After reading Yusef Komanyakaa's piece, a reader does the math:

While I was doing all sorts of web searches looking for a literal, fact-y way into the poem, I kept coming across a 2005 Natasha Tretheway essay in Callaloo called "On Close Reading: Yusef Komunyakaa's 'White Lady,'" locked behind a paywall. It was an uncharacteristic splurge for me, but I bought the back-issue. The essay's an answer to a 1999 reviewer who was offended by what she took to be the poem's portrait of white women. Tretheway argues against that (disturbing) interpretation, pointing out that the "white lady" is the milk/gin/metho mixture from Australia, where alcoholism has devastated the Aboriginal population.

The cocaine slang is part of the meaning, sure, and no doubt the echo of Lucille Clifton's poem "white lady" is intentional, but it's not primary. Frankly, I think the "white woman" thing is part of the meaning, too, but not at all primary. (Incidentally, I was gratified to see that Tretheway seems to have made the same mistake I initially did about "King Billy"-- amnesiac's link clearly points to the main meaning there. How any of us would have figured that out without the internet in its current glory, Lord knows.)

Tretheway's takeaway from the poem is so completely opposed to the proposition that the truth about this poem is subjective that it's worth quoting: "Komunyakaa's work is psychologically demanding; it is intellectually demanding as well, requiring that readers be willing to attend to its cultural, literary, and historical references. In Komunyakaa's poems, such work does not go unrewarded. The poems deepen and open up a window into experience that might otherwise go overlooked."

That said, I'm not disagreeing with the point of the post-- you can get genuine aesthetic pleasure from the poem's music and images. But... you really, really do at least need to know that this poem's got to do with Australia.

This is really helpful. Readers will note that I basically disregarded all the Australia imagery and took it to be about cocaine. Knowing Komunyakaa's intentions is helpful--but, for me personally, only to a point. A lot of what I'm saying is in the last post. Basically, I've come to believe in poetry--and I guess in all art--as a kind of partnership between the artist and the beholder. The "original meaning" is helpful, but, for me, neither necessary, and perhaps, not any more relevant than the meaning I invest in it.

Again, this comes out of basically spending my teen years listening to hip-hop. I'm going to write more about this later, but it's basically become apparent to me that much of what I took from hip-hop was a lot about what I heard, as opposed to what was being said. That's really OK, and it's not a knock--the artist has to make space for you to do that hearing. Moreover, I've come to feel that "what I heard" is actually what is important to me. There's something else--I became a poetry and hip-hop fan before the phrase "google it" had any meaning. Often you filled in the gaps because you had to, and artists--their influences, their intentions etc.--weren't as accessible as they are now.

The "I" in all this is really important. This is my way of understanding art and literature--I don't much care for establishing a "right way" to read a poem. The other part of the "I" is understanding that what I hear may not be what the artists is saying. For my money, I'm totally fine with that. For what it's worth, I'm only half concerned with facts of Koumanyakaa's King Billy, Rakim's Killer Ben, or Nas' Pappy Mason. I'm more concerned with how those words, used as they are, make me feel.

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