Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl. Shelby Stephenson. Bellday Books. Pittsburgh, PA. 2008.
Shelby Stephenson's Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl gives us so much to discuss it is hard to know where to start. It is all haunting.
The subject of this book is a family association, a family history, a deep connection to, slavery.
This is very personal poetry of the most public kind and it reads like a history book that has been turned into an illuminated text. Stephenson inhabits another time and place and take us, the reader, with him.
"Memory believes before knowing remembers"
-William Faulkner, Light In August
Your story, July, sticks in my throat:
violence splits the syllables down a back road,
the smell of horsesweat, leather
creaking in the gee and haw of tongue and trace,
lightning bugs dancing on Percy's wagon,
his hat, the hole in the crown, pulled down,
bobbing, while the slow mules
go on up the hill
where he will "carry the truckrow," his hindend facing the sun,
the mule, humbling and humoring toward the shade,
the end, the beginning, a piece, fabric
cut from the sweat--the rows topped,
middles swamped with rotten blooms,
greenblack juices, splattered tobacco worms--
and Percy barely moving the truckrow,
a frail man bloated with jagged currents,
little rivulets his pores spilling.
Percy moves across the yard
to get the knife
to sling the weeds.
You chase the bees
to the tops of blooms
now laid low
not one left
to kick about like a mule's
Would the missus looking from the window
say while the man rakes in piles
his day's work--
there--slave's work, after all?
I see you there,
your comfort uncomfortably
stationed at the master's door;
your wound in the landlord's side
coming through the blooming sounds
brought on by going from field to field for somebody else,
never for yourself
nor your children I know about, their shrill hunger
mornings when the doorknob was cold,
the hearth cold, floor cold.
Percy didn't have a cow
Percy didn't have a mule
Percy didn't have a hog
he would split stovewood
tossing each stick aside with his bandaged thumb
rubbing his bloodshot eyes with the back of his chopping hand.
Worked his tail to the bone,
told skinny tales
and Minnie was his
fosterdaughter, July, motherdaughterchildwife!
Considering how Minnie Birch picked the plantbed, those dime-sized tobacco
leaves pushing the canvas in April, it's so quick, don't you think, squatting on her knees,
using a spoonhandle to pinch out the morning glory and mullein, the grass, of course,
the worst part of the job, since it is everywhere, all months, alive or dead. "Minnie, is your
Hard Rock growing?" "Like a weed!" Snuff ages her lower lip like a promise the father
might dart around the corner and light up the path like a horn blowing--who could bear
such news? Minnie stares at July, not even wondering (or caring).
A field full of Hands trudge up at dinnertime, desperate from heat and lack of water, the
bench where the tobacco is being prepared for the barn a din of wonder. The Help hums
"Amazing Grace." The men and women from the field seem hotter than ever, their
gummy clothes clinging to their bodies, feet black with sweat. Nearby: dirtroad, shack,
some tarpaper: inside, a big woman, nearly blind, says how her time has come: through
she needs plenty, she does not need money now: "Where is July? If I only had her to
talk to, cook for me, help me along, sing me a song."
You turn back the canvas
and squat with a brokenoff spoon
to dig the weeds,
tiny as fleas,
around the tobacco plants
the size of dimes.
Percy knots the canvas,
on long snake of plantbed covering,
places it top the tobacco racks.
Bench Help hums:
The tobacco's being tied on sticks stuck in wooden horses.
You and Mae Dinah hoe the sheepburrweeds
out of the corn--"Makes it greener," Mae Dinah says,
"but I don't know if I can last--with my Elvis tired,
Lord, just plain tired down on his feets."
Hallie Sanders looks down at the cotton on the sheet, wondering after this one
and that one, the one on the weighhorse, given up as offering: "Mister Paul, you
got some more work I can do?"
Hallie's brother, Algie, wants to become a boxer like Joe Louis,
Daddy ordering some gloves from Sears-Roebuck,
drawing a ring in the pasture
and Bud, nicknamed Little One,
comes down from Mr. Hector's where he works and beats
Algie who has prepared for his bout
shadowboxing pines bobbing and weaving
and Little One pounds his face so good and hard
Algie pulls at the swells on his face for days
Little One's friend who comes with him to referee
down on his hands and knees
outside the scrawled circle, flapping the dirt with his palms
saying Little One done whupped him Little One
Buddy Dublin streaks the countryside in a SoupedUp
Cadillac Coupe de Ville: My daddy's a leatherskinned wampus cat
they call Pearl . . . my mama's a miracle whelped in hell and I am Dublin-
Buddy's my name - I can whup any man - love a woman to shame! Mauling a wedge
sinking into trees he centers cordwood for woodcutting tobaccobarns in steady windshake
of falling pines and blackgums. Slinging nasties with Paul's John Deere putting between
barn and field, wheels roll, spin--
a note in Obedience's diary: July knows the withers of mules like the back of her hand
and the drinkbottlecaps Clay nails to the bagging of the drags to hold the tobacco leaves.
Today's book of poetry thinks that slavery was bad, in parts of the world it still is.
Shelby Stephenson does pay homage, pays respects backward in time, he does this by being there and taking us with him. Stephenson renders sad history eloquent and elevates the discussion by making it real. These poems feel authentic, you can almost smell time, feel the heat of the southern sun.
That's the Way it Was
Oldtimey preachers promised sin.
Van Della, princess, bronzedskinned,
could string tobacco fast as handers could get it to her.
