Invisible to Whom?:
Poetic Responses to Invisible Man
Trans Study: Invisible Man (2003)
In celebration of the seventieth anniversary of Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man, The Studio Museum in Harlem, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture, and Cave Canem commissioned three ekphrastic poems on the novel and Elizabeth Catlett’s sculpture Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison (2003). The commissioned poets include Cameron Awkward-Rich, Kadeem Gayle, and Lorelei Williams.
In addition to these poems, on March 1, 2023, Ellison’s birthday, the public program “Invisible to Whom? A Dialogue in Verse" will feature the poets in discussion at the Schomburg Center.
Elizabeth Catlett, Invisible Man: A Memorial to Ralph Ellison, 2003
"To be unaware of one's form is to live a death. I myself, after existing some twenty years,
did not become alive until I discovered my invisibility."
At first, there is a general darkness.
Then, after many hours, a shape
In the darkness, a bright hole
Through which the world is given.
I am right now turning in the hole
Against the general dark. I am
Looking for a pattern I might later call
My life, my moments strung like train cars
Rattling the underground. Anything
Could have happened—
Damp air, rosy midnight
Grin, fluorescent-lit, boy
Dark and curled as a comma
In the spill from your fount
of naming what you do
And do not see—the boy, I, who is
Pressing my face to the cold glass,
Watching the shadows move, like him,
Across the surface of the earth.
Do I have to say it
What I have been? Anything
You roll your windows down
To call me on a quiet night
In a quiet town snow
Drifting in the street-
Light giving form to what
Is otherwise a vague brushing
On the skin, I have been
The kindling of that dark a black
Dog dyke-mute in the corner
Monkey muse stud with a huge
Fertile water dead weight to carry
To the finish line I have been
The finish line the threshold vestibule
That marks the win that was not
Mine but me the kill the trophy
Boy in the looking glass boy
In the wishing well gentle buck
Yes you named “my”
And “I” became
Saw the city move
A shape in the water
And I “was”
A mirror darkly
No substance is your first mistake.
No form, the second. The common you assume
No mind, but there is a mind turning like
No machine, little cat patient in her den.
No, the mind is the hole she carves into the solid
World watch what passes through a hole is
Not the absence of form it is where the forms begin—
In daylight branches cut across
Blue opening untamed sky I
Am what you cannot touch—
Cameron Awkward-Rich is the author of two collections of poetry—Sympathetic Little Monster (Ricochet Editions, 2016) and Dispatch (Persea Books, 2019)—as well as The Terrible We: Thinking with Trans Maladjustment (Duke University Press, 2022). His writing has appeared, in various forms, in Poetry, American Poetry Review, Transgender Studies Quarterly, Signs, and elsewhere, and has been supported by fellowships from Cave Canem, the Lannan Foundation, and the ACLS. Presently, he is an assistant professor in Women, Gender, Sexuality Studies at the University of Massachusetts Amherst.