You’ve seen that movie or read the novel, the one where the ending blindsided you. The hero or heroine, for whom you rooted throughout the drama, was either captured or killed. Or maybe it was another story with an ending that left you hanging.
In either case you left the theater or closed the pages, slightly disappointed. But that didn’t stop you from dreaming up alternate endings for your satisfaction.
That’s what Rachel Eliza Griffiths does with Mule & Pear (New Issues, 2011), her third collection of poetry. “Many of these poems convey the intimacy I’ve developed and sustained through reading,” Rachel writes in a brief introduction. “From this act and all of its powers, my imagination gathered some of my most admired literary characters and their creators in one space, one intricate body…in hopes that each voice would make its way towards other voices.”
Rachel gathered characters from the novels of Alice Walker, Jean Toomer, Toni Morrison and a host of other novelists, including DC’s own Edward P. Jones.
Alice walks right off the pages of Jones’s The Known World and into Rachel’s poem “Alice Paints the Moon.” In the novel, Alice is a slave who wanders away from the plantation every night. And each time she’s captured by the patrollers who bring her back to Henry, her Black slave owner.
According to Jones’s novel, Alice’s madness is the result of a mule kick to the head, or as Rachel puts it poetically: “a mule kicked her spirit into the middle/ of some unknown world.” (I dug the play on the novel’s title in those lines).
And while Jones’s back story humanizes Alice, Rachel’s poem goes further in that task. That the “hemorrhaged world” inside this madwoman was more exciting than her reality not only intensifies how severe her mental injury was but also speaks to the pain of slavery.
It also takes the onus of madness off Alice and puts it on the oppressive world around her. Had I been living during Alice’s time, it wouldn’t take a mule kicking my head for me to go mad. A Black man owning me would get the job done.
The madness takes on a different form in the poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet.” Both characters appear courtesy of Valerie Martin’s novel Property.
The story, told in Gaudet’s voice, takes place on a sugar plantation north of New Orleans. Sarah’s the unwilling mistress of a slave owner, whose wife, Gaudet, is in a bad marriage. Gaudet, unable to have children, despises Sarah, who birthed two kids for her master.
Sarah escapes in a slave revolt that kills Gaudet’s husband and severely injures the woman.
Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s poem “Sarah / Suckled by Her Mistress Manon Gaudet” flips the point of view from Gaudet to Sarah, who rarely speaks in the novel.
And like Alice, Sarah doesn’t have to own someone else’s perception of her being “crazy”. Instead, through Rachel’s poem, Sarah turns that perception back on the oppressive world of which both women are victims.
Sarah also turns it on the perverse Gaudet, who suckled Sarah’s breasts for milk to further subjugate the slave woman. “Understand this:/ I didn’t offers my breast to her. The night she come/ into my room like a man hunting my nipple,” Sarah says in Rachel’s poem. “Mistress knows nobody going listen/ if I tell it. How can I tell/ what’s crazy or real anymore?”
What makes these poems great is that there’s music amid the madness. Take the poem “La Tête du Soleil,” where the music is in the recurring “baby”: “Baby, baby in your mama’s calabash/ […] Baby of kola & palm wine, baby/ whose eyes will never close/ […] Baby, baby in your basket of war.”
Another musical moment is in the recurring “basket”: “[…] basket of war/ […] In a basket your laughter/ […] A child’s head rolling inside the gutted basket.”
“La Tête du Soleil” was inspired by events from Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s novel Half of a Yellow Sun, which explores the lives of two women during the Nigerians-Biafran War (1967-1970).
The musical moments intensify the speaker’s disgusted tones, which play off the English translation of the poem’s title: “Lord, I beg Your Pardon”: “I beg your pardon. I beg/ your pardon. Lord,/ I beg your pardon.” At that point, the tone goes from disgust to a plea for the war’s end.
A poem just as musical is “Mercy Does Not Mean Thank You”. Reading this poem, it was impossible not to think of a woman’s body nailed to a crucifix: “a body/ with wounds” and “a moan beneath laughter” (they know not what they do).
Mercy, the silent heroine, takes on the sins of the world—“the waterlogged/ song of Emmett Till”, “[…] girls/ buried beneath a bombed-out church”, “a shadow removing/ its eyeless hood”.
The musical moments are the recurring “say” and “it is”:
But say it is a body
Say it is my father
bursting into tears alone
above his newspaper
Or is it the blood-flecked
underbelly of a rabid dog
named Thank You
Maybe it is the dark cinema
of my camera […]
Say it is four tongues
[…] Say it is new as a haircut
Say it is hard as a strawberry
Say it is useful as ugliness
Say it is necessary as hands
Say it is the vantage
from God’s knees
and so on.
Those recurrences make the poem a chant, which was relaxing. I imagined Mercy chanting along, drawing into herself and that spiritual place to heal.
I enjoyed Rachel Eliza Griffiths’s Mule & Pear for the same reasons Carl Phillips did. “Griffiths is a master at capturing persona, and uses that gift, especially, to consider the notion of heritage,” according to his blurb. “The ambition of these poems dazzles, as does indeed their achievement.”
I couldn’t agree more.