I Will Keep My Soul Breathes Through Its Skin
Elizabeth Zuba, Diagram
Originally published in the 23.5 issue in November 2023
If Helen Cammock’s new book I Will Keep My Soul were an animal, it would be a jellyfish. And not just because it is mesmerizingly and corporeally oceanic, though it is that—ebbing and funneling a fluid and scintillant body of poetry, historical document, archival and contemporary photography, drawings, interviews, essays, music and collage, with the history and community of New Orleans as its waters. But because it breathes through its skin. Necessarily. Anatomically. Like a jellyfish.
But even “through its skin,” doesn’t really do justice to the whole diffuse respiratory process, it’s more like “by” its skin, in that the skin of jellyfish is their breathing apparatus; inasmuch as they wash through the oxygen, the oxygen washes through them. In other words, their breath is their skin is their body is their environment—the outer inner and the inner outer. For better or for worse, skin and breath and environment (and the history of that environment: nanoplastics? marine heat wave?) are a single living entity. There is no dividing them.
Which is what I think Cammock means when she writes, “Today I felt some kind of diminutive/not small but somehow a part of something else that I hadn’t really touched before.” Only Cammock isn’t talking about skin and breath and ambient water, she’s talking about skin and breath and ambient history, specifically Black American history and the legacy of racism and violent oppression, but also joy and art and genius, which we breathe and which breathes us—right now, all the time, systematically, bodily. (Something that she “hadn’t really touched before” because Cammock is British, of Jamaican and English heritage, belonging to a history-environment that is simultaneously different from, diffuse to, and the same as our own.) The project’s title takes its name from the words of a Freedom Rider who, in response to prison guards threatening to take his mattress, shouts, “Come and get my mattress. I will keep my soul.”
Water, like the soul, reigns in I Will Keep My Soul, and not just because it evokes the geography and history of New Orleans, but because diffusion, or “seepage” to use her word, is the foundation of Cammock’s practice. Beginning with archival materials (for this book, at the Amistad Research Center), Cammock follows the memory of materials as they sink and shift back toward the living, filtering and draining between time and space, objects and people, responses and silences. In Cammock’s hands, the soul we keep, what you might call our living breath, glimmers in the movement between.
I Will Keep My Soul
Essays by Jordan Amirkhani and Andrea Andersson, a score by Roshanak Kheshti, story by Kristina Kay Robinson, afterword by Cameron Shaw, with excerpts from an interview by Courtney J. Martin
Helen Cammock: I Will Keep My SoulAn exhibition of film, poetry, performance, archival documents and books
October 14 – December 17, 2023
The Improbable: Vol. 2, No. 1 — Lingual MusicA new issue edited by Alex Balgiu and Chloé Gourvennec
Feeling Brought inFlexing, Fluxus, Flexibility and Afrofuturist Seeing of Dick Higgins
“How does a book’s static format capture the temporal, ever-changing nature of gesture, thought, music, all the motion that defines social history? By doing something very close to what I Will Keep My Soul accomplishes: breaking through the fourth wall of the page.”[...]