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09-20-2010

 

Michelle Boisseau

A Sunday in God-Years

Like someone trying to nap in a room
with a glaring terrarium
God rolls over
but before he resumes his dream
where he’s a lover
decked out in a sunbeam,
he glances at the blue planet
he made, at continents crashing
and mountains popping up, at sheets of dirt
settling in streams and streams
settling in oceans that slide back
like bedcovers and after stacks
of pressing epochs give birth

in an outcrop to this ragged chunk
of limestone.  I plucked it
from a wall fading into the woods
of Northern Kentucky.
Ordovician, half a billion years old.
It was the common rock of my childhood,
what we pried from yards and pulled
from creeks to flush out crawdads
scuttling beneath.  That’s an hour’s drive
and forty years ago, on the north side
of the Ohio. River Jordan. Promised Land.
Fine heft, a good fit to my hand,
the rock’s finger notches are the curves
of river bends on a map–it’s shaped
like Kentucky–and here’s the turn
the river takes, wade
in the water, on its way

north from Maysville, here a cove
where a runaway could hide–
her child slung in a shawl–studying the floes
until the moon set and she could plunge
across the bobbing ice
to board, sweet chariot, the train of trudging–
corn fields, torches, disquieting towns, huddling
in root cellars by day, then in the hull
of a midnight boat slipping across Lake
Erie.  The rock I slid from the wall
was stacked here by a slave.  And slaves 
felled trees, broke sod, and cut the stone
for foundations they couldn’t own.

Up on the ancient hill the grand old house
they built is solitary now.
The clutter of shacks for those who worked 
sun and snow, day and night
have long been erased as eyesores
although the played-out double wides
along the road tell a revised story.
And as for me, a middle-aged white
woman, I didn’t have to care
who’d notice me helping myself
to these grainy eons, plunder
imbedded with the trails and shells
of creatures seen by no eye although carelessly
glanced long ago through warm shallow 
seas by a younger sun. 

 

                      -from A Sunday in God-Years

BIO: Michelle Boisseau was the author of five poetry collections, including Among the Gorgons (University of Tampa, 2016), winner of the Tampa Review Prize for poetry; A Sunday in God-Years, (University of Arkansas Press, 2009); and Trembling Air (University of Arkansas Press, 2003), a PEN USA finalist. She received a Guggenheim Fellowship in 2017 and her second NEA fellowship in 2010, and her textbook Writing Poems (Longman) is in its 8th edition. She was professor of English at the University of Missouri-Kansas City. She passed away in 2017.

An Interview with Michelle Boisseau by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum

Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum: One aspect of "A Sunday in God-Years" that I think is particularly remarkable is your almost seamless utilization of narrative transitions via the traditional poetic elements between stanzas.  You use a metaphor in "pressing epochs give birth // in an outcrop to this ragged chunk / limestone.  I plucked it..." moves us from the opening narrative of God's observance of the early evolution of the earth to the speaker's childhood in the Ohio Valley.  Then it's the repetition of "here" in "here's the turn /the river takes, wade / in the water, on its way // north from Maysville, here a cove /where a runaway could hide..." that pushes us into the narrative of the underground railroad that region of the country is known for.  And, finally, you use an overt statement in "Up on the ancient hill the grand old house / they built is solitary now." to move into the internal narrative of the speaker.

The result is a poem that seems quite simple but only because you've made it look so easy.  How did you accomplish this feat?

 

Michelle Boisseau:  The poem evolved over many months--I don't think I want to remember how many--and, of course, part of the job of poetry revision is to make it look easy.  Or, rather, to lure the reader in, to open the door so that the reader steps inside. 

 

AMK: You play a lot with time in this poem, opening in God-time ("continents crashing / and mountains popping up, at sheets of dirt / settling in streams and streams /settling in oceans..."), moving into real-time ("It was the common rock of my childhood, / what we pried from yards and pulled / from creeks to flush out crawdads / scuttling beneath."), then into historical-time ("corn fields, torches, disquieting towns, huddling / in root cellars by day, then in the hull / of a midnight boat slipping across Lake / Erie."), and, finally, back into real-time ("as for me, a middle-aged white / woman, I didn't have to care / who'd notice me helping myself / to these grainy eons..."). 

You've done a great job of managing these shifts via verb tenses.  But it's interesting the tenses you've chosen: God-time in the present, real-time the past, and historical-time the conditional.  Can you talk about how these different verb forms operate in general and in this poem?

 

MB:  The figure of God in the book is a metaphor for the eternal indifference of the universe.  To be God would be to be outside of time--outside of tense.  The poem--and the book--came to organize itself around this notion, and the tenses followed where they had to.

