Imagining poetry after the election

Inside Out
September, 2016
 
 
Shouldn’t talk with a mouthful of half-chewed flags,
but he smirks and suggests her Secret Service guys
disarm and see what happens. The crowd turns wild
and you can spot a star wedged in his molar. Scraps
of stripe dangle from a lip. Maybe, he cracks,
the Second Amendment people will get wise.
While, you know, Russians hack her to bytes.
Silk between his teeth. Democracy. Facts.
 
Bleeding on the street’s not too good for her,
thinks forty-plus percent of my broken
country. The liar calls her liar and the smear
sticks. After all, horror’s ordinary. The thirteen-
year-old boy just killed for holding a BB gun.
And an open-mouthed woman—well, blood’s her career.

Lots of 2020 poetry collections bristle with political outrage–appropriately! The slant-rhymed sonnet above, first published in Cimarron Review and now collected in my 2020 collection The State She’s In, dates from a month four years ago when I couldn’t believe the sexist, racist incitements to violence spewing from a candidate’s mouth. Two months later I couldn’t believe he’d been elected, but, silly me, I also couldn’t believe he’d last all four years. I suppose the verdict’s still out on the latter–he has to crash when the steroids wear off, right?–but surreal as it’s seemed, this presidency continues to be brutally real. My spouse’s picture is now up on the FB site of a local self-styled “militia,” the GOP is in voter-suppression overdrive, and people are hunkered in their homes, if they have them, fearing increasing right-wing violence and, oh yeah, contagion. Even if a miracle Biden landslide happens, Trump concedes without a fight, and domestic terrorist groups keep their anger to a low grumble (all of which strike me as big ifs), poets and everyone else in the US are going to continue to have a LOT to protest about, including police violence against Black Americans, deep economic injustice, catastrophic environmental damage, and a Supreme Court banking hard to the right.

I’ve felt cheered by the upswell of political poetry these last few years, and wretched as 2020 has been, it seemed right for my book to come out in March (I just wish I’d been able to read from it more). As the next collection brews, though, I’m wondering what kind of poetry I and others will need three to four years from now, which is how long the process takes, if you’re lucky. I’m now sending poems to magazines, trying to catch fall submission windows that are often quite brief, and some of them will surely go in the next ms., although I’m getting more rejections than acceptances at the moment. I tend to draft, forget, revise, forget, revise again, then send, so I didn’t know what I’d find when I reopened my 2019-2020 folders. I had been consciously working on poems with spell-like qualities meant to transform anger, and I discovered some of those, but I unearthed many more poems than I expected about mental health struggles (2019 was rough–better now). I’ve been using poetry to explore some of the hardest episodes from my past and have no idea why now. I’ve also been writing more ecologically than ever, looking for hope in natural processes.

Looking for hope sounds right; many of us need optimism and humor desperately, and I expect that will be true, too, a few years from now. Once again, as a reader, I can’t concentrate on any book that isn’t a page-turner–will that be true even a few months from now, or will I more-or-less get my brain back? I have to record a reading for the Hot L series that will air November 8th: holy cow, how can I even imagine what listeners will need a few weeks from now? All you can do is take a deep breath and remind yourself: what you should offer the world is your best, whatever that is. The best version of your art; the best energy you can summon; and writing centered on material that feels important to you, addressed with as much kindness and clear-eyed intelligence as you can muster. That’s all there is.

After that poetry submission binge, I’m back to writing ABOUT poetry in essays and reviews, at least when I can stop biting my nails over the news. I’ll be reading poetry submissions, too, as Shenandoah opens for Graybeal-Gowan Prize entries (Oct 15-31). Entry is free, the prize is $1000, and you can submit 1-3 poems in one document. You have to have a significant connection to Virginia to enter, as specified by the generous donor, but you don’t have to live here now–you could have been born here or gone to school here, for example (just describe your link to VA in the cover letter). Beth Staples and I will choose 10-12 finalists to forward to Kyle Dargan, who will choose the winner by sometime in January. If you’re not a finalist you’ll hear back by early December, probably sooner, but we get hundreds of subs, so I can’t promise those results by Election Day, either! Hang in there, friends.

