Commentary, Essays, Recent

Re/Mark-Able: Black Women Poets’ Punctuation(!

by Rosamond S. King | Contributing Writer

When I began to read poetry, I wondered why there was so much punctuation in it. I was especially flummoxed by punctuation marks that concluded end-stopped lines; the comma and period, and less often the semicolon and colon at the end of a line, seemed redundant. One excitement of poetry is that it need not, and often does not, resemble conventional sentences. Unsatisfied with conventional punctuation, I look(ed) elsewhere for poetic gratification. It might seem that a lack of punctuation would reduce understanding, but we can see from many examples of everyday language (including traffic signs, receipts, and laundry tags) that other cues besides punctuation can guide meaning. Hundreds of well-known poets use no punctuation at all, but only a few of these have deeply influenced me: two of those poets are Jayne Cortez and Harryette Mullen

When a black woman poet refuses punctuation, she is refusing more than standard English. She is also refusing to allow the marks of history to (over)determine her writing. In these poets’ work, the absence of punctuation means our poems are not unmarked but re/mark-able, because we are unmarking and re-marking language at the same time, something black women theoretically shouldn’t do, because it is against the rules of grammar; something we shouldn’t be able to do according to racial stereotypes that would have black women both unable to speak standard English and incapable of innovating either language or poetry.

But innovate we do; the Black women’s poems without punctuation are re/mark-able, meaning both having been marked by experience and (re)memory, and in the sense of declaring something that might resonate deeply with you, or that might convey information or emotion the reader might not already be familiar with. To be clear: this refusal is not erasure: we are so conditioned to look for punctuation in writing, that even when it is completely absent in the text, it is not always completely absent in the reader’s mind. 

Jayne Cortez rarely included punctuation in her poems. In her work we can see that a complete or near absence of punctuation does not hinder reading or meaning. Consider these lines from Cortez’ “Sacred Trees”: 

I have the afternoon leaves throbbing
                                  in my nostrils
I have the struggling limbs sprouting from
                                  these ear lobes
I have a power stump shooting from
                                  out of this forehead
I have clusters of twigs popping from
                                  tattooed moles

Jayne Cortez, On the Imperial Highway: New and Selected Poems. Hanging Loose Press, 2009.

Her craft, specifically her anaphora and formatting, emphasizes the parallelism of this list and the relationship between human body parts and parts of trees. We do not need commas at the end of the longer lines to understand that a list and a series of conflations are being provided. Here, Cortez simultaneously unmarks her language by not including punctuation, and re-marks it with physical space. 

In a similar fashion, when the poem is less narrative, the lack of punctuation can encourage more meaning, not less. This stanza is from the middle of Mullen’s book-length poem of quatrains, Muse & Drudge, which includes no punctuation

white covers of black material
dense fabric that obeys its own logic
shadows pierced together tears and all
unfurling sheets of bluish music

Harryette Mullen, Muse & Drudge. Singing Horse Press, 1995.

Mullen’s book has puns and other wordplay on every page, refusing the “muse,” “drudge,” and other stereotypes of black women. Her lack of punctuation adds to the ways her very sharp wit can be read and understood.

If we try to apply punctuation to these lines, we can end up with: â€śwhite covers of black material: dense fabric that obeys its own logic. shadows pierced together, tears and all, unfurling sheets of bluish music.” Here, “dense fabric” is a detail of the white covers, and “shadows” is the plural subject that is pierced, tearful, and unfurling music. 

We might also punctuate these lines as: â€śwhite covers of black material. dense fabric that obeys its own logic: shadows pierced together. tears and all, unfurling sheets of bluish music.” Here, the “white covers” can be separate from the “dense fabric” and its logic of “shadows pierced together.” At the end, the “tears and all” are “unfurling.”

And one more iteration: â€śwhite covers of black material, dense fabric. that obeys its own logic: shadows. pierced together tears and all unfurling sheets of bluish music.” In this example, an indeterminate “that” is a subject obeying its own logic. “Pierced together tears” and “all unfurling sheets” are separate subjects. 

