Letter from America: The Healing from Violence and History
By David Fedo
On what had begun as an ordinary winter morning in December 2012, a heretofore unknown but obviously disturbed American in his early 20s shot and killed his mother in their home in the quiet town of Newtown, Connecticut. He then drove a short distance to the Sandy Hook Elementary School and proceeded to execute – there is no other word for this horrifying act – 20 first-grade students and six teachers and staff members. He next shot and killed himself.
The extent of the violence was shocking, but coming after so many other similar and unprovoked group massacres – most recently in the states of Arizona, Colorado and Wisconsin – the savage murders of innocent and helpless victims was not entirely surprising.
As everyone knows, Americans live in a violent country, a nation where guns, including high-powered semi-automatic assault weapons and rapid-firing pistols with the capacity to shoot many rounds, remain readily available. "America," wrote Hendrik Hertzberg in The New Yorker (January 7, 2013), "is alone among the advanced democracies of the world in suffering from an unending epidemic of gun mayhem." President Barack Obama's valiant efforts to initiate gun ownership reform, like so many of the reasonable proposals offered in his second term in office, faces a problematic future in Congress.
So gun violence gets the headlines these days in the United States. After all, this is a country where it is not entirely uncommon for its presidents, including the heroic Abraham Lincoln and beloved John F. Kennedy, to have been assassinated by gun-toting lunatics, and many of the streets of Chicago and other American cities are scarred daily by gun killings.
Yet violence in America runs deeper than guns. Violence, in its many manifestations, is itself seemingly a part of the American character. It is a central factor in two of the nation's most popular sports, football (American style) and hockey, where concussions and other serious injuries are common. It is played out frequently in domestic American households, where one spouse (usually the husband) not infrequently assaults and even murders the other. (These days, domestic violence seems endemic in my country.) And the ugly reality of racism, still a fact of life in the US, is grounded in a long history of violence.
It is into this environment that two American poets of colour, who just happen to be women, have each received what can be counted among the top prizes and accolades that poets in the US can hope to attain. One, Natasha Trethewey, was named the US Poet Laureate in June 2012; this high recognition comes after a meteoric career that included the publication of her most important book thus far, Native Guard (2006), which was, in 2007, instrumental in her being awarded the prestigious Pulitzer Prize. (Trethewey's mother was Mexican; her father was a Canadian. In her poem 'Blond', she talks about what it means to be an interracial child.) The second poet, Nikky Finney, equally celebrated and a Black American, was named the recipient of the 2011 National Book Award for Head Off & Split, published to great acclaim the same year.
Trethewey, born in Mississippi and now 47 years old, and Finney, a native of South Carolina and now 56, are still relatively young as Americans to have been so honoured. But the astonishing fact about this recognition is not their age; it's the relevance of their racial heritage as Americans of colour, and of the legacy of violence that has been visited upon this population since the sad days of slavery. (Those who were able to watch Steven Spielberg's recent film, Lincoln, will have at least some sense of that legacy.) Thus the identities of both Trethewey and Finney as women of colour are critical to an understanding of their poetry.
For Trethewey, who now teaches both at Emory University (Georgia) and Hollins University (Virginia), that legacy became personal when her mother, Gwendolyn Ann Turnbough, was killed in the mid-1980s by Turnbough's divorced husband. Trethewey, then in her late teens, later recalled that this murder "was the moment when I felt both that I would become a poet and then immediately afterwards felt I would not." "I turned to poetry to make sense of what had happened," she added. To "make sense" for Trethewey in Native Guard, the third of her five books, meant turning to one of the still two most historically important events that formed and preserved the US, the tragic War between the States or the oft-termed Civil War. (Of course, the second was the late 18th-century American Revolution, in which the country's Patriots defeated the British and thus won the new nation's independence.)
From 1861 to 1865, the War between the Northern and the Southern States – the Union versus the Confederacy – left an astonishing 750,000 soldiers dead. That number doesn't count civilian casualties and, as everyone who has watched the film, Gone with the Wind, knows, there were plenty of those. The major conflict between the two sides was the issue of slavery, and the carnage was absolutely horrendous. Although the Union was ultimately saved, the US is still not fully healed, because for some Americans, racial, regional, political and cultural differences remain. And these differences, as Trethewey and Finney show respectively, sometimes live on in violence.
The heart of Trethewey's Native Guard consists of 10 poems, each one chronicling in vivid detail and in 14 lines the harrowing experiences of the Black Regiment of the Louisiana Native Guard, members of whom served valiantly on the side of the Union. The poems are narrated by a former slave, now a soldier, but at first the Regiment is not part of the North's infantry and is instead assigned to do what the poet calls menial "nigger work" – digging trenches and hauling burdens. Later, the Regiment is charged with keeping guard over Confederate captives:
But incredibly, even the Black Regiment's troops were sometimes shot at by their fellow Union soldiers ("sailors in blue") – racism apparently crossed all borders. Here is Trethewey's poem set in April 1863:
Beyond these 10, the remaining 28 poems cover subjects as diverse as the menacing Ku Klux Klan ("white men parading in their gowns" in 'Incident'); mixed portraits of the American South ('South', 'Southern History', 'The Southern Crescent', 'Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi'); the autobiographical 'Miscegenation', about her parents; and the quieter 'Genus Narcissus', a beautiful work about daffodils. Trethewey has an exquisite lyrical gift, poignantly demonstrated in 'After Your Death', presumably about her mother:
'Genus Narcissus' and 'After Your Death', in their simplicity, thus convey a softer side of Trethewey. In her newest book, Thrall (2012), the title poem of which depicts a Spanish painter who was also a slave, Trethewey explores further the complex and sometimes troubled relationships within a biracial family. The sweeping violence of the Civil War has been replaced largely by poems detailing with both the affection and tension existing in that intimate space between father and daughter.
