Friday, August 07, 2015

A Stranger from the Sky: Sun Ra as Poet and Alien

Hardly anyone thinks of Sun Ra as a poet.  A visionary outsider figure even in the realm of music, where his work is only occasionally taken as seriously as it ought to be, he has almost no standing in the field of American poetry—this despite the fact that his poetry appeared in many Black Arts movement publications, and sat cheek-to-jowl with that of Langston Hughes, Amiri Baraka, and Allen Ginsberg in the late sixties' Umbra Anthology.  Perhaps it's significant, in this context, that his poetry was brought to my attention not from within the poetry world, but from outside it: it was the Australian critical theorist McKenzie Wark who first steered me toward This Planet is Doomed: The Science Fiction Poetry of Sun Ra.  When I mentioned the book to various poets and critics, none of them had heard of it.  One, a jazz obsessive and semi-professional saxophonist, was stunned that Sun Ra's poetry had never appeared on his radar.

What are the poems of This Planet is Doomed like? Firstly, they have the virtues and vices of much spoken word poetry (the text of book was assembled from transcripts of tapes discovered by archivist Michael D. Anderson): they hit hard when spoken aloud, when patterns of repetition and opportunities for emoting are best realized; on the page, though, they aren't as strong.  Secondly, they're as weird and out-there as you'd expect Sun Ra's poetry to be.  Indeed, the book's subtitle already indicates the nature of that weirdness: "science fiction poetry."  We're used to genre fiction, but genre poetry?  When you get past the initial oddness, though, the poems situate themselves quite strongly in several distinguished literary traditions: the literature of African-American alienation; the wing of Romanticism most strongly associated with the fantastic; and the literature of Gnosticism.  Sun Ra was an autodidact, and as idiosyncratic as they come, but only the kind of pedantic wretch who thinks the words "university transcript" are a synonym for "education" would consider Sun Ra's connection to these traditions co-incidental.  He arrived at his alienation existentially, and fabricated a personal and artistic identity unlike anybody else's, but he tailored that identity from some of the richest cloth in the great Savile Row of literature.  It's less different from T.S. Eliot than fans of either artist might prefer to think.  I kind of want to post side-by-side pictures of them holding their poems with the caption "mythological tradition: who wore it better?" but that would just provoke people who refuse to let themselves admire one or the other of them.

Alienation from mainstream American culture was more-or-less a given for African-Americans at mid-century: indeed, both laws and the force behind them made the marginal status of African-Americans abundantly clear.  But to be a gay African-American, and a genius to boot, marked one out for a special degree of alienation.  We see it clearly enough in the writings, and largely ex-patriot life, of James Baldwin, who turned to Europe as an exotic elsewhere where his very outsider status freed him from the box into which America would put him and, what is more, put him on something approaching equal footing with the white Americans he met in Paris.  In a 1959 essay for the New York Times called "The Discovery of What it Means to be an American," Baldwin tells us of the alienation he felt in America, and of the liberating feeling of becoming another kind of alien, an American abroad:

I left America because I doubted my ability to survive the fury of the color problem here. (Sometimes I still do.)  I wanted to prevent myself from becoming merely a Negro; or, even, merely a Negro writer.  I wanted to find out in what way the specialness of my experience could be made to connect with other people instead of dividing me from them.  (I was as isolated from other Negroes as I was from whites, which is what happens when a Negro begins, at bottom, to believe what white people say about him.)  In my necessity to find the terms on which my experience could be related to others, Negroes and whites, writers and non-writers, I proved, to my astonishment, to be as American as any Texas G.I.  And I found my experience was shared by every American writer I knew in Paris.  Like me, they had been divorced from their origins, and it turned out to make very little difference that the origins of white Americans were European and mine were African—they were no more at home in Europe than I was.

There's nothing quite like this in Sun Ra's writing, unless we translate "Paris" to "outer space."  Then things start to look familiar: the over-arching desire is for escape from a place that limits you, that confines you physically and, more importantly, that insidiously imposes its categories of thought onto your mind.  Consider these lines from "This Planet is Doomed" in the context of Baldwin:

it just breaks me all up, man
it just breaks me all up—
can't understand a damn bit of it
like man, I gotta get away from it
I gotta get away from it before they mess up
my mind
before they take my soul, man
I just gotta get away
and blast off in my rocket ship

I come from a better place than this
what in the hell am I here for—
I gotta blast away
I gotta get away, man
I gotta blast off like a super megatron
rocket on
electro dynamic radiation

