Historical Punctum: Reading Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard Through the Lens of Roland Barthes Camera Lucida


Historical Punctum: Reading Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard Through the Lens of Roland Barthes Camera Lucida

Between the release of Natasha Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia in 2002 and Native Guard in 2006, Trethewey responded to a question in an interview with Charles Henry Rowell about “restoration and inscription” in Bellocq’s Ophelia. Part of Trethewey’s response addressed photography and the “‘punctums’ that Roland Barthes talks about in his text – “those little things within a photograph that often will draw you out of the immediate action of the photograph to contemplate all that is behind it or outside it” (1028). Though a brief aside, this comment proves to be a significant one when considering Trethewey’s use of history in her poetry. Trethewey in Bellocq’s Ophelia and Native Guard broadens the use of punctum to apply to history and poetry, as she evolves from writing fictive historical poems, to historically based poems, to poems of her own personal experience and personal history. In doing so, her poetry gives voice to unrepresented figures who have been hidden or erased from the traditional and exclusive histories we are accustomed to. Moreover, her poetry presents a personal realism that addresses her self-identified bi-racial experiences growing up in the South.

Roland Barthes Camera LucidaIn Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, Roland Barthes wants to create “a History of Looking” (12), especially the history of looking through photography, which transforms “subject into object” (13). He wants “to learn at all costs what Photography was ‘in itself,’ by what essential feature it was to be distinguished from the community of images” (3). To accomplish this, he explores what photography is and does by way of analyzing and understanding the “Operator” (photographer), the “Spectator” (the person viewing the photograph), the target or referent (“the person or thing being photographed” (9)), and the “Spectrum” (or “any eidolon emitted by the object” (9)). The most important elements for Barthes that help guide him in his examination of those facets of photography are his theory of the studium and punctum.

The first element that Barthes treats in Camera Lucida is the notion of “studium,” or the readily apprehensible intention of the photography that is understood by everyone, such as “journalistic photographs” (41) found in newspapers or “pornographic photograph[s]” (41). As a result, the meaning or point of the photograph can be quickly taken in by a mere glimpse. The viewer is able to “culturally [. . .] participate in the figures [of the photograph], the faces, the gestures, the actions” (26), and can do so with little thought or engagement with the photograph, and, according to Barthes, the viewer can do this because the “studium is that very wide field of unconcerned desire, of various interest, of inconsequential taste” (27). In Barthes’ estimation, these photographs do not cause harm. These images do not alter the spectator or stimulate the spectator to engage with the photograph. In essence, the studium, or a photograph that is only studium, is unartistic and is “coded” for quick comprehension. These types of photography are “‘unary,’ hence banal” (Fried 542). More importantly, the studium is closely aligned with the “photographer’s intentions” (Barthes 27). One could also think of studium as the surface-level meaning of a photograph or a photograph that only has one level of meaning, such as a parent’s snapshot of their child. However, according to Barthes, even that snapshot, in certain contexts, can have more than just surface-level meaning if it has punctum.

The second important element of a photograph for Barthes is punctum, though he emphasizes that it is not found in every photograph, or it is only there latently or potentially. Nonetheless, when it is there, when it is found, when it becomes realized or kinetic, the punctum is always subjective. That is, punctum is a detail in a photograph “that rises from the scene, shoots out of it like an arrow, and pierces” (26) the spectator uniquely. The punctum is any detail that “disturbs the studium” (27) and that creates meaning for the spectator. This detail is not always the same for every spectator, and thus is subjective. In addition, the punctum can never be planned by the photographer (operator). It is what Michael Fried, in “Barthes’s Punctum,” calls “antitheatrical,” because it cannot be staged. According to Fried, “the punctum [. . .] is known only in and through a particular viewer’s subjective experience (the punctum has no existence apart from that experience)” (573). The punctum then enables the spectator to create meaning in and from the photograph.

Barthes also wanted to explore photography “as a wound: I see, I feel, hence I notice, I observe, and I think” (Barthes 21). The wound arises from the detail that strikes the spectator. The wound in the studium, the place where the punctum “shoots out” (26), in turn wounds the spectator to a new apprehension of himself or herself, or it pricks the spectator to find meaning in the photograph or history, for as Barthes claims, “Photography is subversive [. . .] when it is pensive, when it thinks” (38). The wound (the punctum) makes the spectator want to engage with the image, and it transforms the spectator into an object of reflection and/or causes a trauma that the spectator must confront about him or herself. This type of punctive wound will reveal itself in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard in her poetic rendering of the physical abuse that Trethewey’s mother suffered, in the dehumanization of “the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army” (Trethewey, Native Guard 47), and in Trethewey’s traumatic experiences “growing up black and biracial in Mississippi and Georgia” (Trethewey, “Why I Write” 4).

As mentioned, punctum can also be latent. In other words, time also functions as punctum, because, as Fried points out, “the sense of something being past, being historical, cannot be perceived by the photographer or indeed anyone else in the present. [. . . punctum] becomes visible in it [the photograph] only after the fact [. . .] to deliver the prick” (560), the puncture, the punctuation, or the wound to the studium. As Barthes clarifies, “This punctum [. . .] is vividly legible in historical photographs: there is always a defeat of Time in them: that is dead and that is going to die” (Barthes 96). In other words, when a spectator views a picture from a time preceding their existence, the spectator sees a person who is alive but knows that the person in the photograph will die, and this paradox is a type of punctum, too. Or as Barthes says:

Thus the life of someone whose existence has somewhat preceded our own encloses in its particularity the very tension of History, its division. History is hysterical: it is constituted only if we consider it, only if we look at it – and in order to look at it, we must be excluded from it. As a living soul, I am the very contrary of History, I am what belies it, destroys it for the sake of my own history. (65)

This historical punctum will become significant in understanding the historical elements of Native Guard, Trethewey’s attempt to understand what she calls her “mixed-race experience growing up in the Deep South” (Rowell 1027). Additionally, the varieties of punctum and studium that Barthes speaks to in Camera Lucida will help facilitate a fuller engagement with Trethewey’s Bellocq’s Ophelia.

Natasha Trethewey's Bellocq's OpheliaOne of Trethewey’s early written attempts to explore her bi-racial experiences in the South occurs in Bellocq’s Ophelia. In this collection of poems, Trethewey uses the fictional character Ophelia, who is a bi-racial women (“a very white-skinned black woman” (6)) who went to New Orleans looking for legitimate employment in the early 1900s. Instead, she wound up employed in a brothel with quadroon and octoroon prostitutes. The impetus for using Ophelia as mask for Trethewey to examine living as a bi-racial woman in the South is seen in the opening poem “Bellocq’s Ophelia.” This poem is not part of the narrative of Ophelia in New Orleans. Instead, it acts an introduction to the fictional narrative of Ophelia, and more importantly, it is about Trethewey’s experience with two different representations of Ophelia’s – one is the subject of Sir John Everett “Millais’s painting” (1) (from the 1850s) and the other is “[E. J.] Bellocq’s photograph” of a New Orleans prostitute (12). Millais’s painting of Shakespeare’s Ophelia is an example of studium, as the painting is coded for representing or rendering Shakespeare’s Ophelia’s dying scene. It’s ready for quick comprehension of Ophelia’s last thoughts, “Take me” (11). The painter’s intentions are readily understood, and as a result, this colorfully vivid painting does not move Trethewey as much as Bellocq’s black and white photograph of Ophelia does. After comparing the studium in the painting and photograph in stanzas one and two, the third stanza introduces the photograph’s punctum, which deeply affected Trethewey:

                                   But in her face, a dare.
     Staring into the camera, she seems to pull
     all movement from her slender limbs
     and hold it in her heavy-lidded eyes.
     Her body limp as dead Ophelia’s,
     her lips poised open, to speak. (23-28)

Unlike Millais’s painting where Trethewey is quick to comprehend Ophelia’s last thoughts (“Take me”), Bellocq’s Ophelia is “poised [. . .] to speak,” but Trethewey doesn’t know what this Ophelia will speak. The need to know, the need to think, the need to be pensive is the result of the photograph’s punctum piercing Trethewey and inducing her to commence her fictionalized historical account of Ophelia. Trethewey will explore the mystery behind Ophelia’s unspoken words.

In the first poem about Ophelia, “Letter Home,” the reader encounters the conflicted nature that Ophelia has as a mixed-race woman. This is apparent in the lines, “I walk these streets / a white woman, or so I think, until I catch the eyes / of some stranger upon me, and I must lower mine, / a negress again” (18-21). These lines portray Ophelia’s first experiences in New Orleans, where she feels good about herself as a white woman, but as soon as someone looks at her, she becomes self-conscious and feels ashamed of her black identity. Her experiences and understanding of herself will only become more complicated the longer she lives in New Orleans. Part of this complication will arise from how other people (or spectators) view her (as just shown) and what punctum they see in or on Ophelia that focuses how they perceive and interact with her.

