Subversive Becoming: Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto: New & Selected Poems

&By Cherise A. Pollard, PhD

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto: New & Selected Poems (Etruscan Press, 2020) spans four highly productive decades and features work from Body Moves (1988), Hurdy-Gurdy (1992), Hammerlock (1999), Buffalo Head Solos (2004), Fast Animal (2012), One Turn Round the Sun (2017) and new poems from the manuscript, With No Hat (2020). While the text is marked by loss — the pandemic, the poet’s retirement, his parents’ recent transitions in 2019 and 2020, the speaker’s ruminations about aging and death’s eventuality, America’s dance with late-capitalist demise and the looming collapse of democracy — there’s an abundance of humor, the delights of imagination, the beauty of play, the glory of sports, the sweet promise of Black boy joy, the marvel of a woman’s legs, and the wonders of the kiss.

Seibles’ distinct perspective, the focus of his creative attention, as well as his intention to upset the status quo necessarily means that his work cannot be easily categorized on the levels of content, form, or language. Voodoo Libretto offers its readers formal diversity. There are free verse poems as well as ballads and villanelles. There are short lyric poems and long narrative poems with gorgeous turns and abstract, reflective passages. Language is dynamic in Voodoo Libretto; it is alive in the surprising ways that the poet employs figurative language and rhyme, musicality and word play, invention and highly focused description. In the preface, “Open Letter II,” Seibles makes a strong argument for an attention to craft that disrupts the status quo: “For me, poetry is the place where — if I am not intimidated — I can say the most dangerous, most tender, most mysterious things I know, where I may find the same in the work of other poets … Such crucial speech sustains my hunger to see more than the way it is — more than the way it’s been. I’m talking pure voice, the untamed voice, the voice with no rider, no bit in its mouth” (xxvi-xxvii). On the page, this desire manifests through the way that Seibles plays with language through his invention of new words and his use of vernacular expression.

Of course, themes shift, emerge and return, there are preoccupations that the poet continues to ask and answer. There is being human, and being a human that is Black, and being a human that is Black and male, and being a human that is Black and male who comes of age during the sixties with the Civil Rights and Black Power Movements and integration shifting the foundation of one’s life. Voodoo Libretto features the work of a poet who has been keenly aware of his cultural, historical, political and social contexts. Born in 1955, the year after the crucial Brown v. Board of Education (1954), a decision that made integration the law of the land, as well as the year a young Black teenager, Emmett Till was lynched in Mississippi, Seibles grows up during the Civil Rights Movement in Philadelphia. He came of age in the sixties, during a time of cultural upheaval that includes the assassinations of President John F. Kennedy (1963), Malcolm X (1965), Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. (1968),  and Robert F. Kennedy (1968). In the late sixties, he witnessed cultural change brought forward by the Voting Rights Act (1965), and Roe V. Wade (1973), as well as youth-driven social movements that pushed for this legislation: Black Power Movement, anti-Vietnam War Protests, Women’s Movement and the Sexual Revolution.

A child of the sixties, Seibles is truly oppositional to conservative American politics, and is deeply skeptical of organized religion. His work critiques capitalism, American militarism, political corruption, The Cold War, Reaganism, The Bushes (George H.W. Bush and George W. Bush), Desert Storm and the perpetual War on Terrorism that followed 9/11. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, readers will notice a sharpening political critique — at first it may simply be a quick mention of republicans in the poem “The Apple Cake” (Seibles 88), or a slight reference to white people who may not be as trustworthy as one imagines in “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131),  but then one notes a shift in later work to extensive critiques of conservative politics that develops into an outright damnation of Trumpism and MAGA politics as in “MAGA Hat III Strategy ” (283).  In “Not Nearly Enough” (285). the speaker asks a rather provocative question: “Tell me, how did we let these fuckheads run the world / off the road?!” (lines 34-35). In a post-January 6th 2022 society, it’s not clear that anyone has an answer that makes logical sense, but Seibles’ work asks the necessary questions.

