Books Review

Vantablack, by Ciona Rouse (Third Man Books, 2017)

Do Not Attach To Yesterday’s Bones


Vantablack is a lab-synthesized pigment of the color black: the pigment is so unique in its blackness that to the viewer it achieves actual depth, giving the impression that you can reach your arm right through it. It absorbs almost 100% of light in the visible spectrum. In 2016 a cadre of visual artists bickered over the exclusive rights to the pigment: one painter claimed sole ownership and flat-out refused to make the color available to anyone else. Another painter invented a very-pink pink and refused to let the owner of Vantablack use it. Since then, painters have invented slightly differing versions of it. As a chapbook that reaches just under 20 pages, Ciona Rouse’s “Vantablack” deals elegantly with the abrasive and convoluted world of this visual dynamic in her own life - the racial, the gendered, the gaze that carries myriad internal narratives. 


Early in “The Poet Posing Nude” Rouse directs:


     Be not black. Only.

     Be orange and green

     and brown, which is purple. Be blue.

     Be line and the down slope 

     of shadow around your torso.

     Be not torso.


In the ruminating opening poem, Rouse erases the notion of a body that is only a body, a color that is only one color, and the notion that blackness can be lived by one life, embodied by one body, or spoken about with one voice. The infinite complexity of living, and being in this world, seems to require the simultaneous embrace of all that one is and the liberation from what one only is. Furthering this mantra down the page, Rouse speaks from a quiet position of stoic wisdom:

 

     Let your shin shine 

     your skin electric. But

     be not skin. Be not tendon.

     Do not attach

     to yesterday’s bones.


Every single human being must discover or invent anew the degree of grace, and strength necessary to endure and accept what the world can do to them. What a person does at that point is how they are. This highly personal first collection opens itself right in front of us, and in Rouse’s world, in the world of Vantablack, these harsh events are taken in, flattened like a pop-up book in moving through them, and transformed into something somehow communicable, graceful, breathable.


 


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As a beginning, an outset position, the above, and below will function as a further digestion of the work.


Firstly, a beautiful book, as all Third Man titles are, an object in its own right, and, as such, an essential part of the reading experience. An all-black cover, the title of the book in a darker black, spatially configured to behold and process. Not unwieldy, a chapbook indicates a degree of accessibility and directness, the passion, and fervor of the sprinter with just as much finality, and certainty as having the end always just ahead. The first of their chapbook series, Rouse’s precise, and emotive language is done a great service by this.


The first and second poems, “The Poet Posing Nude” & “Black Bodies (Vantablack)” work towards this visual dynamic, as stated above, as well. They do well in tandem, both complicating and enshrining the chapbooks’ primary goal of an articulation of blackness - specifically in this visual domain -


     Be obtuse

     angles. Be round at your core.

     Be crowned at your core.


Jean-Michel Basquiat had this functionality in his visual work as well, a main symbol and fixture of his street art was the crown. Rendered in his primitivistic, aphoristic, frenetic, syntactic depictions of blackness, the ‘canvas’ carrying the load of narratives of blackness, and black bodies was his reference to this complexity. The social syntax of the larger metropolitan New York, and its penetrations by lower-middle class artists providing a hefty portion of the cultural expansion outside of the highly fruitful capitalist economics there, was a friction so embedded in his visual work that pigment was a fundamental to its criticism of redefinition, and complication. Gold, and bodies almost always painted in black with white, internal cartographies, were at the center of his depictions, as were clunky, mechanistic assemblages of what seemingly are ‘the system’ or the larger tiered structure of class (or those things embodied), and I’d say a certain, but ferociously abstract existence of class and quality of life, predicated upon, of course, racial dynamics in the city, and in general as they were experienced in his life.


In “Experiences of Yellow” two girls collect sunflowers, and dandelions from a field, unaware that one of the flowers is also classified as a weed, but more than that - unaware of the existence of weeds entirely:


    Mother’s smile--

    half full, half clinched, not because

    she half liked the dandelions,

    half flower, half weed, but

    this is just how she smiles:

    forever holding back the something

    always roaring behind her teeth


To me, these packed third & fourth stanzas deal with a lot. First the adolescent immersion in, and their interaction with, the seemingly uncomplicated world of the natural garden. How unencumbered that world portrays itself, in the poem up to that point, and to the girls pulling flowers for their mother. Is she mother to them both? In summoning a simple division, a divergence, we see manifold divisions: Mother’s smile, for one. Then “half clinched” - not the mouth? or the mouth + the flowered hand? So we have “Mother” + at least one of the girls. Then we are given the capacity to “half-like” as a complication to the binary of “like” or “dislike” (that carries it’s own culturally reified divisions - “good/bad”, “just/unjust”, “moral/immoral”, “black/white”) of this quantitative interpretation of something valid, or of worth. And, again, this treatment of rage, the existence of rage undeniable and always present, with calmness, with mature pace.


What this third-into-fourth stanza yields most evocatively to me, and as a means of capping this phase of the poem, is a reckoning with the once esteemed practices of the “One-Drop Rule,” (first adapted as law in Tennessee in 1910, and by which a single drop of non-white blood was said to be enough to signify you as non-white - how they could determine that in 1910 I don’t know) and the arbitrary mathematical formulations utilized to determine whiteness (and humanness) in some states during the antebellum years of the US. Fractions became the semi-legal (not federal) manner in which a person was defined as such, and, and only then were they afforded rights, and the abilities to have land, be married, vote. I hardly ever think of math, and when I do it disorients me, but this axis in the poem seems to hold this disorientation as its goal - mathematically speaking. The trauma is still there, but with all these halves being weighed, and attributed what can we make of the result? What outlasts the equation is the background radiation of “something roaring”, and the processing of it. 


