The Harder Parts

CREATIVE THESIS by Korey Williams

As a scar commemorates what happened,
so is memory itself but a scar.

                 from “The Need For Dreaming” by Carl Phillips

Prologue: British Museum

That night you finally pulled the trigger     my face became a sea
These days     I walk through galleries while romantics stare

at Lely’s Venus     their unintelligible murmurs thick in the room
synchronized footfalls     depressing the floorboards     rasping

beneath the weight     There’s the high hum of the spotlight
the chords of sniffs and coughs     the drone of the air conditioner

while I sketch Marble Statue of a Youth     a kouros as fine and fractured
as any other     one arm broken at the elbow     the other without

a hand     fissures like varicose veins curling across flesh that glints
like a mirror     Still it’s called beautiful since it’s ancient     or at least

believed to be     belief being something that spreads like air     And there
you are again     averted eyes and archaic smile     like that night

you fled and nearly drowned yourself in the Cheniere     Wading
through black shifts of morning     your sopping body leaned into me

from the passenger seat     and I never forgave you     Like that night
you tilted my closed lips to your mouth     tongue begging for entry

but I couldn’t let you in     So you tore at my neck     lapped at my clavicle
prodded at my thighs with your nose     digging your own grave

with juddering hands     Like that last night you touched me
body awash in sweat     finger slipping at the trigger     just as shadows

lined up to carry you home     leaving me behind without my materials
just the rise and fall of my chest     the folds of my body more wet

the longer I stand unmoving     The romantics drift to the Statue of
Dionysus     the tendrils of his beard slinking to his chest     the mark

of an aged man     perhaps even wise     no     made conscious by
someone’s hands     those eyes that were possibly painted once

now blank     absent     but still gazing     still seeing what is and what
isn’t     seeing through and beyond me     as if stone knows more

than I ever could or desired     So I take my first chance to study Lely’s
Venus     My thighs part     flexing as each pointed foot silently follows

the other     Cool at last     wafting through the air     toes tender upon
the floor     Then I’m still again     Water rising     Where have you taken me?

 


 

7 Waldroup Road     Eros     LA 71238

Two puffs     and you were Josephine in danse banane     creeping
from sofa to window     all bared open     save your manhood

your unharvested fruit     shriveling     in cotton briefs
I’d imagine myself as an explorer     lounging

beneath a mosquito net     charmed by the roll of your hips
the conviction behind your shrills     If only they’d heard you

back home at the farm     where they forced you onto your sister
after the laying on of hands     holy water     hot oil

after holding you in the Cheniere until you were purple
white robe billowing like starlight     For good measure

Pops pressed his rifle to your back     as you pressed into Grace
No rush     No flood     Then you retched     and she bled

on your sheets     on your fruit     So years later     you’d prowl
on the balls of your feet     lithe as a spider     Far gone

Eyes hazel like dying moss     shrouded by rime     Show me
Show me the blood     Show me the savage that swallows men whole

 


 

Unfinished Painting 1

If it wasn’t for legalities, I never would have come back to Eros. Leaving behind no children, Ira left all he had to me, this cottage and everything in it, but for whose sake? Surely not mine. What good to me is someone else’s inheritance, his nana’s tatty bibles, his papa’s lawn tools, his auntie’s good china? What good to me are his abandoned works, like this one still propped on an easel: seen from behind, poised in midair, the figure thrashes in the wind like a flag as he thrusts his hand, flared, against the dirge of sunlight piercing a cortège sky, the overcast seeping into a white and siren void?

 


 

Fermata

Denuded and still posing     you leaned from the chair
left arm braced on splayed thigh   the right descended

lissome fingers slipping a winter sock over your calf
Behind you     sill to luminous space     hall to elsewhere

shadows of unseen objects looming from within     reaching
for the plaid shirt and black denim hung neatly on a hook

Then at last I looked away     though not to the canvas
so oversized     and unfinished before me     but to my

paintbrush swilling sullied water     There was no use
in eyeing each other then     after all that was seen

tendered     documented     after your body opened
onto me a world that was mine     not yours     a world

only of cloudlight     where dawn suffuses a lavender sky
where I desire no more sun than that     a world

made home through memory     a home never to be reached
again    but the journey back to you     back to me

was in the brushstrokes     What of you did the canvas
claim?     Surging contours?     Chasm of legs?     And what

of me?   This lunging stance?     Wild iris and smoke?
Neither you nor I crossed into light without sacrifice

 


 

Moonflower

These pills are no good     Not even for visions?     Sprawled across
the loveseat     you delved your stony ankles beside my hips

