Negro League Baseball, Harmony Holiday’s first book and recipient of the 2011 Motherwell Prize, is something multi-faceted—a crystal held under many lights, casting bright spots and deep shadows. Part grief, part linguistics, part fire, and part deconstruction of all these things, the poems are mimetic of a mind in a constant state of flux…yet, they always seem sure of themselves. Negro League Baseball is a plurality, one of those books too frustratingly challenging to describe or delineate into one form.
Holiday’s poems don’t want to be held onto, but instead they curiously wrap themselves around you. There are such intense moments of perception throughout that you’ll wonder where she pulls such wisdom from.
“Ideas are the saddest thing Ideals are the next saddest” -from “Like I’m Simple”
“Intelligence is about pain and unteaching.” -from “Crisscrossing in the Dark”
“…joy is sorrow unmasked.” -from “(Afterward) Notes on a Letter to the Singer Abby Lincoln from her Lover, Abraham Lincoln”
She constantly pushes boundaries of form, affection, and race. It’s no surprise with her dancing background that many of her poems progress much like a dance. The words are her limbs, the shape of her torso, her deliberate movements, her way of shaping something unshapable. Every word is cautious yet intimate, somewhat wild.
In “Lonely Vessel,” specifically, she pairs this playful deconstruction of language with themes of race and identity; and she makes it achingly alive with her bold-grit tone.
"Berlin in a crank, say d a r l i n g. Berlin/darling. Nearly mean anger for the letters infringing upon their / anchors to mint up statues who cool us carve for carve. Mandingo in Berlin and Josephine and the gallivant / and the Jesus Sandal and the disgruntled yellow man, omnibus, strolling bliss onto his disposition guts / grumbling on some spacious hunger of passengers fecund from lurking Germany was everybody’s word for forward, in Berlin everywhere.
For him I am Italian and for cache African and for the black American and foregone capital, all hollow gravity / art/sing, darling, I can float on a raft sink that city, and rickshaw in one piece—inevitable renewal, you look a / stoic glamorous, tossing your stammers in your hips, it’s sharp, your charm hinge on your gimme, gimme, / chest in your arms, jumping, like a famous junkie"
Holiday imbues the poems with names, referring to figures from Booker T. Washington to Leadbelly to Edith Piaf to Ovid to Mel Gibson. She creates a strange world in which politics, history, music, literature, the arts, and the everyday mingle in one room together.
She seems to intentionally lose us in series of stream of consciousness and run-ons until we don’t know where we are anymore. Yet she surprises us always with something sharp and hot. The poems speak to a cyclical nature, but the circle always takes on a different shape. Her voice is educated, musical, brave, and strange. It would be amiss to neglect the obvious similarities to a storm here—smooth, low consistent rumblings with scattered breaks of loud light, a sensation that fills itself up in the air yet appears ethereal since we hear it from above. She places us in this field that she created with its peculiar weather and its strangely colored grass. She wants us to see that all of our preconceptions of what a field is supposed to be just don’t apply anymore. Negro League Baseball not only creates a new space but it tells us how to communicate in this space. It asks of us—“look at me, see me, watch me” (from “Alltime”).