Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe: New on the bookshelf: “Had Slaves” by Catherine Sasanov

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Reading and Writing and the Occasional Recipe

New on the bookshelf: “Had Slaves” by Catherine Sasanov

Tuesday, March 16, 2010

What if you discovered a family secret, something that shook your whole idea of the family you came from? How would you begin to think about it, make sense of it? If you’re a poet, you might write about it, which is what Catherine Sasanov did when she discovered that members of her family had been slaveowners in 19th century Missouri. The result is her new poetry collection, “Had Slaves.”

I spoke with Catherine for my Boston Globe column back when she had written a chapbook called “Tara” about her family’s slave-holding past. Now this full-length collection is out from Firewheel Editions. In 2009 it was the winner of the Sentence Book Award, which is given annually to a manuscript consisting entirely or substantially of prose poems or other hard-to-define work situated in the grey areas between poetry and other genres. It was also a finalist for the National Poetry Series.

Catherine spent four years researching the lives of the Steele slaves of Southwest Missouri. She is the author of two previous poetry collections, "Traditions of Bread and Violence" (Four Way Books) and "All the Blood Tethers" (Northeastern University Press), and the libretto for "Las Horas de Belén: A Book of Hours," commissioned by Mabou Mines. She is the recipient of fellowships and grants from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rockefeller Foundation, the Ludwig Vogelstein Foundation, Mexico’s National Fund for Culture and the Arts, and the MacDowell Colony. Her journal publications include Pleiades, Field, Hotel Amerika, Agni, and Poetry. She lives in Boston. Her readings are listed at her website.

In reviewing the book for NewPages.com, Sima Rabinowitz wrote, "Sasanov demonstrates here, as she has in the past, that it is possible to tell a story in verse that takes advantage of what makes poetry so powerful, its magnificent potential for restraint, economy, and a kind of emotional precision that nearly defies comprehension."

I asked Catherine to tell more about “Had Slaves” and this is what she said:

“’Had Slaves’ was written out of my discovery in 2005 of slaveholding among my Missouri ancestors, and my field and archival research into what happened to their slaves. The book consists of lyric poems and prose poetics ending with a notes section. The notes are not there to explain the poems, but to help with greater historical or cultural context if readers want that. Since America’s racial history has been so poorly looked into and discussed, it felt important to make notes available.

“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. 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. I reflect on this absence in a number of poems, but the poem that most embodies it is the shortest in the book. It was 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. The poem in its entirety reads:

Willed, Bequeathed: Edmund, Walked Towards Tennessee,
Is Never Seen Again: September 1860

The sky, the bloody
meat of it,
sutures itself
with geese

“Life was particularly brutal the further south a slave was sent, and it’s possible that Edmund may have been sold beyond Tennessee by his new owner, a man who may have been more interested in cash than another slave on the eve of the Civil War. It was something I had to consider since Edmund isn’t named among the black Steeles of Tennessee or Missouri after Emancipation.

“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."

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