October 2023

The Steiny Road to Operadom | Karren LaLonde Alenier | www.scene4.com

Make Way for the Dirt

Karren Alenier

Hybrid books proliferate now. Hybrids are mix genres, for example poetry and essay, poetry and photography, poetry and autobiography. The Steiny Road Poet starts with poetry because that is her prejudice, but it could be fiction, letters, or something else. It used to be that no publisher, even the independent small presses, wanted the hybrid. It was hard to promote and sell. Booksellers didn't know where to put it on their shelves. We authors were told that mixing was unprofessional.


Now it seems that poets who want to get name recognition and build their reputation need to write books of essays without abandoning their ties to poetry. Dark-Days-Cover-crTake for example, Dark Days by Roger Reeves. On August 16, 2023 Steiny heard Reeves read and be interviewed by cultural historian Martha S. Jones at Loyalty Bookstore in Washington, DC. A casual flip through the pages of Dark Days might seem that this is a standard book of essays in prose format. Closer examination yields "Instructions for the Underground" which is appended to Reeves essay "Notes on the Underground." The "instructions" are suspiciously lineated like poetry, sound like poetry with rhymes and alliteration, and lack the logic of instructions with its contradictions. For example:




:Play spades.

:Read books.

:Bake cakes.

:Fuss, fight, fuck, and carry on.

:Make mistakes.


:Open the underground to others.

:Close the underground to others.

:Be here uncomfortable and be comfortable in it.


Another point is that the words of these "instructions" are scripted in upper and lowercase CAPITAL letters—there are no lowercase letters. Steiny thinks this choice matches the way the subpoem titles of Gertrude Stein's long poem Tender Buttons are always supposed to be scripted according to Seth Perlow's Tender Buttons:Corrected Centennial Edition.


Reeves also has included photographs—one of "Our Angel of history" (a little Black boy with a serious gaze) that opensDark Days and four that close Dark Days of the first cinematic kiss by a Black couple filmed in
1898. While Stein never put images of her painted Picassos inside with the text of her books, she lived and breathed them, using Picasso's cubism as her model for writing Tender Buttons.


Reeves' essay "A Little Brown Liquor" with its opening line, "If you play with dirt, it will get in your eyes" made Steiny take notice. Dirt comes up frequently in the first two sections of Tender Buttons.


Here are selected dirt quotes from Stein's Tender Buttons:


In Objects:

It shows that dirt is clean when there is a volume.

from "A Substance in a Cushion."


If lilies are lily white if they exhaust noise and distance and even dust, if they dusty will dirt a surface that has no extreme grace, if they do this and it is not necessary it is not at all necessary if they do this they need a catalogue.

from "A Red Stamp."


If the chance to dirty diminishing is necessary, if it is why is there no complexion, why is there no rubbing, why is there no special

from "A Chair."


In Food:

The change the dirt, not to change dirt means that there is no beefsteak and not to have that is no obstruction, it is so easy to exchange meaning , it is so easy to see the difference.

from "Roastbeef."


A can experiment is that which makes a town, makes a town dirty, it is little please.

from "Cake."


Alas a dirty word, alas a dirty third alas a dirty third, alas a dirty bird.

from "Chicken."


Here are selected quotes referring to dirt from Reeves' essay "A Little Brown Liquor":


"1…I was raised to eschew dirt of all kinds—especially the dirt of the body, carnal dirt—that of worldly or secular music, the music of Michael Jackson and the Beastie Boys, the type of music that might get up inside you…your body dancing next to another…a brush of silence and collision of want and belonging, what you might call holy…Luther Vandross's voice now lifting above the smoke, steam, and the liquor, which you were also supposed to eschew, but Lord, the liquor, got you in your body, got you right and Luther's pushing you toward the soft part of the night, which is like a mouth, and there is a mouth on the other side of the darkness…I don't want to do this guy I'm seeing dirty,' but Lord we're here in the dirtiest part of the night, which is also the clearest and the cleanest if you let the liquor tell it…"


"2 Dearly Beloved, Black life is a constant improvisation on what it means to be human, which is to say dirty."


"5…the linguistic expanse of Black life, the dirt and the divinity of it."


"7 Dearly Beloved, in our playing in the dirt and dirtiness of the intellectual life of Black folks, …turn your attention and your Bibles to the signifying, cakewalking pleasure-practice of Zora Neale Hurston, the hoodo-ist of the hoodoo of the Black vernacular, a Negro-ologist who annotated and sometimes annoyed the Niggerati,…who collected the bones of our knowledge often left in the dust and the dark of our exile on these North American shores."


"8 Dearly Beloved, this signifying tradition of playing with dirt and letting it get all in your eyes is jumping like kangaroos not only in Hurston but in the work of the dirtiest of the dirty, the coldest of the cold—them brothers Outkast."


