by Lauren K. Alleyne (transcribed by Brenda Marie Osbey)

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If you’ve ever had the pleasure of hearing Brenda Marie Osbey read her work, you will remember the mellifluousness of her voice and the compelling cadence of her reading, which is both fluid and deliberate, each word striking at once its own resonance and part of a larger chorus. On the page, this ability to hold the singular and the collective is a hallmark of Osbey’s work. Osbey is a poet of detail; her poems are exercises in accretion, pulling into the same linguistic space specificities that, in an almost pointillist fashion, create a larger picture, contribute a more complex commentary. Her well-known poem Litany of Our Lady is an excellent example. It opens thus:

our lady of the sidewalks
the pavements and the crumbling brick
the mortar rock and oyster-shell roads
our lady of sorrows and sadnesses
of intolerable agonies tolerated daily
of drifters grifters scrappers and scrapers
our lady of dudes and dicks and pricks
of petty thieves and of whoremongers
of piss-swelled gutters
and dives
and the grimed over windows knotty-haired children peer through
our lady
our lady of boys shot down in the dark
dying in open lots along lesser used roads leading out of town
of old men beneath interstates
sitting, standing, walking a block or so away and back
our lady of lost and found and forgotten
cast-off ditched
of what was and never will be again …

Fully inhabiting its formal framework as a “Litany,” the poem unrelentingly piles on nouns, descriptions, characters, actions, each with its own heft, story and texture. The poem is a veritable festival for the senses: We smell “piss-swelled gutters,” stumble along “the pavements and the crumbling brick,” each detail of the litany both itself and building for us the context of a place in desperate need of prayer. An unsaved space that despite the “rosaries of faith” held by the “church ladies in waiting” is also a space of “boys shot down in the dark / dying in lots along lesser used roads.” The weight of each detail serves as incontrovertible evidence yet adds to the unbearably poignant conclusion: “our lady of / anything at all.”

While Osbey’s poems are granular in their attention to the detail, her concerns and contexts are wide-ranging. Over the span of her career, she has claimed the diasporic African world and its peoples as the central concern of her work, engaging a variety of languages, geographies and histories. In a phone conversation I had with her back in 2018, Osbey exclaimed “I don’t know how you can be more international than Black.” That statement (which I wrote on a sticky note and attached to my desktop) is, in my opinion, the most apt summation of Osbey’s poetics. Blackness is her country and nation; her allegiance is to a multi-dimensional accounting of and for the hidden, distorted and unsung narratives of her fellow citizens; her creed has many tongues and claims no single deity. Osbey brings the full weight of language to bear in witnessing, honoring, and vindicating Black life, Black history, and Black people.

Osbey was a faculty member for the 2018 Furious Flower Collegiate Summit, “Poetry Without Boundaries.” While on campus, Osbey spoke with me in the studio at James Madison University, and what follows is the unedited conversation as transcribed by Brenda Marie Osbey herself.

I would love to know the story of how you came to poetry.

Ummm, that’s a pretty short story. (Laughs.) And it’s a short story because the easy answer is that I was born into an arts family – with the exception of my father. My father was a professional athlete, a boxer by trade. My mother’s family were singers; my grandfather, my twin baby aunts all sang with the local Black opera company called the Old New Orleans Negro Opera Company. He was the tenor. And he began training his youngest daughters, the twins, when they were two, and they were singing in public by the time they were three. And so I grew up hearing beautiful voices around me. My mother didn’t sing professionally, but who did write poetry, and did publish some individual poems in a few places — a couple in the old Pittsburgh Courier. But my mother had a beautiful singing voice. And my childhood is — and this is especially true now that my mother has passed — when I think of my childhood, it’s peopled by the sound of my mother singing in an otherwise silent house.

My grandparents’ house next door was the party house; my mother’s house was very quiet – except that there was constant jazz playing in the background. And when there wasn’t jazz playing in the background, there was my mother’s voice, singing. I used to tell people that I had been listening to Sarah Vaughan [1924–80] since I was born, and my mother corrected me once and said, “You’ve been listening to Sarah Vaughan since before you were born.” So. And that for me, that voice, the voice of Sarah Vaughan – Sarah Vaughan pops up not as a character, but as a figure in several poems of mine. And there’s actually a whole unpublished suite of Sarah Vaughan poems –  to me is the most singularly perfect voice out there. If I were going to choose a feminine voice, I would always choose the voice of Sarah Vaughan. If I were going to choose a masculine voice, I would choose either Johnny Hartman [1923–83] or Paul Robeson [1898–1976]. Or both. (Laughs.)

You’ve talked about the importance of the voice as a unique instrument, and you write in lyric but also in other voices and personae. Talk to me about that channeling of the voice: How do you describe and navigate that relationship?

Well, I have this this idea that certainly isn’t original to me, but I have this idea that every city has its own sounds, and you know your city by a certain blend or certain cacophony of sound. It’s almost impossible to have either quiet or solitude in New Orleans because people won’t let you. If you’re alone, people will come and visit you, especially if you say you want to be alone. Then they’ll say, “Oh my goodness. Something is wrong. Let me go and see about her.” And then they’ll beat on the side of the house and say, “I know you’re in there, Lauren! Let me in! What’s the matter with you?” (Laughs.) So that’s one thing. The other thing is that there’s always music. And when there isn’t music there are kinds of music – like the sounds of the streetcars running on the tracks or the twelve-noon lunch whistle that used to ring or sound when I was a child, to call workmen in to their lunches. There’re all kinds of sounds that you associate with your city. And so the voices that I steal (and I honestly feel that it’s not stealing; it’s pretty much as much mine as anybody else’s, as the people making them) are very often voices of my city.

The other thing, though, is, with narrative poetry, one always wants a lyric quality. When I’m working in narrative, which is my preferred mode, obviously — even my short, early poems were narrative, had that narrative thing — and we always talk about story with narrative poetry, we always talk about story. But it isn’t necessarily the story itself that’s important to me as it is the voice that’s telling the story, and why it’s telling the story. So one of my favorite things has always been to have conflicting voices telling the same story differently. A poem like “Faubourg Study No. 3: The Seven Sisters of New Orleans.” Different people are telling the same story. And the primary speaker of the poem, by the end of the poem, doesn’t necessarily care which of those voices, including her own, is the truth. She has become a collector of voices; and by collecting voices she’s collected lives and experiences and spirits and thoughts and bits and scraps of history — and that’s how she describes herself – as someone “who saves and “puts things aside.” She comes to the city as a “researcher” –   (She’s a Native who’s been away.) She comes to the city to research this history of the Seven Sisters and she’s, you know, got a series of questions and they’re very important to her. But when she goes to speak to the last person who had a connection to the Seven Sisters – who was really their sort of charwoman almost – she loses all of her questions, and her life is transformed, and then we figure out that somehow during the poem (I don’t quite recall myself), that that woman dies, and then this woman, the young researcher, comes to inhabit the House of the Seven Sisters. And so she becomes a conduit for this spiritual history of this family of healers.

You’ve talked about l’Histoire, the story. And you’ve talked about the misguided idea that history is all fact, and I’m curious now in our age of “alternative facts,” and a really frustrated relationship to a straight narrative, how would you refine that differently?

I think Western society as a whole has a somewhat shifty relationship with history, and that there’s an unwillingness to recognize the kinds of negotiations and exchanges that occur – I think,  organically – between fact and information and knowledge and wisdom and reportage and recounting. Each of those kinds of expression is somewhat different than all of the rest, and yet they all work concurrently, I think, if not all of the time, then certainly most of the time. There’s always a kind of running narrative; and that for all intents and purposes, we are continually making history in our telling of things.

Take something commonplace like going to the doctor with a complaint. You have a health complaint. Each time you see a doctor or a nurse or some sort of technician — these people who are gathering information, taking bodily fluids and so forth, doing things to you — and they ask you your name and your date of birth and why you’re seeing the doctor that day and what you think is going on and so forth. And initially you’re annoyed and frustrated by having to answer the same questions. And what I’ve often said is “Don’t you already have that in my file?” It’s like “Why are you asking me these things? Yes, I’m still allergic to that .…” But eventually what happens is, without even thinking about it, you form a narrative. And you get relatively comfortable and perhaps even glib reciting it. It’s a way to tell and be disengaged from the entire experience, which is a disorienting experience, going to the doctor. I guess we could pick something else — being arrested or having your head beaten by police officers — equally disorienting experiences, or perhaps more so, depending. But there are ways of recounting that either distance us from the experience, they make us tangential to the experience, or they can put us completely at the center of the narrative. It’s what happens when someone has, say, an out-of-body experience. (They describe something as an out-of-body experience.) That’s one of the things that people do to deal with trauma — is to distance themselves. It doesn’t mean that what they’re seeing isn’t true. It doesn’t mean that it isn’t happening to them. It’s simply a way of telling. And so I’m more interested in those ways of telling.

Robert Hayden is a master of this. His poem “Middle Passage.” In that poem, we never hear the voices of the captive Africans; we never, never, never hear them speak at all. He allows the ship’s crew and captain to condemn themselves in the readers’ and the listeners’ eyes and ears out of their own mouths. Everything they say makes them guilty and culpable and wrong and inhumane and ungodly. And all of the things that they attach to the African captives are in fact their own spectacular forms of evil. And they say it all themselves! We don’t even have to figure it out. It’s just them speaking in the ordinary course of the filthy business of enslavement. For my money, it’s one of the greatest poems in the English language. It’s one of those transformative poems. You read that poem for the first time and you’re changed by it. And that’s what poetry’s supposed to do for us when it’s really good, when it really works, when it resonates with us in that way. It changes us.

What are some other poems that you think have affected you in that way, that have really been transformational?

Well definitely Martin Carter’s “I Come from the Nigger Yard.” It’s really difficult for me to read that poem without shuddering the closer I get to the end. I had a student who was a fiction student, and he was debating whether to take my Modernist poetry course. And he said, “But I don’t really understand poetry,” and I said “Okay, I’m going to read a poem to you, and you tell me what you understand about it.” And so I chose “I Come from the Nigger Yard.” And by the end of the poem we’re both of us kind of het-up, on the verge of tears. And so he took my course. And he was wonderful! I could not keep him from talking in class! This student who said he knew nothing about poetry, he didn’t understand, it was a completely alien thing. He was astonishingly brilliant, just astonishingly brilliant, and just… It was a wonderful class, and I was really happy that he was in there. But, yeah. Martin Carter, definitely.

A poem that I really have always loved to teach is Gwendolyn Brooks’s “Second Sermon on the Warpland.” You know, I’ve always loved that poem. And it’s just a kind of a perfect gem, that’s just there for us as a kind of a record of what poetry can be and what poetry can do.

