Sunday, February 10, 2013

A Review of Burden of Solace and Interview with Poet, Teneice Durrant Delgado

Burden of Solace
Cervena Barva Press
by Teneice Durrant Delgado
Copyright 2012

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.

T:  Many of the events I describe were written about in detail in stewards’ and missionaries’ reports. For example, pregnant women were, in fact, expected to dig out a little trench in the ground so they could lay face down to receive the whippings. Women were hung for singing or praying in Irish. The women and children were raped daily, and expected to continue working. Several nights I had to stop writing, or cried my way through a draft.

B: There is quite a cast of recurring characters in the book: Not-John, Master D, Maris, and others. Are they based on anecdotal research or completely of your making?

T: The characters that the narrator meets are composites of people that I would expect to be the most influential in a young slave girl’s life. I was wary of making stereotypes, so I tried to give each of them a distinct personality.

B: Even though the same character speaks each poem, the poems form a kind of theater of voices created by poignant lines of monologue and dialogue. Often an utterance takes a dialectal turn of phrase or a Irish word appears. The speech lines are so natural– how did you come upon the speech patterns and language?

T: I think by not thinking too hard about it. I listened to old Irish hymns and read poems. I looked up Old Irish words. I didn’t want to force it. So, along with the research on dates and places, I researched songs and poems and let it all filter through my subconscious.

B: Many characters reappear throughout the book, and they all are all named (even the refuse-to-take-a-western-name, “Not-John”). However, our main subject, who speaks every poem, goes unnamed. I wonder if that was because self-reference didn’t suit the poems, or perhaps because she lost her Irish identity so utterly, that she no longer possessed even her own name.

T: The choice not to name her was deliberate, as was the choice not to give the master’s full name. In regard to the narrator, I often called her “Solace” in my head, since the impetus for this collection was the quote that described the plantation owners need for Irish girls “to solace them.” But, yes, she goes unnamed throughout the sequence; though references are made to what she was called by her mother and what the other Irish girls call her, once she becomes pregnant. Names are so vitally important to our sense of identity, so it seemed fitting leave her unnamed as she struggles with this new, forced and wholly unwelcome life as a slave in Barbados. I didn’t name the master simply because so many masters are already named, their names inked into history books and state papers, ledgers and on the sides of important buildings. No more ink needs to be spent on them.

B: Solace intersects poetry and history is a truly engaging way. I can think of a few other books which brave a poetic re-imagining of history. One such example is Linda Bierds’ The Profile Makers, in which a Civil War survivor examines the plate-glass negatives depicting her family and battle scenes; another is our fellow Spalding University's Low-Residence MFA alum, Frank X Walker’s When Winter Come: The Ascension of York, a book of persona poems in the voice of the explorer, York, who accompanied Lewis and Clarke. Yours is also an ambitious and successful first person journey in a specific historical time frame. Did you model Solace on any particular work of poetry profiling a chapter in history?

T: I was greatly influenced by the first book of York’s travels, Buffalo Dance, the journey of York by Frank X Walker. Hearing Frank read from that collection and Ascension, you get a sense of how much research went into those poems. There is integrity in the research that comes through in the books.

B: On that same note, what role do you think that poetry plays in chronicling history, especially the suppressed underbelly of history, such as the Irish slave trade in the 17th century? I came away from Solace believing that poetry can be revelatory not just about human experiences but also as a powerful truth-telling medium regarding human history.

T: I think persona poems in particular can create a very powerful bridge between history and human experience. The poems create a space for intense emotional experiences in a way that reading a history report or an article may not, and may get at some truths about human experience that facts may not.

B:  Do you think that the revelations in Burden of Solace are relevant to current times?

T: I really hope that this series of poems creates a conversation about present day trafficking, especially in the United States. Many people think that human trafficking is an Asian or an Eastern European problem, but the United States has an alarmingly profitable human trafficking industry.

B:  I’m really interested in how the book came into being. In the author’s note, you mention a
“random” visit to the UK and a fortuitous meeting with Dr. Natalie Zacek. Depending on how
one feels about randomness, do you feel you were destined, in a sense, to write this book?

T: Yes, I think there was some kind of destiny at hand. Coming across the copy of Testimony of an Irish Slave Girl, seeing these little stories about her materialize over the course of six years, crying with her at night, and finding someone willing to publish them. It’s been a long, but rewarding experience.

B: At the risk of needing a spoiler alert, I must ask about the closing of the final poem, “Jamaica.” It ends on an ominous note, opening up several possible resolutions for the poems’ speaker, rather than signaling “The End.” Did you intend that the reader create her own ending to the speaker’s story, or does the poem signal that the main character chooses the one means at her disposal to regain control of her life?

T: I have a very definite ending in my mind, but yes, I was uncomfortable with spelling it out for the reader. There’s enough ambiguity that, if the reader was particularly hopefully, they could craft a different ending than the one I have in mind.

B: What project(s) are you currently working on? Do you feel inclined to take on another historical or even mythological tale in persona mode?

T: I am very interested in the nurses of the world wars and Vietnam. Often we hear of the men in the battle field, but not the women who saw the carnage of war every day. I’m hoping to do some research and perhaps even document some stories before beginning a series of persona poems about their service.

B: A question about balance and the writing life: I know that you’re very involved with other literary projects, such as Winged City Press Chapbooks and New Sins Press, while earning a Master’s Degree in Community Counseling AND being a mom. That’s one full plate. How do you manage to carve poetry writing time into that kind of a schedule?

T: It happens in fits and starts. I’ll turn ideas over for a long time in my head, then when I get a quiet afternoon, I spit it all out. Then I can pick it apart and revise when I get moments. I have a very supportive family and a couple of amazing writer-friends, particularly Stacia Fleegal, who has read every word and scrutinized every comma I’ve ever written.

Thank you, Teneice, for shedding light on the subject of the Irish slave trade in such a tightly and masterfully woven series of poems. I await your next book!


About the Poet

Teneice Durrant Delgado is a co-founder and poetry editor for Blood Lotus: an online literary journal, and a proud graduate of Spalding Unviersity's Low-Residency MFA. She is the publisher and managing editor for Winged City Press Chapbooks and also serves on the editorial board for New Sins Press. Her Poems have appeared in the Valparaiso Poetry Review, The Heartland Review, The Furnace Review, Pirene's Fountain, Glass, Pisgah Review and Soundings East. She is the author of two chapbooks, Flame Above Flame and The Goldilocks Complex. Teneice lives in Dayton, Ohio, where she is currently pursuing a degree in CommunityCounseling at the University of Dayton.

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.