Photo: Kelly Bedeian
In the rooms of monticello
I have here but one room, which, like the cob[b]ler’s, serves me for parlour, for kitchen and hall. I may add, for bed chamber and study too.
—Thomas Jefferson, 1771
Every house has a room the guests don’t know.
—Gabrielle Calvocoressi, “Monticello Smokehouse Festivity,” 2016
Suppose every time I say here, I mean this room.
Every time I say home, I mean my country, America, strange mansion where I was born.
Now suppose when I say born, another room is added to this house.
Try to imagine America as a series of marvelous rooms.
Rooms are spiraling down the green slopes of Thomas Jefferson’s mountain, parlor unfolding into library, library into Starbucks and classroom and forest.
Every American life is a walk through the rooms of this house: Monticello, the home that Jefferson never stopped building.
Is it possible to love your country the way you love an old house?
Suppose you were born in a house no one built for you.
How would you write about it?
To move through Virginia is to move through time.
You travel south along old wagon roads, passing plantations that have been converted into luxury inns. Some of the roads are named after landmarks that no longer exist. Some of the roads are named after my ancestors.
I’m descended from a long line of Afro-Virginians, which is a term you won’t hear often. I found it in a biography of Jefferson and have had it tucked into my back pocket forever. My connection to the Commonwealth is threefold: my ancestry among the free and enslaved; my undergraduate education at Mr. Jefferson’s University; and my current residence in Jefferson County, Kentucky (a realm that was carved, in 1792, from Virginia’s great western wilderness).
I belong to all of these histories. I feel their collisions across time. While Jefferson gazes from his mountain estate, my enslaved ancestors are alive in the next county. As he opines, in Notes on the State of Virginia, on the ravenous beauty of Virginia’s landscape, as he traces its network of rivers to the western edge of the continent, and as he shapes the laws that will maintain the institution of slavery for so long, my ancestors are here, and so am I, born in a lucky time of freedom, but looking back, over Jefferson’s shoulder and down his mountain.
As an American, I live in the shadow of Jefferson’s dream. I belong to its loveliness, and its terror. As a writer, I am trying to understand what this means.
I, I, I. The American poet deals out this syllable as if from an inexhaustible deck of playing cards. In contemporary American poetry, the I is always the first piece on the lyrical chessboard. In "Song of Myself," Walt Whitman formulates a distinctly New World I, arguing that it “contain[s] multitudes” and can even contradict itself with impunity. Very well then I contradict myself, Whitman declares, and from there, the American I launches its incredible life.
I’ve always understood the ideal American I as endlessly free, endlessly fascinating, a room without end, Amen. But as I begin to write about Virginia—about lives connected to mine, but not me—I wonder.
In graduate school, I learned to constitute my own fluid, exploratory I, seemingly unbound from the biographical limitations of my poet-self. Did you know that it’s considered impolite, in an academic poetry workshop, to refer to the speaker of a poem as the poet? In poetry workshops, the I is always assumed to be a persona, even when the poem speaks about the poet’s life in terms and tones that may be tantalizingly similar to the poet herself. Pedagogically, this intentional distancing is performed in order to direct the energy of the critique towards the poem, rather than the poet. Since, in most workshop scenarios, the poet is in the room while the poem is being discussed, this approach is meant to protect the poet from personal attacks, and from any stigma that may attach to vulnerable subject matters.
But what does such emphasis on the I amount to, over the course of a writing life? In my case, it means that I could, potentially, write forever about myself, about my I. It means that I reflexively voice my poems from a first-person perspective, that I equate my I with power, agency, authority, freedom. These are vital tools for a female American poet of color, because power, agency, authority, and freedom are privileges from which, historically, we’ve been excluded. American poetry, like American popular culture, invests a lot of value in the notion of freedom. And the language of freedom often is entwined with that of individualism. Paradoxically, however, I’ve found that the liberty seemingly afforded by the continued use of an I-shaped persona can create an oppressive duality for the poet, who must now attend to (at least) two Is: the biographical and the lyrical. In poetry workshops, the biographical I is silent, while the lyrical I may speak in any number of performative voices. Both postures, silence and speaking, require my attention. To professionalize myself as an artist-poet, I must energetically compose and perform multiple selves.
