Kimberly N. Brown: from "Of Poststructuralist Fallout, Scarification, and Blood Poems: The Revolutionary Ideology behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez"

I borrow the term "scarification" from the title and revolutionary message behind Jayne Cortez's second book of poetry, a product of the Black Aesthetic Movement. Scarification can be interpreted in two ways: (i) in terms of the scars left by oppression, mental as well as physical scars, and (2) as ritualistic tribal markings that define not only the people to whom you belong but also the place. The referential grounding of oppression can have theoretical implications if we consider Valerie Smith's comments: "The conditions of oppression provide the subtext of all Afro-Americanist literary criticism and theory. Whether a critic/theorist explores representations of the experience of oppression or strategies by which that experience is transformed, he/she assumes the existence of an 'other' against whom /which blacks struggle."

Cortez theorizes from her scars by speaking on behalf of third world people from the simultaneous vantage points of both spokesperson and sister worker. Her poetry focuses on the abuses third world people face collectively: the exploitation of their labor, their bodies, and their land. Cortez also undercuts the notion of an academic theoretical hierarchy--as seen in her poem "There It Is," which serves as a perfect example of how she uses poetry as a space through which to filter notions of upheaval.

Cortez writes:

My friend they don't care if you're an individualist a leftist a rightist a shithead or a snake They will try to exploit you absorb you confine you disconnect you isolate you or kill you.                 (Coagulations 68)

Scarification does not mean that we should ultimately define ourselves through oppression; instead, it attempts to validate the real-life pain that oppression can cause for the African American subject. Scarification theory serves as a ritualistic invitation to marginalized critics/theorists to assert actively their simultaneous presence as both individuals and as part of a collective within the theoretic arena. Scarification theory is born out of the Black Aesthetic Movement's desire to acknowledge the materiality of African American existence and the poststructuralist notion that each person is a social constructions blending of time, circumstance, environment, religion, ethnicity, gender, and sexual preference. In this respect, testimonies of oppression or personal experiences in general become historicized. Scarification, then, recognizes that both the nature of oppression and the marks that oppression leaves behind vary.

. . . .

The poetry of Jayne Cortez is about blood and revolution. Informed by the language of the Black Arts Movement, Cortez stands as proof that all has not yet been said about theories of the black aesthetic. Speaking as both "one of the people" and spokesperson "for the people," Cortez proudly asserts her commitment to speak always through her scars to reach others who have also participated in the ritual. Academics and teachers of "theory" and black literatures should not regard a commitment such as this as antithetical to the goals of the academy. If multiculturalism is true to its definition, theories that validate the various experiences of marginalized people should be readily accepted. If we are truly to heal the wounds of the past and not fall prey to the romantic language that poststructuralism often espouses, we must lessen the gap between the academy and those who exist outside of the ivory tower.

As Cortez's fifth book of poetry, Coagulations, reminds us, scarification is about blood, revolution, and, most of all, healing. Coagulation is the clotting of blood--the start of a healing process--and we can envision Cortez's poetry as a "clotting of blood poems." Blood poems could then be taken racially to mean poems that were concerned with the blood connection of blacks and their subsequent uplifting--an attempt to soothe and yet remember the scars left by oppression. Blood poems could also indicate that the commitment to the uplift of blacks is part of our heritage, passed down from "blood" to "blood" (meaning sister to sister, brother to brother, sister to brother) through the bloodstream, through the blood that was shed by our ancestors, from generation to generation. Seen in this respect, the theorist/critic who theorizes through scars is not being naive but rather is fulfilling a legacy. And if we don't accept this responsibility as African American theorists, what will we do if "they" come cracking the whip again? The past repeats itself if we do not learn from history. The message behind Cortez's blood poems is that if we adhere to the heritage in our blood the artist within all of us will openly acknowledge what it means to be black in America--to learn to endure and overcome oppression; brother will not beat sister and sister will not be afraid to draw blood to save her own.

Details

Title Kimberly N. Brown: from "Of Poststructuralist Fallout, Scarification, and Blood Poems: The Revolutionary Ideology behind the Poetry of Jayne Cortez" Type of Content General Poet Criticism
Criticism Author Kimberly N. Brown Criticism Target Jayne Cortez
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 28 Jun 2021
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication Other Sisterhoods: Literary Theory and U.S. Women of Color
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