A Criticism of Intertextuality in the Poem “Zulus” from re:f(gesture) by Percival Everett

The inspiration for this post ironically stemmed from a lack of understanding of the poem “Zulus,” rather than an in-depth understanding of it. The poem, which is derived from the poetry book re:f(gesture) by Percival Everett, is one that has taken me for a loop. In fact all of the poems in the book have confused me more than that of any other work that I have read. While it is true that Percival Everett’s register is intentionally murky, but “Zulus” traverses beyond being esoteric, and ventures into simply being indiscernible. Whereas his novel I Am Not Sidney Poitier is bemusing as well, it contains a clear narrative (in terms of plot) that facilitates one’s dissection of the novel when seeking themes. Here there is no clear narrative, and the poem relies too much on Intertextuality. Considering that “Zulus,” is derived from a novel of the same name, by the same author, the work is entirely intertextual. Without proper exposition on the novel, the reader is left fumbling in the dark. I respect esoterism, but it is also impossible to dive into another’s mind. Therefore, “Zulus” overreliance on Intertextuality diminishes its meaning as viewed by a wider audience. 

Firstly, it must be acknowledged that the poem as an abecedarian provides marginal structure to the piece. For context, the denotation of abecedarian is: “An ancient poetic form guided by alphabetical order. Generally each line or stanza begins with the first letter of the alphabet and is followed by the successive letter, until the final letter is reached.” The abecedarian allows the poem to drive on in its agenda, but the problem lies with the reader being unaware of that agenda from the get-go. For example, the starting stanza of the poem begins with: “A is for Achitophel. It was he who put Absalom up to the big naughty.” Not only are the two characters mentioned in this line from the novel Zulus, but this line is also an allusion to the poem published by John Dryden in 1681 titled “Absalom and Achitophel.” This opening presents a relative dual-intertextuality, as it borrows content from not one, but two separate works. Therefore, to view the entire picture that Everett is painting, one must be somewhat familiar with the poem by John Dryden to completely understand this opening. As an English major, I relish the challenge of discerning complex pieces, but old-English, as presented in Dryden’s work, is difficult mountain to scale even for an English major. Overall, there is virtually no promotion a broader understanding by Everett. He instead chooses to cater to a very niche group — one composed of individuals who have read both Zulus and “Absalom and Achitophel.” This pattern of including character names and circumstances from other works, including Zulus, occurs frequently throughout the duration of the mind-rattling read. 

Allusion could also be a form of intertextuality. My favorite high school English teacher is someone whom I admire very much, and he said: “Everything is a text,” on the first day of class. Therefore, historical allusions have every right to be a text, and are therefore subject to Intertextuality. Allusion is denoted as: “An expression designed to call something to mind without mentioning it explicitly; an indirect or passing reference.” With that being stated, Everett incorporates many historical allusions into “Zulus,” and they have a similar impact as the aforementioned use of characters from other texts. For example, the allusion to ancient Greek Philosophy that reads as follows: “A is for Anaximander who said that the element of things is Boundless,” does not involve a well-known philosopher (at least to the common person, and certainly me.) Speaking of which, I did not even know that Anaximader was an ancient Greek Philosopher until I googled his name and read two or three sentences about him. The common reader is simply not going to take the time to research Animaxander and his teachings. While Everett does include greater-known Philosophers such as Aristotle, and Plato, it is the inclusion of names such as Animaxander’s that will trip readers up before they can process the previous allusion. Moreover, the allusion to an 1838 battle between the Boers (dutch farmers) and the Zulus continues to emphasize esoterism over understanding. The conflict between Zulus and Boers is not a widely taught topic in high schools, and is in fact skimmed over rather quickly if my memory serves me correctly, which it usually does. 

Everett’s emphasis on esoterism over enrapturing wider audiences demonstrates the potential pit-falls of Intertextuality. Whether that Intertextuality is expressed through the picking and placing of characters from other works into a new work, or via obscure historical allusions that most likely only a Major in the subject would comprehend; the works insistence on being a culmination of numerous influencers sacrifices public appeal and comprehension. In conclusion, Intertextuality in “Zulus,” allows only a niche audience to read it, and understand at least the majority of allusions and so on. 

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