Cento in Which the Nar­ra­tive Pre­cedes the Lyric

The Iowa Review - - CONTENTS - Mal­colm Tariq

I wanted to craft a cento made of lines from slave nar­ra­tives.

A cento is a poem com­posed from the lines of other po­ems.

The slave nar­ra­tive is an ac­count of bondage as told by the en­slaved or the for­merly en­slaved.

The en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved, in this case, are those gen­er­a­tions of Africans and their de­scen­dants sub­jected to un­paid la­bor, phys­i­cal abuse, men­tal and sex­ual abuse and ex­ploita­tion, and so­cioe­co­nomic dis­en­fran­chise­ment in the Amer­i­cas.

I am of the de­scen­dants of these de­scen­dants.

I have never been en­slaved.

The slave nar­ra­tive is not a poem.

I wanted to write a cento in which slave nar­ra­tives cen­tered my ex­pe­ri­ence of be­ing south­ern, black, and queer.

I wanted to write a cento in which slave nar­ra­tives could speak to­ward my marginal in­ter­sect­ing iden­ti­ties within the South in a way that drew at­ten­tion to the si­lences sur­round­ing black life his­tor­i­cally that have con­tin­ued to echo through­out the past four cen­turies.

The cento cre­ates new mean­ing.

The slave nar­ra­tive doc­u­ments how the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved re­counted their lives from their per­spec­tive.

Much of slav­ery meant deny­ing the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved their hu­man­ity.

We give nar­ra­tive to ex­pe­ri­ence every day. Be­ing born and liv­ing law­fully in my hu­man­ness, I live a re­al­ity de­nied to the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved.

Some slave nar­ra­tives be­gin, “I was born.”

Birth sig­ni­fies life.

The slave nar­ra­tive sig­ni­fies life and tes­ti­mony. It as­sumes the lyric po­si­tion, an act of self­hood and self-pos­ses­sion, upon es­tab­lish­ment of the nar­ra­tive.

In this case, the nar­ra­tive pre­cedes the lyric.

Be­ing born male and free, I can­not change the mean­ing of the pos­sessed to fash­ion a lyric of my own.

This is a mat­ter of ethics. It is a mat­ter of un­mak­ing mean­ing.

Much of what we know about the lives and times of the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved is through a void that is con­tin­u­ally be­ing pieced to­gether.

The slave nar­ra­tive is meant to con­trib­ute to clos­ing that void.

Most slave nar­ra­tives were col­lected after the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery was of­fi­cially un­law­ful.

Many peo­ple still did not see the for­merly en­slaved as peo­ple after slav­ery be­came un­law­ful.

This is a true state­ment: the in­sti­tu­tion of slav­ery made the coun­try of the United States into the na­tion that it is.

This is a true state­ment: the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved built a na­tion that con­tin­ued to deny the fact that they were hu­man.

In this case, the slave nar­ra­tive is a per­sonal ac­count given in spite of the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved be­ing de­nied their hu­man­ity.

In this case, the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved were con­tin­u­ally de­nied their hu­man right to as­sume the po­si­tion of the lyric.

The cento frag­ments the void, al­most al­ready makes the nar­ra­tive re­moved, dis­pos­sessed again. This is a form of reck­on­ing.

This re­verses the mean­ing of the slave nar­ra­tive.

The nar­ra­tive is a de­vice of au­thor­ity, con­trol.

It is not un­law­ful to steal some­one else’s voice who had lit­tle to no voice pre­ced­ing their nar­ra­tive au­thor­ity.

It is, how­ever, un­eth­i­cal to steal some­one else’s voice who had lit­tle to no voice pre­ced­ing their nar­ra­tive au­thor­ity.

This is a mat­ter of ethics.

This is a mat­ter of power.

Some of you read­ing this have no such ethics, prob­a­bly be­cause you have a cer­tain amount of power.

In this case, there is power in po­etry.

If that is the case, there is power held over and against po­etry.

Most of the en­slaved were for­bid­den to learn to read and write.

In this case, the en­slaved were for­bid­den the right to po­etry.

Some of the en­slaved learned to read and write. Some of the en­slaved learned to read and write po­etry. In this case, some mas­tered the lyric in spite of the ways of cap­i­tal­ism.

Again, the lyric is an act of self­hood and self-pos­ses­sion. It should pre­cede nar­ra­tive.

Again, I must in­form you that the en­slaved were not con­sid­ered peo­ple so­cially, po­lit­i­cally, eco­nom­i­cally, or even in the wildest imag­i­na­tion of whites.

The en­slaved, the black en­slaved, were con­sid­ered prop­erty. They were con­sid­ered stock.

In this case, could the en­slaved fash­ion the lyric in spite of their sub­al­tern sub­ject po­si­tion?

Some peo­ple are still sur­prised the en­slaved crafted for­mal lyric in the same way some peo­ple are sur­prised peo­ple like me can ar­tic­u­late both word and mean­ing.

When I say peo­ple like me, I mean those de­scen­dants of the en­slaved and the for­merly en­slaved.

Again, most of the en­slaved were for­bid­den to learn to read and write.

Some peo­ple think it is im­pos­si­ble for me to learn about my an­ces­tors, the en­slaved, in spite of—.

We, de­scen­dants of the en­slaved, have learned to make mean­ing in spite of—.

Some of you are lost in the poem. This is one form of mean­ing, mean­ing I meant for that to hap­pen.

Some of you who are lost know what it’s like to be kept out of mean­ing mak­ing.

This is the part where you make your own mean­ing, eth­i­cally.

Some of us can only say what we can­not write.

This is one form of nar­ra­tive.

This is one form of lyri­cism.

This is one form of po­etry.

If po­etry is not tes­ti­mony, then what is?

If po­etry is not a record of the im­pos­si­ble, then what is it?

Some­times nar­ra­tive is all we have.

Some­times nar­ra­tive is all we are given.

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