Yet the story of the Native Guard all-black regiment in charge of an island prison holding Confederate soldiers, told as a dramatic monologue in a crown of sonnets called "Native Guard," is just the sort of story that we still like to hear--that America can be America again, in the words of Langston Hughes.
Having just read Trethewey, I cast my mind back to other books which summoned the South as its muse and drudge. Rebecca Black's Cottonlandia (2005) is a book that, despite its less splashy reception, has an important cultural labor to perform alongside the kind of revisionary history of Trethewey. Cottonlandia is in some ways more multiform than Native Guard, (which focuses primarily on the familial relationship and then briefly on the Native Guard) because its central subjectivity admits into its poetic lens a wider and more various South (indeed, Souths)--its South is populated by a whole sundry range of characters, voices, and landscapes: Bartram, an explorer; haunted houses; Otis Redding (born just down the road from Black); Emmitt Till; a flooded cemetery, where the coffins popped like corks; Choctaws and Creeks; churches and jails; suburban homes and trailer parks; and so on...
Even so, while the South is central in Cottonlandia (both spiritually and in terms of its placement in the book), it's much more than a book about the South. Heralding its allegiance to and dialogue with the confessional poets--in particular Robert Lowell, Sylvia Plath, and John Berryman--Cottonlandia explores the ways in which individual lives get dramatized against the backdrop of the social ills and social crises of our times. Read a certain way, each of Cottonlandia's three sections could be seen as a direct dialogue with a different poets--Plath, Lowell, Berryman respectively.
In the first section, "Photographica," Black tackles the question, what does it mean to be a woman and a poet, when mothers and social rules constrain and even poison the self into oblivion? In harrowing poems like "Studies from Life," a mother's photographic arts are a literal and figurative poison that her daughters must survive:
Studies from Life
after Lady Hawarden’s (1822-1865) photographs of her daughters
I keep a cabinet of dolls
nesting in shoebox cribs, a house
in miniature, wire chandelier.
Mother’s brush backed
with silver—-a tarnished whale
on the dresser. My hands like hers
threading through hair.
I might walk through the wall,
Clementina, while you powder
the mole on your clavicle.
You cherish that black slur.
Myself uncorsetted spilling through
the seams. You won’t tell.
I jam my dolls, my ministers,
back in their dusty beds.
we are never put down.
The world’s Girl strips us
to our slips. And forgets
to shut our eyes, leaves us
face down in the dark.
from the chemicals—-her throat latches
on air, a broken clasp—-
as we devise another scene:
On Affliction Beauty waits. You’re A.
and I’m B. for the full exposure.
Take this night-blooming orchid
for a pelt, midnight’s smooth tail
as your only interlocutor.
The ghost of a hand as Mother
unscrews the lens cap. Daughters
of Collodion, chlorine sistered,
she would never usher us
into abstraction, flesh of her
flesh. See my earrings like spears
and beads black as the spider-
selves we swept from the house’s
bare corners? Sister,
let’s hide beneath this veil.
(published by Blackbird online)
In the second section, her sequence of poems "The Invention of the Cotton Gin," Black explores the undead past (a la Faulkner: the past isn't dead, it's not even past) and wrestles with its ghosts. As such, it asks, what does it mean to be white and in a society where such privilege has meant oppression for others? And what does it mean to come from people who are flawed, who are murderers and bribers, whose genes keep twining in us?
Tolberton County, 1923
Small god of histories, make yourself known.
Clay-eater, smith and jester, bend the dogwood
down. Tell me who cheated who at cards,
who placed spade next to heart before that ghost,
my great-great uncle, slashed a man’s throat
with his penknife? And walked himself weeping
to the county jail. His nephew sent later
with a flour-sack of cash to bribe the governor
of Sugar Creek. Child of child of pocketknife
and cannon fodder, motoring past sand dunes
far below sea level, I won’t report my crimes.
I do shadow-time, imagining the boy sent
with the bribe made to wait all day on the capitol
steps, face burning from sun and shame.
The murderer my great-great uncle escaped the gallows,
married a poor woman who kept him sane.
The boy ran a cotton mill for fifty years.
As he died he told us his secret story—-
saying sure you can purchase mercy sure
you can. But everything you gotta buy costs high.
published by Blackbird
An anti-confession ("I won't report my crimes") by way of family history, this poem refuses to hide. It's an apocalyptic book, in the root sense of the word, a book that tears off the seals and exposes (or tries to imagine) what has been hidden. That sense of exposure of connections offers its own kind of mapping of the South, where a poem about a father's black caretakers turns into a meditation on the Cold War and ends with the image of Emmitt Till's horrible murder: "found with a cotton gin motor coiled to his neck/like the circling of a round."
The third section, "My Only Golem," a series of poems that speak through the voice of a Golem named Mephista, poses the question: What does it mean to be a self at all, when we are both self and self-creation, Frankenstein and Frankenstein's Monster?
Mephista Recounts Her Past Lives,
have been invented
to invent machines.
I know you depend
on me to make your name.
But before you plucked
me canopic, I peddled atoms
at the linear accelerator;
I kept myself in penny dreadfuls
by importing diction illegally.
After fencing with Herr Doctor
Faustus, after purely scientific
revelations, I came to
with this jingle:
“That’s what happens/
in nuclear fusion.”
Though I was orphaned
as Orpheus before you,
I’m no liar. I trawled
and groveled rather intelligently.
Adhere to these warnings, Miss B.:
If you try to remove the blemish
from my cheek by chemistry,
correct my limp by a-mal-gams
I’ll dissolve and you’ll be dissolute.
But like a good child,
(Edgar to Glouster)
when you de-sire,
when you want to leave
me to history
I’ll take you to the edge--
what you think is the edge, is death--
watch you flounder
in the shallows. I’ll hand you
the pistol after emptying the chamber.
The word play, and vocal play, drive the poem in ways that remind of Berryman, but without the masculinism and fatalist form. There's an engaging reading of this poem by rhubarbissusan, which suggests that this is a poem of orgasm, the fusion and fission of bodies and their little deaths.
What I admire about Black's work is the way in which each poem is burned down to its essential words--and yet what is left, the structure that's left, remains a kind of of haunted and yet vital dwelling-place, a voice out of which we might take in another vision of the world, as it is, not as we would like it to be.