Virtual Poetry Salon #5 with Caroline Cabrera

And even in blindness our chemistries communicate. Our instinct, a lace mycelium. When my cheeks go hot and I distrust a man I may be sensing the hair as it rises from another woman's neck. I may smell her experience. We know more than we trust ourselves to know.  -Caroline Cabrera, from "The body gives itself away" 

(lack begins as a tiny rumble), a brand new collection by my pressmate Caroline Cabrera, belies its title: these hybrid poems, almost lyric essays, brim with language that nourishes me. Pain and grief are starting points, but line by line, with amazing persistence, Cabrera digs herself out of those very dark places. Sisterhood helps, but so does a renegotiation of her relationship with her own body. “The womb is a world,” she writes in one poem, clarifying that image with the eye-opening closure, “Our first act is one of emigration.” In many poems, too, Cabrera unfolds what it means to be a blonde-haired Cuban American: “My skin keeps me safe. My blood, it boils in me.” My own concentration is poor these days, but this book riveted me. Bonus: the collection includes great poems about toxic bosses. I really appreciate poems about toxic bosses.

This book, by the way, feels very much in sisterhood with Girls Like Us by Elizabeth Hazen, star of my last salon, but really I’m just contacting people with new books and posting these interviews in the order I receive them. I’m really enjoying this project, as well as the new books it’s leading me through. Virginia’s governor just gave a stay-at-home order. I totally agree with it, but it makes connecting through writing more important than ever.

If you were ordering thematically appropriate refreshments for this shindig, what would they be?

We would eat popcorn and parmesan cheese. We would eat kale with bechamel and fried rice. We would eat spaghetti and meatballs, shrimp and grits, and beet risotto. We would eat fried chicken. We would eat guava pastries and croquettas and yucca frita with creamy cilantro sauce. We would eat blood oranges and pomegranates. We would eat and eat and eat and eat and never be filled.

If, after your breathtaking reading and the subsequent standing ovation, a friend pulled you into a curtained window seat and asked, “How are you really?” or “Are you able to write these days?”, what might you answer?

Right now I am reading and thinking and processing, which all feels like the precursor to writing. To a Floridian, this period of hunkering feels a lot like preparing for a hurricane that never comes. I’m living from that headspace and trying to be present with where it takes me. 

How can your virtual audience find out more?

I co-host the advice podcast Now That We’re Friends with two other poets, Anne Cecelia Holmes and Gale Marie Thompson. We’re hosting a virtual live episode on Saturday April 11. Check out @NTWFpodcast on Instagram or Twitter for details.

Unmade boundaries of acts and poems

I had a long bout of wakefulness last night, but W&L cancels classes on Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, so I slept until the cold January sun had actually risen, hallelujah. Over my first pot of tea, I picked up a section of Sunday’s paper, and found this article about the amazing playwright, memoirist, and poet Adrienne Kennedy, who in her eighties is still producing strong work. The opening made me laugh out loud:

“The playwright Adrienne Kennedy never wanted to move to Virginia… ‘Unfortunately, I’ve been here six years,’ she said of her new city [Williamsburg]. ‘I hate it.'”

The article also mentioned a new poem of hers that I’d missed–check out “Forget” in The Harvard Review. Major Jackson, I will forgive you for continuing to reject my poems as long as you’re putting Adrienne Kennedy out there once in a while. In “Forget,” she writes of her white grandfather, “like the South itself, he was an unfathomable.” Yes.

I never wanted to move south, either. Lexington makes Williamsburg look urban and hip by comparison. I often feel disconnected from literary conversations that would nourish me; attitudes here towards the Civil War and U.S. history can be both offensive and deeply surreal. But I don’t hate it here. There’s good work to do. My surroundings have beauty. It’s intellectually and artistically useful to be in constant talk with people who don’t share my pieties. And what Kennedy says about getting a lot of writing done  “because there’s nothing to do in Virginia”–well, I laughed with recognition there, too.

