Will Alexander seeks a unified-all-inclusive art theory in Compression & Purity
"'I am the carnivore/ The hounded night walker/ Searching for my wings scattered under glass."
So begins "Blood Penguin," the first poem in Will Alexander's latest collection, Compression & Purity (City Lights, 100 pages, $13.95). Alexander is an honest-and-for-true black surrealist. In 2011, he will have three books of poetry, one novel, one book of essays, and a book of philosophy coming out. Even if you've never heard his name before, you gotta admit that Will Alexander is a bad muthafuckah. "because of my leaning," he writes in the same poem, "I know the stark Egyptian soma/ Much as would the blinded cemetery scribe.'"
Invoking equal parts Homer and Ray Charles, Alexander excavates as only a black surrealist can — by revisiting and resurrecting cults and symbols of the past with new eyes while taking a biographic, confessional tone. Many of the pieces coalesce into declarations/definitions for an ever-shifting identity meeting the limits of contemporary classification.
"I am simply without means to conduct my own prism," Alexander writes in this opening poem. A lament of all artists and creative others who find themselves at this juncture where capability could possibly override access and capital, enabling us to manifest our truest visions.
In "The Deluge in Information," we once again meet this fluid identity. "I am more like a crow from crucial underwater fires," Alexander writes, "a crucial underwater crow/ Neither Chinese or Shinto/ But of the black dimensionality as hidden underwater mass."
Whereas Alexander's Sunrise in Armageddon (2006) was a whop over the head that only the most Joycean among us could dare to hold with a steady grip, Compression & Purity hovers over a series of consistent, graspable subjects throughout. The treatment of identity/biography in "Blood Penguin" and "Deluge" is fully unmasked in "On Anti-Biography," where Alexander makes the succinct, clear statement: "I am only concerned with simultaneity and height, with rays of monomial kindling, guiding the neocortex though ravens, into the ecstasy of x-rays and blackness."
This and the poem that follows, "My Interior Vita," ring like an Afrosurrealist's manifesto. When Alexander writes, "Yet above all, the earth being for me the specificity of Africa, as revealed by Diop, and Jackson, and Van Sertima, and its electrical scent in the writing of Damas. Because of this purview I have never drawn to provincial description, or to quiescent chemistry of condensed domestic horizon," he seems to be speaking for those who have rejected the quiet servitude that characterizes existing roles for African Americans, Asian Americans, Latinos, and queer folk. Even as he's speaking from a universal mind with a universal tongue, he always seems to land on the side of "otherness."
"Yet at a more ancient remove," he continues, "there exists the example of Nubia and Kemet unconcerned with life as secular confiscation, but with the unification of disciplines, such as astronomy, philosophy, law, as paths to the revelations of the self. Knowledge then, as alchemical operation, rather than an isolated expertise." Word.
Though Afrosurreal, Alexander is "Afro futurist" as well. "Alien Personas," the name of yet another strong poem in this collection, could easily be a rubric for the other driving force in this book. Beginning with the personification poem "Water On A New Mars" ("Being water/ I am the voltage of rocks/ Of algid suns in transition/ Flying across a scape/ Of bitter Martian dioxide"), Alexander reaches from the semi-utopian science fiction of Octavia Butler to dystopian Delanyian homage and the expansive cosmology of Sun Ra. What we find is an artist seeking a unified-all-inclusive art theory. A noble, if totally insane, gesture for a better and brighter tomorrow.
Compression and Purity works well as an introduction to Alexander's black surrealist oeuvre while still engaging and challenging his longtime readers. Though emotionally cold and detached, the poems more than make up for it with a genuine love of language and its power to effect change.