New Poetry That Excavates the Past to Imagine a Future
By Kathryn Nuernberger
Dub: Finding Ceremony, by Alexis Pauline Gumbs. Duke University Press, 296 pp., $24.95
Post-Colonial Love Poem, by Natalie Diaz. Graywolf Press, 120 pp., $16.
Rift Zone, by Tess Taylor. Red Hen Press, 112 pp., $16.95.
White Blood: A Lyric of Virginia, by Kiki Petrosino. Sarabande Books, 112 pp., $15.95.
The Galleons, by Rick Barot. Mikweed Editions. 88 pp., $16.
Like many devoted bibliophiles, I love to visit archives. I sigh contentedly while enacting the familiar rituals of shutting the locker door on all of my belongings except two mechanical pencils and a notebook. It’s such a feeling of curious hope to fill out the little slips of paper that send a librarian down an elevator into some vault beneath the earth so that she can return with, I don’t quite know what it will be. Sometimes I lift the lid and a map of the Mediterranean Sea appears. The librarian tells me the vellum is made of sheepskin, the ink is made of emeralds and other precious gems. No one, so far as she knows, can figure out how to interpret the red lines criss-crossing the sea. Other times she brings me a diary and I reach for the white gloves to protect this young girl’s ancient handwriting, but the librarian says no, the paper grows brittle with lack of oils, she’d prefer if I turned the pages carefully with my bare hands to give them a little more life. Sometimes I can convince the librarian to take me down in the elevator with her and I see then how generations of memories, that all appear so organized in the databases by their call numbers and key word tags, live in a chaos of newspaper stacks teetering beside strange alchemical equipment buttressed with glass boxes of dried plants the pharmacists used to collect from the greenhouses that were bulldozed from the campus decades ago. Somewhere over there, the librarian gestures into a dark cavern of shelves, is a hunk of ambergris vomited up by a whale three hundred years ago. The world above us seems filled with possibilities
But always in the archives, in almost every document I have ever unfolded, comes some moth-eaten, water-stained, spine-busted racism I hadn’t intended to surface. Once, I wanted to know about the legendary Ferris wheel at the center of the 1904 World’s Fair, which is an archetypal story of the city where I grew up. In each box I requested from the archives at the historical society was another pamphlet telling a racist, slur-filled story of what was known as the Philippine Exhibition. Beside a large picture of that wheel, the column inches tell how Theodore Roosevelt generously funded the anthropologists and scarcely funded the Filipino people brought to the city to live like museum pieces in order to bolster support for the latest U.S. Imperial project. As I came to understand this story and others so many of my neighbors, like me, had conveniently forgotten or overlooked, I wondered what a writer should do with such knowledge. I have seen how a person who tells a story of racism carelessly only reinscribes it in the present. I have seen how ignoring the story altogether, as if the crime never happened, also carries it into the future. I am still figuring out in my own creative work how to describe the past in a way that makes a more just future possible, but have been gratified as a reader, especially in the past few years, to encounter a number of poetry collections that root themselves in admiration and reinvention of the archive. These writers are showing any of us who would write about the past as a way to imagine the future the way to achieve that aim.
Among these ground-breaking poetry collections is Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s Dub, which dropped this year. Dub is the final book in a trilogy that delves deeply into the imaginative possibilities in the concept of an archive. In each of her books, Gumbs writes in conversation with an influential Black feminist theorist. The first book, Spill, is derived from meditations on the work of Hortense Spillers. M Archive converses with M. Jacqui Alexander’s Pedagogy of the Crossing by incorporating quotations from that work into at least one line in each poem which meditates on the implications of Alexander’s words. Dub is inspired by the work of Sylvia Wynter; each poem is accompanied by endnotes that direct readers deeper into Wynter’s illuminating body of work. All of Gumbs’s books feature a poetics of citation. She makes the act of acknowledging an intellectual and creative lineage a crucial part of her craft and form.
