Burden of Solace
Cervena Barva Press
by Teneice Durrant Delgado
Burden of Solace, a review by Barbara Sabol
Teneice Durrant Delgado’s chapbook, Burden of Solace, offers us the double pleasure of a satisfying read and an important education: the reader is treated to poems not only compelling in content, deft in craft, but also bristling with history. Little known history: the Irish slave trade in 17th century West Indies is the vivid and tragic backdrop for this collection of narrative poems.
The ten poems that comprise Burden of Solace form a narrative of a young Irish girl abducted into slavery by the British, transported as human cargo and branded (“. . .We were led to the branding/stand, Master’s iron rolling in a fire”) on a slave ship, laboring in the cane fields, routinely raped by slave drivers (“. . .It became a ritual/picking and being plucked”), floating her new-born, slave-bred baby “home on the sea” rather than surrendering him to Master in “Kosoko.” The story unfolds in clear linear progression with the poet, in persona as a young girl, recounting her journey from her mother’s arms in Galway to a slave hut in Barbados. Little solace afforded the Irish girl/mother enslaved.
The narrative arc of the collection occurs with the poem “Solace,” in which she is mated like a “breeding mare” with the slaves, hiding her reviled white face against the cot when “. . .twice a/day a black man was unchained outside the hut, forced through the/door. . .and it went like this/for months. . .” Finally, when Not-John, a prominent figure in the collection, is whipped into the room, she asserts her personhood through their anything-but-tender connection, making him truly see her as they join; thus, for a brief time, she reclaims her identity:
. . .when he pushed into me, I looked at his face. And his
shimmering molasses-hate eyes didn’t see me, just white
. . .and I wanted him to see I was
Irish, forbidden. I wrapped my limbs around his cross-scarred
trunk, held hard as I could. I whispered some scraps of an old
Irish, forbidden, lullaby, the only offering I had to make. He wept
inside me. . .
Delgado’s sure use of prosodic features throughout the poems animates characters and action. In particular, the speech line, set in italics, naturally flows through the poems, breathing life into the narrative. She captures the diction of the time in credible and rhythmic lines such as the voice of Maris, “the seen-too-much-old,/half-Irish/mulatto” who warns the younger female slaves:
. . .And if you stop
bleeding, she said, in Irish, forbidden,
Don’t ever let yourself love that child.
you ever think that child yours. . .
The most poignant example of speech seaming the narrative occurs in the poem “Mary-Margaret,” as the title character, the girl’s mother, chides her, knowing she will never see her daughter again on earth, “. . .You must be very/good, inion. If you are bad, I will/be lonely in Heaven.” The poem closes with the most moving lines, I believe, of the entire book: the speaker, gone just “a fortnight” but already initiated into the wretchedness of slavery, laments:
Mary-Margaret O’Conry, don’t think
on me, don’t whisper my name
over so many polished beads, a litany
. . .
Mama, forgive your
child the sin of survival.
Among the prosodic elements employed is the rhetorical device of repetition: the pairing of the words, “Irish, forbidden,” recurs like a tethering refrain, within and between poems. The utterance serves as a resonant reminder of what has been lost―language, culture, Irish identity― all now illicit. Forbidden or not, the women use their native tongue to curse, to pray, to lament. They risk the comfort of prayer in Irish, “Áiméan, forbidden” in the poems “Ann Glover” and “Kosoko.” In the poem, “Adam,” in response to brutal rape in the sugar cane fields “. . .the women cursed [the drivers] in Irish, forbidden.” The utterance punctuates “Solace,” alternating with “Ireland, forbidden” five times throughout the poem, the words a lodestone pointing home. And in the final poem of the book, “Jamaica,” the speaker proclaims, “. . .never again will/I cry out for Ireland, forbidden” as she walks to the hanging tree. That language resides at the core of self comprises a secondary yet equally powerful theme that further unifies the poems in this collection: Irish dovetails seamlessly with English, lending authenticity to the narrative and intensifying the speaker’s isolation in a foreign and harsh environment.
