How to deal with the deespest matters of your soul? In a rooted manner, to answer such an intense question, Toni Morrison reflects about them in Mouth Full of Blood without concealing (not even for a sentence) what she is and who she is. Reading her speeches, articles and lectures is going through a general review of what our species are. An intimate journey where you know she is talking to you, and to you only. Softly, as kindly as possible. Yet troubled by the world.
Also, this book can be understood as the irreverence of the weak, whom she sides with. Look at it: it’s a guy taking a few steps back in the middle of a bout, muttering a joke about the abusive opponent in front of him. Or Toni Morrison herself, boxing the abuse, fighting it with intelligence and, art of the past, with compassionate words. So, if you are not one of the so-called ‘owners of this world’, this is a book for you.
You can read this collection slowly but at the same time be compelled by its burning style. Start with ‘Peril,’ the opening piece. A sensible chant in praise of writing, keeping the bad habit of speaking truth, and putting it down in black and white: she thinks, she feels, and therefore she writes. There is a danger in giving meaning to life, to sorrow, ‘sharpening the moral imagination.’ Because writers (and their lives) are not a gift for the rest of us, they are a ‘necessity’. The regular state of emergency most of us live in — Walter Benjamin defined it as a rule rather than an exception — is about to be reviewed.
From this point on, any reader will notice the contents are polemic, strong and elegant. Three sections (one is an interlude) organized to address the same issues Morrison has been dealing with over half of a century since her first novel, The Bluest Eye: the world, Blackness, language. Perhaps now we can give a few minutes to consider this: Mouth Full of Blood looks pretty much like a toolshed and the reader, standing at the door frame, sees three walls in front. Cabinets, racks, a multitude of implements, jars full of tiny unknown things, containers and cans with simple well-known things, a carpenter’s table and what not.
Moving in and around the toolshed is simple, keep turning the pages (keep scrolling). Go to any spot, look at it closely and move to something else.
Part I, ‘The Foreigner’s Home,’ is a treaty on the world, and the only tongue spoken in it (money talks). The first text, a lecture given at a memorial, is a short intense text. A woman with her strong voice can be heard through all of it, carving in the air like in wood. ‘The Dead of September 11’ dwells on pain, yes, but also in that compassion mentioned before:
I want to hold you in my arms.
She knows nothing can be said in front of horror. She knows feelings come first, actions follow. And she chooses to love, to claim the dead as hers. She will keep choosing love, words, and love again. This is the mark of her new book, even though ‘speaking to the broken and the dead is too difficult for a mouth full of blood’.
Where wild things are
Readers might ask themselves out loud what is Toni Morrison doing. Going from hard to stone, from sad to depressive issues seems to be a heavy task (and makes, no doubt, a heavy reading). Consider ‘Racism and Fascism’ or ‘Home’, vibrant chapters where our evils are put to trial. From foreignness to genocide, the powers that be are shown claiming territory, settling while expressing their right to do so, against the ‘other’ that could just be the native of a land or a country.
Or like in ‘Wartalk,’ a text where the Nobel laureate in literature revises the shattered concept of citizenship. The reason to do that, and so many passages she writes about humans, is that migratory movement (the worst since the slavery times of Africans forcefully shipped to America) that puts Syrians in Germany, Rohingyas in Bangladesh, and dead bodies (of children) in some Mediterranean beaches.
And language, of course:
For one’s language—the one we dream in—is home.
In an especially bright text, Morrison talks about language and war. The gibberish we all listen to, everyday, coming out from warmongers everywhere. Childlike, she says, but she’s wrong; though this warriors and vigilante’s talk resembles the nonsense of a small kid, there is a key difference. A child is walking on a path, growing and grasping things, the absurd talk of these fools is a regression, simple as that.
Shedding light from new angles, not in the usual sterile ways. That’s a craft forged in the toolshed. For what? For life, I suggest. That’s why many of the texts in Part I deal with the wild things all of us have to face daily, on our screens and in our beds. But not just so, like in ‘Moral Inhabitants,’ where Toni Morrison visits the past and dares to quote some of the founding fathers of the United States of America and some other people alike. Showing some of their darkest features, the African American, prized writer embraces all that shit and opens the skies, word by word, quote by quote. Not naming and shaming here, just telling it like it really is, so Americans (all of them) can choose another path and move on.
The Nobel Lecture, by the way, offers an insight on Morrison of course. But its beginning is one of the most celebrated snippets of literature in recent times: ‘Once upon a time there was an old woman. Blind but wise.’ Of course she is not the author, and rescues the story from ancient times, from an old world (with no computers nor streaming ways.) But that could possibly be used as a new approximation to her: granted she is not blind, she is the wise woman in her toolshed, worry not about what’s in front but everything around her, in every time.
The book of life
Then comes the interlude, ‘Black Matter(s),’ and the reading soothes for a minute or two. The little piece at its beginning is about our author and her (cultural, political) relation to the immense figure of Martin Luther King Jr. It’s more a parable, no doubt, on self-regard, and the significance King has in this wild present.
Something starts to show: the alignment of every initial text, in the three sections of the book, is different (to the left, not justified) than the other pieces of the book. The third one, ‘James Baldwin Eulogy,’ delivered at the great American writer’s memorial service, has something in common with the other two (the one about the dead on September 11 and the other on Martin Luther King): they read like prayers. Full of emotion, mystical, delivered from a pulpit where Toni Morrison preaches her faith on us, on all of us, and every initial text is just setting the tone. Please don’t mind a spoiler here.
In the interlude the reader can find much more in the shape of papers, essays and comment. Like the analysis our author provides of some literary landmarks, and her intense questions about them. ‘Black Matter(s)’ is an essay on how some works have helped in this monumental work the White freedom built in America, placing classics like Huckleberry Finn in tight spots (and therefore Mark Twain too).
Or reviewing carefully, with cold hands, the presence of African Americans in the literature of the country they were born in. Just be clear you are not reading in ‘Unspeakable Things Unspoken’ the minutiae a scholar will provide but the arguments one of the best editors (she was that too) of the last century has to offer on that deadly pretext call ‘race’.
Please, entertain another approximation to Morrison’s work now. This book is devotional, a book where in a simple but firm way one of our most important writers consolidates her faith. Of course this is not a new way, and this is not really a new book (most of the pieces here have been published before in other books). It is a new way to interpellate people concerned about this critical moment of our existence and what is yet to come.
So when Part II comes, ‘God’s Language,’ please don’t hold your breath. Everything is coming to an end. Like in ‘The Site of Memory,’ where you will learn about images and text. Or some people (artists most of them) whose works and perils were added to the book of life; not always for the right reasons. So much about writers and their work populates Mouth Full of Blood that now you can conclude the toolshed, the devotional on human race, was crafted for artists and good souls. Please, do not be mislead by Toni Morrison’s loves, and loved ones: this is a book revealing that divinity anywhere speaks of love, and a little more.
One last approximation here, this time about her and not the book: she is a poem to be read.
(Luis A. Gómez is a Mexican journalist and editor based in Kolkata and volunteers for adivaani)