One way Gumbs’s books operate is as signposts into an archive of Black feminist thought, an archive that is in need of greater attention considering how often scholars ignore the intellectual and creative labor of Black women or steal that labor by not crediting them for their ideas and research. In “Whale Chorus,” for example, she draws parallels between the whaling industry, the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, and changing forms of extraction capitalism across centuries. She writes, “it was the fact of other sources of oil to move onto, other deep black resources to extract. it was a fact. they could only save the whales once they knew they didn’t need them … they need us more than gold3.” That citation at the end of this sentence directs readers to end notes that encourage them to consider Wynter’s essay “Human Being as Noun?” and the fragment from that essay, “especially since we ourselves are of this type.” These are evocative footnotes that raise questions even as they acknowledge; they propel readers out of Gumbs’s book and into Wynter’s texts, many of which have for too long been out of print or were never collected in the first place. Gumbs’s trilogy embraces the lyric beauty in the acts of naming, remembering, and finding one’s way back to the source.
In Dub, Gumbs is particularly interested in questions of ceremony, healing, and ancestry. The poems often involve an oracular speaker channeling voices that were lost to the anguishes of slavery and then the racism that circumscribed Black people’s lives after slavery. They often take the form of ritualistic directions for healing oneself or one’s ancestors from such pain. Often she meditates on the sea creatures who share a deep connection to those Atlantic waters Black people were carried across or drowned in. In “Anguilla,” she writes, “turtles could teach you about colonialism. turtles know centuries of leaving and coming back and about how when you come back and nothing is the same you wonder whether it’s worth it to lay eggs or love anything. what turtles learn to do under colonialism was to die. a soft body in a hard context. a system that will stick you in your smoothest softest place, wrench you from the armor of your home.” In a world where the stories of enslaved people were erased by academics and librarians, among others, who sought to secure a culture of white supremacy or who simply didn’t think Black people’s history mattered, Gumbs amplifies the voices of the Black feminist scholars whose papers have survived and she seeks out other archives, like those written in the water or the earth, wherein she might learn to hear the lost voices in a new way.
In “unlearning herself,” which reads in many ways like a primer to understanding Gumbs’s poetics of ceremony and oracular listening in Dub, Gumbs writes, “she had to trust the things that were not books and were not made by people. she had to trust the things that were not things but god itself growing on earth. earth itself as rock and information. she had to trust those things which were only as real as she was to prompt her memory or her knowing more than that.” This moment echoes an unforgettable moment in M Archive when Gumbs describes a girl in a distant apocalyptic future in a long-buried library unearthing pages of Audre Lorde’s writing and finding in those texts the knowledge she needs to remember/learn/evolve into a person who can fly. Then she teaches the others. Reading Gumbs’s books feels like reading an archive that will someday, who knows maybe even someday soon, usher in an era of radical transformation.
It is through this trilogy that I was first shown the idea that archives have geological qualities. The shelves of paper are akin to layers of earth, which also tell a kind of history. But the idea of archive as strata does not begin with Gumbs, as her deep and lyrical practice of citations shows. A number of Black feminist writers in recent decades have been particularly attentive to questions of lineage, ancestry, and the questions of how to remember. Hortense Spillers, M. Jacqui Alexander, and Sylvia Wynter are just a few who mapped the way through honest engagement with the stories the archives tell, both through in terms of the papers that can be found in the collections and those that were lost. To fully appreciate the radical imaginative potential artists and intellectuals are finding in the archives, it is worth pausing from poetry briefly to discuss a nonfiction book on geology, ecology, and archival memory that also came out this year and which inhabits the same zeitgeist. In A Billion Black Anthropocenes or None, Kathryn Yusoff writes to geologists, environmentalists, and anyone who would grieve the mass extinctions and human suffering coming with climate change. She urges her readers to remember the full history that brough our world to this point and to resist any comfortably simplistic narratives about the causes of or solutions to climate crises.
