Memoirs of a Superfan, Vol. 16.10: Assassin. Abattoir. Academia. America. The Poetry of Truong Tran and Terrance Hayes.
By Ravi Chandra
December 30, 2021
“Power is the ability to define reality and to have others respond to your definition as if it were their own. The most important reality to define is the meaning of one’s own human beingness.” – Dr. Wade Nobles
Who are we? Who are we in relation to others? As Rodney King asked, “Can we all just get along?” What prevents us from getting along? Individualism, competition, rivalry, antagonism, jealousy, hatred, factionalism and discrimination by race, gender, sexual orientation, disability status, nationality, religious belief, etc. – can we leave these behind for collaboration and mutual uplift? How else will we survive? How else will our deepest human values survive? Isn’t interdependence and all that flows from it our deepest human value? As darkness turns to light in this second winter of our plague years, I’m looking for signs of renewal, hope and transformation. But I must first face the darkness, and the depths of the failures of relatedness. I have company, and guides, in the works of Truong Tran and Terrance Hayes.
Gold. Frankincense. Myrrh.
The legendary Magi, the Three Wise Men of the Orient, gave these gifts to baby Jesus. Gold, to crown him a king. Frankincense, to honor his role as a priest and teacher, or, as some write, recognize him as the “son of God.” Myrrh, to anoint him in death.
I was actually one of the “Three Kings of Orient” in my high school’s Christmas pageant, alongside Black and Persian American classmates, our ethnicities paralleling the actual Magi. I soloed a stanza of the classic song. “We Three Kings of Orient Are – Bearing Gifts We Travel Afar!” Was I the King bearing gold? Feels like I’m more of a myrrh guy. Memory is sketchy. I don’t know what feelings the Magi developed over the years following their journey to the manger in Bethlehem, but I feel like I’ve gone from idealizing Jesus and setting my hopes on him; to feeling deeply betrayed by him and the self-centered, megalomanic delusion he inspired in his “Empire”; to cultivating compassion for him in the ways he suffered, and the ways his consciousness continues to suffer in the world we inhabit, as well as inform and distort it.
Gold can go to your head. It is a problematic weight. Maybe a whoopie cushion would have been a better choice. “Don’t take yourself or the world too seriously, kid.” Learn to let go. Give people space to find themselves.
I interpret the gifts of the Magi as the gifts of common humanity. Gold, for the wonder and possibility of being born a sentient being. Frankincense, to honor all the ways we might serve and help each other. And myrrh, because we all suffer and die. And of course, Jesus didn’t experience just death, but excruciating torture and grisly, painful slaughter. It was a lot to lay on that baby. It’s a lot to lay on any of us. This baby wasn’t promised safety and well-being. None of us are, even if we are welcomed into this world. Many of us are not welcomed, and live precariously from our first breath. Historical trauma is revisited in all the ways we are lashed and persecuted by an uncaring world. Even executed.
However we deal with this lot, we must deal with this lot. And COVID times have been a stark reminder for most of us that we need each other’s help to deal with our lot in life; that our lots are bound up with the lots of others. And also that a significant number of us are unwilling to help us carry our communal lot. So humanity carries a cross to Calvary, facing death, feeling forsaken by god and unconscious man. “Forgive them, Father, for they know not what they do.”
In this way, Christ’s story has “hooks” for all of us. Any person with a glimmer of conscience and goodwill might see their “souls” mirrored in the life and death of Jesus. And we long for resurrection. Any person who has fallen onto hard times longs for a savior, a transcendent hero or heroine to lift them from dark night into day, hoping for the magical help “that cometh from the hills.”
Someone help me. Someone save me. Won’t someone cut me a f#*king break?
