Poetic Voice and Materiality / Voice Metabolized: Sounding Predation in Douglas Kearney’s The Black Automaton / Sally Hansen

“Sounding Predation” by Luke Scott Stringer.

“There is a shitload of codes, a mess of messages, yet the din of it isn’t necessarily noise—that is, it is a signal to be understood. A literacy to develop.”

—Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and1

For Douglas Kearney, poetic “voice” is a mess, in a technical (if contorted) sense. “Mess,” as he speculates, is “akin to what anthropologist Mary Douglas calls matter out of place.2 The bodies that compose and are composed in poetry, though, are never actually in place, in Kearney’s telling. Throughout his 2009 book of poems, The Black Automaton, and his strategically chaotic essay collection, Mess and Mess and (2015), Kearney sounds out a “shitload of codes” from somewhere outside what counts as a human “voice.”3 If, indeed, “voice” has often been associated in lyric theory with selfhood—expressive, self-contained, hygienic, white—Kearney locates Black performance in what Fred Moten calls “the burial ground of the subject,” the voice displaced into nonhuman matter.4 In Kearney’s words, The Black Automaton “thinks it’s a murky hip-hop album about Black subjects being reduced to Black objects.”5 “In” this “out of place,” his visually disruptive typographies and tensely textured vocal performances feel out the material histories of racialized dispossession. They feel into unthinkable affective dissonances where bodies remain real, elusive, and forceful.

A poetics of “embodiment” isn’t neat, for Kearney. His “shitload of codes” is the excrement of predatory networks composing racial capitalism. As he notices, eating patterns his work: “The bite—more so than the bullet hole, the shank cut, the punctum—is my paradigmatic wound.”6 He elaborates:

I imagine this pattern is so because I reckon that to eat something does not absolutely negate it. You are taking it, sure, removing what you want and need from it, and only then voiding what you don’t absorb. To be consumed is not to experience pure erasure, but a brutal assimilation.7

The predatory consumption of Black bodies inaugurated by the transatlantic slave trade is extended, for Kearney, through the platforms and media of Black performances, contemporary poetic performances included. In his poems “Radio” and “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-folk (An Aquaboogie Set in Lapis),” Kearney figures the radio, the slave ship, and the English language as instruments that instrumentalize Black bodies. From within the networks in which contemporary poetry is recorded and consumed, Kearney listens for the sounds that Black performers make as instruments, as “matter out of place.” Throughout The Black Automaton, in a “voice” unrecognizable in its sensory and automated entanglements, Kearney sounds out the mechanized metabolisms in which Black performers are brutally assimilated and in which they pathogenically revolt.8 Moreover, he describes Black performers metabolizing these pervasive cruelties, and in doing so, signaling other kinds of touching, seeing, sounding, sensing in the din.

Kearney’s poetic messes demand of him and his audiences a physiological historiography. That is, his writing both describes histories of consumption, and it stages these histories as sensory entanglements that poetic performances can make palpable, if not palatable. Bitten, biting, and flirting with humor, Kearney’s performances metabolize the messes of feeling that (de)compose bodies; their “dinsensibility” exposes him and his audiences to a dispossessed affection as shit for shit.

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A phrase from Mess and Mess and helps open and weave the predatory intimacies in “Radio” and “Swimchant”: “A body machines its way to making with blood.”9 Its density demands further processing: what even counts as a body-machine, or organism? Is the blood flow of a body, nation, or poem simply bloodshed? Does creative (re)production feed on the sacrificed? As Kearney shows in “Radio,” Black performers refuse the distinctions built into these questions, even as they transform the terms. As the second poem in The Black Automaton, “Radio” sounds out the birth of the Black Automaton through midcentury radio minstrelsy, what Barbara Savage calls the “aural blackface” produced to sustain the machinery of white-controlled public broadcasting.10 Pathogenically embedded in radio’s automated role-play, the Black performers in the poem manipulate words and shape-shift within them, in turns enticing, accusing, and eluding their audiences. As their threatening play exploits the body’s forceful indeterminacy, they reclaim and recast the erotically violent roles by which a body-politic “machines its way to making with blood.”11

“Radio” appears to unfold in self-contained couplets that, on first reading, narrate the imbrication of Blackness and sound technology around what Stoever calls the “sonic color line.”12

the first black you met was on the radio.
this is true even if you lived with blacks.

the first black to speak the word radio
knew it meant the same as blood.

the first black to know blood meant radio
claimed radio meant love, to better lure you.13

