The Poem as History
Brenda Marie Osbey’s long poem, “History,” from which we have published an excerpt here, comes from her recent collection History and Other Poems (Time Being Books 2012). The subject of these poems is colonialism, the slave trade, but also, the telling of history itself. We have asked Brenda Marie Osbey to discuss the relation of poetry to history, and to discuss the relation of history to the literary symbol, and we have transcribed this discussion below:
Noam Scheindlin: Your poems engage with a long tradition of the poet as historian. Your poems also seem to manifest something of the impersonal thrust of history: the disembodied voices, snatches of songs, unattributed quotations could be understood to perform the way history creates subjects. But there is of more than this: there is a counter-thrust; an opposition not just to the way things happened—but to the way-things-are-told. How do you understand the function / phenomenon of poetry in relation to that of "history?" Can a poem be history?
Brenda Marie Osbey: There is a longer tradition of the poet-as-historian than we readily admit. Isn't history always the way/s in which things are told, who does the telling and on what authority? Antar ibn Shaddad, the Black Raven of Saudi Arabia, wrote that three things define man: “to make love, to make war, to make verse.” Long before his 6th century epic of war and love, the Gabon Death Rite Suites and hunting poems were composed, and the Khoikhoi lyric poems on the nature of the universe, all of which tell such a great deal about ancient sub-Saharan African social and political life, religion, mythology and warfare. The teachings of Lao-Tsu come to us in verse. Much of the accepted history of Western antiquity comes to us from Homer. And, of course, the Nahuatl philosopher-poet-king and master craftsman Nezahualcoyotl recorded in poems and songs much of what we've come to understand about life in the 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 anyway. What ancient societies can we claim to know that didn't have generations of peripatetic bards carrying news and history in some combination of song, lyric and narrative poem? More recently, so much of what we've come to understand about the experience of the Middle Passage we know from Robert Hayden's brilliant narrative poem of that title. In the words of the late Audre Lorde, poetry is not a luxury. Literary critic Deborah McDowell writes passionately about “the myths, the fables, the abridgements, the approximations, and the outright lies that masquerade” in the name of history. This presumed divide between history and poetry really is a relatively recent one, and one that seems to underscore the recent need to segregate intellectual and creative work into neat and exclusive categories. Hence, the notion of history as the serious business of historians and, more and more, of journalists, and of poetry as an art form concerned primarily with personal identity and craft, precious, interesting perhaps, but signifying nothing. 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.
My work in both poetry and prose has long been research-based. And, in keeping with that practice, History and Other Poems is based in archival research on the history and realities of the TransAtlantic Slave Trade and the very real, continued and continuing effects of that trade. The documents quoted in the poems function not only – or even primarily – in their own right, but serve to underscore the ironies that define the trade in black lives. And what's important about the voices in this sequence isn't their disembodiment or detachment but their attachment to and embodying of the experience and experiences recorded in bits and pieces of dialogue, song, meditation.
NS: One of the effects of the concreteness of your poems, their data, seems to be that of giving the narrating voice the power to delimit the symbolic scope of the poems. It’s often hard to separate the realm of the symbolic in your work, from the “real.” In one section of “History” the voice asks for “the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor.” Would you be able to speak to the role of figuration / symbolism in your poetry? Do you see a resistance to symbolization in your work? Or would you characterize it in other terms?
BMO: Well, the intent of the work itself isn't to resist symbol or metaphor, but to reject outright the kind of figurative language that underplays the role of the extreme violence of slavery in the New World project. This specific passage addresses the obscene violence of customary metaphorical use of the word slavery.