And then I bundled up and marched in our local parade, which was peaceful and joyous. And now I’m back to my desk, prepping for classes. My senior seminar on “Documentary Poetics” just finished working through Muriel Rukeyser’s “The Book of the Dead,” which I’d never taught before, but which I will definitely teach again. The title of this post is from the title poem of that series, which you can find here. I’m not entirely sure about the social good poetry does, even poetry of history and witness–compared to more direct kinds of activism, I mean–but I know lines from long ago and far away sustain my courage. I’m endlessly grateful for poetry’s camaraderie.

A few last marching words, from the same Rukeyser poem:

What three things can never be done?
Forget.     Keep silent.     Stand alone.

 

 

“The wonder is that you are here”: poetry, community, and Anne Spencer

One of my favorite visiting-writer stories involves a New York-based author who, while guzzling artisanal cocktails in a local restaurant, said something like, “I don’t know why anyone would bother to write if they don’t live in Brooklyn.” That was a hilariously awful remark to make to his Virginia-writer-dinner-companions, but I get it. The literary path I’m hiking seems to point only uphill, through tangles that hide my efforts from sight.

asm nasturtiumAs a break from the trail and for inspiration to persist, I recommend visiting the Anne Spencer House and Museum in Lynchburg, Virginia, about an hour and a quarter from where I live, just over the Blue Ridge. The lesson it teaches: how to surround yourself with what you find beautiful–how to fight for it–and write anywhere, on anything, with spirit.

The Lynchburg-based Harlem Renaissance poet gave hospitality to many luminaries, during an era when African-Americans didn’t have many safe spaces to stay while, for example, traveling between D.C. and Atlanta. Spencer became close with frequent visitors W. E. B. DuBois, James Weldon Johnson, and Langston Hughes, and published, sometimes with their urging and assistance, more than two dozen poems in magazines such as The Crisis. Her home is still welcoming: you can arrange a wonderful tour led by her granddaughter, Shaun Spencer-Hester, and the gardens are open to anyone without appointment from dawn to dusk. The house built by her husband, furnished colorfully and full of art, still feels like a good place, full of sunny nooks for reading, brimming with evidence of authors at work. The long garden with its writing cottage, abundant flowers, grape arbor, and lily pond remains an oasis.

asm spare bedroomHow Anne Spencer lived is worth remembering, but so are her poems. The title of this blog is from “At the Carnival”, and the poem above, painted on a kitchen cupboard by artist and architect (and neighbor) Amaza Lee Meredith, is the second stanza of “Lines to a Nasturtium”. Many of her writings, however, are uncollected and unpublished. asm-boxtop.jpgCheck out these fragments (a poem?) jotted inside the cover of a panty-hose boxtop. Plus she scribbled all kinds of things on the walls, as the phone booth under the stairs attests. I’m looking forward to studying her papers at the University of Virginia later this summer. One of the questions I’m considering is the relationship between art and activism, in Spencer’s life and generally. The local branch of the NAACP, for example, was founded in Spencer’s living room, and her work as a librarian supported African-American literacy. Nor did she submit to Jim Crow segregation–J. Lee Greene’s book, Time’s Unfading Garden, is full of stories of spirited resistance. But her poems are rarely overtly political, with “White Things,” about lynching, offering a powerful exception.

I’ll leave you with a few more pictures plus a link to a recent column I wrote for Modernism/ modernity whose themes resonate with this post: “How to Do Things with Poetry Criticism, or Scholarship and Justice, Part II.” If you’re in the region and have time, I hope you’ll visit 1313 Pierce Street. If not, go write a poem on a boxtop, or paint it on the wall, and read, remembering all the people who fought for the right to.

In favor of impurity, or, I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down

My daughter told me about the mass killing in Orlando in the car Sunday, as we drove up Route 81 on an errand. We bought summer shorts and solar lights for the back walkway, ate pho and spring rolls, stopped at a bookstore, drove home, and she kept updating me all evening. Mostly Latino and LGBT, she said. The orange guy says ban Muslim immigrants. Countries are issuing travel advisories against the U.S.: it’s not safe here.