For Barthes, punctum is subjective. What pierces the studium will vary from spectator to spectator. For Trethewey the punctum is also subjective, but it is also contextual. As Malin Pereria points out in “Re-Reading Trethewey Through Mixed Race Studies,” the experiences of bi-racial people are “context-dependent and therefore subject to change depending on the viewer and the situation, and not always corresponding to the identity inside” (140). For instance, in the above example, Ophelia was feeling secure in her identity until other people saw her “brown” skin (Trethewey, “Letter Home” 16), and she, as a result, lowered her eyes as a submissive act to indicate her inferiority as a mixed-race woman in a racist society. That submissiveness results from the context of a public viewing lens, but there are other contexts that refocus the lens on how Ophelia is viewed: as a prostitute, a person “inspected for signs of her blackness” (Malin 141), or treated as an “object of art” (“Trethwey, “Blue Book” 13).

One of the first lessons Ophelia receives is from one of the ladies who runs a brothel, who, essentially, instructs Ophelia about the act of posing. She suggests to Ophelia that because she is a prostitute in a brothel, Ophelia must create the context in which she is to be viewed by potential customers. In essence, Ophelia is told to become something akin to Barthes’ operator (or photographer) as well as the referent (or the subject that is turned into object) of a photograph, and the male customers are her spectators. This lesson is given in “Countess P–’s Advice for New Girls,” where Countess P tells Ophelia to pose as if sitting “for a painting” (9), but that she must also position herself in such a way as to “[c]atch light // in the hollow of your throat; let the shadow dwell / in your navel and beneath the curve / of your breasts” (9-12). In other words, Ophelia must provide the cultural context that is coded for easy consumption, which means she must create a presence (or studium) so that a customer will be able to easily read her as a desirable object. For example, in “Letters from Storyville: August 1911,” Ophelia must become the black woman “with white skin, exotic curiosities” (7), or she must provide the evidence of her blackness, such as “telltale / half-moons in our fingernails, / a bluish tint beneath the skin” (14-16). In this posing or posturing, she as operator creates a context (“spectacle and fetish” (“Letters from Storyville: “March 1911” 2)) for the customer to hopefully discover punctum or “find the hint / that would betray me [Ophelia], make me worth / the fee” (“Letters from Storyville: August 1911” 18-20) as an object for sexual consumption. She must be suggestively coded studium.

What is more important than creating this studium and hoping for a punctum to be discovered – for the operator can only create studium and cannot create punctum (which only the spectator or customer can create or find) – is for Ophelia to learn how “to be watched” (“Countess P–’s Advice for New Girls” 6) and to “[b]ecome what you [Ophelia] must” be (20). In other words, Ophelia must learn to live in a double paradox. The first paradox is that she must act as an operator to transform her subject self into an object of desire, and she needs to reveal, as Barthes says, “what was so well hidden that the actor himself [in this case Ophelia] was unaware or unconscious of it” (32). She must actively discover in herself what she doesn’t know about herself and then present it objectively and desirably. She needs to manipulate herself into studium with potential punctum, which leads to the second paradox.

The second paradox is that she must learn to act as a desirable object (a simulacrum of herself) for others while maintaining her subjecthood; and this means that she must, at least while in the brothel, become a fetishized object for the white male customer – she must become the “exotic curiosities,” “the African Violet for the promise / of that wild continent beneath / my [Ophelia’s] white skin” (“Letters from Storyville: December 1910” 55-57) – but she must also look “away from” her “reflection – / small and distorted – in his [customer’s] lens” (24) and become who she is as a young woman in the South. She must be object and subject at the same time.

One way to do this is to pose for the camera lens of a photographer, or to find an operator who can reveal what is unconsciously hidden within her. Thus, Ophelia poses for the photographer Bellocq. While she has removed the paradox of simultaneously performing as operator and subject, she is still transformed from subject to object. That is, she is the referent that will become objectified in a photograph. She will still be transformed into studium. However, this studium will not have the context of sexual desire, or at least the context to encourage a transfer of money for sex. Instead, this new context will be art. She will be an “object of art.” While the end goal of the posing for a photograph is different from posing for a customer in the brothel, she still needs to perform a Barthes-like pose, which for Barthes means, “In front of the lens, I am at the same time: the one I think I am, the one I want others to think I am, the one the photographer thinks I am, and the one he makes use of to exhibit his art” (Barthes 13). While she no longer has to act as operator, she still has to pose or perform, but now she has to exhibit an additional simulation of herself – she has to pose for the photographer, or as she says in “Storyville Diary: Bellocq,” “I try to pose as I think he would like” (11) (where “I” is Ophelia and “he” is Bellocq and his camera). What is interesting in this photographic scenario is that the language suggests she is trying to create a pose to please the operator, and she attempts to please him in almost a similar manner as she did when trying to please the spectator (customer) in the brothel. In neither case, however, does she try to please herself. She hopes the photograph of her – the art object of her – will “show me [Ophelia] who I am” (“Letters from Storyville: March 1911” 32).

In the end, Ophelia doesn’t truly discover who is she is. Instead, she just learns to adapt to environments through her various poses. Part of this may be because as a prostitute or as an art object, she ends up as the property of another man. As prostitute, it is easy to see how she becomes the temporary property of another man, but as an art object, it might be less obvious, at least until Ophelia makes it clear at the end of the unrhymed sonnet “Storyville Diary: Bellocq”: “this photograph we make / will bear the stamp of his name, not mine” (13-14). It’s as if she has been inscribed or branded with the photographer’s name. His identity and his framing of her create who she is. And while she might learn a little bit about herself, as mentioned above, she learns only how another man frames her to be seen. In this case, the photograph’s punctum might not be in the photograph, but in the inscription: “Bellocq.” She is not Ophelia’s Ophelia. As the title to the book suggests, she is Bellocq’s Ophelia. And this is the wound, this is the punctum that opens in or exposes in Ophelia. And this wound, as Mariana Ortega points out in “Wounds of Self: Experience, Word, Image, and Identity,” is a:

different kind of wound, one that in my view informs our words, our projects to seek, to produce, and to maintain our ways of knowing of the world and of ourselves – we women of color who have been and continue to be silenced by flesh and blood bodies as well as by bodies of ideas that intentionally or unintentionally obscure, undermine, assault, or disappear us. This wound is the punctum. (235-6)

It is the wound that makes Ophelia realize that she is not herself, and despite her various contexts and poses she “fade[s] again into someone I’m not” (Trethewey, “Storyville Diary: Blue Book” 14).

To further complicate matters she is also Trethewey’s Ophelia. In an interview with Charles Henry Rowell, Trethewey points out that she uses Ophelia as a mask to “investigate aspects of my own mixed-race experience” (1027). In doing so, Trethewey is also able to create an Ophelia who “became her own self [Trethewey’s self] as well” (1027). Still, this “own self” is just studium created by another person. Like Bellocq the photographer, Trethewey frames Ophelia for her own artistic interests, as well as to examine her own self. The final result is that an Ophelia is created, but the book comes full circle at the end of “Storyville Diary: “Portrait #1” when Ophelia is in an arching pose with “a gesture / before speech, before the first word comes out” (13-14). This image mirrors the image at the conclusion of book’s prefatory poem, “Bellocq’s Ophelia” – “her lips posed to open, to speak” (28). What has happened as a result is that Trethewey took that image, that punctum in the opening poem and used it to examine her own life as a bi-racial woman. She created an Ophelia – her Ophelia – but in the world of the poetry collection, Ophelia was never able to create herself. Ophelia was always an object, and an historical one at that. In addition, Trethewey imposes a fictive history on her, and Ophelia doesn’t get to reply or have her say. Here lies the impetus for Trethewey to try and explore her own biracial “experiences growing up in the Deep South” (Rowell 1027) in Native Guard.

Before examining this, however, it must be noted that Trethewey’s new attempt at self-exploration is hinted at near the end of Bellocq’s Ophelia in “Storyville Diary: (Self) Portrait.” The first hint is in the title’s parenthetical “Self,” which suggests a double meaning: self-portrait of Ophelia and self-portrait of Trethewey. For in this poem, like in the second poem in Native Guard, “The Southern Crescent,” the speaker is on a train “leaving [. . .] home” (Trethewey, “Storyville Diary: (Self) Portrait” 6). A parallel is made between Ophelia and the “Trethewey” as speaker in the opening and closing sections of Native Guard. Even more interesting is the last one-and-one-third lines: “I looked into / a capped lens, saw only my own clear eye” (13-14). In Bellocq’s Ophelia penultimate poem, “Storyville Diary: (Self) Portrait,” it as if Trethewey is saying, “I’ve had enough of all the lenses and modes of seeing through them (whether it be the lens of Madame, the monocle of customer, the lens of Bellocq’s camera, etc.).” Trethewey is putting a cap on all the lenses. She’s blocking the spectators’ suggestive views. And because of this, she can see her “own clear eye.” She sees one true thing about herself and not what the spectators see. Or rather, she learns one true thing about herself. Trethewey, however, needs more accountable histories for her introspection as a biracial woman growing up in the South. These histories are explored in Native Guard.

