Pushcart XLI: Adrian Matejka, “The Antique Blacks” (poetry) from Copper Nickel #2

– For Sun Ra, Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford & the 13 other black astronauts who made it to outer space

 

In Richard Pryor’s origin myth of black
size, the two most magnanimous black men
 
in the world are peeing off the 30th Street Bridge
into the White River’s busted up water. & above,
 
Constellations in the sky’s pat afro seem
as indiscriminant as linked in hair & more mundane
 
lights move lowly on the horizon the way cop
lights always move when black people think
 
about congregating outside of church. One
brother stairs towards Saturn & says, Man,
 
this water is cold. The other looks in the same
direction & says, Yeah, & it’s deep, too.
 
*
 
They are as the upward inflection of it –
                the honeyed smile of space
                front & center in our heads –
                Voyager winking
                like a gold incisor
                on its way out
                                of this solar system.

Last week, just days before reading this poem for the first time, I found this clue in a NYT Sunday crossword puzzle: “Old bandleader with an Egyptian-inspired name”. I didn’t know, so only came up with “Sun Ra” incidentally as other clues filled in 18-across. I looked it up to be sure, and discovered the jazz and electronic music artist Sun Ra, leader of Arkestra (I had to say it out loud before I got it, but I’m dense). Although Sun Ra is no longer on this astral plane, the Arkestra performed on NPR’s Tiny Little Desk Concerts as recently as 2014.

So I was thrilled to come across his name again in this poem, this time linked to Richard Pryor, Guion S. Bluford, the first African-American astronaut in space, the thirteen who came after him – and a teenager in Indianapolis.

And again I will admit I’m overmatched and refer to a more educated source for a more professional reading, this time Rebecca Schwarz of The Review Review. She cites the ease with which the poem moves through different forms, similar to the ease with which Matejka moves from Richard Prior comedy to poetic imagery of space travel to his own youth in Indianapolis to Sun Ra in a poetic version of jazz improv.

This movement also characterizes Matejka’s early life: “My mother told me I lived in Germany and in 10 states before the age of 7. That’s healthy, I’m sure”, he says in an interview with Emily Bonner of Barely South Review.

One of Schwarz’ observations strikes me as the essence of writing, all writing: the poem has an intimate feel when the subject is the vastness of space or the progress of history, and feels universal when it returns to the most personal moments. This reminds me also of Roxane Gay’s comment from a few years ago: that an essay must “look outward as much as it looks inward.” This poem does both at the same time, reversing mood and subject, turning the personal universal and the universal personal:

The moon was still out the Tuesday morning I got my first
real curl & Guion S. Bluford became the first black man
into outer space. August 30, 1983. I styled my wet frond
like Purple Rain Prince: left side tucked behind my ear, right
side getting activator in the same eye I would have used
to telescope the Challenger as it eclipsed Kennedy Space Center
at midnight in the habit of every brother I have ever met
trying to get away from something without a quotient. Math,
astrophysics – it doesn’t matter. It all equals escape. All
those funny words related to spaceflight, too – velocity,
trajectory, stamina
….

Maybe that’s why I loved the poem without being able to pin it down (though I always swoon at any mention of the Voyager Music from Earth recording sent to space almost 40 years ago; I still remember the excerpts included on the Cosmos record). I felt right there with Matejka making his Prince curl; I understand the dream of escape. Like Schwartz, I felt the joy in the poem, a poem that includes sobering images but always, always, looks up, like the cap of Richard Prior’s characters or the tip of the space shuttle on the launchpad – or a young man in Indianapolis who loves words.

I’ll offer one additional observation: the poem begins and ends in couplets, a form I associate with a pair-bond of some kind. Here, I’d say it’s the poet talking to the reader, and I think it might be what creates that sense of intimacy. “I’m going to tell you something,” says the poem. All we have to do is listen.

I’m not sure how to read the title. Antique Black is sometimes used as a home furnishings designation, but it’s more of a descriptive than prescriptive phrase and can mean anything from a rubbed black finish to plain old black paint with the name fancied up. The notion of a rubbed finish is interesting in this context: friction, applied by hand, polishes the stain unevenly, leaving a slightly mottled matte finish that’s hard to machine-replicate. I suppose Sun Ra, Bluford and Prior are now an older generation, pointing upward for Matejka’s generation, and even more, his students at Indiana University where he teaches.

Forthcoming this month is Map to the Stars, Matejka’s collection examining “the tensions between race, geography, and poverty in America during the Reagan Era.” I’m pretty sure, from the description (I can’t find a TOC) this poem is included.

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2 responses to “Pushcart XLI: Adrian Matejka, “The Antique Blacks” (poetry) from Copper Nickel #2

  1. God bless you for even trying with this poem. I was outdone by 9 pages worth of poetry and gave up. I’ve been kind of laughing thinking about you trying to blog on this one the last few days. Which is kind of sadistic of me. Sorry. You did as well as could have been done. Better than I did.

    • I loved it, though – even though I only grasped it dimly, and after a lot of help at that. I just kept nodding and underlining, smiling, shaking my head – yeah, I got it, even if I didn’t quite get it. Happens that way sometimes. Wish I could pin it down, but maybe analyzing it (tying it to a chair, beating it with a hose to find out what it means, as Billy Collins puts it) would diminish it. And the Sun Ra connection astonished me.

      I came across some comments on perspective after I’d posted, that seemed pertinent:

      “So perspective as a system brings together self and the world. It brings them all together and organizes them according to a single point of view. It’s important that perspective anticipates a modern rationalized conception of space, but it’s even more important that the viewing mind is productively caught up in its own world. It challenges the view of a separation of a preexisting stable world that’s separate from the viewing mind. It brings those two together. ”

      This was in the context of architectural perspective, but it struck me that the perspective of the poem ties together the individuality of the speaker and the universality of space and experience, and wraps them up in so much Americana: astronauts, jazz, humor, Indianapolis, bringing them together in that wonderful intimate view of the universal, and universal view of the intimate.

      Or maybe I’m just spinning my wheels. Whatever, it makes me happy.

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