I’ve been going back looking at the translations of Langston Hughes. That is, Langston Hughes’s translations of Jacques Roumain and Nicolás Guillen; and thinking about how we need new translations for this generation of much of that work as well as new translations of Hughes, you know, into the Spanish and the French, and for my money, also into the Portuguese. And so I play with choosing poems.

The poems of Neruda are very, very dear to me. A poem like “Heights of Macchu Picchu” [“Alturas de Macchu Picchu,” 1947; also Canto General, 1950] is just…. Again there’s that fascination with history – what I like to call “the problem with history” or this tendency that many of my favorite poets have of worrying history. I think I could take the whole body of Jay Wright’s poetry, which I love. I really love Jay Wright’s poetry a great deal.

Who else? There are actually lots of people out there. And of course Césaire [1913–2008] and Depestre [1926] and Léon Damas [1912–78], of course. I’m working on some new translations of Damas right now [Renaissance Noire, vol.18 issue 3, Fall 2018].

I’m curious about your experience with translation: What are some of the joys and challenges of moving between source and destination languages?

Well. Again, it sort of goes back to family. My mother’s family is Creole-speaking and my grandfather was a linguist, among other things. He was an opera singer, and he was a Creole chef of some note, and sort of a renaissance man, and a Race Man. So there’s that. Rather than having the gift of song as my family has, I have a certain facility with language and languages, and I’ve kind of always had that as a kind of an obsession. In school I was a double major in French and English and did a year abroad, and so forth. So there’s a background of language obsession that I enjoy. But translation started, I think, organically – a kind of an organic development for me because of reading bilingually. When reading a text and there’s this side-by-side translation — which is how I like to read, even if it’s a language I have absolutely no facility with — I like seeing the two languages side by side and seeing what is supposedly untranslatable. I began just doing marginal notes of my own, for things that I would have translated differently, or things that were perhaps translated well but didn’t scan as poetry in the context of a particular poem.

I was saying earlier this morning, talking with a friend here, that a good test of one’s mastery of the Spanish language is one’s ability not only to read and comprehend and appreciate Neruda in the original Spanish, but to translate it into an equal version of English. It’s a really difficult thing to do. And it’s something that most people who have been translators of Neruda have done these translations over a period of years, and then later gone back and corrected even their published translations. So it’s a difficult, difficult thing, but it’s a very desirable thing. But really, it started for me as a series of exercises – a set of reading exercises – that I set for myself. (And you know I have how many notebooks of these varieties of exercises – some are translations, some are single-line things, some are rhymes, some are quasi-sonnets – series of exercises going back to say age 18 and 19.

So it began as a set of exercises. But lately it’s become something that I find more necessary. Mostly because, as an African American writer, as a writer of African descent in the Americas –  and this is one of the things that we learn from Hughes, and this is why I think it’s so important to continue to teach Hughes, always: Hughes translated the world for us. And many of us are not aware of it. We’re not aware that when we read Guillén, we’re reading Langston Hughes’s translation of Guillén; and when we read Hughes in Spanish, we’re reading Guillén’s translations of Hughes; and that these two men developed a friendship around this. And that it was through Langston Hughes’s influence that Guillén began writing from his Black core, as opposed to doing imitations of so-called white Cuban poets, and so forth, who were imitating Black speech …. (Laughs.) It’s getting your own stuff third and fourth-hand! And so Hughes just challenged him and said, “You know, this is what you need to be doing. The way that I’m into the blues, you need to be into son [Cuban music dating from early 1900s/1910s].”

And so that — being able to communicate with other poets across language and geography and boundaries — is something that becomes more and more important to me the older I’ve gotten. And so I’ve designed courses around it, and in fact, designed a sort of lifelong translation project around it. It’s just something that I think is really very necessary. I think it’s important to be able to pick up a Puerto Rican poet from the 19th century and read him in the original language and also read him in English, read her in Portuguese, read her in French — because these are the languages of the Americas. And I’m always thinking about the Americas as opposed to the U.S. And there are these frontiers and these boundaries that we’re able to cross every time we do that. I just think it’s a really important thing to do. And I’m doing it in my fairly slow, obsessive, methodical way. (Laughs.)

You’ve named geography as one sort of boundary that poetry can butt up against and talked about why it’s important. What are some other boundaries you think exist for poetry and/or for poets? And why do you think it’s important to traverse those boundaries?

History is another one of those things. There is so much shared history – particularly history that is taught as though it is unique and individual and separate and apart. One of the examples that I often cite with students is the Brazilian poet, Mário de Andrade, who has this poem that’s called “Improvisation of the Dead Boy.” (Which may be a poem about the death of his younger brother. I don’t know. People say it might be but I don’t know. He never said). But I like the fact that here it is, 1922, and here’s a poet who’s clearly influenced by American jazz musicians. He’s doing this poem that’s an “improvisation.” And the poem is not the kind of elegy that we’re accustomed to reading. He’s not grieving the death of this young boy. He’s saying, “Get the blank out of here, dead boy. I don’t want you anymore. Don’t come to me in the night bringing me your dreams. You’re dead. I want to forget you.” So it’s a poem of anger toward the dead person.

And I think it’s important that it’s called an improvisation. I think it’s important that the speaker abuses the dead person for dying, simply for dying. And the rejection of death in that poem is really quite fascinating to me. The translations of the poem are pretty … ehhhh, you know? And so one of my tasks is to see what I can do with it. But in looking at that poem, what we’re looking at is an Afro-Brazilian poet who was the founder of the Week of Modern Art in Brazil [10–17 February 1922]. He was the person who came up with the concept, and he was the figure around whom all of this work across the arts was — there was this constant constellation around him. And if we can’t cross language and geography and history, then we can’t know him; we can’t know his work. So it’s like we’re in a library, but we’re blind and there’s no Braille for us to use. So we’re just fumbling in a library full of books, but we can’t read them; we can just see them and handle them. Sort of like holding a book up like this (Gestures.) and trying to hear it.

One of my complaints and arguments, and one of the things that enrages me, is that not only do we not read enough as a society, but we don’t read broadly enough. We read only what’s available in our little language. Now, granted,  our little language is the “world language.” Says somebody. (Laughs.) But so what? You know? So what?

I think that that we have these boundaries. We have form versus what some people see as formlessness; we have performance as opposed to what, I think, is usually pejoratively called “academic.” I’ve even heard people refer to my work, because it’s research-based, as – I’ve been called a “library poet.” (Laughs.) Well, you know, if I’m a library poet, then, as long as that puts me in the company of Robert Hayden, then I’m cool with it. (Laughs.)

Library poets unite!

Library poets unite! Library poets rock!

So. And then, you know, there’re certain things that, that don’t happen so much in poetry. When I started writing narrative poetry it was very unpopular. And I actually had editors tell me, “I can’t publish this. This is too long! Every time you send me a poem, it’s longer and longer and longer. We need more white space!” (Laughs.) So, you know, it was very difficult to get some of these things published. And yet everything found its little home, one way or another. But one of the things that I’m interested in now is, I’m interested in reading more prose poems, more contemporary prose poems. There’s lots of it to look at historically over time; but I’m interested in seeing more prose poems out there: short prose poems, long prose poems. I’d like to see more of that.

One of the things that I really appreciate about Brooks and McKay is their revolutionizing the sonnet.  Taking the sonnet and turning it into a kind of love poem to the race, you know, so that it ceases being this personal tale of personal love and woe, and becomes this embodiment of one’s love for the People. That’s a major thing! And you know I don’t see anybody teaching a course about, you know, the revolutionary sonnet. I don’t see that happening. So. So that’s one of the things that I do with my courses. I narrow in and say, Yes this is writing in form; but look at what it’s saying, look at what it’s doing.

So traversing the boundary of the form.

Exactly, exactly. I ask students to define the sonnet for me. “Give me your best textbook definition of the sonnet, and tell me the ways in which this is not a sonnet, and the ways in which it is a sonnet, and why; and what that means about what this poet is doing. And what does this say to us about the labor of writing?” When we do that, when we revolutionize a form, what are we really doing? We’re saying I’m the author of my voice. And that’s an amazingly liberating thing to do.

Tell me about your writing labor, your process.

Hmm. It’s not very interesting. Well, I have my preferred practice, and then I have what I kind of end up with, depending. But my preferred practice is to begin with a question or a series of questions for which I hope not to find an answer. The exercise for me is framing the question, because knowing what the question is is a kind of a step toward liberation. Liberation of the intellect, liberation of the craft, liberation of the individual.

So I like to begin with a series of questions. History and Other Poems began with a question about the French word for slavery and enslavement. The word for that in French is asservir, to cause someone to submit. And there’s another word that escapes me right now, but these are relatively harmless words compared to the word “enslave.” And so I was working on one research project in the South of France [2004 ]; and I was sort of going through an encyclopedic dictionary of the French language, and late into the evening when the library was about to close — which, it never really officially closed; it was there at the residence where we all lived and if you got locked in you weren’t gonna be locked in; they would tell you, “Lock the door when you leave.” (Laughs.) And there, before my eyes, just as I’m going through, just kind of flipping pages, was my word, esclaver. “To enslave,” literally. A beautiful word actually: esclaver. It says exactly what it is, but that word has not been used for many, many years. It hasn’t been used for centuries. So that one of the things that the French language does — French elides. And it elides its history as well. French language and French studies and French history pretend that there was no slavery. And one of the ways that you can make that pretense true is to erase a word, to take it out of usage, to pretend that it never existed. But there, in some crusty, musty, old leather-bound dictionary that the gilt is falling off of, is my word. Esclaver. And that kind of fueled this project. Now, I don’t think you get the word esclaver anywhere in History and Other Poems, but –  And one of the poems was written many, many years ago. And it isn’t the title poem. The title poem was another thing But one of the poems was –  oh! it’s the poem I read, “Slaves to the City.” It was written many, many years ago, before the book was even conceived. But I began to see that poem as an entrée into this collection, this very small collection of poems on this very tight (I hope very tight) topic.

So… Language. If anything is a boundary, the very thing that we as poets work in – that thing is the boundary. We’re continually required, and I think more so than other artists who work in language (and I rarely use the word “artist” to refer to writers); but there is a kind of technical — “skill” isn’t quite the word I want, but it’s what I’ll use for now — a kind of technical skill that’s required to build up from language. And that’s what we’re doing. If you’re writing a story, you have the story – both its content and its shape as well as its characters – to keep everything going. For poetry, even narrative poetry, you really have only language. When the reader sits down to read,  that’s all the poet –  The poet doesn’t necessarily care about you. The poet isn’t interested in your story, not necessarily. I usually am not, you know, unless there’s something in the poem that compels me to do that. But really all you have is that va y vien, that sway, that * give and take of language. And mastery of language is the elusive thing. We’re always trying for it. It sounds vain to say it, but it really isn’t ’cause we can’t ever get it. (Laughs.) It’s very humbling. It’s nice to hope for, but you know you’ll never get there. And so that’s the thing: to have language is to be able to move a certain way in the world, in worlds.