Solace possesses both a cinematic sweep and sharp focus on tangible detail. The poems become a lens that pans a dominated and impoverished Galway, the high sea voyage to Barbados, sugar cane fields running to a distant horizon, squalor quarters. The “Look-out Tree” high on the hill. The speaker renders an island landscape and its savage conditions in both panoramic and close-up, intimate frames. The view is stark, horrific and heartbreaking; descriptions of violence graphic, no holds barred. The reader visualizes the Irish women’s “rows of burnt skin” in the fields (“Adam”); the camera zooming in as “her work-bent fingers worry over imaginary/rosaries for three long days” before she is “lassoed. . .dragged up the hill to the Look-out Tree,/hung. . .” (“Anne Glover”); a just-born babe whose first breath never arrived “wrapped in a sugar sack,” the new mother’s blood “making a trail/of rose petals in the dirt” (“Kosoko”).
In the space of ten poems, Delgado takes the reader on a sad, shocking journey, back to a century when Irish families were torn apart by the West Indies slave trade. Through the experience of an unnamed Irish girl, the reader can fully imagine a cruel chapter in history. Dramatic though the story may be, the speaker’s voice is matter-of-fact, perhaps numbed to atrocity, as she reveals a shadow-side of British history: “a story: water, hell, the/consequence of empire.” I admire the poet’s commitment, in terms of rigorous research, passion for her subject and an authentic voice, and I am thankful for the brave and accomplished poems in Burden of Solace.
Interview with Poet, Teneice Durrant Delgado, by Barbara Sabol
Burden of Solace is a powerful and important book, for the strength of the individual poems and the story they tell collectively about the Irish slave trade―a little-known and shameful piece of history. The speaker’s voice in Solace is compelling―authentic and unadorned; a dry-eyed description of the conditions of an Irish girl’s slavery in Barbados. Her voice resonated long after I read the book and I remain haunted by the story and its telling. Of course, I had the pleasure of hearing you read from this book at the Third Thursday Poetry reading last October, and so the poems became that much more audible and animated. With each re-read, I am even more riveted by the strong sense of place and person in these poems; there is a cinematic quality to the poems and the narrative progression through the book, which leads me to the first question:
B: The speaker’s voice in these persona poems is consistently credible and genuine. The poems read like memoir in verse. I wonder how you found your “protagonist’s” voice, and whether she may be a composite character from your research.
T: First thank you so much, Barbara, for inviting me out to read at Third Thursday and for reading Burden of Solace. The voice of the narrator in these poems came to me after much reading and research. I took an interest in the Irish slave trade when I happened upon a book called Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl by Kate McCafferty. It is a fictional account of the trafficking, but it was very rich in detail. From there I found To Hell or Barbados by Sean O’Callaghan, which is part history, part non-fiction account of his own research in present day Montserrat and Barbados. When I began researching this topic, there were very few resources, and most were citing the same three or four authors or state papers. On a shoe-string, I managed a visit to Manchester, England and spoke with a trans-Atlantic scholar, tried to see some plantation records (I was denied access, of course. You can’t just walk into the Rylands Library in Manchester and ask to see 400 year old papers.) I kept reading and re-reading, knowing I wasn’t going to use all of the material I had found, but hoping that it would filter into my subconscious. Then I started imagining myself in these situations: being branded, being isolated, giving birth. That’s when the narrator’s voice started coming out.
B: The scenes and experiences described in the poems are disturbing, often horrific. How much
did you identify with the “I” in the poems, and how did putting your poet-self in her shoes impact you while you were writing the book.
Guest blogger Barbara Sabol lives in the Great Lakes area and has an M. A. in Communication Disorders, an MFA, and a BA in French. She is the author of two chapbooks: Original Ruse (Accents Publishing, 2011) and The Distance Between Blues (Finishing Line Press, 2012). Her poems have appeared in a number of journals, most recently The Examined Life, San Pedro River Review, The Louisville Review, on the Tupelo Press Poetry Project web site, and in the collection, Bigger Than They Appear: Anthology of Very Short Poems (Accents Publishing). An essay and book review/interview have also been published in Public-Republic.