Friday Finds: The Peace of Wild Things by Wendell Berry (Poetry Review)

I’m not going to lie: I chose this book because I liked the title and the cover. When I spotted the book at my local Oxfam books, I had vaguely heard the name ‘Wendell Berry’, but I was mostly just drawn to the sparse cover image of the cracked, winter branches. I also liked the title-The Peace of Wild Things-the tension there between ‘peace’ and ‘wild’. And even though I’m not a super outdoorsy person I often enjoy poetry that deals directly with nature and the natural world (for example, I love Mary Oliver). So when I read on the back that Berry is considered ‘the poet laureate of America’s heartland’ and writes (according to a quote from The Washington Post) ‘with calm and sanity out of the wilderness’, I was intrigued.

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Madeira Mondays: changes ahead!

Almost two years ago, I sat down to write the first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. I had just finished my Doctorate of Fine Arts (which was looking at 18th century historical fiction and forgotten women in the early American South), was working on a historical fiction novel, was volunteering as a costumed historical guide…basically my life was: all 18th century, all the time. This blog series was meant to be a fun way to share my research and passion by writing about all the cool (and bizarre) stuff I’d learned about during my PhD. I would share 18th century recipes and strange facts about 18th century underwear! My first post was on one of my favorite novels about this period of early American history: Johnny Tremain by Esther Forbes.

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Madeira Mondays: A Witch in Time by Constance Sayers (Book Review)

This book was such a pleasant surprise! I should say immediately that when I received it as part of my subscription to ‘How Novel’, which sends you a mystery book each month, I was a bit turned off by the ridiculous and goofy title: A Witch in Time.

The UK paperback version of it that I received had a lovely cover with intricate gold designs but the title…my initial reaction was to roll my eyes. I personally struggle with titles so – I get it. Titles are hard. And I know that titles should, ideally, from a marketing perspective, reveal something about the content of the book to those who haven’t read it. But to title a book about a time traveling witch…’A Witch in Time’? It’s actually a little bit insulting to this rather well written, well researched and overall interesting novel – to give it such a goofy title based on a bad pun! I am convinced the author did not pick this silly title!

That being said – I really enjoyed A Witch in Time (arg! I can barely write it!), which tells the story of a woman reincarnated in four different time periods (ranging from the 1890s through to the mid 2000s) and cursed to relive a doomed love affair in each. A lot of the book is about art (we meet several artists, painters, photographers, writers) and also about breaking the (sometime self-destructive) patterns of behavior that we find ourselves in – more on that in a second.

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Madeira Mondays: Ben Dorain: a conversation with a mountain (Book Review)

‘Imagine/you’ve spent hours walking the mountain/deeper and deeper in/until you’ve come to know its paths/its rocks and burns, its deer trails/as well as you know the surface of the leaf/held all day between finger and thumb’ – from Ben Dorain, ‘Part Five: Colour’

This is an immensely special book. It’s the sort of book where, as I was reading it, I kept putting little sticky notes next to phrases or words I liked – until the pages were too cluttered up with sticky notes and I had to force myself to stop.

Frequently I post on this blog about ‘historical fiction’ i.e. fictional works set in a previous era (usually the 18th century!). This book is not historical fiction per se but it certainly concerns history and approaches history in some pretty unique, challenging and ultimately really fascinating ways. It’s a book of poetry which is at once a loose translation of an 18th century Gaelic poem by Duncan Ban MacIntyre AND an entirely new poem by author Garry MacKenzie. Both poems explore a highland mountain called Ben Dorain, and specifically a herd of deer who live there. Both the old and the new poems are positioned next to each other – side by side – on each page. They intermingle, as past and present often do, into one new whole where, as MacKenzie writes in his introduction, ‘various voices and traditions speak alongside each other.’

