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Amodern 10: Disability Poetics
December 2020

SPEAKING OF MESSES

Stutter as Black/Crip Coalitional Method in Douglas Kearney's Poetics

Jessica Suzanne Stokes

Throughout his career as a poet, Cave Canem Fellow, educator, and librettist, Douglas Kearney has been invested in Black cultural creation, its multiplicity of voices (what he calls Black density/“dinsity”), and the messiness of both culture and cultural creation. In Mess and Mess and, Kearney’s 2015 book fusing poetics, personal narrative, theory, and history, he writes: “Another mess I fly to is culture. Perhaps humanity’s biggest mess, its biggest baddest Motile Mutable, its most fertile shit.”1 With mess as a critical methodology, or, what I call a messodology, Kearney engages fragmentation, failure, polyvocality, and even stutter, as he sinks into the potentially fraught and generative tensions of disability and race. Using mess as a way to add multiplicity and meaning to his work, Kearney lingers with the possibilities of fragmentation that the stutter offers. By remaining attentive to practices of voice, individual specificity, and cultural expectations, Kearney’s work DISplays the necessity of a multiplicity of voices in cultural creation.

In his essay, “The Stutter,” Kearney locates the stutter in Black musical influences. He notes the ways in which “West African compositional systems valorize the Stutter, its repetition creating a circularity relocating the ‘reward’ of listening to music from its end to its process.”2 This passage places the stutter in conversation with both crip and Black poetics, hearkening to its act as embodied practice while also addressing its position culturally. While Kearney does not identify as disabled, his writing and scholarship find ways in which disability and Blackness overlap and mutually inform one another. Kearney sinks into the mess of culture, particularly into representations of stutter. The stutterer has consistently been reduced to stereotype, and Kearney himself, not having one but taking one on, risks reinforcing these tropes. However, Kearney’s willingness to linger in the mess where racist representations of Black people as outside of language sit alongside stereotypes of stutterers allows him to create not stereotype but the possibility of a polyvocality that attends to the tense and overlapping histories of anti-Blackness and ableism. The Stutter, in Kearney’s figuration, is one that disrupts linear expectations of performance; it re-focuses the listener’s attention to the process in ways that allow for a multiplicity of re-refocusings.

Kearney is concerned with the ways those deemed part of the mess, “the so-called out-of-place[,] make space for themselves – a way out of “No Way(!)”3 He explains that “these methods are often messy.”4 In a review of Kearney’s 2014 book of poetry, Patter, Stefanie Wortman notes that “Kearney so often experiments with typography [in his poems] that they are difficult to quote.”5 In a description of his own painstaking labors with typography in image editing software, Kearney explains, “I want you to see the cut.”6 Here, Kearney, who has been described as “a man who mistook his mouth for a sledgehammer,”7 also mistakes his editing software for a knife: fragmenting language a letter at a time. He is deeply invested in process: its difficulty and relation to fragmentation; he often uses the size and position of letters to place multiple, frictional voices and interpretations on the page. In a description of Kearney’s poetry on the back of The Black Automaton, Greg Tate writes that it’s “not easily parsed if you haven’t digested every major hiphop lyric composed between 1979 and 1983 and spent a considerable amount of time backtracking the library stacks stuffed with Zora Neale Hurston and Ishmael Reed’s neo/folkloric trails.”8 Kearney’s messodology offers a means to wade through a wide range of vocal practices while attending to fluctuating relationships of power.  In Kearney’s work, these multiple vocal and historical registers are fragmented and messed with; they repeat and sometimes stutter.

The fragments and returns in Kearney’s work are emphasized in his performances. During his lecture at Michigan State University as part of the Hyphens series of talks, Douglas Kearney begins a phrase his audience thinks they know the end to: “#blacklives…” Using a delivery style that emphasizes stops and starts, Kearney builds up anticipation of the word “matter” before ending the phrase with the word “stutter” instead.9 A quick disability studies reading of this moment might collapse Kearney’s performance of the stutter while not himself having a stutter to one of “cripping up” – appropriating representations of disability by non-disabled people. In “The Visualization of the Twisted Tongue: Portrayals of Stuttering in Film, Television, and Comic Books,” Jeffrey K. Johnson writes, “stuttering is often used as a crude formulaic storytelling device that adheres to basic misconceptions about the condition. Stuttering is frequently used as visual shorthand to communicate humor, nervousness, weakness, or unheroic/villainous characters.”10 While there are many reasons to be wary when an author without a stutter takes one on, Kearney’s work can’t be accounted for with a stamp of trope or appropriation. The matter of the stutter, for Kearney in particular, is one that is necessary to understanding Black experimental poetics. I argue that mess makes room for more nuanced engagements with the stutter than a quick reading of trope allows. Rather than being a flat aesthetic appropriation of style, Kearney mobilizes the stutter in recognition of its complexly embodied nature. In so doing, Kearney develops narratives of trauma, resistance, and refusal in a linguistic style that fragments meaning into a multiplicity of possibilities. Kearney’s navigation of the stutter recognizes the overlapping impacts of historical violence against disabled people and Black people, disabled and nondisabled alike.