Trained as a geologist, Yusoff lingers in her book over the question of when one should mark the beginning of the Anthropocene. Noting a tendency in the discipline of geology to erase its problematic history of supporting the invention and maintenance of extractive capitalism, including the extraction of human bodies for enslavement alongside minerals and natural resources, Yusoff writes, “The development of an analytic of White Geology is important for how the Anthropocene is conceived, in terms of its origin stories and an environmental relation to come.” This book, which operates at the nexus of theory, history, and science, is having a profound impact on conversations about intersectional approaches to environmental activism. One of Yusoff’s key proposals is that dates like Columbus’s arrival on Turtle Island or the first slave ship crossing the Atlantic would more accurately mark the beginning of the Anthropocene as an age of cataclysmic mass extinctions, than more commonly cited markers, like use of nuclear weapons, for the beginning of this new, awful era. Dates that account for the development of environmental exploitation and the mass enslavement of human beings would counteract an “attempt to absolve the positionality of Western colonial knowledge and extraction practices” and “a desire to overcome coloniality without a corresponding relinquishing of the power it continues to generate in terms of who gets to formulate, implement, and speak to/of the future.” She reminds readers that not only do nuclear waste and the ooze of microplastics form layers of crust over this earth, the bodies of billions lost to genocides and slavery are also part of the archive of earth we stand atop in this present moment.
Yusoff’s is a radical and transformative work of interdisciplinary nonfiction, asking how a discipline like geography can honestly and ethically hold the history of such grievous suffering, loss, and violence. While Yusoff’s meditations on the questions are profound, they emerge from the work of hybrid writers like Hortense Spillers, M. Jacqui Alexander, and Sylvia Wynter, who all moved between scholarly and literary writing as they excavated the archives, while reimagining what an archive might be and how the geologies of this planet might carry the memory of those stories that western cultural and literary traditions found it more expedient to ignore or erase from the card catalog. The moral imperative of Yusoff’s questions about how long, exactly, we have been living in a state of apocalypse, and how exactly a culture so long steeped in such violence might leave a legacy other than death dovetails with a number of new poetry collections released this year that excavate personal and collective histories with a deep understanding of how human life unfolds in response to the past and in conversation with the future. In any archive, a great many of the relevant documents have been damaged, erased, or left out of the collection entirely, sometimes because print was not designed to hold such unbearable pain, sometimes because colonizer languages were designed to write over such memories. Poetry, then, is the perfect genre for this work since it has a long tradition of embracing even the most difficult of memories. In oral cultures, poetry is the vessel by which the most important teachings elders have to offer are passed forward. Moreover, poetry is also the genre that welcomed fragments of Sappho, Dickinson’s snippets on the backs of envelopes, and, more recently politically potent erasures, like those of government documents by writers like Philip Metres.
Natalie Diaz’s Post-Colonial Love Poem is one of these newer poetry collections trying to tell a story of human relationships to land in a way that honors memory in all of its forms. While the book does not make any explicit argument for or against Yusoff’s suggestion that giving our epoch a new name, Anthropocene, whitewashes the crimes against creation that have defined the past five centuries, the poems do illustrate how misguided it is to dream of fresh starts or new beginnings. Yusoff objects to the allures of apocalypse narratives as a way of framing the Anthropocene because in such paradigms “the idea of Blackness and the displacement and eradication of indigenous people get caught and defined in the ontological wake of geology.” Diaz’s poems convey in a different rhetorical mode a similar core idea that for many survivors of settler colonialism and the economics of slavery and Jim Crow, the apocalypse isn’t coming, it’s already here and has been for a long time.
