Nor is my house a house nor is myself a self in the way they mean one occupant of one place called a body” (“Assembly,” 7)
After all of this, what we are left with are poems and language that want us to consider the people and relationships under whose shadows we live. In this collection, Holiday’s father casts one of these shadows. His presence and absence leaves an indelible mark through the collection - it is in his name that some of the most straight-forward poems take place. But Holiday is not solely concerned with writing towards a lost parent; she is exploring the totality of becoming someone or something through who and what intersects with your life.
Most of the poems in the collection are prose poems, and those that are not take the look of prose poems, with long lines collected in paragraphs, almost as if the language can’t bear to be placed in smaller lines, constricted by line breaks. The poems are dense, unrelenting as their language tries to uncover what happens when you can’t be who you are--as an artist, as a woman, as a person--without BEING who you are--a daughter, a lover, an ethnicity.
Like I’m symbol so that I have become competitive with my history” (“Like I’m Simple,” 12)
Holiday’s “history”--or any of our histories, for that matter--is not just personal. She is not just speaking of her father, and she readily engages this in the poems and also in the naming of the collection (Negro League Baseball). In the very explicit afterword, Holiday explains, “I am afraid to evoke the word jazz which has become vapid and spangled through overuse and misuse (over-meaning), so I use the safest analog game, baseball …” Of course, the word jazz may not have been used directly, but its weight throughout the book is clear--the cover of the book is a photograph of Big Jay Neely on stage, surrounded by a white audience of fans, the inside book flap speaks of the great bassist Charles Mingus’ liner notes, and of course, the inclusion of the audio CD.
But the bigger point is that both jazz and baseball have become expanded beyond their dictionary definitions. As two of the most globally influential American productions (as the essayist Gerald Early noted, “I think there are only three things America will be known for 2,000 years from now when they study this civilization: the Constitution, jazz music, and baseball”), jazz and baseball have come to be symbolic of so much more, almost too much more, and they change depending on their context and our approach. Do you think of jazz as a music enthusiast does? As a dancer does? As the daughter of a jazz musician? What is different in how a young boy living in Venezuela and a middle-aged white man living in Kansas think of baseball?
What belongs to you and what belongs to the world, is not so easily separated out, particularly when you are an artist and attempting to create both yourself and your art simultaneously. Holiday explores the interplay between the personal and the persona; the struggle to define but not be defined is a tension throughout the book. The idea of a public and a private space itself is overturned. In “A Series of Events Linked by Casualty,” Holiday opens with:
Some public things are so steeped in an imagined privacy that we keep forgetting to be, when trite is a fitness that stylized grief does not heal or resists healing, severenceless, maybe but you are not alone because you are not with me I can’t read the line on the subway graffiti about ‘you are the man you are my other country’ over and over without perceiving a belligerent ecstasy I left my seat like losing it but to be over-near-you illusion of profit the one who said (75)
The way ‘public’ is overturned by ‘imagined privacy,’ the confusion of ‘alone’ and ‘not with me;’ the movement from an intellectualized, mental space into the physical, public space of a subway -- it becomes overwhelming, and quickly turns into loss.
But love and loss are not so far apart, and as we grow to understand this, both become more nuanced, but more unavoidable, more true. This negotiation of loving, of losing and of being in that space in between love and loss, is what drives the collection. Each poem straddles memorializing and mourning. Each poem becomes a hopeful aspiration to capture something lovely, something loved. As Holiday writes, “If I come to love you but don’t believe in conclusions, there you will be again” and then in the very last lines of the collection:
So if I had never met
anyone but you,
I would have known which way to go.
(“(Afterward) Notes on a Letter to the Singer Abby Lincoln from Her Lover, Abraham Lincoln,” 86)
It’s that feeling of being led astray, not by the things we love but by the loving itself. But even if it comes crashing down afterwards, it was still there at one point, and wasn’t it beautiful. ~AVW