Poems Including History—and More
A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth by Penelope Scambly Schott
Cincinnati, OH: Turning Point Books, 2007, 140 pp., $17.00, paperback
The Resurrection Trade by Leslie Adrienne Miller
St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2007, 110 pp., $14.00, paperback
The Logan Topographies by Alena Hairston
New York, NY: Persea Books, 2007, 80 pp., $13.95, paperback
Blue Front by Martha Collins
St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2006, 88 pp., $14.00, paperback
Reviewed by Wendy Vardaman
Ezra Pound, author of one of the twentieth century’s most well-known book-length poems, The Cantos, redefined the epic as a “poem including history,” and each of the four poets considered here uses the long poem as a way to render not only history, but also geography, retrieving the stories of a colonial religious dissident, the anonymous female subjects of Renaissance medical illustrations, a southern coal-mining community, and an Illinois lynching. What was once considered a masculine genre has become a form to which contemporary women poets, including Marilyn Hacker, Rita Dove, Alice Notley, Marilyn Taylor, Margaret Atwood, Anne Carson, and Adrienne Rich, frequently turn. Varied in their approaches to the long poem and to its artistic, methodological, and ethical challenges, these four authors illustrate the possibilities of the genre with respect to the shape a story-in-poetry may take. (A thorough and thoughtful discussion of the varieties of the long poem can be found in Forms of Expansion: Recent Long Poems by Women, by Lynn Keller (1997). This review is indebted to Keller’s numerous insights about women writing in this genre as well as to the categories of long poem Keller identifies: narrative/epic, lyric sequence, and experimental.)
Author of four books of poems, including two other “verse narratives” based on historical research, Penelope Scambly Schott writes the most unabashedly narrative of the books in A is for Anne: Mistress Hutchinson Disturbs the Commonwealth. Accessible to adolescents as well as adults, her collection would make an excellent addition to an American history or literature course, as it details the eventful life and milieu of Anne Marbury Hutchinson from her exceptional education, through her immigration to the Massachusetts Bay Colony, eventual banishment to Rhode Island, which she cofounded, and spectacular death. Although Schott employs historical material throughout, incorporating, for example, transcripts from Hutchinson’s trials, as well as the words, recorded and imagined, of numerous contemporaries—including Governor John Winthrop; the poet Anne Bradstreet, whose voice and traditional, feminine, lyric sensibilities contrast with Hutchinson’s; and Susanne Hutchinson, Anne Hutchinson’s youngest daughter—Anne’s voice dominates the poem. Schott tells her story in the first person, creating a heroine who changes, ages, learns, and yet remains the same: outspoken, brave, witty, adventurous, intriguing.
Like the typical epic hero, Hutchinson is on a quest with communal, as well as personal significance. Seeking spiritual fulfillment, and educated and taught to question by her father, she rarely lacks for words or a sense of her own authority. These qualities threaten the Massachusetts Bay colony’s patriarchal government. Her story is about the silencing of strong, opinionated women, in this case by John Winthrop, who also appears in The Scarlet Letter, the “A” of which Schott’s title invokes and reinscribes. As much as women in general, however, Hutchinson is representative of countless Americans who have uprooted themselves in search of better lives, economic security, religious freedom, and freedom of speech, the country’s foundational mythos, only to encounter further problems, as well as further exile, in the Promised Land.
Moreover, Hutchinson’s life enacts a struggle, unique to neither her time nor her place, between those who seek answers through questioning received authority and those who would silence them—preferring to dictate rather than to discuss—in order to control. Note, in the following examples, how Schott uses the persona she creates to question the contemporary political and social order. In “They Found Harvard College to Train Obedient Clergy,” Hutchinson asks, in her characteristically fresh way:
Do they know how a human heart and mind
can be blessed with questions?
They never question their Biblical exegesis;
instead they teach Theology
as if it were plane geometry, deriving proofs
of what they already believe.
they don’t even believe what they teach;
maybe it’s just a convenient tool
for fooling people
or keeping them under control
as if Conformity conferred Security.
Likewise, “Queen Esther comes in royal state/To save the Jews from dismal fate,” one of a number of alphabet poems in the book, begins “Q is for question,” and addresses a woman in childbirth who asks “Will I go to Hell?” to which Anne responds: “Hell is where the ministers/ belong, those who teach her fear. It is Love/that will save us, I told the bleeding woman.”
Schott’s text is deeply concerned, as was her heroine, with moral questions. What price do communities pay for silencing those who question their practices? Of controlling through fear and force? Of believing that violence is God’s judgment against those who live “outside” his grace? Of believing that human notions of “inside” and “outside” can be applied to divinity? These issues, just as relevant today, extend beyond the treatment of women in Schott’s book to the silencing of the Native populations by the English and by the Dutch in the slyly titled “Must All Governors be So Foolish?”
While both Anne and The Resurrection Trade, by Leslie Adrienne Miller, include extensive bibliographies of works consulted, Anne concentrates on bringing a single, emblematic character to life, telling a unified story that resonates for contemporary Americans, and placing the poet herself into the background of her text. Miller takes a very different approach to the historical material she incorporates, the form of the long poem or sequence, and the poet’s role with respect to her historical subjects.
