Will Alexander’s Epics of the Surreal

Will Alexander’s Epics of the Surreal

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The surrealist epics of Will Alexander 

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The embers of the Los Angeles uprising were still burning, in 1992, when Will Alexander published his short essay “Los Angeles: The Explosive Cimmerian Fish” in the pages of Sulfur. Run by the poet Clayton Eshleman, the small magazine had acquired a considerable reputation for upending the country’s “official verse culture.” The fall 1992 issue also featured poems by Jorge Santiago Perednik, Jayne Cortez, Jackson Mac Low, Barbara Guest, Allen Ginsberg, Xavier Villaurrutia, and Charles Olson, among others. Compared to these luminaries of the inter-American avant-garde, Alexander was an obscure outsider. Aged 44 and with a lone pamphlet to his name (Vertical Rainbow Climber, 1987), he had been selling tickets at the LA Lakers box office for a living. His essay, fusing experimental poetry and political revolt with a singular vision, marked his explosive debut in the wider world of American letters.

The essay opens ominously: “The planetary air now burns for transition, the russian bear is missing, the American Eagle, faulty, coughing up blood, after each of its foreign invasions.” Meanwhile, in Los Angeles, the acquittal of the LAPD officers who fractured the skull, teeth, and bones of Rodney King, a black man, has exploded “the molecules of rebellion” into “a metamorphosis of nightmares.” As the dispossessed Black citizenry, alongside Salvadoran and Mexican migrants, lay siege to the city, Alexander prophesied a coming insurrection. Drawing on Roman-era imagery, he declared, “During this revolt, a Rubicon has been crossed.” The “people of color are the barbarians,” he wrote, who will soon blast open the Cold War cul de sac. And just as in the Belgian Congo, the German East Africa, and the Italian Libya, the planetary rule of the US over “the darker peoples” would be vanquished.

“Los Angeles: The Explosive Cimmerian Fish” also doubled as a manifesto of Alexander’s own poetry. For decades, he had drifted through the poor southern parts of Los Angeles, trying to improvise a homespun poetics of Afrocentric surrealism—one that was as attuned to the domestic as it was to the international. An epigraph from Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism sets the scene. And what follows is an extended riff on Césaire’s notion of the “revolutionary image”—an attempt to sing without the “safety rails” of identity and contradiction. It is commonly said that a revolutionary and avowedly political writer must take sides. At the end of his essay, Alexander chooses an animistic communion with “Brazilian Indians,” “tarantulas and Caimans,” “fire-ants stored in Cecropia trees,” “restless Jaguars and lizards,” and “monstrous Acrosoma spiders.” And so, he arrived in the “American enclave,” clothed in “decorative Peperomia leaves,” conducting a riotous menagerie, conjuring a “billion hallucinations of organic infinity” to assault “oily capitalizers” and “Wall Street moguls.”

Eliot Weinberger, a contributing editor at Sulfur, was so taken by Alexander’s baroque visions, as well as his obscurity (“he lives entirely outside the pobiz world of prizes, grants, readings, teaching positions”), that instead of sending 20 pages of his own writing, as solicited by Sulfur for the next issue, he chose to introduce Alexander and publish five of his poems. These spanned the cruelties of the Albanian dictator Enver Hoxha, the cosmological wanderings of a water dog, and the aesthetic manifestations of the chemical compounds of paint. Looking back, they form a microcosm of Alexander’s uncanny poetic universe. Since then, his oeuvre has swelled to 40 books (including novels, aphorisms, essays, plays), and it spans an even unlikelier sweep of ideas, histories, and things (real and imagined).

Just consider this quick snapshot. One-half of Alexander’s first full-length collection, Asia and Haiti (1995), conjures the “collective voice” of Buddhist monks conducting magical warfare against the Chinese invaders and occupiers of Tibet. Equally long, the 70-page poem “The Sri Lankan Loxodrome” (2009) is an ecstatic monologue by a Sri Lankan sailor who beheads sea snakes while meditating on the colonial voyages of Vasco Da Gama and who encounters different African communities on his way from Madagascar to Sri Lanka. One-third of his 614-page work of poetry The Combustion Cycle (2021) is written from the tetrachromatic perspective of an Andean hillstar, the world’s second largest hummingbird. The final third is written from the perspective of an Angolan shaman.

