Come Again: Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball

By

Rumpus Poetry Club Board Member Gabrielle Calvocoressi on why she chose Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball as the June selection of The Rumpus Poetry Book Club:

“The Soonest People”

I didn’t see Jimmy’s funeral

Jimmy’s my father.

I missed my dad’s funeral

Jimmy’s my dad.

I didn’t see the was coming

My father was Jimmy, dad

was weeping so frankly it came like gazing had

– Harmony Holiday
from, Negro League Baseball

Have you seen The T.A.M.I. Show? It’s a documentary about a concert of the same name that took place in Santa Monica, CA in 1964. The concert was hosted by Jan and Dean and featured James Brown, The Miracles, The Beach Boys, Chuck Berry (who the Beach Boys had recently stolen from in the most breathtaking ways), Marvin Gaye, The Rolling Stones. The list goes on and on. It’s incredible. Not just the music, which will not allow you to stay seated, but the actual moment this show happens in. The footage is in black and white and there are kids dancing on the stage who are clearly “professional” dancers. They’re grinning and having a great time. They’re having such a good time one might not immediately notice that the white dancers don’t dance with the African-American dancers. When the camera pans out you only see white faces in the crowd. I was sitting in Los Angeles watching the film and thinking about color and war and how those kids don’t seem to know that soon Watts will be burning and The Rolling Stones are going to play Altamont and Brian Wilson is going to think about that thing he heard about animals being able to hear different frequencies, which will make him think of Phil Spector. All the concert films are going to be in color. And lots of kids are going to die, probably a lot of the boys in that crowd. Just blown to bits.

Harmony Holiday

I was thinking about all of those things alongside Harmony Holiday’s Negro League Baseball, the book of poems I’ve chosen for us to read and listen to together this month. Yes, listen to. One of the things that interests me most about Holiday’s project is that it challenges us to think about spectatorship in all kinds of ways. You’ll receive a book of poems in the mail but that will only be part of the story. You’ll also get a CD that is an equally important part of the project she is working on. It’s not a soundtrack or settings of the poems. Instead, Holiday has made what I am thinking of as soundscapes that use oral history and musical samples to move us even more deeply into her statement: “I am proud of the things I favor, so sore from them.” I love this sentence. It seems to me indicative of the rhetorical and syntactical work this book does best. At first I look at that sentence and think, “Right. I get it.  She’s proud of the things she likes. Me too.” But then the second half of that statement requires more from me, not just in terms of sense but also sound. What is it to be sore from the things one chooses? And how does that idea pressure and shift the meaning of the word, “favor.” One minute it means to prioritize something and then next it means to literally keep weight off that thing in order to protect it. It seems to me that there’s a whole world in the caesura of that statement, that the comma makes room for history to come in and subvert the initial statement. This is a sentence in a prose poem and is, in fact, only part of the line. Here’s the whole line:

“I am proud of the things I favor, so sore from them. African’s Heals, real move, malarkey, copper lucre off”

The sentence goes on but this also lives as a line, even in a prose poem. The syntax breaks out of what we might think of as more traditional grammar (or melody?) and literally gains weight and density. The “s” sounds become “m” and “c” and we have to pause all of a sudden and hold that language up. African to malarkey to copper and lucre: it’s not just a poem it’s the history of this mess we’re in. It’s the kids dancing onstage and the whole city burning ten months later. I was speaking somewhere recently and someone said how pleased they were that we are in a world we can now call “Post-racial.” I had not realized my travels had taken me to another planet. In the poems and in the soundscapes, Holiday reminds us that history and culpability live in the breaks between what we believe we understand (“I am proud of the things I favor”) and the harder truths they accumulate to (“so sore from them”). These are poems that make me think of my role as a citizen as I read and wrestle with them.

“I am proud of the things I favor”

“so sore from them”

As I split the line in order to quote it I realized I didn’t know where to place the comma. Before or after? Let’s figure it out together over the course of this month and ask Harmony Holiday about it when we speak to her in the chat.

* Oh. Why did I put that poem up at the top? Well. I just love it. There are other reasons but I think I’ll leave it at that for now.

***

Click here to join The Rumpus Poetry Book Club.


Gabrielle Calvocoressi is the author of "The Last Time I Saw Amelia Earhart" (Persea. 2005) and "Apocalyptic Swing" (Persea. 2009), which was a finalist for The Los Angeles Times Book Award. She is the recipient of numerous awards and fellowships including a Stegner Fellowship and Jones Lectureship from Stanford University, a Rona Jaffe Woman Writer's Award and a fellowship to Civitella di Ranieri in Umbria. Her poems have been featured in the Washington Post and on Garrison Keillor's Poet's Almanac and in numerous journals. She also writes the Sports Desk column for The Best American Poetry blog and is the Virtual Editor for Broadsided Press. She tweets @gabbat, @broadsidedpress and may be writing her third book @caracaraoriole. She is on the advisory board of The Rumpus' Poetry Book Club. She lives in Los Angeles. More from this author →