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Natalie Eilbert on LaTasha Nevada Diggs

Twerk by LaTasha Nevada Diggs

 

Not since Kamau Brathwaite’s Middle Passages have I felt as possessed by history, geography, language, and their endlessly entangled footnotes as I did reading and rereading and rereading Twerk by LaTasha Nevada Diggs. To call Diggs a polyglot covers only a glimpse of the bases which make for such a wild, innovative verse experience. The coarse play in Diggs’ poetics beats through this collection in roaring, inimitable methods—though it is true she incorporates many, many languages, both active and endangered ones: English, Japanese, Spanish, Hindi/Urdu, Welsh, Maori, Hawaiian, Samoan, Malay, Swahili, Quechua, Yoruba, Portuguese, Chamorro, Cherokee, Tagalog, and Papiamentu, just to name a few. Such referential torrents of countries, food, and cyberculture every which way may be what leads to Diggs saying mid-book, “you thicken like chunky. I am w/o a bubble.”

 

Twerk fashions its own creation myth out of culture, counter-culture, and, as the neon-pink title suggests, the glitter and pop in between: Harlem’s bustles, ancient island parables, the Japanese alternative style Ganguro (in which Japanese women tan their skins exceptionally dark and bleach their hair), flabby mermaid culture, the anthropomorphized aquatic (try eating eel ever again), Tom Cruise, American public figures—among so many other conceptual riches. In so doing, a new legend forms from the pastiche, making Diggs—“the most obscene fish queen you ever seen”—our spectacular 21st-century guide. The poems exist supremely on their own terms, even as they borrow from tradition, heartily wink at conceptualism, and significantly nod to echoes of the American black spiritual “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” This is what makes Diggs so effective. The astounding challenge of braiding Americana with an almost violent cacophony of tongues and forgotten pasts is met with so much charm and ease of intelligence, it isn’t difficult to imagine Diggs herself isn’t a mythical superhuman born of her own mythology.

 

Macaronic verse inspires very clear racial politics here, and Diggs does not shy away from this by any stretch. By the very nature of blending familiar and lesser known languages in her lines, which she often does, Diggs propositions her readers into a world of false complicity. Her control over us is such that our own flow of reading gets interrupted by a lack of complete understanding—at least this is true for me and, if I could guess, a healthy lot of other readers. One of the very first poems, “pistology,” begins with this supplicant irony:

 

kyooryoku na transmitter de cielo, mighty transmitter of heaven,

 

blessed visor de imagen, blessed viewfinder,

 

captured hoshano of hikari. captured radiance of radiance.

 

dotekina kinescope, color kinescope,

globalizing sounds unit modulation.

O’ fallacious shizukesa.

O’ fallacious peace.

 

fukyu no meisaku!

fukyu no meisaku! fukyu

no meisaku!  immortal masterpiece!

 

The languages in this macaroni are Japanese, Spanish, and English. Pistology means the branch of theology that focuses on faith—and like a new knowledge of reality, Diggs recalibrates our middle c to praise technology’s celestial powers. As we entangle ourselves in the linguistic web, our minds too recalibrate. This certainly will not be light reading for a Sunday afternoon, even if Twerk’s sentiments spring with fresh colloquial energies. Even as the hypnotic, dizzying spell of her dance hits us anew with each turn of the page.

 

That “captured radiance of radiance” cues us in to a double foundation of intention. The layers of speech are forced to merge like cloud formations. If consumerism and jpegs enter the poem, so does traditional nature imagery in the very same line. If these poems are difficult to read privately, it is because often they demand arenas to be performed in. But these poems work within their confines, hyper conscious of the page’s mute territory. The page itself is what lets the more troubling racial and gendered epithets linger and stare back with all the flavor and force of that same hyper consciousness, as in the poem “who you callin’ a jynx?” where she writes “I’m your Yokai nigglet sippin’ lovely” only to conclude with the aforementioned power nod “I swing my chariots low for a reason.”

 

The cyber-mythos charging Twerk, as mentioned, is quite dynamic with its focus on race and the metropolis. With the help of Terrance Hayes’s Gwendolyn Brooks-inspired poetic form, the golden shovel, which separates all the words of a phrase into individually endstopped words in succession (see Hayes’s poem “The Golden Shovel”), Diggs wisely appropriates lines about nature, the body, and reproductive rights spoken by black poets (and one black senator) Fred Morten, Metta Sáma, and Nina Turner into her booming duende. Especially wrought in “trail mix,” a poem challenging reproductive rights, Diggs reboots US Senator Nina Turner’s infamous legislation proposal on a new men’s health bill and Turner’s ballsy statement, “It is all about the love and making sure we look out for men’s sexual health.” Her poem begins as such:

 

tilth is a womb. craven is the banana lost at sea. it

needs jesus like all heathens do. wasted corn kernels, the shame! is

what spilt not life? into the spume semen dies. all

alive wading. all normal. dead. abnormal. wading. about

40 million each jack. stumpy dates, copious eggplants lacking the

guidance of anal governments. American sperm needs our love!

 

It is this mocking humor that gives Diggs her momentum throughout Twerk. Whether she writes through the ancient debate styles of Chamarro natives in Guam or she mythologizes the owner of the Japanese restaurant chain Benihana or she redraws a Cherokee myth to include an exodus to Harlem from the prehistoric hinterlands, Diggs takes us on a polyphonic ride into and away from the familiar. The work is unstoppable and relentlessly musical. Diggs, in her identity remixes, hijacks the status quo. She tells us, “I love you all for the loving me;” she tells us “I am the other.” Her poems subvert everything, even themselves in this smart sci-fi female metroplex: “the crotch no longer desires to spin gold thread, something it now admits is foolish to replicate.”

 

 

 

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