Miller’s book, also a fifth collection and the most autobiographical and traditionally, though not exclusively, lyric of these works, is constructed of poems intended to stand alone, unlike those of Schott, which are difficult to remove from the whole without a reduction of their significance. Two-thirds of Miller’s pieces have appeared in well-known venues before she collected them into the book: “Wandering Uterus” was included in Best American Poetry 2007. The individual poems form a sequence both by repeated reference to the historical circumstances of “the resurrection trade,” or trafficking in corpses, which made anatomical illustrations possible during the Renaissance, as well as by their themes. While writing about these illustrations, Miller returns again and again to the unknown female bodies they portray, the significance and othering of the female body, her own love life, love both physical and emotional, death, and decay.
The strength of Resurrection is the way Miller brings together art and science. Many of her poems could be classified as ekphrastic (poems about specific works of art), although it is medical illustrations—not paintings in museums—that inspire them. Unlike Schott, Miller doesn’t try to create a voice, a persona for these unknown women. Instead she writes about them in the third person, asking for example in “Gautier D’Agoty’s Écorchés” how they came to be the subjects of such art. Miller’s imagery in her historical poems, vivid and beautiful, often disturbs:
Whoever they were, they’re still with us,
posing demurely in suits of blood
and muscle, the bruised shadows
of what skin they do have, purpling like
crushed petunias as they spread their legs
and raise their meaty arms to show
dissected breasts, unfinished infants, sundry
viscera on the ground about their feet
as if this were Thanksgiving and they
cornucopias stuffed with squash and fruit.
Like Schott, Miller looks to vary the sequence; to that end she incorporates history, art, science, and journalism, as well as the occasional sonnet for formal interest. At least half of the poems appear to be autobiographical; in the most interesting of these, the poet’s life intersects with the lives of her subjects, as in “Pregnant in Florence” or “Parous in Paris”:
I’ve left my only child
home in another country for this walk
into a history of the body of woman
in labor, so all four hours I kill
waiting in the unforgiving chair,
the coppery scent of formaldehyde
sticking in my throat, I fight down
the unthinkable news delivered
at dawn via e-mail: someone else
is in my marriage bed…
Also of interest are the poems in which Miller describes her own economic/artistic dependence on her materials; like anthropologists who have become increasingly interested in how their fieldwork can affect their subjects, and vice-versa, Miller comments on her relation to her subjects:
And if in Mary Paterson
a child had taken root, no one would be the wiser
if Knox had kept the little lyric of it to himself,
scion fathered by the Scottish city’s lust,
gift to men of science, and so also to me,
woman of the new world digging through
old books to resurrect her murdered parts,
to offer her my own rough music, the strange
collusion of imaginary science and real art.
Although place and geography are significant in each of these books—Anne Hutchinson’s colonies, the Europe of Miller’s subjects and her own frozen Minnesota lake country—they are paramount in Alena Hairston’s first collection of poetry, The Logan Topographies, winner of the Lexi Rudnitsky Poetry Prize. Divided into four lyrical sequences, each title—“Mountain,” “Devil’s Tea Table,” “The Hill,” and “The Bottom”— suggests a particular geographical attribute of the real West Virginian coal-mining town, best known for the largest armed uprising in American labor history, though that event does not figure in the poems. More interested in Logan’s multigenerational African American community, as well as the metaphorical possibilities of mining, the book speaks cryptically about specific individuals and historical events, resisting straightforward or representational narration in favor of place and the connections between place, race, and class.
Hairston begins the book with a series of dictionary definitions of the word descent, with its various spatial, historical, literary, legalistic, economic, scientific, philosophical, and physiological connotations, all aspects of The Logan Topographies, and perhaps an ironic reference to the authenticating prefatory material that introduced nineteenth-century slave narratives; the variety of definitions presage the variety of voices she employs—descriptive, narrative, colloquial, academic. Hairston includes monologues spoken in the persona of different community members, high and low-class; pieces of folklore; stories that must have been passed through oral tradition; and analysis by an impersonal poet-narrator who keeps her distance but carefully controls form. The poems have no titles, use mostly long lines, are short, and have a paragraph-like, almost prose-poem look on the page. The book itself is square rather than rectangular.
Opening as if from a distance, the first piece in “Mountain” begins with landscape reminiscent of nineteenth-century romantic nature lyrics, but announcing already its politics in the phrase “history striated”:
Pregnant belly of coneflower and larkspur. coalcaves of lupine and barberry.
where shale grows up and bumps into sun. breathes across the moon.
lunar party. dream of history striated.
This sequence lays out in anthropological terms, including economics, marriage, and kinship, the structure of Logan and the limits of its inhabitants:
the owners: early men with trucks
and limited speech; their wives, all, itinerant mothers looking for water;
the sons. pig boys raging in the bougainvillea.
The interaction of miners of European and African descent, blackened alike inside the mines where men are “brothers,” figures, as well, although, “Outside the caves, in the daylight of public, there remained and grew continental drift./A saved life could not steer the course.”