The potential of repetition in Black and crip poetics is one that is invested in making space, rather than coming to a predetermined end; repetition thickens the space of the process. Black Studies and English scholar Christina Sharpe insists, “we must become undisciplined. The work we do requires new modes and methods of research and teaching” and in this case, new methods of poetics.11 Rather than falling into predetermined patterns and predictable representations of Blackness, Kearney’s work opens up representations outside of conventional literary structures (and typeface) and white, non-disabled notions of who has power in language. In his evaluation of the Stutter, Kearney emphasizes its potential for making mess: “the aggressive Stutter breaks English in a way vernacular never can. Conversely, the abject Stutterer seems afflicted, inarticulate, anxious, snared in language . . . The Stutterer is a skipping record and may strike and strike and strike interminably.”12 Here, the Stutter and Stutterer do not engage with language as a transaction. Instead, the end becomes meaningless; focus shifts to the process: the act, the person uttering. The act of stuttering becomes “a plastic plaything available to . . . be re-shaped and revised, each repetition of sound an event for another take.”13 The Stutter allows for repetitions that do not build or accumulate, instead emphasizing ways in which to alter, to play, and to become malleable in the act. As a Black/crip poetic act, the S/stutter becomes a way not to build to a fantastical next step, but to become attentive to process, to make space in the mess for alternate possibilities.

Kearney generatively uses messes, such as the stutter, to develop meaning; his willingness to engage in, and document, failure emphasizes the potentials within repetition that resists productivity.  Kearney engages mess as a method of making in his poem “Live/Evil” from his 2006 collection Fear, Some and in his later description of the poem’s process in Mess and Mess and. Kearney states, “my failure here was to use a rhetorical strategy (demesnes of metaphor, simile, personification) which equated a human being with an insect and CD packaging.”14 In the process of writing a poem meant to call out Miles Davis’ abuse of women, particularly Cicely Tyson, Kearney finds himself using a rhetorical strategy that is ontologically violent. He is writing after heeding Pearl Cleage’s call in her essay “Mad at Miles” to destroy physical copies of Davis’ music in response to his history of abuse.15 First he destroys his physical CD collection, and then he works to smash those CDs on the page. He describes “a pin’s point affixing a butterfly to a collector’s box; Davis’ fist pummeling his one-time wife, Cicely Tyson; and [his] mallet smashing one of Davis’ CDs . . . the acts of violence switch victims, revising and restating the lines.”16 In this shifting violence, Kearney’s response to Davis’ “pummeling” ends up dehumanizing Tyson. Kearney himself becomes part of the pummeling through his rhetorical destruction of CDs. He finds himself equating “butterflies, CD cases, and Cicely Tyson.”17 His rebuttal to Davis through smashing CDs first physically and later rhetorically does not undo past violence. Yet he leaves the mess on the page, “a document of failures.”18

This ontological violence has been continuously wielded against Black people and Black women in particular within the mess of culture in which Kearney treads. Of her work In the Wake: On Blackness and Being, Sharpe writes, “My project looks instead to current quotidian disasters in order to ask what, if anything, survives this insistent Black exclusion, this ontological negation, and how do literature, performance, and visual culture observe and mediate this un/survival.”19 Kearney, too, is interested in everyday disaster, in failure, and in what to do with the rubble. Rather than “erase the unintended failure and proceed apace,” Kearney chooses to sit in the mess of context, intent, and action to remain with the violence of “dehumanization that happens figuratively as a matter of course” in poems, particularly love poems, and to “pick up the pieces.”20 From there, he comes to ask, “what have we made???!!!”21 This questioning recognizes how he is mired in the violence, the smashing of CDs he himself equated with women. The violence is not just over there. Kearney uses his position in the mess to question the relationship between rhetorical violence and domestic violence. Kearney’s reaction to his own participation in this violence, his unintended failure, is not to erase or to cover it, but to hold it and display it to readers. Kearney uses his failure within the poem to engage in conversations of collective ontological violence. By doing so, he brings the reader into the “we” that created this violence, a “we” that “didn’t exist before [Kearney] realized [his] failure.”22 Kearney does not just sort through mess in his crafting of “Live/Evil,” nor just in his book Mess and Mess and; he retells this story on his visit to Michigan State University. In Mess and Mess and and elsewhere, Kearney engages with mess as method and as a repetitive method at that.