There’s something else, too. Spending so much time perfecting my I gives me the perfect excuse for not thinking too much about how I may constitute the other in my intellectual work. When we consider that a vital responsibility of the writer is to reimagine the other, to advocate for the other, even to speak, in some way, on behalf of an other, I must admit that I don’t always have a grand unified theory of who my other may be—besides some notion of a literary reader, that is. In an interview, Arundhati Roy once said that living for social justice may mean fighting “on the side of people who have no space for me in their social imagination,” a statement that I read as an argument for extreme empathy across ideologies. To write as a woman of color in America complicates this for me, since writing as myself already means writing as an assumed other. And if I’m already an Other, then who is the Other for whom I’m advocating in my work? If I’m already an Other, then from which community of belonging do I position my writing? All of the identities that constitute my subjectivity—the writing self, the gendered self, the race-marked self—contradict in ways that could potentially isolate me in an echo chamber of my own I.
Lately, I’ve been thinking that merely developing a strong first-person voice isn’t enough for my poetics. I have to think more deeply about whom I’m talking to. Or talking back to.
But what is certainty in writing?
If you want certainty, come to Monticello. There’s a room I’d like to show you.
Completed in 1770, the South Pavilion was the first brick structure that Jefferson added to his five-thousand-acre estate. When he moved into the upper room, he was twenty-seven, a lawyer and delegate in Virginia’s House of Burgesses.
That year, Jefferson argued before the General Court of Virginia on behalf of a mixed-race man, Samuel Howell, who had sued for his freedom on the grounds that his grandmother was a white woman. “Under the law of nature, all men are born free,” Jefferson told the Court. “Everyone comes into the world with a right to his own person, which includes the liberty of moving and using it at his own will.” It was an argument he would use several years later in the Declaration of Independence, though by then, he would mean only white men.
As Jefferson argued before the Court, and as he and his client lost this case, his own slaves at Monticello were filling the South Pavilion with pewter and creamware. They were hanging fashionable Venetian blinds in the windows and laying green silk on the bed. Working by hand and by the individual bucketload, Jefferson’s slaves leveled the top of the mountain, making space for his main residence, a large jewel box of interlocking rooms.
But this first place, the South Pavilion, where he brought his wife Martha Wayles Skelton to live, was Jefferson’s opening move in an expansive game. He would own more than six hundred people in the course of his life, buying and selling them, borrowing against the credit their bodies represented. In his public writings, Jefferson would insist on the intellectual inferiority of black and mixed-race people, even as he relied on them to look after his house, his farms, and his family. He would father free children with Martha Jefferson and enslaved children with Sally Hemings, and these children would live in distinct, yet entwined, ways on the mountain, a microcosm of Virginian culture in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Jefferson’s home life and his writings would cross over each other, contradicting themselves, leaving Americans to wonder what to make of his legacy.
Today, the South Pavilion still stands as Jefferson himself once did: with certainty, an elegant vertical presence on the grounds of Monticello. It is not unlike the rook in a game of chess, calmly dividing the landscape into a series of conquerable squares.
Recently, I set out to write a book of poems about the legacies of slavery and freedom in Virginia. I began with my own ancestors, using the practice of genealogy. It’s difficult work. My ancestors left comparatively few written records, a fact that reflects Virginia’s slave codes prohibiting black literacy. For many black families, there are no old Bibles with handwritten birth records on the flyleaves. No diaries or packets of letters tied with ribbons. No daybooks, no scrapbooks, no obituaries or wedding announcements clipped from the newspaper.
The enslaved weren’t meant to have legacies. Not in written language, anyway.
In conceptualizing the poems for this book-in-progress, I’ve struggled to find forms to properly contain and enact the fragmentary histories I’ve discovered. I’m haunted by an urgent, yet unspoken command to be ethical in giving life to these poems. This inner voice is silent, however, on exactly what ethical writing might mean. Mostly, I don’t want to co-opt my ancestors’ pain. I don’t believe that a poem can redeem their suffering, make their enslavement seem acceptable in light of some “larger plan” culminating in the tautological image of Me, Writing This Poem. As Ta-Nehisi Coates has written, “the enslaved were not bricks in your road, and their lives were not chapters in your redemptive history.”
