Toward feminine mythopoetic visions: the poetry of Gayl Jones.
--Gayl Jones (qtd. in Rowell, "Interview" 41)
Gayl Jones's distinguished body of fiction--including the controversial debut novel Corregidora (1975) and National Book Award nominee The Healing (1998)--has received significant accolades and critical attention. By contrast, her comparably quiet, yet formidable, corpus of poetry--three books and an assortment of uncollected published pieces--has been overlooked, if not almost ignored, by readers and scholars of her work. (1) Significantly, Jones's first publication appeared in verse; and her literary production from 1969 through the early 1980s includes nearly as many poems as short stories, betraying both a formative and consistent involvement with poetry. (2) Furthermore, Jones's serious interest in the intellectual and cultural legacies of African American verse in particular is confirmed in her critical study of African American literature, Liberating Voices (1991), in which she makes the important general observation, "African American poetry from the turn of the century to the present shows a movement toward the freeing of African American character and voice in literature" (17). Jones's critical summary of the genre in which she practices has consequences for her creative work as well for in its own particular development across the decades of the 1970s and 1980s, Jones's poetry, on a smaller scale and over a much more compressed period of time, reflects a similar narrative aesthetic shift, from a concern with separate single voices involved usually in problematic personal relationships to viewpoints and utterances articulating cultural issues across time and place--a shift that would eventually become palpable in her fiction as well with the publications of The Healing and Mosquito (2000).
Jones's lack of critical recognition as a poet is at least partially traceable to her documented ambivalence regarding genre boundaries and artistic identity: "I've never really considered myself a poet. I've written what I call poetry but I've always thought of myself as primarily a fiction writer and so I write poetry from the viewpoint and interest of a storyteller--the concern with character and event" (Rowell, "Interview" 39). Consistent with this self-conceptualization of her creative output, Jones's critical observations regarding the work of other poets often are based on the execution of techniques traditionally associated with distinguished fiction writing. For example, she declares Sherley A. Williams's "Someone Sweet Angel Chile" is an important poem because "She makes the character/singer speak for and identify herself, take authority over her own story, and recreate her song. In the multitude of other voices we have listeners/witnesses become storytellers and storytellers become listener/witnesses" (Rowell, "Interview" 43). For Jones, narrative and its rendering usually appear to outweigh the various poetic conventions of prosody and form. While reviewing the work of Sterling Brown in a critical capacity, Jones provides a checklist of what chiefly attracts her in poetry: "The variety and quality of characterizations, the interplay of voices, dramatic forms, histories, scenes, portraits, the range and integrity of voice" ("A Review of the Collected Poems of Sterling Brown" 43). Again, characterization and narrative voice appear in the foreground, accompanied by such structural concerns of fiction as dramatic forms and scenes, all of which come together to reveal a sensibility interested primarily in formulating a poetics of effective storytelling.
Also listed among Jones's poetic concerns is an interest in "histories," the implications of which hold a special significance for African American poets. Lorenzo Thomas, speaking for a multitude of scholars, describes the persistent inability of African American writers to be aesthetically insular in the face of their collective histories: "[E]ven had black poets wished to create within the pristine seclusion of a 'dark tower,' their color made it impossible for them to avoid involvement in the turbulent racial politics of the United States" (8). Abstracting her historical interest in race beyond the boundaries of the United States, Jones's work is unique in its specific, repeated meditations on historical, race-based oppression in Brazil. Perhaps this foreign focus is not altogether unusual since, in the very broadest of terms, contemporary Brazil shares with the United States a climate of race-relations generally governed by class status, in which prejudice against African ancestry often is outweighed by respect for higher class. Yet the fact that Jones imports the overwhelming majority of her historical material from South America significantly differentiates her from most other historically-minded African American writers working in the United States. As the Brazilian scholar Stelamaris Coser summarizes, "Jones's research on slave history in Brazil informs a kind of work that is original and unique" (122). Coser also correctly observes that in Jones's first book of poetry, Song For Anninho, she, "with an identification and a solidarity based on gender and race, brings out of forgetfulness voices of black women abused in the Brazilian past" (123)--an endeavor that separates the work from the verse that Jones produced in the early-to-mid 1970s, poems dealing primarily with romantic and philosophical relationships between African Americans in the contemporary United States.
As Jones notes, her shift from contemporary African American relationships in the United States to those historically-situated in Brazil was accompanied by an overarching philosophical transition: "The center of Song for Anninho is a love story and I also wanted to move beyond the 'blues relationships' of most of my earlier published stories to perhaps the 'spiritual mode'" (Rowell, "Interview" 41). Seeking a "spiritual mode," Jones appears to have attempted to forsake the overtly visceral, violent, and sexual concerns of her earlier work for the more abstract corridors of international history and legend. In other words, she sought to evolve her art past her successfully-realized, relationship-based, blues poems to the more ambitious imagined historical domain of mythopoetic forms. As Susan Sellers notes at the conclusion of Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women's Fiction (a study in which Sellers also discusses works by A. S. Byatt, Angela Carter, Anne Rice, Michele Roberts, Emma Tennant, and Fay Weldon), Jones is not alone in attempting to aesthetically transmute traditional history and myth: "Myth, it would appear from the wealth of women's adaptations and reworkings, is a potent force in contemporary feminist fiction. Yet as the discussions in this volume show, women's rewritings frequently alter the form of their source-myths and set them to very different purposes" (128). As her Brazilian poems clearly indicate, Jones is interested in dislocating and reinventing the forms of what Sellers calls "source-myths," recovering--partly through research, partly through the poetic imagination--muted voices across time. In this endeavor, Jones's approach is necessarily mythopoetic, creating nuances and legends to accompany and augment the history of an all but forgotten people. Essentially, mythopoesis is the production of myths, or myth-making. Whereas mythology, in the broadest sense, studies and analyzes the mythic patterns of people and their cultures, mythopoesis involves the creation of new myths either through gradual cultural changes or by the work of those in the arts, or both.