Messodology is a term I use to describe a set of material metaphoric practices employed by scholars, activists, and poets engaged with disability and race. Such practices defy clear delineations between archives and hold (often-contradictory) ideas in tension. Mess takes many forms as a variety of material objects and ideas. The OED defines mess alternately as a “portion or serving of liquid or pulpy food,” “situation or state of affairs that is confused or presents numerous difficulties,” “collection of disordered things,” “person who is dirty or untidy in appearance,” and “military unit or ship’s company… taking their meals together.”23 The materiality of metaphor discussed by Black feminist and disability theorist Sami Schalk is a way of working through a difficult state of affairs and holding together metaphor and materiality, two contested concepts at the intersection of race and disability. Disabled trans poet and activist Eli Clare’s use of “mosaic” as a writing method addresses the simultaneous ways in which cure is a “knot of contradictions. Cure saves lives; cure manipulates lives; cure prioritizes some lives over others; cure makes profits; cure justifies violence; cure promises resolutions to body-mind loss.”24 Clare arranges disordered concepts in his mosaic, portioning out arguments that do not easily align in order to navigate the messes of cure which simultaneously harm and support, presenting clashing tiles of ideas side by side without resolution. Linguist and material feminist Mel Chen navigates their work Animacies with a method they describe as “thinking and moving ferally;” they know this messy method makes it possible to navigate more than just untidy but actually “unstable terrain.” Simultaneously though, it puts them at risk of being labeled feral along with their text.25 Chen describes their feral approach as one that builds knowledge through a series of relations across disciplines–emphasizing their approach as “inviting and productive” in its multiplicity. It’s a method of messing with disciplinary boundaries that’s necessary in unstable ecosystems as well as unstable poetics. These disabled scholars and scholars of disability demonstrate the potential of lingering in the mess as a crip methodology for making connections at the intersection of race and disability.

In Mess and Mess and, Kearney is engaged over and over again with mess and mess’ repetitions and fragments. Kearney emphasizes the partial in his work. He describes his relationship with the words he writes as “becoming a kind of rubble [he] pick[s] through.”26 These pieces come together without becoming whole as Kearney works them forward and backward in his poems to generate meaning. The multiplicity of readings in Kearney’s work are part of mess as method for the poem’s craft and for the reader’s engagement with the poem.

In his Hyphens lecture, Kearney discusses the multiplicity of ways a poem can be read. In this discussion, he locates the audience/reader in the process of interpretation. While showcasing “Runs: Evening After the Bitter Winter,” Kearney introduces the potential that comes from the generative failure of a mondegreen – a mishearing of a lyric that is accepted, and as a result, the listener has “to construct a whole kind of shadow meaning of the song” to make the mis-hearing work.27 This failure to comprehend a lyric is generative; it creates two songs from one: song and shadow song. Through his fragmentary creations of meaning in poems, Kearney is both using mess as method for his own making as well as a way to make space for the reader’s failures and recreations. When discussing his method and methods he appreciates, Kearney articulates that “the poems I write and love to read often dog the fail. When so, writing is picking at the mess.”28 Here, it is not just that Kearney uses the fail, he “follow[s] like a dog on the heels of” failure in his own poetry and in the poetry of others. Failure is especially what Kearney is after. Mess, in turn, is a multiplicitous method, laden with repetitions/shadows and generative failures to be picked through.

Black cultural creation, particularly Black vocalization, is integral to Kearney’s work: from Public Enemy to Robert Hayden to Digital Underground to “the calypso-inspired [soundings of a Disney] . . . crab . . . with a generic Anglophone-Caribbean accent.”29 As such, in order to analyze the mess of culture surrounding Black vocalization as a means of further interrogating Kearney’s use of the stutter, I turn now to the recent controversy around Black vocalization in Jordan Peele’s horror film Us. Conversations around Us show the limitations of a solely-censorious disability studies reading of vocal difference used by a non-disabled performer. In the film, a traumatized Black woman, Red, who was raised from youth among a community of doppelgangers (leftover experimental duplicates of the people on the surface of the world) speaks only in hoarse croaks, struggling to produce audible sounds and frequently wheezing. In an interview, Lupita Nyong’o, who plays Red, explained that spasmodic dysphonia was part of her research for voicing the character. In the wake of the interview, national disability rights groups called on Lupita Nyong’o to apologize for utilizing a disability to portray an evil character. The National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association wrote “spasmodic dysphonia is not a creepy voice, it’s not a scary voice” and the president of RespectAbility wrote “connecting disabilities to characters who are evil further marginalizes people with disabilities.”30 While Nyong’o did apologize, she did not apologize for crafting the voice of an evil character: “In my mind, I wasn’t interested in vilifying or demonising the condition . . . I crafted Red with love and care. As much as it [was] in a genre-specific world, I really wanted to ground her in something that felt real. For all that, I say sorry to anyone that I may have offended.”31 While disability rights groups insisted that Red as a character was evil, she is more complicated than that. Instead of embodying the trope that a disability marks a character as evil, Red’s speech practices open out to signal a long and lasting history at the intersection of disability and Blackness. Lingering with the choice to have a Black woman who was experimented upon have difficulty being heard nods to the ongoing violence being done by disregarding Black women’s voices and Black women’s pain in hospitals.32 At the same time that the performance takes on certain problematic representations of disability, it complicates such performance by representing material repercussions of ongoing encounters with racism and ableism. In a similar fashion, Kearney’s work addresses histories of the intersections of race and disability. His intertextual engagement with cultural creation (like the aforementioned lyrics of Public Enemy and the poetry of Robert Hayden) and their messy legacies shows an awareness to the ways in which they engage with material and metaphorical valences of disability.