From these universal longings, experiences, exasperations, and anguishings, we have divided into factions. Some cultivate compassion, relationship, and insight to deal with vulnerability, precarity, difficulty, and distress. Others remain mired in suffering. And some have taken the path of power and privilege, callous towards the needs of others. Scornful. Judgmental. Mocking. Cold. Distancing. These folks fight the fact of human connection and the reality of interdependence, because connection to them means subordination, and they see themselves as Kings and Queens, above the rest. “As long as suffering doesn’t directly affect me, why should I care? And if the suffering hurts my ‘enemies’ more, then I’ll make it worse.” At the very least, they refuse the calls of conscience. No room at the inn. Betray truth to save their skins and line their pockets, three times before the cock crows.
You might call these factions Teams Frankincense, Myrrh, and Gold, respectively. I imagine that Jesus had a hard time wrapping his mind around all three gifts, and still does. And we’re all having trouble wrapping our minds around the three teams. We are bursting and bickering at the seams. “We three teams disorienting are – bearing hefts we travel afar!”
We suffer, some more than others. We care about our suffering, and often don’t know what to do with it. At best, we care about others’ suffering, and help them with it; and this helps us suffer less. Some stop caring. Then apathy, hatred, and distancing become…assassination.
An apathetic society becomes a society of assassins becomes an abattoir.
bell hooks knew. Toni Morrison knew. Audre Lorde knew. These three wise women knew, along with all the wise ones.
“[T]o survive in the mouth of this dragon we call America, we have had to learn this first and most vital lesson – that we were never meant to survive.”
– Audre Lorde, The Transformation of Silence into Language and Action.
We’ve got to start talking about the fourth Magi. The one that brought coal. The “gift” of blame. Scapegoating. Demonization. Othering. Criminalization. Physical, psychological and spiritual incarceration. Character assassination. Soul murder. Murder itself. Obliteration. Here are more “hooks” in the story of Jesus for anyone who’s faced abusive power that is, as yet, unwilling to be accountable.
What we do with the gifts of coal and myrrh are perhaps our most central narratives in life, if we can bear to face them.
Poets Truong Tran and Terrence Hayes face the grim abattoir of America in their work. To read and absorb their messages is to grow in awareness, and strengthen our hands against the rigged judge, jury and executioner that is racism, baked into White American consciousness since 1619, and into the history of the West ever since Whites made their first contacts with people of darker skin.
When will the White, Western world stop giving the gift of coal to people of color, to anyone who suffers? When will they stop assassinating us?
And will we, the othered, forsake each other? Take flight from conscience, consciousness and feeling? Lose our souls in pursuit of shallow whiteness?
Can the abattoir become an arena of understanding?
“what is enough. how will I live. what is enough. how will I live.”
Truong Tran asks these questions in his stunning new book of “essays, prose, poems and antipoems,” and in the movie I made last year with him and analyst/artist QiRe Ching. They are the universal questions of the burdened, the hunted, the unsafe. The questions asked in precarity. Questions of life consciously and constantly facing negation. Questions of life in an enantiodrome made to degrade, abuse, and kill. We are assassinated by the absence of possibility, the voiding of sustenance and support for body, mind, and soul.
Poet and author Bhanu Khapil writes in her trenchant and incisive introduction: “Imagine the room of stop, the architecture of no you don’t.” Echoing Lorde, she asks “how do you survive what is not meant to be survivable?”
Truong is an incredible teacher and poet. To learn from him is to be transformed. But despite his humanity, despite his talents, dreams, and insights – or perhaps even because of them – he has lived in the enantiodrome of negation. He documents the academy’s enantiodromic workings on him and his career in the book of the other: small in comparison.You cannot dismiss or resist his dispatch. Herein lies a specific, but pervasive and recognizable tale of how he and we are affected by systems that center and empower Whiteness, robbing us of life and the chance to make a living. These systems deny us our human dignity, which only deep relatedness can restore, manifested here by Kaya Press’s support of Truong’s writing, as well as by a community of friends who have propelled the book to a nearly sold-out first run.
