Thursday, January 03, 2013

In Memoriam + Poem: Jayne Cortez

Jayne Cortez (1934-2012), has passed away after a long illness. She was a original among the Black Arts Movement poets, as likely to wield striking, surrealistic yet vernacular images as invoke nationalist credos, though sometimes, as with a poem like the infamous "Race," she could also serve up half-baked homophobia with the best of them (Amiri Baraka, Everett Hoagland, etc.). Nevertheless, Cortez's larger oeuvre, even in her first book of poems, also included a distinctive feminist strain that challenged the misogyny that sometimes underpinned the ethos and cultural production of her black male peers. If she did not do it through direct critique of their hypermasculinist rhetoric and practices, she did articulate a vision grounded in the firm belief of aesthetic, political and social freedom for black women, and more broadly, the equality and liberation of all woman, all black people, and all oppressed people, in the US and across the globe.

I saw Jayne Cortez perform her work several times during my youth; she was one of the poets who always seemed to be doing her own thing while still keeping tune with the choir. She performed with musicians but it didn't feel perfunctory or staged. I appreciated that. I appreciated her cool, her poise, her love of and invocation and embodiment of jazz in its multiple dimensions, her lightness of spirit and spiritual depth, her commitment to the struggle, which is ongoing. I appreciated how she deployed language as if it were something fun, but also dangerous as a weapon. I liked how she avoided editorializing through wit and artistry. I don't know that I fully appreciated her poetry then, but I have grown to understand and appreciate it much more now, and to appreciate its influence on several generations of poets who followed her.

Here is a poem that captures some of what I have been speaking about above, with a healthy dose of humor included. Enjoy, and RIP, Jayne Cortez (with condolences to your family, including your husband, artist Mel Edwards, your ex-husband, Ornette Coleman, and your son, drummer Denardo Coleman):


I am New York City

i am new york city
here is my brain of hot sauce
my tobacco teeth my
  mattress of bedbug tongue
legs aparthand on chin
war on the roofinsults
pointed fingerspushcarts
my contraceptives all

look at my pelvis blushing

i am new york city of blood
police and fried pies
i rub my docks red with grenadine
and jelly madness in a flow of tokay my huge skull of pigeons
my seance of peeping toms
my plaited ovaries excuse me
this is my grime my thigh of
steelspoons and toothpicks
  i imitate no one

i am new york city
of the brown spit and soft tomatoes
give me my confetti of flesh
  my marquee of false nipples
my sideshow of open beaks
 in my nose of soot
in my ox bled eyes
in my ear of Saturday night specials

i eat ha ha hee hee and ho ho
i am new york city
never change never sleep never melt
my shoes are incognito
cadavers grow from my goatee
look i sparkle with shit with wishbones
my nickname is glue-me

take my face of stink bombs
my star spangled banner of hot dogs
take my beer can junta
my reptilian ass of footprints
and approach me through life
approach me through death
approach me through my widow's peak
through my split ends my
asthmatic laughapproach me
through my wash rag
half anklehalf elbow
massage me with your camphor tears
salute the patina and concrete
of my rat tail wig
face upface downpiss
into the bite of our handshake

i am new york city
my skillet-head friend
my fat-bellied comrade
break wind with me 

Copyright © Jayne Cortez, all rights reserved.(

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