Josephine Baker in Patience Agbabi’s Bloodshot Monochrome

My favorite poem in Bloodshot Monochrome was “Josephine Baker Finds Herself.” While reading it the first few times I had no idea that Josephine Baker was a real person and had never read a mirror poem! I couldn’t find a lot of information on mirror poems or that style of poetry, but there is quite a bit of information about Josephine Baker, which really enriched my understanding of Agbabi’s poem.

Josephine Baker

Josephine Baker was a performer that became famous during the 1920s. Although she was born in America, she became incredibly famous in France. She was a dancer, entertainer, and also an activist that fought racism in the United States. One of the most interesting bits of information that I found was that after gaining immense fame in France, she returned to America in the 30s to perform, but was rejected because of the heavy racism that existed in America. But Baker was such a strong performer that years later, during the 50s and 60s, she returned to America to fight the racism that existed there, teeming up with the NAACP. Even more impressive is that in 1973 she performed in America again and received a standing ovation. Baker was such a strong and resilient person, I’m upset that I’m only now learning about her!

This video of Baker dancing in a French film in 1927 is a great visual of her work. It was both silly yet provocative, which I believe captures the essence of her as a performer. Watching this video can help someone imagine Baker “crossing the bar like it’s a catwalk” in Agbabi’s poem.

Right in the beginning of Bloodshot Monochrome it says that Agbabi is “renowned for her live performances,” so it was very important to watch her perform at least a few of her poems. I found two versions of “Josephine Baker” that were important to my understanding. The first has Agbabi actually talking about the poem, telling us who Baker is and what “la garconne” means (a “sexually liberated woman” during the 20s); the second is easier to hear and watch Agbabi perform the poem.

Learning what “la garconne” means changed my comprehension of a few lines in the poem. The first stanza reads uses the saying by reading “La Garconne, fancy a drink?” and the capitalization could mean that is the name of the club that the narrator is in, whereas in the second stanza it’s assumed that the club they were in was named “Lipstick Lesbians.” This distinction has a few possible meanings; how I understand it is that a sexually liberated woman, what la garconne actually means, is misconstrued to mean lesbian, and people with this understanding (usually people that are trying to legitimize the sexual liberation of women) are degrading women such as Baker.   

What I loved about this poem is that Agbabi uses the mirror style to tell a story in just two stanzas. In the first stanza, the narrator is not the one in control of the situation; most of the action is done by the other woman in the poem. The observations and interaction between the two seems to be mainly on the surface and not truly significant. Agbabi finishes the stanza out by writing “she works/ me up and down. I worship/ the way she looks,” summing up the bulk of the interaction between the two voices as the narrator being the powerless one that is worshiping the powerful, in control companion.

The second stanza, being a mirror image of the first, is empowering and is where the narrator finds herself. Since it’s a rewrite of the first stanza, I understood it as the same situation as before but now, Josephine Baker has found control and confidence. One of the most powerful inversions is moving from the first stanza, where the line reads “I’m her light-skinned, negative, / twenty-something, short black wavy-bobbed diva” changes to “twenty-something, short, Black, wavy-bobbed diva: / Vodka on the rocks, I’m her light-skinned negative” in the second stanza. What’s important here is that Baker (who I assume is the narrator) is now identifying as Black and is no longer “negative.” The research I found about the racism and negativity during her first performance in America echoed the description in the first stanza. Agbabi’s poem shows that even sometimes, we are extremely down and in a tough place, but a situation can be flipped on it’s side and become positive once you gain the control back. Josephine Baker did this both in Agbabi’s poem and throughout her career.

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