B-Sides: John Keene’s “Annotations”

Annotations isn’t a book you read for the plot. It’s more of a “Notes toward...” that remains just that: always towards, never quite arriving.

I first happened upon John Keene’s Annotations in a university library. Though it purported to be a novel about a Black boy coming of age in St. Louis in the early 1970s, the epigraphs from John Ashbery, Lyn Hejinian, and Clarence Major, all pointed to poetry—and not just any kind. I glimpsed the smoke signals of an avant-garde interested in the materiality of language, the pleasures of wayward text, and the troubling hermeneutics of race, that site of surface reading whose interpretations necessarily determine so much of our lived experience.

Rereading Annotations all these years later (puzzling over my own marginalia, falling arrows, many questioning marks), it still sounds like nothing else, as it must have back in 1995. This is not a book interested in accommodating the reader. The second person “you” who tentatively narrates is knowable only as the breadcrumb tracks of a future self struggling, almost before our eyes, to emerge. True to its title, the text is almost exclusively context.

Keene has stuck to some version of this stratagem throughout his career, pivoting between self-reflexive poetry, Baudelairean prose fragments, and a professorial pastiche modeled on the pained neutrality of the scholarly footnote. As Julian Lucas put it recently, Keene has “a Borgesian flair for invented primary texts and pseudoscholarly ephemera.”1 Annotations is profligately allusive and tinctured with the eclecticism and faded splendor that some of the older neighborhoods of St. Louis are famed for. The result is queerly enchanting but also remote, even otherworldly, the way De Quincey might have sounded to the subscribers of London Magazine.

Vanguardism in Black letters has often sparked suspicion, outright hostility, and the accusation of evading political responsibility—attitudes that reflect the prevailing and enduring demands of emancipatory struggle. This hasn’t made it any less attractive to Black writers, though. Annotations fits comfortably in a tradition that includes Jean Toomer’s Cane, Gwendolyn Brooks’s Maud Martha, Carlene Hatcher Polite’s Sister X and the Victims of Foul Play, Vincent O. Carter’s The Bern Book, the novels of William Melvin Kelley, Trey Ellis’s Platitudes, Renee Gladman’s speculative metafictions—and many others besides.

Black literary history, in fact, begins as an avant-garde proposition. Our earliest published poet became a byword in his own time for difficulty, abstruseness, and an excessively subtle style. Juan Latino, who “published three books of poems at Granada between 1573 and 1585,” even displays (argues Henry Louis Gates, Jr.) a fondness for “signifying” that connects him to a long history of Black writers who have employed sly irony as their weapon of choice in the battle against racial prejudice.2

An enduring feature of the Black avant-garde is its inevitable obscurity even when it attains (as it often does) an intimate proximity to the highest rungs of literary achievement. Juan Latino is primarily remembered, because Cervantes names him in the poems to Don Quixote. In Edith Grossman’s 2003 translation of Don Quixote, her footnote, number 20, attached to the line “as Juan Latin the Afri-,” reads: “An allusion to a black servant of the duchess of Terranova, who knew so much Latin that he was given this nickname.”3 The Black writer, here, merely “a black servant,” is marginalized within the margin. V. B. Spratlin, Hispanist and professor at Howard University, saw things differently. In the introduction to his monograph Juan Latino, Slave and Humanist (1938), he writes: “The stone slab with the epitaph that told of his achievements has disappeared from the church of Santa Ana in which he was entombed, but oblivion could not be the fate of this Negro whose erudition is recalled on a page of one of the world’s great novels.”4

Keene presents the past and present Black experience as continually grappling with the same people, places, and problems—even though those people, places, and problems often necessarily misalign.

Things like this make clear some of the source of Keene’s formal quarrels. The longer one spends in libraries, the more one understands the power of an annotation, what a single footnote can reveal or bury. Better to do it yourself than allow it to be done to you.

Annotations isn’t a book you read for the plot. It’s more of a “Notes toward … ” that remains just that: always toward, never quite arriving. Is Keene’s indirection simply the modernist “fascination of what’s difficult”? Maybe. But what counts as difficult—and to whom? Is “La Ba-Kair” a cryptic allusion? Or just a transcription appropriate to a lifeworld where people adore their homegirl hero, Josephine Baker? And why not, in a tradition replete with serious memoirs and autobiographies, allow some room for teasing, self-indulgent play? Keene’s narrator repeatedly tumbles into playful chiasmus, allowing us (or only some of us) to overhear but not always be in on a private joke: “Accusation flew, but we knew. Straight, no chaser.”

