I Juke The Apocalypse: Teaching “Gravity”
Let’s face it. I’m a marked woman, but not everybody knows my name.
I don’t always open the workshop by saying this is one of the most important poems of the 21st century when I’m about to teach Angel Nafis’s “Gravity” but I could, and I do sometimes, because it is. In a cultural moment where students have an ever-expanding ensemble of terms to describe their experiences of alterity (micro-aggression, fetishization, anti-blackness, appropriation), but not always the tools needed to deal with the way interlocking systems of domination affect them in their everyday lives, Nafis’s poem strikes me as an instrument for living, a special resource for those of us trying to sustain a kind of life in a place we were never meant to survive. Whenever I ask the students what’s happening in “Gravity,” i.e., where the heat is, they invariably talk about not only the astonishing beauty of the language, but also how the poem feels, to them, like the best version of what they wish they had said in a moment of racist or sexist encounter, what they would say back to the people and institutions that have made them feel small, monstrous, insignificant over the years. We talk about the titles of each of the poem’s two sections, how the relationship between “The Straw” and “The Camel’s Back” extends even beyond the popular idiom. We all agree that the eponymous “straw” of the poem’s first section is indeed the last straw, the straw that broke the camel’s back. But then there arises, almost immediately, this question of what a camel’s back might signify all on its own. Adrian says that the camel’s back is an illusion if you think about it and I don’t know what he means at first. He goes on to say that a camel’s back both is and isn’t what it looks like, that what you imagine is only flesh or bone is actually this deep deep reservoir the camel calls upon for life in the harsh climate it calls home and that maybe there are other things like that too. Maybe there is always this caesura between the infinite perceptions mapped onto us in a given day and what we feel is most true about ourselves. And perhaps those perceptions—rooted as they are in systems that do not love us, systems that cannot apprehend us fully by their very design—are not worth our energy. They merit analysis, for sure, but not investment. Not belief.
Oft times, the moment of micro-aggression is one that forecloses response, shutting down our capacity to react to the slight that occurred only a moment ago, often because we are still reeling from the surprise of it, its sheer absurdity. “Gravity,” I would argue, gives us a vocabulary for those encounters. By the time we get to the second section, a radical revision of the worldview presented in the first has taken hold. The seemingly endless flow of casually antagonistic monologue which constitutes “The Straw”—the result, in part, of Nafis’s refusal to give the reader even a brief respite in the form of punctuation or white space—is overturned from the underground, upended by the agility and lyric force of the first three lines of “The Camel’s Back”: “When you born on somebody else’s river in a cursed boat it’s all downhill from there. Ha. Just kidding. I’d tell you what I don’t have time for but I don’t have time. Catch up. Interrogate that. ” Sarah says this is her favorite part of the poem, and that turns into a conversation about joy and playfulness, in the face of unrelenting terror and aggression; how it is even possible to move so swiftly from the violent language of “The Straw” to the joke that opens “The Camel’s Back,” this refusal of black life as tragedy, as emptiness, as the story of a people born(e) on a cursed boat, suspended in nothingness. In response to the vitriol that serves as our entrée in the world of the poem, the speaker laughs. Each “ha” doubles as both a break and a kind of musical accompaniment, a beat to transport the reader from image to image, each more surreal than the last, a breath to rest while the speaker elaborates upon what their splendor makes of the world. One might assume that the speaker would want to respond directly to the voice behind “The Straw,” to assert their humanity in the face of such unrepentant degradation. But they don’t have time for all of that. And indeed, it is in this very refusal to respond, this unwillingness to answer to the language of white supremacist ideology, that so much of the poem’s power lies. At a certain point, we come to see that the poem isn’t really about the speaker in the first section at all. They appear and are quickly forgotten. They can catch up later. They can try. But they’ll never be able to keep pace with the speaker of “The Camel’s Back,” never keep track of the fugitive possibility the speaker carries in their wake. For once, they are not here to be interrogated. They are here to talk about beauty, about blackness, about blackness as a kind of beauty that has the capacity to transform the lived environment: “I’m here and your eyes lucky. I’m here and your future lucky. Ha. God told me to tell you I’m pretty. Ha. My skin Midas-touch the buildings I walk by. Ha. Every day I’m alive the weather report say: Gold.” In “Gravity” blackness is that which alters all that it touches, the un-thought, unseen force holding the world together.
At the close of the session, I have the students think together about what it means, and costs, to assert that we are more than the destructive language we have inherited. As a class, we give our oldest, most resilient shames to the page, re-imagining scenarios in which we were objectified, derided, and did not feel as if we could speak back to the voice condemning us. Time and time again, I have seen students emerge from this exercise with poems that lifted the entire room. Lyric assertions of their own beauty, brilliance and strength, pages upon pages of counter-history filling the table in front of us. This is the sort of social and political work a poem like “Gravity” makes possible. A language for our fullest selves; an elsewhere in which we can be defiant, together, unabashedly alive.
Link to "Gravity" by Angel Nafis:
Joshua Bennett hails from Yonkers, NY. He is a doctoral candidate in the English Department at Princeton University, and has received fellowships from the Callaloo Creative Writing Workshop, the Hurston/Wright Foundation, the Josephine de Karman Fellowship Trust, and the Ford Foundation. Winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series, his poems have been published or are forthcoming in Beloit Poetry Journal, Callaloo, the Kenyon Review, Women & Performance: a journal of feminist theory and elsewhere. Penguin Books will publish his first collection of poems, The Sobbing School, in 2016. Joshua is also the founding editor of Kinfolks: a journal of black expression.