I finally was able to take a course with him through Kearny Street Workshop early in the pandemic, shortly after the murder of George Floyd. Those six weeks of “Navigating Poetics” in the summer of 2020 took me and my classmates to our broken places, and brought out light and insight. Truong interlaced the methods and aims of visual artists with poetic craft. He helped me receive and translate my personal experiences with racism into some of my best and most painful work to date. (The class reader is linked in the video in which I read one of those poems, “mudfire,” appended at the end of this article.)
the book of the other is a letter of sorts, addressed to “dear white.” Too often the White, academic gaze is of observation, distance, discussion of craft and form, and dismissal of “identity politics” – not of self-implication and interrogation of complicity in the workings of the infernal machinery of casual, back-of-the-hand, algorithmic, soul-killing rejection of BIPOC humanity, wholeness, and critique of Whiteness. This book is not a performance or entertainment. It is an indictment. When the system chooses against us, and that system has demonstrated time and again its bias against us and for itself, what can we do but bear witness? And turn the lamp on those who would rather remain hidden and controlling powers? The truth must out. We must demonstrate what their bias has done to us and the world, deadened to equity, equality, liberation, and the possibilities of life.
What happens to us when we are caught up in the devaluing designs of others? We lose the power to speak, to be heard and seen, to narrate our own lives.
To lose the power of narration, to be mis-narrated, is probably one of the greatest offenses of relationship and society. Other people will write your story, will write you out of your own story, even as you’re living it. It is a primal offense, a symptom, a deep scar, and unhealed wound. In the beginning was the word, their word, which became our sentence. This is the assassination, the abattoir, that vulnerable peoples face in a dominant, narrow culture of power and profit. Who wouldn’t lash out when their voices are being strangled from them? Teresa Hak Kyung Cha fought back, though she tragically lost her life. Truong Tran fights back, to regain it.
Devalued, dismissed, gaslighted, we turn from individuals into faceless, formless, forgettable objects, discarded like cord wood gone wet, moldy, and bad. But Truong’s words will start a fire in you. A signal fire, perhaps, or a slash-and-burn.
What happened to Truong in the institution is banal, callous, infuriating, thoroughly annihilating, and familiar. I have been in similar situations, with little or no redress or aid, the underling in the underhanded and cold workings of power. One gaslight we face: “bad things happen to you because you deserve them.” You’re not good enough. You did something wrong. You are something wrong. You are to blame. Not the “precious white.” Not their idols. Not their Gods. Not their systems of power. Not those whose power comes from never admitting their flaws, never saying they are sorry. Naked Emperors insisting on our shame.
Truong writes here in pithy, staccato, lowercase gut-punching sentences, punctuated only by periods. As he told Muriel Leung:
“My tools for writing the book, or one might even call them my weapons of choice, were the use of the period as a singular and deliberate gesture of punctuation. I wanted it to be disruptive, physical, relentless. I wanted to punch my way out of this book and out of this subject with the period. There are moments in the book when the period feels rapid and almost bordering on an enacted violence, and at other times, it feels lazy and tired. This is because the book and the writing became true to my nature. I was tired, exhausted, and feeling defeated by the subjectivity of racism. The period held that consciousness for me in those moments in the same way that it enacted my desire to break some shit in other moments.”
He hones in on the experience of being passed over for a tenure-track position three times in a dozen years, and all the feelings connected to this experience. He was rejected in favor of White people who were either related or otherwise connected to the chair, and in one case, possessing only a bachelor’s degree and no teaching experience. This is raw, painful material, 15 years of living, still hot-in-the-hand.
He says his constraint was “honesty,” and he almost entirely eschews the metaphor. One of his students, a Black man, once told him that metaphors were a luxury that he could not afford. This constraint allows him to aim his scalpel-pen directly at the people and systems that have injured him. I read the book in draft form over a year ago, in preparation for my movie, and read it again upon publication, slowly, a little at a time, over the course of 10 days. I had to let the words and experiences sink deeply and resonate with cavernous depths where some of my own parallel experiences lay silenced and dormant. He writes of being wrongly accused, as a child, of stealing a measly $5 from a neighbor. His mother smooths things over by giving the neighbor $5. Something similar happened to me when I was 12. The White boy next door lost his gold Superman-insignia ring. A day later I found it, in the cracks of a sidewalk. I returned it, joyfully, thinking I’d done a good deed – only to be accused of being a thief. I already felt less than, for reasons of family and confused racial identity in America. This was another proof of having an invisible target on my back. It was bewildering: how to disprove such a suspicion? Naked Emperors insisting on our shame.