I’m pulling you back to your process a little bit — so starting with language …

It starts with language, with a question. Well, it’s two things. I’m glad you said that, because starting with a question or a series of questions, but also starting with language. Some of my own favorite lines in my own work are lines that I’ve heard. You know, riding the streetcar, taking the bus, walking down a street, sitting in a restaurant or a movie theater, or standing at the pharmacist’s counter. You overhear something. And the something itself is so amazing that you take it completely out of the context in which you’ve heard it and you’re able to build around it. And that’s how you get a voice in a poem very often.

The very first thing that I did, the very first formal project proposal that I wrote for a poetry residency was about explorations of voice. And this was in the 1980s, early 1980s. Maybe my first book had been published, I don’t remember. But it was right around that same time. But it was about examinations of voice, and I was concerned with something. And I don’t know that the reviewers necessarily knew what I was talking about, ’cause I don’t know if I knew myself; but I wanted to explore something about the weight and the burden and the heft of voice. I wanted something about the way that we feel language. Because we do feel language. We don’t think about it all the time, but language is something that comes at us. We respond to it. It is a literal vibration that we’re receiving. And, you know, as soon as you have an ear infection, you kind of get the point, you know? (Laughs.) Or if you lose hearing in one or both of your ears as a result of something. So you want to always be questioning those things, no matter what else you’re doing; because it’s important, I think, to question language. That we’re always questioning langugae. Who said it? And why? And how? And why do I care?

And how does it change the story?

You know, it’s this weird…. The weight of language when we’re looking at race, at the history of race relations in this country in particular, and every country probably, but in this country in particular. You know: these things happened to Richard Wright’s Bigger Thomas “because of his race” or they happened “because he was Black.” That’s very different than saying these things happen as a result of white racism. That’s very different. It takes the burden off of the receiver and places the burden at its point of origin. And that’s a very liberating kind of thing, to be able to do that, to say as Zora Neale Hurston, that she’s not the problem. And that there is no “Negro problem” in this country. (Laughs.) And she only said what millions of people were already thinking, you know. But she said it! (Laughs.) So that questioning and weighing and balancing of language is really important.

And so one of the reasons that I say that my process isn’t interesting is that I spend a lot of my time doing what essentially amounts to high-level nitpicking! (Laughs.)

That’s the new definition of poetry for the ages: “high-level nit picking”!

You know, because what does it mean if you say “the weight,” or if you say “the burden of,” or if you say “the heft of”? Or if you say “This is Lauren’s personality,” or “This is Lauren’s character,” or what my grandmother used to say, “It’s her carriage that I find appealing.” Yeah. So all of that stuff that you bring to bear, you know, that part that meant that you didn’t belong only to yourself, you belonged to the people who made you. You belonged to your family first, of course, and your community, and then these larger circles. But she’d say things like, “You can tell blah-blah-blah about a person by her carriage.”

And also that you belong in some sense in and within–the language speaks you, right?

Exactly, exactly.

So it’s sort of having agency within that …

Exactly. Agency. Agency is always the always at the crux of it, I think, because that’s what language does. And I’m prejudiced, of course, but I think poetry is always negotiating that question of agency. When Robert Hayden decides that the enslaved — well they’re not even enslaved yet; they’re the captives. When he decides the captives won’t speak – what is that moment? What’s happening? It’s like little children learning language. And children are particularly logical so that instead of saying “I ate it” — the past tense is -ed, right? – “I eat-ed it.” (Laughs.) And when someone tries to correct them — oh no no no“I eat-ed it! It’s already done! It’s over with!” Watching them make those constructs … I would love to be able to see inside those brains when language is forming. I would love to be able to see that and to understand what that process looks like. It would explain a lot to me about what we do as poets if I could see that. If we could go back to the seminal moment of language, the birth of language in the brain ….

The other thing is that I read. I spend a lot of time in libraries, particularly archives. And you know one of the beautiful things about research is that — and I go back to Hayden with this — one of the beautiful things about archival research, in particular, is that documents have their own language. Bills of lading, the language of a ship’s vessel, a captain’s log, the language of prayer, the language of the Methodist hymns that the crewmen pray and sing on board the ship. So Hayden really becomes a kind of wizard. He’s like a wizard who is – not even a wizard, an alchemist. He’s the ultimate alchemist. Because he takes the language, whole-hog, of these documents and combines that language into that very self-condemnation that I’m talking about. So that, as the Psalmist says, “their prayers become a curse.” You know? So that we see more* clearly what we were never intended to see, what we were never meant to see.

The carriage and character revealed.

Exactly, exactly! So that I spend a lot of time with documents, and trying to convey some of the admittedly often stilted beauty of these documents that are intended to be cold, hard, factual things. But of course because humans are recording them, they’re never really just that. There’s always some kind of commentary. So that’s why I say that even if we’re looking at original documents, those documents are recorded by human beings. And those human beings are putting a particular slant on what we’re seeing.

So, speaking of choice, the N-word occurs in your work.

Several times.

It’s such a contentious word on so many levels, so I’m so interested in the heft and burden of that word and how/why you think it’s an important thing to voice?

Well, I think I use it the way it’s intended to be used. (Laughs.) It’s an expletive. And I’ve never used the expression “N-word.” I always use the word “nigger.” And it’s a shocking word for people, and it’s become an obscenity, and of course it is an obscenity. It’s an obscenity that generations and generations and generations of people tolerated. Not through choice. And it does have heft and weight and burden and meaning. And it is intended either to shock or to assuage. When you call someone “muh nigga,” that’s very different. And yet again, who gets to say that? Who gets to* call you that, if anybody? So I’m not really interested in the discussion of it. I’m interested in its use when I see it used. And usually when I see it used in a work of literature, it’s pretty much being used, you know, as it is. That’s the use of it. It isn’t a controversial issue for me at all. It’s a word that, when I’m using it in a text, I’m using it to have that desired impact, that particular impact. Which may be shock, which may be offense, which may be a matter-of-fact statement by someone. I don’t know. But it’s part of, it’s part of the vocabulary of our experience in Western society.

We won’t do what the French did: let it disappear.

And the French have the very same word – les nègres. As opposed to les noirs. Very different.

I’m going to shift a little bit to thinking about New Orleans and Katrina and the work you did writing and advocating. What traces of that story are you still writing? Are you still thinking about that? What’s the city like now?

I haven’t really published Katrina poems. I have a small group of poems that I worked on during that period; and they’re part of a larger body of work, or a type of work that I do, called “Heavy Water Poems,” which is the working title of the project. And so, because New Orleans is a city surrounded by water. Although not exactly in the way the media presents it. It’s not a bowl; you don’t walk there and see walls around the city. (Laughs.) That isn’t quite the way it functions, but it’s useful in a media kind of way. But because it’s a city surrounded by water, water figures in our day-to-day lives and always has.

Before the floods of 2005, the worst hurricane in my lifetime had been Hurricane Betsy, which happened when I was in first grade. It was the first day of school, and was also my brother’s birthday, September 9th. So we were happy because we didn’t get to go to school. We got to stay home and eat snacks, and so forth. But it was the last big one, the only big one that I’d ever experienced. People talk about [Hurricane] Camille, which was later, but I don’t remember Camille as a very damaging storm in that way.

For us, for New Orleanians, Hurricanes Katrina and Rita weren’t hurricanes. They were hurricanes but they weren’t, you know, a natural disaster the way they function as a natural disaster in American — mainstream American – telling of the story. The storm hit the city what I always call “a glancing blow.” It was a minor storm for us in New Orleans. It was the poorly constructed levees, on which we had depended our entire lives — people like me – we knew those levves to be in existence. So it was a man-made disaster for us. And even the Army Corps of Engineers, when critiquing its history, made that admission. They said, “You know, we had the option of doing this, and instead we did that.” You know, it was a conscious decision to go with the cheaper thing. And so that changes — again — that changes the narrative for us.

So during the actual storm itself, lots of people from all over the place were writing Katrina poems. Some of them were a kind of a tribute to a city that they saw as a cultural space. Or it was just the newest thing that was happening in the news. Or some of them knew people from New Orleans, or had family there or some kind of connection. But most of those of us who are from there – from there, from there, as we often say – we weren’t doing that because we were still living it and processing it. And there were a number of school projects like high school, junior high and high school projects that were like poets-in-the-school’s projects where schoolchildren were writing about these topics; and a couple of those have been published. And there’s also a Furious Flower anthology that’s devoted to Katrina, Mourning Katrina, I believe it’s called [Mourning Katrina, A Poetic Response to Tragedy. Mariner, 2009]. But those of us who lived it and experienced it are even now processing it. So, I think, for many of us who felt it directly and who were displaced by it, that’s something in the offing. That’s something to come. I do have one poem that’s been reprinted a number of times. It’s a poem from All Souls [All Souls: New and Selected Poems, LSU Press, 2015] that people think of as a Hurricane Katrina poem, but it was written long before, although it hadn’t been published; and it’s called “Litany of Our Lady.” You know, that poem, I’ve used it as a Katrina poem. But it’s simply about being in that kind of a city where the water comes and does these things.

It’s so interesting. It made me think of the recurrence, because you said the history of it is still to come. Right?

 Exactly! (Laughter)

Or that, in some ways, the poems sort of prefigured, in some way, the event to which it speaks. So that slippage of history ….

And there’s also Qu’on Arrive Enfin”! “Qu’on Arrive Enfin,” which says, you know, “let the waters come.”And* again, that poem was written long before, because we live with hurricanes all the time, you know? We live with hurricanes all the time. It’s part of the landscape and part of how — And so you know I have this whole body of unpublished works that, you know, deal with water and water imagery and what water does. And water is a force, and water’s something to be feared. You know, just all of these various uses of water and the ways in which it’s — more so than the uses of water, it’s about the ways in which water uses us as part of a landscape, you know. Water uses the landscape. We’re shaped by the Mississippi River and the Gulf of *

Mexico. And as most people know by now, because of that, we’re — there’re bits and pieces that are fragmented and dropping off and continually shrinking the coastline and so forth, and have changed, you know, the shape of the lay of the land over centuries. That’s an ongoing continual process. It’s something that we live with, and I think is part of our nature, part of our inheritance, part of our perspective. It means something different when my grandfather describes something as watery than when somebody, you know, from maybe Iowa describes something as watery. (Laughs.)

 I’m sitting and I’m thinking: maybe this is why there’s so much overlap between New Orleans and the Caribbean. Right: surrounded by water. If you’re an islander, there’s a way that you understand, respect, and have a relationship to water. And I lived in Iowa before I moved here. In Iowa there’s just no sense of water. The Mississippi runs by in certain parts, but it’s not defining.

Not the defining thing. And we’re at the mouth. Everything just kind of comes down there.

Is there a way that you would say New Orleans has shaped the form of your poems?