Monday, I found myself flipping back and forth between online news and the strange old book I bought in Staunton, Traditional Ballads of Virginia, Collected Under the Auspices of the Virginia Folklore Society, edited by Arthur Kyle Davis and published in 1929. I’m no ballad-scholar but they tell sad stories in verse, usually beginning at the end. “There is never an authoritative text,” wrote Robert Graves about the folk ballad, continuing, “it is incomplete without music…it does not moralize or preach or express any partisan bias.” In my “Introduction to Poetry” course, we spend a day looking first at folk ballads and then at literary uses of the form–not-anonymous ballad-like poems circulated in print. We discuss Dudley Randall’s “Ballad of Birmingham” about a 1963 church bombing, and Gwendolyn Brooks’ Emmett Till poems. Randall’s ballad, metered and rhymed, has that communal quality of a song one might pass down through generations. Brooks’ “A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon,” instead, blasts that cultural inheritance apart, along with all the racist, gendered baggage it carries about lily-white maids and dark villains. Both poems draw force in different ways from the old tropes and channel that power against contemporary violence.

It’s hard to write a literary ballad. Strict quatrains can sound too predictable now, too light; veer from familiarity, though, and you’ve lost continuity with the old songs. The latter is sometimes better, yet form’s history can help you carry a hard burden. I’m trying to draft a ballad about the hate crime at the Pulse nightclub, but the results so far are somehow both raw and over-intellectual.

To do better, I keep going back to the smoother cadences preserved in this book. There was a vogue, in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, for collecting traces of a vanishing folk culture, and I’m glad, even if I personally, as a woman, wouldn’t have been safe tramping around the mountains and asking strangers what old airs they knew. But this particular collection was also an attempt by white people to conserve (create?) a particularly Scots-Irish heritage. These folklorists collected British, Scottish, and Irish songs only, further stipulating that they must be orally transmitted, unpolluted by print. Interesting, to discover what songs made that crossing and how they changed. Yet there’s no such thing as media purity, then or now–print and oral cultures intersect all the time. Nor are other kinds of inheritance pure. Listen as the editor, in his introduction, gives away his bias:

“The nearest approach to an American body of folk-lore is the folk-lore of European origin transplanted and adapted in America–unless, forsooth, we should prefer to regard as representatively American the tribal and ceremonial songs of the Red Indian, which are American in no sense except the geographical, or the folk-songs of the Negro, which, beautiful as they often are, are obviously the heritage of the ‘Homo Africanus’ transplanted in America, not the possession of our white majority.”

Forsooth! This book was being assembled as Virginia was implementing its eugenics laws, sterilizing citizens for being indigenous, black, or otherwise American in no sense except, gee, the geographical, legal, logical, and moral. Terms like “Red Indian” and “Homo Africanus” construct and exaggerate difference for rhetorical effect, as if the so-called races belong to different species.

Now flash forward to one 21st century version of the eugenics program: a current candidate’s proposed wall. Barrier contraception writ large. None of it works–no poem or country has ever been pure, and none ever will be, thank heaven–but people do harm striving for purity anyway.

I’ll keep working on my ballad, getting my own hands dirty, as I look for other ways to protest the fear and hatred ruining us. Last weekend’s horror is not particularly my story to tell, but that’s the point of ballads–they’re all our stories, the young man whose mind goes wrong, hopes ruined, lovers separated by violence, children forever lost to mothers wild with grief. To paraphrase Brooks, the Pulse tragedy has the beat inevitable; the old form is latent in the event, in its very needlessness. How many times do assault rifles have to fire in our public spaces before U.S. politicians repudiate the NRA? As in the ballad “Lord Randal”–sometimes converted by Virginians into “Johnnie Randolph”–I’m sick at heart and I want to lie down.