There is, in these poems, little difference between the realm of history and the realm of the imagination. Alexander knows only one mode of transport. He is, per Weinberger, “an ecstatic surrealist on imaginal hyperdrive.”

Despite the hermetic design of Alexander’s surrealist epics, their reputation has grown steadily in recent decades. Although he remains true to his small-press origins (publishing vastly with Sun & Moon, Paragraph, Spuyten Duyvil, Litmus, Skylight, Manifest, Pavement Saw, and Essay), Alexander has also published three books with New Directions and with City Lights. (He has also received a Whiting Fellowship, an American Book Award, and a Jackson Poetry Prize.) Last year, Sian Proctor, pilot of the SpaceX flight mission Inspiration4, took his poetry with her into outer space.

Will Alexander’s most recent book, Refractive Africa, was a finalist for the 2022 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and won the California Book Award in Poetry. Composed of three long poems, it offers perhaps the fullest expression of Alexander’s gritty autodidacticism to date. One learns how his surrealism derives from the diverse millennia-spanning histories of Africa. One also learns how his dream of liberation acquires an even vaster, properly cosmic, scope. Césaire wrote that “revolutionary image” must encompass “everything that has been lived; everything that is possible”—“the strangest combinations, every past, every future.” The solar forts on Mimas and Saturn? Yes. The GDP figures of Belgium? Yes, that too.

Refractive Africa is bookended by two long poems—the first is an homage to Amos Tutuola, the Nigerian Yoruban writer, and the second is an encomium to Malagasy modernist poet Jean-Joseph Rabearivelo. Neither Tutuola nor Rabearivelo was a surrealist proper. And yet both had mastered the fugitive art of “African anti-gravity,” the ability to “fly without pedestrian manacles.” Both were “psychic maroons.” Widely ostracized on account of their superior linguistic sorcery, neither has since been properly rehabilitated. Now, their ghosts stalk the margins of our postcolonial canons.

Amos
you remain like no other
unlike Achebe or Soyinka
consumed as they’ve been by more standard narration

you (Jean-Joseph)
being proliferation
were held from wider view
withheld from frames of view in Amsterdam & London
until noted by Senghor

When Tutuola’s debut novel, The Palm-Wine Drinkard (1954), was published by Faber & Faber in London, he had been working as a messenger boy in the Labour Department of colonial Lagos. With some six years of formal schooling to his name, Tutuola wrote in the English commonly spoken in West Africa at the time. The New Yorker described the book at the time as “naïve and barbaric,” something to be “valued for its own freakish sake, and as an unrepeatable happy hit.” Two years later, when Tutuola repeated the freak feat, publishing an equally phantasmic work (My Life in the Bush of Ghosts), the critical backlash spiraled violently. The more colonial-minded sections of Nigerian cultural life joined the fray, denouncing Tutuola’s unkempt English and his chimerical riffs on native folktales. Babasola Johnson, a Yoruban reader, hurled the first stone, bellowing in an angry letter to West Africa, a London-based weekly—“Now let us face facts. Palm Wine Drinkard should not have been published.”

Alexander’s homage is, among other things, compendious. There are plangent stanzas on Tutuola’s shame:

an anomaly from Abeokuta
held up to the world
as some lost or stunted student murmuring syllables from a hatch
from an erstwhile cubicle of spiders

There are also frenetic summations of the rancor surrounding his books:

for Babasola & ilk
your writing breached the barrier of written decay
dragging starched shirts through sewage being classically nonfunctional