In tracing Jones's thematic and philosophical poetic development, this essay necessarily limits the attention it gives to prosody and other formal traditional elements in Jones's poetry. Yet it is these very elements that inform Jones's decision to convey these texts through the medium of poetry as opposed to prose. Her mythopoetic verse participates, formalistically, in the visionary tradition of poets as far apart in chronology as William Blake and Wallace Stevens. Like them, Jones often attempts to eclipse the self in creating mythic landscapes through a poetic wedding of language and imagination. Her poems recreate the world while simultaneously making it appear larger, more inclusive. The compression of language afforded by poetry allows Jones to produce intense visions that often prove difficult, if not impossible, for all but the very best novelists. The formal manner in which Jones generates her poems certainly constitutes a separate topic worthy of its own consideration. This essay, however, attempts to provide the groundwork in its delineation of Jones's artistic and philosophical journey toward mythopoesis--the process toward reimagining Brazilian slave history and filling in the gaps of "objective history" to construct a memorable memorial to a silenced culture for readers in the present.
Early in her career, Jones did not possess the poetic tools to attempt mythopoetic renderings of historical cultures beyond the United States. Instead, like most young poets, she worked with more immediate materials such as dynamics of personal relationships and the African American cultures that surrounded her and of which she was a member. A fine example of the latter subject is her poem "Deep Song," published in 1975 but written much earlier while Jones was in graduate school. One of Jones's professors at Brown University, the poet Michael Harper, recalls, "I remember asking Gayl Jones what she was listening to, and she said Billie Holiday, so I said why don't you write me a poem on Lady, and Gayl just smiled; she seldom said much, but a few days later I got a copy of 'Deep Song' under my door, dedicated to 'B. H.'" (Rowell, "Down" 798-99). "Deep Song" is an important poem for its exploration of the pain, love, and general ambivalence of romantic relationships while it incorporates stylistic elements of the African American blues tradition--most notably, varied verbal and rhythmic repetition. The speaker sings a song that is part-celebration, part-lament, culminating in an intimation that the love and depth of feeling in her relationship flows equally from the evil and endearing aspects of the man she loves: "Sometimes he is a good dark man. / Sometimes he is a bad dark man. / I love him" (ll. 27-29). (3) "Deep Song" also reflects Jones's strong interest in narrative, her belief that the speaker and the listener must strive together for meaning. As Jones asserts, this guiding dynamic also informs the poem's authorship: "I was listening to Billie Holiday when I wrote the poem--while I was writing it, I mean. I was writing it and listening at the same time" (Harper 700). Simultaneously functioning as hearer and speaker, reader and writer, Jones plays with the idea of narrative translation and interpretive layers of meaning. As she hears the song, she writes her poem, witnessing and passing it on to other listeners, most notably "B. H.," to whom it is inscribed and to whom she had originally "listened," in another sense, when Harper asked her to write the poem.
Jones's concern with tension-filled blues relationships in her poetry also dominates much of her fiction and drama from the 1970s: the novels Corregidora and Eva' s Man (1976), the plays Chile Women (1974) and Beyond Yourself (The Midnight Confession) for Brother Ahh (1975), and numerous short stories, many of which are collected in White Rat (1977). And Jones was quite cognizant of the blues as a stylistic and philosophical catalyst across the different genres of her work. Commenting on a specific poem and novel, she asserts, "There is a relationship between 'Deep Song,' which is a blues poem, and Corregidora, which is a blues novel. Blues talks about the simultaneity of good and bad, as feeling, as something felt" (Harper 700). Not surprisingly, the poignant immediacy of what Jones conceptualizes as blues sensation or "something felt" functions most powerfully in her early poems, several of which share with "Deep Song" the tragic sense of pain and ambivalence in relationships between men and women. For example, in "The Lovers" (1974) the female protagonist is willing to give everything to her man, but in doing so,
she is blind she does not know he nibbles slowly at her heart. (ll. 7-10)
Occasionally, the emotional ambivalence at the core of each of these heart-rending relationships resembles Jones's second novel, Eva's Man, in their flirtations with psychological elements of the perverse. In "Jasper Notes" (1975), for instance, the female speaker relates a troubling interior monologue: "'But you must learn to love and not look for love / in return,' my mind said. 'Feel affection but not seek the consequences of affection'" (28). As in "The Lovers" the speaker gives herself in a way that puts her heart in jeopardy while adding the depraved caveat that she should never expect anything in return for her love. In an important respect the poem constitutes a meditation on nihilism and negation, the speaker assuring her male counterpart, "I'll never be to anyone what I couldn't be to you" (33). Just as Eva's Man travels beyond the blues narrative of Corregidora to investigate the debilitating psychological dynamics of sexuality, so poems like "Jasper Notes," while still containing blues elements and revolving around romantic relationships, essentially are comprised of psychologically-based statements of self-identity.