Steiny pauses here to note a mixed genre approach in that most of the sections of Reeves' "essay" begins with Dearly Beloved making "A Little Brown Liquor" a sermon to a community gathered for spiritual guidance. Next, Steiny suggests that the Gertrude Stein quotes containing the word dirt, or some variation, point to contradiction, misunderstanding, diminishment, outside the norm, difference, corruption, condemnation. However, dirt is not always a negative. In "A Substance in a Cushion.", Stein writes, "…dirt is clean when there is a volume." Perhaps this happens when growing vegetables or flowers. Perhaps this uncontaminated state (and let's not ignore that clean can mean free from dirt) occurs when a person has ownership of land and therefore a place to belong.


What Stein does with dirt is abstract but applicable to her secret and forbidden relationship with her lover Alice Toklas, while what Reeves does is specific to his situation as a Black man in America. His language rings in the ear and beats in the body like our hearts because it is the language of poetry. Both Reeves and Stein make music with their words but Reeves makes it visceral by referencing musicians. He is attuned to the world of popular music like the hip hop/rap group Outkast or the late crooner Luther Vandross.


Like Stein, Reeves mixes high and low culture. He references, in close proximity, the Bible and cake-walking. Cake-walking is a dance devised by African slaves that both entertained Southern slave masters while simultaneously but surreptitiously making fun of them. Reeves was brought up in a Pentecostal church, so mixing holy scripture with dancing is a dirty blasphemy and indicates how metaphoric dirt takes on contradicting associations.


Other characteristics in common between Reeves and Stein are: irreverence, absurdity, talking poetically in tongues, a tendency to start with sonic inspiration, use of color symbolism. Most of these characteristics can be spotted in the examples provided. Affinity to land is one trait Steiny wants to discuss more specifically.


Dirt makes up land. However, land for both Stein and Reeves concerns where a human being comes from. The ancestries of both Stein and Reeves are tied to lands outside America, specifically across the Atlantic Ocean. Stein's father Daniel was born in Bavaria, Germany. Her mother's family also immigrated to America from Germany. Reeves matrilineal ancestors were kidnapped from Africa and made slaves in America.


A short glimpse into the importance of land in Stein's writing can be seen in the above quote from "Cake.". The quote begins "A can experiment is that which makes a town." Here's Steiny's two cents: a can experiment as in I am able to do something (can do it) equates to a philosophic thought experiment. (An aside here, Stein was taught by philosopher William James and throughout Reeves' book of essays, he makes references to philosophers and philosophy.) Stein's quote goes on to say: A can experiment is that which makes a town, makes a town dirty. The word town derives from the Old English tun meaning: enclosure, garden, field, yard; farm, manor; homestead, dwelling house, mansion. The repeated phrase makes a town with the appended word dirty means substantive as in solid, as in an expanse of land filled with dirt like a field. Two more cents from Steiny is that town connotes a place where people congregate, where people belong. If one were to read the entire subpoem "Cake.", one would see this sentence: "A little leaf upon a scene an ocean an where there, a bland and likely in the stream a recollection green land." Notice the words ocean and land. Steiny could spend more intellectual currency here, but she will leave that up to you, Dear Reader. But one more point, Stein spent most of her life living in France because she knew her beloved America would never accept her neither as experimental writer nor as a lesbian.


In section 5 of Reeves' essay "A Little Brown Liquor," he writes about a slave (Henry 'Box' Brown) who mailed himself from Virginia (where he was enslaved) to Philadelphia (where he could be a free Black man). Here's the complete opening lines of section 5:


"5 'How can property [i.e., Box Brown] steal property
[himself, a slave]'? This question animates the ironic dynamic of not only Black life in America but also the linguistic expanse of Black life, the dirt and the divinity of it."


This question how can property steal property gives teeth to the concept of real property. The legal definition of real property (synonymous with real estate) is land, and anything growing on it, attached to it, under it, or built on this land. Plantation owners could not run their estates without slave labor, real human beings attached, sometimes literally, by chains to the land. Such management—slave -based labor—was considered an economic necessity by the plantation owners. Ironically for Reeves as a Black man of the 21st century, one asset that makes a Black man in America whole is attachment to the land, that is land called the United States of America. The question then is the Black man in America American? For this, Dear Reader, Steiny returns to "Notes on the Underground" to ponder this quote from that essay:


America has refused us our very lives. Why wouldn't we go underground? Why not seek refuge in nowhere? Because the truth of the matter is our freedom resides in this nowhere, in this invisibility. Our freedom is invisible—not because it doesn't exist but because it has yet to be achieved.


Thus, the country of Roger Reeves' birth—America—is stealing his birthright: the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness because as a Black man he is still held captive in that old life as a slave and by those old attitudes that made Black people less than the White Founding Fathers.


Lots of gravitas in Roger Reeves new hybrid work Dark Days from Graywolf Press and, yes, it takes some effort to fully appreciate this lyrically written meditation on living in America as a Black man.




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Karren Alenier is a poet and writer. She writes a monthly column and is a Senior Writer for Scene4. She is the author of The Steiny Road to Operadom: The Making of American Operas. Read her blog.
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