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Madeira Mondays: ‘For I will consider my cat, Jeoffry’

‘(Christopher Smart’s) poem about his cat is to all other poems about cats what The Illiad is to all other poems on war.’ – TS Eliot

These days, lots of people post pictures of their pets online. We can see these pictures as little tributes, little celebrations of these animals – their cuteness, their ridiculous quirks, their personalities. Back in 18th century London, Christopher Smart, a ‘mad’ poet living in an insane asylum, wrote a tribute to his feline companion, an orange cat called Jeoffry, in the form a poem. The lines that he wrote about Jeoffry became some of the most famous words ever written about a cat in all of English literature, and over the ages, Jeoffry has become a bit of a literary celebrity.

Oliver Soden’s delightful little gem of a book Jeoffry, The Poet’s Cat: A Biography (2020) imagines the life of Jeoffry the cat himself and his misadventures in Georgian London.

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‘Nothing of Floods’: A Poem

I felt compelled to share a poem with you today.

I recently received the sad news that my grandmother in Texas – who I was very close with – died of Covid, so I wanted to post a poem that I wrote several years ago about her.

Like many poems, it’s a blend of fiction and fact. In many ways it’s about the stories that we tell ourselves to understand the world and each other. My grandma and I didn’t see the world in exactly the same way. She was very religious, a Southern Baptist, specifically, and this brought her a lot of peace and comfort. I’m not religious at all. As I grew up, there were times when this caused some friction and I was really forced to reckon with how I could love and respect someone so much, who saw the world so differently? Who I disagreed with in so many fundamental ways? Of course, I don’t have any ‘answers’ to those questions. But I suppose poems are more about asking questions than they are about offering answers.

I wrote this poem in early 2018. It was commended in the British Army’s Poetry competition on the theme of ‘Armistice’ (to commemorate the one hundred year anniversary of the armistice which ended WWI) and first published in their prizewinners anthology, Writing Armistice. I really liked responding to this theme. For me, it was interesting that an ‘armistice’ doesn’t mean necessarily the end of a war, but instead it’s a formal agreement to stop fighting and to work towards peace.

I loved my grandmother. And love isn’t always smooth or simple, as you know. Sometimes divides cannot be crossed. But sometimes, they can be. I am thinking of her today, and I’m thinking of all of you, hopeful that you haven’t lost someone during this time. But if you have, I’m so very sorry and you’re not alone. I’m doubly sorry if you’re apart from your family and friends as well, which makes these things extra hard to endure.

I’ll be back next week with more historical and literary explorations for you. (I’m excited about this upcoming ‘Madeira Mondays’ in particular, which is about a great historical novel that explores disease in early America). Until then, thank you so much for reading, it means a lot, and I hope you like the poem.

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Nothing of Floods

Grandma, when I pinched the skin
on the back of your hand
it made mountains, slow to sink
back to land.

We watched movies with kids singing
Jonah and the Whale –
I imagined bone rafters,
swamps of grey stomach sludge,

and Noah’s Ark –
horse eyes through wooden slats,
sea spray in a man’s beard
like dew on grass.

I said, ‘I prefer Tolkien
or Grimm’s’ –
dwarves in damp caverns,
talking trees,
Elf writings on rock.

You screamed, ‘This is not a fairy tale.’

But not as much as you screamed
when I asked why God
was not a woman?

You said
I would go to hell.

I called you naïve,
for believing those things,

as rain clattered down
on your tin trailer roof.

We didn’t speak for a while.

When we talked again
it was about jewelry,
traffic, butter in mash potatoes.
Nothing of floods, sons of God,
vengeful Pharaohs.

Sometimes I dream of a manger –
crisp straw poking holes
in our cotton dresses,
heavy barnyard smell
draped over our shoulders,
slick newborn with fat cheeks
sobbing.

Outside, the moon tugs at water.
I pull up loose skin on the back
of your hand. You kiss my forehead
as stars whir with delight
because they are memories
flung through time,

whether or not
you believe it’s magic.

 

Madeira Mondays: 2020 Recap

I’ve had several discussions with friends recently about time and our perception of it during this very strange year.

It feels, to me, that January 2020 was about a thousand years ago – so much has happened since (a global pandemic, a turbulent US Presidential race, an altered state of life for everyone)! But it also feels that January 2020 was only a minute or two ago, considering that also so little has happened since (vacations canceled, jobs lost, a string of blurring and indistinct days as we’re all stuck inside).