Because so many of my ancestors could not read or write, much of their journey has been lost to time. I know only pieces of their lives. As a poet, I am tempted to write my way into the mysteries that exist in the historical record, coloring them in like the squares on a Jeffersonian gameboard. I could even write poems that speak in the imagined voices of my ancestors; after all, persona is a major tool of poetry. And yet I find myself resisting this, avoiding the persona poems I could write. There is something deep and sad and unassailable about the silence; I wish to amplify it rather than offer something in its place.
But even as I write that sentence, I wonder if I’m actually somewhat afraid to try on these ancestral voices. This project feels so much more urgent to me than my usual game of I. So far, these new poems are emerging as bricolage, braided stories, and incantations. I’m trying to incorporate the language of the historical sources I’ve found, writing into the cadences of legal documents and census records. The resulting poems display a combination of styles and vocal registers. I’m pleased with their textures. And yet the question of persona remains.
Suppose I were to write a poem in the voice of a lost ancestor. For whom would I write it? This question brings me back to the issue of the other, my other. Such a poem might have, as one of its goals, the evocation of sympathetic emotion in a reader who is, in some way, distant from me. Remember, this enslaved speaker, whose voice I’m imagining for you, was also a person, like you, that poem could say. In this case, my supposed other is a white reader who may or may not be aware of his or her privileges, including the privilege of not having to think (too) much about enslaved people and their humanity. Am I not expected, as an American poet of color, to respond to whiteness itself, to the whole network of privileges, assumptions, erasures, and hierarchies that undergirds the situation of race in America? Responding to whiteness could be a plausible mission for these family history poems. But is the mere evocation of responsive feeling enough of an objective for such a battle? I fear that writing lyrically—writing for shared feeling, using a tool like persona—means following an externally imposed script for the Poet of Color™. It means working within expectations and against mystery.
And don’t we need mystery to write new poems?
In this room, my ancestors arrive in Virginia.
They come in chains, on ships that have maneuvered their way up the Rappahannock River from the Chesapeake Bay, and before that, from the West African ports of Calabar and the Bight of Biafra.
Their ship lies at anchor near a riverside plantation called Corotoman. The owner of this place, Robert Carter I, is famous for having himself rowed out to the middle of the river, where he boards the vessels in order to personally select his slaves.
Robert Carter I has a nickname: King Carter. My ancestors have names, too, African names, but in this room, no one pronounces them. The moment King Carter steps onto the ship, all those names travel away from us, surging back over the Atlantic, dissolving forever.
In the libraries of the Commonwealth, guests may conduct genealogical research in special areas called “Virginia Rooms.” Lately, when I talk about how poetry can serve our contemporary moment, I want to talk about what it means for a creative writer to walk into a room full of historical documents or click a link that unfolds new truths. As a poet, I’m drawn to the archive because I want to investigate silences in the historical record, but I also want to highlight stories that are present, but submerged. Writing from history means writing away from the I of my own life, a process I’ve found incredibly generative of new poems. Yes, I’m starting with my family history, but I’m not stopping there. My hope is that my family’s stories will enable my poetry to contemplate the larger systems of power that affect the lives of people of color.
I usually describe this macro-hope of mine as finding the place where public and private histories intersect. To explore these intersections in poetry, I have to commit to two seemingly contradictory projects: the project of fact-finding and the project of imagination. Fact-finding takes place in the archive and is, potentially, an eternal task. Imagination occurs at the moment of composition and continues through revision. The writing process does have a fixed end point, as every poem must finish somewhere. Perhaps it is the seeming contradiction between the endlessness of research and the mortality of composition that creates an opening—a nexus of mystery from which new language can emerge.