Those who condemn the use of spasmodic dysphonia as a form of usurping disability narratives draw from an argument that having nondisabled actors portray disabled characters or having nondisabled characters metaphorically employ disability as a stock feature of characterization curtails lived disabled experience. This argument, through Mitchell and Snyder in the early 2000s, is articulated as “narrative prosthesis:” the process by which disability is used as a prop to elevate non-disabled protagonists through the narrative process and ignore the potentiality of a lived disabled existence.33 In following this critique, disabled bloggers and commenters (many who have not seen the film) return to the disability rights motto: “Nothing about us without us!” There has been a long-standing insistence within the field of disability studies and among disabled activists that the presence of lived disabled experience is necessary to convey disabled narratives. Indeed, following Nyong’o’s apology, Black disabled blogger Imani Barbarin, who writes as Crutches and Spice, notes that while she “appreciate[s] the apology that Ms. Nyong’o issued on using disability to express her character”34 which is “more accountability than disabled people are used to when it comes to disability in the media,” there is still work to be done. Barbarin asks for greater involvement of the disabled community in shaping representation. Raising his voice in support of Nyong’o and in support of greater representation of Black disabled people, Black disability activist and poet Leroy Moore critiques the lack of representation not in the film but in prominent disability rights organizations. He notes that “the director of RespectAbility has a history of making racist comments and a lot more” and that the photograph of the The National Spasmodic Dysphonia Association only shows white people; he further supports Nyong’o by pointing out that “Lupita Nyong [sic] even had vocal injury in her life.”35 Rather than focus on the criticism being levied by disability rights groups, Moore notes that further representation and incorporation of Black, disabled characters (and more importantly, Black disabled actors) is a necessity. Barbarin and Moore argue for increased representation and for the necessity of complex engagements with representation, disability, and Blackness.

The question arises, then, in terms of the film and in terms of Kearney’s use of the stutter, who is the “us” in “Nothing about us without us?” To complicate the reading of Red: her voice is one of a character who has been historically wounded and whose present is informed both by the past physicality of wound and the metaphorical impacts of it. As a child, Red lived above ground, but on a vacation in Santa Cruz, she was captured and chained to a bed by her doppelganger who took her place aboveground. The character Red is not the villain many who haven’t seen the film would assume she is as the result of the horror genre. Instead, Red has lived her life as a member of a group of doppelgängers created in a failed government experiment and forced to live underground eating only raw rabbits. Her voice is one that has been suppressed for decades and conveys both material and metaphorical pain. Nyong’o also did not craft Red’s voice based only on approximation of others’ experiences; she relied on “a composite of influences” including “laryngeal fractures, vocal cord haemorrhages and [her] own experiences with vocal injury.”36 Her material experiences with vocal injury entwine with her interpretations of spasmodic dysphonia to create a voice linked to material and metaphorical experiences of vocal difference.