Voodoo Libretto charts the transformation of a poet who becomes more comfortable with the fact that he must say what needs to be said to wake up America. Seibles explores the ways in which these historical events, cultural shifts, and politics affect the way the poet sees himself and his world. It is also work that is shaped by a poet with a unique perspective who does not shy away from introspection and imagination. Throughout Voodoo Libretto, we see the direct impact that these historical movements had on young Seibles’ life. Lost childhood innocence is a strong theme in this collection. There are several poems such as “Trying for Fire” (Seibles 11), and “Terry Moore” (163), that focus on his childhood, particularly his experience of being one of three Black fourth grade boys who integrated an elementary school in Philadelphia. His relatively happy, sheltered childhood changes abruptly.  In “The Word 1964-1981” (11), the speaker visits the school, wonders about the Herculean task placed on a boy’s small shoulders:

In Philadelphia
I went back to the school
we integrated. The bunch of us
had no idea how big a deal it was —
our parents behind us saying
Be good now. Stay outta trouble.
But we were fourth-graders

and the teachers didn’t want us.
What could we do? (lines 1-9)

Integrating that school changed the community, and the little boys who grew to be men under the pressure of institutionalized racism. Often, we encounter grand integration narratives haloed by notions of heroism in the face of blatant racist actions. Here, we see a different version of that lived experience in the northeast, where institutionalized racism emerged, some might say, in a more subtle dynamic. Seibles gives us no clear-cut battles, but shows us something different in his depiction of Black boys who “have no idea how big a deal it was” (line 4) who are forced to go to a school where “the teachers didn’t want us” (line 9). The psychological, cultural and social impact of these actions was not anticipated. Those boys and their families were not prepared for the trauma either they or their community would endure. His visit to the old school grounds is bittersweet. He is reminded of some joyful memories of playing sports that seems to balance the trauma. There seems to be hope, or at least distraction from pain: “but the field is still there” (line 21). But the trauma is not mediated for long. The poem closes with “On some / of the side doors you can / still find the word Nigger” (lines 24-26) The trace of racism remains in the structure of the building, in the institution’s landscape.

In “The Hilt, Second Session” (Seibles 209) the speaker’s imagination, spurred by childhood memories, returns to the playground.  This long poem moves back and forth across the page, like “The see-saw, I remember — ” (209). The speaker revisits a memory of playing with his brother behind their church, wearing his “fake tie clipped to / my stiff, white shirt” (209). This scene rouses the speaker’s anxieties. He is not sure who he is anymore, or what he has become:

Having ushered you into the who-knows-what that waited in the world,
having seen your face before that first hard glint hacked your eyes,

 when they look at you now, do your parents find anything familiar? (209)

Here, the speaker understands that the experiences that he has encountered have forged him into a man who seems to be so different from his boyhood self. At this point in his life, some thirty years after the publication of Body Moves (Seibles 1988), the speaker tries to take some measure of himself. Who is he, if he is not recognizable to himself, or those who knew him, raised him? Reeling in self-doubt, the speaker seems unable to gather himself, to articulate the meaning of his life.  He sees himself, accomplishing things, participating in the world, but feels distanced:

getting
a sandwich
starting the car
calling somebody
calling back —
bizzy. (210)

Throughout the collection, in the later books, one notices that Seibles invents and employs the word “bizzy” to highlight the ways that the Protestant work ethic that fuels American capitalism stands diametrically opposed to any meaningful existence. He realizes that he has gone through the motions, in all of the busy-ness of daily life, he is traumatized: “the way you walk — some sign / of a lifelong shove: your mind / a shy animal, force-fed, skinned” (Seibles 210) As if in a daze, the speaker thinks,

The self is real, right? — this who-you-are, this
soft-wheel: these chronic recollections –

Does it feel like a trick? This thing  

you’ve become: some dream re-running
in your veins, what you believe, (210)

In the section that follows, we realize that he is experiencing a trauma in the aftermath of the police shooting of Tamir Rice on a playground in Cleveland.