The passage in which the speaker demands the “the tongue of any who use the word slave as metaphor” is concerned with the specific, quotidian use of metaphor and other figures of speech to erase and to disappear the lived experience of a people. The speaker in the title poem is a member of that people, perhaps even a collective voice, and therefore a corrective to what's often called “received” history – received, in this instance, clearly functioning as conceit or euphemism for official and presumably correct, factual, true. Or some such thing. This narrator simply speaks against that voice, which really is only a voice itself, one fitted out in fact and thereby supposedly unassailable. The narrator refutes the concreteness of that received history, divests the language that cloaks it, and thus removes that masque of unassailability. In negating any figuration that would serve to erase and disappear this people, our speaker works to construct better, more apt language and figures of speech, reaching into the very experience of displacement, horror and demonization to make newer, more representative language and metaphor.
The snatches of song, historical documents – including selection of Waldseemüller's 1507 map of the New World as cover art – and glossary all serve to build this newer, more representative figuration. In place of language that veils, our speaker deploys language that exposes and reveals.
by Brenda Marie Osbey ©2004, 2008, 2012
colón and colonie
exercises in linguistic dexterity
american islands company
royal african company
french senegal company
santo domingo company
second louisiana company
new cayenne company
and that much more
so very much
how long until application of the etiquette
that a great value of being good company
is knowing when to depart?
code noir code noir code noir
record of a crossing
five portuguese ships
bearing one thousand two hundred eleven african cargo
of which five hundred eighty-three die in transit
sixty-eight more within the first week of arrival at brazil.
“a little coffee to wake me
a bit of tea to comfort
sugar to sweeten
a taste of rum to cure me
a taste of rum all around
o a good swig o’ rum all around”
1730 till 1780
glory days of the trade on american continent;
1746 till 1774 mortality rate aboard slave ships from nantes harbor
as much as thirty-four per cent.
1754 three hundred thousand enslaved in french west indies alone.
in 1780 numbers rise to six hundred seventy-three thousand there.
1786 good king louis orders improved work conditions:
no “hard labor” sunset to sunrise –
first mandate also
of french two-hour lunch break.
a little leisure
a little leisure is a very good thing.
very little leisure so much the better.
1850 official end of the trade to brazil.
three million six hundred thousand imported later that year.
“so that MAN has indeed become
the coin of Africa….”
Sugar for my coffee.
Sugar for my tea.
Posies at my footsteps.
Don’t you fancy me?
and when you’ve finished singing
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 any thing
bring me their tongues
to tack up on the walls of those castles –
o fort and forteress –
by the saddest of the old old seas.
but do not let me speak.
bring me their tongues
no do not let me speak at all:
my curse is not even ripened yet.
and my mouth already is filled to the teeth with it.
only more such exercises in linguistic dexterity, in flow
the spanish crown proposes
the french crown proposes
the right christian portuguese king proposes
fra bartolomeo considers
fray bartolome de albornoz dissents
legerdemain by word of mouth
jests of tongue and teeth and palate:
emissary of the crown
sovereign and sovereignty
african slave trade
internecine african warfare
development of 17th century slaving states
kidnapping, capture, hunting.
indenture, engagement, servitude.
tawny indian and blackamoor african
O call a spade a spade and get it over with –
human beings endowed with souls and requiring moral care and instruction?
devils in league with some master devil host?
call a slave a slave and be done with it
for we never are.
and it is never done.
series of ages-old adaptations and adjustments
improvisations and re-orderings
and concepts of kin
and all night gig rehearsals within the haunted texts of our haunted skin.
“you ain’t seen nothing yet.”
“I left my hat/ ba-doum-doum/ in Haiti!”
i’ll just bet you did
o i’ll just bet
“just a handful of gimme and a mouthload of much-obliged.”
i want to know
i want to know
just tell me where to rest my malediction
for i cannot rest
i cannot rest until i smell that smell of blood
i cannot rest until i have again the sense
that i was born with
that something’s rotten
every time i don my garments of yellow cotton
or see the slim black fingers of boys who play piano
or taste the first sip of dark dark rum
or sweeten my coffee
or tread the slave-bricked streets of my own city –
the wastes of downtown streets where
sell themselves for fast-food meals of ground meat and grease
and everything is everything
and nowhere is there satisfaction to be had
and the whole of history seems designed to render me sad
and plain-old down.
down by the
“sound of the chain
but for now
let us close our texts and rest our heads down on our arms.
it’s best we take a rest: our lesson for the day is done.
we must call ourselves ready next time we hear the knelling of the old school bell
ready ourselves for the next day’s new season in hell
but 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
Passages quoted in the poem:
"the fabric of our lives": from the Cotton, Incorporated television advertising jingle, "The touch I the feel of cotton I the fabric of our lives."