As in his other poems, these documentary details form a cascade of parallel clauses. They are part of a single, potentially endless, sentence. Harryette Mullen, one of Alexander’s earliest interlocutors, has coined a felicitous catchphrase for this fluid grammar: “hyper-hypotactic.” While hymning the historical, the stanzas also frequently break into howls of incantatory exultations, as if replicating Tutuola’s own feats of “verbal stamina”:

aloft
as tautology
as syncopation
as spinning sums out of blankness
I call it boldness
I call it verbal drawl
where resurrection exists as raw superlatives & plurals
like a serpent that vomits up gold
that subordinates cartography
so that it springs from soil analogous to jewels

Rabearivelo, meanwhile, descended from a line of Madagascar’s royal family made paupers by the French colonizers. A serial dropout from Catholic mission schools, he eventually found work as a proofreader at Imprimerie de l’Imerina, a colonial publishing house in Antananarivo. Here, he began a voluminous correspondence with his French contemporaries (André Gide, Paul Valéry, and Paul Claudel) and introduced Baudelaire, Rilke, Rimbaud, and Tagore into Malagasy letters.

Critics predictably faulted Rabearivelo’s lack of authenticity (even his crippling opium addiction bore the mark of fin de siècle mimicry). In his books, they found a “forest” not of symbols (as in Baudelaire), but of citations (“everything becomes for him allusions and quotations,” rued his close friend Robert Boudry). But for Alexander, Rabearivelo’s genius lay precisely in his ability to compose via “refraction,” to fuse French symbolism and hain teny (an intricate traditional Malagasy poetic form), to pass off his French verses as translations from Malagasy, and vice versa.

you who transcended by verbal skills stunning singular mastery
no one could previously claim
not Rimbaud
not Villon
not Lorca
in the free-fire of the great capital
you saw yourself as projection via charismatic voltage

The decisive act of Rabearivello’s career came at the age of 34, when the French colonial administration rejected his request to attend the Exposition Universelle, an exhibition of the latest art and technology, in Paris. A more “authentic” group of basket weavers were chosen instead to represent Madagascar. Rabearivello killed himself by ingesting cyanide. Sending “a kiss to books of Baudelaire” stowed away in the adjoining room, he hastily scribbled a final entry in his diary:

I set my hand J.-J. Rabearivelo.

At the age of [Charles] Guérin, at the age of [Léon] Deubel

a little older than you, Rimbaud anté-néant.

22 June 1937,

at 10.07

Just like all colonial dramas, Alexander’s eulogies, too, fall apart. The poems do not proceed like the well-oiled ticking of a lyric epiphany. Instead, they are rife with arcane neologisms, British spellings, and specialized vocabularies gleaned from ethnographic tracts, political sagas, religious scriptures, economic treatises, astronomy manuals, and so on (the book’s dizzying glossary includes 80 words, ranging from “Ishtar Terra” to “Adwama-Ubangi”). The lines stutter and creak, grinding disparate lexicons together—the neurobiological (“chromosomal alterity”) with the spiritual (“scroll of dissonant samadhi”); the musical (“contorted madrigals”) with the meteorological (“grenadine monsoons”); the zoological (“mulgas”) with the chemical (“filigrees of hydrogen”). And into this sonic maelstrom, Alexander occasionally slips a line that quietly breaks the spell—“this being stuttering in place of social praxis.”

Rejecting the classical surrealist fixation on “the image,” he centers “the word”—or rather, what Nathaniel Mackey, following Dogon weavers, calls the “creaking of the word” (the name of the block on which their looms rest). These poems are blocks of music on which rests the possibility of “social praxis.”

The book’s centerpiece is much longer, dreamier, and fiercer. Here, the “alphabetic voltage” of Alexander’s writing surges to a new level, illuminating in turn the political stakes of his surrealist soundscape. Titled “The Congo,” the 50-page poem is dedicated to Casimiro Barrios, a white-collar radical leftist expelled by the Chilean government in 1920, and Fela Kuti, the iconic pan-Africanist and pioneer of Afrobeat, arrested and tortured over 200 times by the Nigerian military.