Named after a Native American Chief, Logan’s layers also include tales of the Mingo, an Iroquois tribe, and questions of ownership, in “Devil’s Tea Table.” The third and fourth sequences, “The Hill” and “The Bottom,” detail class divisions within the African American community. Various unnamed characters assert their right to privilege in “The Hill,” while in “The Bottom” there’s interplay among startlingly dissonant voices reminiscent of Zora Neale Hurston in Mules and Men, a text which The Logan Topographies clearly invokes. Here the poet sets out an argument between a social scientist and an eloquent spokesperson from within the community:
if poverty has a dialectics, then the people speaking have no
music and they have never mined coal on their knees. there have been commissions, studies,
councils, task forces. there have been papers, books, news specials. yet there are no libraries
here. what is a book for a family of bulging, scarred knees? what is a task force if tasks
are forced? a council without counsel? a commission without permission? missionary.
And here a Bottom dweller interrogates ethnographers and busybodies in general, including, perhaps, the poet:
Shoot. What books we need? Yes, I’m speakin; turn off that machine. You people
forevah lookin for what you already know.
Why ain’t y’all interested in what looks good, is beautiful? Plenty o’beauty roun
Look. See. Humph. Too busy watchin.
Although The Logan Topographies has a wide range of influences, literary and oral, it does not incorporate the chunks of undigested written matter that the poems of Schott, Miller, or Martha Collins do. Like The Logan Topographies, Collins’ Blue Front, is indebted to a variety of traditions for its effects, most notably the modernist’s collage poem as practiced by T.S. Eliot, Pound, and Charles Olson. Like Hairston, Collins focuses on a real community. Cairo, Illinois, has a particular geographical-historical legacy as the southernmost point not just of the state, but of the entire North, and as the town situated at the confluence of two differently colored rivers, the Mississippi and the Ohio. Like Schott and Miller but more so, Collins incorporates blocks of text from different, sometimes unlikely sources to create a picture of a community and a historical but forgotten event, the lynching of two men—one black, the other white—by a mob in 1909. Like Miller, the poet includes an autobiographical element: Collins’ father, at just five years old, witnessed the black man’s lynching. She herself becomes part of the story, like Miller, through her research in Cairo and at significant civil rights movement sights. Like Schott, Collins uses this emblematic event to critique America: its racism, mob violence, and fear of the other.
The telling of Blue Front is fragmented, like The Logan Topographies, although Collins returns to specific, unified characters throughout: Anna Pelley, whose murder ignited the mob; its two victims, Will James and Henry Salzner; and her father, whose story she follows to his death and whose innocence is likewise victim to this event:
He was five. He sold
fruit on the street in front
He sold fruit. People came
He made change
came to see him
A series of sonnet-like, 14-line poems punctuate the longer, untitled pieces of text and meditate on specific, significant verbs, such as “track,” “lynch,” and “drag.” Collins incorporates an impressive array of different material throughout the book: quotations from newspapers and historical figures; conflicting eyewitness accounts; summaries of the history of segregation through the present; accounts of her visits to Cairo, Birmingham, Selma, and Montgomery; demographic statistics; captions from souvenir postcards about the event; information about her father’s life, including his own racism; graphic accounts of the lynching; and excerpts from sermons that occurred on the following Sunday.
The language of Blue Front, like the community it depicts, is broken, relying on fragments, interruption, and repetition:
couldn’t look out the same
window couldn’t read
the same books laundry
couldn’t be washed
in the same machines
I believe the institution
noble I believe it God’s
water came from the same
source but couldn’t be drunk
from the same fountains
The poetry chills and moves, often simultaneously, as in this particularly effective passage, a list of ingredients necessary for a lynching:
rope, to bind body
strong rope, with noose
steel arch, provided by city
lighting, provided by arch
dry goods box (barrel?) for scaffold
clothesline rope, to attach to noose
bullets, to shoot into air and body
boards and other scavenged wood
coal oil, to ignite wood
knives, for removal of head and other
hitching post (tire stick?) for head
alcohol, as needed, before and during
Such a poem could stand on its own, but its total effect, as with the poems in A is for Anne, occurs in the context of reading Blue Front cover to cover, and tellingly, selections of Blue Front appeared in only three journals before the book’s appearance, although Collins has won many awards, grants, and fellowships. For this, her fifth collection, she received the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for works that contribute to an understanding of racism.
The long poem’s hurdles are numerous: sustaining story and character while allowing for the variation in and attention to form and language demanded by poetry; manipulating personae and signaling their use to the reader; integrating historical material and characters in an artistic and ethical manner; incorporating adequate factual material given the severe length limitation even of a “long” poem compared to prose; finding a publisher for poems that do not stand alone and may therefore have no publishing credentials. Its possibilities, nevertheless, are exhilarating. The four books examined here indicate a few shapes among many that long poems may assume: from narrative to lyric; event- and/or character-driven to submerged; unified to fragmented. What these authors have in common, even in the most autobiographical example, is the presumption, old-fashioned enough to be interesting again, that the poet’s subject material is not limited to her own life.
Wendy Vardaman holds a Ph.D. from University of Pennsylvania, and writes poetry and interviews as well as reviews.