Whether you feel like time has passed slowly or quickly for you – or if (like me!) you feel that it has passed quickly AND slowly – I’d encourage you to look backwards and think on anything you’re proud of this year. Even if what you’re proud of is quite simply just making it through this year!

For me, one of those things I’m proudest of is all of these Madeira Mondays posts. It’s brought me joy to write them, and the consistency of it has kept me sane during the ups and downs of the creative freelancer’s life. Some weeks are full of exciting creative work – writing, editing, researching, teaching, performing – while some weeks are full of the not-so-nice side of this work – constant rejections, negotiating contracts (thankfully with the help of my union!), tedious funding applications, and oh, did I mention the constant rejections?

Through all the highs and lows of this year, including launching a new poetry book, Madeira Mondays has been there for me. And I’ve heard from several of you that it’s been there for you too! A couple of you have reached out and said that it’s something you look forward to starting your week with, and that makes me so happy to hear – especially this year, when we quite desperately need things to look forward to!

I’ve done some reflecting on the year that has passed and pulled out just a handful of my personal favorite Madeira Mondays posts from 2020. We’ve covered so many topics, from 18th century underwear, to swear words, to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. I’ve reviewed tons of historical books, films and TV shows, as well as visited historic sites in Scotland and the US. We’ve covered so much ground this year despite, well, literally not covering that much ground!

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The Best of ‘Madeira Mondays’ (2020)

Most unexpectedly delicious recipe…

That would be absolutely be switchel! This ’18th century energy drink’ with lemon and ginger was delicious, and I’ve made it several times since. If you want to learn the recipe and how I made it, check out the post from June.

A very tasty glass of Switchel!

Best film I’ve watched set in the 18th century…

I’ve watched quite a few historical films this year, but my personal favorite (and this is quite subjective) was: Portrait of a Lady on Fire. It’s a queer love story set in 18th century France, and while it wasn’t perfect, I thought it was pretty darn good. Lots of broody, moody, melancholy shots of girls standings on cliffs staring out into the horizon. Yup, I loved it.

My ‘most read’ post…

This one wasn’t actually decided by me but by you and all the people who read Madeira Mondays, but by far and away one of my posts has been the most viewed this year: my analysis, from July, of Tracy K. Smith’s poem ‘Declaration’, which is an erasure poem based on the Declaration of Independence. The post talks about slavery and its ‘erasure’ from the declaration, as well as the power of poetry to explore historical silences and this has by far been the most viewed post of 2020.

Something that is especially meaningful about this is the fact that I can see that several people who read the post actually clicked the link to read the Declaration itself, from the US national archives. This brings me joy because if you’re an American, this document belongs to you, in a sense. I’m thrilled that my post is encouraging further engagement with it!

My favorite site visit…

I love visiting historical sites (if you work at or run one in the UK and would like to chat about the possibility of me visiting, please do get in touch!), but of course this year didn’t allow for many! I think my favorite site visit though was from this summer, when I went to the Highland Folk Museum, and saw a recreated rural 18th century village. I was glad to be able to provide a sort of virtual ‘tour’ of it, for you.

One of the turf houses we explored on our visit to the Highland Folk Museum!

My favorite historical fiction novel I read this year…

This is, again, purely down to personal tastes. I don’t know if this book is objectively the STRONGEST (in terms of style, structure, etc.) but it’s certainly the one that has stuck with me most and that’s: Celia Garth by Gwen Bristow. This was written back in the 1950’s and while it has its limitations, it’s suspenseful, punchy, and totally sucked me in. I really enjoyed this sweeping drama about a plucky young seamstress in Revolutionary War South Carolina. It’s got some good characters and thinking of the last line still gives me chills (I’ve actually got chills as I’m writing this now!).

