Review by Andrew McFadyen-Ketchum
A SUNDAY IN GOD-YEARS
by Michelle Boisseau
The University of Arkansas Press
105 N. McIlroy Avenue
Fayetteville, AR 72701
2009, 100 pp., $16.00
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.
But “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.
But 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.