Geography and Identity in Melvin Dixon's 'Change of Territory.'

By Pinson, Hermine D. | MELUS, Spring 1996 | Go to article overview

Geography and Identity in Melvin Dixon's 'Change of Territory.'


Pinson, Hermine D., MELUS


But the conquest of the physical world is not man's only duty. He is

enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself.(1)

--James Baldwin

The above epigraph is one of several that precede Melvin Dixon's acclaimed critical work Ride Out the Wilderness (vii). However, it is equally relevant to a discussion of Dixon's collection of poems Change of Territory, because the philosophical perspective of the collection urges difficult journeys. Change of Territory charts decisive moments in the poet/protagonist's journey from childhood to manhood and the genealogical tributaries that shape and inform his voice. Filling out the poet's "song" is a panoply of voices that range from the individual: enslaved African forefather, grandmother, mother, and father, to the collective: Teddy Wilson, James P. Johnson, Romare Bearden, and Ralph Ellison, artists who are a part of the history of the black expressive tradition. In the words of Paul Carter Harrison, "'song' does not mean a tune or song per se but rather denotes the intrinsic value of heightened language" (xix). More generally, Dixon's concern with the performative dimension of black expressivity, which is so prominent in his critical works, is also apparent in this collection. Like Ride Out the Wilderness, Change of Territory is concerned with place and performance, with the ways in which black protagonists "enlarge their range of verbal invention by turning figures of the landscape into settings for the performance of identity" (Ride Out 7). In this collection, "words find an enduring echo in the places and performances that [the writer] has reached by riding out the various forms of oppression threatening to silence us all."

Change of Territory, then, records the individual's response to the externally imposed boundaries of race, sex, and class, and to the way in which these "boundaries" have paradoxically transcended the more ephemeral limits of time and space. Underscoring the poet's inscripted sojourn is the sense that the conflicting elements that inform, deform, and finally, comprise, the self require not resolution, but a form sufficient to interpret them. I have chosen to use the blues model to examine the way Dixon approaches his themes, because it places the poet's utterance in "blues/black space-time," a blues matrix configuration, to use Houston Baker's apt term.(2) Blues and its expressive progeny jazz, by the very fluidity and multivalence of their character, accommodate the poet's attempt to sound upon the ironies of living in America: land of the free and imprisoned, home of the brave and fearful. In its synthesizing movement the blues paradigm reveals how the poet interprets the parameters of desire, but also how he leaves space for the silence(s).

Replicating the position of black gay males, it would appear that Dixon places the theme of homosexuality at the margins of this text, as he makes intermittent and indirect allusions to it. Certainly, he treats it with less eloquence and vigor than he does in his later works Trouble the Water (1989) and Vanishing Rooms (1991). To be sure, Dixon's oblique references to sexual difference in the collection are symptomatic of the historical repression and/or exclusion of black gay subjectivity in the psycho-social sphere. However, if one views his deliberate marginalization of black homosexuality within blues/black space-time, he attempts to "breach this historical literary silence" (Riggs 102-03) to address the intersection of gay sexuality and race by using these issues to frame the text. The speaker embarks from home a black gay male, and in the end he returns home a black gay male. This is the bass line of the text, and the speaker's fleeting and allusive references to homosexual encounters throughout serve as riffs that individuate this particular blues/black life. "Angels of Ascent" best articulates the poet's sense of who he is as a black gay male. In an apostrophe to Robert Hayden, the speaker observes: "You knew / what mystery children we are / how we ache / in dark and dreamy valleys of paradise / for absolute gravity, with no names / for the spaces we inhabit, nor any / last tears for being there" (40). …

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