Best non-fiction history book I read this year…

I’d say that’s: The Five by Hallie Rubenhold. This popular book (which I believe came out in 2019 or 2018) follows the lives of the five women who were killed by Jack the Ripper in Victorian London. It’s an excellent portrait not just of them, but also of the society in which they lived. I think the historical research also seemed pretty sound (I’m not a historian, but I’ve worked with historians and read many books by both historians and journalists about history, and this was just my impression!).

Most fun post to write…

That would probably be my post talking about how I researched/wrote one of the poems from my second poetry pamphlet, which was released in July: Anastasia, Look in the Mirror. These posts looked at how I researched the Salem Witch Trials, and what influence had had on my poem, ‘The First Afflicted Girl’. Since I wrote this poem a while ago, it was fun to reflect back on how it was built. Much of my PhD focused on how creative writers access the early American past (through primary sources, like letters and diaries, but also secondary sources, other media etc) and so it was great to reflect on that poem and its beginnings. Hopefully that post is inspiring for fellow historical fiction writers, especially.

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And that’s it, folks! My favorite posts from 2020.

What have been your favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ from this year? 

What are you proud of having accomplished this year, even if (especially if!) it’s something ‘small’ (i.e. keeping a plant alive, talking regular walks, learning a new skill etc.)?

This was taken in the Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, during my trip to visit my step-sister there in October 2019

Also, I wanted to let you know that this will be the last Madeira Mondays for 2020. But I’ll only be away for two weeks, and then back on Monday January 4th, with a whole new batch of these posts for 2021!

If you’ve enjoyed this series, please do recommend this blog to a friend, or share with them any of the posts you’ve enjoyed! That really means a lot to me, as our little community of curious minds grows. And if you want to further support me and my work, a great way to do that is to order one of my books! There is more information about all of them on my publications page, and you can order my latest, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, on the publisher’s website here.

Most of all, I want to thank you all SO MUCH for reading. Many of you have blogs yourselves and thank you for writing those, as they’ve provided so much solace and entertainment for me during this really difficult time.

Have a wonderful holiday season, and see you all in 2021 my friends!

PS Today’s Featured Image is: ‘A British man of war before the Rock of Gibraltar’, By Thomas Whitcombe. (This ship represents us sailing off, towards 2021 and new adventures together in the new year!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

 

A Year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

Exactly one year ago, I sat down to write my first ‘Madeira Mondays’ post. My initial idea for this series was that it would look at early American history and historical fiction. I have always been passionate about early American history, from a surprisingly young age. See (rather grainy) photographic evidence below of me in high school alongside some of my history teachers. We dressed up in 18th century garb when a Declaration of Independence broadside came to the school. Our job was to educate the public about the document and, oh boy, was I thrilled to do it!

When I began ‘Madeira Mondays’, I had just finished up my PhD, a Doctorate of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from the University of Glasgow, and my research there had focused on how creative writers access and represent the American Revolution specifically. Part of my doctorate had also involved writing a full-length historical fiction novel set during the American Revolution. So my life, for three years, had effectively been all 18th century, all the time. And I really wanted to communicate some of that knowledge (and enthusiasm!) to the wider community somehow, and to make friends online who were similarly interested in history, books, and generally learning and chatting about the past. (My friends and family in life are brilliant as well, don’t get me wrong! And many of them do follow the blog – hello!).

I named the series ‘Madeira Mondays’ after the fortified Portuguese wine that was popular in 18th century America (there’s a great article here from a historian about the history of Madeira). Wine is something drunk socially at gatherings and I wanted this blog to be a gathering, of sorts, and a place to share.

‘Sea Captains Carousing in Surinam’ by John Greenwood, c. 1752-58. Located at the St Louis Art Museum. Looks like those guys are enjoying a LOT of Madeira!

Gradually the series widened out, so now I focus not just on early American history, but 18th century history more generally. I do live in Scotland after all, and there’s so much brilliant history here from that time period!