You could heal me though     I twiddled the crucifix at my neck
Forget I asked    I promise it’ll happen soon     I don’t mind waiting

so I stroked your shins with the backs of my hands     Just stay up
with me     But it’s almost midnight     I won’t sleep     As the heat

was still so cruel     you undressed     guzzled a beer     and danced
for me without music     without peace     but with somewhat ease

the crest before morning’s trough     Such languorous footfalls spurning
the rug    feet nearly en pointe     tender in their rejections     This feels

like quicksand     Your serpent hips coiled in their solipsismal blues
framing bitter fruit wrapped in withered rinds     that bulge of sap

as it lolled and bobbed     beneath the puckered navel     beneath
the swarthy bosom fraught with the scything of arms     the scything

for self-erasure     for clarity     Your face     a palimpsest     Your stare
elliptical     You’re drowning     Don’t tell anyone     Stop dancing     Never

 


 

Manus Dei

They mistook The Vanquished for a life cast
doubting those hands that forged the valley

from taint to neck     rendered swards across
broad shoulder blades     molded the right hand

into a fist that wades through teeming hair
closed the eyes     parted the lips     raised the left

hand     still clutching memories of a lance
a vestige upon which to lean     to stand

Remember when I had you pose like that?
I can’t conceive of your ruin while conjuring

your contrapposto air     Your chest
an estuary     Your obliques     modulant waters

Waveless skinflow     eddying at your navel
Surging bronze     There     I witness myself

Those hands farther than I can reach     thirsty
for your sweat     for usefulness     for the labor

at long last     that exhumed your need     buried
beneath sertraline     diazepam     clomipramine

Hands that plowed the winding hair you’d perm
and dye     the tawny skin you’d bleach and singe

the knees that thundered between mine     And yet
no yield     no flux     Just pith between my palms

Squall of garments     Hiss of the door     Shortly
through the window     your head     bowed into dusk

suckled by moonlight     swathed in mist and rain
Your nape     a mirage     then gone     My reflection

penumbrous     in the clouding glass     a sea
of thought and light     Am I     No     I am

 


 

Unfinished Painting 2

The figure crouches along the brink like a murky-eyed cougar, his blonde pelt streaked with mud and sand, as his veiny arm dips back into the river. The manhood between his flexed thighs, emerging from hair dense as shadow, feathering from the lower regions of a willowy waistline, is long and just barely flaccid, as if going down from use or coming up for some unrevealed impression or memory—it is hard to say, though its secret is right there in the swell, in the blood, as it sinks toward the water. Eddies gather among the stones, duckweed drifts by, and, just yonder, the campfire rises like a cumulus of rose petals.

 


 

The Harder Parts

Made you gumbo for dinner     but as usual     you downed
whiskey and Celexa     then reeled to bed by winter dusk

security uniform still damp on your skin     So by 3am
stirred by reflux   you unfurled from the sheets     lurched

to the bathroom     locked the door     and once nothing more
could rise     there’s the flush the sink the swill     then the door

moaning open    backlighting     your sandy hair electric
your sweaty shirt diaphanous     your angular body abstract

We found each other’s eyes     just before you switched off the light
Let me make you some tea     Fuck off     You crossed the room

and skulked into the hall     I rolled to the ridge of the bed
occupying your spot and mine     Yours     gravely cold     Mine

torrid but cooling     And I dozed     overpainting those harder parts
of love     your leave-taking     a cruel kindness     so great and slight

the still of the small hours     that alas is not still at all     only a
dispassion     though akin to oblivion     mistaken for insight

as when hope feels like knowing     but knowing is nothing more
than hope     So I cast my prayers like smoke     then all went blank

 


 

Aubade

Your pirogue gently swayed as we drifted across the Cheniere
its bronze mirrors too tarnished to reverse our faces

Since my hands couldn’t be trusted     you rowed on your own
What if I fall overboard?     You won’t     I could     Then I’d save you

What about alligators?     I brought my pistol     What if     Just
relax     But     This was your idea     I know but     We should’ve

stayed home     You moored us onto an islet      where a swamp rat
toddled to its burrow     Feigning courage     I called your name

as two great blue herons waded into view     then vanished
behind tupelo gum trees     So what’s the catch of the day?

Bluegill sunfish   Won’t you help me with the bait?     And so you did
as clouds made and unmade themselves     subject to winds

that take what’s theirs and what isn’t     like when shadows seized
my materials     lifting you away to a place we call better

or home     but is nowhere and everywhere     just winding lake
looming wood     blinding sky     a little wind     those clouds

and their turning     how a turning to      is always a turning from
a moving on     sometimes      only to turn back again

 


 

Unfinished Painting 3

The figure sits by the window as evening sun illuminates his ochre chest, his Adam’s apple, so modest, unlike his whetted jawline, his dimpled chin, his fleshy lips, that scar notched across them both, no longer grisly and tenuous but poorly mended, a disruption of skin or perhaps not a disruption at all, a soldering, the unharmed brought back together by what has healed. Above that, nothing. Not even a faint outline of a nose or eyes. Just ivory linen as a promise of skin. But down below, the figure covers his sex with a red-figure vase: inside, three blooms of wild iris in communion, each taller than the one before, their fans jostling in fellowship—marriage of stalk and spathe beneath billowing falls—cast no shades along his torso and, so colorless, reel away from what’s left of the light.