Hmm. That’s really something to think about. That’s a new kind of question for me. I don’t think I’ve had a question like that – thank you very much. (Laughs.) But I don’t know about that. I know that the city shapes me. And that I’m not necessarily writing about New Orleans; I’m writing out of it. That it’s the prism, I suppose, is the word. It’s the prism, the lens through which I see and hear and dance and feel and eat and drink and breathe and so forth. So it’s part of my make-up. So that, it’s there. Sometimes, in a very slight turn of phrase or something, it’s there — choosing to use a folk expression that we’ve transliterated from the Creole into English. For instance, canne à sucre. Which simply means “sugar cane,” of course. But, in Louisiana, it’s an endearment to call someone canne à sucre. It’s an endearment because we labored in sugar, did we not? You know, it’s sugar cane country. It produced most of the sugar that most of this country consumed for most of its history. So that this is a country that you could say has “sugar in the blood,” as old people used to refer to diabetes, right? Nobody would say you have diabetes. They would say, “You know, she’s got sugar in the blood.” And it’s a way, I think — that expression is a way of talking about this society and its history of slavery and enslavement and resistance. And also, so, that being the case, then taking something as simple as sugarcane, and taking something as simple as the fact of it becoming this kind of endearment – that perhaps that’s some way in which the poems. Maybe it’s not the form of the poem? but the framing of the poem. Because I think what I’m talking about is something like perspective? But whatever would be the equivalent word for “carriage” in this context, I think, is really, is really what I’m talking about. But I haven’t been asked a question like. That’ll go into one of my notebooks. I’ll worry it, you know, and create maps around it, and charts around it. In terms of practice, that is one of the things I do. I have recurring characters in some of these poems, and so I have to remember how they’re related to one another. So, from the very beginning, I created charts and maps, and, you know, lists and things. So I have lists and charts and maps and genealogies and so forth. I mean, I have to remember, you know, there’s the Crying Eagle family over here and there’s the Boazes over here. So there’s all this stuff going on. So, you know, it never occurred to me that I should try to keep that stuff straight in my own head. That’s what notebooks are for.

(Laughs.)

How do you feed your writing practice outside of writing and reading?

Well, because I’m in New Orleans, I suppose there’s always music and the impact of music. I used to hear much more live music than I do now, and that’s something I’m always sort of whining about and saying, “I need to hear more live music. I need to hear more live music.” I do listen to music as part of my practice of writing. “Everything Happens to (Monk and) Me” was* written while I was listening to “Everything Happens to Me,” over and over. I even had it on – back when people had music on their phone machines, before we had cell phones, and answering machines were kind of new; people had music and so forth. I had Thelonious Monk’s “Everything Happens to Me,” and one friend called me up and said, “Brenda Marie, really? Really? Do you think maybe you could change it?” I’m like, “You don’t have to call me and listen to my machine if you don’t want to.” (Laughs.) “Don’t listen! You know this is my phone machine!” And so for over a year, while I was working, I was listening to that. And, of course, the poem has nothing to do with Thelonious Monk. It’s simply that that’s, you know, the carriage of that particular moment in time. And simply because I liked everything happening to Monk and me. I kinda liked being in it with him – me and Monk together in that way. I adore Thelonious Monk.

So music. And there are particular kinds of music and particular composer-performers. Thelonious Monk, obviously, is one of them. Monk’s compositions are, I think, so complex that they simplify so much for us. If you listen to a number of his called “Functional,” it opens certain kinds of possibilities. When I was on fellowship at the Fine Arts Work Center at Provincetown [1987–88], I was out there at the Land’s End. Every day I listened to Harold Land’s “Land’s End.” Every single day, no matter what else I was listening to, I listened to that.

I used to have, especially when I was young, what I call “deep listening” periods. And there’re certain composers that I listen to back to back, over and over. You know, when the CD came out, that was like an amazing thing for me because I could just hit that repeat button and just go to sleep listening to Thelonious Monk, wake up listening to Thelonious Monk, just go in circles. For the past couple of years I’ve been listening to Armstrong and Dexter Gordon a great deal, and I’ve always loved Abdullah Ibrahim. There’s a certain kind of percussive piano that really, that literally strikes a chord with me. Quite literally. And it says, these compositions say something to me. I don’t necessarily know how to put that into language, but it’s a way of working that I find compelling – to be surrounded by a certain kind of repetition of a certain composition, a certain way of playing. So right now I’m listening to a great deal of Abdullah Ibrahim, Dexter Gordon, and Louis Armstrong. And part of that’s in preparation for writing a couple of Armstrong essays that I’ve had in mind for a while.

But I’m slow. That’s the other thing, and why it’s not good for me to talk about process –  because you might expect to see this next week. You won’t. (Laughs.) I can promise you, you won’t. But I’m a very slow worker. It takes many, many years. And then when I finish something, it often takes a long time for me to say it really is finished, and I really need to send it to a publisher. I hesitate to say how long this tiny book [History and Other Poems] had been finished and in this form before I dared to send it to a publisher – because it’s a slim volume of a very few poems, and there’s a lot of white space, besides. But that white space was absolutely necessary for me, and I fought, you know, with the editor and publisher who was also a poet and who got it, who got it. The late L. D. Brodsky. You know, we had these long, exhausting conversations about white space. You know, this would go on for days. You know, we’d stop one day and then pick up a week later, like, “Oh, God, just shoot me now.” But it was a learning process for the both of us, that we were both grappling with things about practice, and I in particular was looking at how to communicate to whoever might be my ideal reader for this text — whoever might be the small group of people for whom this book resonates. And I’m always happy when somebody mentions this book or asks about this book. And there’re certain individual poems like that, as well, that mean one thing to me, but that isn’t necessarily what I’m projecting when I’m sending it out there. But it’s a very slow process for me. And tedious. Slow and tedious. Much of it is pure tedium. Back and forth, back and forth, with the same few words, the same one or two or three words, and shifting things, multiple times, only to go back to time number seven, you know, and say that really is the way the line flows.

You have to test all the possibilities.

Yeah. So it’s really quite annoying. (Laughs.) I mean, I like it. And, I mean, I’m engaged with it. But it isn’t anything anybody wants to know about, really.

Actually, it’s a great relief because it sounds very familiar. 

Ah! Okay. Okay. Let’s go out after this! 

So, I’m going to wrap up with: if you could assign a reader’s homework, what would be your assignment?

Oh, I actually have a list. I do have a list for that. I have a notebook for that actually. (Laughter.)

There are certain things. And many of them aren’t poetry, or even poems. One of my most dear passions is reading and rereading authors whose work I love. Also, author’s whose work frightens me. I have what is now a lifelong obsession and fascination with and passion for the poems and novels of Gayl Jones. I should say poems, novels, and short stories – because I first read her as a short story writer. White Rat and Other Stories [Random House, 1977 ]. Gayl Jones is a frightening writer. She is a terrifying writer. And that’s what compels me to read her.

There is…. I’m trying to think of the name of this one particular novelist. Carolivia Herron. There’s a novel called Thereafter, Johnnie [Random House, 1991]. Which is one of the most, sort of chilling novels I’ve ever read. And I was afraid, literally, when I was reading it. But that compelled me to continue reading it, to confront this really brutally, frighteningly true narrative that was contained in this novel, with this innocent-seeming title.

Carolivia Herron. Thereafter, Johnnie. Who became famous for her children’s story, Nappy Hair [Dragonfly, 1997.

I think, anything, really, and, I mean it. Anything that Toni Morrison [1931–2019] puts to paper, really, I think needs to be read and studied. I taught a course on Toni Morrison. It was one of the first courses I designed. It was called Toni Morrison: The Complete Works [UCLA, 1989]. And it was all of her work at that time. And there’re certain passages in Morrison. You know, when people say that she has a poetic gift, there’re passages, for instance, in Song of Solomon [Random House, 1977], which is the first one that pops to mind, where the farm, Lincoln’s Heaven, speaks; and this is what it says to the men. And, it reduces me to a kind of a blubbering five-year-old every time I read that passage. Because it’s about the passion of a people to belong, to belong to one another. And the most immediate way for them to do that is in land. And the father, Macon Dead, Sr., becomes a perversion of that love of land by becoming a realtor, by becoming a slumlord. That, that he’s distorted the message of his father. And so there are passages like that in Morrison. There’s the passage in Beloved, where Sethe is decapitating, she’s in the process of decapitating her infant. That’s one of the beautiful passages in American fiction. And to hear Toni Morrison herself read it is bone-chilling. You know. It’s bone-chilling, because she has a light, not-quite-sweet voice. You know? Just sweet enough to be dangerous. Like the stride in Abdullah Ibrahim’s piano-playing. Gets close to sweet and maudlin, and then, prrrt! – twists and does something else and shakes everything up.

So. I think that there are films we need to see; there are languages that we need to learn, that are on my list; there are songs that we need to learn. There’s stuff we need to hear. There’re experiences that we need to have. There’re journeys that we need to take. So my reading list is really quite long. But I always fall…

We need a few lifetimes!

I fall back on history, mythology, and certain kinds of spiritual texts, and so forth. I keep going back to those. I owe my obsession with myth and mythology and myth-making to my older brother, Lawrence. And I thank him for that personally in the opening of History and Other Poems, in the acknowledgments. And, there’re certain kinds of things that I return to just over and over. But if there’s one poem, it’s, I think that one poem is either Hayden’s “Middle Passage” or it’s Hayden’s “Runagate, Runagate.” Or, you know, it’s any number of those Bessie Smith poems by Sterling Brown. There’re just certain….

I think your assignment is: read everything.

Yeah. (Laughs.)

It really is. Read everything, and trust almost nothing. Trust almost nothing that you read. Read everything. And question it. You know. Question it. In Morrison’s Beloved, there’s that passage that I like to call “the sermon in the clearing”? Where Baby Suggs, holy, tells the people how to love one another? Really, the lesson is how to be liberated, how to free yourself from this gruesome experience of captivity and enslavement. And the whole book, for me, is about that sermon in the clearing. It’s land; it’s clearing; it’s a new place. They’re building a free community. It’s speaking –  it’s in conversation with Lincoln’s Heaven [Macon Dead’s farm in Song of Solomon] speaking to the men. It’s in conversation with Guitar’s flight [the conclusion of Song of Solomon]. It’s in conversation with Pilate’s collecting a stone from every place she goes to. And when she sits down — this is my writing practice — the scene where Pilate sits down and asks herself, “Who am I? What am I afraid of?” She says something to the effect of, “I didn’t fear death because some of my closest friends were the dead.” And her family is Dead, [their name] of course.

So that’s my writing practice, and that’s my reading assignment. That, here are a series of questions that you need to ask yourself. And questions will change over a lifetime of reading and writing and study. But certain seminal questions, I think come back to haunt us. And I think that that’s what it is with poetry – that we are… haunted by language and by the power of language and the power of what we do, the power of how and whom and what we engage. And it is a haunting of which we cannot be, from which we cannot be liberated because it’s within. It’s within.