Today marks the official one year anniversary of ‘Madeira Mondays’, which means I’ve written over fifty posts about everything from 18th century swear words to the surprisingly interesting history of ketchup. There have been tons of historical film and book reviews, as well as a look at the links between 18th century fashion and RuPaul’s Drag Race. I’ve talked about my experience as a reenactor, and my writing process for writing some of the historical poems in my new poetry pamphlet. I’ve cooked recipes, attended conferences and visited historic sites here in Scotland and further afield. I’m proud of myself for sticking with it and can’t quite believe it’s been a year of ‘Madeira Mondays’!

I think the most fulfilling thing though has been connecting with people online – you! Many of you who follow this blog and enjoy ‘Madeira Mondays’ have blogs of your own, which I’ve loved reading and discovering. Your thoughtful and enthusiastic comments and suggestions here have been a real joy for me, encouraging me to keep this series going and also, quite honestly, making me feel more globally connected during this time of isolation. Writing is always a solitary endeavor, so this blog has been a way for me to balance that, to share and look outwards.

Also – and fellow creative writers I’m sure can relate to this – there is something very satisfying about writing a blog post, when you’re in the midst of working on a long-form creative project like a novel. A blog post is short and sweet and FINISHED within an hour or two. Whereas a novel can take months or, more likely, years.

What I’m trying to say is: thank you for reading this series! I hope that it has been engaging and that you’ve taken something from it. To celebrate ‘A Year of Madeira Mondays’, I’ve picked out five of my favorite ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts from the last year. I’ve picked a couple from the start of the project, since quite a few of you are more newly subscribed, in case you wanted to get a glimpse of the ‘back catalogue’. (They’re also a good place to start if you’re totally new to ‘Madeira Mondays’ and want a sample of what I cover on the blog).

My favorite posts from October 2019-October 2020

  1. The John Adams Miniseries (TV Show Review)

This was one of the first posts I wrote and I think it’s one of the best. It analyzes the HBO series John Adams, about the life of America’s 2nd President. Part of my PhD looked at representations of John Adams specifically in popular culture, and this post was in conjunction with a talk I gave at the Trinity College Dublin as part of their History Conference 2019.

Me dressed up as John Adams to deliver my paper at Trinity College Dublin. The conference was free, fun and open to the public and the organizers said ‘costumes are encouraged.’ As you know from the start of this post, I need no encouragement.

2. The Witch (Movie Review)

This post looks at one of my favorite movies set in early America – The Witch by Robert Eggers! A spooky and cleverly made film set in Puritan New England. It’s about an evil witch who lives in the woods…or is it?

3. A Forgotten 18th Century Drink (‘Flip’)

This is one of my favorite posts because my attempt to make this 18th century drink went so horribly wrong. It was one of the nastiest things I’ve ever (tried) to drink and this hilarious failure sticks in my mind.

4. The Poetry of Phillis Wheatley

I’m really proud of this post which showcases the life and writing of one of America’s first poets: Phillis Wheatley. She was internationally famous in her day for her poetry, respected and admired for her work, which is remarkable considering that she was not only a young woman but also a former slave. Her life is interesting but also tragic. Have a read!

This is an original copy of one of Wheatley’s books, which I saw at The Museum of the American Revolution in Philadelphia, in October 2019.

5. The Patriot (Film Review)

This post looks at one of the most famous movies depicting the American Revolution, The Patriot, starring Mel Gibson and Heath Ledger. I have a sort of love-hate relationship with this movie (it’s so ridiculous, but I’m fond of it because I enjoyed it so much as a kid). This post is a two-parter and is, effectively, a rant. ‘Historical accuracy’ is a complex topic, and, as a writer myself, I’m not usually one to care too much about small creative changes made in order to tell a better story. But if you really want to see me come down on a film for its egregious and nonsensical alterations to American history – this is the post for you!

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And that’s it! Five posts from my first year. I hope you enjoy them!

Which ‘Madeira Mondays’ posts have been your favorite ones, so far?

Thank you so much, as always, for joining me on this blogging journey. I publish a new ‘Madeira Mondays’ post every Monday, and if you’d like to subscribe and follow along, please do! I’ll see you next Monday.

Madeira Mondays: Emily Dickinson…teen rebel?