One of Jones's lighter and more successful blues poems is "The Cup" (1975), which portrays the juxtaposition of intimate and working worlds by recounting the journey of a peripatetic coffee cup. Thinking of the cup helps the female narrator, still at home in an intimate domestic sphere, to formulate how her working lover
moved thinking in that world afterward drinking yr coffee slowly which is how we made love all the sweet night long. (ll. 13-17)
Bridging the worlds of work and pleasure, the cup functions as a reminder of private, personal bliss in "that world afterward," the separate and impersonal existence of the work place. Like "The Cup" and much of Jones's fiction, many of Jones's early blues poems employ physical objects, bodies, and actions to deliver their philosophical implications. "Party" (1976), for example, is loaded with strong images of diarrhea, heavy drinking, and sex, all functioning as grotesque signifiers of the poem's troubled male character, who feels compelled to drink excessively to have sex with the female protagonist. The poem's physical action makes its symbolic and psychological consequences all the more troubling. His expression before he has sex with her is "hateful" (l. 38), yet she pulls him to her nevertheless. Jones continued to explore this dynamic of adverse ambivalence, narrated by uncertain and ambiguously abused female protagonists in a repetitive blues mode, into the late 1970s in poems such as "Alternative" (1979) and "Chance" (1979). In the former poem, the female character suggests physical action (a walk) as a means of addressing the roadblocks in their relationship: "'Come, let's go for a walk,' she says. / 'No, I'll go,' he says" (ll. 133-34). Often Jones's male figures appear to remain enigmatic and emotionally distant, or even antagonistic, as a means of manipulating, dominating, and ultimately controlling their female partners. When the woman in "Alternative" suggests a walk, the man makes an alternative imperative statement that rejects the woman's suggestion as well as her company. Developing the rejection theme further, "Chance" involves a female protagonist who is terrified of losing her man, resulting in an unhealthy one-sided relationship in which the woman is obsessed with constantly placating her lover: "She kisses him with fear. / She's afraid to be tender, / afraid he'll think she wants something" (ll. 30-33). Blending tenuous physical fear and sexuality with a hint of psychological perversity, Jones again offers an association riddled with uncertainty and misplaced desire, demonstrating that the power of blues relationships proceeds as much from their real and immediate suffering as from romantic and sexual love.
Mythopoetic Groundwork: Abstractions and Prophets
Jones's collective blues poems involving visceral relationships are accompanied by a smaller group of poems from the 1970s that comment on abstract, philosophical subjects in conjunction with African American cultures and often involve prophets--subjects that lead, seemingly inevitably, to her eventual preoccupation with slavery and its consequences across national boundaries. In the long poem "Part IV of Journal" (1979), Jones employs contemporary African American fashion and marketing as catalysts for a meditation on what constitutes cosmetic beauty and identity. Her speaker comments,
I think how in the black fashion magazines they are using the darker girls now. They used to not. I am thinking how beautiful black is. (208)
Operating here is an affirmation of African American culture's movement away from European standards of physical beauty, while also acknowledging the ominous power of the media, both African American and mainstream, to manipulate the most basic and superficial ideals of the masses for good or ill. Removed from such dynamics of pop culture yet still involving African American history and contemporary identity, Jones's poems involving prophets seek to destabilize and reinvent notions of African American cultural and spiritual concerns, past and present. As early as 1970, having not yet received her undergraduate degree from Connecticut College, Jones was investigating and interpreting African American history in poems that involve prophetic figures and wide-ranging religious terminology. For example, in "Satori" (1970) the speaker springs "from the Buddha's forehead, / black as Jesus" (ll. 16-17), blurring the distinctions between the figureheads of different religions and their assumed ethnicities, which ultimately calls into question the conventional interpretations of their messages as well. Similarly ambiguous, in "Salvation" (1970) the protagonist believes she has become a Christian, but still "The African wind chimes tingle in the wind" (l. 6), persistently reminding her of another and, in many respects, conflicting faith and culture from which she can never, and should not wish to, escape. Skepticism about established religions and cultures is accompanied by doubt of a self-proclaimed African American prophet in "The Gathering" (1976), in which the 20-year-old female speaker converses with Brother Eliot, a 40-year-old man who "thinks he's a prophet" (l. 12). Refusing to romanticize or idealize the prophet figure, Jones uses "The Gathering" to explore the tension between the need for cultural and spiritual renewal and self-indulgent delusion and exploitation. Even at the poem's conclusion, the narrator is uncertain whether Eliot is a genuine avatar or merely a clever and mischievous man, a player, who cultivates an eccentric, sorcerous image (signifying, as it were, on the idea of true prophecy) for the purpose of attracting curious young women. In "The Gathering" Jones adroitly demonstrates that rediscovering one's own culture and spirituality, especially if the searcher is overly romantic or sentimental often is accompanied by dangers and doubts.
In "Many Die Here" (1970), another poem from her undergraduate days, Jones's speaker laments that her people have been allowed to "die without a name" (l. 37), expressing a genuine concern for a perceived lack of identity among African Americans (a defining logos from which meaning may be derived). Developing from the seeds of historical identity in "Many Die Here" and accompanied by an increasingly palpable concern with spiritual abstractions and prophets, Jones's poems from the mid-to-late 1970s began demonstrating greater international and cultural themes. In the historical narrative "Mas Alla" (1975), Jones's first distinctly South American poem, her prophet-narrator explains that his people are living in "a place where they kill you for dreaming" and that "they are afraid our dreams might break into flesh" (ll. 24, 28). Significantly, the "they" in the poem, the slaveholding oppressors, fear the dreams of their chattels more than the immediate prospect of manifest rebellion. Yet, ever the unsentimental storyteller, as in "The Gathering," Jones generates dramatic tension by calling into question the prophet's legitimacy and even sanity. The poem's elderly male soothsayer carries a basket that he says contains onions and sardines, on which the speaker comments, "I see nothing. / He says it is prophets' food, / Perhaps only prophets can see" (ll. 11-13). While the mystic may in fact possess a second sight derived from his perception of things not readily apparent, Jones simultaneously leaves open the possibility that he may simply be mad or delusional, imposing whatever compelling meanings he wishes on the nothingness surrounding him.