In traditional religion in New Orleans, the Mothers say that it doesn’t matter about, you know – tourism-Voodoo, and all that stuff – because the religion lives within. It goes where you go. You go where it takes you. And that’s the essence of it. So that’s the assignment: it’s go where you go. Take it where it takes you. Or as we say in New Orleans, in the Secondline tradition: “Get in where you fit in.” (Laughs.) And then transgress. Get in where you fit in, and then transgress those boundaries. And go beyond all of that stuff. Because language lets us do that. Language lets us.

It compels.

(Laughter.)

It compels us. It compels us to do that. We… we don’t realize the extent to which we make language happen. We make it. We reinvent it, all of the time. That’s our task. That’s what we have to do.

That’s amazing.

I love it. I wouldn’t be anything else. (Laughs.) I wouldn’t be anything else.

 Thank you so much! 


Read more in this issue: Critical Essay | Poems | Writing Prompt


Lauren Alleyne_8.24.2018_19Lauren K. Alleyne is Editor-in-Chief of The Fight & The Fiddle, Assistant Director of the Furious Flower Poetry Center, and Associate Professor of English at James Madison University. She is the author of Difficult Fruit (Peepal Tree Press, 2014), Honeyfish (New Issues Press  April 2019 & Peepal Tree Press, July 2019), and co-editor of  Furious Flower: Seeding the Future of African American Poetry (Northwestern University Press, 2020) Photo credit: Erica Cavanagh

Variation 2: How to Travel

by Brenda Marie Osbey

city of palms
palms and brick
sugar
indigo
palms and live oak, cypress, pine and nànier –
city veiled in sweet olive, night jasmine, rose, mimosa
breathing azalea, camellia, oleander
city blooming straight from swamp
bamboo and black willow flat upside the
noisesome votives of human sweat, dung of pack animals –
the pound and slip and cloy of the far too many funky corner dives.

should you chance to come to my city
pray do not be taken in by the vaunted allure of the place
storied beauty of so many dark women –
men darker still –
do not tarry along the various and sundry water bodies that will seem
to rock you, coddle, contain you for a song.
at all costs, keep to outer edges of all narrow public walkways.
if you can help it, do not walk at all.
keep birth certificate, at least one passport
exactly one set of keys always among yourselves and always at the ready.
if you must drive
then
lock yourself snugly – always – inside your car your companion’s car the nearest taxi, any seeming suitable and available vehicle or secure building
bearing in mind that few buildings here ever are secure.
obey warnings read signs
many, though by no means all of which will read:
we cannot, will not be responsible for loss of life
nor any truer, more costly valuables.

travelers. travelers so often find themselves spat up
slim pickings from oh-so-lovely pearlescent teeth of small bands of natives
– wanton waste but true –
for lack of sufficient savor and spice
wanton

connoisseurs of known and of unknown delicacies
we
finger fond memories of cane liquor and sugar-tit
sweet-oil and blackest softest earth
innards and outtards gristle and bone
we
suffer from so great a wealth
of hungers
as never to grow quite full or fat or oily enough
true. all true.
the lies you have heard about my city – thoroughly simply unmistakably true.

(we still do
go at times to lake lagoon bayou-water sea  
to count
whether by head or feet excised organ or vulnerable member
our own long-captured-tortured-most-violently-anciently
discarded
on whose behalf, it happens, i appeal to you now):

attend to your your health.
at the very least keep sanitary. keep well. travel safe. stay alive.
do not chance it.

do not tarry in this city cursed and consecrated
for all its beckon and seeming beauty
the wildness
of its children
its waters
streets and street corners

ours is far too
great a hunger

we are far too many women of far too many shades of black
too lovely to be safe – and men as lovely as that
oaks and roses
tall tipsy pines
black willow
mimosa
bamboo shirring
too many
great palms and far too

many many funky dives.

Poem copyright 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from  Brenda Marie Osbey debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: Fieldwork,” and “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of these Parts.”


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

From Virginia Suite

by Brenda Marie Osbey

1.
the grave is silent.
so much for the vanity of the living
we all are here
have been here
just beneath the redder earth
surrounding all this land with all our bones
nimble fingers
humming
and the rest

in canada, they say, the negroes all are free
so goes the song
or think we are, i tell myself
or think we are

the very idea that some negress – one such as yourself is how they say it –
should work for her own keep –
without the favor of some white man is what they mean
or pity of his pious wife and daughters
nor only work but
prosper well enough to take on workers
not for their lives’ blood as they do, no
but for right pay
and land to work
and burying-ground besides.

2.
over out near gospel hill
the gentlemen, they say, are nervous again.
and we here in lesser canada have no doubt what they do mean.

southeast to southampton no one asks slave or free
hacking negroes right and left comes very nigh a special calling,
what in the wake of that saviour whose name no one dare speak:
puts me in mind, says hester, of that other time
all other times when ones
such as myself still could
hear
some prophet wailing from out the wailing rushes

exactly what
after all
is
a free negro?

3.
my annie went down with the boys
looking i suppose to catch wild
things as children do
some while ago, says hester
land just back from there
all but fire-red with the blood of wild things

i sew and sew.

4.
my bones often think of hester’s just nearby.
wild things she’d said.
she was the first to go.
rheumatism lit a fever in her that never did die out
two of the men found her when they come out from the smokehouse
and carried her here to my bed where i
could see to her proper
she’d tended to my mother when her time came and i was born
tended me when mother went
and again when my three came.
first true thing i ever did buy was hester’s ease and comfort.
how dear it is, she she said that morning, to be my own woman now and free
and so she stayed
her small house but a few good strides from here
fire burning every day she lived:
keep off that devil cold from these poor bones

then she was gone.

and we are none of us freer living than any one dead colored woman.
that much i know i learnt from hester.

how long ago was that?

5.
they have dug all around now beneath the main house
unearthing pots, buttons, fireplaces, timbers
old women’s keepsakes, children’s treasures
shards of lives
unearthing and replanting hester, me and all the rest
such care they take
– every little thing –
such tenderness now that we are gone –
or so they tell themselves –
i feel these bones lean out to hester’s from the cold red clay
blood-earth
blind-stitching
prophets’ wailing
bones of wild things

not so very far they are planting native gardens
terraces
fountains rising from our old half-buried stream
that sometimes flooded over
sometimes not
cutting through bloodied blood red earth
cutting through this one small plot –
briefest sanctuary
home and work
laughter and sweet communion
smallest respite against so many martyrs on the way
burying-ground
and sweetest freedom

hear tell there will be feasting and much singing comes the spring
prayers tossed up around near gospel hill
and all those other blood red holy hills

and now that we are neighbors to that great institution
who ever will tell what only we could tell?
who knows the cost of what we bought and paid for?
who dares to tell the cost of mr jefferson’s
own sweet dream
and higher calling
for this upper country:

a plan so broad so liberal and so modern
so much to raise the envy
of even these learnèd few who serve its noble and enviable aim:
illimitable freedom
of the human mind

just so
just here
straight-stitched
remnants
of our own once thriving enterprise
bones of free women
this bit of land
wild things.

Poem copyright 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey. All rights reserved.

&
See two more poems from Brenda Marie Osbey debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: City of Palms and Funky Dives”  and  “Fieldwork


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

From Virginia Suite

by Brenda Marie Osbey

In Commemoration of the Discovery of the Remains of 67 African Americans, Interred beyond the Walls of the University Cemetery at the University of Virginia

“that excluding students … enslaved African Americans were the largest pre-Civil War population residing at the Academical Village.”

remove topsoil
cater close to the principle 
of uncovering both common and uncommon past
monitor closely ensuing slow dig and soft-brushed stroke –
now inherent tools of this body of knowledge intending to reveal
whatever of human society remains
to be revealed
beneath
below
tin wood and brick
ceramicware
long anonymous cloth and bits of iron, nail
spindle and spoon
tooth
quarry stone
bone and shard
women men children
useful things
of everyday life
beneath
beyond.

cemetery no doubt in other languages also
is a graceful word
death we know
and sometimes causes, multiple causes of said deaths;
burial, means or styles of conveyance to places of burial of those dead.
measuring proximity of bodies singly and adjacent or cutting one upon another
tells something of various indicators of longtime burial practice in
specific or approximate or conjectured place.
cumulative patterns of expression and material culture of souls, however,
is an area with which neither this present and ongoing study 
nor any science we yet know of
claims so far to be equipped to deal.
interviews with known or presumed descendants can perhaps expose
basic knowledge of belief, practice
concepts of death
desire 
afterlife
beyond.

slaves here are called servants
many who write and talk such things do
say that mr jefferson himself did call it so
it does not change the conditions under which we labor
within these bounds
the uses we are put to
the ways we die
for keep of these grounds

did call himself father to all this we build and tend
did look on slavery – they like to tell –
as but one necessary evil.
did not say the others –
war mayhap

in our way it is as children gone with tetanus and pneumonia
women gone birthing
strapping men felled down in typhoid or the consumption:
violet, william and boy-bacchus
tessa’s hannah
vanalie smothered, sleeping – we all did hope –
strong mike and billy
tom young and handsome then bloated over with the filthy bile
limas old but also here with us and not alone
eliza and baby eliza almost together
woman over broadus’ place
some over maupin and perrow way. 

unknown they write and put away in ledger and book
unknown
but not to those who love and tend them in the end
not by us
not by rust-red earth
soft-brushed by hands that carry and tend
and sometimes pray
sometimes not.                                  

as much science as we now possess
it is yet difficult to advise beyond further study,
determination for remains other than ancient bearing far more upon the living
than we are at present
prepared to suppose.

sixty-seven is no small number.
nor is the body neither less nor more than the soul’s own passage.
for here some have the one-soul and others the many
some return straightaway to ancestors
while others live on even as the body itself gives way
such knowledge comes in those earliest nights
when living and dead go to meet one another
go out of an evening
to sit and talk good talk.
these things are sacred.
and it is worse than wicked to disturb those going to talk well with their own.
grave evil to prevent them from keeping
good company with their own dead.

in this place here is wickedness unimagined
except to those
who have no soul
no dead to call home
no ancestor to guide and receive them

sixty-seven is no small number
and no one of us can make a home
where ancestors do not also live.

it is well to consider
that research design is one language,
reverence another

it is well to consider
how further study in concert with broader nearer communities
than these esteemed colleagues
may impinge upon the potential weight of disinterment
of removing for analysis at this time
remains largely anonymous
yet long consigned

time to come
drums yet may beat soft and low:
tessa’s hannah
billy, strong mike
beat soft beat low
william
tom, young and handsome still
bacchus, violet
beat soft beat low
liza and baby liza
old limas rooted deep as cypress close by
surveying
beyond what-all remains of this green
embowered wood
sweet-sleeping vanalie waking only to dream again
feast-days to come
beat soft beat low
the evils of this place hardly more than memory trailing
and neither slave nor servant then
but as we are
in these our truest skins
together
soft now and low
inside this silty red
and clayey soil.