A couple of months back, I wrote a blog post on Emily Dickinson‘s poem about waiting. In that post, I mentioned how Dickinson was one of my favorite poets, especially as I was growing up, and how I have many of her poems memorized. Around that time I also mentioned that I was thinking about watching the new Apple TV series Dickinson, starring Hailee Steinfeld, inspired by the life of Emily Dickinson and a couple of you said you’d be curious to know what I thought of that series. Well – I’ve now seen Episode One of Dickinson entitled ‘Because I Could Not Stop’ and wow – there’s a lot going on in this show.

In Episode One alone, we meet ‘Emily Dickinson’, reimagined as a rebellious and slightly emo teenager who says things like ‘I’m just chilling’ and ‘Hey bro!’ She’s got big literary ambitions and a conservative family (including a mother played by 30 Rock and The Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt‘s Jane Krakowski). We get a sexy steam-punk personification of ‘Death’ in a top hat. We get modern pop music. We get a secret lesbian romance. We get, in short, a lot of stuff. (Who knew so much was going on in rural 19th century Massachusetts?)

Let’s get one thing out of the way, right off the bat: Dickinson isn’t interested in historical accuracy. They make that abundantly clear from the first scene when Emily is asked to get water from a well. She complains that her brother doesn’t have to fetch water. When her sister responds that her brother doesn’t have to do chores because he is a boy, Dickinson says, ‘This is bullshit.’ Now, we can’t know how the real Emily Dickinson spoke, sure, but she was a pious woman living in rural New England at the time of the American Civil War, so…I think we can safely say that she didn’t talk like this. And that’s the whole point of the opening scene – the show is letting you know immediately that they’re going for this sort of irreverent mish-mash of historical characters in period clothes mixed with deliberately anachronistic, modern dialogue and, in many cases, modern attitudes too.

A daguerrotype of Emily Dickinson at age 16 displayed at the Emily Dickinson Museum in Amherst (Photo by Wendy Maeda/The Boston Globe via Getty Images), accessed via The Poetry Foundation Website

I’m actually not sure what to compare this to – in terms of style. The fun and irreverent mix of modern and historical makes me think of Hamilton, but that seems almost unfair to Hamilton, given that Hamilton harnesses modern music in its historical retelling for a strong thematic purpose. By telling a historical story in the contemporary musical language of rap (and by starring a multiracial cast), it’s saying that these stories belong to contemporary, multicultural America. It’s also drawing a parallel between the struggles of an 18th century man, Alexander Hamilton, and the struggles of modern immigrants. It’s also just an innovative musical choice and, when you’re watching it, the music feels fresh and even revolutionary, which conveys the fresh and revolutionary ideals of the man it’s about (notice that King George III doesn’t rap, but the revolutionaries do!).

Maybe Dickinson is doing something similar. Are they trying to show that Dickinson is ahead of her time, by having her speak in a way that is…ahead of her time? Notice that her mother and father don’t talk as casually or in as modern a way as Emily does. They speak in a more ‘period’ fashion. But I think the whole acting-like-a-modern-teenager thing is more for comedy than anything else (at least from Episode One). The tone is actually a lot more similar to something like Drunk History (which Jane Krakowski has actually been a part of) than Hamilton.

I’m really not sure yet if I liked Dickinson. I thought that it would be more like Reign, a teen drama ‘based’ on the life of Mary Queen of Scots which was popular a couple of years ago. I liked Reign because it was basically a soap opera. Crazy stuff (betrayals, affairs, secret plots) were in basically every episode and it didn’t take itself very seriously. I am worried that Dickinson might be taking itself too seriously, or working its way there. I think I’d like it more if it stayed in the more lightly comic tone – I actually laughed out loud once or twice when I was watching it!

I think too that some of the dialogue in Episode One was really heavy-handed, but that might just be because it was the first episode. There’s a lot of exposition and lines like ‘I don’t want to get married! You know that!’ and ‘You’re afraid, Emily? You’re not afraid of anything!’