 


 

Squire Creek Louisiana Peach Festival

Come June     we ate peaches by the bushel like Chinese emperors
We knew they were sweet when brown craters pressed into their

flesh     balanced on the cusp between ripe and rot     We ate
our peaches straight off the tree     Grasp it firmly on the butt

and tug     you said     The meat will resist your grip but keep
pulling     I wrenched and the fruit yielded     Turn it in your

palm    See the slit?     The cheeks on either side?     you asked
Yes     They were shut tight as if sewn with stiff wire     Lick it    

The cheeks fuzzy and moist on my tongue from the morning
dew     Bite it     I tittered at how need can sound like ruin

as amber mist coated the air round my face and juice erupted
on my chin     trembling     so sweet and uncertain

Sinking back in     my thrust of jaw sent nectar falling
to the tip of my collar     where it spread itself freely

 


 

if sun moon and stars forgot

daybreak casting the churchyard in silence     wind moaning the elegy i
meant to compose     dew still lambent on wild iris     their violet petals
splayed in forgiveness     forgiveness that was not mine to accept     or that i
wasn’t ready to endure     either way     the doors of the church were open
so i sat alone on a front pew     eyeing the marble altar     the blood served
in recyclable cups     and listened to the hush of the space     while stained
glass crucifixions baptized me in garish lights     but the images blurred on
my linen shirt     so much that there was no christ no mary no cross     only
formless colors     yet still there was order     the ivory of his skin     the
indigo of mary’s mantle     and the presiding gold of godlight     all took
their places on me     i remembered how every sunday     there in the choir
stand     grace sang a solo     like that morning before the sacrifice     she
was blooming then     her eyes like honey     more radiant than yours     and
the lines of her body     so ladylike     flowed like the gusts of a quiet storm
just after a hurricane     her soprano voice     warm and full   spilled
through the air and draped itself in the summer breeze     though like the
wanderer    the sun gone down
     the band ceased to play     the choir stopped
its noise     and with mouths somewhat agape     the congregation
swallowed every surging note     darkness be over me     my rest a stone     with
arms stretched high    eyes misting     she riffed without end     yet in my
dreams i’d be nearer     my god     to thee
     until there were no words     only
notes strung with a force she never thought to possess     something like
bewilderment that made her sink to her knees     made her prostrate herself
not in reverence but in fear     two ushers lifted her body and laid it before
the altar     and the congregation came back to life     overcome with
clapping and toe-tapping     whooping and hollering   pops rocked to and
fro     clutching the pulpit as if to keep from tearing himself asunder
while grace trembled at the altar     sobbing from pain she had yet to know
like that time after your first wave of facial hair when i heard you whinny
behind the shed     leaning against the wet siding     you drove the heels of
your new sunday shoes into the mire     your chicken legs gaping     your
trousers held up by a single suspender     your belt hanging     fly folded
down     your sex proud in the palm of your hand     your shirt wide open
chest heaving     and you watched me watch you     beckoning me to come
before your manhood     to offer up the first of my yield     but i wouldn’t
couldn’t     fixed behind a tree     fixed while your pops emerged from the
shadows     bible in hand     then struck you with it     never spill seed on the
ground     never
     never again would sacrifice be so easy     as when we were
boys     and your pops caught you peck my cheek out on the porch swing
then the following sunday     denied us our oyster crackers and grape juice
for which you’d always hunger

 


 

Hurricane Season

Blitz of light breaking through walls of black water     Subtle sway
of hips as we waltzed through the kitchen     pelvis to pelvis

chest to chest     Mist of your sweat on my neck     my cheek     Turn out
And once the storm passed us over     there was no more lightning

Only moonlight     Our bodies on the couch     Your jagged hands
on the swell of my thighs     Easy now     Easy     you echoed

~

Your head wilted on my chest     just before you turned away
and slid to the floor     Dusky whispers I could not discern

Tears like eighth notes dripping onto carpet     or just the rain
starting up again     So I reached down     stretching my fingers

across your back     Easy     I called to you     This is never
easy     Your undulating spine     like foothills on the moon

 


 

Libations

I posed for you once     tensing with your every glance
those hazel eyes     always kind with a shade of death     always

sweetest before spilling     every brushstroke     flowing
scumbling     every tender command     Just edge forward for me    

There     Like that     Don’t move     every kiss     when you couldn’t
stand gazing any longer     every caress     your painted fingers

sticky round my hips     guiding them higher     deeper
deeper     Just edge forward for me     There     Like that     burying

yourself in me     coating your grave with libations     Don’t cry
We’ll finish tomorrow     you said     on your way to the shower