Truong’s writings on shame have influenced my practice of psychotherapy:
“this shame. this weight. you tell yourself that this is not yours. to carry. and yet you carry it. up a hill. this sack of rice. this shame. its weight. you carry it as metaphor. until one day. you are reminded. by someone. that the metaphor is a luxury. You cannot afford such luxuries. you eat the rice. you swallow. the half cooked grains. of someone elses. shame.” (p. 72)
I now ask three questions about shame:
“What is that shame protecting, in your own ideal self-concept?”
“What is the cost of this shame?”
And, based on Truong’s writing, “What system is this shame protecting? Whose system of power?”
Interestingly, many people are unable to approach the concept of shame – it’s too horrible to identify in oneself – and I end up framing it as “feelings of inadequacy.” Very often, our feelings are painted on – or drowned out by – a white canvas. We must implicate this background, insist on mutuality, recognize ourselves. We must refuse shame for pride, and demand accountability and change in the systems that engineer our demise, by clockwork design. As Truong writes, “whiteness needs to be cited and seen.”
“whiteness exposed. i guess im grateful. for knowing this. for arriving at the anger. that comes with knowing.”
I was introduced to the writing of Terrance Hayes in another Kearny Street Workshop course, this one taught by poet Jason Bayani. This poem in particular blew me wide open.
Fourteen lines of enclosure, constraint, torture, cry of agony, and aching wrest for agency. Jim Crow becomes “gym,” a kind of surreal workout for the soul, and “crow,” a cathartic transcendence. Each feels the impact of the other, each ball-and-chained to the other. The crow has been my muse and spirit animal as well, in my book Facebuddha and also my aforementioned film, and in this context becomes the desired but impaired and pained transformation of the “bad object.” All the contrasts and dissonances describe the great breadth and failing of possibility, particularly for a Black man facing racism. Music box. Meat grinder. Song of beauty separated from grisly bone. “Box of darkness with a bird in its heart.” Will loving my American assassin bring transformation? What about my survival: does that not require his destruction? There is no escape from these questions, as citizen, as human. One only can wonder of those who choose another path – the path of allyship with the assassin and all his tentacles throughout the culture.
Hayes started writing these sonnets after Donald Trump won the presidency. They are collected in American Sonnets for my Past and Future Assassin, finalist for the National Book Award and National Book Critics Circle Award for 2018. He won a MacArthur “genius” Fellowship in 2014. In a podcast interview with Poetry magazine, Hayes says that his poems ask just two questions: “what is an American sonnet, and who is the assassin? … I think this dude [Trump, or White supremacy more generally, I presume] is trying to kill me. Can I still love him? Can I write a sonnet for my assassin?”
Both Hayes and Tran are literary progeny of Wanda Coleman, who pioneered “American Sonnets” in her own series of 100 poems, and was known as the “unofficial poet laureate of Los Angeles.”
“Coleman describes the sonnets as ‘minimalist. . . often surreal and ironic’ in their attempts to pare down statement, response, critique, and elements of language to their essential parts. Rather than allowing her work to follow a continuum of creative reaction and critical analysis, as other twentieth-century poetic movements have, she defines a new method by which to articulate the underrepresented issues—particularly institutionalized racism, poverty, and inadequate professional opportunities—that continue to haunt American culture… Black Arts poetry, produced during a period that witnessed the assassinations of several major political leaders and many jazz musicians’ deaths, often adopts an elegiac mode whose boundaries Coleman and other later writers have continued to test.”
– Ryan J. The Transformative Poetics of Wanda Coleman’s “American Sonnets”
Coleman’s, Hayes’ and other Black poets’ “approaches uncover the misconceptions and hidden prejudices that lie at the roots of social discourse.” As Coleman wrote, “I presume that social change comes about when unpopular ideas, ideals, and ways-of-life are validated in a given text…Poems can and do function – they may record a time, a community, a sense of having been.”