Two ballads for the road. First, as I said, contemporary literary ballads are hard to write, but I did just publish a poem influenced by the form. It’s in a Mezzo Cammin portfolio of poems responding to Edna St. Vincent Millay; the story it tells is Millay’s (successful) attempt to end an unwanted pregnancy by consuming abortive herbs in Dorset.

sir hughSecond, from my new-old book: it turns out that one of the few ballad variants sourced to Lexington is “Sir Hugh”, sometimes called “The Jew’s Daughter,” or, in a sanitized version, “The Fatal Flower Garden.” I can’t bring myself to type it out so I’ve linked to a similar version to the one contributed by “Mr. and Mrs. George McLaughlin” in 1916 (I live very near McLaughlin St.). It tells of a Christian boy whose ball goes over a wall into “the old Jew’s garden.” Tempted by his neighbor’s daughter, the boy ventures after it and is brutally murdered. “Sir Hugh” preserves and promotes the anti-Semitism of medieval Europe; its tale was used to justify pogroms. It’s also, in its toxic way, haunting. Ballads can poison as well as console us–promote violence as well as deplore it. Impure.

 

 

 

All my words small but costly: Emerson, illness, and work

Sometimes there’s a poetry-sized gap in your life. Today I filled it with a vintage stored against future need–Claudia Emerson’s final collection, Impossible Bottle. This was supposed to be one of those golden weeks, too rare even on sabbatical, when I had no big obligations and could just write and revise, but it’s not happening. Presumably the meds will kick in soon, but a sinus infection has made me sleepy and dizzy, plus I’m just tired from doing too much: an unexpected trip to visit my mother in hospital was followed by zooming down bad roads in the dark and rain to a 2-day AWP board meeting in DC (an impressive group–check it out). On the Saturday after, I had a sore throat but couldn’t resist a few hours at the Library of Congress looking at Millay’s papers. Next was writing an interview about Radioland from Frances Donovan’s wonderful blog Garden of Words, a joint signing with Chris Gavaler at Lexington’s Bookery, Bookeryand making soup to bring to my mom on the way to Family Weekend at Wesleyan, which I totally shouldn’t have attended, not only because I was getting sicker but because my son was, too. We ended up leaving Connecticut very early on Saturday to get my son back to a doctor. He was diagnosed with walking pneumonia so he’s still home from school, and from my fainting couch (not really) I’m nagging him constantly (really) about hydration, rest, and make-up work. And above it all I’m deeply worried about my mom, who has an aggressive lymphoma and starts chemo this Friday. Really, who could concentrate?

Emerson’s spare and lovely poems about illness, though, are good medicine. Honestly, while there are a lot of strong 2015 collections I have not yet read, I can’t imagine many are more deserving of notice on the best-of lists than Impossible Bottle. Full of gorgeous ruins and scenes of beauty gone wrong, it has the spiritual quality of H.D.’s war poem Trilogy, although Emerson’s crisis is more personal–instead of bombings, metastasis, and instead of Europe, a vividly evoked Virginia. In fact, a Virginian reader can date many of its poems in relation to public disasters. Our 2011 earthquake makes an appearance as well as the 2012 derecho. But cancer is primary, and outer storms only the “vaguest mirror” to a deeply inward book. The predominance of couplets reminds me of Trilogy, too, although many lines are left single, as if widowed. Formally, “Infusion Suite” is particularly brilliant–these twelve poems feel like a sonnet crown, but they turn out to consist of thirteen lines each. Emerson’s lyric is ominous and foreshortened.

It feels a little false, however, to review this book intellectually, with the critical gaze I’m trained to level at verse. It’s a personal book and, further, I cannot help but take personally, and not only because of my mother’s illness. Claudia taught at W&L in the mid-90s–she was a veteran adjunct professor here as I, ten years younger and much greener, started on the tenure track. Her friendship and example were important to me. I have an essay drafted about that time in relation to her first book, Pharaoh, Pharaoh, but I haven’t managed to polish it up and get it out, probably for the same reason I put off reading this last collection–it all feels too final.

Yet the book itself makes an argument for continuance of the self, for good and ill, through the work we leave behind. In “Well,” for example, she reflects on a relic “more remnant than place,” built by a great-uncle striving for usefulness–but the well draws up toxic water she drank throughout childhood (radon is prevalent in Virginia groundwater, particularly in her family’s region). The fourth poem in “Infusion Suite” concerns a mechanic named Leonard who specializes in repairing “the under-// carriage of a car after a wreck,/ realignment, the stuff nobody ever sees/ and will never notice unless–no, until–// it gets out of whack.” (The latter poem shifts in register to a funny punchline, but I won’t spoil it–go look.) I drew the title of my blog from the same sequence; it refers on its surface level to a game of scrabble. Poetry is work, too, enduring for a little while or longer, but not the only worthwhile kind of labor.