So I edged to the canvas     peering with squinted eyes     down
upon who I was     or what I’d become     Shaded with my own

lavender linseed oil     an apparition of my naked body nooning
on the grass     shrouded in drying skin so unlike my own

turning blue     turning to water     like that river coursing just
beyond my head     auburn ringlets just curling over the bank

face captured in clouds of gold and ash with eyes like quicksilver
archaic   vacant     vast     useless to find you     to find me

But we are there     in the brushstrokes     in the oil     in the grave
Then you came back     Don’t cry     We’ll finish tomorrow     Promise me

 


 

Evensong

We still reeked of cayenne and paprika from that crawfish boil
the day before     You turned your face toward mine but closed

your eyes    lids twitching     elbows spread wide     hands gathered
beneath your cheek     You seemed to lie on folded wings

I sidled closer     scuttling my fingers down the small of your back
Not again     Shouldn’t we keep trying?     I said no     Don’t be ashamed

It’s too hot     that’s all     Want some ice?     Just let me be     as the wind
hollered through bald cypress trees     boughs outstretched as if

to keep from reaching one another     Then the evening sun declared
itself and buried us in light

Soused from the humidity     I saw

a wasp nest drooping beneath the eaves like a bale of scrolls     stout
workers drifting in unison     their shells black as habits     their hums

like hymns without lyrics     So I joined them     vibrations spreading
across my chest     round my throat     rising with each modulation

until the throb of my temples made my eyes water   What are you
trying to sing over there?     I’m just moaning     What for?     Like

these wasps outside the window     You know my shrink makes house
calls for emergencies     Just listen     You gyrated onto your back

with a huff and I stayed my cheek on your belly     sweat trilling
along your iliac furrow     as you combed my downy hair with

piquant fingers     Moan for me     Yeah right     Follow my lead
Then we echoed each other until I couldn’t tell your moans from mine

 


 

Unfinished Painting 4

Scoured in sea light, the figure hauls a pirogue in his wake as briny spume, perhaps from the Gulf, laves round his thighs, clothed in bathing trunks red as sangria, no less revealing than a loin cloth. Up from sunburnt elbows and dimples of Venus, up from sinewy obliques and across freckled shoulders, a gash the color of rust as if he was attacked from behind by some wretch of the night, someone who meant to kill for nothing in return, a gash…no. See the flourish of brushstrokes just above his nape? Their deliberate roundedness? These are too careful for signs of violence. This, in fact, is no gash but a pentimento, the last trace of a vision Ira could not erase: a wanting mouth wrinkled with laughter, rosy lips pressing against bronze shoulders not just as a kiss but more as a scar erupting from beneath the skin. That’s how I know someone was dying.

 


 

Homecoming

Fireflies glistered in swarms as Flat Creek purled at our feet
barely muffling your songlessness     Come to the feast of love    

come ever knowing     The rum sting of your breath soured the air
between us     while your hands weaved through the darkening sky

as if to conduct a choir     though you had no singers     only yourself
as if the burdens of ministry     the burdens of a man not called

but sent     all gathered in your hands     I’m going back to the truck
See you when I get home     But we’ve been out here since noon

Heedless     you plodded downstream     frisking like a spider in rain
until you stayed your feet     still swaying     and looked up at the bald

cypress trees bogged by Spanish moss     veils of barbed wire     fisting
the half-lit moon     Then you belted even louder     Earth has no sorrow

that heaven cannot heal     laughing at your own folly     scaring off
a family of mallards     swerving to face me     Then you tugged

through the fly     your drooping sex     relieving yourself in the reeling
water     its murmurs broken by your amber torrent     endless until

it wasn’t     until the stones flitted beneath your feet     and you
plummeted onto your back     hair soaked in your own piss

swamp lilies drifting round your lobes like earrings     eyes still lucent
in the dark     So this is what we came for?     What else is there?

 


 

Mourning Before the End

Thawing there on the couch     sleepless again   you lit
a blunt     a lantern onto your face     balanced on your

bottom lip     Your boss called     I know     Now what?
It won’t happen again     But you took off again today

Look     I’m trying     you know that     What do you want
for breakfast?     You can see a change in me     right?

We’re out of eggs     Don’t fucking ignore me     I busied
my hands in the cabinets     avoiding your glare     Sorry

We’ve got just enough grits     No     I’m good     At least
try to eat     I don’t want anything     Try for me     I don’t

need anything     But I need you     You never needed me
Then belting        attempting words     shrieking at the sun

your blunt dying out     Come lay on me     Finally language
I understood     Between your dwindling legs     my body

swelled with anticipation     Shirtless     you sweltered
beneath my weight     but you wouldn’t say so     That mole

at the corner of your mouth     dark as a thrall in fields
of cotton     vanished as the sun threw itself through the

window     threw itself across your face     rendering you pale
and unfamiliar     But your musk     like Bermuda grass after

the rain     seeped through my nightclothes     into my skin
You smell nice     those fingers like thrums of remembrance

round my nape     With hungry kisses     you gnawed at my lips
my neck     chest     down     far down     and so you were fed

