"A Contract With/distance": The Epic Shape of Sterling Plumpp's Blues Lyric

By Cycholl, Garin | Chicago Review, Summer-Fall 2019 | Go to article overview

"A Contract With/distance": The Epic Shape of Sterling Plumpp's Blues Lyric


Cycholl, Garin, Chicago Review


In Amiri Baraka's play Dutchman (1964), protagonists Lula and Clay trade words as inviting traps. Clay is Black and Lula, white. Innuendo mixes with manifesto; flirtation slips into interrogation. The conversation takes place across a simple New York City subway seat, but Baraka's train is in motion. The racial substrate beneath their exchange offers no firm ground for Clay to stand for himself or understand Lula. The play's violent end is punctuated midpoint by Lula's cry, "Move!" The train moves on, leaving Clay's lifeless body in its wake. Here, Baraka plumbs the depths of the American city for the consequences of everything forgotten in facile assumptions about race.

The work of Chicago poet Sterling Plumpp similarly engages movement and displacement to complicate the geographies of race. His train runs from Mississippi to Chicago, but Plumpp poses a more expansive space for the city than that of the usual urban dichotomy of north and south sides. He extends narratives of memory and continued frustration to reinterpret the "understood" histories of African American migration from the American South throughout the twentieth century as well as mythologies of racial progress. His song emerges as a distinct "blues" played across time and American space, in the terms of Charles Olson, "large, and without mercy." Rooting his blues lyric in a mix of musical influences, Plumpp extends the map of the Black Arts Movement (BAM), drawing that space more deeply into the personal journeys sung through the forms of blues and gospel. His music also engages with the complexity of Chicago's West Side--the expansive exurb of the great American Hustlertown--where he has taught, worked, and lived.

As historical space, Chicago's West Side refocuses the racial divisions that continue to mark the city. The city's South Side is a readily mapped and sung space--known in the words hummed through a blues amp or denigrated in the branded phrase "Chicago politics." The South Side cradled the origins of a community organizer named Barack Obama as well as the atom bomb. But what about the West Side, site of lots vacant since the city's 1960s riots and scene of the city's sustained gun violence? How does one understand the distinct geographies of Chicago's West Side? Martin Luther King Jr. rented an apartment there to give evidence to the city's segregated housing. The West Side was the site of the fire hydrant riots of 1966 and the violence that followed King's assassination in 1968. On the near West Side in 1969, Chicago police gunned down Black Panther leaders Fred Hampton and Mark Clark, sparking marches and protests (see pp. 346-49). Where does one begin the history of these unresolved antagonisms of race and economic frustration?

Working within an idiom of "West Side blues," Plumpp unwinds a lyric that reflects a distinct geography in American poetry--it runs from his grandfather's farm in rural Mississippi to Chicago blues halls. His work scratches with the blues of Hound Dog Taylor, Bonnie Lee, and Willie Kent. Plumpp's blues walk is a primary north/south geography, that of African American migration after the Civil War. The poems' I seeks an origin and song within that movement, while their repetitions trouble the violent impulses that initiate and continue to define that flight. Much like the lyric of the persona poems in Gwendolyn Brooks's A Street in Bronzeville (1945), Plumpp's writing both celebrates and unsettles Chicago as final destination of that flight. Yet the voice that he invokes here is cognizant of the spaces crossed in a larger journey--as invoked in Brooks's later poetry, "know[ing] the whirlwind is our commonwealth." (1) It is a metaphorical journey, but in Plumpp's blues lyric, it is primarily a geography crossed. Plumpp voices the displacement from rented rural ground--he came from a family of Mississippi sharecroppers--to the city's rented kitchenette.

Here, Plumpp recasts African American experience, drawing inspiration from the blues played along the West Side's Maxwell Street. …

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