Journey to Brazil: Song for Anninho
Building on these piquant prophecy-based narratives and researching South American history, Jones began paving the way for her poetic foray into the Brazilian past. "The Fur Station" (1980) serves as a kind of theological precursor or prelude to Song for Anninho as the mixed-heritage hunter/protagonist attempts to contemplate and balance his cultural background and knowledge of the land with the Christian faith to which he clings. He claims that he "don't believe in fantasisms and enchantments, / but I know there's every kind of mankind and womankind, ha, / and you can't answer everything with logic" (ll. 19-21). At the center of this statement is the assumption that European Christianity, with all of its self-assured links to knowledge, constitutes an inadequate worldview for Brazil, a country with its own specific characteristics and set of seemingly fantastic legends. Song for Anninho (1981) is not so much concerned with this pre-European Brazil and its original peoples as with the implications of European colonization--physical, theological, philosophical--and especially the distinctive implementation and perpetuation of slavery by the Portuguese. The book's central social focus, the Palmares society--founded almost entirely by escaped slaves and based in Macaco, Brazil--had successfully resisted, evaded, and withstood Portuguese attacks for almost a century, when on February 6, 1694, Domingos Jorge Velho's seasoned mercenaries effectively assaulted, plundered, and burned the settlement. In the aftermath, thousands of Palmares men from Macaco and other nearby villages were slaughtered. Women and children generally were left unharmed, at least physically, although many mothers resolved to murder their own children and starve themselves rather than become Portuguese chattels. As Coser recounts, "Letters and records reveal that Negro Women who did not breed as often as they should had breasts amputated or sexual organs mutilated" (209), a horrifying prospect--hauntingly conveyed in Song for Anninho--to which self-inflicted death perhaps was preferable.
Against such a brutally violent historical background, Jones sought to evoke the implacable will and spirit of the Palmares people to endure while relating their experiences to those of all African-descended slaves and their respective descendants across time. As Richard Jackson accurately observes, Song for Anninho is "a spiritual journey through memory over time, a remembering beyond Palmares that establishes a place for blacks in the world. In the same larger sense, Song for Anninho is a story of hope and freedom, of perseverance and the will to survive" (138). In her discussion of the poem and the unpublished prose version of it, "Palmares," Jones verifies Jackson's reading, while also describing at great length her overlapping use of myth, history, and imagination in creating the "poetic fictional account whose focus is on "spirit" and interior landscape--the landscape of imagination and dream and memory" (Rowell, "Interview" 43). Contemplating the work, which is adapted from her book Palmares, Jones asserts that the oppressed characters, and not their last battle, form the "significant event" of the work:
If Anninho rather than Almeyda had told the story, the focus would have been the battle, I think, and the raids and spying expeditions and the trading, etc. Perhaps it's a flaw that I don't focus on the battle. Perhaps I bend the idea of the "significant event." ... But neither Song for Anninho nor Palmares--as I've written them--neither one is political social documents of the time. On one page of the book, Almeyda describes what it is and what it's supposed to be when she says--"But it's not the actions I wish to capture but the spirit!" Of course, the fictional version has to capture more events--but the focus is "personalized, psychological." (Rowell, "Interview" 43) (4)
The "personalized, psychological, spiritual" elements Jones evokes conspire to allow the poem to transcend its self-appointed place in history--"neither one is political social documents of the time"--and serve as a timeless philosophical meditation on slavery. As Harris perceptively summarizes, it is "through Almeyda's sights and values, we come to see the strength of her people, and we come to hope--with her--that they might one day establish a spiritual and physical unity that will withstand all oppressors" (103).
To forge the compelling spiritual unity capable of resisting brutally violent oppression, Jones first had to present convincingly the nightmarish physical suffering that paradoxically fueled both the Portuguese ability to oppress and the Palmares determination to resist. Before Song for Anninho, seemingly as a kind of exercise, Jones had sought to investigate this visceral dynamic in "The Father" (1975), which explores a parent-child bond forged and problematized in the process of an agonizing flight from slavery. The child-narrator says of the journey with her father,
His wife carried me strapped to her back till the pack cut her shoulders but their footprints were still kisses and their love broke into my skin and mine into theirs. (ll. 4-9)
Mingling physical suffering and abstract affection, Jones uses the images of lacerated flesh and the prints of exhausted feet to underscore simultaneously the pain of the family's journey and the love that accompanies it. Significantly, the physical anguish fills an important emotional and structural function, the broken skin serving as an entry point for love and the footprints forming a palpable trail of kisses. Jones mingles similar images of slavery-related physical tribulations with historical implications in her early fictional renderings of episodes involving Almeyda and Anninho--scenes that were never translated into the story's poetic version and that provide important insight into Almeyda and Anninho's relationship. In the prose piece "From Almeyda" (1975), Almeyda describes how falling in love with Anninho was irrevocably marred by the historical conditions of their time: "I remember when we came to each other. And we both had heavy smiles, Anninho, because this was not the time or place for a man and woman" (32). Oppressed by historical forces beyond their control, Almeyda and Anninho feel the inevitable nearness of pain and tragedy even as they fall in love. Fulfilling their prophetic sense of sorrow, Almeyda is unable to conceive, explaining, "My womb was angry" (34). "Angry" at the limitations and suffering imposed by the institution of slavery and its accompanying horrors, Almeyda's body is unable to perform as she wishes. Implied here is the idea that her body is not really her own, affected by and belonging to the Portuguese even though they are not physically present. Almeyda's symbolic psychological fears later are fully realized in "Work in Progress" (1976), which contains a brutal sequence--part reality, part dream--in which Almeyda and Anninho are captured by the Portuguese, who rape and torture them, and cut off Almeyda's breasts. Even though the bulk of the writing concerns the terrible visceral aspects of their torture, Jones maintains that Almeyda's and Anninho's most humiliating disservice is rendered by history: "After it is all over and everything but history has touched us. (The pain has touched us, but they deny us the history.)" (46). More devastating than the agony they endure is the (fore)knowledge that none of it will be chronicled, that their suffering may very well mean nothing to the generations that follow.