 


 

Unfinished Painting 5

Again, the figure is seen from behind. Perhaps Ira was just no good at faces. Or perhaps he and I have more in common than I care to remember, like how I always dream of lovers but never see their faces…this time, the figure reclines on an old chaise lounge draped with a burgundy blanket, its tassels dangling from each corner like severed heads. He props himself with his left arm so that the skin along his right side folds where the ribcage presses on the hipbone. His spine, meandering, unsettled, yet unbroken, curves down to small supple cheeks that turn to long lusty legs. The right bends over the other, casting all beneath it in shadow: the hamstring, the crease behind his bended knee, the calf, until out of darkness emerges the left ankle and the sole of his foot, so plastered with dirt he must have surely walked barefoot along back roads. Before him, gold curtains held back by scarlet cords frame a bay window and, beyond the glass, cloudlight funnels through a pearly sky onto hills of wildwood cascading into flatlands, into a freshly black highway parting an indigo field of wild iris. Yet, with his eyes closed and face in profile, hair like tussled skeins of black silk thread coiling at his shoulders, he holds his chin to his clavicle, nose to underarm, breathing in his own musk. Ira, how long did it take? Or is it still not through with you? Tell me, how long will Eros fester in us all?

 


 

Repass

I watched a spider fold itself in death one night     one long leg
at a time     stowing the memory as a stolen keepsake     Then I lied

there in our bed     killing the bottle of whiskey you left behind
turning your pillow for a cool patch to rest my cheek     tossing

in a dazed half-sleep     conjuring daydreams at the witching hour
praying for daylight     So I set forth through looming magnolia trees

at the promise of dawn     heaven crammed with broken stars barely
lit to seize the dark     Back aching from foot-flight     body awash

in sweat     I kneeled before our old church     and breathed in
the moon     still lingering at sunrise     the residue of a nightmare

That morning     communion had already begun     so I climbed
to the bell tower alone     stood beneath the bell     and stared

into its blackness     its nothingness    moaning steal away
as my voice echoed in an off rhythm     as a pickup sputtered

in the distance     as I was glad to be no one     going nowhere
guessing the hymns below     eyeing the feast of shadows

 


 

Afterword:

One Can Hope

…one can love two at the same time…Melva had kissed him…one can…and the street had been blue…one can…and the room was clouded with blue smoke…and soft…blue smoke from an ivory holder…was that why he loved Beauty…one can…or because his body was beautiful…and white and warm…or because his eyes…one can love……..

Richard Bruce Nugent’s legendary “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” first published in 1926 when he was only twenty years old, is shrouded with an atmosphere of mystery, easily recognizable by merely looking at—not even reading—the text on the page: rather than possessing sentences with varying punctuation and intricate syntax, “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is composed of “short disconnected thoughts” (75), all drawn together by ellipses. This elliptical stream of consciousness renders “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” as an intermediary between the already problematical categories of fiction and poetry, or, more specifically and less problematically, prose and verse. Even with the ellipses, this piece is formatted into standard paragraphs giving the impression of fictional prose. However, this piece possesses very little plot, most of which consists of Alex, the protagonist, a writer and artist, lazing across a bed or ambling along the streets, smoking and thinking. In fact, the entire piece, composed in the past tense, is a series of Alex’s recollections, dreams, and fantasies, all of which flow in and out of one another through loose association. Moreover, a number of phrases, especially “blowing blue smoke through an ivory holder inlaid with red jade and green” (81), are relentlessly repeated and riffed on, reminiscent of what one might expect in verse, especially blues poetry, rather than prose. Thus, the form of “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is quite indeterminate, being both fiction and poetry, prose and verse, a hybrid, an extended prose poem, yet entirely its own entity.

Such a haze of ellipses not only parallels the atmosphere of smoke that dominates the piece but also suggests that much of the story and much of the characters’ psycho-emotional interiorities are left unsaid, as if beneath the words offered on the page lies an alternate story or condition that is unspeakable, perhaps even unknown and unknowable to the characters themselves. This indeterminacy extends to and expands in the very end with the phrase “…To Be Continued…” (87). Since there is no recorded sequel to “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” Nugent either planned and failed to compose one (even though he lived for another sixty-one years after the piece was first published) or used “…To Be Continued…” as a device with which to open the story’s ending, giving it a life beyond its printed words, rather than bring it to a full close. The latter alternative then functions as an invitation for readers to open their imaginations not only to what may come next but also to all that came before, all that was left unsaid, bequeathing upon readers the agency to re-envision and re-create the story’s past, present, and future—to move beyond the unspeakable and unknowable to imagine what lies behind the smoke.

