Saturday, January 16, 2010

Trivializing Slavery and the Middle Passage?

In one of my classes, in 2002, I showed the movie Amistad. The depiction of that passage across the Atlantic stays with me. Even as I watched it, my poetry brain was making connections, seeing it as a metaphor for so many things. It led to the poem which I pasted below, which was published here in Clapboard House.

In my writing, I've always felt free to go wherever I wanted to go, to follow whatever sparkling threads and bread crumbs my muse (the one who works in cahoots with my subconscious) leaves for me. In my publishing efforts, I pause a bit.

I worry about being sacrilegious--not that I worry about a jealous God smiting me, but I don't want to trample all over people's beliefs. While my poems stay true to my beliefs, my beliefs which are undergirded by decades of reading and close study, I know that alienating people is not the way to open a discussion about differing beliefs.

I wonder, too, about some of the imagery I've used, imagery that doesn't come from my own heritage. If you look at my fair skin and hair, it's clear that I'm not descended from slaves or Native Americans. My Scottish shipbuilder ancestor wasn't rich enough to own slaves, I'm fairly sure, and my German farming ancestors could barely afford to feed themselves, so they weren't owning other humans.

I'm reminded of the discussion that we had in a creative writing class that I took when I was nineteen. We (the students) all argued that a man couldn't possibly understand what it was like to be a woman, and that a white person couldn't write the experience of a black person. The teacher fought valiantly against our view, but he didn't convince any of us at the time.

How little we believed in the powers of the imagination! Oh we of little faith!

Needless to say, after several decades of writing experience, I disagree with my nineteen year old self. I think that a thoughtful, empathetic imagination can probably understand the situation of any character we want to create.

Yet I also want to tread carefully. I don't want to trivialize anyone's history.

So, after all that preamble, here's my poem, which links marriage at midlife to the Atlantic ocean voyage endured by slaves. Have I pushed the metaphor too far?

Middle Passage of Marriage

Our younger selves—those feckless
European adventurers—fettered
us together. Marriage, a brilliant capitalist
scheme to make money
or at least to collect presents,
and we are left to cope
with the decisions of our younger selves,
decisions made with callous
disregard for the human flesh involved.

Shackled below the decks, we make our perilous
way across the Atlantic of our lives together.
We have spent most of our days
on this journey staring at each other’s skin,
knowing the other’s every habit.
We have kept each other alive and sane,
in part because the alternative is so grisly.

If I let you go, watched you slide
into the abyss, I still wouldn’t be free.
It would be worse to be chained
to your corpse, so I settle
into this Middle Passage.

I yearn for the freedom of our youth,
those carefree days when we didn’t know
the boredom of these watery vistas,
the endless irritations in the hold of this ship.

Ignorant of the horrors
that await us, the indignities we shall suffer
as we slave on the plantation
of aging, I hold tight to the hope
of a New World, a continent to call my own.

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