In Abstractionist Aesthetics, Phillip Brian Harper points out that Blackness in Annotations is acutely referential, according it a mutable quality that challenges its dominant tendency to bleed into stereotype. This abstracted quality allows Keene to present the past and present Black experience as continually grappling with the same people, places, and problems—even though those people, places, and problems often necessarily misalign.

Some of that dissonance is surely related to the distance that certain forms of education retroactively impose. Echoes of the 1990s graduate seminar (“regime of truth,” “polysemic pleasures”) are recurring tics that ineluctably mark a trail of disjunction from social origins: Keene is at home being a long way from home.

Other sources of difference are hinted at. The “queer horizon of utopia,” to use José Muñoz’s phrase, hasn’t, yet, fully dawned on the narrator as a possibility—though there are signs that such a revelation or reconciliation might eventually take place. A passing mention of “our current plague era,” a reference to the HIV/AIDS virus, disturbingly echoes our own time.

Annotations limns a Black social life stubbornly persisting under duress, marred by gun violence, drugs, police brutality, and incarceration, a demoralizing litany chronicled in Walter Johnson’s aptly titled history of St. Louis, The Broken Heart of America. The fallen present tense of the 1990s is balanced against Proustian evocations of Black urban life in a time before crack:

The long way had led past Mr. Ward’s gas station, where Gandy, known as “Sarge” from his army days, repaired cars. The other way promised a leaf-canopied stroll through a modest residential section, which you imagined had been the haunts of that playwright’s “Toussaint,” and the store not far from the abandoned trolley tracks, where one could linger over stalls of tangerines and Chinese apples, or, on hot days, purchase taffy and “Bomb pops.”

These lovely trellises land beside broken shards, sentences that consist often of a single word: “Joplinesque”; “Ring-A-Levio”; “Samuel Clemens”; “St. Louis Blues”; “Pruitt-Igoe.” They possess a frozen, mortuary quality that contributes to the text’s overall phosphorescent gleam—“dim incandescence” is Keene’s phrase—a sense that every detail has just barely pulled through an enveloping obscurity that still threatens it.

“East Saint Louis.”

That’s a full sentence in Annotations. Keene has in mind a reader who knows it as a city located in Illinois, infamous as the site of an especially brutal race riot in 1917. I could annotate it, in turn, by quoting reports about the events from the pages of The Crisis:

The official police estimate at 9 o’clock put the number of dead at 100. They reach this total partly through reports that many victims have been pursued into creeks and shot, burned in buildings or murdered and thrown into the Mississippi. The exact number of dead probably will never be known. Six Negroes were hanged to telegraph poles in the south end of town. A reliable white man reports having counted 19 Negro corpses on a side street.5

The rap against Annotations is that it is too oblique, too short, too pretentious. But, for all its faults, it contains entire histories of the Midwest that you won’t find in Jonathan Franzen. And it bears the impress of a Black sensibility more refined and erudite than many contemporary novels by authors of all stripes published in the years since.

These are my own preoccupations and judgments. Keene’s narrator, for his part, attempts to wave away the significance of it all, declaring the book nothing more than, “a series of mere life-notes aspiring to the condition of annotations.” But we are left to ask, “Then why aspire?” Annotations to what? Keene is aware that he is courting the reader’s frustration. He will not solve all the enigmas he leaves us with, but he has anticipated this objection and his answer is simple and noble enough: “Such expansive lyricism might be worthy of reprobation were not the very phenomenon of our lives a boundless source of poetry.”


This article was commissioned by John Plotzicon

  1. Julian Lucas, “Epic Stories That Expand the Universal Family Plot,” New York Times, September 1, 2017.
  2. Henry Louis Gates, Jr., The Signifying Monkey: A Theory of African American Literary Criticism. (Oxford University Press, 2014), p. 98.
  3. Miguel de Cervantes, Don Quixote, translated by Edith Grossman (HarperCollins, 2003), p. 12.
  4. V. B. Spratlin, Juan Latino, Slave and Humanist (Spinner Press, 1938), p. xii.
  5. “The Riot in East St. Louis,” The Crisis, August 1917, p. 175.
Featured image: Detail of St. Louis, MO (2021). Photograph by Kirk Thornton / Unsplash