 

AMK: Why use the present for God-time, the past for real-time, and the conditional for historical-time?  It seems like you could move these back and forth in infinite combinations, but I like that the poem opens in the present tense in the first place and how the conditional creates a sense of the extreme tension and hope slaves escaping capture via the Underground Railroad must have felt.

 

MB: I think this question is answered, but I can add that when we put ourselves into history, into story, we move from past to a continuing present.  As Faulkner said, the past isn't over.  It's not even the past. The conditional is there in the poem because much is conjecture.

 

AMK: You open "A Sunday in God-Years" with an odd little simile, "Like someone trying to nap in a room / with a glaring terrarium / God rolls over / but before he resumes his dream / where he's a lover / decked out in a sunbeam," which gives us the sense that God not only created man in his image but that He dreams of being a man Himself, of living in the world and experiencing it first hand.  But the poem ends with a God who seems to have lost interest in the world: "these grainy eons... / imbedded with the trails and shells / ... seen by no eye although carelessly / glanced long ago through warm shallow / seas by a younger sun."

 

Is the implication of the poem that we have failed God?

 

MB: Maybe vice versa?  We have a way of putting human history in the center of time when it's just a speck on a speck. When we take the perspective of long time, we see what little part of time, much less time on this planet, that we have been around.  Recorded history has been around less than less: as Rodney King said, Why can't we all get along?

 

AMK: I've never cared much for poetry written as statement; meaning, I don't really care what a poem says but, rather, how the poem says it.  "A Sunday in God-Years" does both.  What matters to you most, what you say or how you say it?

 

MB: I don't think I could chose between the what and the how.  For me in writing a poem the two are inseparable: in finding how I want to say something I find what I want to say which helps me find how to say it--and so on, through the revisions until the poem arrives at a place where the two, with any luck, are integrated.

 

AMK: "A Sunday in God-Years" is the title poem of your third book, which is about your family's history of slave-ownership and the effect that history has had on the world at large and on you as a "middle aged white / woman" who has directly and indirectly benefited from it.  There are a number of slave narratives out there, but you've taken a unique and almost impossible approach of looking at slavery from a global, historical, and personal perspective.  This is something academics dedicate entire fields of study to.  How did you manage to compress all of this into the form of a book of poems?

 

MB:   This is my fourth book, and over the thirty plus years in which I've been publishing I hope I've learned (and relearned) that the research that I pursue to write a book has to be fully absorbed in order for it to work in poems. Otherwise the writing isn't worthy of a poem--it would be better written as prose.  Poetry asks the imagination to work through language that is memorable. 

 

AMK: What are you working on now?

 

MB:  I've become interested in the short poem, the poem of ten lines or fewer. I like the challenge of trying to make something happen in a small space. These poems are continuing to address contemporary politics, the narrowness and hardness people seem to feel is their right. The notion of a commonwealth seems to exist in only a few tide pools of generosity that are quickly drying out. 

 

AMK: If you could only have books on your bookshelf what would they be?

 

MB: I have to have a dictionary and Dickinson. Stevens, Frost, Larkin, and Bishop are often on my desk and not on the shelf. 

 

A Review of Michelle Boiseeau's A Sunday in God-Years by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum, Rattle E-Reviews


Michelle Boisseau's fourth collection of poems, A Sunday in God-Years recounts White America's brutal history of slave-ownership paired with its desire for reconciliation via the exploration Boisseau's ancestry, dating back to 17th Century Virginia.

Obsessed with the transitory nature of this conflict between White and Black America, A Sunday in God-Years opens with the prefatory "Birthday" wherein Spring is "full of exuberant ruin" and life is defined as "a frantic flight across a crackling room / where the clan feasts, harps gleam and the storm / is carefully forgotten." Rebirth, war, fire, flight, and institutionalized denial: these are the obstacles "Birthday" declares must be overcome in the poems that follow. Luckily, Boisseau has no illusions regarding this task, asking near the end of the first section "...me, grandchild who makes herself the hero / since she's the teller of this tale... / How can I begin to recount / [our] sins, a million ships on every ocean?"

Boisseau establishes herself as a master of transition and symbol in the title poem which opens with a depiction of God turning over in his afternoon nap to see the earth in an accelerated state of geological evolution, "continents crashing / and mountains popping up." She then zooms in with a mid-sentence stanza break, focusing on a small "chunk / of limestone I plucked / from a wall fading into the woods / ...shaped / like Kentucky" and zooms out to a bend in the river where "a runaway could hide / studying the floes." The poem ends with a return to the snoozing God morphed into the more Pagan "younger sun" disinterested in "these grainy eons, plunder / imbedded with the trails and shells / of creatures seen by no eye."

