Harmony Holiday

Fence Books, 2017

Harmony Holiday’s third book, Hollywood Forever, dwells in the paradox of admitting “the hero is unambiguously guilty.” The cover shows us Miles Davis emerging from a jail cell bloodied and bandaged, but the book refuses to martyr that pain. One poem states that “He’s gonna fuck his wife tonight . . . he’s gonna fuck her up until she runs into the subtle no where yard for how hard the cop hit him,” impugning Davis at the moment of remembrance. But the poem immediately rescues Davis from that same judgment, ending “in praise of character assassination™/ It saves men’s lives , learning to love the/ shadow for the light it casts.” The book isn’t ambivalent or apologetic about its complex heroes (both beaten and beaters) so much as it is “raided with mercy” for the fact that “black pain is like everywhere, trending.” The speaker herself “caress[es] [her] throat checking for rope.”

Most of the poems are superimposed on collages of photographs, advertisements, Google searches, or Twitter posts. The images are grainy, and sometimes difficult to read, but the pixilation prevents us from aestheticizing, say, a photograph of Bree Newsome removing a Confederate flag from a flagpole. Spaces between blocks of texts are carefully positioned against particular features of the underlying images, which are effectively highlighted wherever the text leaves off. The poems themselves are ear-forward strings of sonic suggestion that stumble into meaning as a horn player might find a melody at the end of an improvisatory riff (although the book is resolute that “even jazz can’t save a capitalist”). In one of the last poems, we encounter the sudden “BREAKING NEWS” of “11 OFFICERS KILLED, 4 DEAD” where we’d expect to see music emerging from the vertical soprano sax composing one half of a cross advertising Saint John Coltrane African Orthodox Church.

The final section (introduced, as the others are, by a reprinted flyer cautioning against “Let[ing] Your Children Buy, or Listen To These Negro Records”) is titled “The Black Didactic: Seven Modes for Hood Science,” and includes micro-essays on Charles Mingus, polygamy, Mukbang, and herbalism. The “modes” are resolutely instructive about how to live, and play effectively off the more opaque, self-surprising, associative language happening throughout the rest of the book: “Where are the niggas,” a brilliant late poem asks, “who know about statelessness and still wear dazed / Nikes with a three piece Are we marvelous?”