In the poem “They Don’t Love You Like I Love You,” Diaz walks readers through the history of a song recently performed by Beyoncé covering the Yeah Yeah Yeahs that the speaker first heard in the voice of her mother. That mother, singing the lines “They don’t love you like I love you” tries to comfort her daughter who has felt the slap of racism. But such a moment of tenderness inside of grief takes the speaker a lifetime to fully understand. Like an archivist sifting through the sedimentary layers of meaning language accrues over time, she peels back the traumas of how “they flicker themselves—sepia / or blue—all over my body.” Diaz pivots in the poem from her reflection on the song into a reverie on the way maps are one of the tools for gaslighting children into a false narrative about who has worth and power and whose experiences are often considered less-than. “Maps are ghosts: white and / layered with people and places I see through.” Through this process of memory and excavation of the assumptions that a child might internalize unconsciously, she reaches an adult understanding of that moment so long ago. The speaker realizes she has internalized the racism those other children directed her way, to the point that she did not fully understand the comfort and love her mother was offering. Only by peeling back the accumulation of microaggressions, like a geologist surveying layers of strata does she come to realize that when the mother sang her daughter the bars of a song by the Yeah Yeah Yeahs, “she meant, / Natalie, that doesn’t mean / you aren’t good.”
In a similar vein to this poem, but on the scale of geologic time and transcontinental distances, Diaz writes the history of the Colorado River in “The First Water Is the Body.” She begins, “The Colorado River is the most endangered river in the United States—also it is part of my body.” She elaborates on this this conception of being and connection through a series of translations of reveries on the Mojave phrase “Aha Makav.” Translated into English, “Aha Makav means the river runs through the middle of our own body the same way it runs through the middle of our land.” She says this is a poor translation and archives myriad usages and associations that gives these words deeper meaning. “Tears” mean “river,” “river” can be a verb, body and water are understood to be side-by-side. Slowly she takes her readers through the Mojave language until readers can reach a thorough and complex understanding of what it means for Diaz to say “We are water.” She writes, “The water we drink, like the air we breathe, is not a part of our body but is our body. What we do to one—to the body, to the water—we do to the other.” Like Yusoff, who asserts the land will not forget what happened to the people on it just become some would rather not tell the story, Diaz asserts that water has perfect memory. “Do you think water will forget what we have done, what we continue to do?” she asks at the end of this poem.
While Diaz returns time and again to meditations on the memories and histories held in water, Tess Taylor’s third book, Rift Zone, investigates literal and metaphorical fault lines to tell a personal and collective history of settler colonialism, racism, segregation, and desecration of the land. Taylor focusses on the circumstance in her home state of California, but her excavation of white people’s silences around racism and genocide, as well as the work of self-reflection, interrogation, and acknowledgment of privilege and complicity will resonate with readers far beyond those state lines.
In “Downhill White Supremacists March on Sacramento,” she balances an idyllic, escapist view up into the summer aspens of the Sierras against a vision below where “deep in the roadbeds, / the bones of the Irish / & Chinese workers / whose lives were pitted / against one another / to drive down & down / the price of their labor.” The poem contends with the ways racist theories adapt to maintain white supremacist power. One way, the poem illustrates with the image of this march, is to offer those who might otherwise find class solidarity with marginalized peoples some measure of race privilege in exchange for participating in the project of racialized othering and oppression, at times going so far as to do the work of policing these categories of difference, which is what the white supremacist marchers in this poem do. This poem, like many others in Rift Zone, draws on a variety of scholarly disciplines to understand a moment. Living, as her speakers do, on fault lines while awaiting the next fire season, Taylor attends to the millennia of memory in the redwoods, to the eons in the rock, as part of a story that stretches into the more recent history, the centuries of extraction capitalism that have created certain grooves of thinking that white supremacists now slip into all-too-easily. Then she returns to the present moment where one can see a way into the future—the speaker turns her head from the scene of protests in the road towards the glitter of snowpack beyond the lake, which is one direction that road can lead, while in the other direction, “Deep in the roadbeds, / the bones of the Irish // & Chinese workers / whose lives were pitted / against one another… / blaze in their graves.” Taylor’s poems are characterized by such flashes of descriptive writing that hold hope and beauty in suspension with real and urgent suffering that share the same moment.