I’m glad, personally, that the speaker of these poems, while immensely sympathetic, is no sainted martyr. “Imagining narratives// worse than my own has become a kind of balm,” she confesses in “Murder Ballad,” and elsewhere Emerson studies bitterness and self-pity and despair. Cancer is an enemy and a metaphor but also just a stupid accident. I find the last line of “Cyst” especially chilling in its examination of awful randomness: “mistake a body can make,” set alone at the bottom of the page, opens up a dark coincidence in language. “Mistake” is “make” with an “ist” or “cyst” in it. Good effort, poisoned.

Praise to good effort! Even though we’re not entirely in charge of where words take us, these are valuable, resonant ones. Impossible Bottle is balm I’m grateful for. Now it’s back to a long list of postponed obligations–reviews, references, book promotion, a conference paper and other prep for the Modernist Studies Association meeting in Boston (see here for info on a reading I’m organizing there). I’ll sign off for now with an image from the Millay papers at the Library of Congress. You need permission to quote from most of the material, but this note to lover George Dillon by Millay (scrawling on her husband’s stationery) is in the “unrestricted” box. It expresses her shock and sorrow at the death of Elinor Wylie. Like Millay, I’d rather my favorite poets continue in life than in words alone, but I guess we have to work with whatever hand appears in the random scrabble pile, that “sorry trough of letters.”Millay on Wylie

Doctored

The latest Wheeler-Gavaler time-travel expedition: a Virginia bed and breakfast presided over by a former patient of Dr. William Carlos Williams.

anderson cottage

Ten or twelve years ago, my mom came to stay with the kids as Chris and I, feeling desperate from too much work and too much toddler-chasing, retreated to Warm Springs for a weekend. Thomas Jefferson made the same escape once, although he was more afflicted by rheumatism than toddlers or email. The Homestead in nearby Hot Springs being well out of our price range, we stayed near the Jefferson Pools and took the waters gratefully, although we did mosey into the resort for afternoon tea, as friends had recommended. We loved our B&B, Anderson Cottage, built around 1790. One of the oldest buildings in Bath County, it’s seated alongside a warm stream thick with tadpoles and loud with frogs by twilight. We stayed in the main house, which is full of interesting old books and Asian art, and enjoyed talking to the proprietor, Jean Graham Randolph Bruns. I told her I was a poetry professor and was startled to learn that Williams had been her pediatrician, although she doesn’t remember him. While she was still little, the Depression dried up most of the potential employment for her father, a civil engineer. Her family left Rutherford in the early 30s and returned to Virginia.

During our first visit, I decided we’d come back some year with somewhat older kids and stay in the adjacent cottage, formerly a separate kitchen built a few decades after the main house. I didn’t expect to wait so long!–virtually to the last moment, since Madeleine is off to college in September and won’t be making many, or any, spring getaways with us again. We brought baguettes and cheeses for a Friday night picnic by the stream, took walks, enjoyed the liberty of bad cellphone reception. The kids were pretty skeptical about spending the morning soaking in sulphur-smelling water, and the old wooden buildings are indeed decrepit. They look just as in old black-and-white photos, in fact, except that the men wear clothes now during “family swim” (rather than bathing naked) and women have traded in their rompers. They were surprised to enjoy themselves, I think. In fact, we probably soaked too long, because we were staggering around hot and dizzy for hours after.

I’m not sure how many guests Jean hosts these days, but breakfast table conversation at the B&B is still literary. The two other visitors were retired professors (linguistics and law) who have returned religiously since the 1980s. We talked about poems we’d memorized in school; I’m fairly certain Jean can still recite “The Raven” in its entirety, although she only treated us to a few lines. She’s a descendant of the Andersons for whom the cottage is named (it used to be Locustlyn before the locust trees died, and in other incarnations housed a tavern and Miss Daingerfield’s School for Girls). I had just been reading about John Randolph of Roanoke in connection with Ezra Pound’s Canto LXXXVIII, so I asked her if her maiden name linked her to the old Virginia clan. “Oh, yes, descendant of Pocahontas, cousin to Jefferson, all that,” she said, smiling, and yes, when I searched for her name just now, I found those genealogies. Jean has grandchildren in Thailand, so the First Families of Virginia have traveled far.