Kearney attends to voice in his own work while deeply aware of the violent cultural tropes meant to animalize, dehumanize, and paint Black people as evil. All the while, he is attuned to the increased risks of becoming disabled within a culture that allows for the dehumanization and violence against Black people that Schalk describes as being at the crux of the intersection of race and disability: “[Black people] and the poor are more likely to have experiences on the borders or outside of able-bodiedness and able-mindedness.”37 In “Fish Hook Lure,” Kearney does not employ his usual polyvocal, multifont(phon)ic approach to poetry. The poem has an “I” as its speaker instead of many “I”s. In it though, the speaker writes about the act of writing and sinking into a culture full of violence in the form of fish hooks: fish hooks he gets paid to sell. After the weekend, the speaker “Put[s] on clothing/ that best suits /a fish hook lure.”38 Here the language has multiple meanings. It could be clothing meant “to lure” others to buy fish hooks or clothing that itself is most easily hooked by a “lure” (that is, a fish hook). This act of luring places the speaker of the poem in the middle of a cycle, both making and becoming the target(s) of the lure. He is meant to sell this violence with words; yet he’s aware of the harmful culture in which he speaks and writes that perhaps sees him as a fish to be hooked or otherwise animalized. The speaker knows how the violent horror that he writes about and within will catch and has caught his bodymind: “Mind and mouth / full of fish hooks.”39 What the reader is left with is a question of how ongoing practices of survival and imagining otherwise are possible in spaces of disabling violence, dehumanization, and animalization. As a bodymind “full of fish hooks,” the speaker of the poem has obviously been hooked more than once, yet still survives to chase the lure again and survives and chases the lure again and again. The reader is left to sort through the mess: to imagine practices that might dislodge the hooks in themselves and to question the ways in which they presently are hooked on and hook others with structural violences designed to hook them.

The material and metaphorical are both necessary for interpreting the ways in which Kearney’s use of stuttering, specifically through its mess of repetition, functions as a coalitional method at the intersection of critical race theory and disability studies. Schalk offers a method for reading the metaphorical and material together to upend static understandings of metaphorical uses of disability. In her work, Bodyminds Reimagined, she “argue[s] that disability can take on both metaphorical and material meaning in a text” and that “refusing to read disability as a metaphor ignores the mutual constitution of (dis)ability, race, and gender as social categories and cultural discourses which have material effects on people’s lives.”40 For Schalk, disability characterization and worlding become an interconnected space in which to navigate experiences and expectations of disability as they relate to Black people. In Us, Red carries the pain of having been replaced while simultaneously engaging with historical narratives of being taken: of being pulled from a coherent “us” and still having to survive. The character is far from evil and is instead a member of an oppressed class of tethered people who have been experimented on by the government and forced to live in extreme poverty and isolation. Red’s voice, in this context, does not belong to a flat Hollywood villain, but a complex character who is re-locating a way of speaking after years of enforced silence. Schalk warns that “[w]hen disability studies scholars dismiss metaphorical uses of disability in relation to racial oppression, particularly slavery, we dismiss this history.”41 A thoughtful and prolonged engagement with Red and the world of Us allows for a reconceptualization of the potential linkages that exist in the mess of metaphor and material experiences represented therein.

Schalk’s reading of the material metaphor offers a hinge along which to pivot when considering Kearney’s engagement with the stutter. In his reflection on “Live/Evil” in Mess and Mess and, he tangles with metaphor but ultimately decides to leave it on the page despite, or perhaps because of its violence. Midway through the poem as presented in Mess and Mess and, the lines “butterwait. butterstay. butterstill”42 use stutter to linger within the rhetorical violences of the poem’s structure. The line immediately following acknowledges the violences within the mess are not over there but the linguistic structures we’re stuck within: “my fists are felt. SHIT! what have we made???!!!”43 Rather than choosing to get out of the muck of metaphor and wash his hands of the mess, Kearney remains, letting the poem “tell its truth.”44 Kearney’s willingness to remain in the mess positions him in contact with mess as method. The mess functions as a crip methodology by resisting normative sequences/practices. Instead of offering the false promise of a glimmering way out of the mess, Kearney’s practice is hole-istic: remaining with and thinking through fragments.

Crip is a model of disability that seeks out partners for political action; crip works within culture in order to affect change.45 Crip is a particularly generative understanding of disability due to its legacy in activism. In “Toward a Crip-of-Color Critique,” Jina B. Kim discusses a poetics of survival used by Black, queer, disabled women as one that mobilizes “language and culture to intervene into narratives of expendability, and to instead inscribe an existence for racialized, impoverished, and disabled populations that refuses the violence of the present.”46 Due to structures of power which enact violence on Black people, it is more likely that they will experience disability in their lifetime. Cultural and queer theory scholar Jasbir Puar refers to this potential for disablement as “debility” and calls for a reconceptualization of disability in ways that address this threat of violence. Puar uses debility as “a needed disruption of the category of disability and as a triangulation of the ability/disability binary, noting that while some bodies may not be recognized as or identify as disabled, they may well be debilitated, in part by being foreclosed access to legibility and resources as disabled.”47 Opening this conversation up to triangulation, Puar addresses how sociocultural practices disproportionately impact women and people of color and increase their likelihood of coming to harm. Working alongside this understanding, crip methodologies refuse to overlook or disregard cultural experience. Crip works to navigate power structures within the mess that disrupt the lives of Black people, disabled and non-disabled alike.