In a later poem, “Aubade with Faultline and Broken Pipe,” the speaker watches a broken water main flooding the streets and thinks about how these pipes and these roads, these future archaeological records of this empire will convey memory of “the way in marches we the people / do reroute the streets.” She describes how “in an epoch of pressure / unburied water claims its path // a force acquires / a voice / a valence …” In a counternarrative to that earlier march, where the injustices of history seem to keep grinding their ruts into the bedrock of history, here she compares how water can reroute roads and even whole ecosystems in a night. There is hope in this account of how water might rewrite the story. “Bataille believed the sacred lies in interruption.” In this poem the water, like a civil rights movement, becomes a “freed stream splays & loosens … / also: It sings as it goes.”
There is a sequence of poems in conversation with the flora of California. These tender attentions to the fragile flowers and leaves of native plants who hold the soil of this age to the bedrock of the past are the sites of some of Taylor’s most beautiful and insightful lines about what it means to live as a good ancestor. In “Song with the Wild Plum and Thorn” the speaker sets out in a precarious frame mind. “The kids need to play & the grocery budget / ticks toward nothing the way / the world tips toward doomsday.” There in the ditches she meets “others topping // with buckets or tiffins / in many languages.” Yusoff wants readers to remember geology began as a science of desecrating ecosystems with exploited human labor. Taylor does not flinch from that truth when she writes her praise songs to the plants of her time and place. “Black sparkle, pale pit & thorn — // weeds binding / some world together.”
Tess Taylor’s is an important voice in an emerging body of work from white poets excavating the histories of whiteness and privilege, who seek to understand precisely how these ideas were first created and then maintained through willful ignorance. This book provides excellent examples of how white poets can participate in the project of decolonization and liberation without culturally appropriating or enacting a white savior complex. As someone who recognizes how my own poems have sometimes failed in these ways, I’m grateful to see models for writing the archive of white privilege and systemic racism in a way that allows white readers to imagine what being a good ancestor might look like from their subject positions.
Kiki Petrosino is another poet who engages deeply with archival memories of the land as a source of inspiration. In her latest collection, White Blood, she digs into the history of life on several Virginia plantations, unearthing the stories of enslaved people who were forced to draw wealth and power for others out of that soil. Writing in a sequence of poems about the influential slave master Thomas Jefferson, Petrosino moves between the history of Monticello, where Jefferson sent “his field / slaves to the ground, a phrase for how he made them pull / tobacco and hominy from the earth” and the contemporary moment where “I race to class beneath a bronze / Confederate, his dark obelisk, his silent mustache.” As she meditates on French cold cream dug from the earth near the enslaved people’s cabins where Sally Hemmings would have lived alongside the papers where Jefferson listed names of plants and birds and people he sent to work the ground he called his own, Petrosino concludes, “I know a deeper weave of gone-away ones / who should mean more to me than any book. I live in language / on land they left. I have no language to describe this.”
Her sequence of poems about the Free Smiths of Louisa County parallels these archival excavations of Monticello, but the focus instead is on the estate of a black man, Butler Smith. While so much of US history stands in direct contradiction to a hopeful vision of the future, Petrosino finds an empowering legacy in the Smith family. In “How It Feels to Love Butler Smith,” she writes, “If you could reach into every successive Butler Smith / past the springs & lobsters of his mind, you’d draw // … an unpainted flower bud unfolding / time after time.”
The book also includes a series of erasure poems constructed from the simplistic stories that DNA testing companies send about heritage and identity to their customers alongside the test results. In “What Your Results Mean: Western Africa 28%” she erases the pages, as so many West African people’s stories were erased on this continent, down to enigmatic phrases like this one that comprises section 6: “ The West African you/ spanning // more than // more” which then evokes the way the racist one-drop definition of Blackness makes questions of one’s identity far more nuanced that a number like 28 could possibly convey. In “What Your Results Mean: Northwest Europe: 12%” she makes the text tell a more complete version of European history with lines like, “region of rope / much more / than a / region // the spread of …” which convey the violences of lynching and settler colonialism that are often erased from the narratives about European history propagated by the dominant culture. In these poems Petrosino erases stereotypes and misplaced certainty with the fractured and fragmented truths of what it means to live in the wake of ancestors who suffered and afflicted, who might be imagined to be redeemed or relieved or most certainly damned.