Relocating racialization from neighborhood to national media apparatus, the speaker opens with the claim, “the first black you met was on the radio.”14 Blackness is constructed foremostly through voice, the speaker implies, as conditioned by the exclusionary history of audio technology. Even if Black performers were offered roles in midcentury network radio shows, white hunger for “recognizable” Black stock characters confined their vocal performances into “scripted dialect.”15 The much-touted color blindness of the medium, moreover, shored up a galvanizing wartime “American” image of “inclusion, openness, and choice,” while instrumentalizing Black artists in an economy designed to entertain the white consumer.16

The poem’s featured performers, though, register and repurpose these instrumentalizing duplicities: “the first black to speak the word radio / knew it meant the same as blood.17 “Blood,” as Cyril Vettorato notices, signals multiply here: it can evoke “lifeblood,” suggesting the “pulse” of solidarity potentially vivifying Black communities already dehumanized in the postbellum and Jim Crow eras.18 At the same time, especially since a poem commemorating Emmett Till immediately follows “Radio” in the collection, “blood” invokes the ongoing lynchings and castrations that radio minstrelsy underwrites. Still, in a veiled and imperiled sexual re-presencing, the “first black” metabolizes the threat and claims the platform. They declare “radio meant love” to “lure” the listener into the liberatory intimacies (perilous erotics?) of mass communication.

While in the first couplets, the “first black” navigates minstrelsy’s predations with verbal disguises, in the second half of “Radio,” Kearney explores the sonic quality of a “voice” choked out from human speech and “playing” inert machinery.

the first blacks to realize they were blacks became radios
at once, singing something that could never be english.

the first black to confess it was a radio
did so to account for the snow filling its voice.

the first black you heard was a radio
and did not speak english even if it did: radios cannot speak.19

Drowned out by whiteness (snow), forced between subjectivity’s “stations,” and ultimately cast as inert instrument, Black voices exit knowable speech altogether: “radios cannot speak.” Black vocal performers, brutally assimilated through aural blackface, must metabolize the minstrel farce of English and attempt to signal their erased bodies through it.

On still another stage of poetic performance, Kearney’s semantic play unfixes the audience from clearly scripted positions. The use of second person throughout stages the poem as an intimate, if haunted, scene of address. But the weight of these histories falls into different affective arrangements; “it all depends” on who is meant by “you”:

the first black you dreamed about was on the radio
and waited for you there each night to fuck you,

you still believe this and sleep with the radio
on or off; it all depends.20

The kind of fucking “you” dream about depends on what “you” crave and/or fear: a predatory consumer might sleep with the radio off, supposedly suppressing their paranoid nightmare of Black vengeance. A sexual fantasy, however, entices the listener who “still believes” radio can offer liberated Black performance. They keep the radio on as an audible sexual hope. And even these possibilities endlessly entangle each other in the various permutations of racism’s sexual guilt and betrayed hope’s paranoia. Condensing “what do you fear?” “what do you want?” and “who are they?” Kearney confronts the reader with the question: who are “you”? Staging the mutual birthing of automaton and audience, he asks, what kinds of bodies are made in the (net)work of listening?

The poem leaves readers falling off agency’s edge and into the next generation of dinsensible Black performers. These collective “blacks” who “change radio’s / meaning from love back to blood,” are “still here” and they “want to fuck you. they are doing so on the radio / right now.”21 The din of their reclamatory threat resounds within the “right now” of Kearney’s poetic composition. They ultimately have the night’s last word — even over Kearney, who lets the poem end in a deep unease possibly his own: “you don’t like it but go to sleep.”22 As the voice of the poem is swallowed by the white page, the performers it can’t manage continue to sound outside the poem through the radio inside the poem. Insofar as the audience dares to keep hearing their in-out-of-place sound, their mattering, the Black Automaton (and The Black Automaton) machines its way toward making, toward blood. Whose blood?

The not-quite-silence, the past, the poem, feels shitty.