Our last stop before leaving on Sunday morning was to the Warm Springs cemetery. Bath County is Civil War territory, site of hospitals and skirmishes, and some of the old stones are dated even earlier. My daughter rolls her eyes when I want to poke around the clover: why, mom? Do you LIKE to get freaked out? In fact, nothing seemed eerie about that green hill or, for that matter, our 1820s kitchen cottage, although the lower floor seemed permanently damp and cool. Food storage, once? Servant and/or slave quarters? Bath County produced officers who served on both sides of the Civil War, but enslaved people certainly helped build and maintain a village that now seems so quaint and peaceful, the old violence effaced. And while the bathers at Jefferson Pools are multiethnic now, the attendants are still African American, just as in those black-and-white pictures. These creased mountains ought to be haunted.

Time past pervades time present, to mangle a T. S. Eliot quote–the quickly-shifting local mist seems like an apt metaphor for how yesterday obscures today, and then suddenly evanesces. Certainly I was tripping over my own temporal slippages all weekend. The little son who so tired me out once is taller than I am now and finishing middle school. I saw Warm Springs palimpsestically, with several kinds of history layered beneath its May greenery. There may be no more locust trees on the Anderson Cottage property, but there’s an enormous lilac, the biggest I’ve ever seen. And there are still a few cones of bloom left.

  

Teaching and writing in the Confederacy

My cushy job is supported by bequests from wealthy people. I knew some of that wealth must have been amassed in ethically fishy ways. However, I only learned for sure a couple of weeks ago that my home institution prospered directly and substantially from slavery. This unsurprising fact is still so shocking I can barely write about it.

Various news outlets recently featured the apparently controversial story that, in 2014, Washington and Lee University is becoming slightly less hospitable to nostalgia for the Confederacy. I’m happy confederate flag replicas are being removed from Lee Chapel—it’s a good change, if overdue—though the furious editorials in the local paper seem seriously overblown to me. C’mon, people. There’s still a recumbent statue of Robert E. Lee roughly where the altar should be. Our institution is still named after him.

On the same day the president was explaining to reporters what flags we would not wave and why, a timeline of African American history at W&L was circulated to the faculty. This, it seems to me, is the more interesting, disturbing, important story. The kicker comes under the heading “1826”:

“‘Jockey’ John Robinson dies and leaves his entire estate to Washington College. An Irish immigrant who had himself been an indentured servant, Robinson had amassed a considerable fortune as a horse trader, whiskey distiller, and plantation owner… Proceeds of the bequest, which was nearly as large as George Washington’s gift of canal stock, included ‘all the negroes of which I may die possessed together with their increase…’ Accounts different slightly on the total number of enslaved men, women and children whom Robinson owned at the time of his death, but it ranged from 73 to 84.” [emphasis mine]

The university is named after Washington as well as the Confederate general who presided here after the Civil War, while Robinson just gets a building. Yet Robinson’s gift was a defining one. Washington College profited from the labor of these human beings for years and then pocketed the proceeds from their auction. The last two slaves owned directly by my employer were sold in 1852. If you scroll down to that date you can download a senior honors thesis on the subject from 2007, so clearly I have been working hard to maintain my comfortable ignorance. It’s also clear my institution has not been advertising this part of its history very audibly, much less seeking to redress it.

I will sound dismissible to some readers, I know—another squawking Yankee. Twenty years ago, I packed up my New Jersey mallwear to move to Virginia, and the move did alarm me. Some of my fear concerned W&L in particular. There was national gossip about bad behavior in the English department: “snake pit,” one adviser warned. The campus itself was as pretty as a country club but while W&L was a highly selective liberal arts college—a great kind of place to teach—I could see right off that many students drove vehicles worth more than my starting salary. They were also uniformed in designer sundresses or navy blazers that marked me, by comparison, as an utter outsider. Aside from the challenges posed by the school’s strange little culture-bubble, I wondered, what would it really mean to live and work in the South? Could two Northern non-churchgoers ever feel at home here?

