Carl Phillips has often awarded the Yale Younger Poets Prize to poets of color: 5 of the 11 texts he has chosen since assuming judgeship in 2011 have been by Latinx, AAPI, or Black poets. Its longer-term history has, however, been complicated for Black poets. Margaret Walker became in 1942 the first Black woman to receive a national writing accolade when Stephen Vincent Benét awarded For My People, predating Gwendolyn Brooks’s Pulitzer. Yet it was not until Phillips that another African American won: Airea D. Matthews’s simulacra in 2016.
So as a scholar of contemporary Black poetry interested in prizes, I was especially excited to read the 2020 winner: What Noise Against the Cane by Trinidadian-American Desiree C. Bailey. Phillips’s foreword notes that this text has both “epic sweep”—in its opening long poem about the Haitian Revolution—and an “intima[te]” “psychological journey” (vii) in the lyrics of the second half that reflect stunningly on the dislocation of a Caribbean immigrant. The text more than lives up to his praise in its distinctive experimentation and voice.
This work feels strikingly unique in no small part because of the juxtaposition between the poetic speaker(s) and the observations of what Bailey “affectionately” dubs “the Sea Voice” (Collins n.p.), which features as italicized running commentary in the bottom margins. This “Sea Voice” lets readers in on the compositional process: the poet supposedly found this voice dominating against her will and sought to re-wrest authorial control through recourse to formatting.
Yet the sea proves recalcitrant, to say the least. She saucily speaks back to the “main” poetry, using language that meta-critiques the idea that the poet could “take back control” and become “di captain” (24–5) by relegating her to literal margins. Phillips describes this “bawdy, philosophical” (xii) ocean through reference to Kamau Brathwaite. It does reflect this influence, and much should be said about Bailey’s whole collection, especially its debts to Caribbean poets. But I am especially interested in how Bailey’s “Sea Voice” evokes Brenda Marie Osbey and M. NourbeSe Philip.
Osbey is a shamefully lesser-known New Orleans-based Black poet whose History and Other Poems (2012) features a saucy, epic-scope tone that seems perhaps influential for Bailey. Osbey’s prophetic speaker emphasizes that “there is no history of this world that is not written in black” (58) and critiques Western imperialism. Too, she meta-critiques the role poetic devices play in perpetuating problematic values, through commands like the order to “bring me the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor” (66). In her first collection, Bailey already approaches this authority Osbey exercises farther along in her career, similarly exploring meta-poetically how Noise might undermine exploitative systems.
More than the physical positioning of the “Sea Voice” strongly parallels Philip’s choice to insert into Zong! imagined names for those massacred in the location normally occupied by footnotes. On top of this parallel, Bailey uses the Sea Voice to express (or the Sea Voice insists upon expressing) similar messaging to that of Philip’s “Notanda” explicating her process. Therein, Philip explains how writing about this horrifying history repeatedly evaded her control, resulting in her shifting her self-imposed procedural rules as she went and maintaining in the final version formatting that felt beyond her choosing. She writes, for instance, about how during drafting her “laser printer for no apparent reason printed the first two or three pages superimposed” and she maintained the resulting “dense landscape of text” (206). However, this meta-narrative remains confined to that endnote.
Bailey’s process becomes far messier (hard as that might be for those familiar with Zong! to imagine). While the layout of What Noise Against the Cane in no way approaches the former’s cacophony, the “Sea Voice” evinces similar issues—and leaves them more open-ended because inserted throughout. To illustrate, let me quote several pages: “But ent / I tell yuh bout Miss Ting? Miss Poet? Bout how di human at di center? Is funny. Big me, wit all dis / power, all dis goodlookin flesh dat yuh body cyah ignore. I have to squeeze up muhself inside she idea. I / have to look where she lookin. Talk how she want me to talk. I have to mak muhself a woman. Make / muhself a goddess. Make muhself whatever she need me to be. And she need me to be plenty. She need / me to be a keeper ah all she memory. . . . [and] make she feel safe.” (53–60). This dynamic between Bailey and the Sea Voice who resists complicity with Bailey’s project is complex, particularly because the most meta-reflective comments unfold in the second half, underneath more explicitly personal poems.
Those latter pieces present not only striking reflections on migrating to New York from Trinidad and Tobago (also Philip’s homeland). They also meta-interrogate the function of the first-person: “To stitch myself, there must be no me. I must cover the me to make room. I must dig and bury the me. Which is to say I am floating on the light” (61). This effort to “dig and bury” a self—juxtaposed with “floating,” typically associated with bodies of water—positions the speaker in constant conflict with the Sea Voice.
In a 2020 interview, Bailey emphasized that “the things that you try to resist in your writing end up being what you keep coming back to” (WSR n.p.). The Sea Voice resists on every page, creating a productively disjointed reading experience. Should we read the “main” texts first and return to the commentary all at once, to process how its labyrinthine sentences unfold over numerous pages? Or attempt to absorb as one goes? This uncertainty seems a large part of the point of Bailey’s “noisy” text, which I urge all to read.
Bailey, Desiree C. What Noise Against the Cane. New Haven: Yale UP, 2021. Print.
Collins, Corrine. “A Space to Swim Within the Loss: An Interview with Desiree C. Bailey.” Air/Light. Issue 4: Fall 2021. 22 Sept. 2021. Web. https://airlightmagazine.org/etc/conversations/a-space-to-swim-within-the-loss-an-interview-with-desiree-c-bailey/. Accessed 30 Jan 2022. Electronic.
“‘Literary Success is Having the Latitude to Show Up’: An Interview with Desiree C. Bailey.” Washington Square Review. 22. Dec. 2020. Web. https://www.washingtonsquarereview.com/blog/2020/12/22/an-interview-with-desiree-c-bailey. Accessed 30 Jan. 2022. Electronic.
Osbey, Brenda Marie. History and Other Poems. New York: Time Being Books, 2012. Print.
Philip, M. NourbeSe. Zong!. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan UP, 2008. Print.
Phillips, Carl. “Foreword.” What Noise Against the Cane. New Haven: Yale UP, 2021. vii–xiii.