Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark

Hendrix butanes his guitar to varnish, crackle
and discord of “Wild Thing.” Sizzling strings,
that Caravaggio face bent to ask the crowd

did they want to see him sacrifice something
he loved. Thigh, mouth, breast, small of back, dear
hollow of the throat, don’t you understand this pressure,

The noun-cum-verb “butanes” is an echo of the earlier “strafed” because of its association with industrial or military fire. Hendrix, who was known to destroy or ignite his instruments, and whose style of music was itself “sizzling” is connected to Caravaggio,[27] who was infamous for his swaggering, deliberately fighting, brawling, and finally murder of a young man. The “sacrifice” refers not only to Caravaggio, but to Hendrix as well, and to the criminals of Newark, whose criminality must be tempered with other acts of creation and art.

Something melds with “someone,” and her body (“thigh, mouth, breast, small of back, and hollow of the throat”) is an allusion to the sacrifices of antiquity as well as those in contemporary Newark of the poem. Hull is passing judgment here not on the lovers inside the “hotbox apartments,” but the situations outside, and larger than themselves, which turn love and sex into criminality. Another voice enters and interrupts the couple as it asks “don’t you understand this pressure”? To whom is the question addressed?

It is addressed to the reader, and to the “reader” of Newark’s riot, the historian or layperson who might interpret its causes and meanings. Note the preposition: the pressure is “of” the apartments rather than “from” them. The authority of the speaker again enters: she tells the reader that besides interpreting the causes of the riot in Newark, “there’s no forgetting the riot within.”[28] The statement again connects its two constituencies, like the iron mesh of the bridge, of the personal and the public riots:

of hotbox apartments? There’s no forgetting the riot
within, fingernails sparking to districts
rivering with flame. What else could we do

The unusual verb “rivering,” unique to this poem, is a metaphorical leap from a woman’s red fingernails to the “districts” (27, 28, 29) of Newark that are burning. The voice announces another interrogative:

but cling and whisper together as children after
the lullaby is done, but no, never as children, never

do they so implore, oh god, god, bend your dark visage

The question is one of desperation. There are no responses for the inhabitants in the moment besides clinging to the lullaby (the poem itself?). Another of the “many voices,” a prayer, seeks an outside authority — broader than the authorial device above — to bend its “dark visage” over the “acetylene skyline”:

over this acetylene skyline, over Club Zanzibar[29]
and the Beast of Three, limed statues in the parks, over
the black schoolgirl whose face is smashed again

and again. No journalist for these aisles of light
the cathedral spots cast through teargas and the mingling,
commingling of sisters’ voices in chapels, storefront
churches asking for mercy.

The flammable gas, a symbol of manufacturing, provides an expressionist palette for the colors of the city, but is a violent image. Berman describes the years it took the city to learn how to defend against “the next great collective catastrophe: fires… For years, midnight fires ate up not only buildings, but whole blocks, often block after block.”[30] The statues in the poem are limed, worn with wear. The stanza moves carefully from the pastoral of the park guarded by a Cerberus, who prevents people from crossing the River Styx in Hades, to a black schoolgirl being assaulted by the police. The poem does not shy away from the political indictment it makes. Here, Mumford is again useful to provide an historical context for “the escalating protest against police brutality fostered what might be called the nationalization of the black public sphere, leading directly to rioting.”[31] The battles between minority communities and the police over police brutality in the 1960s did, in fact, yield gradual reforms over the next thirty years.[32]

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References

  1. Caravaggio (1571-1610) killed Ranuccio Tomassoni on May 29, 1610. He then fled to Naples and to Malta.
  1. Hull’s interpretation stands in stark contrast to the conservative view, that “a righteously indignant mob usually consists mainly of working-class people” (Banfield, Edward C. The Unheavenly City Revisited. Boston: Little, Brown, 1974. 216); he also spoke of the “profitability of rioting” (Ibid, 229) and that rioting will occur for many years to come (writing in 1974) “no matter what is done to prevent it” (Ibid, 232).
  1. In the late 1970s, Club Zanzibar was Newark’s answer to Studio 54. (See Jacobs, Andrew. “Newark Loses Unwanted Landmark as Lincoln Motel Goes.” The New York Times. 8 Oct. 2007, sec. N.Y./Region.)
  1. Berman, Marshall and Brian Berger, eds. New York Calling: From Blackout to Bloomberg. London: Reaktion Books, 2007. 15.
  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 114.
  1. Johnson, Marilynn S. Street Justice: A History of Police Violence in New York City. New York: Beacon Press, 2004. 276.

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