Haunted History

Perhaps it's the onset of fall, and the twinges of research and studiousness that blow in with cooler air, but I find my thoughts lately returning to historical poetry. I've been wondering how poetry can conjure the past, and what poems do with that summoning power. This summer on one chapter of an occasional quest to read through Shakespeare, I enmeshed myself in his youthful, not-always entertaining Henry VI trilogy. Frequently dated as Shakespeare's earliest plays, they dramatize wars in France that resulted in the burning of Joan of Arc; internal feuds that led to the War of the Roses; and culminate in the rule of despot Richard III. The unfolding events plunge into a maelstrom of civil war, but also provoke us with questions: Where, among the profusion of events chronicled, do we find the essence of history? What deeds should we observe—the enormity of the conflict or the tragic fates of individuals?


It's a question we can always keep asking ourselves. Shakespeare, bound to the court, often dramatized life by focusing on rulers, on their jostling, ambitious coterie. By contrast, American poets, in this court-less democracy, have been remaking history for the common man almost as long as they've been writing on this continent. Examining our upstart nation's history, they often focus on what (and who) we are leaving out. One thinks of Muriel Rukeyser documenting labor histories in verse, William Carlos Williams writing a paean to Paterson, New Jersey, or Whitman and Melville writing versions of our own Civil War. Whitman lovingly described the bodies of dying boys, even as he claimed "The real war will never get into books."


Whitman hints at something that has preoccupied—and even tormented—American poets ever since: the question of what can and can't be said, what—and who—our official histories exclude. American poetry that takes on "the historical" is often preoccupied with margins and remnants. In fact, the number of books that work along these lines in recent years are staggering: Tyehimba Jess's Leadbelly croons an early history of the blues; Frank X. Walker's Buffalo Dance revisits the journey of Lewis and Clark from the perspective of York, Lewis's enslaved attendant; Martha Collins's Blue Front retraces the history of one horrifying lynching in Cairo, Illinois; Jill McDonough's 2008 Habeas Corpus crafts a sonnet for each prisoner who has been executed in the history of American emprisonment. Natasha Trethewey's Pulitzer Prize-winning Native Guard interweaves her own family history with the struggle of the black Mississippi soldiers who fought for the North during the Civil War.


This year offers its own crop of books that invite us into acts of common—or uncommon—remembrance. Approaching Ice, Elizabeth Bradfield's second book, traces two hundred years of Arctic Exploration, "ready to be amazed… longing for it." Reminding us just how recently we fumbling humans have reached the polar regions, she uses ice, and the hunt to find the great magnetic north, as the ultimate site that dramatizes both human quests and limitations. We, like the early polar explorer John Cleves Smith, move in lands where "sudden transformations" are expected, pressing our "human face against the frozen wall of what/ is known." At once erotic and unnatural, scientific, and humane, the work presents a beautiful and grim and threatened lexicon of ice and icebergs. Examining "the age-old lust for places/ we pretend are free of consequence," Bradfield also reminds us of our ultimate limitation—mortality—and of the faint human traces any of us, even the boldest, leave.


Camille Dungy's Suck on the Marrow also begins on a field of faint traces. It has to—it is talking about people history hasn't recorded, a painful  chapter of American life in which free and freed blacks were captured from the North and sold back into slavery. Re-imagining these lives, Dungy offers us a haunting song cycle—a drama no less well-plotted than a play's, but one that emerges in snippets of imagined letters. These poems are not about King anybody, but "Joseph Freeman," captured and sent South; his wife, Malinda, left to grieve without explanation, and Molly and Shad, who brave love on a Virginia plantation. Dungy's verse sings into absence, into places she's envisioned out of newspaper marginalia.  Here are the sobering words of "The Trapper's Boast": "Give me a crowd of colored men and I can spot the new arrivals—/ freed men or fugitives—/ I can tell them from those born with a claim to their flesh./…  My mark is the colored man at ease with his freedom." 


At the end, where notes would normally document research, Dungy plays with us again—her references, to research and to her own hunt for information—are themselves a poem that stresses the task of representing incompleteness.


Another poetic document of history's gaps, Jake Adam York's forthcoming Persons Unknown narrates the author's own hunt through Mississippi and Alabama for sites of the martyrdoms of the Civil Rights era. His book is the second installation of this project, written after a chilling debut, A Murmuration of Starlings. 47 years after the 1963 church bombings in Mississippi killed four small girls, York is hoping to write more hidden victims—of lynching, of Civil Rights beatings— "back into history."


Whether reimagining a king or a forgotten murder victim, an explorer, a bystander in a lynching, all such poetry implicitly asks: What role can poetry play in common remembrance? What can it tell us about our own humanity? Can this writing make the wrongs done right? Can revisiting the site of a river that swallowed a lynched man, staring into its glassy surface, serve as memorial? In Persons Unknown, York's tortured answer is both yes and no. He's full of a paradoxical awareness of what's been erased and a plea to remember more. And in some cases, York argues that what we remember itself has to be imaginary. Standing at the place where the body of Mack Charles Parker was recovered from the Pearl River in 1959, York writes:

                         … But here
only the drinks are listening
as Ervin rises, ghosting Handy's lead
and even they cannot hear
how the rivers heal their quiet
how they fill their scars so perfectly
that remember feels like forget.

Seeking a cruelty that's quite literally hidden in plain sight, a murder that lingers just below the surface of our daily life, York asks us to remember what we "cannot hear." Suspended in such a space, York upends neater histories, and even upends himself. "Walking down the street he "catches that curve/ in a window or a windshield/ that wrecks my face/ so for a moment/ I can mistake myself/ for a redneck at the end of a joke." 


The speaker of these poems is no deformed despot—not a Richard-like murderous traitor to his throne or country. But he is a troubled narrator, one who wants to use the discord he feels within himself to stir the waters of the past, so that individuals overwhelmed by history's river don't get forgotten. He tries to recapture a story that is and isn't about him "with a memory/half my own." 


York, Dungy, and Bradfield—no less than Whitman or Shakespeare—explore what it means to remember in verse. In doing so, they're taking part in an old tradition: after all, Clio, history's muse, was the sister of Calliope and Erato, the muses of epic and lyric poetry. All were daughters of Mnemosyne, goddess of memory. As our current poets struggle with what—or how, or who—to remember, they also mine old rifts in history, helping at once to expose and to heal them. At their best, they also create new language for memory, upon which even the most forgetful nation can draw.

July 29: On this day in 1878 Don Marquis was born.

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The Hundred-Year House

When a poetry scholar goes digging through the decrepit estate of his wife's family to uncover a bygone arts colony's strange mysteries, he awakens a tenacious monster: his mother-in-law. A wickedly funny take on aging aristocracies from author Rebecca Makkai (The Borrower).