“I live in language on land they left”

Some troll tweeted at me the other day that since I seem not to like Lexington, Virginia, I should just leave. He styled himself as a lover of the Shire who’s not ashamed of being a hobbit. He even used Elijah Wood as Frodo for his profile picture. Good to know hobbit-hood is white supremacist code, I guess–a state of intransigent smallness.

“Love it or leave it” is a glib, narrow-minded slogan that’s already received more intelligent rebuttals than I could come up with (see my final paragraph on Kiki Petrosino, for instance–the title of this blog is from her poem “Farm Book”). The hobbit was responding to my tweet about the imminent renaming of local institutions such as Stonewall Jackson Hospital, the R. E. Lee Hotel, and, after a couple of long and contentious city council meetings, Stonewall Jackson Cemetery. A couple of years ago, R.E. Lee Church was rechristened Grace Episcopal (another hot and protracted fight that caused permanent rifts), and even my employer, Washington and Lee University, may be lurching toward a belated rebranding. Washington’s name needs to go as well as Lee’s, and it’s quite possible the trustees will hold out for a few more years against any change at all, but encouraging things are happening. The rising sway of clear-eyed young people has made a big difference here, as well as the hard work of others who have been putting their weight into moving the local culture for a long, long time. I know the activists, because Lexington, and W&L, are tiny. I remain moved and astonished by the opposition they continue to face and the grit they bring to facing it.

Yet fixing offensive honorifics feels so small! These names have always been aggressions, and if they didn’t matter, there wouldn’t be trolls and outraged alums and people spouting conspiracy theories at council-meetings. Still, they’re relatively superficial markers of a violence that goes so deep, that is so rhizomatically entwined with other aspects of town and university life, that expunging it would be more than a lifetime’s work.

For these obscene entrenchments and other reasons, I don’t like Lexington, and I thought about leaving right from the beginning. There’s a poem in The State She’s In, “Native Temper,” that ends with the line, “I’d rather die than die in these parts.” I don’t know if it’s a good line poetically, but it sang in my head for a while before I wrote it down, its paradox making me laugh with a hysterical edge. There’s always a reason to stick around a little longer. Some of the most serious reasons at various times have been a terrible job market, the exhaustion of raising very young kids, my spouse being hired to W&L’s tenure-track, fabulous tuition benefits for my older kids (damned if I wouldn’t take every cent I’d earned!), and fear of uncertainty, of hurting myself and my family by making a stressful move that turned out to make life even harder. W&L also did me a lot of damage–a plantation ethos entails systematic sexism as well as systematic racism and other noxious prejudices–and I think that paralyzed me, too. Staying hasn’t been good for me, as a friend observed after reading my new poetry collection. But here I am anyway, researching local history, writing about small-townness and southernness, thinking and teaching about complicity, continuing the small-scale work of making my spheres of influence some fraction better while very much doubting the rightness of my choices.

I feel particularly stuck right now because I don’t have the release of travel, of periodic escape to remind myself there’s a bigger world. I’m reading a lot but mostly books about small towns, too: Stephen King’s sin-haunted Maine villages (my stay in Salem’s Lot was unpleasant for a variety of reasons); plague-ridden Derbyshire mining country in Geraldine Brooks’ Year of Wonders (I loved that one); a prissy Ohio suburb in Celeste Ng’s justly-celebrated Little Fires Everywhere; the island horrors of Emily St. John Mandel’s The Glass Hotel and Lucy Foley’s The Guest List. Is that because I’ve been on a mystery-thriller kick, trying desperately to get out my own head? Do those plots work best in little bubbles? This spring, able to concentrate only in short spurts, my reading was mostly poetry that felt quite different, conjuring cosmopolitan places or a sense of global connectedness, as 21st-century poetry tends to.

