Had Slaves by Catherine Sasanov
(Firewheel Editions, Danbury, CT, 2010)
This book writes itself—by this, I mean that there’s a sense of urgency in the words rushing out to imprint pages into life.
There’s a rush similar to what one may glean from certain forcefully-created “first draft-last draft” type of poems. Such energy, thus, is even more impressive in Catherine Sasanov’s Had Slaves because the poems resulted from four years of deep research into the family history of the poet—a history that began when Sasanov discovered her ancestral slaveholding past.
After Sasanov stumbled across the words, “had slaves,” in family papers, she embarked on researching (in the publisher’s press release words), the “slaveholding among her Missouri ancestors and the fragmented evidence left behind of the 11 men, women, and children held in their bondage…Had Slaves pieces together lives endured from slavery to Jim Crow across a landscape lost beneath big box stores, subdivisions, and tourist sites. Avoiding Gone With the Wind stereotype, Sasanov takes her readers to slavery’s less expected locale: where big house means log cabin and plantation is a small grain farm with tarantulas mating in the corn. An unflinching look…”
Reading through the poems, one gets the feeling that these poems’ voices have been waiting—longing!—to be heard for a long time. The feeling escalates as one reads deeper into the collection. Such a sense is also testimony to the book’s history; here’s an excerpt from an interview she did with Ellen Steinbaum:
“I’ve come to my subject as a first generation northerner on my father’s side. Except for two pieces of paper in my family's possession (an 1857 will where my ggg-grandfather, Richard Steele, leaves nine men, women, and children to his family members, and a note left by an elderly cousin where the words had slaves appear) there were no other written or spoken traces in my home of my bloodline's involvement with slaveholding. For that matter, except for the mention of a handful of events, the lives of my white ancestors were shrouded in silence, too. As if the past couldn't endure the journey from Springfield, Missouri, to Rockford, Illinois, the city my father settled in after WWII and where I was born and raised.
“It still takes my breath away to think that I could have gone to my grave without any idea of my family's slaveholding past, that something so terrible could have been swallowed up in silence. It didn’t help that I also grew up with a very ‘Gone With the Wind’ idea of the landscape it took to nurture slavery. A small Ozarks grain farm with tarantulas mating in the corn wasn’t my idea of Tara. As if slavery couldn’t survive outside of an environment rich in moonlight, magnolias, Spanish moss, oak alleys, Southern belles, mammy, and the big house. These revelations really drove me to work against myth and bad history regarding where slavery took place, and who was involved in it. God-fearing ministers held slaves. Revolutionary War soldiers fighting for freedom owned them. Small landowners and men who supported the Union troops during the Civil War kept them. Examples of all four of these slaveholders exist in my bloodline alone.
“I traveled to Southwest Missouri in 2006 to do field and archive research, trying to find out what happened to the Steele slaves and freedmen. If I hadn’t come to the area already knowing that slavery was a part of its landscape, I would never have guessed it. Evidence that the black Steeles ever existed kept coming back paper, kept coming down archival, since every visual trace of slavery has been passively or actively eradicated from Greene County except in words. The evidence lurks in census, probate, and court documents, in business ledgers, doctor’s notes, bills of sale, tax lists, wills, appraisal sheets, death certificates, land deeds, Civil War pension files, marriage licenses, and plat maps. Paper as a kind of amber preserving the past.
So let’s have some poems speak on behalf of themselves…and those whose blood and flesh first created their lives:
Four Hundred Acres of Missouri
For Flora, her children Ben and Eliza, 1833
The first time you saw all of it, did your eyes gag, dreaming of escape? Row on row of oats and corn—all muffle and impede. Four hundred acres of Missouri. World precisely measured out with no perceptible edge. Misery loves its regional variations, but stays partial to the whip, a white man in a slave girl’s bed, the flaying of a back. Where are my ancestors’ hands in this? All they hold for me to see: Bibles and a walking stick. Antique empty air. Their tintypes smeared with lockjaw dreams (cracked emulsion, dirty metal): The master’s hands sliced open on his photo. Orders caged-up in his teeth. Pure reverie. Pure didn’t happen. Like your escape through all the stunted sustenance, what wouldn’t even reach the shoulders. Like the man with the map inside his head waiting for you in the corn.
Did it start with casual inquiries about your health? Barely concealed greed? A prayer the old man would die before you’re out of prime? The heir wondering which you’d be: Girl to give birth to a bit of profit? Barren breeding stock? Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth. Isn’t that what old masters say just before they die? So your new one comes with his receipt: Received of A.A. Young, John P.: The girl named in the will. That name’s Eliza, but all he thinks if filly, maybe mare; is wealth to reproduce itself. He cares. Did he take his long, hard look between your legs? Was he born to father a little property out behind the barn?