“Coleman argues… ‘the only major untouched area [in literature] that is left is American racism.’ In sonnet 52, she calls one of the sources of this problem ‘the base nature of ambition,’ which renders the workplace ‘stark / and dreary quarters’ in which writers must engage in ‘crude and constant combat’ in order to survive…The everyday motions of drudgery and self-denial remain even when one is teaching and writing for pay rather than working a blue-collar job. Worse, the ivory tower cannot accommodate the speaker’s cultural memory of her ethnic history [emphasis mine]…In sonnet 80, she labels the university a ‘tor of thorns’ whose ‘stone quad grows / as it consumes souls.’ At the same time, however, she needs the resources it can provide: promotion of her work, reviews, opportunities to do readings, and new readers. Its presence also drives her to write more challenging material, even as her own inconsistencies leave her at the mercy of outside forces…”
– Ryan J. The Transformative Poetics of Wanda Coleman’s “American Sonnets”
Truong Tran’s experiences reflect Coleman’s insight about the academy. The institution, the university – are “gym.” And we are made “crow” in them. The stone quad grows as it consumes souls, much in the way that Whiteness in America grows as it denies and destroys BIPOC identities and relatedness. Hayes’ volume illuminates in further detail these processes and outcomes on our beleaguered psyches. He goes to dark places – but is not without hope and even salvation, embodying the scope of Black consciousness and universal liberation.
Culture before us, we relate the way the descendants
Of the raped relate to the descendants of their rapists.”
“America’s struggle with itself
Has always had people like me at the heart of it. ”
“I thought we might sing
Of the wire wound round the wound of feeling.”
“We’re on the middle floor where the darkness
We bury is equal to the lightness we intend.”
“When the wound
Is deep, the healing is heroic. Suffering and
Ascendance require the same work. Our sermon
Today sets the beauty of sin against the purity of dirt.”
– from various sonnets in the volume
The last lines echo a poem of Langston Hughes indicating the speed of fall, the slowness of rise. Liberation is a struggle, yet it’s all too easy for the vulnerable to become victims of power.
Coleman herself died at 67 “after a long illness,” which often signifies cancer. In any event, she died young. One of her sons died in 1997 of AIDS related complications. Dying young, of cancer, AIDS, or some other cause, is the “coal” given to Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and several Asian and Pacific Islander communities. COVID and police bullets have taken these groups disproportionately. It’s not a leap to address a book of American Sonnets to “my past and future assassin.”
“Once, I heard through the grapevine that a woman said I was the type who would put a bullet in my head. She said this instead of saying a kind word to me. What’s worse was that I liked her. But I knew then I could never leave my heart alone in a room with her. She said the CIA had designs on everything, but didn’t take responsibility for her own design. I know many who’ve had this, or worse, said and done to them in their hour of need. Assassins fell us.”
“I’ve disclosed the most tender and personal parts of myself, my hurts and hopes, to people I thought were my friends, only to have them turn their backs. This has happened to many, many people I know. Shunning and ostracism are assassinations.”
In this essay, I am drawing attention to designs laid down upon vulnerable people by systems of power, particularly White supremacy.
In psychotherapy, we speak of ‘transferences.’ These are the emotions and relational experiences from a patient’s early life which get ‘transferred’ onto the therapist. In modern therapy, the definition has broadened to all the feelings that a patient has about the therapist, or the relational-emotional dynamic that the patient transposes to the therapist. I like to think of these more as ‘transmissions’ than transferences – the patient transmits their life experience, their cultural experience, to me as their therapist, verbally, certainly, but also in feeling tone. I receive transmissions; these sink deep into my being, where I must make space for them, decode them, unbend them, relate to the person before me, and relate to myself. A transmission can deepen, change, expand – and sometimes destroy – the therapist. A transmission can resonate or discombobulate. And of course the therapist transmits a relational-cultural experience to the patient as well, hopefully a healing one, but sometimes a misunderstanding or worse. I’ve written before in this series (MOSF 16.3) that
History’s primary transmission is in feeling. Countries, systems and families break down, or work as designed and let down, in particular, marginalized individuals and groups, leading to eruption of dissonance and more subtle betrayals of affection. This leads to feelings: strong, ugly and minor.