While Douglas Kearney’s work in the mess overlaps with crip methodologies, his explicit use and engagement with the stutter locates him in a coalitional space where Black and crip poetics reinforce one another. Discussing the stutter in terms of disability, Craig Dworkin notes,

when heard in the context of disability studies, the stutter – understood as a critical category flexible enough to negotiate between the impeding and the productive, between the embodied individual and the social abstract – offers one way to understand the full range of inarticulate effects on display in the writings of the avant-garde and its broad challenge to the ideologies of normalcy, fluency, transparently communicative expository eloquence, and any notion of a dematerialized or disembodied language.48

Here, Dworkin recognizes the potential of the stutter as crip methodology, specifically its ability to challenge “ideologies of normalcy, fluency, . . . eloquence, and any notion of a dematerialized or disembodied language” while also explaining that challenge is part of the efforts of avant-garde poetics as a whole. The stutter, for crip poetics, returns again and again to the body, to the mouth full of fish hooks, remaining attentive to the multiple levels of meaning that exist as material metaphors. The stutter refuses to be disembodied while simultaneously refusing to only ever be a bodily phenomenon. Kearney, in turn, takes up the messy multiplicity of the stutter in order to break down the normalcy of meaning making and mattering. As Kearney stakes the claim that “#blacklives… stutter,” he opens up the stutter as both a disruptive and coalitional sound and act.

In the six-page poem “The Voltron Communiqués,” Kearney implements fragmentariness, multivocality, and stutter. The poem is presented with a certain gravitas through its title; a communiqué is “an official announcement or report; esp. one delivered at the conclusion of a meeting, conference, etc. (now usually one concerned with diplomacy or international relations).”49 Meanwhile, the notes emphasize that Voltron is “a kick-ass anime robot composed of five lion-shaped space crafts.”50 In its title and notes, this poem is engaged in multiple, frictional discourses: from the playful description of “kick-ass” Voltron to the formal language used to communicate the message of a diplomatic meeting. The form of the poem itself is also multiple: evocative of both the writing of communiqués and screenplays. In all caps and bold, the poem’s sections begin like a screenplay setting the scene for each lion: one begins, “PAST THE PARAPET, FLURRIES, FEW STARS. ROUNDS EXPLODE ON DISTANT ROCKETS.”51 But then, the tone changes to communiqué, or is it just a letter? The first section is addressed “ATTN: BLACK LION,” “DEAR YELLOW LION,” and the fifth “TO: BLUE LION.”52 Once these scenes and addressees are set, the speaker begins what at first seems like a letter/second person address to each lion. Soon though, a second speaker (the lion being addressed) creeps into each section in italics and a third stomps into the “BLUE LION” section in caps. The voices do not build to realize a unified whole; instead they create distinctions, partiality, and fracture.

Kearney is not afraid to step into the dangers of a culture that seeks to animalize, dehumanize, objectify, and otherwise declare Black people out of place. In fact, he realizes he is already in the mess: “always neck deep, where the voicebox is.”53 The creation of sound, of language, is always happening in the mess of an anti-Black culture. In this poem, Kearney finds a way to move through the mess: not by ignoring centuries of animalization and dehumanization, but instead messing with them by ironizing and writing from the voice of a Black robot lion. As he does so, he does not leave Black cultural makers such as poet Paul Laurence Dunbar out of the mess/up on a pedestal. Instead, Kearney swallows him into the method. The speaker notes to the Black lion, “when you change / there’s a face in your mouth, you’re a circus act gone wrong.”54 The history of the circus, a place where Black performers were made to perform while billed as animal and even caged alongside animals is part of Kearney’s signaling here.55 Instead of stopping after drawing readers’ attention to that cultural horror, the Black Lion replies, “I ate Dunbar’s mask.”56 As Catherine Wagner says in her introduction, “Kearney’s poems tweak and skewer pop culture and literary sources,” including Dunbar.57 In this passage, Kearney is putting the mask from Dunbar’s “We Wear the Mask” into the mouth of a Black, automated lion. The mask that Dunbar’s speaker describes as providing its wearers opacity from the world is now inside the lion, a fragment of a “circus act gone wrong.” This moment offers a mess of signals: from the image of the five lions coming together into Voltron where the Black lion’s head holds Voltron’s head in its mouth (figure 1), to Dunbar’s poem, to the violence of circus, to the multiple voices that can exist in one speaker and one poem. All of these fragments of meaning are held in friction with bitter humor that can hold and acknowledge the mess of having to project multiple selves and vocalities as a way to survive this dehumanizing, animalizing culture.