This mastery of transition and symbol comes in handy in the next poem, "A Reckoning." 21 pages of individually titled sections, it opens with "The Debt," which compares Boisseau to a portico which depends on the stones that give it structure, asking "What do you owe when you find your / name on a parchment deed?" "Reward" directly lifts the Reward Notice her great grandfather placed in the Richmond Enquirer when one of his slaves escaped in 1834, and "Two Wills in Old Virginia" quotes word-for-word the family wills that passed slaves and their children to future generations. These documents overlap with depictions of early America when the future planes states "became Indian territory and ragged / bands of Shawnee were run out of Ohio" in "Meanwhile." "Brown Study" compares the Kansas River's flow south to those fleeing Lawrence, Kansas during the Pottawatomie Massacre in 1856, and "The Subscriber" depicts a bounty hunter beating free blacks he hopes are escaped slaves.

Throughout "A Reckoning" an image recurs of Boisseau attempting to capture the essence of this American tragedy and the burden that still weighs so heavily upon us 150 years after emancipation. Seeking out the ruins of slave barracks at what was once the Boisseau plantation, she finds "not The House Where They Lived! // No be-lilaced cellar hole... / Nothing to weep over... // Instead, big as an airplane hangar, / a garage for backhoes and spreaders... / where the big house might have stood." At the heart of this burden is the desire for a return to the past but in the actual, physical world. Of course, as time and "progress" slowly but surely destroy the physical evidence of America's misdeeds, this return becomes more and more elusive. The closest Boisseau can get to this return is via the superimposed vision of her own poetry- an ingenious move poetically but one that comes with a woeful realization: we cannot return, we cannot forget, we cannot be fully forgiven.

 

This woeful epiphany is on display in the final sections of "A Reckoning." "Apologies," equates these sins to the "millions" of slave ships that crossed the Atlantic for the New World; the resulting guilt as bound to White America as silt and oceans to the earth in "Field Guide to American Guilt." In the penultimate section, her great Grandfather's escaped slave admonishes Boisseau's attempts to understand or even lament his struggle: "Thought you try to puppet me / what happened to me is not / for you to know." In the final section the Boisseau plantation burns to the ground.

The only problem with this first section is that the narrative is given too much power, the more lyrical elements of the line that make poetry unique from prose overpowered by storytelling. This is not to say that this first section isn't poetry or that it's not worth reading. This is simply to suggest that it's not as engaging on the level of the lines as, perhaps, it should be. Ironically, this problem is reversed in the second section, which (save for three of its 23 poems) abandons narrative for a more lyrical approach to Boisseau's lamentation of history's erasure in lines like "The iron taste of what / they did is laid down / in twisted bark, bit by bit" ("Outskirts of Lynchburg") and "The rowboat is slapped by the harried lake. / The oars bob and beckon out of reach / ...Today the future isn't what it used to be" ("Sandcastle Guarded by a Cicada Shell"). Typically, shifting to the lyrical would be a good idea, but these poems go a little too far. They stand perfectly well on their own but depend too heavily on what is established in the first section without utilizing the story-telling tools Boisseau has already so richly deployed. As a result, the poems of the second section bleed together and much of the book's momentum is lost.

The third and final section is dominated by "Across the Borderlands, the Wind," a nine-page, elliptically sectionalized depiction of the brutal guerilla warfare between the Confederate bushwackers and Union jayhawkers over the indoctrination of slavery in Kansas, eventually igniting the Civil War. It's a difficult poem to follow, leaping in time, place, and speaker so often and quickly that, without the end notes, most readers will be completely lost. It also might be the best poem in the book, revealing how this seemingly resolved conflict within White America is anything but- "the football and basketball rivalry between the Universities of Missouri and Kansas...still often referred to as ‘The Border War'"; the celebration held each year in Blue Springs, Missouri called as early as the 1990s the Bushwacker Festival.

 

"Across the Borderlands, the Wind" suffers from the momentum gained by the first section and lost by the second. It requires an energetic reader, one willing to allow a poem, first, to depend on end notes and, second to actually apply these notes back to its elliptical approach. If Boisseau finds such readers, this book is quite an accomplishment, starting with the desire for reconciliation between White and Black America and ending with the realization that the conflict between White America itself has been the problem all along. If she doesn't, then this book is a failure: the balance between narrative and lyric never reached; the potential for this collection unrealized.

 

This leaves one wondering if this "failure" is, in fact, Boisseau's achievement, this failure eerily similar to that of The New World's. Of course, we'd have to trust Boisseau quite a bit to read A Sunday in God-Years this way. Only time will tell.