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“A body machines its way to making with blood.”23—While radio minstrelsy historically metabolizes Black voices (and in turn mediates their impossible, duplicitous re-soundings), Kearney locates the mass media instrument within a wider body politic: the circulatory system of the transatlantic slave trade. The slave ship, an instrument of predation like the radio, for Kearney, “machines its way to making with blood.”24 As an inaugural machine of global racial capitalism, the slave ship “brutally assimilates” humans into commodity circulation: “Into the belly of the ship—the hull—people eaten, consumed, in an attempt to turn them into shit, a process that would abet the robust development of racism.”25 Prefiguring minstrelsy’s instrumentalization, Africans were forced to “play” matter in the hold. The sounds they made are unthinkable. For Kearney, their din lodges in the body, disorients language, and dissolves “the human” configurable by any sense. In his “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk (An Aquaboogie Set in Lapis),” on the page and in live performance, Kearney dramatizes the cacophonous market for black flesh—the hold, the minstrel show, the poetry reading—and avails himself of its duplicities, encoded as it is in mass mediated-marketed English.26 In his typographical experiments, citation, word-play, and the physical torsions of his performance, Kearney listens for the dead and lets them break his voice.

On the page, “Swimchant” dramatizes commodified carnage. As Evie Shockley thoroughly explores, Kearney goes “overboard” with typographical effects.27 Staggered lines and word clusters shape the rim of the slave ship, the bodies that “dive” off its edge, the turmoil of sharks beneath the water’s waving surface, and the sea floor on which bodies gather. To depict the slave ship, Kearney uses a “wood type” typical of 19th century advertisements for minstrel shows; he literally pictures the ship as a sailing advertisement for consumable Black flesh.28

Under the water line, Kearney catches readers in puns’ jagged “wordplay.” The fractured word-clusters in the poem’s underwater region clamp and unclamp Africans as they transform into food for sharks: “mako wish / ye black fish / mako feed / be black bleed.”29 Adjacent on the page, the hammerhead shark sonically assimilates the human, who is hammered into “ham” ultimately interchangeable with “head”: “hammerheads’ / hammers head / to ham (or head?) / ‘til hammers fed.”30 The transformation is confirmed in jarringly lyrical lines across the page: “the gullets filled of brine and kine [cattle/chattel]” double with “gullets full of water and the gullets full of slaughter [a salt/assault] o / charnel channel of a deep blue sea. / Poseidon slides his foaming shroud assured no one will see.”31 Meanwhile, “THEE MANAGEMENT” insists, “WE AIN’T’NT RESPONSIBLE FOR YOUR MESS,” a white voice’s abnegation of responsibility aligned with Poseidon’s own obscuring maneuver.32

As Kearney emphasizes in the written poem’s “shitload of codes,” “Black voice” is as brutally consumed by the white audiences as Black bodies are by the sharks that follow the ship. From references to Eliot (recalling his blackface correspondences with Pound) to a cameo from Disney’s Sebastian (whose exaggerated Jamaican accent codes him as the movie’s only Black character, cast as comedic crab), to the WAH-WAH-OO of Black back-up singers excluded from the lead’s mic, the poem sounds the distortive disappearances of Black bodies.33 And still, Parliament’s aquaboogie, Hayden’s pastiched elegy, and fragments of Jamaican vernacular chant sound from underwater the struggle to breathe, a struggle Kearney remixes in the poem’s churning references.

In his live performance, Kearney metabolizes the scene into a brutally disjunctive humor, foregrounding the construction of his own Blackness as consumable and dangerous. In his vocalized cacophony, twisting and turning between jovial song, slap-stick punning, lyrical lament, hoarse screams, managerial reprimand, and haunted chant, Kearney manipulates voice not as a site of authenticity, but to expose the painful farce of “witnessing.” As the jolts tempt the audience to laugh and screech them to silence, Kearney explicitly implicates the audience in ritual consumption—as sacrificial exoneration? Between each “sound bite,” Kearney asks his audience whether they are the sharks of the scene, the Poseidon, THEE MANAGEMENT washing their hands of history. Does an audience “machine its way to making by blood”?

In the midst of the cacophony, a refrain emerges in Kearney’s performance. He breaks into a tense, lowered chant: “they’s comp’ny / comin comin,” “o they’s comp’ny / knockin knockin,” “they’s comp’ny / dinin dinin,” “o they’s comp’ny / haintin haintin.” Refrain morphs into invocation: the consumed dead sonically punctuate, fill, the room. This somehow palpable accompaniment holds in his silence—then perhaps explodes, perhaps dissolves, in the audience’s enthusiastic applause. It all depends. Though the reading ends, the “stains” of the dead, in faded print at the bottom of the page, “won’t wash out.”34

