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Monday, February 14, 2011

Joy Katz, Why Does a White Girl Get to Write About a Lynched Man?

The photograph** sat on my desk for ten years. (I am a slow writer, but this is the longest it has ever taken me to finish a poem.) Someone sent me the article thinking I’d be interested in the show. I was. I went to the show, but I can’t remember any image except this one.

I am writing this the week after Claudia Rankine’s reading at AWP. In that reading she presented Tony Hoagland’s poem “The Change” and raised an objection to its description of a black woman tennis player, a description that invokes racial stereotypes.

Hoagland’s poem uses stereotypes brutally. By “brutal” I mean that the poem doesn’t comment, except in the artifice of its making, on the fact that it uses them. It declines to sum up for me what I am supposed to feel, or what the writer felt. I am glad for that aspect of the poem; I don't want to be made safe. What white person, even a young white person, even a woman, even now, gets to safely say that she is absolutely not racist?

I tried for a kind of brutality when I wrote this poem. When I write brutally, I never want to attack you. I am writing to discomfort myself. It’s too easy to say I can write about a lynched man because anyone can write about anything. 

It would have been nice—healing?—if i could walk into the chasm between me and the photo, between me and this man. I would like to scoop up something from that space (a shovel full of mud or a rock, in the form of a stanza) and put it down on the page as something I could jump on, and then put down another and jump closer, in order to connect me to this man and bring you closer to the fact of the lynching, but I can’t. There is no path to get me there. I only feel a certain way when I look at the picture. I tried to get close to that.

So I did some wretched (to me they feel wretched) things. I rhymed “mother” and “murder” and I said that a hanging man has an expression. He has a facial expression as much as any corpse has an expression, which is to say doesn’t, because what I call an “expression” is a function of the physical hanging. Anything I say about his face is me imposing an idea about his face onto him. Any metaphor I make is uncomfortable on a million levels, not least because I am a white female, in a different century, eating a sandwich at my desk. I say he looks like a boy looking up at a kite. (When people look at the faces of corpses, they often say they look peaceful in order to comfort themselves or someone else.) His hands are tied behind his back; you could superimpose a photo of a man holding his hands behind his back politely, or with forced politeness. 

When I look at the photo, I am good at being objective while also feeling wretched. (Maybe this is also what the people who sent their neighbors to the gas chambers were good at?) I can concentrate on the composition of the photo because i was trained to do that in design school. The only perfect y-axis is the one the man hangs on. He hangs straight down. You can say an object  is “true” when it hangs plumb. He is true; the other two important compositional elements in the picture are curved (the tree) and skew (the trashy little step he climbed on to get close to the noose). The other "true" object in the poem is a bunch of grapes hanging from a fancy hook you can use to ripen fruit—you put it on your kitchen counter.

I say the tree leans in like a pet. Then I rhyme “pet” and “poet.” In that way, with two steps, hop hop, I jump closer to the man in the picture. I am a living creature. I lean in from where I sit, as the tree leans into the frame.  I mean to be brutal to myself when I ask  “what kind of a poet would say that”—and then I go on to say that there is a sturdiness in the heaviness of how he hangs. There is no one else in the picture. The white men who slung him up are gone. One more made the photograph. Saying the man looks casually abandoned, like a rake, gets at (I hope) that the lynchings were ubiquitous, more functional than remarkable to the people who came to see them. But I also suggest, by my last metaphor, that the man is no more dignified than a tool used for manual labor. It’s an uncomfortable place to leave myself, and you, but it didn’t seem like the poem ought to leave me in a safe place, because the photo doesn’t.

Joy Katz is the author of The Garden Room (Tupelo Press) and Fabulae (Southern Illinois University Press). Recent poems have appeared or will soon in The American Poetry Review, Notre Dame Review, Ploughshares, Cincinnati Review, Blackbird, and elsewhere. Her awards include a 2011 National Endowment for the Arts fellowship. She teaches in the graduate writing program at the University of Pittsburgh and in the on-the-ground and low-res programs at Chatham University. She lives in Pittsburgh.

Joy's Poem originally appeared in The Notre Dame Review

**Editors Note: Because of the graphic violence of the photo in reference, we've chosen to provide links to an online gallery with an explanation of the image essay:
The Lynching of Joseph Richardson, September 26, 1913 From Without Sanctuary