Thursday, January 14, 2010

Harriet Tubman Haunts My Poems

Since I spent so many years as an English major, it's hard for me to just write my work, without also imagining a grad student several hundred years from now writing about it. I know what images I've put in my work, but I wonder what images other people will see. Will they focus on what's important?

And here we're back to some interesting questions in the field of literary criticism. Does it really matter what the author intended? How much should my background as a reader affect my literary criticism? How much should my knowledge of an author affect my reading of the work?

So, dear little future grad student, I wonder if you'll even have access to blogs and such. How will you treat them? Will you see them the way that I see the journals, diaries, and letters of poets and writers? Or, since they're more public documents, will you see them differently? Will you care about what I thought about what I was writing?

In case you will care, let me expound a bit.

I'm a woman who grew up in the U.S. South, just after some of the great successes of the Civil Rights Movement. Our schools in the 1970's and early 1980's were uneasily integrated, that integration enforced by busing (integration which has largely fallen by the wayside now). Our teachers were intent on teaching us that prejudice was wrong. It was hard, though, not to notice what a new idea that was, surrounded as we were by the ruins of great plantations, the ruins of the U.S. South, the knowledge that before the Civil War the U.S. Southern states would have been the richest states and now they seem forever destined to be the poorest.

Or maybe I was just an unusually aware child and teenager.

Anyway, it's no surprise to me that images that come out of slavery haunt my poems. They haunt our country, so why shouldn't they haunt our creative work?

I do worry that perhaps I trivialize some of the material, but I'll write more about that tomorrow.

For today, here's a poem inspired by Harriet Tubman. It first appeared in South Carolina Review, and I included it in my chapbook, Whistling Past the Graveyard.

Running from the Plantation of Despair

I dwell in the plantation of despair,
held in the chains of mistakes and doubts,
whipped by all the demons who keep vigil
over this boggy rice farm of depression.
I’m an ocean away from my home, my happy
self, in a land where I can’t speak the language,
digest the food, or interpret the constellations.

I inhale the dust
of a million dashed dreams. I sink into a songless
sleep and wake to a day drained of color.
Gradually I forget my real name, my mother’s face,
the syllables of my own language. I can no longer
trace the steps that brought me here or plot
escape. No revolutionary, me.

And then she appears at half a crack of dawn, dark
as the night, with my running shoes in her hand.
“Girl, we got to set you free.”

She doesn’t listen to my fears, my creaking
knees, the slow heaving of my lungs.
I follow her light, my North
Star, setting me free. We run to liberty,
avoiding the dangerous dogs, the slaveholders,
naysayers who would sell us back
to the plantation of despair.

2 comments:

Sandy Longhorn said...

Does it really matter what the author intended? This is a question that haunts me as a teacher, as a reader, and as a writer.

As your note on Tubman illustrates, most of us are haunted by our histories, and I'm fascinated by how that all comes out in the work of the writer.

Kristin said...

One of the benefits I've found to being a teacher, a teacher of non-English majors, especially, is seeing how real readers approach a creative work.

These are the kind of readers who I want to reach with my poetry, so it's been instructive to watch them wrestle with the literature.

I don't know that it's changed the way I write, but when I publish my first book-with-a-spine, I might be more inclined to put some explanatory notes about my references and allusions in the back of the book. I wouldn't explain every little thing, but I wouldn't snootily refuse to give any sort of insight either.