REVIEW: To Be a “Unified Person”: Simone White’s Of Being Dispersed

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by Peter Myers

In her recent interview in BOMB Magazine with rapper Vince Staples, Simone White describes hip-hop as “a thing that is, like a black body, both universally available and discursively hostile. It spits us out while we think we are consuming it.” It isn’t surprising to hear such a formulation coming from a poet; this dynamic, of simultaneous invitation and resistance, is just as much a part of poetry as hip-hop. It appears, for instance, in the friction generated when the intimacy offered by the lyric voice runs up against language’s imprecision, its unwillingness to cohere. Drawing our circle even wider, we can consider White’s statement in light of the identities we align ourselves with: how the categorizations and norms of which they’re composed by turn highlight and mask certain parts of ourselves, parts which are then pushed below, or spread across a distance. This is the central dynamic White concerns herself with in Of Being Dispersed, a relentless and exhilarating collection of poems.

Of Being Dispersed is both documentation and enactment of identity’s fragmentation, its tendency to split into pockets that resist any easy reconciliation with each other or the self that houses them. (Isn’t this what poetry is for? If identity is produced discursively, discourse is what’s needed to push back) We encounter these fragments, hear their voices, in White’s collection, and witness what happens when the distinct physical and mental worlds they inhabit cross paths and intrude one another. These speakers are female, Black, female and Black, a mother, a daughter, a sister, a poet, an academic, a body, a human that desires, a mind that has thoughts; they are all these things, simultaneously and in isolation, and in all of the contradiction it entails.

Given the array of selves White inhabits, the great variety of forms and voices present in her poems is fitting. Formally, Of Being Dispersed ranges from lengthy, essayistic prose (“Lotion”) to sonically-driven impressionist bursts (“Windrim,” “Kettle to Pot”). Between and within poems, White code-switches seamlessly, mixing low and high idioms and flitting in and out of the colloquial—and does so without affectation, a refreshing departure from the anxious displays of cultural omnivorism which often accompany such mixing of high and low. Just within “so as not to embarrass my comrades,” we encounter the “vestigial tail of Queens,” “barf-bag wisdoms,” and the “the white van of our progressive imagination,”phrases as evocative as they are sonically striking, alongside references to Robert Moses and “the scrotum of Jeff Daniels.” White’s language is surprising in a way that never feels inorganic, or like anything less than a deliberate expression of thought. In everything from prose to fractured verse, White’s poems are a dive into the interior workings of someone trying to work something out.

These pieces of a self, and their accompanying orientations toward world, do not always align with how White’s speakers perceive or desire themselves to be; identity’s impositions are often fought against, without success. In “Comment”: “In my marriage and with my mother, there was truly no celebration of my imaginary self, still caterwauling in the way-behind.” And, in “They Say They Can Fill Me Up with a Baby”: “Teaching Reznikoff I cry and make myself / the spectacle I say most certainly I am not.” Wife, daughter, spectacle-prone professor; these are roles that constrain White’s speakers’ attempts at self-definition. In “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks,” the speaker commands herself (another?) to “swear on this stack of doodoo / on sight I am a unified person”—a startling mixture of oath and mild vulgarity that shatters the unity the speaker begs us to behold.

At times the sweep and precision of White’s sentences and lines function as a whirlpool, encircling an object or phenomenon about which the poem aims to think, nearly swallowing it, but, due to its own centripetal force, keeping a certain distance from it—a metacognitive process which the book dramatizes and comments upon. The triptych “Preliminary Notes on Street Attacks,” following an epigraph from Stevens (“I was of three minds…”), begins by recalling the racist and sexist (micro)aggressions the speaker has faced, but soon turns inward, the speaker’s investment in lived experience waning, her self-doubt growing. She moves from lines of unmitigated force and indignation (“no white man on the car would do a thing / if a crazy person with a knife tried to stab you / even take your baby / oh yes they’d let you die”) to frustration at her inability to leave her interior, poetry-fueled world (“You like a goddam blackbird and sentences. Inside your head is a grandiose place.”) to willful self-deprecation (“Terrific rageful / liar on Whitman on Asphodel, you would lie / to Baraka’s face.”).

The breakdown enacted by these “Notes” is by no means a reneging of Blackness as a topic of inquiry; White’s speakers have an acute awareness of Black history, one that they are unable to deny or escape. In “Then I began to hear the call of Los Angeles,” the book’s breathless opener, L.A. is ostensibly a place “where dead negroes can’t get in your house.” But the speaker knows this to be false even as she writes it, knows her distance from the dead is illusory: “Voices of the dead…/ I do not deal in. Not because they are not real, / but because they are, I do not deal in them” (3). Not dealing has a way of coming back to haunt; by the poem’s end the speaker’s only wish is to “take a room in this hotel for weeks on end / and pretend to be dead.” This is the realness of history’s dead: the ever-present weight of that history on the living. As Staples put it to White in the interview, “Black people from California is fucking displaced slaves”—a displacement less spatial than temporal in a country in which Black people are subjected to myriad injustices, of which mass incarceration, income inequality, and police brutality are only a few.

The facts and conditions of Black womanhood, and how a person responds to them, form one of the collection’s core preoccupations. In “Lotion,” which takes the form of an essay on “the slightly ridiculous bodily conditions each of us lives with daily,” White examines rituals of hygiene and bodily maintenance unique to Black women, particularly hair and skin care. Written in a skilled deadpan that mixes general information on lotion with exceptionally precise details about hygiene routines, “Lotion” foregrounds White’s skill as a humorist while laying bare the labor of self-care that, for White, constitutes an essential part of black womanhood. It is in this poem, too, that the book’s cover image crystallizes: the small, unbordered square of wiggling black lines coalesces into a mottled patch of skin—cracked, dry, “ashy.”

For White’s speaker, these rituals of care are fundamentally a way to “maintain dominion over the crevices of [her]self,” a project that she holds to be valuable and necessary despite her certainty that “these crevices extend toward an infinitely receding boundary”—a dispersal with no point of origin, and from which there can be no return. Lotion is a palliative, yes, but not a panacea, and the poem’s greatest strength is the way in which White’s speaker manages to convey detachment, frustration, and pride simultaneously—she is aware of how the rituals of Black womanhood have been and are still shaped by sexism and white supremacy, but does not see this as sufficient reason to cease getting pleasure from them.

Throughout the collection, these myriad selves appear and vanish and appear again changed, orbiting the poet at center, shaping her and being shaped while maintaining a distance. White analyzes them, speaks to them, draws them nearer, stalks certainty. Reading White, it’s difficult not to think back to Whitman: to largeness, containing multitudes, the many within the one. For White, the multitudes are there, no doubt—only they aren’t contained, but rather dispersed.

Peter Myers lives in Philadelphia. His poetry has recently appeared in Prelude, apt, and Salt Hill.

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