The Short Version: A new collection of poetry, essays, and script excerpts from one of our most fiery and passionate artists on the general theme of America, both now and then.
The Review: I discovered Saul Williams in 2007 when Trent Reznor helped produce his phenomenal The Inevitable Rise and Liberation of Niggy Tardust and they gave it away as a pay-what-you-can sort of deal – this was immediately post-In Rainbows – and I had my mind blown the first time the needle dropped. This is six years before Yeezus and, when that record came out, I thought “shit, Kanye just tried to pull a Saul.” I simply hadn’t been prepared for that Niggy Tardust, on any level, and it absolutely revolutionized my listening habits.
Fast forward to the present. After a stint in Paris, an intriguing (if less dynamic) follow-up record, and an unfortunately curtailed stint on Broadway, Williams has been building up to his next masterpiece: a multi-platform tale about a character (a hacker from Burundi) who goes by the name Martyr Loser King. And along the way, he got commissioned to put together a collection of poetry reflecting on America today – on the post-2008 (if not quite post-Obama) moment, especially as seen from the outside. The outside meaning from Paris, perhaps – but Williams has always been an outsider, on so many levels, and this collection (while it should bring him further attention, as will hopefully the MLK record) retains that outsider’s view to great effect.
It is structured not dissimilarly to Claudia Rankine’s Citizen: An American Lyric in that it is not just poetry: there are essays that open the collection, drafts of screenplays, and poems that are actually songs (or is it the other way around?) dotting the pages. The polyphony of voices in this country is mirrored by Williams’ insistence in presenting things in whatever form feels right – and while sketches of an unfinished screenplay about the relationship between Miles Davis and Juliette Gréco might not immediately seem like the sort of thing that would shed light on America today… of course it does. And Williams, in his introductory essays, gives the reader all the clues they’ll need to see the bigger picture of the pieces in this work.
It’s the essay called “Prologue” that had really kicked things off for me, which Williams opens with the line “Suddenly, it’s all too much.” He’s talking about the rise of technology, the proliferation of access and accessibility – and the way that it creates a sort of low-level roar when you think about it too much. That, more than anything, is perhaps the point of this collection: to acknowledge the roar and attempt to slice through it a little bit.
Some of the poems are about race, specifically. Some are, more broadly, about our responsibility to as members of the human race to one another and to the planet. Others are about being an artist, a writer, a thinker, a father. Perhaps the best poem in the entire collection, “Fck the Beliefs”, manages to address all of these questions at once under the banner headline of “beliefs”: “beliefs are the police of the mind,” says Williams before concluding the poem thusly (forgive the large excerpt, but it is too good not to share):
What is your mind’s
Do you detain
that may have entered
your mind illegally
against the wishes
of your parents
or simply against
of your own comfort?
Are there other thoughts
you have allowed to go
because they seem
with your so-called
Are you certain
you are not a victim
of identity fraud?
I can’t think of a more coherent, more powerful, more accurate summation of the way we think today. At a time when the younger generations are moving towards equality even as the old guard of old white men freak the hell out over their diminishing influence, it’s hard not to constantly think about identity – the one constructed, the one you’re born with, the disparities between those two and any others you might seek to try on… A poem like this alone makes this collection a must-read.
Admittedly, the collection is a little overstuffed, especially (in retrospect) the opening section. Part b. sees Williams presenting a film script interspersed with poetry that challenges both forms in a way that forces them – the forms – to rise to the occasion of the text and Part c., “Sketches of L’Héroïne”, shows that Williams’ poetic, musical mind could do wonders with the story of a soul like Miles’. The interesting thing about these moments is that they are made stronger by the poetry surrounding them – and made clearer, too. Part a. has within its bounds the best writing in the collection but it also contains some poems that are just fine, just good. This is, of course, a wonderful problem to have – but I wished for a little tightening in order to make the whole work pop all the stronger.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5. There is a rumor, I don’t know how reliable, that US(a.) may only be the first in a series, that we may see (b.) and (c.) and so on, someday. Hints of Williams’ next work are clearly found in this collection: “Horn of the Clock Bike”, a strange poem when seen on the page, is turned into a dark night’s lullaby when set to music and I look forward to seeing which other poems appear changed and metamorphosed on Martyr Loser King. Regardless, though, this collection is a long-needed shout from one of the most potent vanguard artists of the world. We’re lucky enough that he wants to think about the problems of America – and maybe we ought to listen.