Book Review

The title of Anaïs Duplan’s latest book, I NEED MUSIC, makes a seemingly straightforward declaration, an emphatically all-capped departure from the titles of his previous books, Blackspace: On the Poetics of an Afrofuture (Black Ocean, 2020), Mount Carmel and the Blood of Parnassus (Monster House Press, 2017), and Take This Stallion (Brooklyn Arts Press, 2016). The very act of reading the title, bolded black against an abstract, colored background, is a through-the-looking-glass moment which deposits the reader into a land of kaleidoscope selves and dismantled bodies: a real-life land whose reality can only be revealed through art. Duplan is an explorer in this land, looking to create—and thereby liberate—his whole self from the broken one situated in a culture of gendered and racialized power structures. By sharing his poetry-as-process-of-doing-so, Duplan creates a landscape in which he invites us to find reflections of our own selves, shape those selves, and claim them.

Duplan begins by dissecting the fundamentally dissociative nature of a self whose public identity was assigned to him by patriarchal white cultural norms. It is a confining assignation, with no space for the self to even conceive of a different identity, never mind manifest one in the real world, leaving him to ask, “What does it mean, to not be known to the self.” Duplan’s search for an answer is an iterative and deeply personal act:

It took a year of hormone therapy before transition started to feel
Like healing, but not from a breathtime of being in the wrong body.
I was healing the part of myself that was identified with my body,
identified with a gender, with the person I was on any given day,
with my affects, preferences, ‘n’ dislikes. Identity itself as an idea
fell apart ‘n’ my sense of self started to come from
some of everywhere, somewhere so deep
that some of / everywhere come with us

He describes his transition into a Black, male body as being both disorienting and grounding: an interior landscape that is difficult to understand, much less convey. To navigate this space, considered by the racialized, heteronormative culture to be a wasteland, where the true self must wander in order to be known to itself, Duplan turns to art. It is here that he can find reflections of himself, to see what he looks like—not to others, but to himself. I NEED MUSIC is his self’s ekphrastic journey through a space collectively created in collages, paintings, sculptures, music, films, and dance performances: the space that was missing from the identity assigned to him by warped cultural norms.

Duplan describes the act of experiencing art as communion with the artist in contemporary painter Katerina Pansera’s work when he writes, “I make a mental image of myself /as an inhabitant of the room’s in Katerina’s paintings,” going on to describe this as an act of “mirroring”: “Often, in mirroring folk’s paintings, folks’ likenesses rise / to the top of our psyches and we try to find some meaning / in their presences.” It is here, in this artistic, creative space, that personal self-integration can take place.

The first such space where he situates himself is in a collage by Troy Michie, a queer, Black, visual artist whose work explores the intersections of race, gender, and other fields of identity and power. Of the image, Duplan asks:

Wow, where has his crotch gone?

Body parts start to come off the dome.
Like the only body here is in bits ‘n’ pieces:
A sort of facing of the capacity for pleasure, this.

I’ll go around ‘n’ around her parts plenty of times
Until the capacity for pleasure repeats the sound of sweeping

. . .

This may be one attempt. To get someone to pay attention,

Or a method of contractually observing an abdomen—
Better yet known as a torso

The self in question is a body breaking into parts, some of them male (“his crotch”), some female (“around ’n’ around her parts”), some ungendered (“an abdomen,” “a torso”). All are swept up in the dynamic twists of a kaleidoscope lens—a brilliant shattering apart that constitutes the first step to creating and claiming one’s own self. What must be broken is the assigned public identity, as Duplan discusses in his interview of poet Nathaniel Mackey, remarking, “The phrase in Mackey’s book Blue Fasa that totally knocked me out is ‘New Black Music is this: Find the self then kill it.’” Mackey attributes the phrase to poet Amiri Baraka, who used it to describe his experience of the Civil Rights Era. In the interview, Mackey tells Duplan:

One of the things that that involved was finding a self, really looking at the self that you had, and really coming to see that it had been fashioned by social relations that we wanted to obliterate. . . . You had to look at the extent to which you were compliant with that shaping. The self that you had found yourself to be was, in some way, a creation of that regime of white supremacy. Then killing it would mean fashioning a new self that would be in conflict with that regime and that wants to bring about the destruction of that regime.

