Had Slaves by Catherine Sasanov
In Had Slaves, Catherine Sasanov tries to create a poetic narrative from fragments of her ancestors' slave-owning past. As more Americans explore their ancestry, and as the technologies for that exploration become more sophisticated and more generally available, this personal story of discovering past slave ownership will become more common. There was Inheriting the Trade by Thomas DeWolf, for example. Even one of my roommates recently learned some of his ancestors owned slaves. But past slave ownership is even more universal than that. The fledgling American economy was bolstered by entire sections based in slave labor, providing an economic stability of a low cost labor force during the country's most economically vulnerable years. In a sense, because slavery was part of early American economic success, every white American living today who enjoys a level of economic success “had slaves,” because they benefit from a system born in the context of slavery. The challenge with a project like this, is balancing the personal story that makes a work emotionally compelling with the universal story that makes a work intellectually relevant.
From the start, Sasanov doesn't seem entirely comfortable with her project. She opens with a “Dear Reader” preface in which she asks the reader not to assume she is transcribing the words of the dead, employs a couple of metaphors for the extraction of present expression from past existence, and concludes with the image, “I'm a beetle / rolling tiny balls of shit / up against a few ideas.” Even though she introduces her project with this preface, she continually describes and questions her efforts throughout the collection: “Owned by the blood that owned you once, what right do I have to track you down?,” from “His Personal Property: Inventory and Appraisal Sheet, 1860”; “I would pry you out / with this sheet of paper,” from “George Steel Comes Home from the War: Missouri, February, 1866”; and “I've traced the edges of her unmarked grave, / pressed my hands into its dirt and called. / But why should she get up, answer now / ...What runs this pack of words across / the thin ice of the page,” from “On Reading Missouri Slave Narratives Collected by the Federal Writer's Project,” for example.
Though the technique usually results in writing I don't like, I can see the value of refining the project for the reader as the reader reads. However, Sasanov doesn't really refine the project beyond what was already done in the “Preface,” and most of the refinements are more like qualifications or apologies. They are extensions and embellishments of the image of the beetle from the preface. A tic seems to have developed in contemporary poetry, where the poet feels compelled to admit to the reader that she is aware of the limitations of words. It is true that Sasanov cannot reanimate the dead when so little of them remains and it is true that Sasanov cannot solve the persistent problems of slavery with a collection of poetry and it is true that this is all just words; but I always assumed the point of writing is to make the phrase “it's all just words” a lie.
Had Slaves has its share of good lines, phrases, and ideas; “did your eyes gag,” from “Four Hundred Acres of Missouri,” is a fresh image; “You knew the slave he saw outside his skull wasn't the man he worked in his mind,” from “A Future Made of Slaves,” shows the typicalness of a slaveholder's imagination without apologizing for it; and “Like your child who had to take on faith an infancy he spent as slave, a war that broke him out,” from “At Bloody Island, 1864,” is an excellent description of the African American population living on the limn of slavery. However, very few of the poems live up to their good lines and ideas. Sasanov seems to wander around her strong images without ever extending or focusing on them. Her poetic shortcomings in this project are dramatically highlighted by her brilliant anthologizing successes.
Many of the poems have titles and/or epigraphs drawn from documents describing slavery and its long and continuing aftermath. “I will and bequeath to My Grandson a Negro Boy named Henry,” from “The Former Slaveholder's Lament;” the epigraph for the section “In the Jim Crow Museum,” that describes the collecting of racist antiques; and the title “Line Drawing of an Ex-Slave, Columbia Bigbee, 1840-1899, Consisting of Ink Lifted from Newsprint, Census Data, Burial Records, Divorce Proceedings, Tax Rolls, Marriage Licenses, Land Deeds, and one Civil War Widow's Pension Application: Denied”; -- a title formula repeated several times -- for example. Her presentation of the historic material, even in fragments, evokes grand narratives. She is able to encapsulate hints of great swaths of historic event and effect. In a world of Novels in Three Lines and Reality Hunger, I wonder what Sasanov could have done with her talent as an anthologizer had she focused on it and produced a work composed solely of these fragments.
Sasanov sets herself an impossible task, but she spends so much of her time writing about its impossibility that she makes very little progress towards whatever realization of her project is possible. There are some good poems, “At Bloody Island, 1864,” being the best, but she is never able to add whatever it is that turns a few good ideas and images into a great poem, to any of her poems. However, her brilliance in extracting and presenting fragments of the historical record shows this project had the potential to be a great work. Sasanov saw and felt the stories in those fragments, but could not tell those stories to us. No one can reanimate the dead and no one can reclaim the crime of slavery; I just believe she could have more closely approached that impossibility, before calling the project completed.
Had Slaves by Catherine Sasanov