The brand-new poetry collection I just finished, though, is local without ever being small–and illuminates Kiki Petrosino’s relation to a place she can neither love nor leave behind. In White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, three long poems are based on the results of a DNA ancestry test; one section, titled “Albemarle,” eviscerates Jefferson’s celebrators in breathtaking ways; and another sequence locates itself in Louisa County, where some of Petrosino’s ancestors resided. Petrosino herself seems to have departed the region after earning a B.A. at the University of Virginia, and is now back as a professor there, drinking tiny glasses of bourbon at gastropubs while researching and receiving dream-messages from her dead kin. As Terrance Hayes writes, this book is “wonderfully irreducible” to tweets and slogans, plus so honed and gorgeous that it reminds me that poetry has special ways of helping people struggle with intractable problems; I think it will strike others that way, too, and be on short-lists for many prizes. I’m on sabbatical for a while but I’d love to teach it one day, in whatever still-messed-up America we land in a year from now.

Not fleeing

middle schoolWhen I was eleven, I started to plot my escape. Financial independence seemed like the prerequisite, but the 50 cents an hour I earned babysitting weren’t going to take me far. So, baby steps. I started by purchasing my own shampoo and toothpaste, keeping them separate from the family stuff. I figured I’d gradually work up from toiletries to food, clothes, rent, etc.

It’s funny, eleven-year-old-me making solo hikes through the woods to the drugstore for Colgate. It’s also awful, because my family was so poisonously miserable, so hostile to the person I was trying to become, that I couldn’t imagine staying in that house one second longer than I absolutely had to. And, of course, freedom was a long time coming, even with scholarships and summer jobs and, eventually, teaching assistantships. As my professional life has demonstrated, I’ll take a certain amount of abuse, playing the long game, as long as I have some safe space in which I can retain dignity, do work that feels worthwhile, and speak my mind.

Take that space away, though, and I’ll break, whether or not I break and run. This is one of the many ways poetry has saved me–reading and writing puts me in an honest place. Plus, while poems contain struggle of all kinds, they also constitute separate worlds it can be a great relief to enter, because good poems are not unjust or disruptive of bodily integrity.

Poetry’s doing just fine during the current political mayhem, but other spaces seem way less safe than they ever did. Not that I ever felt welcome and at home in Lexington, Virginia!–but I had friends’ houses, and a few public spots that I felt comfortable in, and a creek to walk beside. Ever since the co-owner of the Red Hen, a few blocks from my house, took her moral stand against hatred and lies by asking Sarah Huckabee Sanders to leave, the full ugliness of where I live has been on inescapable display. Media that are often depressing–from Facebook to the local paper’s editorial page–got vicious; picketers with offensive signs staked out the restaurant, which has not yet been able to reopen; the KKK leafleted our neighborhoods with fliers reading “Boycott the Red Hen” as well as “Wake Up White America.”

I want to get out of here. Aside from short trips, I can’t. My husband just got tenure; I also receive, for my kids, a major tuition benefit, which we need for the next five years. I’m finding it really difficult, however, to negotiate the fight-or-flight response that keeps ripping through my body. I hate living in the middle of the Confederacy. I hate how my government commits abuses in my name.

I said so to my daughter the other night, and she answered something like: I’m not leaving. I’ve committed. I’m going to fix this country.

I know that’s a better answer. I just have to figure out how to get through this woods of bad feeling. To feel peace in my body as a prerequisite for helping make peace in this damaged, damaging place.

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Extinction burst?

Last Monday, I found a KKK recruitment flier on my front lawn. Just a week or so earlier and a few blocks away, the first physical memorial to enslaved African-Americans was meminstalled at Washington and Lee University, an institution that benefited financially from slavery but, until recently, bruited that terrible fact much less than, say, its debt to certain slave-holding generals. (See this post from last
year on a virtual memorial that, for me, marked the beginning of a better-informed conversation.)

I find myself trying to draw a line between those two opposing gestures, the plaque to honor the dead and the dishonorable flier. Maybe my sense of meaningful patterns is just a poet’s delusion.