Swing her hips, too; the earth moved galaxies
above her widebrimmed straw,
lifting globes paradise might claim
as plumbing for plumage,
the most splendid single light grass could yield to,
her heels down, toes pointing those bare feet
quivering grains under the chaineytree,
sand cooling her toes as she approached the tobaccobench.
Leaning forward, I see you bring the blackening pot to a boil,
the garments turning spotless on the fluted washboard,
listening to what the white folks say, hearing your mother pray again,
telling you, July, wait and work - and once Freedom is declared-
don't make no crops beyond the time, no matter what, and run and tell other
slaves they can quit work now they are free! No matter what!
Uncle Reuben told me you are doing good if you have enough money to buy
fertilizer for next year's crop.
I told him Seth Woodall paid Pap George $413.25 for July, the slave girl, in 1850.
He and Aunt Mary farmed just twenty-two acres.
Everybody wanted poundage in tobacco.
We would heat a kettle on the stove and pour the scalding water in the stems.
Uncle Reuben would build a fire in the washpot and heat his water
and drib it on the stems of the cured tobacco to gain a little weight.
He could grin and stir up a little money.
Old Jim was Reuben's mule before Rhody.
Reuben traded him in for one younger.
Didn't you know him, July?
I admired his muleshoes.
I went barefoot year round.
Wintertime my feet cracked open.
I could really pick cotton.
I'd get in the field early in the morning:
it weighed more when dew was on the balls.
Even when my hands cracked open from the cold I kept on filling up my sack.
Me and Obedience would slip off to a sweet potato bank.
She told me a potato hill looked like a igloo.
I wondered where she'd seen one - I won't never forget that.
We'd build a fire and roast the white-fleshed batatas
in the hot ashes and we'd sit and eat and warm our hands over the fire.
That was really living.
The material in Family Matters: Homage to July, The Slave Girl raises far more questions than I can address or answer. I get squeamishly enthralled when I read books/poems that give me a start, the short sharp shot of adrenaline right to the brain stem.
Shelby Stephenson takes a brave and heartrending trip into the personal narrative of slavery and his own family history and mines it, looking for truth, finding so much grace. This is startling candid honesty and it makes for startling good poetry.
Grandmuh Nancy leans on her elbow: oh my infantile paralysis-
she purses her lips,
that indexfinger in the middle,
her hair in a bun
a splintery look's not yet ruint.
From her Bible and Old Baptist hymnals
she teaches you to read and write.
She dreams that you will sing for her when she is gone:
April 1, 1923
I wrote you a short letter Dec. 4th, 1922, but never mailed it. I only write for
relief of mind with no intention of sending it to you then. Again I have a desire to write
you, trusting that it is of the Lord that prompts the same.
I will try to tell you the dream I had about you. If I mistake not it was the week
before the 4th Sun. in July. I dreamed we were in a church house. It was communion
and footwashing time. You and I were sitting together. You asked me to "take off your
shoes and stockings that we might wash each other's feet." Oh, how unworthy I felt.
Words cannot express my feelings. For years I had a desire to wash your feet, but I had
always felt so little and unworthy I could not ask you and at last this happy privilege was
mine! In silence I meditated. As I took off your stockings I saw there was a hole in your
left one large enough that your whole heel was bare. This troubled me. And I thought if
only I had a new pair of stockings I would give them to your to wear to the yearly
meetings. I wished that I had some good enough for you. We washed each other's feet
and I awoke. This dream troubled me.
Finally it came to me this morning: I do not have to know what our dream
means. I offer it to you for what it is worth, along with my love.
You and Greatgrandpa Manly picked blackberries
down near the edge of the woods
in front of the Old Place
and Manly stirred up some wasps
and those things wrapped me up
and stung me around my eyes.
Mister Manly chewed some Picnic Twist
and put some of the juice on my stings.
Then he took his pocketknife and picked the redbugs off me.
This is poetry that I fell into like a lake. Refreshing isn't the proper word, and it eludes me. Encompassing perhaps. Good poetry doesn't grow old. The truth is always the best story.
ABOUT THE AUTHORShelby Stephenson grew up on a small farm near Benson, in the Coastal Plain of North Carolina. After leaving the farm for college, he graduated from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill (where he also studied law), University of Pittsburgh, and the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is professor of English at the University of North Carolina-Pembroke, where he has edited Pembroke Magazine since 1979. The state of North Carolina presented him with the 2001 North Carolina Award in Literature. He has received the Zoe Kincaid Brockman Memorial Award, North Carolina Writers Network Chapbook Prize, Bright Hill Press Chapbook Award, and the Brockman-Campbell Poetry Prize. In addition to Family Matters: Homage to July, the Slave Girl, he has published a poetic documentary Plankhouse (with photographs by Roger Manley), Middle Creek Poems, Carolina Shout!, Finch's Mash, The Persimmon Tree Carol, Poor People, Greatest Hits, Fiddledeedee, and Possum. With his wife Linda he has made three musical CDs Hank Williams Tribute; Stephenson Brothers & Linda Sing the Old Songs; When Country Was Country. Shelby and Linda live on the farm where he was born.
Shelby Stephenson has been recently named Poet Laureate of North Carolina.
An intense and hear-breaking poetic narrative which, in its exploration of historical and personal materials, holds affinities to the work of Susan Howe and to James Agee's classic Let Us Now Praise Famous Men. Family Matters is a strenuous questioning - and exposure - of the fictions of ownership, whether of persons or places, graves or farms.
- Allen Grossman
North Carolina Poet Laureate
reads his poem "Etchings"
video courtesy: The News & Observer
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