Sometimes it goes beyond transmission. Sometimes the patient, the troubled patient, the patient with great needs, the patient with great absences of affection…or even a person in the world beyond my therapy office … has designs on me. They lay designs on me. Designs have been laid on them. I squirm uncomfortably, paddle furiously, swim and gasp for air in the distorting gaslight of sometimes cruel, always self-centered, design. I struggle to retain a sense of who I am, my values, my direction in life. I pinch myself. Sometimes I have to pat my body, reassure myself of my existence, when the design demands annihilation: from jealousy, hatred, anguish, or even a kind of love that denies me and amplifies them. Designs have been laid on me. Influences. Misunderstandings. Plans. Manipulations. Needs. A power trip. Sometimes a whole architecture. A code of acceptable and unacceptable action. It might be a limiting status quo. It might be an agitprop. I have, in fact, been abandoned to an agitprop of devaluation, dismissal and denial of my worth as a human being, a brown-skinned human being. I have been dropped, bodily, into blindspots, zones of psychic nullification, where I must affirm myself simply to feel again. I have been wrapped in gummy confusion, lost to sensibility. This is the design laid on me, in therapy as in life. I do not submit. I argue, I resist.
When the design demands obedience to my destruction, subordination to a malevolent will, what else can I do? I am trying to live, in my fullness. I want to be seen as I see myself, not simply as another sees me, though their sight is important to my own. Their view, their design, tells me about their inner world, what they have experienced. What I feel placed on me is their own threatened, fragile inner life. When I affirm myself, I am also affirming their own vulnerable, oppressed self, in me.
What would I say, if I were sitting in their hearts? What am I hearing, from this deep and threatened place within?
We are not safe, with a malicious design upon us. All my patients are suffering from a malicious grand design, and sometimes, they transmit or even amplify it. If we can work together, we can catch the toxic world of man and myth, and reverse it, with a ripple that starts between us, and spreads outward. We are helped by others who see the malevolent design, and cast a bigger spell.
But if we do not cultivate allyship, the world will make us assassin. Caught in the design, we might even assassinate ourselves. We live in a nest of judgments and cold-shouldered dragons meant to hatch us into death. Our mammal hearts are in reptilian eggs.
My patients, and all people, yearn for freedom from suffering. We yearn for right view: dispelling assassins, destroying abattoir, breaking shell. Giving us life. Resurrection.
I’ve linked assassination, the abattoir, academia and America. Some will say I’ve used histrionic metaphors. Can we afford the luxury of metaphors? Is the metaphor a blindfold? A mirror? A spotlight? A lens? A safety net? A scarecrow? A catalyst? A crime, or evidence of a crime?”
I hope it might be a stitch in time, a needle, after so many threads have been lost.
For further reading:
Leung M. ‘Book of the Other’ and Other Furious Grammars: A Conversation with Truong Tran. Poetry Foundation. November 29, 2021.
Hong CP. Delusions of Whiteness in the Avant-Garde. Lana Turner Journal. November 3, 2014.
5 Questions with Truong Tran, Author of Book of the Other. City Lights Books. December 1, 2021
Ten Questions for Truong Tran. Poets & Writers. November 22, 2021.
Dees J. The PEN Ten: An Interview with Truong Tran. November 11, 2021.
Ryan J. “The Transformative Poetics of Wanda Coleman’s ‘American Sonnets.’” African American Review, vol. 48, no. 4, African American Review (St. Louis University), 2015, pp. 415–29, http://www.jstor.org/stable/24589775.
Chandra R. Jesus, The Three Wise Men, and Universal Human Transmissions. Psychology Today, December 30, 2021