In the video

before the
police came
Tamir Rice
was a kid

playing a –
lone in a
park near
the gazebo. (211)

In the context of Seibles’ body of work, one of the themes of which is childhood nostalgia and the reckoning of masculinity, this section of the poem resonates — here is a Black man taking stock not only of his boyhood and lost innocence, but grieving for a boy who loses much more than innocence. He remembers, “I used to do that. / I’d have my football with me, a water gun in my pocket, / maybe some Sugar Babies” (211).  The speaker wonders:

do you
think that
boy had
any idea

his story
was al-
ready
written?” (211).

The speaker’s reflection on Tamir Rice’s death echoes his own trauma in “The Word 1964 -1981” (Seibles 11) when he says that he and his friends “had no idea what a big deal it was” (line 4) when they integrated their elementary school. There is a sweetness in his boyhood memories, playing on the playground, playing with Legos in the basement, watching cartoons that does not match the terror that lurks on the margins of his life — a terror that visited Tamir Rice on the playground.

In Voodoo Libretto, play is kaleidoscopic. There are so many ways that Seibles indulges in serious play — child’s play, sports, word play, imagination, dreamtime and flirtation. For Seibles, play pushes the boundaries of our expectations, challenges us to reconsider our beliefs. From self-proclaimed class clown to adult trickster, Seibles’ imagination invites the reader into investigative distraction. In several poems, playing football and basketball is a way for the speaker to connect with his buddies, and a pathway to masculinity. In “Nothing But Football” (Seibles 22), the speaker remembers the joy, bordering on religious ecstasy, that playing football with his friends brought into his youth:

trying to stop us. They couldn’t stop us:
you stutter-dipped. I snake-slipped, anything
to spin-shimmy away clean as light,
slick as sweat, holy thieves in a forest of moving trees (lines 16-19).

The language is alive here with the slippery consonance of “s.” The hyphenated words give us the sense of collision on the field — mimics play action.

It is also important to note the crucial aspect of fantasy and escapism that play brings into the boys’ lives. In the shadow of racism, and their parents’ watchful eye, play gives the speaker and his friends a way to be. This play is transformative, it opens up possibilities for their future — for the men they will become. Later, in “Trying for Fire” (31), Seibles admits that his NFL dreams did not come true, “I never did play pro-football, / never got to do my mad-horse, / mountain goat, happy-wolf dance / for the blaring fans at the Astrodome,” (32), but the dream makes real world survival possible; it gives the speaker and his boys something to be hopeful for beyond the rules and restrictions of their daily lives.

Ever the inventive poet, the form of the villanelle becomes a playground for Seibles. Working within its constraints, he plays with rhyme and meter in ways that lead to surprises for the reader. Several pop culture references such as Oprah, CNN, Beatles lyrics, Wonder Bread, Sponge Bob, Yoda, zombies, and the nursery rhyme “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star” are either the focus or make special appearances in some of his villanelles. In “Extra Bright Blues Villanelle” (Seibles 289), the speaker humorously reflects on the idea that others might not consider him to be very smart; it is ironic because the entire poem stays true to the villanelle form and references Dylan Thomas’ classic work, “Do Not Go Gentle Into That Good Night.” The combination of the literary and popular cultural references as well as the poet’s experimentation with variations and imaginative stretches that facilitate the rhyme scheme result in a villanelle that demonstrates the speaker’s brilliance. The repeated lines are found in the first stanza:

Sometimes I guess I don’t seem extra bright  (A)
Nobody tol’ me not to stand behind that horse (B)
Always thought the moon had its own light. (A) (lines 1-3)

In a villanelle, the first and third lines repeat as the end lines of each of the five tercets and are the couplet at the end of the last quatrain of the poem. Seibles uses slant rhyme for the A and B rhymes: for the A rhyme, “bright,” he brings in “light,” “fight,“ ”night,” “sight,” and the slant rhyme “life.” For the B rhyme, “horse,” he substitutes “remorse,” “force,” “of course,” and “off course,” as well as slant rhymes: “for,” “door,” and “more.” The speaker’s riffing on various words and their meanings makes the poem humorous: “Really don’ know if I’ll ever get right / Been charting the stars like a Martian off course. / Sometimes they don’t think that I’m extra bright” (lines 16-18). The space theme shifts into the speaker thinking of himself as a lost Martian. By the end of the poem, the speaker binds all of the logical threads together:

You ride with no hands when you ride with no bike
Where’s Yoda at  when you’re needin the Force

Sometimes I bet I don’t seem extra bright
But, I’m pretty damn sure the moon had its own light” (lines 22-26).