Nikky Finney is both alike and different from Natasha Trethewey. John Freeman, editor of the periodical Granta, has written that the most important of her four works, the honoured Head Off & Split, is "a collection that autopsies this country's shameful history of enslaving and exploiting and oppressing African-Americans." But this subject, grim as it is, and imbued with violence, does not drag Finney's poetry into deep melancholy or depression; in fact, the nearly 30 poems, many longer than Trethewey's, are filled with buoyancy, a wry sense of humour and unashamed eroticism along with her razor-sharp introspection of what it means to be a woman of colour in the US.
The title Head Off & Split, incidentally, comes from a prose poem that introduces the volume ('Resurrection of an Errand Girl'), and the last poem of the book ('Head Off & Split'). It refers to a fishmonger's question about what to cut off and throw away from a customer's seafood purchase. As a young errand girl, the poet has the fish eviscerated; but as an adult, the grown-up writer "wants what she was once sent for left whole, just as it was pulled from the sea, everything born to it still in place."
Finney's lengthy poem, 'Dancing with Strom', is the whole unvarnished "deal", with almost everything on race in play. 'Strom' was an actual long-term senator from the southern state of South Carolina, and an avowed racist, who is quoted in a combative introductory note preceding Finney's lengthy poem, as follows: "I want to tell you, ladies and gentlemen, there's not enough troops in the army to force the southern people to break down segregation and accept the Negro into our theatres, into our swimming pools, into our homes, and into our churches."
Finney quickly establishes the narrative, in which Thurmond is brazenly dancing at a Black wedding reception (presumably for the poet's mother), with a note of both surprise and sarcasm:
The scene is thus set: an intractable racist is dancing with coloured women at an otherwise gala post-wedding celebration; it is an outrageous and even farcical scenario, except that the Senator represents everything that is monstrous in a divided America:
The poet considers for "ten seconds" whether she should dance with the Senator, and then appears to decline; it's a moral impossibility. For his part, Thurmond, who died in 2003 at the age of 100, was reported after his death to have fathered a biracial daughter with his Black maid when he was just 22. Thus the hypocrisy of the life-long racist.
Finney's very first poem, the exquisite 'Red Velvet', is a tribute to Rosa Parks, the saint of the American Civil Rights movement – she was the Black seamstress who, in December of 1955, in Montgomery, Alabama, refused to sit in the back of the bus, as the law then required. "I was tired of giving in," said Parks, who died only in 2005 (a statue of Parks was unveiled recently by President Obama in Washington). Finney cogently summons up the reasons:
At 42 years of age, Parks' heart "is heavy with slavery, lynching, / and the lessons of being 'good.'" She is arrested; Martin Luther King organises a protest, and life in the US will never be quite the same. Finney continues to explain Parks' amazing resiliency:
The Civil Rights movement had begun, but the fight would not be easy, and Dr King's leadership would end with his assassination (by gun) in 1968 in Memphis, Tennessee. The struggle continues.
Two poems by Finney deal with a pair of recent figures on the recent American political scene: former President George W. Bush ('Plunder') and his Secretary of State, Condoleezza Rice ('The Condoleezza Suite'). Actually, the two poems are collections of a number of related poems – 'Plunder' consists of 19 sonnet-like works, and 'The Condoleezza Suite' presents four "Concertos" (in real life, Rice was a recreational piano player).
The poem on Bush is a satiric take-off on the President's last State of the Union address, where American presidents annually speak before both branches of Congress (the Senate and the much larger House of Representative). According to a sceptical Finney, it is President Bush's
This is the shallow former Texas Governor who is an easy target, and perhaps a too easy one, for Finney. Somehow he has been elected the President of the US, and not just for one but two terms! Better be lucky than good, many Americans would say, disparaging this son of his more respected father, President George H.W. Bush. The President is delivering his speech while the poet imagines Bush is himself playing in a fantasy basketball game:
As Finney says, "Somebody always picks up his mess," and she is mostly right. But of that mess, in Iraq and Afghanistan, and in New Orleans after Katrina, there is still a lot to be cleaned up.
Rice, who had been an administrator at Stanford University before joining Bush's Cabinet, is also the subject of Finney's not always unfriendly satire; we see the younger "Condi", playing by all of the rules of White America, practicing her piano religiously, being an obedient child, student and later tireless bureaucrat. The poet implies through the imagery of music that Rice has lost her Blackness, perhaps, despite her talents and smarts, has even shaken off the very qualities that give people their true human feelings:
Finney's erotic poems – 'Clitoris', 'Orangerie', 'The Aureole' and 'Cattails', as examples – are both tender and explicit. And there is humour, too; here is a stanza from 'Clitoris':
Finney is a very serious poet who is still able to have some fun.
That Trethewey and Finney – two American women of colour – have achieved such high distinction from the American literati, and that this recognition comes in a country still wrestling with its tumultuous historical past, including violence and racism, can only be viewed as heartening. Ultimately, it may even be liberating. For Trethewey and Finney, both should have many remaining years to continue writing their remarkable poems, telling their stories, as the country strives to heal itself at last.
QLRS Vol. 12 No. 2 Apr 2013