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Between The Black Automaton and Mess and Mess and—the radio and the slave ship—Kearney listens for the ways that Black performers, metabolized into instruments, continue to speak between stations and shout from underwater. Their sounds may be played, replayed, and packaged into coherent “voices,” but dubbed “matter,” they continue to shape-shift as such. That is, they continue to play. Receiving these signals, Kearney insists, means being eaten and changed into shit. And maybe, in the mess, leaving the radio on (shit, this is good). He senses a kind of integrity, even exuberance, in that:


an ability to hold what seems contradictory or negating in cognitively productive tension, a noise-cancelling-cancelling headspace that signals a robust multiplicity and polysemy. More than merely recognizing coherence in the morass, the dinsensible subject recomposes integrity by way of disherence.35

Disherence—refusing to have inherent attributes (i.e. falling apart)—enables a composure that is always composing, recomposing, listening. In the mess of it, in the perilous, proliferating affection Kearney lets consume him, sounds a body more than a body. A dinsensible crowd, a chorus of the dead. Black Automaton. A body recomposing.

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This is part of the cluster Poetic Voice and Materiality. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. Douglas Kearney, Mess and Mess and (Las Cruces, New Mexico: Noemi Press, Inc., 2015), 29.
  2. Ibid., 18. Kearney references Douglas’s theory that “matter out of place” transgresses and thus subverts some preexistent, constructed boundary between “pure” and “impure.” Mary Douglas. Purity and Danger; An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo. (New York: Praeger, 1966).
  3. Douglas Kearney, The Black Automaton, 1st ed. National Poetry Series (Albany, N.Y.: Fence Books, 2009).
  4. Fred Moten, “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh),” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (2013): 739.
  5. Douglas Kearney, interviewed by Carley Schmidt, “A Poetic Performance,” The Gonzaga Bulletin, March 26, 2015.
  6. Kearney, Mess, 26.
  7. Ibid., 26.
  8. Moten theorizes blackness as “pathogenic” throughout his work; see “Blackness and Nothingness (Mysticism in the Flesh).” The South Atlantic Quarterly 112, no. 4 (2013), 739.
  9. Kearney, Mess, 28.
  10. Barbara Savage, Broadcasting Freedom: Radio, War, and the Politics of Race, 1938–1948. (Chapel Hill, NC: University of North Carolina Press, 1999), 7.
  11. Kearney, Mess, 28.
  12. Jennifer Lynn Stoever, The Sonic Color Line: Race and the Cultural Politics of Listening (New York: NYU Press, 2016).
  13. Kearney, “Radio,” The Black Automaton, 14.
  14. Ibid., 1-2.
  15. Stoever, The Sonic Color Line, 242.
  16. Ibid., 238. Stoever calls attention to this literal instrumentalization (p. 240) by major radio dramatist Norman Corwin, who assured his supposed support for black artists by insisting that “they belong as surely as the microphone.” Norman Corwin, “A Microphone Is Color Blind,” Negro Digest, May 1945, 17–18.
  17. Kearney, “Radio,” The Black Automaton, 14.
  18. Cyril Vettorato. “The inaudible man: Literary sampling and agency in Douglas Kearney’s Black Automaton,” Revue française d’études américaines 154, no. 1 (2018): 14.
  19. Kearney, “Radio,” 11-16.
  20. Ibid., 7-10.
  21. Ibid., 17-20.
  22. Ibid., 20.
  23. Kearney, Mess, 28.
  24. Ibid.
  25. Ibid.
  26. Kearney, “Swimchant for Nigger Mer-Folk (An Aquaboogie Set in Lapis),” Museum of Contemporary Art, Los Angeles, May 13, 2018.
  27. Evie Shockley, “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage.” Contemporary Literature 52, no. 4 (2011): 791–817.
  28. Nikki Skillman first raised this visual connection for me in her piece tracing Kearney’s use of wood type in “The Chitlin’ Circuit.” Nikki Skillman, “White Faces, Black Hands: Race, Counterhistory, and the Poetics of the Letterform,” ASAP/Journal 7, no. 2 (2022), 369-70.
  29. Kearney, The Black Automaton, 62-3.
  30. Ibid.
  31. See Shockley, “Going Overboard: African American Poetic Innovation and the Middle Passage,” 801.
  32. Kearney, The Black Automaton, 62-3.
  33. Shockey’s fine-tuned listening picks up echoes of Kate Rushin’s “The Black Back-Ups” in Kearney’s sound effects, which, for her, signal the “inaudible presences of blues undertones in pop music.” “Going Overboard,” 800. See p. 802 for her thorough read of Sebastian.
  34. Kearney, The Black Automaton, 63.
  35. Kearney, Mess, 33.