Everytime A Knot Is Undone, A God Is Released
reviewed by Lucy Biederman
Barbara Chase-Riboud, in addition to being the author of Everytime A Knot Is Undone, A God Is Released, is a renowned sculptor. An African-American who has lived for decades in Paris, she is celebrated for addressing the brutalities of American slavery from an international perspective. Many of her pieces, like the Malcolm X Steles, which include Malcolm #13 and Little Gold Flag look bombastic, majestic—evocative of the pageantry with which (as scholars like Elleke Boehmer and Homi Bhabha warn us) high imperialism imposes its authority. The heavy silk ropes hanging from Little Gold Flag look like something that would tie back the curtain at an opera or hang from the cape of a king. However, they evoke, simultaneously, that part of imperialism that pageantry is often intended to distract from. That is, those ropes also look like they could be put to use on the great ships that brought Africans to America as slaves. In a video from 1971 (warning: she is so beautiful in this video you might spontaneously burst into tears), Chase-Riboud talks about the process of treating the bronze material with fire to create a sense of stillness and motion in the pieces. That contradiction, written into her very materials, seems designed to speak to the hypocrisies of slavery in freedom-loving America.
Robert Hayden explores this contradiction, which is not really a contradiction but a defining feature of American life, in his meticulously researched yet lyrically dexterous long poem “Middle Passage” (1966), the many speakers of which include a Spanish slaver from The Amistad arguing his case against the United States:
We find it paradoxical indeed that you whose wealth, whose tree of liberty are rooted in the labor of your slaves should suffer the august John Quincy Adams to speak with so much passion of the right of chattel slaves to kill their lawful masters and with his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s garland for Cinquez.
Hayden uses blank verse so masterfully here, letting the long sentence (which I think is a direct quotation from the Supreme Court case The United States vs. The Amistad), with its many clauses, twist across those neatly metered lines, like two different ways of reasoning at war. “With his Roman rhetoric weave a hero’s garland” sounds like a description of the way Satan speaks in Paradise Lost.
Okay. I have stalled enough. I am talking about Chase-Riboud’s sculptures and Hayden’s poetry because who doesn’t like talking about things they like? And the truth is, the contradictions that stir me in Chase-Riboud’s heavy, light sculptures feel flattened in her book. Gore Vidal (who was such a pro book reviewer that his book reviews hardly glanced at the books they were reviewing) called Harold Acton’s More Memoirs of an Aesthete “a work to be cherished for its quite remarkable number of unaesthetic misprints and misspellings.” As a product of an artist with such obvious aesthetic vision, Chase-Riboud’s Everytime A Knot Is Undone is strangely unaesthetic—down to the level of misprints and misspellings. These poems don’t seem like they could have been made by the same person who makes those brilliantly accomplished sculptures.
Shifts from present tense to past tense seem to happen out of the author not paying attention, like in a poem to poor Mary McCarthy (or “Mary Maccarthy”) that is fully justified and the first letter of every line is capitalized. The second sentence of this three-sentence poem is distinctly un-Mary McCarthy-like in its rambling; it doesn’t seem like much of a tribute to someone whose sentence-making—particularly her punctuation!—was so on point. Here’s that second sentence (and I’m sorry, but you’ll just have to imagine the justification situation. I can’t figure out how to recreate it):
The sun was in those sapphire-blue eyes that rarely if ever Believe what they learn in this unremorseful and imprecise World, bestowing that dazzling New England smile, polite, Smashing; the smile that stuns the most armed and vigilant Intelligence though you flash it in warning just before a Philistine & exquisitely formed pretension is squashed under Your raised eyebrow like a baby squab underfoot, but today You gossip housewifely, contentedly illuminated in Paris, Your arms full of flowers for the flat, veal chops in your Shopping bag for lunch.
I don’t mean to harp on the negative, but in the interest of describing this book as I see it, let me call your attention to the awkwardness of the metaphor “exquisitely formed pretension is squashed under / Your raised eyebrow like a baby squab underfoot,” offering the unhelpful image of a raise that squashes, and, because of the lineation, further inviting us to liken the eyebrow to the baby squab. I note this because the badness of its metaphors are one of the book’s most salient qualities. There are a lot of abstractions and intense piles of Latinate words. In a long, unforgiving sequence about Antony and Cleopatra, Antony speaks of how “Music, the gleam of a sigh’s longest pause, // Sweeps against the silk edges of solid sound,” of “the slap of Eros on mortal flesh.” In “The Divorce of Comrade Wu and Comrade Lui,” “They labor over / Mounds of resentment and disappointment, / Canyons of boredom and misunderstandings, / Summits of mistakes and miscellaneous…” You get the picture.
The last thing I will say about Chase-Riboud’s writing is that the essentialist view of gender and race in the book strikes me as out of sync with contemporary conversations, even in the American mainstream, about these issues and identities. For example, in “Letter From Mongolia,” the Mongolian people are repeatedly praised as those “Whose men speak in epic poetry / Like Native Americans.” This makes me think of the stereotype of the noble savage, an image that even our culturally conservative mainstream sometimes resists. Whatever the writer’s opinions or leanings, editorial or authorial notes to the poems could have helped place many of these moments in context.
The book is also very poorly edited. When I was little, I used to have this fear that I was the only person who had ever read the weird books I found in the library, like Carrie, not by Stephen King, in which girl threw up from drinking tea with lemon in it, or a series called something like Ballet Shoes. When I finally confessed this fear to my mom, she told me about editors. I was so relieved, not being all alone with these books.
However, I think I actually might be the only person who has read Everytime A Knot Is Undone, A God Is Released, at least all the way through, because if an editor had been here before me, they probably would have fixed at least some of the typos. Frustratingly, the punctuation at the end of lines is irregular and unpredictable, both within poems and across the book. I spent a lot of time trying to work out what I thought was interesting syntax and always, literally every time, turned out to be a missing period or comma in an otherwise punctuated poem. There is a chronology of the author’s life in the back of the book, adapted from a recent museum exhibition catalogue, which makes me think and hope that sculpture is where Chase-Riboud’s attention lies—as in, she didn’t bother to create, or have someone else create, a new, poetry-specific chronology for this book. But it would have been helpful to have more paratexts, like an introduction and information about when, how, or if these poems were published previously. The poems are organized in groups, but according to the table of contents, these groups overlap and zigzag chronologically, and it’s unclear when most of the poems, in any of the groups, were written and/or published. That information would help readers. For instance, maybe that stuff about Native American men speaking epic poetry was written a long time ago. Part of what’s so exciting about reading Adrienne Rich, for example, is how she revises her old ways of thinking. It would signify quite differently if editors of her work left readers to guess whether “Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers” was written before or after “An Atlas of the Difficult World.” As Rich says in “When We Dead Awaken,” “Re-vision—the act of looking back, of seeing with fresh eyes, of entering an old text from a new critical direction—is for women more than a chapter in cultural history: it is an act of survival.” But readers of Everytime A Knot Is Undone are not witness to Chase-Riboud’s acts of re-vision because we do not have information about the composition dates for the vast majority of these poems, and their arrangement in the book has nothing to do with chronology.
I feel bad about saying all this, even though I know Chase-Riboud can take it, and I even more than that, I know she will never read this. She’s an art world star, and I read all about that rarified air in Forty-One False Starts, by Janet Malcolm.
So why do I still feel so bad? I, not Barbara Chase-Riboud, am Ballet Shoes, the book no one has ever read. Ballet Shoes is this review.