The Afro-mation of Experience in Jayne Cortez’s “I Am New York City”

Jayne Cortez’ poetry, despite its parallels to other poetic schools such as the Beats, the Black Mountain poets, and The New York school poets, participates in the Black Arts movement. The Black Arts movement, as Evie Shockley writes in her critical essay “The Black Arts Movement and Black Aesthetics,” was founded with the idea of providing “African Americans with…‘a new synthesis; a new sense of literature as a living reality’ connected to their own experiences” (Shockley, 183). Cortez’ ontological invitation of experience in “I Am New York City” showcases this idea. It invites the reader to partake in the narrator’s experience as a black woman living in New York city, highlighting the intersectionality of being both “black” and “woman” and the magnified racism and sexism she faces because of her intersectional identity. By insisting on the reader’s engagement, the poem creates a unified identity of New York in which a singular community inclusive of the narrator (black women) and the reader (New Yorkers) operate in a shared communal experience. 

Shockley writes that poets from the Black Arts movement “repudiated standard modes of capitalization, spelling, punctuation, and syntax in favor of typography and orthography meant to represent a written vernacular speech and other sonic forms of black culture” (183), and we see this repudiation in Cortez’ “I Am New York City.” There is no use of capitalization anywhere in the poem, even for standard pronouns such as “i,” and neither is the poem contained by the parameters of punctuation. The form is entirely free of traditional poetic form, with each stanza consisting of an arbitrary number of lines and presenting itself differently via indentation. Though seemingly arbitrary, this repudiation of traditional form is part of the form itself. Indeed, Cortez creates her own aesthetic form, one that is unapologetically unique, grounded in chant-like affirmation and command-like invitation. This chant aesthetic is used throughout the poem through the personification of New York as a black female body. 

Jayne Cortez

The narrator, who we can assume is Cortez herself, affirms throughout the poem that she is, physically, New York. The accumulation of body parts such as “brain of hot sauce,” (2) “tobacco teeth,” (3) “bedbug tongue,” (4) “skull of pigeons,” (14) “thigh of steelspoons,” (17) “my nose of soot,” (25) “my ear of saturday night specials,” (27) are each associated with living in New York. The body is fragmented, severed from each other and then transformed into an aspect of New York that is familiar to the reader. Tobacco, bedbugs, pigeons, steel spoons, soot and Saturday night specials were all a part of New York life in the seventies. Cortez goes on to juxtapose the black female body with both violence and festivities:  “city of blood…and fried pies,” (10-11) “my confetti of flesh,” (22) “i sparkle with shit,” (33) “piss into the bite of our handshake” (50). By juxtaposing the familiar with the unfamiliar, as well as the violent with the festive, the reader is forced to confront the disorienting experience of living as a black woman in New York.

Tony Marciante NY 1974

Though the poem’s use of anaphoric technique is used primarily as ontological transformation, Cortez utilizes it to invite the reader into what Margo Natalie Crawford calls “an aesthetic of linkage” (Crawford, 97) where “you” becomes a “we.” She does this through the chant-like utilization of the imperative; the repetition of the phrase “approach me,” is seen throughout the eighth stanza: “approach me through life / approach me through death / approach me through my widow’s peak / through my split ends my / asthmatic laugh  approach me…” (39-43). The universality of experience in the lines 39-40 (“approach me through life / approach me through death”) shows that, regardless of the ontological category of the human body, the body shares the same physical process from birth to death. By inviting the reader to share in this familiar experience — perhaps the most familiar experience humans can share — Cortez creates a connection with the reader. She then invites the reader to engage more intimately, asking the reader to “approach me through my widow’s peak / through my split ends my / asthmatic laugh  approach me,” (41-43) breaking the barrier between what is regarded as a familiar/communal experience (life/death) and what is regarded as an unfamiliar/individual experience (being a black female). In the last line of the poem, Cortez invites the reader to “break wind with [her]” (55) which is a request that is both intimate and odd. By asking this of the reader, Cortez is unifying the reader with a shared sense of communality.

My question for the class: Why might we also consider Jayne Cortez as belonging to the school of Afro-Surrealism?


Works Cited:

Crawford, Margo Natalie. “The Poetics of CHange and Inner/Outer Space: The Black Arts Movement.” Cambridge Companion to American Poetry Since 1945, edited by Jennifer Ashton, 2013, Oxford UP, pp. 94-107

Shockley, Evie. “The Black Arts Movement and Black Aesthetics.”Cambridge Companion to Modern American Poetry, edited by Walter Kalaidjian, 2015, Cambridge UP, pp. 180-195.

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