Natasha Trethewey's Native GuardTo explore her experiences of growing up as a biracial woman in the South, Trethewey arranges the three sections of Native Guard – “Document,” “Monument,” and “Testament” (Rowell 1033) – to create a dialectical movement through the collection of poems. The “Document” section gives a brief biographical history of her relationship with her abused mother who was murdered (though the details of the murder are not made clear in the poems), the “Monument” section is about histories of Mississippi, especially the overlooked history of “the first officially sanctioned regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army” (Trethewey, Native Guard 47), and the final section, “Testament,” is the synthesis of the biographical and historical where Trethewey examines the personal traumas of living as a biracial woman in the South.

To arrive at this understanding, she begins, as mentioned, by using history in Native Guard, which one could call another lens, similar to the lenses used by the Madame, the customer, or Bellocq in Bellocq’s Ophelia. History becomes a lens through which Trethewey can view herself. However, Trethewey is not using the lens of a fictional history, as she did with Ophelia. Nor is she using the typical history in textbooks that many of us grew up with and that celebrated white male war heroes, inventors, profiteers, and presidents. That history for Trethewey is all studium. That history is coded for general consumption and for reaffirming white men as dominant property owners, and the so-called owners of history. It’s an exclusive history. It is a history that is limited in scope, discovery, and insight. It overlooks many other heroes and contributors in the history of America. As Jee Eum Kim points out, “This imperative to remember those disowned by history, in opposition to accepting what history tells us to remember, has shaped Trethewey’s poetic career” (91). As Trethewey announces in “Why I Write,” “I write to tell a fuller version of American history, to recover stories and voices of people whose lives have been marginalized, forgotten, erased, overlooked” (6). As a result, Trethewey will do and undo history. She will inscribe the histories of the disowned into and/or onto the historical studium. She will create a palimpsest not dissimilar to the black soldier writing in the journal in Trethewey’s long poem and crown of sonnets, “Native Guard.”

The poem “Native Guard,” which appears in the “Monument” section, is a monument or memorial to the first regiment of black soldiers in the Union Army. However, this is no typical memorial. Typical memorials and monuments have a number of functions, as Andrew Palmer and Sally Minogue point out in “Memorial Poems and the Poetics of Memorializing.” In general, “[t]hrough a combination of form, symbol and inscription, they express (often ambiguously) the meaning of specific wars and their losses” (162). In other words, they are coded for easy consumption, similar to Barthes’s studium in a photograph. Some of these memorials are coded as “carriers of political ideas” (163), as a “framework for and legitimation of . . . grief” (163), an attempt “by the state to defend its waging of war by hijacking the human impulse at grief at the loss of young life” (163), as closures to wars (163), and as a place for the bereaved to “comfort each other” (164). For example, on Ship Island, off the coast of Gulf Port, Mississippi, there is a fort serving as memorial. At the entrance to the fort, as Trethewey explains, is a plaque put on display by the Daughters of the Confederacy that lists “all the names of the Confederate soldiers who were imprisoned there” (Rowell 1032). However, while inscribing names on a plaque attempts to remind the tourist, visitor, or mourner of the person or persons who died, it will often fail as a memorial for few reasons.

One reason, as Palmer and Minogue also point out, is that there are too many names “for each individual name to mean anything” (165). Another is “it is too grand a sight to recall enlisted men whose ordinariness was their defining characteristic” (165). In other words, most of these inscribed names are those of the common soldiers, and not the historically acknowledged heroes of war. As a result, those tourists or spectators that might remember a name on the plaque will be a small group of family and friends of the inscribed person. That is, of course, until the family and friends die, which is the second reason for the inscribed failure. When the family and friends die, then those inscribed names are just names with no referent, or names that lack a spectator who can acknowledge or remember the referent. The memorial and plaque not only lack punctum, but there is also no studium. Or, according to Palmer and Minogue, “[a] war memorial [. . .] is characteristically monumental and monolithic, it is harder for the punctum to occur as we view it” (169). That is until Trethewey comes upon the plaque and the memorial.

In that moment, when she realizes that there is “no mention of the black soldiers who were stationed there. [. . .] Nowhere is there any marker for the Native Guard” (Rowell 1033), there is a newly discovered punctum, a punctum of negative capability. That is to say that Trethewey becomes “capable of being in uncertainties, Mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason” (Keats 261), where facts and reason are the memorial and the names on the plaque and the exclusive history of white soldiers. As a result, Trethewey, like the Coleridge that Keats describes in his letter that first references “negative capability,” becomes “incapable of remaining content with half knowledge” (261). The absence of names was Trethewey’s punctum, and it pierced her to receive the other half of the knowledge – the “Mystery” of the first black regiment – and to inscribe absence into art, or poems. The absences and mystery here are not dissimilar to Ophelia’s unspoken words. Trethewey’s poems become a “writing out of that piercing” (Palmer 169) – that piercing punctum. As a result, she becomes concerned with the verisimilitude – truth and beauty – that arises from negative capability and the punctum piercing her imagination, but she is little concerned with the facts of the studium-filled history text book and its white fighting soldiers. Her poems are going to confront history by memorializing the unacknowledged and to correct history to “give it a fuller, richer understanding of our American experience” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 52). Or as Major Jackson points out:

African American poets have made the historical poem a key component of the African American literary tradition and sought tenaciously to correct American history textbooks by writing volume after volume of poems that pull out of the shadows political and cultural figures deemed representative in the plight of black people’s struggle for respect, equality, and dignity. Some dismissively refer to such writing as “service literature,” but one cannot imagine literary works of art that so successfully make an allegory of the American struggle to fulfill a founding vision. To gauge the success of a democracy, one must revisit the narratives of the people. (5)

The history Trethewey will correct is the inscribed and “exclusive version of history [inscribed] into public memory” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 55) on the plaque at Ship Island by the Daughters of the Confederacy, and she will also correct the history where the belief is that “The slaves were clothed, fed, / and better off under a master’s care” (Trethewey, “Southern History” 3-4). She will also confront the history of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind that is considered “a true account of how things were back then” (11). When Trethewey was younger, as she describes in the poem “Southern History,” she did nothing to challenge those historical lies. Even though she knew they were lies, she remained “Silent” (14). But now, in Native Guard, she creates the opportunity to re-inscribe history with the voices of the unacknowledged, including the first black regiment of the Union Army, her mother, as well as herself.

Returning to the black regiment Native Guard, Trethewey gives voice to those overlooked soldiers, like Whitman does in in Specimen Days creating a “monument to the common soldier” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 52). However, unlike Whitman who only wrote about tending to black soldiers (52), she will write more about the black soldiers’ experiences, and most especially the experiences of one soldier, which one can assume, based on the “Notes” at the end of Native Guard, is Colonel Nathan W. Daniels.

Daniels, who was “born a slave” (Trethewey, “Native Guard: November 1862” 7), is now thirty-three-years old in Trethewey’s historical account, and he is educated and able to write. What he writes is his account of history, one that counters the history “inscribed upon [. . . his] back” (11) by a master’s whip and a history that is steadier and more certain than a “flawed, changeful” (13) memory. The history he shares is one that would never appear in the historical studium. He brings to light how even though the Native Guard were soldiers fighting on the Union side and who had the same end goal of freeing the slaves, the Native Guard soldiers were dehumanized by the Union soldiers because they were black. The Union soldiers called the black soldiers “supply units” (“Native Guard: December 1862” 4), their work was called “nigger work” (8), and they were even shot at by the Union soldiers (“Native Guard: April 1863”). Not only does Daniels write about those “things which must be accounted for (“Native Guard: 1865” 1), but he also shows how the soldiers in the first black regiment in the Union Army were erased. That is, Daniels says, the Union soldiers gave them a “new name, / the Corps d’Afrique – words that take the native / from our claim” (“Native Guard: 1865” 3-5). So not only are the black soldiers in the Native Guard nameless, non-human soldiers, who perform dehumanizing work, now they aren’t even American or Africans. They are again re-inscribed by their white counterparts and renamed this time with French words, “Corps d’Afrique.” The foreign use of “Afrique,” erases and renames their home continent, Africa. As a result, they are native guards, but they are no longer native to anywhere. They have been inscribed as less than human, and they have been erased from the history books and from any claim to citizenship. This is what Daniels intends to correct in his journal entries.

