There is something like a throat clearing, dog growl in the dark, shrieking bird in the morning, saliva collecting at the edge of your mouth, and Eugene Robinson is taking off his clothes, wide eyed, gasping, trance state, things are going to start levitating soon. The band used to be called Whipping Boy, now it’s called Oxbow, and the crowd can’t sing along. Oxbow is an experimental jazz band (what is the relationship between experimental and improvisational? What is the difference?). Lyrics are provisional, given to improvisation, the first Oxbow show happened in Robinson’s bathroom, when he was fifteen, singing, brushing his teeth, making stranger and stranger noises still, ‘til, next-thing-I-knew, he’s underneath the toilet, the toothbrush is in his hand, “I thought you know, you know…it could happen… that I never come back from this place. Like when you’re a kid and your mother says, ‘you know, you make this face your face will stay this way.’” [i]
An oxbow is a series of oscillating invaginations, a 2-dimensional, cross sectional icon of caches of potential meaning infinitely winding and inverting. An oscillation in time moves along two axes, there is no going back. An oxbow is an im/possible oscillation that goes back.
An oxbow is a palindrome, enter here, wander through, exit in the same place only you know more. It takes a long time to go such a short distance.
“Gal” off Let me Be a Woman:
He tied me to the pole
and the steel up my back was cold
and the rope cut into my hands that were tied behind me
And he told me to please not cry
because then he’d want to see why
why I’d cry
and anyway only little girls cry
Maybe that’s what I was
he said he thought I was a girl
and there was only one way to find out
and if you want, go ahead and shout
Rubbing my chest, he asked what’s next?
and undid my belt and my pants
while the others watched[ii]
Eugene Robinson, the vocalist of Oxbow, who is known to undress in the middle of performances, enacts and reanimates Frederick Douglas’s text, plays a double role, “perhaps the other is ourselves,”[iii] Master and Hester, as he, “strips… from neck to waist, leaving…neck, shoulders, and back entirely naked.”[iv] When intelligible his lyrics recount that primal scene, interpolated by homoerotic gestures, masochism, voyeurism and double entendre (what does it mean to be literally tied to a kind of fascinum? Can it ward off the evil eye from the others?). Each time the word appears its utterance has a different intonation: He cries the cry, speaks the cry, shouts the cry, growls the cry. He, like Aunt Hester, is admonished and encouraged to cry. Aunt Hester made a face, it stayed that way, you can still see it today, it’s reproduced in the photograph of Emmett Till, his swollen mouth about to moan groan growl prick, because it can’t whistle anymore, there’s no coming back from that place (a place like Great House Farm, Money, Mississippi, Ferguson, Missouri). It takes a long time to go such a short distance.
Another name for an auction is a crying.
What flows through the meandering, palindrome waters in Oxbow?
“’Deep River’ in the sound of Arthur’s gaze, in the wetness and depth of Crunch’s eye, in the taste of Crunch’s prick and cum, is tactile. Attention to the sound – and not merely the sound-image – of the gaze he represents gives us access to the whole substance of Baldwin’s materiality; so we start, but do not finish, there, where before us it remains to recall in our experience of him the shock of a blessing, a substantive transfer, from which homographesis bars us unless it is augmented.”[v]
The crowd is given the image of the man’s hand on Robinson’s chest but they experience his materiality through the breath in his lungs, the beating heart that flows, trickles through the work, the specter of Aunt Hester, over and over (“Pharoah and Marion were still blowing, the beautiful sound went on and on”[vi]). Like a man possessed, by anima, by Geist, the glossolalist is speaking in volumes, in totalizing tongues. Breath, Pneuma, is amplified, abounding in the PA system (What is an amplifier? A potential akin to ensemble is there, it dominates sonically, looks, perhaps, like a black hole, space that is incomplete in its totalizing beyond, completeness).
The fascinum/baraka, the divine cock blessing, its anointing oil, Robinson is tied to it, lost in the sound of looking, wide deep-eyed, Balwin-eyed. History isn’t in mirrors, but in the improvising waters oscillating reflections, sound waves bearing baptismal potential. Waves that go back. Back and forth, tidal. Pools. Wholly water. Maelstroms or palindromes, we start but do not finish there, come out the other side of the blessing redoubled, taking in deep breaths. “Perhaps the other is ourselves.”
The shock of the blessing is the cold water that opens the eyes and causes a gasp. Or, better: the shock of the blessing causes a gasp that opens the eyes.
[ii] Oxbow, “Gal,” in Let me Be a Woman, Brinkman Records, 1995, CD.
[iii] Fred Moten, “Visible Music,” in In the Break (Minnepolis: University of Minneapolis, 2003), 189.
[iv] Fred Moten, “Resistance of the Object,” in In the Break (Minnepolis: University of Minneapolis, 2003), 19.
[v] Fred Moten, “Visible Music,” in In the Break (Minnepolis: University of Minneapolis, 2003), 190-1.
[vi] Amiri Baraka, “Apple Cores #6,” in Black Music (New York: William Morrow, 1967), 160.