Saturday, December 1, 2012

Weekly Updates: Camille Dungy & Heron Tree (Separate Items)

65º ~ a mixed up sky today, moving fast from cloud-cover to sun to cloud-cover but the winds all up in the higher levels, preparing for unseasonable highs, more raking time?

The end of the semester is upon us.  At PTC, we have one full week of classes left and then a week of finals.  Still, I'm clinging to my poetry time as best I can while still teaching, grading, and prepping for end of the semester business as the spring semester hovers in the wings.

For poetry this week, it's been all about the reading.  Camille Dungy came to Little Rock over a year ago.  Ack!  I've had her books Suck on the Marrow and Smith Blue on the to-read stack for far too long.  

Suck on the Marrow (Red Hen Press, 2010) puts me in mind of Rita Dove's Thomas and Beulah, although a book that stands alongside Dove's rather than in its shadow.  In this collection Dungy provides narratives in plain speech that open a glimpse into the slavery of the 19th century in America.  It teaches gently with a preface that the U.S. did in fact withdraw from the international slave trade but did not end slavery within its borders, leaving slaveholders having to find new ways to gain labor: by breeding their current slaves, by smuggling in foreign-captured slaves, and by kidnapping free African Americans from the North and enslaving them in the South.  While I'm sure I learned of this once upon a time in a history class, I was startled awake by the preface and then by the poems, confronting once again a system so brutal far too many of us turn our eyes away.

Suck on the Marrow is divided into four sections.  The first contains the story of Joseph Freeman, a once-free African American kidnapped in Philadelphia and sold into slavery on the Jackson farm in Virginia.  His story is echoed by his wife Melinda's voice in the fourth section as she has to move on with life.  In between we get voices of others, Molly & Shad, and a woman who reinvents herself, escaping slavery only to become a prostitute in an attempt to earn enough money to gain a true freedom.  Finally, there are two "loose" poems at the end of the book, one a found poem, "'Tis of thee, sweet land," and one a prose poem serving as a kind of glossary for the entire book.

Here is a glimpse from "Survival."

The body winnows.  The body tills.  The body knows
sow's feet, sow gut, night harvested kale.  The body knows
to sleep through welted dreams, to wake
before night succumbs to morning.

Wheat, wheat, tobacco, corn: the body knows.

Smith Blue (Southern Illinois University Press, 2011) takes a huge leap away from Dungy's previous book and becomes global in its protest.  The poems in this book form a much looser arc, branching from the devastation of war (and the technology of war) to environmental devastation to our own human mortality and the losses we suffer when we choose to love.  Here, Dungy's skill with the lyric form, still laced with narrative hints, shines.

Without being heavy-handed, these are political poems, and in the end, Dungy is left with one wish, the wish that language might cause change.  Here's an excerpt from "Association Copy," in which the speaker holds a copy of one of Levine's books that another poet has sold in a used bookstore, that other poet's name inscribed in the front cover denoting ownership.

Mostly, I want to believe you held onto the book,
that your fingers brailed those pages' inky veins
even in your final weeks.  I want to believe
words can be that important in the end.

 This may seem a rather basic statement, but when taken in the context of the entire book which refuses to turn away from the horrors of the Iraq and Afghanistan wars and the melting of the global ice caps, these few lines vibrate with importance. 


Finally, one last call for poems to be submitted to Heron Tree (if you read this post today, Saturday, 1 December).  Our submission inbox closes tonight!  Hurry, hurry!  We are notifying on a rolling basis and will begin publication in January!  (Do the exclamation points denote my excitement well enough or should I add more?)

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