As Harris posits of Almeyda and Anninho, "Their health reflects community health" (103) and, preceding Almeyda's account of their violent trials, the beginning of Song of Anninho celebrates the flourishing of African-descended slaves in Brazil, most notably through their close affinity with the land. At the outset of the poem, the women are singing, and an important connection is made between South America and Africa. Almeyda observes,
This is a good place, because it is like the place we lived before; like our own country. (1)
Taking the connection a step further, Almeyda explains to Anninho the bond between herself and the earth:
I wanted my body to become one with the earth, to become the earth. And I saw it do so, Anninho, the earth, the earth was me. The flesh of the earth was my flesh. (3)
Almeyda's symbolic associations with the land have strong and obvious post-colonialist implications in the general sense that the Portuguese appropriate, develop, and abuse the Brazilian landscape. Early in the text, Almeyda establishes the philosophical groundwork for condemning this process by relating the earth to history as well as to herself:
The earth is my history, Anninho, none other than this whole earth. We build our houses on top of history. (5)
According to the book's interior logic, when the Portuguese change the land and abuse Almeyda, they are not only committing crimes against nature and humanity, but against history as well. For Almeyda, these elements are not mutually exclusive. At one point she describes "the blood of the whole continent / running in my veins" (6), and thus when she bleeds, not only a woman is maimed but a country and a history.
Further delineating her primary mythopoetic variables, Jones adds a powerful spiritual element to her physical association of blood, land, and history through the character of Zibatra, "a mystic and biblical scholar" (7). Zibatra's prodigious mastery of African, Brazilian, and Christian spiritual concepts makes her an ideal commentator on the metaphysical conditions of Almeyda and Brazil. Combining language with Christian and pagan imagery, she boasts,
I live like a saint; I know places where the visible and the invisible meet, where the human and the divine come together: I have seen what an ordinary human woman does not see and know. I have seen with a third eye, and a fourth one, and yet another. I have spoken in tongues, and beyond language. (8)
Able to express things "beyond language," Zibatra functions as an ideal healer and muse for Almeyda, who strongly desires to "translate the past into a / lover's language" (11), transmuting the memory of personal and cultural pain into words that shape and empower the spirit. As Zibatra asserts, "Memories continue, return together. / Spirits continue together" (23) and Almeyda's task mirroring Jones's, is to verbalize the horrific destruction of Palmares, establishing it in memory and spirit so that it may "continue."
Why this task should fall to Almeyda, a maimed woman, is established over the course of the book through scenes that dramatize the specific and complicated trials of enslaved women. For example, what to Almeyda and her grandmother is interpreted as a mark of prophecy or intelligence--the strange and affecting quality of their gazes, the men around them (mis)construe as licentiousness or seductive witchery. Almeyda explains,
Men were always reading my grandmother's eyes wrong. Every man that saw her would read her eyes wrong. They would think they saw things, each of them would think they saw things that weren't there. What they wanted. (34)
A similar anxiety-laced misinterpretation also appears in Agostinha, a white woman who becomes jealous of Almeyda after her husband purchases her to work in his shoe shop (31). A year after Song for Anninho appeared, Jones published "The Shoemaker and the Sadism of the Senhora" (1982), which renders the same sequence in prose at much greater length. As Capao, a male slave, explains to Almeyda, Agostinha "is afraid of you. She wonders of what her husband might come to see in you" (46). The misguided interpretations of Agostinha and the men figured in the poem, white and black, highlight the well-documented and seemingly inevitable historical propensity for identifying female slaves purely as sexual beings, objects of carnal conquest for men and Jezebels to be feared and loathed by white women.
In Song for Anninho Jones works against such negative, traditional interpretive constructions by having Almeyda establish her identity in abstract, ontological terms. Almeyda's grandmother informs her, "You are the granddaughter / of an African and you have / inherited a way of being" (37), a "being" that defines itself in intellectual and spiritual, as opposed to physical, terms. When Almeyda reaches womanhood, her grandmother hides something in her with her eyes (63). Significantly, Almeyda's coming-of-age is not accompanied by the revelation of carnal knowledge but rather a kind of spiritual transmission across generations, an exchange through the windows of two souls. This ethereal transference across time has a powerful and perhaps defining impact on Almeyda's identity. She asks Anninho, "Am I a woman, or the memory of a woman?" (40), linking her existence in the present to an idealized--a mythopoetic--woman, invented and lingering in the shadows of the mind and spirit.
Almeyda's imaginative abstract and spiritual self-identity also informs her narrative impulse to record the history of Palmares. She says of her chronicle, "[I]t's not the actions I wish to capture, / but the spirit!" (78). Just as Jones seeks aesthetically to translate and reclaim the literal horror of the Palmares massacre and slavery, so Almeyda transforms her physical injuries into constructive imaginative catalysts for narrative. Zibatra tells Almeyda that as her breasts are being healed, "memory and desire ... replace them" (89), the memory of Palmares as Anninho experienced it and the desire to share it--to sing the tale in its entirety. Anninho informs Almeyda that Palmares women captured in battle "Forget / where they were and become where they are" (93; original emphasis), abdicating their free spirits and identities as they returned to a condition of bondage under the Portuguese. Almeyda's ambition, not unlike Jones's, is to recapture the poignant, simultaneously free and doomed aura of Palmares through her relationship with and memories of Anninho. Almeyda recounts that when the Palmares leader Zumbi initially freed women, they marveled at the new dignity with which they were treated, "bringing each other out of despair, / cutting down forests of despair, / celebrating the new women" (96). Jones, working through Almeyda, attempts a similar aesthetic catharsis over the course of Song for Anninho, transmuting the despair of pain and bondage into new feelings of dignity and self-worth--establishing new narrative myths and cultural systems of self-identity that celebrate the historically neglected freedom and love of Palmares amid the brutality of the Portuguese slave system.
