Karen Ford: On Cortez's Poetry

For most of the women who came of age artistically during the Black Arts movement and who were tutored in the Black Aesthetic, the struggle to create a place for themselves in the literary environment was arduous. Giovanni, Sanchez, Rodgers, Evans, Amini (Latimore), and countless others, who published one or two bombastic poems and were never heard from again, frequently retreated to some form of conventional femininity that was almost as disabling as the overbearing masculinity they sought to escape.

An exception to this pattern and a harbinger of future developments in African-American women's poetry is Jayne Cortez. She published her first volume of poetry in 1969 and produced a book every few years until 1984. In 1976, when the Black Arts movement was past its prime, Stanley Crouch singled out Cortez for praise in an otherwise negative assessment of the period:

During the nationalist promenade and the charade of ineptitude, the very shoddiness of which was supposed to breach a "revolutionary" standard, only one female poet was consistently interesting to me, and that one was Jayne Cortez.... [In her work] there was a passion and an ear for melody and the manipulation of sounds and rhythm units that smoked away the other contenders for the crown, revealing their entrapment in a militant self-pity and adolescent rage more akin to tantrums than the chilling fire and evil of someone like Bessie Smith, the super bitchiness and dignity of a Billie Holiday or a Dinah Washington .... Jayne Cortez is, then, the real thing.(99)

Crouch not only reappropriates "fire" from the Black Arts movement in order to redefine it (the "chilling fire" of the blues queens is superior to the "adolescent rage" of the militants) but also reestablishes the vital link between contemporary black poetry and the older tradition of the blues. Crouch rejects the militant claim to have superseded the blues and instead recognizes the revolutionary potential of the blues singers' bitchiness and dignity.

Indeed, Cortez herself will make much of these traits. Dinah Washington speaks in "Dinah's Back In Town" (Pisstained Stairs, n.p.) and asserts the dignity of bitchiness:

I wanna be bitchy I said I wanna be a bitch cause when you nice true love don't come into your life.

In "Phraseology" (Scarifications 23), she makes bitchiness a formal principle of her poetry:

I say things to myself in a bitch of a syllable ... completely savage to the passing of silence.

Savaging silence--violently expressing her concerns in an environment that discourages female expressivity--is certainly the result of Cortez's use of excess.

In her first book, Pisstained Stairs and the Monkey Man's Wares (1969), Cortez's excess appears to be in service of Black Arts values. In "Race," for example, she vilifies gay black men for betraying the race in betraying their "manhood":

[His] tongue hangs low with loose diseased pink pale dying flesh between his gums suffocating in farts & howling like a coyote in the wind his bent over dedication to the grunting demons that madly ride upon his back flying high his ass tonight swallowing sperms of fantasy.

The poem blames internalized racism for this "lost tribe of whimpering sons" who can only create "A Race called Faggot." These confused sons, who have repudiated their mothers in turning away from women, must be slaughtered in order to "bring a revolution on." The pitch of desperation, both thematic and formal, reaches a peak in the closing couplet, where the speaker calls out to black fathers (who, by virtue of having "fathered" these sons, have demonstrated their masculinity) for help: "Oh black man quick please the laxative / so our sons can shit the White Shit of Fear out and Live." The association of heterosexuality with liberation, the homophobia, the sexual bluntness, and the excremental imagery all signal adherence to the program of the Black Arts movement in 1969.

However, while Black Arts excesses continued to inform her style, Cortez increasingly brought these stylistics to bear on a wider range of concerns. By 1982, well after the heyday of the new black poetry, Cortez was deploying such excesses against misogynist men, that is, against the very sort of man whom these excesses formerly valorized. In "Rape" (Firespitter 31), the style is the same, but the names have been changed to expose the guilty:

What was Inez supposed to do for the man who declared war on her body the man who carved a combat zone between her breasts Was she supposed to lick crabs from his hairy ass kiss every pimple on his butt blow hot breath on his big toe draw back the corners of her vagina and hee haw like a Calif. burro.

The poem answers these questions for us by allowing Inez to shoot her rapist; then Joanne, another rape victim, stabs her rapist with an ice pick. The poem celebrates the "day of the dead rapist punk "--a far cry from poems that had urged militants to "Rape the white girls.... Cut the mothers' throats" (Jones, "Black Dada Nihilismus" 41).

In 1971 a Cortez poem, "Watch Out" (Festivals and Funerals, n.p.), had warned about the "bitter," "neglected" woman, "her tongue working out like a machete." By 1982, in a poem like "Rape," we begin to get a sense of this warning, of what it will mean for women to use their tongues in their own defense. Cortez never retreated from the excesses of the Black Arts period, but she trained them on an entirely new subject matter. She did not accept the misogyny of the movement; rather, she turned those aggressive stylistics back on the culture that had glorified violence against women and others as a means of exerting its limited power. Cortez was able to discern the continuing relevance of Black Arts excesses because she was able to distinguish the potent stylistics from the paralyzing subject matter. The other Black Arts women writers abandoned formal excess when they became dissatisfied with the militant posture; Cortez, however, found new and important uses for excess. Not all of her poetry employs these excesses; in fact, her strength lies in her range of poetic resources. But Jayne Cortez provides a literary link between the dignity and bitchiness of the earlier blues queens and the empowered voices of the later black feminist poets because she was able to deploy excess without being silenced by it.

Perhaps the reason Cortez escaped censure even though she used excess to expose the oppression of women, as in "Rape," is that the men targeted by her excess were white. Inez's rapist is compared to a "giant hog," suggesting pink skin, and Joanne's rapist is explicitly called a "racist." But in the mid-seventies, with the women's liberation movement giving expression to concerns that had previously been unspeakable, African-American women writers began to include black men in their analysis of gender problems. To do this, they would employ the very excesses that had troubled black female poets a decade before. Ntozake Shange would be the most prominent writer to reappropriate Black Arts excesses and deploy them against black men, but she would not be alone.

Details

Title Karen Ford: On Cortez's Poetry Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Karen Ford Criticism Target Jayne Cortez
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Jun 2021
Publication Status No Data Publication Gender and the Poetics of Excess: Moments of Brocade
Printer Friendly PDF Version
Contexts No Data Tags No Data

Rate this Content

General Poet Criticism
No Data
Use the above slider to rate this item. You can only submit one rating per item, and your rating will be factored in to the item's popularity on our listings.

Share via Social Media