The elliptical life of Etheridge Knight.
This piece is part of a lecture for the Bagley Wright Lecture Series, a nonprofit that provides poets with the opportunity to explore in-depth their own thinking on the subject of poetics. Terrance Hayes will deliver his lecture, “Three Acts of Love: ‘As You Leave Me,’ ‘Upon Your Leaving,’ and ‘Feeling Fucked Up,’ ” tomorrow at five P.M. at NYU.
Taped to the wall of my cell are 47 pictures: 47 black faces: my father, mother, grandmothers (1 dead), grandfathers (both dead), brothers, sisters, uncles, aunts, cousins (1st and 2nd), nieces, and nephews. They stare across the space at me sprawling on my bunk. I know their dark eyes, they know mine. I know their style, they know mine. I am all of them, they are all of me; they are farmers, I am a thief, I am me, they are thee. —Etheridge Knight, “The Idea of Ancestry”
Who was Etheridge Knight, and why should he be of interest to me, or more important, to you? Knight himself thought it was enough simply to say, on the back of his 1968 debut collection, Poems from Prison, “I died in Korea from a shrapnel wound, and narcotics resurrected me. I died in 1960 from a prison sentence and poetry brought me back to life.” If you’ve read anything about him, you’ve likely encountered these lines. Just behind their resurrectional vibe are several unwritten chapters in the biography of a talented, ex-con, con man, blues-blooded rambling romantic.
Knight died in 1991. He was born in 1931 in Corinth, Mississippi, a town founded only about around eighty years before his birth. Thus the “ancestors” of his most anthologized poem, “The Idea of Ancestry,” only go back not to Africa but to his grandparents. The Cozarts on his mother’s side of the family counted themselves among the town’s founders; they were landowners, cotton farmers, entrepreneurs, musicians, and storytellers. His father, on the other hand, was a laborer from Ramer, Tennessee, a smaller-than-small town twenty minutes from Corinth. According to Eunice, Knight’s younger sister, their mother, Belzora Cozart, didn’t know a thing about being poor until she married Etheridge Bushie Knight, and then moved with their children nearly two hundred miles north to Paducah, Kentucky, when he took a job working on the Kentucky Dam. Knight was just a boy at the time, but as he writes in “The Idea of Ancestry,” “the brown hills and red gullies of Mississippi” were already calling him back with “their electric messages, galvanizing [his] genes.”
He returned often to the place he considered his true home. As a boy, Junior, as the family called him, was shocked by the racism he encountered in Paducah, as Eunice told me when I interviewed her in 2005. (She died in 2013.) “Balcony of movie house, back of class with raggediest books, restrooms marked colored. But in Corinth, he went anywhere he wanted because he was Mr. Cozart’s grandson … He ran back to Mississippi.”
By the time he dropped out of school at fourteen, Knight was no longer running off to Mississippi. He’d discovered the allure of the Paducah pool halls and bars, the jive talkers, shit talkers, and big talkers: Great Depression idlers like Hound Mouth, the village poet who told Knight toasts and tales about the Ohio River flood of 1937. (Leaving more than a million people homeless, it was that era’s Hurricane Katrina.) By the time he was sixteen, Knight was running off again, this time lying about his age to join the army in 1947. Meanwhile, his father moved the family from Paducah to Indianapolis in pursuit of a job as a railroad porter. I heard mixed reports about whether he actually worked on the railroad before he died, two years later, of heart trouble. He was only in his midforties. Knight returned home for the funeral, but having had more than enough of the military, he had no interest in going back.
According to Eunice, he went a tad AWOL before being forced to return or rejoin the army again in 1950, as the Korean War began. Michael Collins tells us in his invaluable 2012 book, Understanding Etheridge Knight, that Knight was honorably discharged as the war ended in 1953. Knight then returned to Indianapolis with what he called “a psyche/wound” and, consequently, a drug addiction. I suspect he returned to the needs of his mother and six siblings, the ghost of his father, and the specter of American racism.
I’d like to tell you how Knight spent the seven years before his 1960 conviction for armed robbery, but there’s almost no mention of the period in his poems or interviews. “I hitched my way from LA with 16 caps in my pocket and a monkey on my back,” he writes in “The Idea of Ancestry,” but there is little else suggesting what he did: whether he wrote poems, for example, or what it was like to be a black twenty-something-year-old veteran in the middle of the century, or simply what it was to be a young man experiencing love.
When I began collecting interviews and stories more than a decade ago, I swore I’d never write a biography of Knight—it would take more than a decade to complete. I still feel ill equipped to verify Knight’s life. I must rely mostly on the poems, but they are, after all, poems, subject to omissions and imagination. What I can say is that his biography is a story of restless Americanness, African Americanness, and poetry. It has some Faulknerian family saga in it, some midcentury migration story, lots of masculine tragedy, lots of soul-of-the-artist lore. I guess I’m thinking a little of my own interests: the subjectivity of black Southern men, the daddy issues, the heartache motifs. It’s all there in and between the lines of “The Idea of Ancestry.”
All the time I’ve spent wandering and wondering between the lines of the poem make me identify with Charles Kinbote, the deranged poetry scholar in Nabokov’s Pale Fire. That novel is essentially an extended, obsessive, associative, often unreliable footnote to a 999-line poem of the same title; Dr. Kinbote is self-anointed scholar and biographer to John Shade, his neighbor, and, according to the delusional Shade, a great and famous poet. The book’s example of “close reading” shows us how expertise can be both cause and effect of delusion—delusion is, I suggest, a form of the imagination.
As I have researched, speculated, and obsessed over Knight’s poem, it’s become more and more an idea prompting other ideas—ideas of influence, incarceration, inheritance; of what’s given versus what’s found; of poets and poetry and poetics. Knight was something of a chameleon, spiritually and poetically. He had a foot in several circles of poetry— the Black Arts poets, the Deep Image poets, the university poets, the community poets—but he was committed to none of them. In Pale Fire, crazy Kinbote floats the space between personal and academic, playing with the reader’s sense of what is true, exaggerated, or imagined (of course, it is all imagined). He writes more than two thousand words about John Shade’s use of the word parent in line seventy-one of the “Pale Fire” poem. It makes perfect sense to me: Kinbote’s wish to live in the space between the words and lines of a poem; Knight’s wish to live in the space between everything. This sort of restless, hustler, trickster poetics can be a fairly useful source of creativity. And being. And survival. It has something to do with the blues, the modern blues: the existential improvisations of a rambling man, a rolling stone pushed one way by a Sisyphus who is happy, pushed another by a Sisyphus who was happy and plans to be happy again.
The poem offers the idea of a starting place. Forty-seven faces on a “gray stone wall” trigger a memory of roots and rootlessness. This was the first poem to make me question my own idea of ancestry—an idea that went only as far as my grandmother. She didn’t know her father. None of her four children had the same last name as their fathers. I didn’t know my father. When I thought of my own wall of ancestry, I could only come up with a dozen or so names: one grandmother, one mother, a half aunt, two half uncles (one dead), a handful of half cousins, a half brother, a stepfather. But one of the first things I learned when I began researching Knight was that his idea constituted reality: he did not distinguish between half blood and full blood. “I am all of them, they are all of me,” he wrote. His idea of family constituted an act of imagination that constituted reality. He might have told me: it’s okay to make it all up, his story and mine.
Terrance Hayes is the author of Lighthead, winner of the 2010 National Book Award and finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award. His honors include a Whiting Writers’ Award, a National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, a United States Artists Zell Fellowship, a Guggenheim Fellowship, and a MacArthur Fellowship. How To Be Drawn, his new collection of poems, will be published in April.