A closeup of a Voltron figurine, showing a blue and silver face nested within the mouth of a Black lion.

Fig. 1: A closeup of a Voltron figurine, showing a blue and silver face nested within the mouth of a Black lion.

After moving through the fragmented addresses to and responses from the five lion-parts of Voltron, the final act of the poem is a communiqué from Voltron himself. Voltron is supposedly the unification of the five lions. Unlike the other polyvocal sections that still employ recognizable sentences and familiar line breaks, this communiqué instead is made of fragments and stutters. Slashes indicate line breaks where the line is unbroken and long spaces between words and parts of words multiply meanings and break apart language (this makes it difficult to cite, too!). Within these moments, Voltron articulates his plural self in parts: “we were in / peaces / and warring pieces / we couldn’t / form / ulate our bodies.58

This voice, as a stuttering, fragmented supposed whole, describes itself: both “warring” and “formulating” but not a “form.” This language draws attention to process and potential rather than product.  The fragmentary lines and pauses within suggest that Voltron, metaphorically, has not come together. The five lions have not unified – not become whole – but their fragments held alongside each other in the poem are breaking as a result of the poem’s stutter and offer a rubble of possibilities to pick through. While Voltron is not formed, the friction that arises from the fragmentary lions demonstrates methods for surviving in the mess that are themselves messy.

Repetition through the stutter does not focus building or resolution. Instead, stuttering breaks apart the shit we as scholars, poets, consumers of culture are in. The stutter is a way to destabilize relationships of language and power, break down the mess so that we might sort through it and offer up new possibilities through coalitional conversations. This possibility of destabilized language aligns with James Berger’s conceptualizations around the disarticulate/dysarticulate figure at the border of symbolic order: “the figure is forcibly severed from the social fabric, stigmatized, silenced, possibly physically dismembered . . . the figure is blocked from language, standing at the convergence of all of language’s impasses: those of injury, trauma, neurological variation, sociopolitical silencing, and the working of language itself as language plots its own aporias.”59 Kearney’s use of the stutter takes a place of action in this relationship, accepting past and present injury and historical trauma as a generative force and means to push back as sociopolitical silencing. During his Hyphens lecture, Kearney uses hiphop music and vocals as an example of the ways in which this practice creates space in the mess: “The reason why Public Enemy and other sample-based hip-hop works the way it does is because you’re hearing several different texts at the same time, talking to each other, elbowing each other for space.”60 He talks about wanting not just a simplified ekphrasis that takes the music and puts its contents – but not its feeling – on the page. Instead, he focuses on the multiplicity of voices and signals, “All the reverb in that creates depth, creates space . . . it’s the simultaneity that makes it powerful.”61 The stuttering that comes from repetitions, from samples, from the ongoing process of multiplicity starts to break apart hegemonic notions of language, making space for a multiplicity of voices from a multiplicity of voices.


  1. Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and (Blacksburg: Noemi. 2015), 22. 

  2. Kearney, Mess, 75. 

  3. Kearney, Mess and Mess and, 22. 

  4. Kearney, Mess, 22. 

  5. Stefanie Wortman, “Book review: Patter by Douglas Kearney,” monkeybicycle, 16 July 2014. 

  6. Douglas Kearney in Divya Victor’s “Automatons and Subjects: Identity, Stereotype, Otherness, Performance, Sound,” ENG 819: Extreme Texts (The Ordinary in/and The Extraordinary). Michigan State University. East Lansing. 13 March 2019. 

  7. Greg Tate, cover endorsement, The Black Automaton, by Douglas Kearney (Albany: Fence. 2009). 

  8. Tate, back cover. 

  9. Kearney, “Hyphens Performance/Lecture.” 

  10. Jeffrey K. Johnson, “The Visualization of the Twisted Tongue: Portrayals of Stuttering in Film, Television, and Comic Books,” The Journal of Popular Culture 41, no. 2 (April 2008): 245. 

  11. Sharpe, In the Wake, 17. 

  12. Kearney, Mess, 75. 

  13. Kearney, Mess, 75; author’s emphasis. 

  14. Kearney, 52. “Live/Evil” was first published in: Douglas Kearney, FEAR, SOME. (Pasadena: Red Hen. 2006). 

  15. Kearney, Mess, 51. 

  16. Kearney, Mess, 51. 

  17. Kearney, Mess, 52. 

  18. Kearney, Mess, 51. 

  19. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham: Duke University Press, 2016), 18. 

  20. Kearney, Mess, 53. 

  21. Kearney, Mess, 53. 

  22. Kearney, Mess, 53. 

  23. “mess,” OED Online (Oxford University Press), September 2018, accessed 5 December 2018. 