His historical corrections are inscribed in a Confederate soldier’s journal, like a palimpsest over the Confederate’s soldier’s words. The cover image on the paperback edition of Native Guard provides a good visual for how Daniels words are written at an angle across the Confederate soldier’s words, which results with the Confederate’s soldier’s “story intersecting with” Daniel’s story, and which creates a fuller, more nuanced historical account. This more detailed history provides a punctum that terrifies the imprisoned white rebel soldiers whom Daniels guards. These uneducated white rebel soldier prisoners fear what they can’t read or write, fear an educated black man who is smarter than they are, and, more importantly, they fear what he will write about them in his journal. In other words, Daniels now controls their historical fates, as he can reinvent or re-inscribe them as he desires, or with greater impact, he can represent them as they are. And so those imprisoned soldiers remain quiet because “they fear / I’ll [Daniels will] listen, put something else down in ink” (“Native Guard: February 1863” 13-14). In a stark role reversal, Daniels takes away the voice of the Confederate white soldiers defending slavery, and he writes a new voice for them in his historical account of the Civil War. He provides the uncanny voice of the black soldier in the white historical studium. “By turning this poem into the very memory that haunts the maimed history of the Civil War,” as Kim points out, “Trethewey claims that the Civil War history remains incomplete if we ignore the intersections of black and white stories” (93) and if we ignore the overlooked and silent characters in the war. With this in mind, the “Document” section, the first section of Native Guard, can be regarded.

The “Document” section tells of another overlooked character in history who has not been given voice – Trethewey’s mother. The “Document” section also acts as a memorial for her. Trethewey’s mother (Gwen Trethewey) was an African American woman married to Natasha’s father (Eric Trethewey), a white Canadian man. When Natasha Trethewey was about six years old, they divorced. By the time Natasha was in college, Gwen had a relationship with, was married to, and was divorced from Joel Grimmette. The whole while, Grimmette “was resentful of her [Gwen] because she was a constant reminder that his wife [Gwen] had once been married to a white man” (Eric Trethewey 683). Grimmette not only hated white people, but he was also mentally unstable and was physically and mentally abusive toward Gwen. Grimmette eventually became so jealous that he shot and killed Gwen. Gwen’s murder is not foregrounded in the poem, but Grimmette’s abuse of her is, and will be looked at in a moment.

In the Whitman tradition of celebrating “everyone, even the lowliest prostitute or degraded slave” (Trethewey, “On Whitman” 51), Trethewey, as noted, has written about prostitutes and the overlooked black soldiers in American history, and now she will turn to her mother not only because of Whitman’s influence on Tretheway to give voice to the silent but also because as Mae Gwendolyn Henderson points out in “Speaking in Tongues”:

[B]lack women writers have encoded oppression as a discursive dilemma, that is, their works have consistently raised the problem of the black woman’s relationship to power and discourse. Silence is an important element of this code. [. . .] In other words, it is not that black women, in the past, have had nothing to say, but rather they have had no say. The absence of black female voices has allowed others to inscribe, or write, and ascribe to, or read them. (354).

The “Document” section is another example of puncturing the studium of exclusive history with an inclusive history of the silenced. And, in this case, the silence that Henderson mentions can be most readily be seen in Trethewey’s “What the Body Can Say.” In this poem, there is an image that is not dissimilar to Ophelia’s open-mouthed punctum­ in the photograph of Bellocq’s Ophelia. This time the image is of Trethewey’s mother’s “face tilted up / at me, her mouth falling open, wordless” (12-13). What her mother wanted to say “not long before her death” (12) is just as mysterious to Trethewey as what Ophelia wanted to say. To discover what Ophelia wanted to say, Trethewey created a fictional context for her life, but for her mother, Trethewey will create a biographical history by way of poetry using the experiences of her mother. Again, the silent open-mouth is the punctum stimulating pain and pensiveness for Trethewey.

What the mother was probably trying to say was that she was being abused by her husband and Natasha’s step-father, Joel Grimmette. However, as often occurs, the victims of abuse are often silent or silenced about their abuse. Even the legal/historical documents of her abuse were neglected. In the sonnet-shaped poem “What Is Evidence,” Trethewey shows how all the documented evidence (historical records) were denied by way of “not” and “nor.” For instance, the title of the poem is a question, “What is Evidence”? and what follows are a series of rhetorically charged answers to that inquisitive title. Meaning, the poem could be read as asking: What is evidence? It is “Not the fleeting bruises she’d cover / with makeup” (1-2), “nor the quiver / in the voices she’d steady leaning / into a pot of bones on the stove” (4-6), it is also “Not / the teeth she wore in place of her own, or / the official document – its seal / and smeared signature – fading already” (6-10), and it is “Not the tiny marker / with its dates, her name, abstract as history” (10-11). What Trethewey presents, as Daniel Cross Turner points out, is “a chain of negations of what has not counted as evidence in her mother’s long struggles against domestic abuse” (105). The only evidence that appears to be relevant is the “landscape of her [dead] body” (“What is Evidence” 12) slowly decaying “the way all things do” (14). Not only is her mother decaying, but so are the records of her abuse in the “official document[s]” (8). Even the death certificate, “with its dates, her name” (11), are too abstract for comprehension. They are so abstract that one cannot decipher that her mother was murdered. In addition, the dates and her name are just numbers and letters, like those names of those Confederate prisoners inscribed on the plaque at Ship Island, who have now been forgotten and whose existence no longer has meaningful reference. Like Colonel Nathan W. Daniels, who was inscribed in his youth with scars from being whipped by his owner, Trethewey’s mother is inscribed with the “bruises” and wounds of abuse. Thus, neither Daniels nor the Trethewey’s mother has a voice in the studium of exclusionary history, until Trethewey gives them the voice of punctum. She brings the ghosts of the past back to life. Like Dante and Orpheus, she speaks for the dead.

Trethewey, briefly, takes on the personae of Dante in the opening of “Genus Narcissus” – “The road I walked home from school / was dense with trees and shadow” – and these lines recall the opening to The Inferno when Dante finds himself “In dark woods [. . .] / so tangled and rough” (2-3). “Genus Narcissus” also ends with daffodils “like graveside flowers” (19) speaking to her mother to “Die early” (22). This brief allusion to hell sets up a more extensive allusion to hell in Trethewey’s poem, “Myth,” a linear-palindrome poem. On one level, the mirrored reflection of lines (the poem’s first line is its last; its second line is its second-to-last line, etc.) parallels the reflection that Narcissus saw of his face in the water, and thus recalls the poem “Genus Narcissus.” As Giorgia DeCenzo notes, the reflection of the lines is like Narcissus’s “last look into the waters of the Styx in his final journey into the underworld” (28). Further, it mimics the Dantesque hell where, at the end of The Inferno, when Dante is climbing Satan, hell flips and turns upside down, so that instead of going down into the depths of the earth, Dante is climbing up and out of the earth. Most importantly, however, is the poem’s reference to the story of Orpheus going into Erebus to reclaim Eurydice from hell.

Orpheus and EurydiceTrethewey uses the Orpheus-Eurydice myth comparatively in an attempt to “snatch her mother from the abyss of death” (28). Like Orpheus who looked back at his beloved Eurydice too soon before leaving the underworld and reaching the surface of earth while Eurydice was still in hell, Trethewey awakens with an image “not more real than [. . .] Eurydice’s materialization behind her beloved Orpheus” (28). Both Eurydice and Trethewey’s mother remain behind as images. One would claim this is just another erasure of her mother, but that would be to say that Eurydice, too, is erased from history. Obviously, Eurydice is not erased. She does fail to materialize for a second time on earth, but she is inscribed into history by way of myth, and Trethewey also inscribes her mother into her memories and dreams, or her myth, which she then re-inscribes in this poem (“Myth”) and in the “Document” section. By situating her poem “Myth” in “Document,” Trethewey gives voice for those voices that have been excluded from official history, forgotten or erased, and indicates that poetry is as valid as official documentation in the reclamation of stories that might have been forever lost.

As mentioned earlier, the book Native Guard has a dialectical movement from the “Document” section to the “Monument” section and to the concluding “Testament” section, where the first two sections synthesize into a closer examination of Trethewey’s experience as biracial woman living “a dialectic of dark // and light” (“South” 4-5) in the deep South. What has been outlined so far is Trethewey’s use of history. She has created a fictional history of a woman she once saw in a photograph, she has infused history with the voice of a black soldier who participated in the Civil War but who was not an acknowledged participant, and she has through a biographical fashion recounted the history of her mother. Now, in the “Testament” section, she will present an autobiographical history and a history of realism.

One might consider the historical accounts of her mother in the “Document” section as realism, too, but the portrayal of her mother is filtered through a romantic lens, nostalgic lens, or lens of remembrance. The portrait of her mother has a memorialized sensibility to it, and it doesn’t even mention the most atrocious and real aspect of her mother’s history, which was that she was murdered. Even the details of her abuse leading up to her murder are only briefly noted, which Trethewey did deliberately, perhaps, (as noted earlier) to illustrate the often invisible and silent victim. Trethewey’s fictional account doesn’t address the horrific reality of Gwen Trethewey’s abuse at the hands of her second husband, such Joel Grimmette pricking Gwen Trethewey’s flesh with “a hypodermic syringe filled with battery acid” (Eric Trethewey 689). Nor does it provide the realism of “Incident.”