Brazil Revisited: The Hermit-Woman and Xarque and Other Poems
In Song for Anninho Jones uses Almeyda's account of her relationship with Anninho as a catalyst for exploring the larger historical dynamics of African bondage. "Fiction Study," a poem in her subsequent collection The Hermit-Woman (1983), functions as a kind of blueprint for how Jones effectively goes about relating personal relationships to larger cultural and historical phenomena. An exercise in self-reflexive metafiction, "Fiction Study" literally involves the speaker and reader as they endeavor to construct a narrative out of Jones's notes for a story. After expressing her intention to introduce an insane wife into the narrative, Jones writes,
Also information about the man who keeps going and getting his wife out of the asylum and each time he brings her home she tries to kill him. (17)
Introducing the fragmented events and characters, Jones leaves it to the reader to imagine how they might develop and interact while observing certain ground rules she lays out. Specifically, she wishes to capture "Sense of hysteria and threat. / Relate sexual to historical" (18). Although the possibilities of the story inevitably take on different shapes for different readers, the notes that constitute the poem establish what Jones hopes to achieve: a psychological meditation charged with sexuality and carrying with it the potential for larger historical implications and commentary.
The other poems in The Hermit-Woman generally follow the rough compositional formula that Jones establishes in "Fiction Study" while portraying personal relationships in South American milieus; that is, they usually involve mystical prophetic figures and relate them to larger cultural concerns. In "Ensinanca" the male protagonist is literally half-black, half-white, a result of having ignored his mother's advice to develop his true gift and become a healer:
My mother, an innkeeper in Olinda, says that I have had this thing to happen because I have betrayed my destiny, my gift from heaven, "You were born to be a healer," she says. "A curandeiro." (12)
Instead of cultivating his mystical talent, a product of his family's culture, the speaker has endeavored to become
a modern man, in modern times, an engineer in Rio, scientific, rational. (12)
As its symbols make apparent, "Ensinanca" is a poem that explores divided cultural loyalties, the protagonist excelling in the rational, modern, western world while the gift of his culture persistently haunts and plagues him.
A sense of displacement and divided cultures also informs "Wild Figs and Secret Places," which portrays an extended encounter between a male European explorer and a South American native woman who has been banned from her tribe. Although they are from drastically different cultures, both characters are, by necessity, independent wanderers of the wilderness. The female narrator explains that she was banished from her tribe
for breaking rules, for rivaling those I should not have rivaled, for talking to devils, such as yourself, for learning the language and religion of devils. (43-44)
Although the banned woman has been excluded from her people for openly learning about and communicating with European "devils," the European explorer initially reads her as "one of those river monsters / we have read about," then regards her behavior as "more mannish / than womanish (29; original emphasis). Soon, however, he comes to believe "There must be some secret. / Or maybe it is the waters / of this strange country" (ibid.) because, he concludes, "She is an intelligent woman, / and speaks my language / with some elegance" (ibid.). Ultimately, he declares her "modest" and inquisitive, virtues he assumes ensue from her contact with the Catholic church:
She does not take trinkets from me, but she likes to taste my tobacco. She is a modest woman, unlike the stories I have heard. Surely, this is due to her acquaintance with our Church, for if I had found her in her natural state, I am sure I would have found a different woman. (29; original emphasis)
"Wild Figs and Secret Places" is a meditation on cross-cultural misinterpretation and exchange, accompanied by the female narrator's assertion of personal autonomy. She explains,
I am my own woman, and there aren't any places where you can enter with any ease I am here where you happened to have found me a mouth full of figs." (23)
Lacking knowledge of the woman's culture, the European interprets her according to his didactic, theologically-based value systems and thus never fully realizes the kind of remarkable person he has met. Conversely, having encountered other Europeans, the female speaker accurately understands and predicts the man's actions. She warns him to
beware of those spiked bushes, for I have seen them tear genitals with their thorns. I anticipate you like a memory. (25)
Later, when he asks her to translate the words she is singing in her native tongue, she replies,
I know them, but I can't say them in your language. They can't be put in your language. It's a very elegant song, but it would sound awkward and silly in your language. (47)
Realizing the irresolvable differences between their cultures and the unavoidable prejudices and limitations of single cultures, the woman contemplates a future identity devoid of memory:
If I wanted I could live without memory It is only journeys forward that count Time is a hard kiss on the jaw. (20)
Yet this theory is not without inherent limitations; she observes, "I want to forget I am a woman, / but I always remember" (27). Feeling trapped by her biological identity, the woman nevertheless flirts with a mythopoetic awareness beyond memory and awareness that remains completely hidden to her European companion.
Like the woman in "Wild Figs and Secret Places," the female protagonist of the of "The Machete Woman," is a social outcast. (5) However, whereas the wandering woodswoman has been banned for conversing with Europeans and violating tribal authority, the speaker in "The Machete Woman," Destinaria, an abused female slave, has horrified the governing European community by hacking her cruel mistress to death with a machete before taking refuge in the local Catholic church among nuns who consistently seek to educate and convert her. Developing a strong relationship with the nuns, Destinaria initially embraces their religion but later develops doubts after the arrival of an African sorcerer, a powerful and charismatic man whom the nuns aggressively attempt to convert, "parading around him, / repeating words of salvation" (61; original emphasis). Irritated by the nuns' pride in their work and their contempt for the man's indomitable beliefs, Destinaria singles out Sister Juana's "wholesome arrogance, / her outrage that any heathen faith / could be a match for hers" (61). Over the course of the poem, Destinaria and the sorcerer each become ill and thereby forced to heal each other with their own arts since the nuns possess no useful medical knowledge, only ineffectual, persistent prayer. Nevertheless, the nuns inevitably attribute their recoveries to their Christian god, dismissing the "pagan" herbal remedies as "devilry." In the end, a predictable dialectic emerges in terms of freedom. When the African sorcerer escapes, the nuns mourn that they have lost a soul while Destinaria rejoices and romantically dreams of the freedom he enjoys. Forming a band of "wild black men" (69) and becoming a revolutionary, the sorcerer leads frequent attacks on white gold miners exploiting the land. Combining African religious traditions with revolution in the New World and rewriting Catholic conversion narratives, Jones establishes the sorcerer as a heroic mythopoetic figure who draws on his extensive African knowledge to generate freedom and meaning in a new land. However, as in "Wild Figs and Secret Places," the true value and identity of the prophetic figure remains obscured to the poem's Europeans. Sister Juana laments the sorcerer's flight and informs Destinaria that heaven wants "to liberate our souls" (69), which--ironically--is precisely what the African sorcerer is literally attempting to do for his people.
