Hindsight is 20/20
by Lynne Sachs
April 25, 2023
NoUP / Rehearsal
An ongoing & growing collation
of original (& borrowed) digital ephemera…
We are committed to the idea that study is what you do with other people. It’s talking and walking around with other people, working, dancing, suffering, some irreducible convergence of all three, held under the name of speculative practice. The notion of a rehearsal—being in a kind of workshop, playing in a band, in a jam session, or old men sitting on a porch, or people working together in a factory—there are these various modes of activity. The point of calling it “study” is to mark that the incessant and irreversible intellectuality of these activities is already present.
Fred Moten & Stefano Harney
NoUP / Rehearsal #5
HINDSIGHT IS 20/20
(YEAR BY YEAR BY YEAR)
In the land of the imperial measuring system, we have an idiomatic expression that wends its way around: ‘Hindsight is 20/20.’ It’s a double entendre, one of the best. In order to fully appreciate the intention of this historically prescribed piece of so-called common sense, it helps to understand what 20/20 means and what it implies both in terms of sight, in the optical sense, and the mind. A person with 20/20 vision has what is considered normal vision as measured by a standardized eye test. What you see from 20 feet away is the same as what a person with normal vision would see. Of course, I realise that the measurement itself is based on a system that exists only in the United Kingdom, other Commonwealth countries and the United States. Nevertheless, I think it is clear that when we suggest that “Hindsight is 20/20,” we are assuming that with time, we gain a maturity that provides a deeper perspective on looking at the past.
When I turned fifty, I decided to write a poem for every year of my life so far. Each of the fifty poems investigates the relationship between a singular event in my life and the swirl of events beyond my domestic universe. Year by Year Poems (Tender Buttons Press, 2019) moves from my birth in 1961 to my half-century marker in 2011. Across this time span, I navigate within and alongside historical events such as the first landing on the Moon, the assassination of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., the earliest Congressional hearings in the US on sexual misconduct, the first mass shooting in a US high school, and the fight for national health care. While I could not assume that I had gained insight in the years that had passed, I wanted to explore my understanding of these singular events through my poetry.
With both frames and stanzas in mind, I turn to the work of Fred Moten, American scholar of Black studies, poetics and critical theory to help me navigate the meaning and the power of the expression “Hindsight is 20/20.” Moten challenges us to revise our understanding of the “rehearsal” as a striving for perfection, offering, instead, a more wabi-sabi celebration of impermanence, improvisation and, perhaps, imperfection. He offers readers and listeners a kind of uncanny encouragement not only to write, make music or paint but also to appreciate the notion that we can find a place for our imagination in various and surprising locations of activity. In his own 2018 poem ‘come on, get it!’ (published in The New Inquiry), Moten claims that finding ourselves in this new kind of space of engagement has the potential to radicalize us in the most fundamental ways: ‘Improvisation is how we make no way out of a way. Improvisation is how we make nothing out of something.’
Maybe the difference ain’t between
performance and practice. Maybe it’s
not between practice and playing.
Maybe the difference is all inseparably
inside out and unexternalizable, all and
more and none and gone, come on …
To assist me in thinking candidly, sometimes skeptically, about my approach to the retelling of my own past in Year by Year, I look to Moten’s notion of ‘social arrangement, that is how things get together’ through poetry. The first time I heard him use the term hesitant sociologist was in a recorded lecture delivered in the Poetry and Poetics program at the University of Chicago in 2016. After providing a context for the evolution of sociology as a discipline beginning with Auguste Compte’s early thinking in the field of sociology and then moving forward to W.E.B DuBois’s 1905 essay ‘Sociology Hesitant,’ Moten refers to the underlying contradictions, even tensions, that exist between an impulse to write and a commitment to cultural transformation. In various other lectures and texts, he grapples with the awkward, ecstatic relationship between aesthetic experimentation and the quest for historical resonance and ultimately resistance.
Moten asks ‘What if it’s not about putting shit together but about how shit falls apart?’ He relieves us of the responsibility of simply making something new and instead encourages us to fragment, even rip apart, what’s out there—like history books that make people feel bad about themselves or suppliers of systemically contaminated dirty water.
Still, I must remind myself that Moten is searching for ‘resistance events by persons denied the capacity to claim normative personhood.’ How can, should, will I, as a white heterosexual middle-class woman living in the US, embrace his vision? When Moten reminds us of writer and cultural thinker Edward Glissant’s notion of Blackness as the ‘consent not to be a single being,’ I become aware of my own cis-concept of self, and my openness to a shifted presence. All I can do is remain cognizant of this difference, open to observing a unilateral consciousness that imposes the rigidity of that 20/20 vison that hindsight was supposed to be providing. Perhaps, we are only pretending when we clam wisdom in a “normal” sense is an outgrowth of time.