The Civil War Diary of Colonel Nathan W. DanielsThis realism is a realism mixed with aesthetics, or poetics. And this is an important point. In Bellocq’s Ophelia, Trethewey presented the character Ophelia as a real person with real experiences, but she was fictive and removed from the real. In the “Monument” section of Native Guard, Trethewey provides writings of actual accounts, but she is a step removed from those accounts. That is, for instance, she recalls a documentary she saw in “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi,” but she didn’t participate in that history. She also explores a Native Guard soldier’s possible experience based in part upon his diary Thank God My Regiment an African One: The Civil War Diary of Colonel Nathan W. Daniels, and, again, she did not, herself, participate in the actual historical moments. She also memorializes her mother through a blend of events that happened, a “flawed, changeful” memory, and sentimentality. In the “Testament” section, however, she writes poems with harsh realities from her experiences that “extend beyond the boundaries of realism” (Quashie 108). As has been noted by many critics, the content of a black writer’s text is of primary importance and the delivery of the content is of little consequence. As Quashie says:

Racist discourses expect black art to tell the true story of black life unvarnished by craft, which is also an expectation of nationalism. This reinforces the social imperative of black art and it encourages us to read black cultural works as social documents or as texts of resistance. What is lost here is not only an appreciation of artistic value but also a sense of how form can disturb the assumed precision of content and support a reconsideration of expressiveness. (105)

Throughout Native Guard, there are many form poems, from the blues-infused sonnet in “Graveyard Blues,” to the terza rima in “Photograph: Ice Storm, 1972,” to the linear palindrome poem “Myth” (which was discussed earlier in that relationship between form and content), the villanelle in the opening section of “Scenes from a Documentary History of Mississippi,” to the crown of sonnets in “Native Guard,” to all the sonnet-shaped poems, to the ghazal in “Miscegenation,” and the pantoum in “Incident,” to note just a few of the poetic forms that Trethewey engages in the collection. The “Incident” pantoum is example of a poem that “extends beyond realism.”

Before addressing the importance of “Incident” to my argument, however, the blues-infused sonnet “Graveyard Blues” needs to be looked at for what it accomplishes in relation to form and content. This poem is the first traditional form poem in the “Document” section. The first poems in the “Document section do have structural elements – “The Southern Crescent” consists for four nine-line stanzas, and “Genus Narcissus” consists of three-line stanzas with the last stanza being a sole line, as if to suggest that it is an unrhymed terza rima (which makes sense when considering the reference to Dante’s The Inferno in the opening lines). Those two poems, however, are not traditional form poems. “Graveyard Blues” is a form poem, as it is a sonnet, and the sonnet, according to Edward Hirsch, “was invented in southern Italy around 1235 or so” (593). It is a form poem of European origins, and is often associated with love poems with logical arguments that were written by white men, such as Shakespeare, Spenser, and Petrarch. This sonnet, however, is not a Shakespearian, Spenserian, or Petrarchan sonnet. It is a Tretheweyian sonnet. It’s an African-American blues sonnet. It uses the elements of the traditional sonnet – it rhymes, it’s in iambic pentameter, and there there’s a volta after line 8, which here occurs with the em dash – and it combines those elements with the elements of blues music – the first two lines of each stanza (except the last) essentially repeat themselves. In blues music, the first line often announces the singers suffering, and the second line repeats it in a manner to invite the listener in with their own similar experience. There is a bonding in the mirroring lines. In the end, this new sonnet form combines love and suffering – the love for her mother and the suffering from her death.

It is also possible Trethewey created this sonnet form to disturb the well-established studium that has accumulated on the sonnet over centuries of use. The sonnet’s original punctum of form has been lost or eroded from centuries of use. So Trethewey reinvents the sonnet and infuses it with black cultural punctum. This poem, in other words, becomes biracial. This poem announces miscegenation. This poem announces how Trethewey will, once again, interact with the historical studium. This poem’s content is about Trethewey’s experience of leaving her recently buried mother – the realism – mixed with aestheticism. As mentioned, traditionally, the content of a poem “challenges racist characterizations” (Quashie 108), but in this poem, she challenges “racist characterizations” through miscegenation of sonnet and blues. This poem, like her, has origins in white and black culture. The realism of this event, however, remains overshadowed by the sentimentality of the memorialization of her mother.

“Incident,” however, in the final “Testament” section, is able to blend realism (or “traumatic event”) and poetic form more effectively. The traumatic event, or “Incident,” is surviving the KKK burning a cross in Trethewey’s front yard when she was a child. Despite the speaker’s repeated understatement “though nothing really happened,” something did happen. Something very real. She and her family survived the threats of the KKK by not responding to or acknowledging the men while hiding within the “darkened [. . .] rooms” (8) of her house. What makes this poem “extend beyond realism” is the use of the pantoum form and its repetitive lines. While the poem assumes the personae of nonchalance, “nothing really happened,” the repetition of lines, like “the charred grass now green again” and “by morning all the flames had dimmed,” is akin to the Freudian notion of the repetition compulsion of a person who has survived a traumatic event. The repetition is a coping method. For the reader, the repetition makes the events in “Incidents” more real. The repetition punctures the understatement and nonchalant tone of the poem. When we read “When they were done, they left quietly. No one came. / The wicks trembled all night in their fonts of oil” (14-15), we can conclude the family survived the night in fear. When we read the same line later, “by morning the flames had all dimmed // When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came” (16-17), we get the sense the KKK “were disappointed that [the] family did not agitate in a way that would authorize violence greater” (Quashie 107). The second utterance announces a type of triumph, or at the very least, relief. The repetitive nature of the pantoum not only reinforced the realism of the traumatic act but it also instilled a psychological dimension – Trethewey’s psychological dimension. This is the dialectic synthesis of the book, where the “Document” section is the “biographical as thesis” (Mlinko 59), the “Monument” section is “the historical as antithesis” (59), and the “Testament” is the “intertwining of the personal and the historical as synthesis” (59). This last section provides the reader her personal history as a southern biracial woman who has suffered great trauma. The trauma is her punctum piercing the studium of a racist history. Her historical events cause pensiveness in Trethewey, which she then inscribes in a book of poems. Thus, Native Guard challenges the exclusive and exclusionary history and “destroys it,” as Barthes says, “for the sake of my [her] own history” (65). Her poems give voice to her traumas growing up a bi-racial woman in the south.

While the operator (the photographer, writer, or historian) cannot create punctum, Trethewey is able to locate the latent punctum that does exist historically and within her own life. She is able to find the invisible, overlooked, and mysterious moments, such as the open mouthed silence of Ophelia, the open mouthed silence of her mother, the unacknowledged black Native Guard, and the moments in her own history that need a voice, like being silent in history class when the lies of slavery were taught or being silent and hiding to avoid the violence of the KKK. These moments are the punctum that she discovers. These are the moments or details that cause wounds in history or herself and that cause her as a spectator looking back on history (the history of the South and her own personal history) to act pensively and to create meaning in and from history or from her own life experiences. In the end, she succeeds in “redress[ing] the omissions and errors in history” (Trethewey, “Why I Write” 6). And just as she makes history less exclusive and more inclusive via her poetry, Trethewey also utilizes French structuralist Roland Barthes’s exclusive photographic use of studium and punctum to include or to be applicable to history, poetry, and a bi-racial woman growing up in the South.


Works Cited

Alighieri, Dante. The Inferno of Dante. Trans. Robert Pinsky. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1994. Print.

Barthes, Roland. Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography. New York: Hill and Hang, 1981. Print.

DeCenzo, Giorgia. “Natasha Trethewey: The Native Guard of Southern History.” South Atlantic Review 73.1 (Winter 2008): 20-49. JSTOR. Web. 11 Sept. 2014. PDF.

Fried, Michael. “Barthes’s Punctum.” Critical Inquiry 31.3 (Spring 2005): 539-74. JSTOR. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. PDF.

Henderson, Mae Gwendolyn. “Speaking in Tongues: Dialogics, Dialetics, and the Black Woman Writer’s Literary Tradition.” African American Literary Theory: A Reader. Ed. Winston Napier. New York: New York UP, 2000. 348-368. Print.

Hirsch, Edward. A Poet’s Glossary. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2014. Print.

Jackson, Major. “The Historical Poem.” American Poet 35 (Fall 2008): 3-6. Literary Reference Center. Web. 8 Oct. 2014. PDF.

Keats, John. “To George and Thomas Keats: 21, 27 (?) December 1817.” Selected Poems and Letters. Ed. Douglas Bush. Boston: Riverside Editions, 1959. 260-61. Print.

Kim, Jee Eun. “‘His Story Intersecting with My Own’: Miscegenation as History in Natasha Trethewey’s Native Guard.” Valley Voices: A Literary Review 12.2 (Fall 2012): 91-95. Ebscohost. Web. 11 Sep. 2014. PDF.

Mlinko, Ange. “Native Guard by Natasha Trethewey.” Poetry 191.1 (Oct. 2007): 59-61. JSTOR. Web. 11 Sept. 2014. PDF.

Ortega, Mariana. “Wounds of Self: Experience, Word, Image, and Identity.” The Journal of Speculative Philosophy 22.4 (2008): 235-47. JSTOR. Web. 8 Nov. 2014. PDF.