  24. Eli Clare, Brilliant Imperfection (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), xvi. 

  25. Mel Chen. Animacies: Biopolitics, Racial Mattering, and Queer Affect (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 18-19. 

  26. Kearney, Mess, 51. 

  27. Douglas Kearney, “Hyphens Performance/Lecture,” Hyphens Series, East Lansing: Michigan State University, 12 March 2019. 

  28. Kearney, Mess, 49. 

  29. Evie Shockley, “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage,” Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (2011): 801. 

  30. Andrew Pulver, “Lupita Nyong’o Apologises after Us ‘Evil’ Voice Disability Row,” The Guardian, 1 April 2019, accessed 8 October 2020, https://www.theguardian.com/film/2019/apr/01/lupita-nyongo-apologises-after-us-disability-voice-row#:~:text=Lupita%20Nyong’o%20has%20apologised,role%20in%20horror%20film%20Us. 

  31. Pulver, “Lupita.” 

  32. K.M. Hoffman,, S. Trawalter, J.R. Axt, and M.N Oliver, “Racial bias in pain assessment and treatment recommendations, and false beliefs about biological differences between blacks and whites,” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 113, no. 16 (2016): 4296–4301, https://doi.org/10.1073/pnas.1516047113. 

  33. David T. Mitchell, and Sharon L. Snyder, Narrative Prosthesis (Ann Arbor: Michigan University Press, 2001), 205. 

  34. Imani Barbarin, “An Open Letter to Lupita Nyong’o and Black Filmmakers,” Crutches and Spice https://crutchesandspice.com/2019/04/01/an-open-letter-to-lupita-nyongo-and-black-filmmakers/. 

  35. Leroy Moore, “All together now!” Facebook, 1 April 2019, accessed 8 October 2020, https://www.facebook.com/LeroyFMooreJr/posts/2447600398606359. 

  36. Pulver, “Lupita.” 

  37. Sami Schalk, Bodyminds Reimagined (Durham: Duke University Press, 2018), 10. 

  38. Douglas Kearney, The Black Automaton (Albany: Fence. 2017), 44. 

  39. Kearney, Automaton, 45. 

  40. Schalk, Bodyminds, 34–5. 

  41. Kearney, Automaton, 44. 

  42. Kearney, Mess, 53. 

  43. Kearney, Mess, 53. 

  44. Kearney, Mess, 53. 

  45. The use of the term “crip” is a site of mess, between the disability community reclaiming a term long used to disparage certain bodyminds and Black, disabled communities that challenge its use as confusing or potentially appropriative. For more information, consider Leroy Franklin Moore Jr’s Black Kripple Delivers Poetry and Lyrics and Eli Clare’s “Thinking about the Word Crip” where he traces the distinct etymologies of “crip” and “Crip.” 

  46. Jina B. Kim, “Toward a Crip-of-Color Critique,” Lateral 6, no. 1 (June 2015). https://csalateral.org/issue/6-1/forum-alt-humanities-critical-disability-studies-crip-of-color-critique-kim/. 

  47. Jasbir K Puar. The Right to Maim (Durham: Duke University Press, 2017), xv. 

  48. Craig Dworkin, “The Stutter of Form,” in The Sound of Poetry / The Poetry of Sound, eds. Marjorie Perloff and Craig Dworkin (Chicago: University Press, 2009), 182–3. Dworkin’s work here is directly referencing the poetry of Jordan Scott, a poet with a stutter whose own writing engages dysfluency as methodology. 

  49. “communiqué, n.,” OED Online, (Oxford University Press, March 2019), accessed 5 May 2019. 

  50. Kearney, Automaton, 92. 

  51. Kearney, Automaton, 17. 

  52. Kearney, Automaton, 17-22. 

  53. Douglas Kearney in Divya Victor’s “Automatons and Subjects.” 

  54. Kearney, Automaton, 17. 

  55. Eli Clare, “Meditations on Natural Worlds, Disabled Bodies, and a Politics of Cure,” Disability Studies Initiative (Wisconsin University Press, 2014), 20–21. 

  56. Kearney, Automaton, 17. 

  57. Catherine Wagner quoted in Kearney, Automaton, 3. 

  58. Kearney, Automaton, 23. note, underlined line breaks are not line breaks. 

  59. James Berger, The Disarticulate: Language, Disability, and the Narratives of Modernity (New York: NYU Press, 2014). 

  60. Kearney, “Hyphens Performance/Lecture.” 

  61. Kearney, “Hyphens Performance/Lecture.” 


Article: Author does not grant a Creative Commons license for this essay.

Image: "evanescent time," by bill bissett (2020).