White Blood, which is a poetry collection about reckoning with the past and situating oneself in an honest relationship with one’s heritage, inheritance, and lineage ends with the image of a map, a geography for the future. Petrosino’s poems do not make the past more bearable—these poems are often painful to read. But they do make the future seem bearable. The final poem in particular envisions of way of relating to the beautiful, terrible, awesome archive of the earth as a kind of prayer. In “Psalm,” a direct address to the “Dear Lord, Dear High Rememberer, / Dear Providential Love,” she writes, “Won’t be long before they reckoning curve // arrives at the junction of our error. How beneath they Mineral Eye / we walk abroad, forgetting thee, Cartographer of Sparrows.”
Rick Barot’s The Galleons is another poetry collection that plunges the depths of the legacies of colonialism and slavery. These poems focus on objects of plunder. Each artifact pulls back the self-serving veneer of colonialism to reveal the kind of stories that will help a reader understand the present moment in all of its pain and injustice. In the first poem in the series “The Galleons,” which appears at intervals throughout the book, Barot describes history as “the galleons in the middle of the sixteenth / century, swaying like a drunk who will take / six months to finally reach his house.” The speaker wants to tell the story of a woman, presumably his mother or grandmother, who decades earlier crossed that same ocean with a child in her arms, but the speaker struggles to determine whether “her story is an illumination of history,” or “her story is separate / from the whole, as distinct as each person is distinct,” or “her story is surrounded by history.” Embracing a promise akin to the one Diaz offers, that water will remember, he settles on the conclusion that “her story is a few words in the blue void.”
In “The Galleons 2” Barot considers the significance of artifacts in terms of that echo Yusoff’s argument for an engagement with ideas of land and time that commit to remembering instead of erasing or overwriting those parts that are the most painful to contend with. Barot begins this poem with the assertion that “Research is mourning,” before listing the plundered objects filling the holds of ships sailing out from the colonial Philippines, the country where he was born. The list of “ivory objects, jade objects, copper objects,” “tapestries, linens, church vestments,” alongside “nutmeg, tamarind, ginger” goes on for thirteen couplets before culminating in the most egregious extraction of all, “slaves were called indios or chinos.” The poem is a single sentence that holds all of the particulars of colonial pillage before culminating in a single word, the question, “elegy?” Research, Barot suggests, is an act of grieving, an act of honoring, an act of carrying the memory of the dead into the future with a spirit of responsibility and stewardship.
Another question that looms large in Barot’s poems of elegy, as well as in all of the other collections I have discussed here, is what story should one tell, what elegy can one make, for those ancestors whose legacy was violence, both their own individual acts and the systems of violent oppression they helped create? A related question that also recurs is how one might heal those ancestors who died under such people’s knees? For those wondering how to understand and live conscionably in an anthropocene that has been exploding its apocalypse across the planet ever since Columbus set sail with the Doctrine of Discovery in his pocket, Barot offers “Ode with Interruptions.” In this poem he makes a litany of people engaged in the most mundane acts—“Someone is reading the paper and listening to / a baseball game on the radio at the same time.” Someone else “is writing a letter on thin blue paper.” Elsewhere, “someone is putting down the needle onto a spinning record, just so.” In all of these moments, someone is engaged in one form of quiet contemplation or another and these reveries are the moments Barot wants to cherish, to find the past and the future in. He writes in the closing couplets to the book, “I used to think that to write poems, to make art, / meant trying to transcend the prosaic elements // of the self, to arrive at some essential plane, where / poems were supposed to succeed. I was wrong.” There is much wisdom in these lines, much grace and accepting patience in these couplets, but it is his willingness to end his contribution to the archive with an admission of error that models to those of us alive in this stratum of time what we might have to offer the future. His practice of honest humility is among the great and beautiful gifts The Galleons brings to readers.
Kathryn Nuernberger is the author of the poetry collections, RUE, The End of Pink, and Rag & Bone, and the essay collections Brief Interviews with the Romantic Past and The Witch of Eye.