I am curious to see where it goes though. I’d be fine if they heightened the fun (more steam-punk Death in a carriage!) and played down the family drama stuff, but I’m worried it might go the opposite way. But we’ll see.  I’ve seen/read a few other representations of Dickinson’s life, both quite serious – The Belle of Amherst (a play) and A Quiet Passion (a film from 2016) – but I’ve not seen anything quite like this before.

Emily Dickinson (Hailee Steinfeld) and ‘Death’ (Wiz Khalifa) in Dickinson

I might watch Wild Nights with Emily (2018)which was a purely comedic film, about her supposed romantic relationship with her sister-in-law Susan Gilbert, to compare it with this series (since I think that interesting aspect of Emily’s life will play a big part in this too).

Let me know what you think of Dickinson! I would be so, so curious, if you’ve seen this series, what you think of it? Should I keep watching? Does it improve from this or go downhill? And if you’ve not seen it, what do you think of the sounds of it? (Also excuse that Dickinson falls slightly outside of our ‘Madeira Mondays’ 18th century remit, since it is technically about the early 19th century! But I figured you wouldn’t mind!)

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring 18th century history and historical fiction. Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!

PS And speaking of poets and poetry, I also wanted to let you know that I’m doing a poetry performance online this week with the brilliant ‘spoken word cabaret’ Sonnet Youth.  I’ll be reading poems from my new pamphlet, Anastasia, Look in the Mirror, alongside three other excellent Scotland-based poets. It’s a free to watch video stream, with the option to donate to charity if you’d like. It’s on Thursday, 17 September 2020 from 20:00-21:30 and the event link is here

 

 

Madeira Mondays: An analysis of Tracy K. Smith’s ‘Declaration’

To mark the 4th of July, I’ll be spending the next couple of ‘Madeira Mondays’ looking at various artistic responses to the Declaration of Independence. Some incredibly powerful and serious artworks, some quite lighthearted and silly.

For international readers, the 4th of July is an annual American holiday celebrated to mark the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was a document signed by the Continental Congress in Philadelphia in 1776, in which the 13 American colonies declared their independence from Great Britain. “(T)hese United Colonies are, and of right ought to be Free and Independent States,” the document reads. It also explains why they are declaring their independence, listing out the colonists’ grievances with King George III (they list his ‘abuses and usurpations’ in a basically bullet point list format: ‘He has done THIS wrong and also THIS and, oh wait, THIS too!’). This document was mailed to the King who was, understandably, not happy about it and the Revolutionary War kicked off in earnest (there had already been some smaller battles). If the Americans had lost the war for independence, those that signed the Declaration would certainly have been executed for treason. But, as you know, history went another way!

800px-Declaration_of_Independence_(1819),_by_John_Trumbull

The famous painting ‘Declaration of Independence’ (1819) by John Trumbull, accessed via Wikipedia

It’s a beautifully written document (you can read a transcription of it here) and is widely viewed as a sort of mission statement for American democracy. Its author, Thomas Jefferson, wrote some famous and enduring phrases in it such as:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.

It’s a powerful declaration of not just American rights but also human rights. Yet, whose rights were we talking about here? The 18th century was a time when women had few rights. They were basically, legally, their husband’s property (they obviously couldn’t do things like vote but they also had no control over their finances, their bodies, their children etc.). It was also a time when Africans – women, men and children – were forcibly being kidnapped and sold into bondage to labor on the American continent. I’m talking of course about American slavery, the institution with effects and impact that we can see throughout American history (from the American Civil War, through to segregation and Jim Crow) and are still seeing today (through mass incarceration and urgent calls for criminal justice system reform).

But slavery was an issue on the American founders’ minds too and contrary to popular belief, many of them did know that it was wrong. Thomas Jefferson, writer of the Declaration, called slavery a ‘moral depravity’ and a ‘hideous blot’, while also benefiting from the institution and enslaving more than 600 people over the course of his life. Others, like my personal favorite of America’s founders (for various reasons) John Adams from Massachusetts, was vehemently anti-slavery and never kept any enslaved servants on principal. Yet it would take a civil war the following century, as well as the Emancipation Proclamation and the 13th Amendment, to officially end it.