The archvillain of the poem is the infamous Belgian king, Leopold II, who privately founded and seized control of the Free Congo State at the infamous Berlin International Conference in 1884–85. As the “Scramble for Africa” unfolded, Leopold effectively replaced the International African Society, an illusory humanitarian front that had allowed him a foothold in Central Africa, with the Force Publique, a private army composed of African mercenaries furnished with gunpowder, chicottes, lethal injections, and hatchets. From his seat in Brussels, he proceeded to orchestrate a savage economy of rubber and ivory that would kill around 10 million Congolese conscripted into the extraction of these raw materials.

Leopold who conjured Bismarck into private ownership of our land
he who cut off extremities in lieu of execution
our hands were forms of Belgian currency
we
during harvest of rubber were eaten by leopards
were shot as synymama or meat
we less valued than cartridges
our crucified bodies hung in the form of crosses
Leopold
who sent Stanley to the Congo under the guise of philanthropy
what followed were beheadings
skin stripped by chicottes

Alexander also offers a trenchant balance sheet of what has since followed: the assassination of Patrice Lumumba (in Ruth First’s memorable words, the murder turned the panacea of African decolonization into a “contagion of coups”—16 followed in the next eight years); the neocolonial collaborations of the successive regimes of Mobutu Sese Seko, Joseph Kasavubu, Moïse Tshombe, and the father-son duo of the Kabilas; the increasing economic encroachments of China starting with its “Go Out” and “Belt and Road” policies; and the disastrous fallout of the Kivu conflict. But these capacious riffs on history are just a warm-up for the surrealist mind, a fluttery prelude to the ultimate flight:

of course
the mind that I activate
remains other than descriptive study manuals
other than a maze of ancillary study sheets

Alexander’s close compatriot Andrew Joron defines surrealism in explicitly Marxist terms—as “a leap from the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom.” In a similar vein, Alexander writes: “as Congolese we are rife with need for liberty because we starve on fractions.” His short 1993 essay “Poetry: Alchemical Anguish and Fire” clarifies this liberatory impulse:

If I name “the constellation Dorado,” it is not the same Dorado of the astronomers, nor does it carry the same set of values when placed within a page of rigorously balanced astrobiology. It is a new Dorado, capable at one touch of expansion and Utopia. It automatically becomes an enemy of the quotidian, an enemy of fixation and separation.

And so, he now declares, “if indeed the Congo is in ruin / it is also scintillation / … it remains a charged aural colony.” Shunning the colonial construction of Africa as the “dark continent”—still projected in the West as a wellspring of fiscal crises, epidemics, ethnic violence, and political corruption—Alexander taps into what the critic Isiah Lavender III calls the “networked black consciousness” of the Afrodiaspora. The poem’s speaker is a “psychophysical healer of West African origin,” by the name of “Akashic Sangoma”—a “free man” who, as “proto-Sekhmet” (the Egyptian warrior goddess of healing), possesses animistic powers and the “indigenous instinct” to “spontaneously engage levitational fuels.” Set up against Leopold’s explorer Henry Stanley, who mapped and settled the colony of Congo, Sangoma plays a surrealist fugitive, a “psychic maroon.” Much like Alexander’s hero Sun Ra, he magically ranges “between Earth and the nearest star system,” alighting on all “40,000 billion planes of consciousness.”

“The Congo” is equal parts incendiary invective and psychic prophecy. Imagine Molotov cocktails that are also miniature surrealist rockets. As if recalling the insurgents of Alexander’s first essay, the poem sets fire to the colonial scaffoldings of modern history. In doing so, it also ignites the longing to “recover” what filmmaker and theorist Kodwo Eshun calls “the histories of counter-futures.” But unlike some increasingly mass-produced visions of Afrofuturism, Alexander’s poetry does not just offer us the consolation of a psychic flight from pyramids to Pluto. Rather, it broaches a bigger question: how to reinvent radical poetry in a world where the revolutionary charge of anticolonialism and Black Power no longer carries the same power.