Poem copyright 2020 by Brenda Marie Osbey. All rights reserved.

&
See more poems from Brenda Marie Osbey debuted on The Fight & The Fiddle: City of Palms and Funky Dives” and “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts.”


Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Essay | Writing Prompt

&Brenda Marie Osbey says, “I have this idea that every city has its own sound, and you know your city by a certain blend or certain cacophony of sound.” She gives the example of her city of New Orleans, saying, “It’s almost impossible to have either quiet or solitude in New Orleans, because people won’t let you. If you’re alone, people will come and visit you, especially if you say you want to be alone. Then they’ll say, Oh my goodness something is wrong, let me go and see about her, and then beat on the side of the house and say I know you’re in there … The other thing is that there’s always music, and when there isn’t music there are kinds of music, like the sounds of the street cars running on the tracks or the twelve noon lunch whistle that used to sound when I was a child, to call workmen in to into their lunches.”

Write a poem that celebrates the sounds of your city.

Read more in this issue: Interview | Critical Review | Poems

By Deborah McDowell, PhD

&

I came first to the writing of Brenda Marie Osbey in the 1990s, when I happened upon All Saints (1997) on the crowded shelves of Powell’s, a used bookstore in Chicago. To say that the spine of this slim yet hefty volume lured me, spoke to me, is to summon a cliché, I concede, but this is exactly what happened. Conducting research at the time for a study of the rituals and poetics of grief and mourning in African American literature and culture, I had no idea of the book’s contents, but from the moment I sat down on a dusty stack of cardboard boxes and began to read it, I knew that I had stumbled upon a jewel of a book and a jewel of a poet. I began to search out and devour everything in Osbey’s corpus I could find, going back to the early volumes — Ceremony for Minneconjoux (1983), In These Houses (1988), and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman (1991) — but in the roughly 25 years since, All Saints, my first encounter with Osbey’s work, remains the book among her many published titles, I recommend to anyone who wants an introduction to Osbey, the thematic scope of her work, and a glimpse into her ever- evolving poetic practice.  I keep multiple copies of All Saints on hand, gifting them to aspiring poets and avid readers. 

“Why All Saints?” some have asked? I answer, without hesitation, “Because it is the book that captures for me the essence of Brenda Marie Osbey, who is simply, unequivocally, one of the most talented writers of her generation.” Some readers of this issue of The Fight & The Fiddle will be well familiar with her work, but for those new to it, I offer this introduction, focused less on Osbey’s poetics and signatures of craft, than on her themes and philosophies as a writer.

Osbey’s body of work straddles many boundaries and spans diverse intellectual and artistic forms at once: narrative poetry, the lyric, historical narrative, and the personal essay. She has written libretti, translated writers from other languages, including most recently, her translations of poems from the French by Leon-Gontran Damas, which appeared in Black Renaissance Noire (Fall 2018). She has also compiled and edited the poetry of Nigerian writer, Gabriel Okara, publishing Gabriel Okara: Collected Poems in 2016. Not only has Osbey expressed her spectrum of interests in various aesthetic forms, she has also embraced digital media, recording her poems on various electronic sites, providing her readers a sonic experience with her exquisite poetry, as can be found in “On Contemplating the Breasts of Pauline Lumumba.”

A native of New Orleans, Osbey has lived most of her life in the Seventh Ward, and this city has served as the wellspring of much of her writing. But while so much of her work draws brilliantly on the “Crescent City,” it does so with the understanding that this Gulf region has “long been a stunningly cross-cultural matrix” (Flores-Silva and Cartwright 174). Osbey captures its Creole culture, textures, and mysteries, melding them into her singular preoccupations as a writer: death and dying, loss and mourning. In her essay, “Writing Home,” Osbey describes death, not just as a central theme, but also a central character of her work. “Not death as Thief in the Night, Grim Reaper, or even Final Repose. But the specific idea of the Dead as part of the continuum of our families and communities” (37), most especially in New Orleans. As she writes in another essay, “I Want to Die in New Orleans,” it is “the only place in this country where people understand the importance of dying well. Where cemeteries are as prominent as office towers. Where the dead get equal time with the living,” where they “walk and talk among the living . . . only now with an authority they never possessed in life” (Lowe 246). I agree with Thadious Davis that, in Osbey’s writings, New Orleans constitutes a “dual city, the city of the living and its embedded double the city of the dead” (239).

Perhaps nowhere in Osbey’s work is this duality more apparent than in All Saints. Flores-Silva and Cartwright do well to remind us that All Saints, like Osbey’s later volume All Souls (2015), comes “from the Gulf’s ritual calendar when days are set aside as puentes (bridges) between secular and sacred life, the living and the dead” (148). Because the latter volume, subtitled The Essential Poems, contains selections from All Saints, I will refer mainly to the poems in that volume here, which might be read as the instantiation of a command the poet issues at the start of its first section: “live among your dead, whom you have every right to love.” The seven poems in this section, notes Thadious Davis, “move between mourning poems for the recently departed, the foreign dead in the Transatlantic African world, and the familial dead in the factories of the American South” (240), but even the poems in later sections of the volume show the stamp of Osbey’s “peculiar fascination with the dead” (25), to borrow the title of one poem.

In “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” which begins with the ritual acts of lighting votive candles, building altars to the dead, keeping mourning portraits, and placing “silver coins in the four corners of your rooms” (25), the speaker is literally living among the dead, speaking of them “as though … they might hear / from the adjoining room” (25). Twelve years old when she is introduced to this domestication of death, the speaker observes these ritual obligations to the dead throughout her life:

i carry silver coins
in the pockets of all my clothes
photographs of my dead follow me
to each new residence.
votive candles and st. john’s wort
go near the head of my grocery lists. (33)

The speaker judges her later lovers “by the heft of mourning / below their eyes / picking my way through their sorrows,” even “carr[ying] the grudges of my dead / like bowls of ash” (33).  Strikingly, she refers to the dead, as my dead, and these remembered souls and loved ones take on the character of precious possessions in Osbey’s work.

It is significant that the majority of mourning poems in the first section of All Saints are written for her friends from Black literary circles, particularly those who have lost their kin — fathers, mothers. She is bearing their dead who become her dead. She picks her way through their sorrows, making them her own. In “Another Time and Farther South,” written for literary critic Clyde Taylor upon the death of his mother, she writes,

in another time and farther south
i would give you ashes for your dead
clean white kerchieves of linen or hand-worked silk
spread crushed shell before you
and tell you to kneel there
and weep in dignity
like a man (20).

While mourning for/with her friend at the loss of his mother, referred to as “your dead,” the speaker is also mourning the loss of rituals once observed in the aftermath of death, rituals now relegated to “another time,” in another place, “so much farther south.” In the face of losing, not only the dead, but also our ritual obligations to them, her only recourse is to offer words instead:

these are words and stand for nothing more
but i can say that in another time and so much farther south
i could have led you through the streets in ashes
one of several women bearing you along
to some sainted spirit ground you could believe on —
a man who had lost his mother, still a son.
and we, the cluster of women
could stand aside beneath the palms
 pressing roots of ginger underfoot.
watching you learn the lesson only death would ever teach. (20-21)

For Osbey, death teaches many lessons, including those that concern a culture’s rituals, its enactments of mourning and memorialization. In her essay, “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral,” she examines this traditional celebration of the dead, placing it in long historical context. The old custom of the first or official line, which began with the “solemn processional” from the church and the “exquisitely drawn-out dirge” (98) changed markedly in the 1970s, she observes. It was now replaced by “street revelers” (98), who comprise the famed second line and who, dispensing with solemnity, start the procession right from the church, dancing and blasting to the final resting place. Rather than lament the changes wrought mainly by contemporary youth, Osbey embraces them, viewing these transformations as reflecting “the conundrum of custom in New Orleans. The ability not merely to adapt but to improvise is itself inherent in all our notions of tradition and culture. Here, improvisation is the tradition” (99). For Osbey, the jazz funeral is not a museum object, but rather a ritual that has long responded to the dynamics of history, reminding the reader that “the tradition we laud and cling to was pretty much already dead and dying” (98) by the 1970s. In a delightfully surprising turn in the essay, she traces its decline in the broader context of transformations in the mourning rituals of New Orleans, dating back to the institution of slavery.

Ever a student of history in longue duree, Osbey reminds the reader that Kongolese brought as captives to Louisiana, established the tradition of “vent[ing] the soul’s sorrow with the customary weeping and wailing” after which mourners would “accompany the dead to their resting place with much rejoicing” (104). Of course, the profit motives of slavery killed all that, foreshortening the mourning period, along with its attendant rituals. As Osbey notes, the “Frenchmen and Spaniards who ruled Louisiana were hardly apt to defer their own money-changing rituals long enough to allow for the ‘proper’ heathen burial rites of their slaves” (104) in urban New Orleans. But while slavery’s commercial obsessions may have cut short the time the enslaved could mourn their dead, she commands their descendants in the poem, “Peculiar Fascination with the Dead,” not just to “honor their dead/as they ought to be honored” but also to mourn and “marry memory to the dead” (All Saints, 25)

In Osbey’s poem, “House of the Dead Remembering,” the speaker proclaims that “memory is everything” (23) but in “The House in the Street where Memory Lives,” the first poem of the volume, All Souls), this faculty inevitably becomes friable and elusive; “it falls apart” (3). In other words, even memories, visceral, embodied, once stored for the speaker in “the tips of my fingers/the back of my tongue” (3) can die and thus their dying must also be mourned.

In the poems of these companion volumes—All Saints and All Souls—such memories live and die in domestic spaces — houses, bedrooms, parlors, and they connect, appropriately, to personal losses, to “private griefs,” to adapt the title from the poem “Desire and Private Griefs,” (6).  In the structure and motion of some of Osbey poems, however, these private griefs often give way to the poet’s more transcendent meditations on death and loss, on mourning and memory across expanses of time and space. In “Requiem for a Tall Man” (All Souls), for example, the speaker struggles to come to terms with the death of New Orleans writer, Tom Dent.  Appealing to such time-worn adages as “death is a road” we must all travel, the speaker finds a measure of consolation in “tales the old people used to tell” bout “soldiers who came among us for a short time only / bringing peace” (125). The speaker then shifts fluidly, almost imperceptibly, to other, distant temporalities, signaled by references to “dahomey,” “slave ships in the distance,” and to “centuries longer / nearer / than we care ever to have it said.” In the language of the poem, this movement amounts to “splitting memory and time, a movement connecting Dent, son of New Orleans, to a long ancestral past, and to a place where “saints do step in congo-time” (125). That congo-time was once stepped in the famed Congo Square in Tremé of New Orleans’ French Quarter, where a captive people once danced the Congo and other dances from Africa, passing them down to their descendants who kept them alive, along with other African dances and musical beats. “Requiem for a Tall Man,” illustrates the fusion of “private griefs” and collective memory, however vexed the latter term has come to be. Further, the poem captures the ways in which Osbey sees the cultural injunction — indeed the obligation — to honor and remember “our” dead, as a collective responsibility that includes the “many thousands gone” across the centuries, across expanses of space, time, and condition. Their griefs continuous with our own.