"that MAN has indeed become the coin of Africa": "I have no hesitation in saying, that three fourths of the slaves sent abroad from Africa are the fruit of native wars, fomented by the avarice and temptation of our own race. I cannot exculpate any commercial nation from this sweeping censure. We stimulate the negro's passions by the introduction of wants and fancies never dreamed of by the simple native, while slavery was an institution of domestic need and comfort alone. But what was once a luxury has now ripened into an absolute necessity; so that MAN, in truth, has become the coin of Africa, and the "legal tender of a brutal trade."
— "The African Slave Trade," DeBow's Review: Agricultural, commercial, industrial progress and resources, March 1855 [vol. 18, no. 3, pp. 297-305].)
In 1846, James D. B. DeBow, a native of Charleston, South Carolina, began publishing his pro-slavery magazine in New Orleans. Originally titled the Commercial Review of the South and West, the journal eventually came to be known as DeBow's Review. From 1853 to 1857, it was published in Washington, D.C., due to DeBow's appointment there as director of the U.S. Census Bureau. At the start of the Civil War, DeBow's Review was the most widely circulated southern periodical.
"I left my hat / in Haiti!": song and dance routine by Fred Astaire, danced by Astaire, Jane Powell and chorus, in the movie-musical Royal Wedding (MGM, 1951); music by Burton Lane, lyrics by Alan Lerner.
"You ain't seen nothing yet": In 1922, Al Jolson (1886-1950) recorded the Bud DeSylva composition "You Ain't Heard Nothing Yet." The line, "You ain't heard nothing yet" [emphasis mine], spoken by Jolson, became the first words spoken in a feature film (The Jazz Singer, Warner Brothers, 1927), propelled him to instant stardom and became his entr'acte lead-in. Comedic admirers and imitators of Jolson have frequently misquoted the line as "You ain't seen nothing yet!" He is best remembered, however, for his Vaudeville blackface persona. Entertainment legend has it that he adopted blackface because he believed audiences laughed more for black performers than for whites. Jolson is still considered by many to have been the best Vaudeville performer of all time.
Brenda Marie Osbey, a New Orleans native, is an author of poetry and prose nonfiction in English and French. Her previous volumes include All Saints: New and Selected Poems, which received the 1998 American Book Award. In 2005-2007, she served as the first peer-selected poet laureate of Louisiana. Studies of her work appear in such critical texts as Soutbscapes: Geographies of Race, Region and Literature by Thadious M. Davis (University of North Carolina Press, 2011); Forms of Expansion; Recent Long Poems by Women by Lynn Keller (U. Chicago Press, 1997); The Future of Southern Letters, edited by Jefferson Humphries and John Lowe (Oxford, 1996); and such reference works as Contemporary Authors; the Oxford Companion to African American Literature (1997), the Dictionary of Literary Biography (Oxford, 1997); and Dictionnaire des Créatrices (Editions des Femmes, 2011). Her essays have been published in The American Voice, Georgia Review, BrightLeaf, Southern Literary Journal and Creative Nonfiction. She has been a resident fellow of the MacDowell Colony, the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, the Kentucky Foundation for Women, the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, the Millay Colony, the Camargo Foundation and the Bunting Institute of Radcliffe College, Harvard University. She has received fellowships and awards also from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Louisiana Division of the Arts, and the New Orleans Jazz and Heritage Foundation among others. She is currently Distinguished Visiting Professor of Africana Studies at Brown University.