The flier was one of many found in my neighborhood. It was protected from rain by a plastic baggie and weighted with a handful of rice. (White rice, and yes, I’m working on a poem with that title.) My more immediate media responsibilities, however, were to fire off a letter to the local paper and alert the police. Before that, like a real twenty-first-century American, I posted a query on Facebook, wondering how to respond given that the terrorist literature was probably legal–the threat of violence is latent, all right, but the flier doesn’t overtly advocate physical harm to others. The picture of a broad-shouldered, masked, accusatory Klansman carries a frightening charge, as do the all-caps format and the hateful associations of the initials themselves, as well as the not-so-metaphorical phrases “White Power” and “Join the Fight.” The flier certainly scared me; I went inside and locked the doors. But the organization itself is legal, and the politics it advocates are too, despite the KKK’s history of atrocities.

It was interesting how people responded via social media. Many recommended I contact the Southern Poverty Law Center (they never returned my call KKKbut I know other locals had already reported the fliers there). I learned that one local trigger for this flier-bombing was a day of memorial services for the Rev. LaVert Taylor, a black Civil Rights activist. But it’s not just a local thing, and in fact, friends reported similar recruitment efforts in other parts of the country. A certain Republican front-runner is, through toxic rhetoric, empowering white supremacists and other haters to come out swinging, everywhere. The state of U.S. politics, at the national level, is just dire beyond belief.

I’ve since given the flier to a student journalist trying to report the larger story, and there’s a rally against racism arranged for this Monday at 5 pm in Lexington’s Hopkins Green. So maybe this abhorrent attempt to rouse “white pride” is a wake-up call of a useful variety. And I look forward to the dedication ceremony for W&L’s memorial, at 4:30 pm on April 5th, around the side of Robinson Hall (though that back-door location does make me wince–I hope there will be a lot more remembering in the next few years, much of it front-and-center).

When another FB friend, a psychiatrist, said he hoped the flier was an “extinction burst,” I got excited, realizing what the term must mean. When a conditioned behavior stops receiving the expected reward, it gradually dies out–but before it decreases, instances of the undesired behavior might increase for a while. I’m glad to have an official-sounding shorthand for a phenomenon I’ve observed. Does this surge of KKK malevolence represent desperate flailing of a group about to shrink right out of existence? I like that idea, but am not counting on it.

I see a lot of racism, sexism, homophobia, and other prejudice in daily life, but those biases are less socially acceptable now than in my childhood, or than they were in the 90s, at the beginning of my teaching career. My first-hand experiences of prejudice involve not racism but sexism, sometimes vicious and sometimes quietly insidious. I’ve been discriminated against, harassed, and assaulted. But I have many more opportunities than my mother did, and my daughter lives in a freer world than I knew at 19–and maybe all 3 of us will be able to vote for a female presidential candidate this fall, a development that has been absurdly long in coming. It’s obvious that the revolutionary reality of an African-American president and the possibility of a female one have created a lot of backlash. The whole Drumpf-o-rama extravanganza of the last few months, including the poisonous trash I found by my doorstep, could be a sort of final or near-final tantrum of some ancient varieties of stupid.

I don’t actually believe racism’s on its way out, rationally, or sexism, for that matter. If recent eruptions constitute an extinction burst, it’s extinction on a glacial time-frame, with many more explosions of hatefulness still to come. My seasonally recurrent hope for us all, though, isn’t entirely irrational, either. The Darth Cheneys, Grand Dragons, and other super-villains of this all-too-real world are getting pretty creaky in their cyborg parts. They won’t be pulling puppet-strings forever. And I don’t think this W&L memorial, small and belated as it is, could have gone up twenty years ago.  We haven’t made nearly enough progress, and making any gains at all seems incredibly, insanely, criminally difficult, yet I’ve seen growth happen. Happy spring equinox, friends. Imperfect closure, I know, but I’ll keep trying to rhyme with it.

kkk letter

Pain, pleasure, and Spottswood Styles

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 is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report
Styles is the man with a child on his lap, according to the Rockbridge Report

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.