Before reconnecting with my own poems, I want to share a specific text that Fred Moten himself speaks about and celebrates often. Zong! is an example of an expression of anguish for an underrecognized horror in the history of enslaved people. It’s a book-length poem by M. NourbeSe Philip, a 182-page poetry cycle composed entirely from the words of the case report, Gregson vs. Gilbert, related to the murder of 130 African people on board a slave ship. Choosing to embody rather than recount, Philip creates a non-narrative poetic evocation of her own revulsion—
The case report Gregson vs. Gilbert, recounts the massacre by drowning of some 130 enslaved Africans over the course of ten days beginning on November 29th, 1781. The captain of the eponymous slave ship, Zong, having made many navigational errors resulting in extending the length of the voyage from West Africa to Jamaica ordered the Africans be thrown overboard so as to allow the owners of the ship, the Gregsons, to claim indemnity from their insurers, the Gilberts. When the insurers refused to honor the contract of insurance, the ship’s owners initiated legal action against them, which proved to be successful. Upon appeal, however, the insurers, the Gilberts, were granted a new trial. The report of that hearing, Gregson vs Gilbert, constitutes the only extant, public document related to the massacre. Through fugal and counterpointed strategies, Zong! explodes the coded, documented silence of the historical text to become an anti-narrative lament that tells the story of this tragic massacre: it cannot be told yet must be told; it can only be told by not telling.
Her revulsion comes through …
Philip does not offer us a history retold, in bold, with accessible, easily digestible facts, but rather a fragmented, scat-like series of passionate verbal iterations, single words floating, drowning on the page, pointed laments for the brutal murder of actual human beings on board a ship crossing the Atlantic.
For Tenement’s Rehearsal, I take my appreciation for both Moten and Philip as a jumping off point for contextualising my own practice, for recognising that my own “hindsight” has been transformed and shifted by my discovery of these two poets’ approaches to the continuous, vital, yet ghostly presence of our past in all moments of our now. Tenement Press editor Dominic Jaeckle chose these ten poems from a total of 50 for me to annotate …
A nurse tugs a new baby girl
from between our mother’s legs.
Dad is miles away
witnessing James Meredith walking up
the stairs of the University of Mississippi.
And other things he didn’t tell her.
How long can she swim in
Two baby girls brown and blonde
at home with Mom and a nurse.
John Glenn circles the Earth
and comes back to the same place
a kitchen table.
In the fall of 1962, there was enormous racial tension throughout the American South. James Meredith, a young Black man, wanted to enroll as a student at the all-white University of Mississippi in the town of Oxford. When Meredith attempted to register, the governor of Mississippi not only denied his application but called in the National Guard to stop the process. Hundreds of civilians, many of them armed white supremacists, came to the campus to prevent Meredith from enrolling. In the face of this mass of angry, racist citizens supported by the highest ranked politician in the state, President John Kennedy ordered a U.S. military force to go to Mississippi on September 30, 1962 to protect Meredith against the violent mob.
Terrariums are the thing.
I have one on my bedroom window sill.
Water droplets and ferns
moist fecund soil
small green umbrellas shading
hobbits and fairies.
Carbon dioxide out.
A complete system.
in the den
slightly louder than the sound of my parents arguing.
Punishment for being nine and
not going to sleep.
The terms “climate change” or “global warming” didn’t find their way to mainstream awareness until the late 1980s. Prior to embracing an activist notion of environmentalism, the more naïve, passive approach to celebrating the Earth came in the form of “ecology,” and making a terrarium was a gesture in this regard …
Our art teacher asks us to imagine
what we would see
if we put our index fingers in a hole.
In the world in the dirt in an ass in a mouth.
Children’s art teachers in the 1970s were not faced with as much institutional oversight as they are today. For better or worse, the classroom was essentially a private space where students learned whatever their teacher wanted to impart on them—hard cold facts, liberated views of the human body, suggestions of oneiric, somatic discoveries that might push us to better appreciate the art making practices of Surrealists …
(for Ira, my brother)
The gypsy women of Paris go by in groups of five
while I am in worn jeans, a pair of pumps, and a paisley blouse.
Each rain floods the sidewalk with a stream of green and brown,
like a studio of an Impressionist painter,
curious brush strokes,
relics of the Jardin des Plantes.
I’m a tired college student
napping in an empty Sorbonne classroom
late-to-class bus rides
crumbs from my morning baguette ground between threads.
My evening phone booth call catches my brother
as he prepares for school at home, 4359 miles away.
His hello transforms this dirty glass box
into four dynamic movie screens.
I see him clearly
at home with Mom
eating a bowl of cereal and drinking a small glass of juice.