Duplan’s ekphrastic journey toward selfhood manifests this need to “kill the self” in a ritualistic way when reflecting on the rich creative space of MacArthur Fellow Okwui Okpokwasili’s experimental dance performance “Bronx Gothic”:

tickets are being sold folks are preparing to enter
are entering steps of their entering into where
Okwui shake in the back panting, we can hear her heart
is making grunting. Sounds breath a sudden break of dance
breaking limbs against ground ‘n’ back turned up legs
flip, plank, ‘n’ jump knees hit the stage muscle-tossing
ligature as if I had grown up rapping.

Duplan’s description of the performance renders it as a visceral rite of passage that enacts the breaking of the body, effecting the symbolic killing of the self. In a documentary on the performance, Okpokwasili herself describes the New York Live Arts commissioned performance as:

my attempt to embody the body becoming unknown to itself, a mirror of my perception of my adolescence with all of my friends, how it was incredibly dynamic and explosive, and to see nothing of that reflection out in the world, in books or in movies. It’s about how memories and relationships reside in the body, about what happens when they rise up. I’m hoping to become new at the end of it, or something unknown to myself. . . . I use my body to tell the story of Bronx Gothic by a series of quakes and shakes, I call it “break body.”

This ekphrastic experience is one of breaking the body in order to create a new body; killing the self so that the future self may rise up like the phoenix from it. This is a defining moment of taking self-empowered authority over one’s identity; to reassemble and express it in an act of resistance to the norms imposed by the gendered and racialized power structure.

It is, of necessity, an act at once intimately personal and unabashedly public. One poem where we see this expression is when Duplan invites us into “a small, dingy room / with dormitory-style floor lamps” to watch a performance by non-binary singer Jerry Paper, who “wore / not a single thing but a pink satin robe ‘n’ grey socks, bunched at the ankles.” The intimate performative space and Paper’s uncloseted attire blur the public/private line into a space that is at once vulnerable to and respected by Duplan and other members of the audience. Duplan tells us that while watching the performance he:

was reminded, inevitably of Sun Ra ‘n’ his conception of music
As the vehicle that would allow the Black race to transcend not only
Her earthly confines but the confines of the space-time continuum.

Sun Ra was an experimental jazz musician of the 1940s, known for his “cosmic” philosophy and performances featuring dancers and musicians dressed in elaborate, futuristic costumes with ancient Egyptian flair. His fantastical re-imaginings of the American Black experience made him a pioneer of Afrofuturism—a field central to Duplan’s work as an artist and scholar.

Duplan’s ekphrastic journey towards a fully realized selfhood brings him—and us, along with him—to a realization that one’s self is an utterly unique body and mind, a self-made matrix of possible parts and selves:

somebody impossible to perceive,
Somebody unchanged by hormones or life’s experiences.
I am what perceives everything else, including myself.
I’m gonna always be that.

Just as Duplan journeys through the artistic works of Michie, Okpokwasili, Paper, Ra, Pansera, and a number of others to find, break, and create himself, so too does I NEED MUSIC—the chronicle of this journey—create a space for his readers to bear witness to his journey and enact the same journey for themselves:

After this particular occasion to talk, this poem,
Comes the opportunity for mirroring. My readership, their analysis ‘n’ criticism,
A continuity between us brought by our coming into contact intellectually,
The trace carried forth in our capacity for pleasure, this co-incorporation, even without knowing or seeing.
I wish we could sit quietly together, maybe forever.
I wish for a form of relationality I don’t yet feel how to articulate.

After reading this powerful, imaginative, important volume of poems, you’ll find, as I did, that Duplan’s wish indeed comes true: such is the magic of his poetry.

About the Reviewer

Christina Cook is the author of the poetry collections A Strange Insomnia, Ricochet, and Lake Effect. Her poems, translations, essays, and book reviews have appeared widely in journals including the Prairie Schooner, New England Review, and Crazyhorse. Formerly a senior writer for the presidents of Dartmouth College and the University of Pennsylvania, she now teaches speechwriting and rhetoric at Penn State University.