Farah Marklevits on Duriel E. Harris


No Dictionary of a Living Tongue
By Duriel E. Harris
Nightboat Books April 2017
120 pp. Paper. $16.95
ISBN: 978-1-937658

In her third poetry collection, Duriel E. Harris asks how to devise an authentic self in the face of the brutal limitations imposed by colonial legacies defining American personhood. In response, through masterful timing, acrobatic voices, and embodied images, No Dictionary of a Living Tongue builds a hive of forms that powerfully agitates and disrupts gender and racial stereotypes.

The untitled poem that serves as prologue introduces the problem of selfhood by expertly controlling the pacing of image to focus attention on the instability of context and on the fixed nature of objects. First, the poem sets a number of objects before a blank, dreamerless dream: “a blue dress, / a tangle of trees.” Next, in “a routine sort of like things,” readers encounter a landscape of “cows in clusters, truck stops, cinder block churches, scattered tractors, / and fields cleared and flooded.”

Lastly, the poem ends with yet “another dream” in which “a building juts forth like a missile. / It is a windowless octagon sided in cork. I am strapped to it.” Here the speaker appears. This image of being strapped to ominous, phallic architecture like a forced offering dramatizes the speaker’s constricted vulnerability. However, the poem’s pacing doubles down on existential peril by identifying the speaker as a thing (one more in the set that came before) and by questioning the speaker’s lived reality. All that readers have available to counter that peril is the pronoun “I.” But “I” is nothing less than the wellspring of lyric poetry’s power — to speak and so create.

Harris takes the lyric I through energetic paces, bringing together an impressive array of forms and voices: lyric poems take several shapes and tones, a series of short prose pieces present various characters’ experiences, and a number of what Harris calls “graphotexts” push the boundaries of the two-dimensional page. Graphotexts are printed representations of poems that have other forms of life as live and recorded performances and/or three-dimensional installations.

One example, “Danger, Live Feed,” folds out into a large-format poster. The font takes various sizes, with large As that seem to tumble through the left margin. At times, words are printed over other words, and lines skew from horizontal. An unidentified, disembodied speaker spits out racial eptithets, beginning with “You are black thing / A muddy muddy black thing / A muddy southern road, a darkening crust / Self-loathing, dangerous / A black thing / A Danger to me.” The graphotext’s visual effect shows the inadequacy of simply quoting. The font variation, line movement, and spacing create a sense of unraveling. Fixed things are vulnerable to cracks and quakes, but, Harris emphasizes here, “living tongues” move.

“Danger, Live Feed” is the graphotext version of the opening of Harris’s performance piece, Thingification, an apt word for what this collection wrestles with. In “How they carried their hands past pounding,” Harris makes clear that violence of thingification plays out on individual and large scales. This poem dissects the seeming casual violence of the phrase “what business had a nigger there” to document the “business” of violent control of black bodies by poetically annotating each major part of the sentence. The piece turns into a litany of “there’s:” “piled / onto tarpulin beds, into cabs, caravans and carts, perched in paper cages, pulled / soaking in vats, pickled in tight milky bottles, hung on cables by the wrist.” This is but a small portion of a long, unsettling list that haunts largely because the body is absent, both enacting erasure and emphasizing the brutality of individuals and historical forces that erase.

So, how does Harris defy this erasure? Her multi-vocal and multi-textual approach to creating poems also seems to be the path to authentic selfhood. In “Making,” a distant, abstracted scholarly voice considers the complexity of the self’s relation to body as narratives received and narratives claimed. Ultimately, the body is “multiple in its layers, facets, fields, & orbits.” The collection as a whole accumulates the sense that lived experience, a self, is a kind of probability cloud made partly of bloodless, tin stereotypes, but also of fluid voices and images that escape containment, like water and wind: “These, this body, I assume, luxuriating in the motion of its folds” and “a mood, an envelope of air and gesture suspended in air.” This answer isn’t easy or static, and Harris’s restless, clear-eyed poems reflect that in tone and form.

Harris creates authentic life in response to racist and sexist systems of power that have and continue to fix, dominate, and do violence to the “living tongue.” As she asks in the title poem, “Who will not use the heart / would not use it // and how hard must a heart be / to break. They say it is a fist / pounding on a bolted door. / Does it want in or out?” Her own acrobatic, vital collection of voices answers: the heart wants its pounding to be heard. It wants both to be allowed in and set free.



Duriel E. Harris, poet, performer, and sound artist, is author of No Dictionary of a Living Tongue, Drag, and Amnesiac, and coauthor of the poetry video Speleology. Current undertakings include “Blood Labyrinth” and the solo performance project Thingification. Harris is an associate professor of English in the graduate creative writing program at Illinois State University and the Editor of Obsidian: Literature & Arts in the African Diaspora.


Farah Marklevits‘s work has appeared in forklift, ohio; The Carolina QuarterlyLiterary MamaDIAGRAM, and other magazines. In 2014 her manuscript was a finalist for Milkweed Editions’ Lindquist and Vennum Prize for Poetry. She lives in Davenport, IA with her family, and teaches across the river at Augustana College in Rock Island, Illinois.


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