From Aime Cesaire’s “Notebook of a Return to The Native Land”:


     Then I turned toward paradises lost for him and his kin...and there, rocked by the  flux of 

     never exhausted thought I nourished the wind, I unlaced the monsters  and heard rise, 

     from the other side of disaster, a river or turtledoves and savanna  clover which I carry 

     forever in my depths height-deep as the twentieth floor of the  most arrogant houses and 

     as a guard against the putrefying force of crepuscular  surroundings, surveyed night and 

     day by a cursed venereal sun.


 

These two cross sections of struggle, blackness and classicism, are intricately interrelated and maintained by that same apparatus of power, those in power. Rouse’s book deals less in that broader socioeconomic or cultural maelstrom that finds its voice in equally chaotic language (Basquiat’s paintings often employed cryptic - even to a poetry readership - text that accompanied the visual, and I feel these to be less summary or closing statement, and more another level or sheath of the aim of the visual sphere to which it is affixed), and more in the uncluttered interpersonal, employing a concise, memoiristic, oratorial vernacular from which is distilled a sense of complete genuineness, and feeling. These are poems that embrace the central and peripheral feeling of an interaction as they attempt to supplant the cerebral.


“Experiences in Yellow” finishes:


     You are very

     pretty, she said, for a

     dark skin girl.

     She has no brown

     paper bag

     but still put me in 

     my place

     high yellow

     high brown

     seal brown

     low brown

     dark brown

     way down


     black.


We have the prose style narrative mark of dialogue, “she said,” and with it the certainty accompanying biography. The resistance to an act of obliteration, putting someone in their place when that place isn’t a place but a position of worthlessness. As sure as the sun shines, equating one’s self to the natural and as valid as anything in nature despite applied redefinitions from man. Registering the impotent superficiality of a purely visual determination of worth when applied to something to define it as worthless, and a turn towards the internal with the repetition, breaking from the structure and utility of outright storytelling and compacting the line in quoting one’s self almost, as in a moment of both deep hurt and deep self-reassurance, self-empowering. During which another equation works itself out with our arrival to black, the conclusion yielded from the poem’s summed, and endured parts.


One of the most stirring access points into the charged, traumatic real (as it was, and as it occurs again in autobiographical foreground of Vantablack) is the process of reframing, and reinterpreting memories, and the surreal, dysphasiac experiences of adolescence. Each poem that deals with this intimate process involves a child or children, and, in this loaded tier, vulnerability tied to adolescence tied to malleability and susceptibility, is this dramatic rendering that we observe as if at theatre, and yet are able to accept as entirely factual. At once removed these events of past, given distance and sight from that distance. 


Rouse, in these re-tellings deals with memory in conjunction with youth (and their relation & proximity to, or dependence upon, the pliable, connotative memory of youth - “When I was a child I spoke as a child, I understood as child, I thought as a child” - Corinthians, 13:11), and seems to say these are the dormant, formative moments whose shape must be reformed, whose interpretations relensed in order to gauge the probable causes, and repercussions of the events scrutinized. These moments are pushed out of their dormant, dioramaic spaces, and repurposed into tutorials on developing humanity or humanism in teleological for the jolting events they actually are: experiencing “Drive-by’s,” “A Former Child Soldier,” “Discrimination”:


     you look


     down and say no

     but only to the dark skin

     girls, you say no you don’t 

     get to play here


     You remind them

     of the last wide-nostril girl

     with cornrows for hair


     how she tried 

     to climb, you remind

     them you kicked her


What is real, perceived as real, what is maintained as real, in the collection is the activity of play, or act, or the young behaving in a manner that is absent of cognizance, of the causes for, the reasons for, or the repercussions of their actions. So this behavior acts as a mirroring, and as improvisational too. Mirroring of the social mechanisms in their world (formal/societal customs, law, government), the domestic (children most often see their parents exemplifying archetypes within gender, or via their parents certain beliefs or notions are normalized, and practiced), and put into practice in their own experiences with children around their home, at school, and in the company of their parents. “Oh, Mickey” enacts a first sexual encounter carried out in secrecy, all while the parental command of wisdom is destabilized, thus emphasizing, and loading the first-hand experiential as an essential source of independence, and the space in which testing of inherited concepts is played out. 


“How a Child Explained the Drive-Bys” is the most formally inventive poems of the book, 

three separate columns splay horizontally across the page, and act upon each other, coaxing varying readings out of the entirety. The first, left most stanza details a child’s incomplete awareness of the scenario of a drive-by whilst handling a Barbie, and the section assumes a degree of horror because of it:


     She can

     pop the head off

     whenever she wants. This is

     how she plays house.

     There is never 

     a shot fired

     never hitting the carpet in

     fear


The major movement is in this reformulation, how management of objects, and situations is an adult certainty (or true or abstractly true - the conditions or reasons for it being so are unseen or unknown). The second, middle stanza holds a brief moment acting as if dreamscape, or re-imagining of the situation as if directed by a parent who doesn’t, won’t, or can’t quite explain the brutality, and danger of the event taking place:


     long

     &

     low

     kiss

     the 

     ground


The third section has an omniscience typically attributed to parents by children (especially their own, and this is the moment of extension into a moral dimension, of moral responsiblity of that authority) as the reader receives a distinction between “life” and “real” life. Again, the written  seems focused more on enactment as a means to explain the event, which requires an admission of the actual danger present. What it also does, and this is a coursing revelation present throughout Vantablack, is peel back an inactive layering upon the once settled, and defined term of 'play,' of the who, how, and why of it:


     But they can’t know

     how to save her

     from all of the things.

     Shrapnel: dreams. Play means

     there are no children

     here.

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