A voracious reader with a greedy intellect, Osbey has long had a penchant for libraries, antiquarian bookshops, and maps, ancient and modern. Indeed, the cover and frontispiece of History and Other Poems (2012) are fashioned from a detail of Martin Waldseemüller’s 1507 Universalis Cosmographia.

Picture1

In recent years, her work has shown increasing investment in history and quarrels with the archive, perhaps dating from one of her earliest jobs as a researcher in foreign languages at the main branch of the New Orleans public library.  She described that experience in her essay, “Writing Home.”

Five days a week and sometimes six, I read through countless books, periodicals, and published and unpublished theses and dissertations on the subjects of slavery, resistance and freedom in colonial Louisiana. I sorted and compiled documents and detailed background files on the origins, material culture, family life, and employment of the city’s early African captives. I routinely studied records of births, marriages, and deaths, and translated last wills and testaments of wealthy free blacks who left everything to schools, churches, and benevolent societies. There were catalogues of ships’ arrivals and cargo, inventories of properties including black human property. And there were endless rebellions and uprisings, followed by capture, ritual decapitation or some other slaughter. I followed the creation of armed black militia, conditions under which the enslaved either earned or purchased freedom, the court testimony of the enslaved against their masters, and other peculiarities of urban slavery the way I’d once followed the latest dance moves” (40).

In one way or another, these and other historical details, undoubtedly the fruits of Osbey’s passion for research show up in her writings.  Asked in an October 2013 online interview in Warscapes Magazine, if a poem can be history, Osbey answered with characteristic erudition:

There is a longer tradition of the poet-as-historian than we readily admit. . . Much of the
accepted history of Western antiquity comes to us from Homer . . . Much of what we’ve
come to understand about life in pre-Columbian Americas. Indeed, much if not most of
what we know (or claim to know) about the ancient worlds of Africa, Asia, the Americas
and Europe, we know through poetry. . . This presumed divide between history and poetry
really is a relatively recent one, and one that seems to underscore the recent need to seg-
regate intellectual and creative work into neat and exclusive categories. 

Osbey’s work has never honored such conventional categorizations, never less so than in History and Other Poems. There, Osbey takes a questioning, reflective, critical view of the very category of history, questioning most especially its suppressions and distortions, not least those pertaining to the Transatlantic Slave Trade.  Her volume’s title poem, “History,” that critical impulse is evident in the volume’s titles poem, “History, which takes its epigraph from Robert Hayden’s poem, “The Islands”: “But I am tired today of history / its patina’d clichés / of endless evil.” This long narrative poem explores unflinchingly the violent history of this trade in Black flesh, of European and American colonialism, the effects and reverberations of which can be felt, the book implies, to this very day. Traversing centuries, circling the globe, by land and sea, the poems of this volume bear the stamp of Osbey’s linguistic dexterity, her vernacular range, and her Olympian intellect. The poem provides the reader a history of violence and conquest, of evil and oppression, as well as an extended meditation on history itself, or more precisely our assumptions about it. After the myths, the fables, the abridgments, the approximations, and the outright lies that masquerade in its name, what, then, is History? While the speaker of “History” answers this question in a variety of ways, one pronouncement is clear: “there is no history of this world that is not written in black” (58).

The poem takes the form of a synoptic lesson, albeit a “weary wearied and wearying lesson, “and yet it is to lessons we must go,” the speaker intones, for we have not learned it “well enough” (51). To learn that history requires relinquishing the “chanties about some ocean-blue / because for us / all oceans are forever red” (51). The speaker is clear that, while the “whole of history seems designed to render me sad / disconsolate / broken-hearted / and plain old down” (69), the lessons of slavery’s evils, its “archipelagos of death” must be learned, even if “the real measure of human loss” (51)  never be tallied.

History and Other Poems puts Osbey, the linguist and archivist, on full display, particularly in the appended glossary and notes, which include references to the many terms from African and European languages appearing throughout the volume. In introducing the glossary, Osbey explains that the collection uses “phrases, terminology and historically appropriate names of people, places, and cultural concepts from a variety of languages deployed in the forging of the New World — French, Spanish, Portuguese, reconstituted (New Orleans) Creole — in addition to American/English of the various periods” (73). The glossary is careful to parse their meanings, their uses and misuses.

In the 2013 interview referenced above, Osbey mentions “reject[ing] outright the kind of figurative language that underplays the role of the extreme violence of slavery in the New World project,” and one passage of the title poem, “History,” addresses this obscene history at the unit of the word “slavery.”  

Then bring me the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor for servitude

metaphor for addiction
as metaphor for love
metaphor for anything
bring me their tongues
to tack up on the walls of those castles —
o fort and fortress —
by the saddest of the old old seas.

Despite the references in this passage to the walls and castles of slave forts, I am inclined to read this section, which takes the form of a curse (a form that Osbey also favors), as reflecting Osbey’s concerns about the misuses of language in contemporary parlance and popular culture. As she has noted in “The Poem as History” interview in Warscapes, such “quotidian use of metaphor and other figures of speech” functions to “erase and to disappear the lived experience of a people”

Osbey attempts to capture that “lived experience” in History and Other Poems, even knowing how elusive such attempts are in fact. Though Osbey has written a volume of vast chronological sweep, encompassing references from the 15th century to the present, no one knows better than she that the “lesson” offered up in “History” is but a fragment of the history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the horror it unleashed upon the world. The title poem, which closes the volume, ends on a curiously teasing note: “for now we may well consider ourselves done/having come to the end of the addenda/ to the preface for this introduction / of our little history / part one” (70). Addenda? Preface? Introduction? History Part One?

In writing a history that is difficult to tell and does not end, Osbey joins other contemporary poets, such as M. NourbeSe Philip, whose work also addresses historical atrocities, only to render them incapable of capture. In her justly celebrated book length poem, Zong! Philip takes up the history of the late eighteenth-century British court case regarding the throwing overboard of 150 “negroe” slaves by the captain of the slave trading ship Zong during its trip from the West Coast of Africa to Jamaica. As Susan Holbrook notes, in this oceanic poem, which reaches across centuries, Philip works to tell the “untellable,” to deliver a “story that can never fully emerge” (https://jacket2.org/article/m-nourbese-philips-unrecoverable-subjects).

In bringing History and Other Poem to a close with the teasing allusions to “addenda,” “preface,” “introduction,” Osbey announces, if only implicitly, that she is far from done with history. Luckily, for her band of faithful readers, among whom I count myself, she has recently turned her attention to the history of Virginia in a volume-in-progress titled “Virginia Suite,” which builds logically on History and Other Poems.

Also reflecting Osbey’s lifelong penchant for the archive, this project focuses on interactions of Native Americans, Europeans and Africans in the earliest years of the Virginia Colony, considering how perceptions and representations of the 1607 settlement at Jamestown have shaped and continue to shape North American history, mythology, education, law and social/cultural engagement. Now well underway, the seedling of this volume was “In Memory of Katherine Foster, Free Negress, Late, of These Parts,” a poem commissioned by the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies, at the University of Virginia, to commemorate the Foster Family/Canada Park Dedication in 2011. The remains of Foster and other free Blacks, who lived on the edges of the University of Virginia’s central grounds, were disinterred when the school began excavating the landscape to prepare for the construction of a new building, which now houses the History Department. While the commemoration represented the institution’s way of remembering and honoring the dead, the poem represents another, one that raises implicit questions about the complexities of institutional commemoration.

The speaker of this poem addresses the reader from the silence of the grave, engaging in her own act of remembering — of her children, a neighbor, Hester, all once alive in “this one small plot — / briefest sanctuary / home and work / laughter and sweet communion / smallest respite against so many martyrs on the way.” For Katherine Foster and those “free blacks” remembered in this poem, the sanctuary of “sweet communion” coexists with the threat of violence.  In its second stanza, the poem turns to the “gentlemen” of the university nervous about the goings-on “southeast to southampton.” This is an obvious, tacit reference to Nat Turner, whose actions generated a massacre of blacks, in the aftermath of his rebellion. In retaliation, “no one asks” who is “slave or free,” but proceeds to “hacking negroes right and left.” In the face of this slaughter, the stanza’s closing question is particularly resonant: “exactly what / after all / is / a free negro?”

The poem implies other, broader questions critical to the workings and makings of history, memory, and memorialization, especially for the present. The speaker observes the care being taken with “every little thing” as the excavation proceeds. These gravediggers of a different kind, now charged with “unearthing and replanting” the remains of Katherine Foster and those with whom she shares the grave, may show a “tenderness now that we are gone- / or so they tell themselves.”

What do those in the present tell themselves about the past? As the poem moves unhurriedly to its conclusion, the speaker asks related questions:

 and now that we are neighbors to that great institution

who ever will tell what only we could tell?
 who knows the cost of what we bought and paid for?
who dares to tell the cost of mr jefferson’s
own sweet dream
and higher calling
for this upper country.

“In Memory of Katherine Foster” takes a quietly critical view of this project of memorialization mounted by a university built and sustained by the labor of the formerly enslaved. Although Katherine Foster was a “free Black,” she, the speaker of the poem, understands that the line dividing slave from free is porous. She understands, moreover, that the act of honoring and remembering the dead and sacralizing their remains necessitates a violent disturbance of the peace and the sanctuary of the grave’s repose. In other words, erecting this memorial to Katherine Foster requires, in the words of the poem, “cutting through bloodied red earth / cutting through this one small plot,” that held the remains of those in this free black community of Canada.

Osbey accepted a second commission from the University of Virginia, one from the President’s Commission on Slavery and the University (PCSU), producing “Fieldwork” to commemorate yet another burial ground at another edge of the university. This cemetery contains the remains of 67 workers once enslaved to the university and situated below the University Cemetery boundary. Much like “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” “Fieldwork” focuses its attention on the finite, intimate details defining the lives and deaths of those now buried, including the causes of their deaths: tetanus, pneumonia, maternal mortality, typhoid, and consumption. Listed in the “ledger and book” as “unknown,” these souls, notes the speaker, were not “unknown” to “those who love and tend them in the end / not by us / not by rust-red earth / soft-brushed by hands that carry and tend” them.

