I'm writing a book of poems imagining the life and times of the eighteenth-century poet Phillis Wheatley, who was kidnapped from Africa as a child and sold into slavery, later freed, and became the first African American to publish a book, Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral (1773). With this project, I'm crafting a non-traditional historical text as well as a poetry book; the poems (hopefully) will inhabit the spaces in between what has been documented and what has not. When it comes to African-American history, so much has been lost over these nearly four centuries since kidnapped Africans arrived upon North American shores. My task is to reinvigorate what I view as the emotional history of the actual documented events. Because much of Phillis Wheatley's life still remains largely undocumented, this fellowship is enabling me to continue my ongoing archival research on her life. But to be honest, I'm grateful for another, equally important reason: the fellowship has given me the confidence that I could stretch my artistic range as a poet in order to enter an imaginary world that my "muse" alone couldn't help me navigate. I've had to develop a whole new skills set as an historian to write these poems, and I wasn't quite sure it was working--until I won this fellowship. This is a whole new place for me, and I'd be lying if I said I wasn't frightened, but I'm much less so now.
She-Who-Gave-Birth-To-The-Poet (?, 1761)
Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand…
From "On Being Brought from Africa to America," Phillis Wheatley
What the mother might have said, pointing
at the sun rising, what makes life possible.
Then dripped the bowl of water,
reverent, into oblivious earth.
Was this prayer for her?
Respect for the dead or disappeared?
An act to please a genius child?
Her little girl could speak
only of water, bowl, sun--
some time after the nice white lady
paid and named her for the slave ship.
Mercy: what Phillis claimed
after that sea journey.
Let's call it that.
Let's lie to each other.
Not early descent into madness.
Naked travail among filth and rats.
What got Phillis over the sea?
What kept a stolen daughter?
Perhaps it was mercy,
Water, bowl, sun--
God's milky sound.
Morning shards, and she wondered
if her child forgot her real name,
refused to envision the rest:
baby teeth missing
and someone wrapping her treasure
(barely) in a dirty carpet.
You know the story--
how we've lied to each other.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers is the author of three books of poetry: The Gospel of Barbecue (Kent State University Press, 2000), Outlandish Blues (Wesleyan University Press, 2003), and Red Clay Suite (Southern Illinois University Press, 2007). She has received an award from the Rona Jaffe Foundation and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the Bread Loaf Writers Conference, the MacDowell Colony, and the Vermont Studio Center. Her poetry has appeared in several journals, including American Poetry Review, Callaloo, The Iowa Review, The Kenyon Review, Ploughshares, and Prairie Schooner, and in over a dozen anthologies, including Blues Poems (Everyman/Random House, 2003) and The Civil Rights Reader (University of Georgia, 2009). A fiction writer as well, she was cited in "100 More Distinguished Stories of 2008" in The Best American Short Stories (2009). Jeffers is a native Southerner, but she now lives on the prairie where she is associate professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.
Photo © Honorée Fanonne Jeffers