But what exactly would one find? How could one fill the elliptical silences, especially the silence that is most apparent: race? For “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” to be considered the first recorded fictional account of black gay American life is somewhat odd since the story presents a queer, shiftless protagonist, named Alex, whose race and skin color are never made explicit. Additionally, the protagonist is not attracted exclusively to men. In fact, Alex is simultaneously in love with both a man and a woman, neither of whose races are ever revealed. The only racially determinate characters in the story are historical figures including Langston Hughes, Countee Cullen, and Zora Neale Hurston, all of whom were black, as well as H. L. Mencken and James Branch Cabell, both of whom were white. None of the fictional characters, however, are racially determinate. Nevertheless, one may assume that the protagonist is black simply because Nugent himself was black—though of mixed racial heritage—but such an assumption may actually be reductive or dismissive of the sociopolitical implications of racial indeterminacy.

Whiteness in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” as a complexion, becomes an obfuscating physical characteristic: Melva, Alex’s female lover, is described as “olive-ivory” (83), and Adrian, his male lover, is characterized as having “strong white legs” and “firm white thighs” (82), which does not fully solve the conundrum of their races. White, however saturated with racial and sociopolitical undertones, is used as a descriptor of hue, not race necessarily, as in white skin rather than white American. Moreover, one can identify and be classified as racially non-white, including black, Asian, Latino, Native American, and Pacific Islander, but still possess a white complexion. Thus, I argue that racial indeterminacy in Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” especially indeterminate whiteness as only a marker of complexion rather than of a racial category, creates a condition not of racial exclusivity but of inclusivity.

~

Though racial indeterminacy as a mark of racial inclusivity seems quite democratic, it can easily be (mis)construed as a repudiation of otherness and an idolization of the white racial category. Langston Hughes, in his essay entitled “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” also published in 1926, critiques ways in which middle-class black Americans experience an:

urge within the race toward whiteness, the desire to pour racial individuality into the mold of American standardization, and to be as little Negro and as much American as possible…. And so the word white comes to be unconsciously a symbol of all the virtues. It holds…beauty, morality, and money. (Hughes 27)

As a black artist of the Harlem Renaissance, Nugent’s use of racial indeterminacy and whiteness for his fictional characters seems to suggest this desire to be white or, more specifically, this desire to rid oneself and one’s art of racial identity politics, to become an artist, an American artist, not a black American artist—essentially a desire to ‘pass.’ This kind of literary passing becomes a problematical yet relevant interpretive possibility in which Nugent can pass before unsuspecting readers as a white author, thereby rendering Alex, Melva, Adrian, and “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” itself as racially white, perhaps to achieve a level of acclaim amongst white American readers that would have been unprecedented for black American authors in the 1920s.

However, such an interpretation is invalidated by the fact that, firstly, Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is not preoccupied with American-ness or nationhood when, in fact, there are no references to America or American patriotism at all. Secondly, it is an intrepid, uncondemning account of same-sex desire, subject matter that stood in direct opposition to the social order’s standards of beauty and morality. Even if this story had received considerable mainstream attention, its homoeroticism would have inhibited positive reviews. Thirdly, in a 1983 interview conducted by Thomas Wirth, Nugent explained that he was a member of the “Niggerati” (Nugent, “You See,” 268), a circle of black writers that included Wallace Thurman and, indeed, Langston Hughes. Though this alone is not substantial evidence that Nugent did not harbor a degree of shame about his blackness, his willing participation in the black literary scene and intimacy with prominent black artists seems to run counter to claims of disavowal. Lastly, Nugent published “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” in the first and only issue of FIRE!! alongside works by other young black American artists, including Aaron Douglas, Zora Neale Hurston, Wallace Thurman, and Langston Hughes (Wirth 1). Within the context of an explicitly and unabashedly black publication, a repudiation and rejection of blackness seems highly unlikely.

Nevertheless, the complete absence of blackness in this prose poem still presents a point of contention, especially in light of Hughes’s essay. While he asserts that black artists must have the freedom and fearlessness to create whatever and however they choose without the burden of cultural representation or of the perceived need to be white or European, Hughes still endorses an uninhibited treatment of race and skin color:

We younger Negro Artists who create now intend to express our individual dark-skinned selves without fear or shame. If white people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, it doesn’t matter. We know we are beautiful. And ugly too. The tom-tom cries and the tom-tom laughs. If colored people are pleased we are glad. If they are not, their displeasure doesn’t matter either. We build our temples for tomorrow, strong as we know how, and we stand on top of the mountain, free within ourselves. (30)

Though Hughes does not advocate for a singular black aesthetic or even a clear audience, he asserts that young black American artists, a group to which Nugent belongs, are working toward an individualistic authenticity that is necessarily racialized. Neither indeterminate whiteness nor the absence of blackness within “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” seems to adhere to this artistic principle.