In the United States, mainstream academic poets have started calling investigative poetry (i.e., poetry that includes history) documentary poetics or docu-poetry, but of course it’s not new. Contemporary African American poets like Camille Dungy, Natasha Trethewey, Shane McCrae, Tyehimba Jess, and others have mobilized archival research in order to reimagine lost worlds, lost voices. Joseph Harrington, in his introduction to Tracking/Teaching: On Documentary Poetics, reminds us that “poets are the unacknowledged historians of the world” and goes on to describe some of the contemporary subjects that documentary poetry may address:
Harrington notes that “if the poet aims to overturn or detourn oppressive structures of power, she must re-fashion the archive, refuse to let someone’s history be destroyed.” I understand this to mean that the forms of poetry must serve the material being discussed, rather than the material being reshaped to fit the received patterns of form. Ideally, documentary poetics would mobilize verse forms that amplify the stories and voices of the marginalized. It sounds paradoxical, but perhaps a good docu-poem uses the constraints of form to open the subject matter to investigation in language.
But, again, I don’t believe that a poem replaces history. A persona poem, no matter how beautifully rendered, can’t stand in for the voice of a person whose actual voice was lost to time, violence, or disenfranchisement. So in “re-fashioning the archive,” perhaps poets are actually creating multiple archives instead of expanding some platonic ideal of the “one” prevailing narrative. If we poets regularly traffic in amplitude (breadth/depth/range), then I’m discovering that public historians do, too. More and more, it seems that public art and public history are mutually invested in presenting the multiplicity of perspectives that may proliferate from a single moment in time.
For days, when I type my third great-grandmother’s name into Ancestry.com and Familysearch.org, nothing appears. Then, by accident, I add an extra “t” to Harriet, and she surfaces in 1866, one year after Appomattox, with her three small children, looking for her husband who went missing after taking a job at a hotel in Richmond City.
In the complaint, recorded by the Freedman’s Bureau and digitized by the National Archives, Harriett says she’s been married for thirteen years. So the document is, simultaneously, a marriage record and a deed of separation, since the marriages of enslaved people weren’t legally recognized and seldom tracked by masters. Despite the sadness of the narrative, I’m happy to have found it. Knowing this story, any story, about my ancestors who were denied the chance to read and write is a win. It momentarily overturns the silence imposed by centuries of racism.
Other stories arrive, in snippets and bursts:
a spreadsheet noting all antebellum slave births in one small rural county;
a certificate of free negro status from 1831;
a surveyor’s drawing;
the gravel road leading up to a rural farmhouse, now burned.
One day, an archivist at the Fairfax County Public Library emails me scans of a large sheaf of documents. Among the various papers, relating to a 1907 chancery case, is a receipt for $0.32, made out to my twice great-grandparents. At the bottom of the receipt, in shaky script, I glimpse the signature of my ancestor Ezekiel Beverly, whom census records had categorized as a black man, unable to read or write. Still, he made this signature, tracing it out with purpose. My heart turns over at the image, some deep part of me recognizing it in a way I can’t fully explain. Here is another victory, another rare moment when the historical record has preserved an artifact of individual intent. Ezekiel Beverly wasn’t supposed to write. He did it anyway.
Ezekiel’s signature is the oldest evidence of my family’s journey to literacy in Virginia. Recently, I had the strange pattern of loops and twisting characters tattooed along the edge of my left arm.
Here’s one way to remember.
In this room, I’m about to write a new poem.
My hands pause over my keyboard. This is the moment of greatest mystery in the writing process, when the mind confronts a blank screen. The heartbeat slows, and the body waits.
My poem is about Virginia. It’s the place where America began, but it’s also a place without a single beginning. Virginia contains and excludes. It contradicts itself. The language I must find for this poem will have to be strong enough to carry many conflicting stories, and light enough to witness without adding weight.
What is the right word, in English, to describe these countless worlds, the wilderness of beginnings and endings? Too many to be contained by any singular I.
At last, I lift my hands to type:
Kiki PETROSINO is the author of three books of poetry: Witch Wife (2017), Hymn for the Black Terrific (2013) and Fort Red Border (2009). Her poems and essays have appeared in Best American Poetry, The New York Times, FENCE, Gulf Coast, Jubilat, Tin House and on-line at Ploughshares; she is also the co-editor of Transom, an on-line poetry journal. She teaches English at the University of Louisville, and directs the Creative Writing Program there. Her awards include a residency at the Hermitage Artist Retreat, and research fellowships from the University of Louisville and the Virginia Foundation for the Humanities.