The line between Fred Moten’s theory and poetry is increasingly cloudy; the distinction almost seems (but isn’t quite) irrelevant. In All That Beauty (Letter Machine Editions, 2019), his new poetry collection, the poems come closer than ever before to the capacious, disorienting density of his prose writing: not just for their hairpin turns of speculative reasoning, or even their gleeful embrace of specialized academic terminology, but because they are strewn with names, citations and allusions that situate the text in a range of discourses – from Black studies to sound studies to the philosophy of maths.
Like scholarly writing that cites and engages directly with the thinking of others, All That Beauty presents writing as a collective effort. Each poem includes a list of collaborators, though it’s not clear whether they literally co-wrote the poems, or whether Moten is in dialogue with (and perhaps collaging material from) their work. Either way, these lists affirm that any distinction between collaboration and individual authorship is false. As if to underscore this, the poems insistently refer to other writers (Harryette Mullen, Nate Mackey, Claudia Rankine) and musicians (Son House, Sun Ra, Thelonious Monk); these names are not used as mere signifiers, pointing cleverly to culture and philosophy, they are acknowledgements of others who contributed substantially to the thinking in the poems.
In that spirit, All That Beauty opens with – and takes its title from – a consideration of a few passages by James Baldwin in which he meditates on the beauty of Black life and the difficulty of seeing with that beauty due to the internalization of white ideology. The complex dialectics (or perhaps plain knottiness) of seeing, being seen and seeing through are introduced at the start and frame the book as a whole. Throughout, Moten returns to questions of sight and representation. He’s interested in how such processes determine the lived experience of race, but also in how lived experience always eludes these processes – he finds something anti-systematic in life itself. To that end, the poems repeatedly refer to social identities and racist hierarchies as historical and structural, but their language disobeys the logic of those histories and structures, spilling over into other topics:
On the other muhfuckin’ hand,
neoliberalism is a concerted attempt
to obscure the essential and essentially
exclusionary relation of identity and
politics, which is better known as
liberalism, which is less well known
as fascism, (business) man. It’s ashamed
of where it comes from, a cold city on a
dry marsh. Lots of loose talk about hills
and light, and here we come and go, the
wet recrudescence of the marsh, the much
more + less than malarial life of drops of
nonlocal gold, as anti- and ante-aristocratic
swarm laid open to natural, natal, univocal
In this passage, a list of types of economic and ideological coercion blurs (to use one of Moten’s favourite words) into an abstract landscape inhabited by an ambiguous collectivity. The difficulty of ‘seeing’ the complexity of power merges with the difficulty of ‘seeing’ the emergence of resistant collectivities – these problems of seeing are inextricably related.
This emphasis on sight leads Moten to meditations on visual art. Especially in its second half, All That Beauty turns to art and the art world, critiquing its institutionalized whiteness (‘Why destroy a Schutz when you can destroy a Rembrandt?’, he asks in ‘come on, get it!’) and offering extended reflections on artists such as Terry Adkins, Zoe Leonard and Harry Dodge. Some of the poems read as experiments in art criticism, especially the piece on Zoe Leonard, which argues that her photographs are a method of care for the living – much as, Moten says, the writer John Keene and scholar Christina Sharpe, respectively, call for the necessity of caring for the dead. And in a poem about Harry Dodge, Moten claims that the messiness in Dodge’s work is a form of generosity:
You walk around (in) the curvaceous pictoriality of Harry’s drawing, or drying, or directing toward something culminating in assemblage / and nonperformative relief, some jamming together of bits and bots and bites into an earthly complication of the world. In this impeccably / incontinent terr/afforming, Harry puts some luscious sign on all that melismatic mess that can’t nobody tell him how to use. That’s why you / all messed up now. These are works of love, after all, and messing you up is the work love does.
Seeing ‘all that beauty’, for Moten, involves making a mess of said beauty, and acknowledging it as a mess. It’s not a matter of seeing better, or more clearly; it’s a matter of seeing more widely and wildly. Just as this book posits authorship as inherently collaborative, sprawling and undecidable, it suggests that seeing involves a blurring of perspective and genre. In all his work, Moten has shown himself to be an expansively curious thinker, absorbing and entwining ideas from far-flung disciplines and mediums. But his recent books – both All That Beauty and his theoretical series, ‘Consent Not to Be a Single Being’ (Duke University Press, 2017–18) – are especially overflowing with the energy of collective thought.