Outer space, as Sun Ra imagines it, is free from the soul-crushing ideology of mid-century America, so hostile to people like him.  He envisions it as a kind of pure place where we can meet on equal footing: Baldwin may always have Paris for this, but Sun Ra has the galactic depths.  And it's not only space that has this appeal.  So powerful is Sun Ra's need for a place where the constraints of American race identity can be shed that, in the poem "The Government of Death," he even falls half in love with easeful death, where all are equals:

all in the realm of death is
nothing else but peace
its inhabitants have all received
equal rites
because they have received equal rights
that is, services, personal and
without prejudice of death

And later in the poem we read:

all governments
on earth
set up by men
are discriminating
but the government of death is a
pure government
it treats all in an equal manner
it is a startling, revealing picture
of equality for all
and in the realm of death
is nothing else but

The need for an exotic and liberating elsewhere is a constant in Sun Ra's poems, and he even dreams of addressing an audience of alien beings, often a kind of cross between space creatures and entities out of the Judeo-Christian mythos.  "let me write my music," he says in "Not for Earth Alone," "not for earth alone, but for the worlds/for those in being/those in seeming" who are also somehow "angels/and demons and devils."  This yearning for elsewhere is the stuff of Romanticism, especially of continental Romanticism, and its escapism is serious stuff.  By turning its back on the ordinary world, it enacts a profound criticism of that world, a near-total rejection of it as unredeemed, maybe unredeemable by anything less than an imaginative apocalypse.  Readers of  William Blake's prophetic works have already dialed into these frequencies, as have connoisseurs of Baudelaire.  The great maverick Marxist thinker Henri Lefebvre called this kind of fantasist Romanticism the "critique of everyday life," and found in it a radicalism both profound and, ultimately, limited:

Under the banner of the marvelous, nineteenth-century literature mounted a sustained attack on everyday life which has continued unabated up to the present day.  The aim is to demote it, to discredit it.  Although the duality between the marvelous and the everyday is just as painful as the duality between action and dream, the real and the ideal—and although it is an underlying reason for the failures and defeats which so many works deplore—nineteenth century man seemed to ignore this, and continued obstinately to belittle real life, the world 'as it is.'

If Sun Ra is a part of this tradition, he is also part of an even older tradition of alienation, the line of Gnostic writing extending back two millennia.  Indeed, his elaborately developed Afro-Futurist mythology is, as a way of addressing larger truths, very in accord with Gnostic thinking, which favored myth and image over discursive abstraction ("Truth did not come into the world naked," reads the Gnostic "Gospel of Philip," "but in types and images.  Truth is received only that way").  Sun Ra is at his most Gnostic when, like thinkers in that tradition, he sees the material world around us as fallen, broken, and not our true home (Stephan Hoeller, a contemporary Gnostic thinker, defines the material world as evil inasmuch as it diverts our attention from the imaginative journey back to our divine origins beyond the material realm—he, like many Gnostics, sees it as a barrier to the soul's journey home).  When we read a refrain like "I pull the veil aside" in Sun Ra's poem "Dreams Rush to Meet Me," we're rubbing up against his Gnosticism, as we are when we read his declaration of his true home in "A Stranger from the Sky":

I am a stranger from the sky
far away, farther than the eye can see
is my paradise
a mystical world from outer space ("Stanger from the Sky")

Some of the poems of This Planet is Doomed are chant-like, rhythmically repetitive, and hard to extract, but even a crudely-carved out passage like this, taken almost at random from "State of the Cosmos," gives a sense of the Gnostic's yearning for breaking past the barriers of the material world into a space better and closer to the divine (it also gives a sense that, at times, Sun Ra was perfectly happy to dwell in abstractions).  Watch how the "reasonable reality of the state of the world" contrasts with something truer, the "reasonable reality of the state of the cosmos":

…the synchronization of the shadows to
the authorized reality
is a key to the reasonable reality of the
state of the world
disconnected of the shadows from the
so-called authorized reality
and the application of the new
potential through resynchronization of
the shadow
to the unauthorized mind images of the
cosmic idea
is a transformation of the shadow into
the living cosmic multi-self
this is the key to the reasonable reality
of the state of the cosmos
synchronization of the shadows to the
authorized reality is the key to the
reasonable state of the world
the disconnection of the shadows from
the so-called authorized reality and the
application of the new potential through
resynchronization of the shadows to the
unauthorized mind image of the cosmic
ideas of transformation of the shadow
into the living cosmic multi-self
this is the key to the reasonable reality
of the state of the cosmos

The reason of this world is not the reason of the cosmos,and it is to the cosmos that we truly belong.
Sun Ra is singular, certainly.  But he doesn't come from space, even if he dreams of it as his destination.  He comes out of a long tradition, several long traditions, and all of these traditions arose as balm for the dispossessed, as ways of imagining an outside to the narrow box of nightmares into which we wake.  May the cosmos send us more like him.