I see a new diamond stud in his left ear,
Mom at the sink, a confused look on her face,
wondering how to read the placement of his glistening gem.
What we share and still continue to hide.
Raindrops slide down the fourth window pane,
framing him with a man I can’t quite see.
In a dark parking lot behind a downtown Memphis bar,
a secret cameo of infatuation.
I wipe away the condensation
to get a better view
as the screen goes dark on Boulevard Raspail.
There was a visible code to being gay in the early 1980s. For some, wearing an earring on the right side was said to indicate homosexuality, while wearing one on the left indicated heterosexuality. Of course, since this sartorial decision could vary depending on where you lived, confusion around identity was rampant …
I hold blood
All that is mine to let go
is held in,
In 1987, A.I.D.S. was everywhere and men and women, mostly gay but also straight, had to think more than they ever had before about the ramifications of being sexual, even simply physical, with anyone else. Other people’s bodies could become territories of potential trauma …
My camera travels from blue sunlight
to the orange glow of a kitchen bulb,
explosions of cyan, magenta, and yellow.
A troupe of twenty-four images marches
from darkness toward silver halide.
A 16mm target the size of my thumbprint.
Study of a film frame begins my life
behind the camera.
This poem stands on its own …
Peggy, Kathy, Laura, Jennifer, Nina, Crosby, Lynne.
We seven women
pour theoretical intimacies into mismatched tea cups
argue within and amongst
read Irigaray and Cixous as forms of testimony
imbibe glasses of California white and cheap red.
Where will we sleep when we have abandoned our beds?
Where will we eat when we have burned our table?
How will we read when our glasses have broken?
Between each page, each syllable
we find something hidden
collect our own data,
create our own science,
begin to define.
Built from the inside out, our new laboratory
pushes against the walls of the old structure.
An incendiary effect, yes, but not arson.
In 1990, I was in a feminist reading group where we read the French theorists Julia Kristeva, Luce Irigaray and Monique Wittig, writers who embraced “feminine écriture” and the concept of the abject, which suggests a radical separation from normal, legal, or mainstream, especially in relationship to society, morality, and identity …
Our sundering begets beloved longing.
Intimacy reaches from bay to bay.
My head should lie down in San Francisco three hours
after your ear touches down at Eastern Standard Time.
Strange how I need to hear your voice, its whisper-rich tones,
before my lids meet to seal the deal of sleep.
Instead, our lights go out in a
simultaneous surge toward darkness.
With intonations of love,
the resolution of an argument, the agreement:
Either 7 or 31 days until.
Close my eyes.
I am next to you.
Away and together.
The United States is a large country and trying to maintain a long-distance relationship with the person you love can be challenging when one person is in California and the other in Florida …
Your first ride on the subway, alone.
The cool air of the train on a hot July afternoon.
My whisper deposits secrets inside your ear,
mass transit lullabies.
I let go of your small hand.
You step across
circus tight ropes
the orange glow of the F train.
Explosions in the Madrid metro send
shards of anxiety across the Atlantic.
My jaw tightens.
Might you be safer if we still used tokens,
out-of-date amulets of the 20th Century?
On the morning of March 11, 2004, 10 bombs exploded on four trains in and around Madrid’s Atocha Station, leaving 191 people dead and more than 1,800 injured. The coordinated near-simultaneous attacks targeted commuter trains over a period of a few minutes …
everything all at once.
Swimming naked in a sheltered pond
surrounded by goldenrod or perhaps forsythia.
My two daughters glide across the water
enthralled by a daylight skinny-dip,
terrified by our stolen privacy.
In a lake with my young daughters, a huis-clos, a hermetic oasis that suggests but cannot promise protection …
* * *
Reading my poems should not require a recollection or even an understanding of these moments in history. By providing these shadings of context, I am trying to hint at the shifting and sliding that happens over time, the way that poetry allows us to choose from a multitude of perspectives—one or many, parallel or contradictory, confident or flawed points of view. Fred Moten, in his own exquisitely playful yet serious way, encourages us ‘to connect subjects that our preconceptions may have led us to think had little relation,’ subjects across time, across stature, subjects from our intimate home space, famous subjects, sublime subjects, sullied subjects, risky ones as well. Through poetry we all have the right to embrace that which we desire.
I return to Moten’s poem ‘come on, get it’ to close us out—
Neither the poet nor the poem can contain such virtue: what it is to be able not so much to ask but to construct a question, to be allowed being also to be required to construct, construct implying some intention—fanned out all over the yard like some weighted canopies or a community sing of open corners or a conversion of the guards—to hit a poem or a poet in the throat or in the stomach.
With thanks to Cíntia Gil …
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