on craft, or a disordered logic for resurrection

On writing to bring language to its limit: translation and failure, communion with ghosts, and the grammar of undoing

Dark gray screen print of crowd with black text overlaid, reading: Something in me wondered, "What will happen to all the beauty?"
1Glenn Ligon, Untitled (Crowd/The Fire Next Time), 2000. Collection Walker Art Center.

“What we shared was the wish to resurrect the dead.”

Saidiya Hartman


each attempt i make at writing has been an effort to raise the dead. i cannot raise the dead, and this is to say, each attempt that i make at writing is a practice in failure. i want to write the thing that brings language to its limit, i want to get better at failing. 

perhaps this predisposition for writing my dead; before the reading, the study before the study, is due to how early i felt their absence. my gone. by the time i was two both my maternal and paternal grandparents had died. this was not discussed, i remember no ceremony, or altars, or visits to the cemetery, but i would dream of my maternal grandmother, could hear our laughter as i sat in the back of her Volkswagen and picked at the moles on her neck. all of this has remained in a mist, our laughter and speech muffled. in recalling these dreams with my mother, she has maintained they are memories. these dreams and my telling of them are attempts at resurrection, dreams, my earliest form of writing, a kind of communion with ghosts. dreamspace always feeling like work in translation, where i am speaking in other tongues, ones i do not know, something less than the rational and more than it too.


the poems i remember as a child that i was taught under that name, poem, had a rigid structure, a house with its many rooms always out of reach, locked. these were the poems that succeeded in some agreed-upon metric, unspoken but sure, as numeric as the ledger. and even though i am years and many interventions distanced from those legible lessons that disregarded the slant things my tongue has always felt more resonant, there is still the pull to bring a thing to completion, into coherence. i am assigned a prompt as an MFA candidate, list ten words i love and ten i hate. then write three things i struggled to learn how to do. the unspoken urge seems to be to complete the task, answer the prompt with agreeable form. i cannot think of any words that i love or hate. language itself has the knife to my throat. i want to break something. i want to raise the dead.

an index of language as an attempt to tear it open, or i am always using a grammar of my undoing or maybe i just don’t think it all works out in the end

mess               inventory
ossuary            accounting
blue               contraband
ocean              hull
breath             insure
death              property
render             narrative
assemblage         time
ruin               i
flight             hope
to believe in repair
breathe underwater
resurrect the dead
haunt the living .


while attempting to write on my maternal grandfather, his 25 years of labor as a porter on the railroad, his retirement without pension. his bitterness, the rage i imagine was swallowing his insides, i write using the gestures i am familiar with. these gestures are attempting to make something unified of my grandfather’s story to have it hold together in a particular way, even as i want to work against coherence. i look up documents, i extend them, loop them, redact them, i make a jagged thing of their grammar, try to undo what this technology of undoing has undone, see if anything might be collected from the ruins it has made of my family. i keep running up against time, the sleeplessness of porters, the graveyard shifts, i keep wanting to make revisions to time or to incorporate my grandfather’s body into a temporality of recognizable events. in my lay research i have been able to find his father’s, my great-grandfather’s death certificate, never a record of birth. this makes me question events, facticity, and the meaning of the record, if death has a far more critical facticity than birth/life in much of my genealogy, in blackness? this makes me consider what the material of a mortuary poetics might be, to borrow from Vincent Brown’s “mortuary politics.” i’ve had to stop writing poems for this project and have decided instead to turn my thinking to naming the assemblage of this grim poetics.


David Marriott in a recorded conversation with Frank Wilderson said:

“Black language needs to be a different kind of language, it needs to be an anti-language in that sense. It needs to start from where language ends or becomes impossible…I’m not here to communicate anything, I’m not here to mean anything. To me blackness doesn’t mean shit.  It puts into doubt and into question everything.  And that is why it’s slaughtered, terrorized and imprisoned everywhere it goes.  Because precisely, there is no meaning which is equivalent to it.”

how does one articulate without meaning, or outside of it? how does one place everything into doubt? i am nearly there on the latter, but meaning is still so seductive.


i’ve attempted to place whole blocks of prose into a random word generator. i’ve grouped the words into twelve random sets from the given text and then placed the numbers 1 -12 into a random sequence generator to see what emerges on the other side of this fracturing technique. at the end i wonder if there was too much sense at the onset of an attempt at fragmenting it. at the end i wonder what, if anything, is ever random.


in writing on the phenomenon of UFO abduction, Jonathan Jacob Moore puts it into conversation with Black ontology, revisiting abduction “as a mundane quality, and the first condition, of Black life.” i hear Pusha T in the background saying, “i can disappear i swear.” disappearance seems to be among the primary concerns of Black Studies. what would it mean to think this in reverse? disappearance not as fraught, but fugitive?


i can disappear i swear. in fact, most days i am already gone.


for the past five years i have been contemplating and working on a project with an agnostic approach towards whether something, anything, could be retrieved from the wake (see Christina Sharpe). that, wading in the afterlife of slavery and its archives, i was interested in what could be snatched from the water. an attempt at raising the dead (better writers have tried, see Saidiya Hartman’s Venus in Two Acts). i suppose what i understand to be my failure in that project to snatch something from the water, is something i am still reckoning with. it brought about a certain kind of closure to faint beliefs. but now i am left with the dead, and their remnants. i am still unsure how to write them. i am still writing them and failing and wanting to get ahead and outside of that repetition, beyond it. to press, and tear, and shatter, and swallow, and split, and set aflame this speech up to its exhaustion, until i have no more words, and am at the end of my language. am i at its end yet?


let’s begin.

Hartman, Saidiya.  Lose Your Mother: A Journey Along The Atlantic Slave Route.  Farrar, Straus And Giroux, 2007. 54.

Brown, Vincent.  The Reaper’s Garden: Death And Power In The World Of Atlantic Slavery.  Harvard University Press, 2008. 5.

Marriott, David; Wilderson, Frank.  “DS Marriott in conversation with Frank Wilderson III.” City Light Books. 28 April 2022, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Mw20cLg-iic.

Moore, Jacob Jonathon.  “Starships and Slave Ships: Black Ontology and the UFO Abduction Phenomenon.” Qui Parle Vol. 31, No. 1, June 2022, 147.

Chaun Webster

Chaun Webster is a poet and graphic designer living in Minneapolis whose work is attempting to put pressure on the spatial andtemporal limitations of writing, of the english language, as a way to demonstrate its incapacity for describing blackness outside of a regime of death and dying. Webster’s debut book, Gentry!fication: or the scene of the crime, was published by Noemi Press in 2018, and received the 2019 Minnesota Book Award for poetry. Wail Song: wading in the water at the end of the …   read more