Some years ago I was asked to introduce Jayne Cortez's poetry reading at the University of Maine. Below are the words I offered on that occasion:
"At a certain moment in history when Aime Cesaire started to decolonize his neolonial head
and free his image by dealing with the world from the idea of negritude
when young Aime Cesaire said forget Paris and returned to look into the future by diving inside
the past of his native land . . .
At that moment of no compromise his poetry became poetry unique to poetry"
In the small hours of April, before a crowd that did not know how to crowd, these words brought comfort –
That afternoon, as I sat in a room at Georgetown University, poet Rod Smith had come quietly up to me pushing his cell phone towards me – without my glasses on, I had no idea what he was trying to tell me, but then, as he pointed to the display on his phone, it came into focus . . . the screen bore the news that Aime Cesaire had died –
We passed the phone to poet Eugene Redmond, who made the announcement to the stunned crowd gathered at the conference, a conference dedicated to the arts in the Civil Rights era – What could any of us say? We all, poets and activists alike, carried Cesaire inside our very language – on our tongues --
That night, the first poet on the evening program was Jayne Cortez – with no preliminaries, she began quietly reciting her poem of tribute to Cesaire – a poem that itself grows out of a moment of no compromise – a moment when what is needed more than ever is a poetry unique to poetry –
This has always been Jayne Cortez’s way – from MOUTH ON PAPER to JAZZ FAN LOOKS BACK, from COAGULATIONS to SOMEWHERE IN ADVANCE OF NOWHERE – The titles of her brilliant recordings might almost serve as a manifesto for any artist determined on a course of self-sufficiency: MAINTAIN CONTROL, UNSUBMISSIVE BLUES, TAKING THE BLUES BACK HOME – or, if you’re of a philosophic bent, BORDERS OF DISORDERLY TIME
No one told her to do this – No one could tell her how to do this – There were only the brave examples of those disorderly orders of predecession: Aime Cesaire, Leon Damas, Nicolas Guillen, Big Mama Thornton – poets who recognized what Cortez remarks in one poem: “Everybody wants to be famous - Nobody needs it.”
In the afterlife of the word, it is not fame that feeds us – it is the name that comes to the tip of our tongue, borne up on the waves of our history –
At a certain moment, when neither the politics nor the poetry of custom could bear us up any longer, Jayne Cortez returned to look into the future and found that THE BEAUTIFUL ONES ARE NOT YET BORN, found her way to THE BEAUTIFUL BOOK, found her way to flying home, to bumblebee and Big Mama, found her way to no compromise – won her primary –