However, to rescue Nugent and his prose poem from an argument of inauthenticity, a return to his 1983 interview may reveal a source for his use of racial indeterminacy. Nugent explains that during the mid- and late 1920s, “Whites [were] making p-i-l-g-r-i-m-a-g-e-s to black Harlem, doing the cabarets…being able to mingle freely in every way, including sexual, with blacks. Blacks suddenly having the freedom to have white sex partners” (268). This sudden diversification of Harlem (evidenced by the literary cameos of H. L. Mencken and James Branch Cabell) and increase in potential lovers occurred around the time when Nugent “stopped making myself [sexually] available to blacks,” a decision he made as a result of the considerable amount of rejection he endured back home in Washington, D.C. (270). Therefore, it is no real stretch of the imagination to consider the indeterminate whiteness of Melva and Adrian as a manifestation of the reciprocated attraction he received from white lovers, particularly “Latins” with whom he shared a special affinity.

Moreover, Nugent claims to have been considered “an exceptional Negro” (271), excluded from the usual racial discrimination against blacks, admitted into white, primarily Italian, social circles, and accepted despite his race and skin color. Nugent does not articulate any ways in which he might have found this exceptionalism problematical. In fact, he used it to his advantage, evidenced by his acceptance of a kind of “honorary” position in white society. Nor does he offer a reason for this exceptionalism or a defining characteristic that made him somehow different from other blacks. So perhaps it was due to the fact that Nugent was an educated writer and artist, a member of the Niggeratti, the black elite, the Talented Tenth. Or perhaps it was his exoticism and charisma. Perhaps both. Thomas Wirth states that Nugent “was a brilliant conversationalist” who “expressed a flagrantly ambiguous sexuality” (6). Combined with his successful experimentations in “passing” (Wirth 12), Nugent was apparently both racially and sexually indeterminate. Still, whatever the reasons may have been, exceptionalism—acceptance into white social circles despite his racial alterity—rendered Nugent indefinitely raceless, yet distinctively not white.

With the understanding that “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is semi-autobiographical, I suggest that this exceptionalism may be a source of Alex’s colorlessness—an omission that suggests the irrelevance and non-existence of his race and skin color—especially if one subscribes to the idea that Alex, also a writer and artist, occupies the precarious position of the “Exceptional Negro.” By this interpretation, Alex is both black and not black while remaining definitively not white, both excluded and included as an “honorary member” of a white community, both racialized and deracialized. In this way, perhaps Nugent adheres to Hughes’s campaign for authenticity by rendering Alex as a version of himself, a dark-skinned body made indefinitely and indeterminately raceless on account of his exceptionalism within the white imaginary. Regardless, Alex’s racial indeterminacy operates like a void, a racelessness that can be filled by any race, a position that can be occupied by any reader, a racelessness that is simultaneously hyper-racial.

~ 

To demonstrate ways in which indeterminate whiteness functions as an all-inclusive category within Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” I will articulate what I mean by ‘white’ and, more specifically, what I do not mean: by white, I do not mean raceless or colorless, certainly not in the sense of white as a socio-politically constructed norm from which race is an aberration, synonymous with “Other,” “minority,” “marginalized,” etc. In fact, I do not mean white as the racial category at all but white as a skin complexion that can be found within most if not all racial groups, a physical characteristic that alone, without additional explicit identifiers like blonde hair and blue eyes, cannot substantiate a character’s race. Moreover, rather than consider white as the absence of color, I consider it as the reflection and emission of all light, all colors, without absorption (“white,” 1a). By extension of this definition, indeterminate whiteness in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” reflects all races.

This indeterminate whiteness becomes even more peculiar in that it is evanescent within a fog of many other physical characteristics. Consider Nugent’s extended description of Melva:

…two small feet olive-ivory…two well-turned legs curving gracefully from slender ankles…and the contours soothed him…he followed them…past the narrow rounded hips to the tiny waist…the fragile firm breasts…the graceful slender throat…the soft rounded chin…slightly parted lips and straight little nose with its slightly flaring nostrils…the black eyes with lights in them…looking at him…the forehead and straight cut black hair…and it was Melva… (83)

Rather than use “white” to describe Melva, Nugent describes her feet as “olive-ivory”—her whiteness becomes a minor detail which does not foreclose her racial possibilities by making her, say, white American. Instead, with racially indeterminate features like black eyes, black hair, and, especially, “olive-ivory” skin, which suggests nonwhite ancestry, Melva becomes hyper-racial, reflecting every race while being none at all, simultaneously racialized and deracialized. Her whiteness is both a freedom and a constraint, for while it may reflect many races, it also reflects a specific complexion, excluding all variations of color within races. The same is true for Adrian:

…two strong white legs…dancer’s legs…the contours pleased him…his eyes wandered…on past the muscular hocks to the firm white thighs…the rounded buttocks…then the lithe narrow waist…strong torso and broad deep chest…the heavy shoulders…the graceful muscled neck…squared chin and quizzical lips…Grecian nose with its temperamental nostrils…the brown eyes looking at him…. his hair curly and black and all tousled…and it was Beauty… (82)

Unlike Melva, Adrian’s “Grecian nose” complicates his racial indeterminacy, evoking Western (white) standards of beauty, reminiscent of kouroi—ancient Greek statues of beautiful, athletic male youths. Still, Nugent’s use of Beauty rather than beauty suggests a universality, even if that universality is implicitly colored by racial implications and prejudices. However, like Melva, Adrian’s brown eyes, black hair, “strong white legs,” and “firm white thighs” expand his racial possibilities while marking him with a strangely indeterminate specificity. Nevertheless, my concern here is not with diversity (or the lack thereof) in skin color but with the expansion of racial possibilities.

