The self-portrait is a popular genre of contemporary poetry as a lyrical expression of how the poet envisions their self. John Keene’s poem “Self” (pg. 95-96 in What I Say) seems to fit this convention, but his poem records an explosion of the self through a series of interrogations into the various structural and interpersonal layers that construct subjectivity, a critical intervention into self-portraiture through the lens of race. The poem, by opening with “Self, black self, is there another label?” evokes the surface of the self’s body as racialized by interpellating “self, black self” as a “label,” akin to how skin color is immediately “read” on the body and inscribed onto the person along with a number of racialized assumptions. But Keene immediately complicates this surface reading (e.g., how his self is encountered as “an Other” on the street) with an asterisk.
Asterisks are directional symbols, usually pointing the reader to the bottom of the page to read a disclaimer or explanation. But Keene spins out the asterisk into a chain of fifteen separate subsections / questions / verses. This creates a polyphonic and dynamic vision of self which undergoes continual resignification—complicating the project of telling the racial self. “Self” cannot contain itself as a noun / final destination / settled state. Instead, Keene formulates the gorgeous verb “selving,” pointing to a project of self-portrait as a process. “Selving” could be matched by Althusser’s subjectivation—the subject being constructed and hailed by ideology such as race. If the self is understood or preconceptualized as “the mark” inscribed from the outside in, “Self, black self, is there differentiation?” Keene pushes into a Hegelian dialectic (a la DuBois’s double consciousness) in trying to map “self” and “black self”: the gaps, excesses, overlaps, and ambiguities between these two configurations. The poem’s asterisks phenomenologically trace Keene’s struggle of trying to define a “self”—separate or attached to a “black self”. This is a messy process, fraught with negations, inversions, superimpositions, and unanswered questions.
This explosion of the self-portrait exceeds its frame and resists closure: the project of unraveling the racialized self cannot be constrained to two pages. The final line impels the reader: “* In the end, refuse signature.” A handwritten signature is how the artist is recognized, and the bridge between body and text. It is also a label. To “refuse signature” is to deny closure; a refusal to label the self. This final gesture leaves the reader with a provocation: what would it mean to write a self-portrait without a signature—to open up the person beyond the surface label as a site of ongoing resignification? Moreover, how does this change the ways we read race?