[Tarpaulin Sky Press; 2020]
Why do people become poets? Want to be poets? Stay poets? One answer is because we want to listen to and respond to calls from those whose graves have gone unmarked and unremarked upon. Another answer is we want to have conversations with the parts of ourselves that have not been fully recognized, and this in order to do something different from what’s already been done. Both of these answers and more are what Lauren Russell’s Descent lead me to, especially at a time when it’s hard to want to be or stay anywhere.
In the poem “Dream-Clung, Gone,” from her first book, Russell writes,
The Absence is singing:
This is the song of a dawned dance
This is the dance of a dusk-drawn song
This is the fall of a moaned trance
This is the clang of a dream-clung gong
From the chapbook that takes its name from the above poem to Russell’s first book What’s Hanging on the Hush, which includes that poem, to her second book Descent, what and who is missing are given form in the song of writing. In fact, Russell suggests that this is what writers can do for others and themselves: sing with absence while respecting absence. Working intimately with what and who is missing, we can transform losses.
Lauren Russell’s Descent, published in June by Tarpaulin Sky, centers on the complicated work of imagining life and writing in the time of slavery. The book suggests this time is both now and not now and yet still now. When Russell receives the diary of her great-great-grandfather Bob Hubert, she also comes to hold the untold story of her great-great-grandmother Peggy, one of her great-great-grandfather’s former slaves.
The book’s cover art is by Sarah Stefana Smith and it’s an image that represents the form the book takes: in holding the tales of Russell’s ancestors, the book gestures toward repair. The cover art is entitled Mend (2018), from the series A/mends, and its materials are “Black bird netting, Fishing line, and Black thread.” The materials read like a poem that guides a conceptualization of the project as a whole.
The cover art reflects Russell’s commitment to making, working with and out of materials that are difficult to weave together and holding them all at the same time: her diary-like entries, her poetic verse in many voices, her great-great-grandfather’s diary; her robust, far-reaching, well-documented research; and her rich fantasy of her great-great-grandmother’s experiences and voice. Descent is as complex and compelling as our most storied epics, historical and contemporary, and it reflects hybrid writing at its very best. I am reminded of Theresa Hak Kyung Cha’s Dicteé, another book that is so moving it’s hard to keep reading and also hard to put down.
Descent begins with two epigraphs: Eleni Sikelianos refers to holes in family history and Saidiya Hartman refers to the challenge of writing about nothing when one navigates slavery, its history and its present. Then, we see Russell’s family tree. The author, however, is not on it. The closest we get to visualizing the author’s links to this genealogy is her grandfather. But the poet is not removed, she is moving, moving in relation to this image and the absences therein so that experience is more than what can be mapped in an instance. The poet fashions herself as a storyteller, a seamstress, a spider, and one who coordinates, studies, records, unravels, unties, reconfigures, and recollects. Descent also tells the story of living in a midwest college town as a queer woman of color, being precariously employed, lonely, and sick of being hypervisible. It follows, then, that the poet sometimes recedes from view, too.
In the book I built where I no longer live:
Some nights humming’s in the walls. Not
wind hissing through chinks but a human
song that shifts in sleep and dips
into a low dipthong —
Russell draws our attention to hearing another song, not her own, and it’s a near-transcendence when she hears songs from elsewhere of which she is also the scribe. The poets I like the most are the ones who find themselves writing at the edge of legibility. I’m reminded of Amiri Baraka imagining hearing his daughter, who had not yet been born, saying prayers in a room by herself in his poem “Preface to a Twenty Volume Suicide Note.” Russell also invites us to be occupied by what we do not know, what we cannot read because it could not be written, in an embodied way: the music, the way language sounds in our mind’s ear. We witness a mode of address that goes undercover; a slip, a supposition, something clever that a confrontation with traumatic experience otherwise prevents.
In the first poem spoken by Peggy we read:
They carried us to Texas ’fore I knew
the horns of Sumter County from the tail
or how to tell directions from the way
moss creeps along a tree.
Although Peggy didn’t know where she was, she tells us about it with all the beauty the poet can imagine: Sumter County’s being shaped like an animal, all the t’s pushing the line forward. Peggy’s words and way of speaking are her own.