Some of my fears turned out to be based on stereotypes and bad information. The Virginians I’ve met are racist in the same proportions as the New Jerseyans. They’re not more hospitable than Northerners, either, though they tend to be more polite in casual encounters. A county with lots of artists, small farms, and multiple colleges has to be full of good and interesting people to break bread with, although I wish there were more poets around. I feel almost at home here, and “almost” is as good as it gets for the hypereducated first child of a first-generation immigrant.

As for W&L, even the most homogenous-seeming student body is full of secret difference, and those secretly different students need decent teachers more than ever when the pressure towards social conformity is high. I had a senior colleague who disapproved of the newfangled field of American literature, and whose prejudices began with an Episcopalian dislike of Presbyterians and extended who knows how far. I also had terrific mentors like Visiting Assistant Professor Claudia Emerson, who told a story about playing war as a child with her brother and not realizing for years that the South hadn’t actually won. Those tales helped me frame my constant disorientation about how present the Civil War seemed here—and still seems. In my family, for example, if you said “the war” you might mean World War II or Vietnam. No one ever talked or thought about 1865 outside of a weeklong unit in Social Studies.

Many narrow-minded or otherwise difficult old guys have moved on since, and I helped hire their replacements. And my very good job gets noticeably better every few years as new scholarships attract students whose academic seriousness is ever greater. We do lose people because of W&L’s problematic history and culture—talented students bail out for more diverse institutions, and at least one brilliant colleague whom I still miss terribly just wasn’t going to feel welcome or safe while Civil War re-enactors marched past her Main Street apartment window. People will keep leaving. This sucks.

Ritual reverence for slaveholding white men at various annual college events doesn’t help. I am tired of being asked to admire Robert E. Lee; I don’t. Yet that timeline drives home for me that while I may feel like an alien, I can’t stand apart from, much less above, this history. My ancestors may not have owned African slaves, they weren’t even here, but I have still inherited culpability, and in a much more specific way than white Americans who generally enjoy privileges rooted in centuries of exploitation and discrimination.

Because of this job and this paycheck, I have amends to make, and I don’t know how. My colleague Rod Smith recently pointed me to this Atlantic article on reparations, and yeah, I’d support HR 40. I vote and make donations, but I believe W&L’s specific history needs to inform my professional behavior, too. I’ve always taught and written about African American poetry. I talk about race when I teach white and non-white authors. And I will continue to make the department as hospitable as I possibly can for every literature whiz who dares walk in past those white, white columns. Every student ought to be able to find, in our curriculum, books that illuminate his or her identity. Every diligent person ought to enjoy enough warm support to do his or her very best work. But what else?

I have been wondering if I have responsibilities as a poet. I read Tess Taylor’s The Forage House this weekend. It’s a very good recent poetry collection concerning, in part, her slave-holding white ancestors in Virginia. I admire the book, and I don’t mean to pick on it particularly, but I’m dissatisfied by parts of it. There’s a certain kind of contemporary poem whose essential argument is that history is inaccessible to us, that it’s wrong to appropriate points of view we can never fully comprehend, and that a conscientious writer would never erase real but vanished stories by imposing her own constructions over their fragmentariness. It’s all true. I’ve written that poem and made those arguments myself. Besides, poetry needs to be its own purpose, or maybe to spring from obscure sources. If a poet’s primary goal is historical, the language tends not to go so well. I can’t just will myself to write about W&L’s history in verse and produce good art.

But I stare at those awful lists posted on the timeline and wonder: isn’t there any act of imagination that could honor these lost people? Maybe not. The dead are past our apologies. It doesn’t matter to them that I am thinking about them as I pace these red-brick pathways.

Albert, 13, appraised value $325. My son’s age.  What would he have wanted W&L to become? robinson_slaves_list