In her third collection, Xarque and Other Poems (1985), Jones finally closes the chapter on colonial South America by introducing Almeyda's daughter, Bonificia, and granddaughter, Euclida, before temporally moving forward into more contemporary milieus. As in The Hermit-Woman, mystical prophetic figures serve as symbolic catalysts for the poems' larger concerns. In fact, the title poem, "Xarque" (1979), essentially constitutes an initiation narrative about developing spiritual perceptions and becoming a prophet. Almeyda's granddaughter, Euclida, learns the foundations of the art from her mother, Bonificia, who also educates her about her grandmother. Bonificia recounts to Euclida that Almeyda fed her
strange plants, so I could see and hear and taste and smell new things in the world, things I did not know existed. (11)
She maintains that Almeyda
could hear things that others couldn't and see things that were invisible to others. (33)
Yet, this gift is one that Bonificia never successfully acquires:
I don't know the invisible world. I'm an ordinary woman, and I like that. (33)
However, although she does not possess the power of prophecy, Bonificia functions as an important link to the past, a bridge to Euclida's cultural roots, the free society of Palmares, and her destiny of becoming a healer.
Because their story takes place almost a half-century after the destruction of Palmares, Bonificia and Euclida live in a time of slavery, when the imaginative and mythopoetic significance of Palmares is essential to the dream of freedom. Jones effectively underscores the immediacy of slavery through a series of symbolic exchanges between the mother and daughter. For example, Euclida asks why stray cattle are killed, to which Bonificia replies, "'It is to prevent other cattle / from going wild too'" (50), a reference to the tactics also employed for runaway slaves. Before the first publication of "Xarque," Jones had dramatized a conversation between Euclida and Almeyda in prose format under the title "Work in Progress" (1977), in which Euclida describes the Portuguese man who purchases her, preferring her for her "silence and detachment" (125). However, despite her youth and tranquility, Euclida has no illusions about the system that keeps her in check and repeats the expression, "Come to the land of gold and women" (124), a testament to her knowledge of the ambitions that drive Portuguese men. In "Xarque" the literal presence of a different kind of oppression is conveyed through the figure Tirana, whose name means, "'[S]ongs that women sing / about love's tyranny'" (8). A victim of both love and slavery, Euclida becomes a healer, entering a role of servitude to the suffering people she cherishes. At the end of the poem, she goes off to care for a maimed woman who is alone, a scenario that purposefully echoes the sorceress Zibatara's care for Almeyda throughout Song for Anninho. In a sense, then, using similar imagery Jones comes full-circle from Almeyda's story of love for Anninho and Palmares to Euclida's decision to give herself to her people. Functioning as culturally-affirming, mythopoetic figures across generations, these women provide a means of recording and confronting oppression that celebrates and reinforces their culture throughout time.
That Jones is interested in cultural dynamics and prophetic figures across historical eras is confirmed in the poem that immediately follows "Xarque" in Xarque and Other Poems. "Composition with Guitar and Apples" (1982) takes place in contemporary Brazil and, anticipating the character of Joan "The Bitch" Savage in Jones's third novel, The Healing, involves a rock star protagonist who flies to Brazil to recover her voice and spiritual energy. (6) Fascinated by the landscape of the country and the elderly woman with whom she stays, the speaker begins to feel a strong connection between herself as a musician and the mystic women of the Brazilian past. She imagines herself and her senescent host "in other landscapes, / timescapes, / spacescapes" (54), and recalls Jimi Hendrix as a kind of sorcerer or mystical figure who helped her to discover the essence of music beyond its formal properties:
I was almost thirty before I liked rock and roll. My classical training. Then I saw Hendrix. (57)
The old woman keeps peacocks in her yard against an old superstition that they are bad luck. Providing a kind of symbolic path for the protagonist to follow, she admits,
I'm superstitious, but I like to challenge superstitions. I like to confront my fears. I like to meet them. (55)
Forming a spiritual and cultural connection across time, the speaker ostensibly will resume her career with a renewed voice and a new appreciation for and confidence in the mystical essence at the heart of music.
Jones's final poem in Xarque and Other Poems, "Waiting for the Miracle" (1982), contains an epigraph from Gunter Grass: "For still the saint answers questions" (55). The protagonist, an unnamed religious witness, spends much of her time defending the poem's saint, Black Mary Jane, against the claims of a heckling doubter. Grass's epigraph comes into effect in the sense that even in a contemporary world, full of unprecedented science, doubt, and secular rationalism, there remain questions and needs only saints and prophets may effectively address. Furthermore, Jones contends that the answers, as well as the needs, ultimately must flow from the believers rather than from the avatar. In the poem, Black Mary Jane does nothing but laugh while the energy of the people appears to perform the miracle. As the witness/narrator explains,
it is not the saint in the air. It is all the others. In the air, and spinning. The saint is the axis. The saint is sitting still, and laughing" (65).