Palmer, Andrew and Sally Minogue. “Memorial Poems and the Poetics of Memorializing.” Journal of Modern Literature 34.1 (Fall 2010): 162-181. JSTOR. Web. 19 Nov. 2014. PDF.

Pereira, Malin. “Re-reading Trethewey Through Mixed Race Studies.” Southern Quarterly 50.4 Summer 2013): 123-152. Ebscohost. Web. 11 Sep. 2014. PDF.

Quashie, Kevin. The Sovereignty of Quiet: Beyond Resistance in Black Culture. New Brunswick: Rutgers UP, 2012. Print.

Rowell, Charles Henry. “Inscriptive Restorations: An Interview with Natasha Trethewey.” Callaloo: A Journal of African Diaspora Arts and Letters 27.4 (2004): 1021-1034. JSTOR. Web. 11 Sept. 2014. PDF.

Trethewey, Eric. “Connections and Correspondences.” The Antioch Review 66.4 (Fall 2008): 682-94. JSTOR. Web. 22 Oct. 2014. PDF.

Trethewey, Natasha. Bellocq’s Ophelia. Minneapolis: Graywolf Press, 2002. Print.

—. Native Guard. Boston: Mariner Books, 2006. Print.

—. “On Whitman, Civil War Memory, and My South.” Virginia Quarterly Review 81.2 (Spring 2005): 50-65. Ebscohost. Web. 18 Oct. 2014. PDF.

—. “Why I Write.” South Central Review 31.1 (Spring 2014): 1-16. Project Muse. Web. 9 Nov. 2014. PDF.

Turner, Daniel Cross. “Lyric Dissections: Rendering Blood Memory in Natasha Trethewey’s and Yusef Komunyakka’s Poetry of Black Diaspora.” Southern Quarterly 50.4 (Summer 2013): 99-122. Ebscohost. Web. 25 Nov. 2014. PDF.



The Domestic Fabulism of Adoption in Stacey Balkun’s Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Stacey Balkun's – Jackalope-Girl Learns to SpeakAccording to The Adoption History Project, “[a]pproximately 5 million Americans alive today are adoptees, 2-4 percent of all families have adopted, and 2.5 percent of all children under 18 are adopted.” Despite the statistics from the Department of History at the University of Oregon, it seems as though less than 2-4 percent, less than 2.5 percent, and most likely far less than one percent of contemporary American poetry is about, concerned with, or brushes up against adoption issues and themes. Even in tv shows and movies, aside from characters such as Clark Kent, Natalie from The Facts of Life, Punky Brewster from Punky Brewster, and the movies Juno and Elf, there are few adopted characters or themes of adoption. As an adoptee, this is of some concern to me, especially since I never wrote poems about adoption, until recently in the 48th year of my life. I think part of the cause for the lack of adoption poems for others and myself is that many adopted children, according to my research and own experience, tend to either just accept the issue, ignore the issue, or just forget they were adopted. The adoptee accepts their adopted parents and moves on with life. Fortunately, Stacey Balkun’s chapbook Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak (Dancing Girl Press & Studio, 2016) is wholly concerned with the adopted life.

Perhaps another possibility for the lack of adoption poems is the poet not knowing how to successfully write an adoption-centric poem in a way that isn’t predictable, sentimental, insincere, or lacking nuance. Balkun, however, found a way. In Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak, she uses the characters Jackalope-Girl (representing an adopted female) and Antler-Girl (representing Jackalope-Girl’s birthmother) to tell the allegorical story of Balkun (or a female adoptee) growing up as an adopted person. While I think it’s an allegorical story, others might call it “domestic fabulism,” which is akin to Magical Realism of the home life, or home life told in the manner of a fable, or as Catherine Moore says in an interview about an anthology of domestic fabulist poetry she co-edited with Stacey Balkun, domestic fabulism is where “myth and magic easily co-exists with domestic concerns; indeed, if often amplifies the drama of the ordinary.” As a result, we enter an everyday world in Big Sky country of Longview, Texas, as well as a northeast suburb, where there are proms, cigarette smoking, sex, and dentists. Within this ordinary world, the fabulist elements of a jackalope child born from an antelope mother and rabbit father can exaggerate, or amplify, the life of adoption so as to subvert the reader’s expectations and generalizations of the life of an adoptee and the adoptee’s birth parents and adopted parents.

In many stories of birth parents, the birth father is often considered an absent father or a derelict, is told to leave the relationship, or is just plain ignored. In Jackalope-Girl, the only three things the reader learns about the father is that he is a rabbit who once had sex with Jackalope’s birthmother (Antler-Girl), and both were “uncertain” of what they were doing sexually (“Jackalope-Girl’s First Time”). After the sexual encounter, the mother then drove home alone The mother had an innocent night of sex and the father didn’t even know of the pregnancy. His is ignorant of his jackalope child. The collection of poems, however, isn’t about the absent father, but the domestic fabulism makes us reimagine a new way of looking at the birthfather – he’s not necessarily a dead beat or scum bag, he just may not know he even has a child since the mother drove away without telling him.

Even though Jackalope-Girl briefly mentions the father or suggests the father by way of his absence, the poems are more focused on the Jackalope-Girl, Antler-Girl, and Jackalope-Girl’s adopted parents. We learn that Antler-Girl (the birthmother) early on had plans for adoption and even had an adoption lawyer, despite all this “When the jackalope-girl lost her fur / in the third trimester, her mother’s / body trembled, sensing loss,” which implies the mother was caring and loving of her child, and was not an uncaring or irresponsible mother that so many stereotypes about birthmothers perpetuate. Because the poem alters a human mother into animal form, the poem is better able to engage the reader in a story that subverts typical expectations by presenting a responsible and caring birthmother. In other words, if the poem used humans, the story might seem bland and unreal. For instance, later in the same poem:

     jackalope-girl [still in the mother’s womb] felt
     the distant voice [of the adoption lawyer on the phone]. Her thighs
     stretched into muscle meant for leaping

     and her nose twitched, eager
     to memorize the smell of south.
     She felt soft as steamed cornbread.   (10-15)

By using these elements of domestic fabulism, it becomes believable that there is a loving and responsible birthmother, and the unbelievability that a baby could hear the voice of the adoption lawyer on the telephone and that she was “eager” to inhabit the south becomes believable. As a result, the reader gains new perspectives on birthmothers, adopted children, and birthmother-child relationships.

Balkun’s use of domestic fabulism also allows the reader to enter the mind of an adopted child who is often (always?) trying to fit into her adopted world or her adopted world is forcing her to fit into it. For instance, in “Inoculation,” the reader encounters Jackalope-Girl as a baby with “Rabbit teeth [that] grow forever: two up, / two down” (3-4) that would grow into antlers unless she “chewed on wood / or stones” (4-5). Even as a baby, she instinctively knows how to take care of her teeth, but her adopted parents (who seem to be humans and not animals) did not and they did not want her to have antler teeth. They “wanted it / stopped” (9-9), so the parents “had the dentist inject muscle relaxers / into her gums [. . .] / She bared her teeth / and screeched, but his pliers had already grabbed hold” (9-10, 11-12). Later on, in “Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak,” Jackalope-Girl’s “first word was mistaken / for a whimper” (2-3) by her adopted parents; further, when she “asked only for milk” (3) and “clover” (4), her “surrogate mother laughed and handed me [Jackalope-Girl] a binky” (5-6). In other words, just as a colonizer imposes their ways on the colonized, there is an unnatural transition from birth world to adopted world, much misunderstanding between the two worlds, and the adopted parents (colonizers) enforce their ways on the adopted child (colonized). Perhaps this is one reason (consciously or not) why Balkun chose to represent the adopted child as an animal since colonizers often view the colonized as animals.

Also, inherent to this living in an adopted world is whether the child should fight it or accept it. Or maybe it’s a fight for the adoptee’s birth world or flight from the birth world to the adopted world. Perhaps, this is the main theme of the collection of poems. I imagine most adoptees have this concern at least once in their life, and may ask him/herself conflicting questions, such as: “Should I try to discover who I am?” or “Why do I feel so different from my adopted family members?” versus “Should I just accept this adopted world that makes me into something that is different than my instinctual self?” Early on, Jackalope-Girl is resistant to her adopted world, “I was born to an electric storm / in winter. I can’t be caught” (“Inoculation” 30-31), because she can feel “big sky country” of where she was born and instinctually she can feel her antler self, even though her antlers have been “filed down” (20). In fact, she wants so much to return to her birth world, she invents the allegorical “Animal City,” a sanctuary city for adopted children who feel at ease with themselves and speak a language they can all understand. It is the promised land before the colonizers (parents) arrived.

Jackalope-Girl is conflicted and perhaps always will be, which is something readers might not expect of adoptees had Balkun not used the allegorical animal figure of a jackalope as a representation of an adoptee, and as brief as the collection of poems is (16 poems across 24 pages), we get an intimate insight into the life of an adopted person. I do hope for more of these poems or an expansion of this collection as I think there is still more to explore. Nonetheless, any reader of poetry will enjoy Stacey Balkun’s Jackalope-Girl Learns to Speak and her domestic fabulism of the adopted.