Here, the speaker brings Star Wars references into his argument — with “Yoda” and “the Force”. These references ground the poem in popular culture, in effect, reinvigorating the form for contemporary audiences. These often delightful substitutions also highlight the limitations of form — that in order to stay within its bounds, Seibles must stretch the argument conceptually.

Seibles tackles racial and political issues with humor, too. In “The Further Adventures of Tooter Turtle” (131), Tooter Turtle tells Mister Wizard that he wants “to be black in America” (131). Mr. Wizard cautions against this desire, tells Tooter,

But, Tutah, look: the republicans are on a rampage,
white people, in general, seem like dangerous playmates
and the black community is riddled with  with
self-inflicted wounds! (131)

But, Tooter is drawn in by Black culture. He believes that circumstances must be improving. He says, “Well, gee, Mister Wizard, times have changed. / It might be a little rough, but I’ll be down / with the brothaz — they’ll show me the ropes” (131). Tootah wants to be Black because: “Black people are bold and resilient” (131). Well, the incredulous Mr. Wizard grants Tooter’s wish with this spell:

Two parts laugh and three parts pain
Cutting lash and hard-won pain

Thumpin bass and rumble drums
Dr. King and drive-by guns

Skin of dark and spark of eye
Sade’s grace and Pippin’s glide

Purple Heart and might of back
Time for Tutor, to be BLACK! (131-132)

After ten minutes of being Black man in America, the transformed Tooter Turtle yells, “HELP, MISTER WIZARD!!!” (132). This poem is funny because it reveals the disconnect between the romance of blackness — the culture, music, the narrative of survival against the odds — verses the reality of oppression and violence. It is one thing to see it as an outsider, it is quite another to experience the crushing effects of institutional racism.

Tim Seibles’ Voodoo Libretto is a seminal text. In it, we see the power of Black interiority — the matter of Black lives — clearly. Seibles’ work chronicles the intricacies of being and becoming a Black man in the late twentieth century and the ways that masculinity shifts as the poet’s life circumstances change. One could easily say that Seibles’ influence is seen throughout contemporary African American poetry — the humor, the risk taking, the performance, the interiority — have opened up space for early twenty-first century poets to experiment in their work. Voodoo Libretto is an important text for scholars of contemporary American poetry who seek a unique perspective on craft, word play, invention, reflections on being, representations of Black boyhood and masculinity, the psychological impact of racism and integration, as well as American cultural politics and popular culture. Seibles’ voice adds an important resonance to the chorus of African American poets speaking to the diversity of Black experience.

Works Cited

Seibles, Tim. Voodoo Libretto: New &Selected Poems. Etruscan Press, 2020.


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


cap photo 071622Cherise A. Pollard, Ph.D., is Professor of English and Director of the Poetry Center at West Chester University of PA. where she teaches African American Literature, Creative Writing and  Composition/Rhetoric.  She earned her PhD in Cultural Studies from the University of Pittsburgh. A 2012 NEH Fellow who participated in the Summer Institute in Contemporary African American Literature, Pollard has published several articles on contemporary black women poets and novelists such as Barbara Chase-Riboud, Sapphire, Sonia Sanchez, Nikki Giovanni, and Lucille Clifton.  A scholar who focuses on Popular Culture, African American Popular Fiction, the African American Women’s Historical Novel, and African American Poetry, her critical essays have appeared in journals and edited anthologies including Theorizing Ethnicity and Nationality in the Chick Lit Genre (edited by Erin Hurt), Black Female Sexualities (edited by Joanne Braxton and Trimiko Melancon) and Forecast. She has also published Reader’s Guides for two of Barbara Chase-Riboud’s novels, Sally Hemings and The President’s Daughter.

 

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