HIGH TAR BABIES: race hatred slavery love

Marcus Wood, Author . Clinamen $25 (121p) ISBN 978-1-903083-83-3

"Foshun is like a funny name, and she said it in like a funny way, like tension, well like a man shouting in the army would say it, like with his arms like by his sides, like screaming, like 'TENSHON', or something." Wood is a painter, a reader in the English and fine arts department of the University of Sussex and the author of Blind Memory, a study of the visual images that came out of Atlantic slavery. This book, from a Manchester-based publisher, is the companion to Wood's show by the same title at the Royal College of Art, using tar as a medium and metaphor for exploring the subtitle's interrelated categories. The book begins with an essay, outlining "13 Ways of Looking at High Tar Babies" ("Thirteen. Tar is Duende"), followed by reproductions of 38 tar-on-paper paintings ("Penguin Tar Baby One"; "Tar Telephone Strangled by its own Cord Two"; etc.) from the show. But of most interest here are the 21 one- to eight-page pieces of prose fiction and monologues in incredibly closely set, page-length blocks of text, as close to poetry as any other genre. With remarkable energy and clausal construction, these pieces work as a sort of scaled-down, twisted version of Gertrude Stein's The Making of Americans, detailing different "types" of people and the various contexts in which they find themselves, and are found. They include a couple whose childlessness brings their racial identities to the fore; a son's meditation on his dead father's gray ashes; and, lastly, a surrealistic couple who commit suicide wrapped in black toilet paper ("The last we hear of Do and Biz is a muffled chant, it sounds like 'me at last, me at last, Good Lord Almighty, me at last.'"). It's not an auspicious end, but it is a bizarrely heartbreaking and compelling one. (Dec.)

Reviewed on: 12/17/2001
Release date: 09/01/2001
Genre: Nonfiction
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