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On "I Am New York City"

Aldon Lynn Nielsen

After she moved to New York, her work in poetry began to be published with some frequency, and it became rapidly apparent that she had developed a poetics parallel to but genetically independent of the work of the Beats and the Black Mountain and New York school poets. Cortez shared with male poets like Johnston, Spellman, and Thomas the powerful connecting of surrealist methodology to a blues sensibility rooted in a reclaimed (or sometimes constructed) African scribal tradition, but she also brought to the mix a woman's realm of reference. In her poem "I Am New York City" the personification of the metropolis is specifically feminine:

approach me through my widows peak
through my split ends my
asthmatic laugh     approach me
through my wash rag
half ankle     half elbow
massage me with your camphor tears
    salute the patina and concrete
of my rat tail wig

To remark this black feminine constellation of referents is not to posit an essentialist argument about Cortez's poems. In fact, these lines from "I Am New York City" should be read intertextually, as a contrapuntal rereading of traditions within blues lyrics. The history of African-American lyrics includes both the literal and the figurative use of call and response. In the same way that the blues singer or jazz musician responds to the call of his or her own lines, and in the same way that the audience at a live performance enters into a call-and-response relationship with the artists, joining them together in a community of innovation and meaning making, the recording history of blues and its popular music descendants is marked by the constant appearance of "answer" records, as when "Work with Me Annie" drew the response lyric by Etta James, "Roll with Me, Henry," a song that was retitled "Wallflower" to get past the censorship of the radio programmers. Cortez's lines about "split ends" and "rat tail wigs" are a woman's answer to, among many other things, a lineage of male-authored blues songs about short-haired women and their wigs. (Lightnin' Hopkins's "I don't want no woman if her hair ain't no longer than mine" is one ready example.)

From Black Chant: Languages of African-American Postmodernism. Copyright 1997 by Cambridge University Press.

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