Works Cited

Adoption Statistics.” The Adoption History Project. Department of History, University of Oregon, 24 Feb. 2012. Web. 28 June 2016.

Balkun, Stacey, and Catherine Moore. “NO FEE Submission Call and Interview – Fiolet & Wing: Anthology of Domestic Fabulist Poetry, DEADLINE: June 15, 2016.” Interview by Trish Hopkinson. Trish Hopkinson: A Selfish Poet. N.p., 7 June 2016. Web. 28 June 2016.





A Surrealist Response to The System: On Les Kay’s The Bureau

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Les Kay – The BureauIn the mail a while back, I received a red file folder with “STRICTLY PRIVATE” printed in black on an angle across the top half for the front cover. In the bottom right corner is a rectangular box with the following printed words inside it: “Corp. Personnel / Research File / No. 42,” where 42 is handwritten in black ink. Opening the file revealed a few things. One is the title page on the recto side of the folder. It is bound at the top by metal spear binding clips threaded through two holes at the top of the pages and folder over to keep the pages in place. On the inner side of the front folder-cover is a sheet of paper with “The bureau loves you” printed all over the page in a deliberate design format with many variants in the typing, such as “THe Bureau Loves you,” “THE BUREAU LOVES YOU,” “The Bureau loves you..” (with two periods), and “THE BUREAU LOVES YOU>THE BUREAU IS COMING” in the last line. These lines, as well as the rest of the “book,” are printed in a typewriter typeface (complete with some letters receiving more ink than others), thus further suggesting that this is some long-lost FBI file from the 1960s, and maybe it’s a file on some subversive poet. I’m not sure what is really going on at this point. This feeling is furthered heightened by an Agfachrome film slide (like one of those film slides for the old Kodak Carousel, with a piece of film bound by cardboard), and this film slide is held to the title page by a paper clip. Holding the slide up to a light source reveals an aerial view of fields, like those square ones you might see flying over Iowa or South Dakota. There are also three linked tree rows that look like a backwards Z or half a swastika. I think I see a building, too. It must be top-secret base holding aliens and alien technology, or in the least the headquarters to a secret service organization. Who knows what’s buried below? What conspiracies and future technology? Who knows what the following pages (including the “Inspected By 23” tag between pages 17 and 18) in Les Kay’s The Bureau (Sundress Publications, 2015) will reveal about all these mysteries. I’ve never been so excited – and scared – to read a book of poems.

In the beginning, it appears the speaker is a prisoner in The Bureau, which seems to be a high-level and top-secret psychiatric ward, as well as a risky production facility for food products, “Ennui” and time, and these poems are seemingly entries in the speaker’s journal. Within The Bureau, the speaker interacts with “a collie [. . .] learning Spanish,” the inhabitants “tast[ing] infinity,” Arthur Rimbaud, Sir Isaac Newton, Smithson, Paul Valéry, Madame Curie, and The Bureau’s CFO, whose name is either “Satan,” “Stan,” or “Satin.” Amid these writings will sometimes appear text in red typeface, as if commentary from an observing psychologist, The Bureau, or another voice in the poet’s head making commentary on the poet’s observations. Eventually, we learn The Bureau, located in South Dakota, is a test facility to “test the market for surgical figurines / that can be transformed easily / into fallen soldiers, thus penetrating into / several markets with removable plastic spleens” (“Movable Parts” 11). The speaker we learn, however, is no ordinary prisoner – he’s an employee with important “impact studies to be filed” (“The Stranger” 13) and a marketer searching “for a musician / Banned from writing her songs” (“Rimbaud’s Prayer” 14). It turns out, he’s a worker within The Bureau, and he misses his lover, whose name he forgot. In other words, because of his work there, he’s forgotten what he loves.

By the time we get to the final pages, which are mostly redacted, especially the last page where everything is redacted except for “The,” “Bureau,” “loves,” and “you” (“xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx The xxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxxx” 27), we realize this semi-surreal book is a commentary on the corporate and capitalist system in which we are conditioned to live. It’s the repressed voice of all us 9-to-5 and 9-to-6 and 9-to-7 and 9-to-8 workers, who feel unable to express or experience our true desires, writing songs or poems, and where “Rimbaud is no longer Rimbaud” (“Integration and Incense” 16). It is the voice the system represses in our trade-off for comfort and the bills that accompany those comforts. It’s the voice every worker knows but silences in order to survive, though we all know survival does not come from The Bureau loving us. The Bureau, the system, is “A strategy of victimization [that] leads to a lack of culpability” (“An Apple That Falls” 20). Les Kay’s The Bureau, however, conjures a voice for the victims in response the oppressor’s culpabilities, and it is not comfortable, as Kay’s speaker makes us aware of our working-class mechanisms to repress our desires and how and why it happens.//




Kay, Les. The Bureau. Knoxville: Sundress Publications, 2015.


You can download the text pages as a free PDF here: http://www.sundresspublications.com/TheBureau.pdf



Palettes & Quills 5th Biennial Poetry Chapbook Contest

I am not a reader for this contest, but I do help to promote it, and I do the layout and design of the winning chapbook, such as Michael Meyerhofer’s Pure Elysium (2010), Meg Cowen’s If Tigers Do Not Come (2012), and  Carine Topal’s Tattooed (2014).


Palettes & Quills

5th Biennial Poetry Chapbook Competition

With Judge Alan Britt

Open to All Writers


Palettes & Quills Logo


Prize: A $200 cash award plus 50 copies of the published book. Additional copies will be available at an author’s discount. All finalists will receive one free copy of the published book. All contest entrants will be offered a special discount on the purchase price of the published book. Deadline: September 1, 2016. Manuscripts postmarked after September 1 will not be read.


A complete submission should include:

  • Manuscript between 14-48 pages. Poems must be typed on 8 1/2″ x 11″ paper and bound with a spring clip. Use a standard 12 pt. font, such as Garamond, Arial, or New Times Roman. Manuscripts should be in English and contain no illustrations. Please do not submit your only copy. Manuscripts will not be returned.
  • A cover sheet with the contest name (The Palettes & Quills 5th Biennial Chapbook Contest), your name, address, telephone, email, and the title of your manuscript.
  • You must also include a statement that all poems are your own original work.
  • A title page with just the title of the manuscript. Your manuscript’s first page should be the title page but without your name. Your name should not appear any place in the manuscript. The next page of the manuscript should be a complete table of contents.
  • An acknowledgements page. Poems included in your manuscript may be previously published, but the book as a whole may not. Please include an acknowledgements page listing specific publications.
  • A complete Table of Contents.


Two Submission Options:

  • Mailed Submissions: Mail your entry to Donna M. Marbach, Palettes & Quills Chapbook Contest, 1935 Penfield Road, Penfield, NY 14526-1434. Include a $20 check or money order made payable in U.S. dollar and made out to: Palettes & Quills. You may also pay for your mailed copy online at http://palettesandquills.simplesite.com/ (In header, click More, then click Reading Fees). Please include receipt number in cover letter. An email will be sent to you upon reception of manuscript. If you do not have email and want confirmation of receipt, please include a self-addressed stamped postcard. (International submissions must include an IRC.)
  • Online submissions: Email entry to: palettesnquills@gmail.com. Subject line: “Chapbook Contest. [Last Name].” Include two attachments as Word docs or PDFs: Attachment one: cover sheet, acknowledgements, and statement of originality. Attachment two: your manuscript. Online entry fees is $25. You may pay online at: http://palettesandquills.simplesite.com/ (In header, click More, then click Reading Fees), or you can mail your entry fee to the above address by sending a check or money order made out to Palettes & Quills.
  • All payments are non-refundable.
  • We prefer hard copy submissions, but accept emailed submissions.


Manuscripts by multiple authors will not be accepted. Translations will not be accepted.

Simultaneous submissions are accepted. If your manuscript is accepted for publication elsewhere, you must immediately notify Palettes & Quills. Multiple submissions are accepted but must be submitted individually.

Winners will be announced on the Palettes & Quills website in December 2016.


Alan_BrittFinal judge is Alan Britt. Britt teaches poetry/creative writing at Towson University. His recent books include Parabola Dreams (2013), Alone with the Terrible Universe (2011), Hurricane (2010), Greatest Hits (2010), Vegetable Love (2009), Vermilion (2006), Infinite Days (2003), Amnesia Tango (1998), and Bodies of Lightning (1995). He also served as editor at Black Moon.


To download the guidelines as a PDF, click here.



Outer Humor and Inner Seriousness: On Tom C. Hunley’s The State That Springfield Is In

A version of this review (and a better edited version) may appear in a future issue of Redactions: Poetry & Poetics.