Other configurations of punctuation will lead to even more possible meanings–especially if you include the dash, the ellipsis, and other punctuation marks… To use another movement metaphor, the interpretations are structured improvisations within the poets’ choreography.

Of course, since this is poetry, line breaks do matter, and Mullen uses them as re-marks in her unpunctuated poem. She plays with our expectation of both conventional grammar and conventional lines of poetry: we expect the second line to be enjambed; we expect an article, maybe “a” before “dense fabric,” and “of” to follow “logic,” and include details of the fabric. Instead, we have an end-stopped line with no punctuation: the dense fabric simply obeys its own logic, and may or may not be the white covers or the black material. And we also have enjambment, that the logic is an adjective describing what type of shadows are pierced together. 

Similarly, if read as end-stopped, “tears and all” means that the tears and everything else are pierced together with the shadows. And this line can also be read as enjambed, and with a caesura: the shadows are pierced together, while tears and everything else are unfurling sheets of bluish music. In this example, the absence of punctuation results in an accumulation of meaning, not less of it. I found Mullen’s poetry in my period of voracious reading, and I found in it and other work a more satisfying reading experience. Multiple meanings. Language play, and playing with language. Simultaneous caesura and enjambment. The sense that every aspect of the poem, including punctuation or lack thereof, was created with intention.

In an “Artist Statement,” poet Nabila Lovelace notes that Cortez uses sound as punctuation, and space to create caesura in “For the Poets,” her elegy for Christopher Okigbo and Henry Dumas, black writers murdered by the governments where they lived. Lovelace cites lines such as these:

because i can’t make the best of it uh-hun 
because i’m not a bystander uh-hun

Jayne Cortez, “For the Poets (Christopher Okigbo & Henry Dumas).” On the Imperial Highway.

Scholars often act as though space is not significant, as though the length of a line does not exist on the canvas of a page. Punctuation reinforces this approach; along with meaning and flow, meaningful space itself is “end-stopped” with punctuation marks. Without them–or if they are moved to the beginning of the next line, or further out on the same line–the reader is encouraged to pay closer attention, to acknowledge more variables and possibilities. This increased, sometimes seemingly exponential possibility can be interpreted as difficulty, or as diminishing meaning (i.e., “nonsense”), interpretations that themselves point to an unwillingness or inability to countenance meaning beyond one’s own sense of comfort and logic. 

Maybe this is why there is so little writing on this topic. In her essay “New Ideas about Black Experimental Poetry,” Elizabeth Alexander writes, 

A larger study might fruitfully survey black poets’ use of the caesura. How do we make space in poems and what does that space signify? The unspoken? Euphemism? Keens and wails so profound they cannot be put into words? The violent vast fissure of the Middle Passage; that ocean and crossing and all it represents? All the history that has been eradicated? Existential blackness itself. Room for what is unsaid.

If the study Alexander called for in 2011 exists, I still cannot find it. The overwhelming majority of scholarship on black poetry focuses on content and diction, not on form. Even those who make their lives as critics seem unwilling to examine the technical aspects of craft that are routinely analyzed in white poets’ work.

Re-moving/unmarking punctuation or re-marking with punctuation are not, of course, the only ways to address these marks. Many poets use punctuation in conventional ways, and their work does not suffer for it. But it is worth meditating on the re/mark-able ways black women poets such as Cortez, Mullen, NourbeSe Philip–and myself–have used the tools of punctuation. As all writers should, we strive to use the elements available to us to either say something new, or to say something known in a new way. 

I hope, with this essay, to entice some readers to embrace what may initially seem inscrutable or uncomfortable, in other black women poets’ work, and in my own. Unconventional punctuation has been key to how I understand the possibilities of language and how poetry can reflect the experiences I live and observe.


Writer and performer Rosamond S. King‘s collection All the Rage was nominated for Lambda Literary and Big Other poetry awards. She is also the author of the Lambda Award-winning Rock Salt Stone and the monograph Island Bodies: Transgressive Sexualities in the Caribbean Imagination, winner of the Caribbean Studies Association best book award. The goal of all of King’s work is to make people feel, wonder, and think, not necessarily in that order. She is a professor at Brooklyn College (CUNY).