Even with the predominance of indeterminate whiteness, it is through a foreign language that readers come closest to discovering the race or ethnicity of any fictional character in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade,” namely Adrian. Upon meeting Alex in the street, Adrian’s first words are, “perdone me señor tiene usted fósforo” (81), which translates to, “Excuse me, sir, do you have a match?” The simple fact that Adrian addresses Alex in Spanish rather than in English (though he is quite capable of speaking English) does not fully disclose Adrian’s race, ethnicity, or nationality. For instance, Adrian could be Mexican, Spanish, multiracial, and/or multiethnic. Also, for Adrian to initially address Alex in Spanish implies that Alex is also racially ambiguous, that he can “pass” for Hispanic or Latino. Since this prose poem can be classified as semi-autobiographical, Alex may actually bear a close resemblance to Nugent himself who occasionally “passed” for South American, assuming the alias Ricardo Nugenti de Dosceta (Wirth 12). However, it is worth noting that Alex understands Adrian, asserting that “being addressed in English at all…would have been blasphemy” (81), thereby complicating the assumption that Alex is a black non-Spanish speaker and expanding the exegetical possibilities of racial indeterminacy. Nugent’s use of racial indeterminacy, including indeterminate whiteness, allows readers of any race or color to project themselves onto, imagine their own racial category reflected in, and/or reproduce their own idiosyncratic version of white beauty (white as complexion, not race) upon the story’s fictional characters, Alex, Melva, and Adrian, the three positions most readily available to be occupied through readers’ imaginations, thereby promoting a sense of intimacy and involvement between the story and its readers.

~

Richard Bruce Nugent’s “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” is the archetype for my novella-in-verse entitled The Harder Parts. The narrative shuttles between past and present as the speaker, living in England, looks back on the life he shared in rural Louisiana with his deceased lover: after struggling with chronic depression, his lover ultimately committed suicide, leaving the speaker behind to work through the wreckage of mourning. At its core, The Harder Parts illustrates the enduring effects of love, desire, and loss on one’s sense of self. Like Nugent, I omit racially specific identity markers. For instance, the speaker’s appearance is almost never mentioned, much like Alex’s, except for his “auburn ringlets” and “eyes like quicksilver” (“Libations”). In addition, the speaker’s lover is described as having sandy hair (“Fasting”), tawny skin (“Manus Dei”), and hazel eyes (“7 Waldroup Road”), rendering him just as racially indeterminate as Melva and Adrian. However, unlike Nugent, I refrain from using indeterminate whiteness since I wish to avoid the potentially problematic racial implications of whiteness.

Nevertheless, both the speaker and his lover could be any race or any combination of races and ethnicities, especially considering Louisiana’s long history of miscegenation, particularly with regard to Creole and Cajun cultures in which people can be and often are any combination of French, British, Spanish, Italian, Native American, and African American ancestry. It is fairly common to see people, like several members of my own family, who have naturally white skin, hazel eyes, and wavy hair but identify and are classified as black. Accordingly, with “Smoke, Lilies and Jade” as a model, I wanted to create an environment that seems raceless in its indeterminacy but hyper-racial in its possibilities. Moreover, my use of racial indeterminacy and the absence of overt blackness are not repudiations of my blackness in the least but are meant to subtly complicate and expand notions of race, to create an ambiguity and openness that includes rather than distracts or excludes readers.

To contribute to this open environment, the form for The Harder Parts is derived from Nugent’s elliptical style in “Smoke, Lilies and Jade.” I substitute white space for ellipses between phrases with the hope of arresting readers with a sense of airiness and diffusion. I want to render the loving, yet strained, relationship between two people as it unfolds entirely in the speaker’s hazy, dreary recollections, in his reconstructions of the domestic sphere where they were most vulnerable, intimate, and alone—essentially two bodies navigating a private life together. I want to create an atmosphere, be it like smoke or water, where bodies, thoughts, speech, the interior domestic sphere and the wilderness are not severed and separated by punctuation, but brought together in communion within the white space of the page. For me, composing The Harder Parts is an act of integration, the coming together of lyric and narrative, compression and expansion, memoir and fiction. More importantly, The Harder Parts is an act of hope, the kind of hope that, as the title poem concludes, feels like knowing but knowing is nothing more than hope.



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