The book’s title, Refractive Africa, recalls Jean Paul Sartre’s introduction to Leopold Sénghor’s anthology of négritude poets. In Chris Turner’s newly issued translation, Sartre writes that “the black man who lays claim to his negritude in a revolutionary movement places himself initially on the terrain of Reflection.” The essay rehearses the well-known Hegelian drama of consciousness: “Black is not just a colour; it is the destruction of that borrowed brightness that comes down to us from the white sun.” Rediscovering the “black Essence in the depths of his heart,” the poet of négritude looks to disseminate it among his compatriots. In this, he aspires to be “both a mirror and a beacon at the same time.”

Throughout his oeuvre, Alexander has riffed on this standard lockstep of négritude. In his poems, he, too, plumbs “the depths of his heart.” But instead of discovering and broadcasting a “black essence,” Alexander’s inward immersion turns into a precipitous psychic trip. Tibetan sleep exercises, lucid dreaming, automatism, trances, clairvoyance: this is a typical catalog of his technique, his pursuit of what Suzanne Césaire had called the “permanent readiness for the Marvelous.” Sometimes, these trips can span several millennia, as in “The Ganges,” where Alexander tracks the 65,000-year-old eastward migration of ancient Africans. Equally fabulous is how he can collapse entire eons into a single convulsive fit of speculation, so that when he finally arrives at the riverbank, it is inexplicably as a Shudra, belonging to the lowest rung of the Brahmanical Hindu caste system, which emerged only around 100 AD: “I come to these waters/ as Shudra/ … I am not a mahatma.”

These hypnotic undulations of Alexander’s longue durée are not always easy to follow. Their political import can seem fuzzy too. Speaking at “Expanding the Repertoire,” a landmark 2001 conference about the role of poetic innovation in Afro-American writing, the poet Lorenzo Thomas freely confessed to feeling “a little disturbed” by Alexander’s visions: “It just might be that contemplating the turmoil of the last 5 centuries (the epic of capitalism and the westward movements that created what we call ‘the African diaspora’) is more than enough for us to handle right now. I mean what do we do, add several more centuries of desperate marronage?”

In a stirring response to Thomas at the conference, Alexander explained, “I am not bound to 1619, and the convocation of our collective conscription to American soil.” Heralding the first seven dynasties of the Egyptian pharaohs and the ancient Nubian nation Ta Seti, he highlighted “an Afro-centric complexity not solely bound to the American South.” Speaking at the same conference, Nathaniel Mackey stressed the difficulties faced by those Black experimental poets who refuse to reproduce Amiri Baraka’s “conversion narrative” (his transformation from “quasi-white, obscurantist writer into a black, accessible one”). To subvert the “grid of expectations” policed by this “racialized dichotomy” is to risk marginalization in the marketplace of US poetry and trade publishing. For instance, Erica Hunt did not publish her first book, Local History, until 1993; a decade elapsed between Harryette Mullen’s S*PeRM**K*T (1992) and Sleeping with the Dictionary (2002); and two decades between Ed Roberson’s Etai Eken (1975) and Voices Cast Out to Talk Us In (1995).

For five decades and more, Alexander has tirelessly revolted against this “pobiz” calculus of career-making, even as the great, banal eye of mainstream publishing is now turning its gaze toward him. Concluding his remarks at the 2001 conference, he proclaimed—if “surrealism sparked the African in Césaire,” then “it has liberated my animistic instinct.… the whole of life burns for me, existing without border or confinement.”

Refraction, then, is the key word of Alexander’s poetics. His work is neither a mirror nor a beacon. Instead, it is a “grammatical diamond,” deftly refracting global history into surreal narratives of total liberation. His poems disclose new planes of thought that shimmer beyond “warrens of the visible,” where Black insurrectionaries holler to ancient Dravidians in Safeway parking lots, where a “vulturous Nile” flows into a “carnivorous Amazon,” where a species of poisoned marsupials magically rises up from the abyss of the European monetary climate.

Correction: A previous version of this article incorrectly stated that Sian Proctor was the pilot of a NASA mission.  

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