Hughson’s Tavern

On Saturday night I went to a reading here in Durham by Fred Moten who read the centerpiece sequence of poems from his new book of the same title, Hughson’s Tavern (Providence, RI: Leon Works, 2008). Moten read the entire sequence of 40 poems that takes its title from a bar that existed in lower Manhattan in the late 1700s, a place where whites and blacks gathered to socialize at a time when such leisure was considered a threat to colonial authority. And sure enough, the tavern was eventually closed down, its owner and some if its patrons executed for allegedly conspiring against authorities. It was a raining here in Durham, so while Moten read we could hear the rain falling on the skylights of the living room, a counterpoint to his poetic historicism.

I don’t have time to review the book here (the acceleration of the now), rather, I just want to register a few fragments of the reading itself. By which I mean its subtle, anonymous place in the sequence of history we inhabit, this collapse his poem addresses by means of reading, time travel, music and the voice of the poet, singing or enunciating words that last as long as the rain does on rooftop skylights.

Moten stood the whole time as he read, stopping once or twice to sip from his beer. Occasionally he would pause before certain passages, as though seeing some of his lines anew, or finding those fragments beyond his own recollection. Hughson’s Tavern gathers various cities from across the United States, ranging from the colonial to the postmodern, with stops in Los Angeles, Philadelphia, New York, Las Vegas, Arkansas and pockets of the deep south. The intersection of black and white American countercultures is sung by the flexible, undogmatic, seemingly improvised (though, really, meticulously planned) focus of his verses, attuned to a blurring, elegiac and inspired palette of black American music (which includes Joey Ramone and Rickie Lee Jones, generous and mixed at its core).

I found myself transported during the 45 minutes or so it took Moten to read his sequence of poems. At a time when hip hop has committed suicide with its evocation of capitalist excess and its complete renunciation of any collective consciousness, Moten’s poem reminds us that music belongs to the Muses, that we can still gain access to visionary states of awareness by means of skilled repetition & variation. Hearing Moten read, I was reminded that music offers the possibility of sustenance yet: “...and the music make every crushed little room a holy place...” I wrote down fragments from Hughson’s Tavern as I heard them, trying to register the beat being set by the poet’s exploration of erased minutes from our nation’s timeline. It felt like a historic evening, one of those moments when you have the privilege of hearing a poet read a text that not only explains our present landscapes but also sings a lineage. (“How You Sound??”) The following transcriptions reflect my notebook scribbles as I listened, not the typography of the poem itself, which you should track down for your own ears:

“like maroons of the city”

“the problem of amusement in black reconstruction”

“I love to cut somebody when I’m in love”

“things don’t represent / they must be broke”

“and all my native weather will be mine”

“they walk with one another to wear black hoods in the sun”

“this is smooth Los Angeles”

“die witout a sound but hoping for a bridge”

“the black expanse dwindles to regress”

“to break this broke quietness”

“security of the near is far away”

“the black market is an open city”

“meanwhile, trying out beats”

“the sharp, rapid notes on dialectics”

“everyday already there to write a poem”

“event cascade the sphere in hand”

“radio won’t even play my jams”

“fucking with electronics”

“excuse me while I disappear”

“so this is for the ones who illuminate black suffering”

“the new Black Studies is this”

“to sing like things do”

“just decided to not go home because the jam wouldn’t let us”

“have no right to my ear philosophically”

“the revolving interview on the edge of town”

“the civilization without friends”

“apparatus tear shit up and always”

“the calm traffic of industrial culture”

“the madness of the worker”

“I talk with the street spirits”

“my English was too good”

“madness is the absence of the work”

“simple motherfucker, ain’t you nothing?”

“dance to fantastic information while we kick off the modern world”

“make a song about the sky they sold”

“dance around the crisis on the table”

“be secretly in love”

“skin is illegal beginning with color”

“the romance of freedom in the commons”

“unbuilt hotel”

And the stanza that jolted me the most, that seemed talismanic in its instant beauty and logic, for which this long poem deserves our attention and digression, song as reminder, sustenance – I found it when I went back to the physical book itself on Sunday, delighting in the echoes of my listening revealed on the page:

“be secretly in love. to read everything to caress
the sinful communism. a hideaway underground in the
jailhouse by the water. is there water in the room by myself?”

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