Tonya M. Foster’s collection A Swarm of Bees in High Court takes its title from Max Ernst’s 1960 painting A Swarm of Bees in the Palace of Justice. Despite this ekphrastic gesture, though, the book is not so much invested in images or visual representation as it is in sound and motion. Charged with textual and contextual energy, it moves, it buzzes, it jumps, it vibrates. This tension between stasis and motion plays out formally, too: if the haiku Foster formally evokes typically crystallizes a moment in seasonal time into a word-picture, in this book the haiku explodes the picture. Strung together across the book’s 12 sections into sequences, even narratives, Foster’s three-line (sometimes 17 syllable) fragments function like particles—or bees, bullets, or basketballs—in air, more or less dense, moving at greater or lesser velocity. The book gives not only a sense of motion, but also the stakes of it. In the gap between Ernst’s title and Foster’s, the “palace of justice” disappears, replaced by a richly valenced “high court”: the heights of Harlem, the basketball court, the ritual of courtship, and the racist court of the American judicial system. (A color reproduction of Ernst’s painting appears at the end of the book; the cover art is Wangechi Mutu’s Le Noble Savage.) This high court is a real place—not a palace of justice but a place of injustice, desire, and play.

Many of Foster’s sequences cluster on the edges of sleep: “Harlem Nocturn/e/s,” “In/Somnia,” “In/Somniloquies,” “Aubade,” “A Grammar of Waking.” In these, the particular dissociative drift of words and phrases is striking, the breakdown of language towards sleep opening onto new semantic possibilities (“young wo/man on / a bayou of sound & words in / the pre/ab/sense of sleep”). The purchase on female desire is also striking. In a position of quiet power—as well as just quiet—the speaker (“she”) watches a male lover sleep: “to want and not ask” becomes a refrain. But the scene of intimacy is also a scene of openness:

She wants a sleep 

that shutters thought like the sparse

corner bodega.

 

She wants a sleep

shut against the neighborhood

graffiti of noise.

 

And Harlem, s/he can’t

get the bedroom dark enough to

lose sight of things. 

 

While the speaker wishes for closed-off repose, the place beyond the bedroom makes itself felt and sensed: in this passage, even the simile for closing off draws an element of the outside (the bodega) back in. “This is the biography of a day in the life of a particular neighborhood,” Foster writes in the book’s concluding section, ‘Notes: Titular Lineages.” Every interior (room, self, stanza) is porous, open to ambient voices, catcalls, gunshots, humidity, anxieties, politics, dusks and dawns.

Foster’s present is open to both place and to past: along with everything else, “yesterday swarms in.” A temporality in which “history is not past,” as Foster states in an interview with John Keene*, emerges to challenge prototypical lyric immediacy, as well as discourses of enlightenment and modernity (also modernism) that privilege a “universal” white subject, and that flow into ideas of the post-racial. Here again, Foster’s forms are supple enough to move from the impressionistic to the narrative, from now to then, and back. “Yesterday swarms in,” for example, at the beginning of the “In/Somniloquies” section, the book’s longest. The three-line form modulates into couplets, and then into a sonnet-like poem, structured around the anaphoric repetition of “red as,” that moves from a vivid catalog of childhood and adolescent memories back to today’s Harlem, located in time and space:

 

red as blood butterflied across the seat and white of summer culottes,

red as blood that says woman, maybe mother, says watch and count,

 […]

red as cherry now and laters, as pickled pigs’s lips, as bruised knuckles,

red as cherry blow pops, as big red gum, as loitering before sleep,

 

red as distant Red Hook bees drunk on cherry fungicide cocktails,

red as distant space mapped bought and belonging to brutish say-so,

red as the administration of districts and blocked-off blocks, 

red as the administration of want, as the red-handed wave so long,

red as red squirrels, as maples, as districts set for and lit with wanting,

red as red squirrels—North American, Eurasian, native, migrant

 

The repetition continues across the next several pages, in couplets and quatrains—but the point here is that Foster uses the volta of the sonnet—all the more striking in a formal swarm of mostly tercets—to stress the hinge into the contemporary “now.” Foster’s formal narratives emphasizes the continuity of the past—what seems like the past—into the present. This is more pointedly the case in the section “To Shake or be Shook Down,” as a prose section sets up a dream-narrative about space and power and desire, gendered creative and reproductive labor:

 

Once as a girl, she dreamed an urban kingdom.

 

In the time of the dream, women of the kingdom were squatting over toilets,

over gold chamberpots.

 

There was one man—he was understood as the king—in all the imagined city. And

this “king” walked among the women and among the pots. The king checked and

talked as he walked. He was saying much of nothing, checking to see what was in

the pots.

 

Into the chamberpots, the women were defecating or giving birth. Some children,

some shit. Some children and shit.

 

Copping a squat over a pot, she was one of the women, there in the kingdom, lined 

up along errant walls like tchotchkes, laboring away. (What is a kingdom if not a

collection of things that one can arrange across a landscape or a room or a factory

floor? An arranged cohort and lineage.) Constipated, she released neither 

a child nor shit. 

 

But what seems like a dream version of long-ago and far-away shades, again,

into the present, as the “nothing” that is the space beneath the chamberpot becomes a facet of present experience in the last line of the narrative, which shifts tenses:

 

…This nothing buzzed loudly against her windowscreen at night as if

it had to ask for entry, as if buzzing were sufficient language, as if the

window were sufficient barrier. In and out were nothing.

 

As if nothing. It whirls about her house and head. Nothing kisses her, 

even when her lips are chapped.

And then, on the next page, 

 

                                       Being, being be.

                                                                             Being being,                     being be.

               Being being,                  be

 

                              Being? Being be

                                           hard on a body.        Be hard?

 

                              (Y)our body still breaks

 

                              open. 

 

Be, being, be(e)s: this language is conjuration and creation, experience summoned from and against “nothingness.” Keeping the parable and the past in mind, Foster writes the return to a present, to a body, to the openness of the body to desire and to place.

A Swarm of Bees in High Court gives us a way to think a body in a place, open to multiplicities, experiencing the rhythms of times of day and daily ritual, caught up in and aware of the structures of race and gender which shape it, among which it moves, upon which it reflects, about which it speaks, both “(st)roll and (st)utter.” Or: as Foster writes about Ronaldo Wilson’s Farther Traveler, “the abstract real is a bodily breakdance and breakdown.”** Finally: this linguistic play hums throughout the book. Like the tercets, individual letters move and hover and land, combine and re-combine. The dissection of individual words shows the “be” in “bee,” the “his” in “this,” the “he” in “she,” the “here” in “there,” the “hole” in “whole.” But Foster’s point is not a deconstructive one about opposites and opposition: this movement is less about the groundlessness of language than about the complexities of the interplay between language and the world. Foster’s coinage “Bullet/in” is more than a play on words or a meditation on violence and information. Instead, it is part of the situation of a black body in Harlem now, and it gives the lie to anything about language and the arbitrary, the (merely) abstract. Foster’s literary play has to do not only with pleasure and with tension, but also with literal motion: “after the manuscript for the book had been turned in,” she tells Keene, “a bullet came through one of my windows.”

 

    —Lindsay Turner

 

––––––––––––

* http://bombmagazine.org/article/5381825/tonya-foster-john-keene

 ** http://www.poetryfoundation.org/harriet/2016/04/torching-authenticies/

 
 
 
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