A highly self-conscious formalist, Gunter Grass creates narrators acutely aware of their art of storytelling, and his poetic style often flirts with elements of surrealism. In "Waiting for the Miracle," the witnessing speaker argues for the legitimacy of the saint, a self-important justification narrative, only to have the saint's actions undercut her claims--it is not the saint's powers, but the peoples'. In this sense, Jones establishes a poem at once mythopoetic and anti-mythopoetic in which the speaker's myth of the prophet is stripped and reduced to the participation and energy of the people, a myth of a different kind. Symbolically, this concept also may be interpreted as a kind of culminating aesthetic statement--a meditation on the poet, herself a kind of prophet, and her audience; for without an audience, without readers, there can be no poetic power. "Waiting for the Miracle" also serves to remind us that behind Jones's various aesthetic catalysts (her compelling speakers and gripping narratives), behind the blues laments and historical reimaginings, sits a formidable craftswoman and storyteller. In poignantly singing the songs of her people, African American and Brazilian, across time, Jones establishes a compelling logocentric historical authority--a poetic miracle from which readers may generate meaning and witness it to others.
Coser, Stelamaris. Bridging the Americas: The Literature of Toni Morrison, Paule Marshall, and Gayl Jones. Philadelphia: Temple UP, 1994.
Harper, Michael S. "Gayl Jones: An Interview." Massachusetts Review 18.4 (1977): 692-715.
Harris, Trudier. "A Spiritual Journey: Gayl Jones's Song For Anninho." Callaloo 16 (1982): 105-11.
Jackson, Richard. "Remembering the 'Disremembered': Modern Black Writers and Slavery in Latin America." Callaloo 13.1 (1990): 131-44.
Jones, Gayl. "Alternative." Callaloo 5 (1979): 111.
--. "Chance." Callaloo 5 (1979): 112.
--. "The Cup." Panache 15 (1975): 48.
--. "Deep Song." Iowa Review 6.2 (1975): 11.
--. "The Father." Iowa Review 6.2 (1975): 4.
--. "From Almeyda." Puerto del Sol 14 (1975): 32-34.
--. "From The Machete Woman: A Novel." Callaloo 17.2 (1994): 399-404.
--. "The Fur Station." First World: An International Journal of Black Thought 2.4 (1980): 23.
--. "The Gathering." Panache 16-17 (1976): 54-55.
--. The Healing. Boston: Beacon, 1998.
--. The Hermit-Woman. Detroit: Lotus, 1983.
--. "Jasper Notes." Panache 14 (1975): 27-33.
--. Liberating Voices: Oral Tradition in African American Literature. Cambridge: Harvard UP, 1991.
--. "The Lovers." Essence 5 (May 1974): 89.
--. "Many Die Here." Stetson 210-11.
--. "Mas Alla." For Neruda, For Chile: An International Anthology. Ed. Walter Lowenfels. Boston: Beacon P, 1975.
--. "Part IV of Journal." Stetson 205-08.
--. "Party." Panache 16-17 (1976): 55-56.
--. "A Review of the Collected Poems of Sterling Brown." Xavier Review 3.1 (1983): 43-44.
--. "Salvation." Keeping the Faith: Writings by Contemporary Black American Women. Ed. Pat Crutchfleld Exum. Greenwich, CT: Fawcett, 1974.94.
--. "Satori." Stetson 210.
--. "The Shoemaker and the Sadism of the Senhora." Ploughshares 8 (1982): 42-52.
--. Song for Anninho. Detroit: Lotus, 1981.
--. "Work in Progress." Nimrod 21.1 (1977): 124-26.
--. "Work in Progress." Obsidian 2.2 (1976): 38-46.
--. Xarque and Other Poems. Detroit: Lotus, 1985.
Rowell, Charles H. "An Interview with Gayl Jones." Callaloo 16.3 (1992): 32-53.
--. "'Down Don't Worry Me': An Interview with Michael S. Harper." Callaloo 13.4 (1990): 780-800.
Sellers, Susan. Myth and Fairy Tale in Contemporary Women's Fiction. New York: Palgrave, 2001.
Stetson, Erlene, ed. Black Sister: Poetry by Black American Women, 1746-1980. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.
Thomas, Lorenzo. Extraordinary Measures: Afrocentric Modernism and Twentieth-Century American Poetry. Tuscaloosa: U of Alabama P, 2000.
(1.) The book-length Song for Anninho (1981) is Jones's only poem to date that has been discussed at length by scholars. Jones's other poems and collections remain largely neglected.
(2.) That first publication was "Night of the Leopard: Theatre Poems," Silo (Bennington College) 16 (Winter 1969): 15-38.
(3.) Jones's short poems are quoted by line number in this essay; both her long poems (viz., "Jasper Notes," Journal, and "From Almeyda") and those appearing in her three poetry collections are quoted by page number.
(4.) Jones conceived of and worked on "Palmares" before writing Song for Anninho. Although it has not been published as a completed novel, portions of it have appeared in print.
(5.) A decade later Jones published an extended prose version of the poem as "From The Machete Woman: A Novel."
(6.) In The Healing, Harlan Jane Eagleton reminds Savage, "[Y]ou lost your voice. But then you got it back in Brazil" (212).
Casey Clabough is the author of Elements: The Novels of James Dickey and Experimentation and Versatility: The Early Novels and Short Fiction of Fred Chappell. He has contributed to numerous journals, including Callaloo, Contemporary Literature, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, The Southern Literary Journal, The Virginia Quarterly Review, and The Sewanee Review. Clabough is literature section editor for Encyclopedia Virginia and an archivist for "The Road Rangers Project: Travel, Narrative, and History." He teaches at Lynchburg College.
|Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback|
|Publication:||African American Review|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2007|
|Previous Article:||Begging to differ: Nella Larsen's Quicksand and Anzia Yezierska's Arrogant Beggar.|
|Next Article:||Following her act: sequence and desire in Gayl Jones's The Healing.|
|Company Watch - SAS Scandinavian Airlines.|
|Airline Finance News - Europe.|
|A Guy in a Black SUV.|
|Mother to Son.|
|The Famous Colored Writer.|
|Following her act: sequence and desire in Gayl Jones's The Healing.|