude towards karmic justice, so to speak, should be evident to most conscious people. Hate, though, is an all around opportunist capable of moving in subtle, unexpected ways. Just when the speaker-as-citizen is bearing witness, the flag triggers memories of domestic terror, bitterness and hate.  

VI. I have been written:  ultimately it is about moving forward

In the final stanza, through the “exhibition,” the speaker is compelled to push past history towards an encounter with the victims in a personal, compassionate way. In spite of the hate triggered in the previous stanza, he is forced by virtue of the bits of humanity conveyed by the photos and captions to cross the lines of difference, anonymity, history and propaganda. He discovers that he “knows” these people, especially the man who is “red, black and blue at the root.” I guess the ways in which their stories were written in those photocopy biographies also spelled his life and dreams, even the simple one of having a job to go to on Monday morning with the expectation of returning home safely at the end of the day. That was one of those common prayers I heard in church when I was growing up, Lord, bless our comings and goings. Thank you for waking us up and putting us to sleep. In this sense, the much betrayed Latin phrase written on our money, e pluribus unum (from many, one), is something he is willing to contemplate for real meaning. 

 … IT IS STILL AS SEARCH AND NOT A DISCOVERY  

The list at the end is a mix of images from the conscious world of the attack and the underlife of the city. It is a culmination of experience in the unity of past and present. It is for me, the speaker, a heightened consciousness through which all of this comes together. For all my talk about the past here, it not a matter of going back and starting over. There is some idea about reclamation, but ultimately it is about moving forward. What are the images and the verse for this necessary kind of heightened consciousness? I think many poets have been searching for that already, but it is still as search and not a discovery.  

Not only is the poem unfinished, the present ending is unsatisfactory to me. I’m not even sure that it doesn’t want to be a longer poem. Something tells me if I find a way to end that stanza, I’ll know whether or not the poem goes on. By the way it tastes and smells and, most of all, how it sounds.     

 *I realize that I am being nostalgic and generous when I talk about Left these days. I am using it generically to refer to a broad and very loose amalgam of people and organizations that were born in the Cold War and, for the most part, still live there.

**Title of Sundiata’s first CD


Photo by Jana Leon

Photo by Jana Leon

Biography from ALLMUSIC
by John Bush

Sekou Sundiata was one of New York's most intelligent and gifted poets of the African-American consciousness. A native of Harlem who taught English literature at the New School for Social Research, Sundiata became quite a performer in his own right as well, usually leading a band on frequent club dates reminiscent of June Jordan, Amiri Baraka (Leroi Jones), and Quincy Troupe. Sundiata began writing for the musical theater, and premiered The Mystery of Love in 1994, with songwriting help from Doug Booth. The duo also teamed up on Sundiata's debut album, The Blue Oneness of Dreams, with Booth contributing both songs and his soulful vocals to the project. The album was released on Polygram in 1997; A Long Story Short followed in early 2000. The following year he joined Ani DiFranco on her "Rhythm and News" tour, all the while continuing his professorship in the writing program at the New School. Sadly, in July 2007 Sundiata passed away due to heart failure.