Ghosts of poetry: once, on the current site of Washington and Lee University’s theater, there stood a brick house with a stone fireplace “so large that we could burn whole railroad ties without having them cut.” It belonged to Spottswood Styles, 1869-1946, “Lexington’s Negro Poet.” I’m quoting from volume seven of the Rockbridge Historical Society Proceedings, provided to me by Tom Camden, Lisa McCown, and Seth Goodhart, who staff Special Collections. An introductory note signed “A.B.H.” informs us that Styles, one of fourteen children and father of ten, was born west of town near the Lucy Selina Furnaces, to John Robert Styles, formerly an enslaved person who worked forges that supplied iron to the Confederacy. Spottswood Styles probably obtained only an elementary school education, but he was a good mechanic who provided for his family by working at a “wood, coal, and machinery yard,” and he directed his creative energy in all kinds of ways. Deborah Sensabaugh, who wrote about Styles for the Lexington News Gazette in 1990, cites a grandson’s recollection of how Styles rechanneled a small stream from Woods Creek and “placed little waterwheels that turned mechanical items.” There were swings and see-saws, too, and “carved wooden men with jointed arms.”
Styles’ poetry was read aloud in church and published in the newspaper. Like Paul Laurence Dunbar, Styles wrote both in vernacular and standard English, and was particularly cited locally at this time of year for a piece called “Dat Ground-Hog Day.” “Some say I’m Juverstetious,” it begins, a comic error reprised suggestively in the next stanza: “Well, yes, I’m superspecious.” Several lines down he rhymes “Door” and “Low” to highlight the intensity of the accent. It’s an appealing poem that resonates strongly with the trickster tradition Henry Louis Gates, Jr. identifies in African-American literature: not only is the Ground-Hog an underground character whose “Ebry Little Sign” needs attention and decoding, but he even prognosticates an upsurge in coal and wood orders, benefitting the author’s business interests. (Tom also sent me a 1997 ad from the same paper sponsored by Herring Real Estate. “In Honor of Black History Month and Spottswood Alexander Styles, a Lexington Poet,” the ad quotes a drastically changed and standardized version of the “Ground Hog Poem”—I can guess why someone erased the dialect, but I’d still very much like to know who did the rewriting.)
I don’t have access to the ledger in which Styles transcribed his poems, and maybe it doesn’t even exist anymore, but it would be fascinating to examine the source of the few poems preserved by the Historical Society. (Sensabaugh says Styles wrote his poems on delivery tags for coal customers, too, but those must be long vanished.) An essay prefacing the short selection, by Houston Barclay, is fond but condescending: “What would our history be without the Negroes who added so much to our way of life!” Hmm. More tactful is a comment from Robert Frost, who visited the university in 1941 and remarked of Styles, “His work, judging from the few samples I have seen, shows a very poetic mind.” But genuinely, I like this work, and have so appreciated these glimpses of a talent who lived a few blocks from me but in a profoundly different world. The vernacular poems are spirited, sly, and very much in conversation with nineteenth and twentieth-century verse: they are, in short, a pleasure to spend time with.
In a more solemn mood, “Uncle Henry,” recounting Styles’ grandmother’s story of a son sold down the river, gives testimony of pain. His grandmother responds to this terrible rupture in her family by praying, “Lord break the Chains of Bondage, and set the Captives free./ Bring back my boy, dear Jesus, be merciful Lord unto me.” In the final couplet, breaking the chains of his own quatrains, Styles observes: “‘Twas at Appomattox Virginia when God through Grant had spoken,/ And General Lee gave up his sword, the slavery Chain was broken.” Writing from Lexington soon after Lee-Jackson day with its parade of flaggers, I feel relieved by this alternate vision. Styles honors Lee, not Grant, through the title “General,” yet God speaks via Union forces. This heathen could almost say: amen.
I’ve been haunted by the nineteenth-century U.S. South lately in my reading, my teaching, and the historical flashbacks enacting themselves around me. I’ve also been managing my own small, personal pain—as the doctor just confirmed, sciatica. But there’s been a lot of joy lately, too. It was such a pleasure to take my class to Special Collections—Tom handed around an 1802 New Hampshire edition of Phillis Wheatley, for heaven’s sake. What a privilege.
And at the doctor’s office, the nurse said she’d been waiting for me to have another health problem for months, because she’d fallen in love with Mary Oliver’s verse and could explain the experience only to me. She and I had previously talked about poetry helping to make contemplative space in life, I guess—as she put it, “one of those crumbs you drop sometimes, not knowing where they’ll lead.” She had said she was intimidated by poetry and I answered that everyone is entitled to like what they like, although it can be hard to find the poetry that will really help you. She then went on vacation and took a yoga class with a teacher who read aloud “Why I Wake Early.” Afterwards this nurse who didn’t really read poetry bought the book, memorized the poem, and now says it to herself every morning, cultivating gratitude and kindness with the help of Oliver’s lines. “We run around chasing things,” she said, “but you can find what you need if you just stop.”
It moves me to have played the tiniest role in that discovery—Mary Oliver and the yoga teacher really deserve the credit, and the nurse herself does, too, for being open and thoughtful despite a million pressures to the contrary. Maintaining openness despite pain is the trick, isn’t it? This winter, I seem enmeshed in surprising connections. Juverstetious, too, and alert for signs.
*For the story of unlikely coincidences behind the photograph, see The Rockbridge Report. The woman who must have been his wife–I don’t know her name–has been appearing in my dreams.