Slavery was (and is) part of the American story and it remains a great irony that the men who wrote so eloquently about liberty and freedom in the Declaration were, themselves, keeping other people enslaved. It’s this topic which is taken up in former U.S Poet Laureate Tracy K. Smith‘s poem ‘Declaration’.

You can read and listen to the poem here.

‘Declaration’ is an erasure poem. An erasure poem takes a preexisting text and makes a poem by erasing or removing words from it. In this case, Smith takes the Declaration of Independence as her starting point and erases words until a new poem is left. As you read her poem, you can quite clearly see what it is evoking: slavery.

There are several reasons why ‘Declaration’ works so well. Firstly, the form itself. Erasure poetry is by its nature a bit radical and iconoclastic because you’re hacking away at an existing document and making something new. It’s rebellious, just like the Declaration itself. Yet it’s also about erasing things, removing them from sight, which is exactly what the founders did with slavery, which is never mentioned in the Declaration. Jefferson had written a passage about it, basically blaming the institution on the King, but it was struck out, Jefferson claimed, at the insistence of other southern colonies. So it isn’t there. Smith’s poem inverts this original erasure, turning Jefferson’s words against themselves so that the poem now focuses on slavery and the original intent of the document (about the white male colonists’ grievances with the King) has been erased.

The poem also changes the meaning of the pronoun ‘he’. In the original document, this ‘he’ referred to King George III (e.g ‘He has obstructed the Administration of Justice…’). But now this ‘he’ is more nebulous and tough to pin down: he could now be white slavers, but also America, generally, or the institution of slavery personified.

Another reason it’s so powerful is the use of frequent ’em’ dashes (those are the longer dashes), which is the only punctuation that Smith seems to have added (although you could think about all the white space as a kind of punctuation). The em dashes seem to indicate where the phrase continues in the original document but words have been removed e.g. ‘He has plundered our seas, ravaged our Coasts, burnt our towns, and destroyed the lives of our people.’ from the original becomes ‘he has plundered our-/ravaged our-/destroyed the lives of our-‘ in Smith’s poem. In addition to reminding us that this is an erasure poem and words have been removed, all those dashes, also suggest, to me, that in some ways these crimes remain unspeakable. The phrase: ‘Taken away our’, followed by an em dash, is an example of this. Taken away our…what? Our lives? Our spirits? Our humanity? The reader is forced to fill in that awful blank.

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Photo I took in December 2017 at Magnolia Plantation, South Carolina, of a slave cabin on the site

The poem ends on one of these dashes and it’s quite significant, I think, that the final two words are: ‘to bear’. This suggests to me several meanings. Firstly, enslaved people forced to bear (or carry or pick up) tools, but also to bear children, perhaps (sexual violence against enslaved women was pervasive). Yet it also suggests that people are still ‘bear(ing)’ the legacy of slavery now. The poem isn’t finished (there is no end stop), which suggests that the effects of slavery aren’t finished either. It is something that we as a nation must ‘bear’ too.

Smith’s poem cleverly subverts a document which, by its very nature, erased the lives of many. Her words, instead, foreground and express their suffering, while at the time time suggesting that this suffering is inexpressible. It’s a powerful poem and one that reminds me how poetry can change the way that we look at our history and our world.

Let me know what you thought of the poem. Had you read it before? What did you notice about it? Next week, we’re looking a very different artistic response to the Declaration of Independence. Hint: It’s a movie. Any guesses?

Recommended Further Reading:

PS Today’s Featured Image is of an 1823 facsimile of the Declaration, and accessed via Wikipedia

‘Madeira Mondays’ is a series of blog posts exploring Early American history and historical fiction. I’m not a historian, but an author and poet who is endlessly fascinated by this time period. I am also currently writing/researching a novel set during the American Revolution and recently finished a Doctorate of Fine Art looking at how creative writers access America’s eighteenth-century past. 

Follow the blog for a new post every Monday and thanks for reading!