Sunday, May 8, 2016

Michael S. Harper (March 18, 1938 - May 7, 2016)

Why have I spent more time this year writing in and on grief, than I have generating rain? These days have been spent wading water, flexing my left arm in fear that it will go numb, singing alone. In the state of mind and mood I'm in I don't know what to write or with what eloquence I might summon a healthy recollection of this poet—this man who pulled me by the scruff of my neck back from the precipice of oblivion.

Oh, Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Sinnerman, where you gonna run to?
Where you gonna run to?

Michael S. Harper did that. He saved my life. In the fall of 2011 I had the opportunity to study with Professor Harper (he went by MSH in his correspondences). He was teaching a course called Master Poets, Apartheid Streets. I felt lucky to have this chance, to sit at the foot of the great poet. He was a marvelous raconteur. I spent much of that semester trying to shake off demons—until I was too tired, nerves too frayed to keep running from things and people in pursuit.

Well I run to the rock, please hide me
I run to the Rock, please hide me
I run to the Rock, please hide me, Lord

So I went home for winter break, wildly dissociated and impossibly morose. I needed to begin again, because my world had broken, my language for things had come unhinged and I too saw myself drifting in the void. Uncertain of who I was. Afraid of people. Sincerely unmoored. Untethered. But that semester, studying with Michael gave me a small piece of terra firma. He gave me life. He encouraged me to continue working on the Broome Street Review and sent me emails/notes always coaxing me back to life, back into the possibility of my becoming. Perhaps most relevant in his teaching were the reminders that my life, our lives, black lives, are not an afterthought. That each of us should know what we want, what we need, what we deserve, and pursue these things without fear or shame. Michael S. Harper lived and worked out of an ancient temporality—a time-space not grounded in the American ontic, but carried along lines of a seemingly cosmic consciousness. He might go on and on for hours connecting the dots between things and people I had once considered disparate nodes and this was his power, his magic. The way raptors circle high in the sky, the preciseness of their vision, their extra receptor for the color no human naturally perceives—Michael could see, I think, in this quasi-oracular way. And this was also frightening for me. Because it was always very nearly approaching the truth that I had just begun to taste.

But the rock cried out, I can't hide you
The Rock cried out, I can't hide you
The Rock cried out, I ain't gonna hide you guy

In my struggles that semester I had begun to realize (anew) the hostility this world has to offer "young and black". In fact I began to see and bear witness to the structural position of blackness as that which undergirds the actualization of normative sociality. Of course we "know" this inherently. We "see" it at all stages in our lives. But until you sit inside of this blackness. Inhabit this blackness...Bear witness... Everything tastes like ash when you know this, finally. Everything. But there was Michael. A man of grace, elegance, sophistication. Also a man whose hawkish eyes might pierce the complacency which governs a self-satisfied life. To be so incriminated by his gaze was to recognize your own complicity in this, the structural oppression, and acknowledge the limits of your own moral and ethical sense. I knew he was always with me. He made certain to remind me that he was my ally in all things. That his fighting spirit was also my fighting spirit. But he couldn't, despite his power, protect me from the violence and fungibility that undermines and overdetermines blackness.

I said, "Rock, what's a matter with you, Rock?"
"Don't you see I need you, Rock?"
Lord, Lord, Lord

I suppose if what I needed or wanted was protection, Michael offered a kind of safe haven for me. It was when I sat with him in office hours that I realized the unique temporality he occupied. We sat speaking so long that I had to stop him and ask if he'd eaten. No, he had not. I went to get him a salad while, without pausing, he invited another student inside. How he rapped interpersonally was a revelation. He was so honest and so damn funny. I won't even go into some of the things we discussed because we kept it 100. But mostly he was loving. A protector. A man who loved this thing we call Jazz—who admired the poetic possibilities of Lester Young's predilection for foul language. A man with stories of experiences of happenings and events. A man with heartaches and confusions. A flawed man, but a man aware of his failure—and being so aware, a man who never failed to try again, try harder. In this respect, one of the most thoughtful people I will have ever met. 

So I run to the Lord, please hide me Lord
Don't you see me praying?
Don't you see me down here praying?

But the Lord said, "Go to the devil"
The Lord said, "Go to the devil"
He said, "Go to the devil"

We exchanged gifts at the end of the semester. I was falling apart and he was groaning with old age, but sharp and steady as ever. I gave him my signed copy of Toni Morrison's "A Mercy". She'd signed it for me at the 92nd St. Y and I thought it the only thing that could possibly express my gratitude for his guidance. He returned a sheaf of my poems with commentary and added a sheaf of his own. He signed for me a copy of his collected and gave me some recordings, two CDs. CD's that I would fall asleep listening too when the ghosts came too many at a time to deal with. 

So I ran to the devil, he was waiting
I ran to the devil, he was waiting
Ran to the devil, he was waiting
All on that day

I cried, Power

I wonder, everyday, what it means to debride oneself from trauma. Michael's poem Debridement tries to sing after the violence of the Vietnam War. 

Debridement: The cutting away of dead  
or contaminated tissue from a wound  
to prevent infection.  

And on this Mother's Day, it is also a meditation on the mothers who suffer(ed) for their sons. 

Mama’s Report 
“Don’t fight, honey, 
don’t let ’em catch you.”  

I think debridement was his life's work. To uncouple oneself from the embedded remnants of trauma, remnants that threaten to infect, to rot—that threaten to take the entirety of a life. That need to heal wounded territories, whether corporeal or spiritual, he made his labor. I am grateful to Michael for taking the time to pull splinters of shrapnel from my wounded spirit. He was this healing presence for so many. And more than that, a fierce advocate for justice, for the reparation which is itself the debridement of our trans-atlantic wounds. He reminded me that I am a man.

So I ran to the Lord
I said, "Lord hide me, please hide me"
"Please help me"

He said, "Child, where were you
When you ought a been praying?"
I said,"Lord, Lord, hear me praying"
Lord, Lord, hear me praying
Lord, Lord, hear me praying"
All on that day

Once, in a dream, he sat in conversation with my (white/italian-amer) grandmother (Eleanor) and I just listened. What is there left to say? What is left to say is perhaps the fact of his poetry. The immensity that I could never myself say or explain away in grief, in sepia. Listen to him, as I listened to him, as a child sitting at his feet. Hear this beautiful introduction by my friend Renee Neely (a marvelous writer herself). Find his work (or let it find you).

Begin to debride.

"Brother John" from Dear John, Dear Coltrane

Andrew e. Colarusso

No comments :

Post a Comment