As in “In Memory of Katherine Foster,” this commemoration of these 67 souls amounts, in its way, to a disturbance. Notes the speaker of the poem,

it is worse than wicked to disturb those going to talk well with their own
grave evil to prevent them from keeping
good company with their own dead.

Understanding the archaeological investments in material culture for the sake of knowledge, the speaker notes nevertheless, “it is well to consider / that research design is one language / reverence another.” Osbey’s own preference for reverence shows in the poem’s final stanza, in which those “unknown,” now named — tessa, hannah, billy, strong mike, william, tom, bacchus, violet, liza and baby liza, old limas, and others — now “surveying / beyond what-all remains of this green/embowered wood.” Now “neither slave nor servant,” they commune in repose, together in “these our truest skins … inside this silty red and clayey soil,” casting off “the evils of this place.”           

It is significant that Osbey wrote “In Memory of Katherine Foster” and “Fieldwork” in this moment when the University of Virginia, like other institutions of higher learning in the United States, is supposedly “reckoning with its past.”  Founded and sustained by the uncompensated labor of the enslaved, these universities now openly acknowledge that their foundations and prosperity were tied inextricably to this labor, to the violence and brutality on the bodies that performed it. In subtle ways, these poems invite us to think about the questions Saidya Hartman raises about slavery, collective memory, and the ethical responsibilities of commemoration. Hartman is writing specifically about tourism as a “vehicle of memory” at former slave forts and castles, which she appropriately calls “dungeons,” but her questions are much more broadly applicable, including to present-day acts of commemoration in which the consortium of “Universities Confronting the Legacy of Slavery.” Hartman asks, “How can this encounter with the past fuel emancipatory efforts?  Is it enough that these acts of commemoration rescue the unnamed and unaccounted for from obscurity and oblivion . .  . Is there a necessary relation between remembrance and redress?  Can the creation of a collective memory of past crimes insure the end of injustice” (“Slavery’s Time,” 773)?  These are weighty questions, and they are not lost on Osbey, who must perform the delicate balancing act:  accepting a commission in the interest of a university “confronting slavery,” while granting herself the license to register the complexities—at times, the violence—of that confrontation.

In 1967: On the Semicentenary of the Desegregation of the College of William and Mary,” another poem in “The Virginia Suite,” Osbey brings her poetry of remembrance closer to our times. The College of William and Mary commissioned “1967” to commemorate the year when three African American women — Lynn Briley, Janet Brown Strafer, and Karen Ely — desegregated the college. Although focused on a different time and place, this long narrative poem, comprised of three cantos, takes a panoramic view of history, embedding the moment of the school’s desegregation in the thick, rich context of early Virginia and beyond. Much like “History,” “1967” incorporates fragments from historical documents within the narrative progression of a poem that also seeks to consider the personal costs of historical change. “how-long-how-many-how-much-exactly-is the cost of a slow and peaceful/desegregation?” Here too, as in the other poems discussed here, Osbey does not shy away from considering this question within the trajectory of the long Black freedom struggle, a struggle fraught with violence and a

special strain of terror
reserved for negro girl-children
with their bookstraps and lunchbox
smartly gathered or pleated dresses, and socks folded over just so… .
who walked past white mothers cursing, screaming
spitting nigger nigger like anybody’s business

Despite this history of the utter violence of desegregation captured in “1967,” the poem concludes on this note: 1967 “was a very good year to be alive and blacker even than you knew.” We might be inclined to extract from this line the evidence of progress, but such would simplify Osbey’s project, and blunt the sharp edge of her critique.  She is certainly alert in “1967” to the legacy of the past in the present, as well as to what Dennis Beach has termed, those bodies who are “oppressed by history.” The chronological scope of the poem, as well as that of “History” suggests that there is a kind of memory that “throbs with a pain that is past but never past enough,” thus making history “our neighbor,” and remembrance, a particular kind of ethical obligation (318). Osbey has continued to register that “pain that is never past” in one of her most recent poems planted firmly in the present.

Long reluctant to permit her work to be published in anthologies, Osbey recently relented, contributing “AS YET UNTITLED: A Seasonal Suite” to Martin Espada’s anthology, What Saves Us: Poems of Empathy and Outrage in the Age of Trump. This poem is part of another suite-in-progress that Osbey is calling “As Yet Untitled.” That suite is a component of the much larger, “Etudes Project,” which she described in a note to me as a “batch of ‘studies’ in language/rhythm/rhyme/voice/scan, etc.”

 “A Seasonal Suite” explores the wanton loss of black life in the contemporary moment, much owing to the rising tide of white supremacy. In the space in the poem where grief might be, outrage stands instead. The poem sustains this tone from beginning to end. The everyday, relentless slaughter, defining a “season of hate and of violence,” can be “any date year month time” in “regions without borders or bounds.” From college campuses to suburban cul-de-sacs to churches, there is no surcease from this excrescent violence, the victims of which the poem does not name. It seems that there is “no longer interval or spell neither span nor while not stretch” to pause for naming, for mourning these casualties resulting from the “puling entitlement” of white supremacy.

The speaker references these victims only tacitly, but no one who has lived through this “era and epoch” can fail to insert their names: Trayvon Martin, the Charleston Nine, Tamir Rice, Aiyana Jones, to name but a few. These black bodies all blend into each other, much as the poem piles on, with few line breaks and no punctuation, “after-crime scenes:”

suburban cul-de-sacs small city traffic lanes major metropolitan area thoroughfares rural mail routes kindergartens gymnasiums waterfronts campuses driveways churches

Here this non-stop pile of liquefying references accumulates, spilling over, edging each other out. There is no space for pausing, for catching breath.

The poem conjoins this “era and epoch season” to a long history of bloody violence, including that meted out on Black bodies by the KKK, by lynch mobs, whose “mitochondria” has “mutated” to form new mobs, parading out from behind the cloak of sheets. Those with only “blank whiteness to trade on” engage in a latter-day ritual of holding “sheets / frayed through at the center making cross-eyes at the dark world beyond.”

“A Seasonal Suite” invites comparison to “Absent Trees and Rope,” the title Osbey gave her introduction to an issue of Warscapes, which she curated in September 2015. She began that essay by describing the deaths of more than six dozen African Americans from May through October, 1916, “one of the most horrific seasons of racist violence in the United States since the end of slavery.” she went on to say. Historians have long referred to these five months as the Red Summer of Hate, although it was, as Osbey notes, “only one of many peaks in the continuum of white supremacist invective, assault and murder” (http://www.warscapes.com/author/brenda-marie-osbey).

African American poets were not slow to address this violence in their time, including Claude McKay, whose famous sonnet, “If We Must Die,” was one response. In inviting the poets Frank X Walker, E. Ethelbert Miller, Afaa Weaver, Duriel Harris, and Major Jackson to contribute to this special issue, Osbey situates herself — and these poets — within a long line of writers of conscience, who have “historically refused to remain silent in the face of racist violence and abuse.” With this issue, indeed with her whole body of work, Osbey illustrates that famous adage of the late poet Audre Lorde: “Poetry is not a luxury,” which she quotes in “The Poem as History.” As she puts it, “My own practice has always been to think of poetry first, foremost and always as a way of engaging and interacting in and with the world.” Not only does her writing embody this way of thinking, so do the other public offices she has unselfishly performed. As Poet Laureate of Louisiana, Osbey represented the state in numerous national forums and brought to this devastation of Hurricane Katrina, insights that escaped the titular experts, the talking heads, and the opportunists who exploited the tragedy for their own gain. Her own poem, “Litany of our Lady,” performed on the fifth anniversary of Katrina, references and remembers the disaster, while avoiding the temptation, indulged in by so many, to serve up the tropes of a disaster tour. As she writes in a brief essay accompanying an online version of the poem, “New Orleans has survived repeated disasters, tragedies, cataclysms and reverses … Through it all, she remains. And those of us with enough of her in our blood, skin, teeth and bones are resolved also to remain.” The world of writers, scholars, and teachers is fortunate indeed that Brenda Marie Osbey is “resolved to remain” in New Orleans, the wellspring of so much fine work, but she has also shown an equal resolve to remain planted in whatever place engages her with the world and the work of honoring the dead, whom we are obligated to keep alive.

 

Works Cited

Dennis Beach. “History and the Other:  Dussel’s Challenge to Levinas. Philosophy and Social Criticism. 30.3 (2004):  315-330.

Davis, Thadious. Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, & Literature. Chapel Hill, NC: UNC Press, 2014.

Flores-Silva, Dolores, and Keith Cartwright. “Feeding the Gulf Dead: An Ofrenda of Response to Brenda Marie Osbey’s All Saints & All Souls.” The Southern Quarterly, vol. 55, no. 4, 2018, pp. 162-177. Project Muse, muse.jhu.edu/article/710408.

Hartman, Saidya. “The Time of Slavery,” South Atlantic Quarterly 101:4 (2002): 757-777.

Holbrook, Susan. “M. NourbeSe Philip’s Irrecoverable Subjects,” Retrieved from

            https://jacket2.org/article/m-nourbese-philips-unrecoverable-subjects

Lowe, John (Ed.). Louisiana Culture from the Colonial Era to Katrina. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2008.

Osbey, Brenda Marie. “Absent Trees and Rope.” Warscapes, 2015. Retrieved from http://www.warscapes.com/tags/african-american

—. All Saints: New and Selected Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 1997.

—. All Souls: Essential Poems. Baton Rouge: LSU Press, 2015.

—. “One More Last Chance: Ritual and the Jazz Funeral.” The Georgia Review, vol. 50, no. 1., 1996, pp. 97-107. JSTOR, www.jstor.org/stable/41401226 .

—. “Writing Home.” The Southern Literary Journal, vol. 40, no. 2, 2008, p. 19+. Gale Literature Resource Center.

 


Read more in this issue: Interview | Poems | Writing Prompt


IMG_8320Deborah E. McDowell is the Alice Griffin Professor of Literary Studies and Director of the Carter G. Woodson Institute for African American and African Studies at the University of Virginia.  Her publications include ‘The Changing Same’:  Studies in Fiction by African-American WomenLeaving Pipe Shop:  Memories of Kin, The Punitive Turn:  Race, Inequality, and Mass Incarceration, as well as numerous articles, book chapters, and scholarly editions. Professor McDowell founded the African-American Women Writers Series for Beacon Press and served as its editor from 1985-1993. She also served as a period editor for the Norton Anthology of African-American Literature, now in its third edition;  contributing editor to the D. C. Heath Anthology of American Literature, and co-editor with Arnold Rampersad of Slavery and the Literary Imagination.  Her service on various editorial boards has included Publications of the Modern Language Association, American Literature, Genders, and African-American Review, Modern Fiction Studies, and Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature. Her awards and honors include fellowships from Radcliffe, the National Research Council Fellowship of the Ford Foundation, and the Woodrow Wilson International Center Fellowship.  She was awarded an Honorary Doctorate of Letters by Purdue University in 2006.