Today we conclude our celebration of National Poetry month and begin to turn our attention to our next book club selection, the historical novel, The Secrets of Mary Bowser by Lois Leveen. The book is based on the life of Mary Bowser, a slave freed by her owner, who would go on to be educated in Philadelphia and ultimately return to the South where she lived once again as a slave and became a Union spy (how’s that for a teaser!).
I asked Lois Leveen to share two favorite poems with us. She shared a personal pick and a pick that Mary Bowser might make for us. Here is what Lois writes:
As for poems, in the novel, I have Mary read a wide variety of literature, in part to sneak in more (literary) history by introducing twenty-first-century readers to eighteenth- and nineteenth-century black writers. So if Mary were choosing a poem, she might go with “The Slave Auction” by Frances Watkins Harper (in my novel, she is called Frances Watkins because she did not marry and change her name until much later than the novel takes place)….
I, having a broader range of poetry to choose from than my fictionalized protagonist, would likely choose ““A Bronzeville Mother Loiters in Mississippi. Meanwhile, a Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon.” by Gwendolyn Brooks. Brooks wrote many moving poems, but this one I find especially powerful, first because of how she chooses to represent the murder of Emmett Till. Brooks imagines herself “into” the perspective of a woman with whom we might expect her to have nothing in common, and for whom we might think she would have no sympathy. But through this imagining, Brooks is able to expose how the violent, patriarchal racism that destroys black lives has a correspondingly insidious effect on white women and white children as well. It exposes racism as being a desire for absolute power, a desire that will devastate even what it claims to love.
Well, happy National Poetry month!
The Slave Auction
A Bronzeville Mother Loiters In Mississippi. Meanwhile, A Mississippi Mother Burns Bacon
From the first it had been like a
Ballad. It had the beat inevitable. It had the blood.
A wildness cut up, and tied in little bunches,
Like the four-line stanzas of the ballads she had never quite
understood–the ballads they had set her to, in school.
Herself: the milk-white maid, the “maid mild”
Of the ballad. Pursued
By the Dark Villain. Rescued by the Fine Prince.
That was worth anything.
It was good to be a “maid mild.”
That made the breath go fast.
Her bacon burned. She
Hastened to hide it in the step-on can, and
Drew more strips from the meat case. The eggs and sour-milk biscuits
Did well. She set out a jar
Of her new quince preserve.
. . . But there was something about the matter of the Dark Villain.
He should have been older, perhaps.
The hacking down of a villain was more fun to think about
When his menace possessed undisputed breath, undisputed height,
And best of all, when history was cluttered
With the bones of many eaten knights and princesses.
The fun was disturbed, then all but nullified
When the Dark Villain was a blackish child
Of Fourteen, with eyes still too young to be dirty,
And a mouth too young to have lost every reminder
Of its infant softness.
That boy must have been surprised! For
These were grown-ups. Grown-ups were supposed to be wise.
And the Fine Prince–and that other–so tall, so broad, so
Grown! Perhaps the boy had never guessed
That the trouble with grown-ups was that under the magnificent shell of adulthood, just under,
Waited the baby full of tantrums.
It occurred to her that there may have been something
Ridiculous to the picture of the Fine Prince
Rushing (rich with the breadth and height and
Mature solidness whose lack, in the Dark Villain, was impressing her,
Confronting her more and more as this first day after the trial
And acquittal (wore on) rushing
With his heavy companion to hack down (unhorsed)
That little foe. So much had happened, she could not remember now what that foe had done
Against her, or if anything had been done.
The breaks were everywhere. That she could think
Of no thread capable of the necessary
She made the babies sit in their places at the table.
Then, before calling HIM, she hurried
To the mirror with her comb and lipstick. It was necessary
To be more beautiful than ever.
The beautiful wife.
For sometimes she fancied he looked at her as though
Measuring her. As if he considered, Had she been worth it?
Had she been worth the blood, the cramped cries, the little stirring bravado, The gradual dulling of those Negro eyes,
The sudden, overwhelming little-boyness in that barn?
Whatever she might feel or half-feel, the lipstick necessity was something apart. HE must never conclude
That she had not been worth it.
HE sat down, the Fine Prince, and
Began buttering a biscuit. HE looked at HIS hands.
More papers were in from the North, HE mumbled. More maddening headlines.
With their pepper-words, “bestiality,” and “barbarism,” and
The half-sneers HE had mastered for the trial worked across
HIS sweet and pretty face.
What HE’d like to do, HE explained, was kill them all.
The time lost. The unwanted fame.
Still, it had been fun to show those intruders
A thing or two. To show that snappy-eyed mother,
That sassy, Northern, brown-black–
Nothing could stop Mississippi.
HE knew that. Big fella
And, what was so good, Mississippi knew that.
They could send in their petitions, and scar
Their newspapers with bleeding headlines. Their governors
Could appeal to Washington . . .
“What I want,” the older baby said, “is ‘lasses on my jam.”
Whereupon the younger baby
Picked up the molasses pitcher and threw
The molasses in his brother’s face. Instantly
The Fine Prince leaned across the table and slapped
The small and smiling criminal.
She did not speak. When the HAND
Came down and away, and she could look at her child,
At her baby-child,
She could think only of blood.
Surely her baby’s cheek
Had disappeared, and in its place, surely,
Hung a heaviness, a lengthening red, a red that had no end.
She shook her had. It was not true, of course.
It was not true at all. The
Child’s face was as always, the
Color of the paste in her paste-jar.
She left the table, to the tune of the children’s lamentations, which were shriller
Than ever. She
Looked out of a window. She said not a word. That
Was one of the new Somethings–
Tying her as with iron.
Suddenly she felt his hands upon her. He had followed her
To the window. The children were whimpering now.
Such bits of tots. And she, their mother,
Could not protect them. She looked at her shoulders, still
Gripped in the claim of his hands. She tried, but could not resist the idea
That a red ooze was seeping, spreading darkly, thickly, slowly,
Over her white shoulders, her own shoulders,
And over all of Earth and Mars.
He whispered something to her, did the Fine Prince, something about love and night and intention.
She heard no hoof-beat of the horse and saw no flash of the shining steel.
He pulled her face around to meet
His, and there it was, close close,
For the first time in all the days and nights.
His mouth, wet and red,
So very, very, very red,
Closed over hers.
Then a sickness heaved within her. The courtroom Coca-Cola,
The courtroom beer and hate and sweat and drone,
Pushed like a wall against her. She wanted to bear it.
But his mouth would not go away and neither would the
Decapitated exclamation points in that Other Woman’s eyes.
She did not scream.
She stood there.
But a hatred for him burst into glorious flower,
And its perfume enclasped them–big,
Bigger than all magnolias.
The last bleak news of the ballad.
The rest of the rugged music.
The last quatrain.
POLITICS for the PEOPLE
BOOK CLUB CONFERENCE CALL
With Author Lois Leveen
The Secrets of Mary Bowser