Peggy’s first poem comes after poems addressed to Bob Hubert that refer to Peggy only by “she.” These poems sing of coercion, abuse, and rape. One of them, which you can hear Russell read on Poets&Writers, hinges on interfering with and interrupting the word “whippoorwill,” the name of a bird with a unique call.
Heard a whippoorwill holler this morning for
the first time this spring. Heard a whippoorwill
holler. All hands choking cotton. Heard a
holler, a whimper. Heard a will whip her. Will . . .
What meaning can we make of rape, a word never used in the book, rendered in relation to birdsong? The poem is followed by a brief Q&A that explicitly tells us about the powerlessness we’ve just been sung, but it’s in other voices, not the poet’s or Peggy’s. This shift, from birdsong to script, and to other voices, demonstrates the poet’s power to converse in her way, say it how she wants. She won’t be forced to say anything in particular; she will control the rhyme, the rhythm, the way language moves. It’s almost too much and that’s part of where a poet’s power lives. How else should she tell it? You can’t tell her how to tell it.
Agency and power are at the heart of Russell writing with her imagination of Peggy and this book is a kind of mending and recovery. And the poet’s identifications are multiple. We are introduced to the possibility that Bob Hubert, along with other soldiers in the Civil War, suffered PTSD, which went diagnosed as weakness, likely making the war even more traumatic. Hubert, a Confederate soldier, is taken as a prisoner of war in Ohio. Russell takes the time to describe how cold his feet were. How come she cares? How come she asks us to care? Russell identifies with Bob Hubert’s loneliness, an existential loneliness that exists in relation to, and not separate from, racialized and sexualized violence. Sometimes the descriptions of desire and violence are so disorienting, I need to put the book down. The poet, however, engages these experiences (imagined and real) with such an openness, I also need to read very slowly. This book takes time and makes the time of reading different from whatever else I’ve been doing (two hours and I’m only 30 pages in). It suggests that the desire to sustain oneself as one desires is another reason to be and stay a poet.
A number of times throughout the book, Russell reveals a turn of phrase, moves on, and then brings the same language back a few pages later like it’s new but not new, an act that feels akin to peek-a-boo. I invoke this early delight in disappearing and reappearing because it depends on someone being able to show themselves after they’ve hid themselves. No one covers you up. You cover yourself, then show yourself when you want to.
So it makes sense that there are parts of Russell’s book that I truly do not understand. The opacity the poetry produces in relation to fantasy or history renders the difference between these things unnavigable by thought, hence her invocation of Audre Lorde’s “biomythography” with Russell’s significant revision: “biomythology” — not the rewriting of myth but something else I can’t parse even when I try to compare “-graphy” to “-ology.” This is because the space between writing and knowledge is where Russell writes.
In Descent, Russell models a dynamic relationship to agency and desire in which the pleasure of writing partially depends on that which is difficult-to-decipher. Then, the poet is free to be curious and not trapped by facticity. Russell, in other words, enjoys imagining Peggy.
Peggy rises out of sleep through the dream called
Blue — where all her kinfolks are wading through
fields of blue, even her father left in Georgia, her
stillborn brother somehow grown, her niece who . . .
Because Peggy and her sisters could not leave diaries behind, Russell imagines their days together, as children, as adults, in fields, speaking to one another and loving being with one another. She bravely entertains how good it could have felt to be together sometimes. She tries to remain agnostic about what she doesn’t know and risks imagining what sisters do in the morning: giggle.
Descent invites us to join Russell in imagining what Peggy might say about her life and the poet regularly reminds us that we, the readers, are in the midst of imagining imagining. We are so far removed, yet brought so close. This is a remarkable accomplishment, what Charles Bernstein might think about in terms of the artifice of pain, the artifice we need to imagine pain. (Bernstein performed at the Poetry of the 1980s Conference at University of Maine in Orono in 2012 and the phrase “artifice of pain” has stayed with me.) Of course, we don’t need artifice to experience pain we experience, but we do need works of art that ask us to be in relation with those whose lives occupy our past and our present that we’ve not yet learned to listen to. In Descent, Lauren Russell creates forms that help us hold what we do and do not know and, ultimately, she invites readers to imagine generating such forms even as violence and loneliness loom.
Anna Vitale is the author of Our Rimbaud Mask and Detroit Detroit. Recent writing has appeared in Ear | Wave | Event and Counter. You can find a conversation between Anna and Judah Rubin at A Perfect Vacuum. She lives in Tivoli, NY.