The effect of research, more discoveries, naturally can’t help but affect the researcher…and such also shows up—often movingly—in the poems:
Down the cold hall of daguerreotypes
I searched out every piece of anonymous metal
looking for your face. Sought proof
that someone treasured you
if only on
a bit of tin.
But you came line-drawn,
out of an ink gone Rorschach.
A woman subject to interpretation.
The census taker as itinerant artist, pinning down
one final glimpse of you.
Or the first four stanzas of this poem:
For Eliza, Isaac, Daniel, and Diana
And what of my own hands in this?
I finally come to flesh you
out, flesh you
into what are not
This is fraught stuff. Here’s another poem in its entirety:
The negro Mammy was no fiction of a later day novelist, but genuine, gentle, untiring, faithful…on her broad shoulders was carried the generation which made the early history of Missouri fascinating and great.
Carl B. Boyer, white interviewer
Slave Narratives: Missouri, 1936-1938
Let me herd the heirs
into the yard,
so at that distance, this
can pass for prayer:
Three women standing
around the master’s bed,
prodding the old man
with their tongues,
exultant that he’s dead.
The source of many poems—often directly “found” from archives—is at times incomplete. Sasanov notes that
Paper as a kind of amber preserving the past. Its data are often untrustworthy, sometimes on purpose, sometimes from sloppiness. And while I logically knew that the information I looked at translated into human beings, the language of slavery is often constructed to make it easy for readers to distance themselves from the people being discussed. They can never be clearly envisioned.
“In writing ‘Had Slaves,’ I became something of a forensic anthropologist, fleshing out the bare boned, fragmented information I was uncovering about the individuals my ancestors owned. I wanted to make real that it was lives my family held in bondage, not a bit of cursive on a page, or a group of names that could be lumped into a faceless, unindividuated mass called slaves. At the same time, I wanted to reflect on how difficult it is to resurrect the dead when one works within the straitjacket of a shamed history: the paucity of details, lack of images of the people one is discussing, and nothing in their own words.
Sasanov says that the poem that most “embodies” such “absence” is the shortest in the book, something “written out of my knowing only that 19-year-old Steele slave Edmund was bequeathed by Richard Steele to his eldest son, a man who’d come up from Tennessee to collect him.
Willed, Bequeathed: Edmund, Walked Towards Tennessee,
Is Never Seen Again: September 1860
The sky, the bloody
meat of it,
When I first read through the book, I hadn’t yet read the interview with Sasanov and I recall being most impressed by the above poem, admiring the poet’s technique of imagism. And it is due to her poetic prowess that Sasanov is able to do justice to her subject matter. She knows when to get out of the way.
And she also knows when to allow her presence to infuse the poem, for instance this excerpt from the first poem “Sitting at the Mouth of the Great Slave Trading Route, the Slaveholder’s Great-Great Granddaughter Pens Her Preface to the Text":
in lieu of herding slaves,
my hands herd words
across the page,
And I hold back
whole trains of thought
with just a speck of ink.
The combination of caesuras and the placement of the phrases across the page facilitate the notion of “herding slaves.”
Even when it’s difficult to create a poetry collection, that difficulty in the act of creation doesn’t always rise to the surface. In Had Slaves, I felt the complicated turmoil that the poet must have undergone as she created these poems. And why not? As the author says,
“Slavery officially ended in the 1860s, but many of the people who survived it lived deep into the twentieth century, nipping at the heels of my birth. It staggers me that John D. Steele, the youngest slave owned by my family when the Civil War ended, died only four years before I was born."
Had Slaves is important for expanding the light on the legacy of American slavery. It is a most moving testament.
Had Slaves not only has my highest recommendation—these poems, and its author, command Respect.
Eileen Tabios does not let her books be reviewed by Galatea Resurrects, but she is pleased to point you elsewhere to reviews of her books. Her newest book THE THORN ROSARY: Selected Prose Poems & New (1998-2010) is reviewed by Amazon top-notch reviewer Grady Harp over HERE, William Allegrezza over at p-ramblings HERE and by Leny M. Strobel at Moria Poetry HERE. Mr. Harp also reviews her NOTA BENE EISWEIN over HERE. If the former book gets you curious, please note that its publisher Marsh Hawk Press is supporting a fundraiser for Haiti relief by giving a free copy if you order at least $15 worth of booklets through the Hay(na)ku for Haiti fundraiser; as THE THORN ROSARY is priced retail at $19.95, this is one of the best bargains in the poetry world, even as it helps out with a Haiti fundraiser.