“The past is not dead. It’s not even past.” – William Faulkner
I have just had the pleasure of writing an introduction to poet Eleanor Swanson’s Trembling in the Bones, to be re-issued by 3: A Taos Press. Swanson utilizes documentary evidence of the Ludlow Mine Massacre of 1914 for her poems.
I raise this because as a poet, I am haunted by history. In particular, the history of America. According to Joseph Harrington in Docupoetry and Archive Desire, “we are in the midst of something of a flourishing of documentary literary forms.”
Frankly, I hope this is the case.
If we look at second-term Poet Laureate Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard, for example, the second section of the book relates, in a kind of fierce lyric, the history of a Black regiment during the Civil War. Her long poem, Native Guard, is divided by dates in history, in crown sonnets no less, in the voice of a former slave now in the Native Guard. The section is lit with a quote from Frederick Douglas: If this war is to be forgotten, I ask in the name of all things sacred what shall men remember?
I think Douglas’s thought is relevant for us today. And Trethewey’s book reminds us again and again…”every lost limb, and what remains…beneath battlefields, green again,/the dead molder—a scaffolding of bone/we tread upon, forgetting. Truth be told.”
I guess what I’m getting at is what poetry can do. And what I hope to do in Root Work, the manuscript I’m working on. Using the epistolary
and persona poetry forms, as well as fragment, collage and other forms, I hope to “save history” and to reexamine both the historical figure of John
Brown, but perhaps equally pressing, the imaged voice of his wife, Mary Day
Brown. I am attempting to use
these poems to speak about slavery, race, class and gender through the voices of
the Browns, but also inside “ghost codes” and the taken-down voices of
runaways. As Swanson does with miners and theirs wives, and Threthewey does
with the voices of Black soldiers, that is, a re imagine them as individuals, based on documented
history and fact, I am trying to bring to life, again, John and Mary Brown. I think we need them.
Docupoetry and archive desire by Joseph Harrington, Jacket 2: www.Jacket2.org/article/docupoetry-and-archive-desire.