Tom C Hunley – The State That Sprinfield Is InIn Close Calls with Nonsense, Stephen Burt, at times, concerns himself with the lyric I. According to Burt, in the past, the lyric I represented a whole person, but in today’s contemporary American poetry, the lyric I (and maybe even the I in any contemporary poem) is not whole, it’s fragmented, it’s unwholly. In The State That Springfield Is In (Split Lip Press, 2016), Tom C. Hunley takes this splintered poetic I into a new arena. Hunley uses characters from one of the all-time great tv shows (especially animated tv shows), The Simpsons, as the constituent parts of his poetic I, his “inner life” (“Notes” 65). Additionally, he often illustrates the inner fragmented lives of The Simpsons characters he portrays, which is probably where the fragmented lyric I is most noticeable. Not only does Hunley become the manifestation of Springfield, but he makes allusions to literary texts and uses poetic forms that have also shaped the constituent parts of a contemporary poetic I who grew up watching The Simpsons like a religion, as many of us did and as Hunley surely did.

The State That Springfield Is In opens with “Edna Krabappel,” a poem that teaches the reader how to read the poems and what to expect: the poems move dialectically (between characters, within a character, or between a character and Hunley), and the poems will sometimes use direct quotes from The Simpsons. In “Edna Krabappel,” the poem acts as a call and response between Hunley speaking for the grade-school teacher Edna Krabappel and uses direct quotes from what Bart Simpson wrote on the chalkboard at the beginning of every episode. Hunley, however, is not appropriating the quotes just to use them for content, but instead, he is showing how they are part of his internal makeup or to highlight internal conflicts within a character, or himself. The final two lines of the poem, “Can we trash the ribbons and teach self-confidence instead of self-esteem? / They are laughing at me not with me” (with Krabappel’s line in plain face and Bart’s in italics), make it clear that this collection, on one level, will be dealing with the issues of identity and perceived identity.

Another example is in the two-sectioned cento poem “Barney Gumble” (33), where Hunley uses lines Barney spoke in The Simpsons and juxtaposes them with “excerpts from AA’s Big Book and Rational Recovery’s Small Book” (67) to contrast the sobering “Barnard Gumble” in Alcoholics Anonymous with the Barney Gumble who is consistently drunk and a more-than-regular patron at Moe’s Tavern. The quotes are so seamlessly worked in, one can’t distinguish Barney’s quotes from the quotes from the alcoholic-recovery books, and one gets a better understanding of the conflicts Barney, and many alcoholics, deal with on a daily basis. Barney is a person who was once a good and sober student until he drank a beer that turned him into an alcoholic with issues of self-worth, and he deals with these issues daily, as the poem suggests.

Another example of the conflicted I appears in “Moe Szyslak” (17-18). In this poem, Moe the bartender is on the phone with the “Listen Lady,” who is Marge Simpson “in one of her many temporary jobs” (66). Moe, after being sidetracked about prank callers, claims he is looking for advice on how to give “advice / like a bartender ought to be doing.” Moe is trying to improve himself, and if you know Moe, there’s a lot of improvement that can be had, which we learn a little about in this poem. During this phone call, however, he keeps talking and we never hear from the Listen Lady. We hear Moe identify himself as “Moe, of Moe’s Tavern” (so he won’t be confused with a prank caller), state his reason for calling, but then he starts analyzing himself, “I’m always fightin’ / with myself, that’s my problem.” He even briefly finds a remedy, “Somehow you just gotta / surrender to your own complexities, like that poet / who said ‘I am large, I contain multitudes’.” And so he keeps talking and analyzing, almost like a poet writing on the page jumping from association to association as he/she tries to better understand him-/herself while writing for an audience. This appears to be a cue for Hunley’s readers, too. Perhaps, Hunley is using the mask of Moe, some quotes from Moe, and a perfectly rendered voice of Moe to tell us about his own internal conflicts, such as “when you fight with yourself / you’re gonna lose, bet on it” or “some days you just don’t believe in nothin’,” which is also a conflict that arises with Reverend Lovejoy in the poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy.” But with Moe, his dialectical movement is within himself, despite talking on the phone with the Listen Lady (who is also a split persona, as he is really Marge). The reader’s expectations are subverted here because we expect a response from the Listen Lady, but it doesn’t come. Instead Moe battles with internal feelings and his outward appearance and actions by way of a monologue. He talks and listens to himself only to realize he will lose. As a result, one wonders what would happen if he let the Listen Lady enter the conversation, one wonders what would happen if he let someone into his life, one wonders if we (the reader) need another person in our life to have a conversation (a dialectic banter) in order to better understand ourselves. We also realize how fragmented Moe is, as he is more than just a bartender, he is also a person seeking love, a person who judges other people, a hero, a person of ridicule, a former boxer, as well as his Dutch, Italian, Arab, and Polish ancestries which are all “at war / inside my [Moe’s] bloodstream).” Indeed, he is large and contains multitudes, like Burt’s contemporary lyric I.

Not only does this poem have dialectic movement between Moe and the listener and between one’s inner and outer selves, but there’s also the movement between serious and humorous, as with many of the poems in this collection. I’ve just pointed out how serious this poem is, but it’s also hilarious. I laughed so many times through it, and I probably laughed even harder because Hunley rendered Moe so perfectly. This type of movement recalls Robert Frost who said about the poem, “If it is with outer seriousness, it must be with inner humor. If it is with outer humor, it must be with inner seriousness. Neither one alone without the other under it will do.” I think most of these poems achieve the latter, even in the meta poem “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-46), which takes on the most serious and philosophic questions about whether or not there is a god or divine creator.

In “Reverend Timothy Lovejoy” (45-6), the Reverend is giving a sermon about god and Matt Groening, the creator of the Simpsons. Much like Moe’s phone call, Reverend Lovejoy is thinking out loud to a captured audience, his congregation, who, like the Listen Lady, do not respond. The poem opens with Reverend Lovejoy confronting the conflict of Matt Groening who created the “comic strip” Life in Hell but who also created The Simpsons. This divine creator created two universes, and Reverend Lovejoy is in one of them, a Reverend who is aware of his fictional existence but who also believes in a Christian god. That’s now two conflicts. There’s also the conflict that Groening “himself [is] an agnostic,” which is a paradox. This spirals into the Reverend saying he is “not sure I believe in myself either.” We have an existential poem on many levels with many gods. Not only is Reverend Lovejoy a fragmented lyric I, but the creator (god and Groening) is too. Not to mention “that Matt / Groening only penned four episodes of The Simpsons,” and “so it appears that Apu and his 700 million fellow Hindus / may be correct, friends, that there are many creators,” meaning there are many writers for The Simpsons as well as many gods. The existential confusion, the multiple lyric gods, becomes more confusing when we see that the character “Mr. Burns / proclaimed himself ‘The New God’,” and when we see that Lisa Simpson “created a tiny world whose inhabitants built / a graven image of her.” The fictional characters (who were created by Groening and multiple writers who were created by a god or gods) probably believe they were created by god, then become gods themselves, and Reverend Lovejoy is trying to sort through all of this using his knowledge of the self-contained world of Springfield that he lives in, while also being aware that he is fictional. In the end it conjures up what many of us have thought about gods and creation, including Plato and his allegory of the cave, Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacra and Simulation, as well as the movie The Matrix. And all of this seriousness is mixed in with laugh-out-loud humor.

By the end of The State That Springfield Is In, we can understand why Hunley used this cultural phenomenon of a tv show to write about his “own scarred, departed youth” (65) as we must wonder whether we watch The Simpsons or if The Simpsons watch us. Plus, does any Simpsons fan really know what state Springfield is in?

Springfield State Flag




Hunley, Tom C. The State That Springfield Is In. Richmond, VA: Split Lip Press, 2016. Print.//


Redactions: Poetry & Poetics 2015 pushcart nominations

Redactions: Poetry & Poetics has made its nominations for the 2015 Pushcart Prize. In the order of appearance in issue 19 are:

  1. Gabrielle Bates’ “Infatuation.” Page 7.
  2. Susan Cohen’s “The Golden Hills of California.” Page 14.
  3. Michael Robins’ “Poem for Tony Hayward.” Page 17.
  4. James Grabill’s “The Rooster Is Nowhere If Not Awake.” Page 22.
  5. Les Kay’s “Scheduling.” Page 25.
  6. Jose D Trejo-Maya’s “Pane/Glass Glass/Pane.” Page 32.

To read these poems, stories, and more, order a copy of issue 19 from here: http://www.etsy.com/shop/redactionspoetry.

You can also read the Pushcart Prize nominated poems here: http://www.redactions.com/pushcart-poems.asp.



The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot


This comic version of Prufrock by Julian Peters is terrific, and can be a helpful teaching aid, too.   The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T.S. Eliot

The Cave (Winner of The Bitter Oleander Press Library of Poetry Book Award for 2013.)

The Cave

Poems for an Empty Church

Poems for an Empty Church

The Oldest Stone in the World

The Oldest Stone in the Wolrd

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Henri, Sophie, & The Hieratic Head of Ezra Pound: Poems Blasted from the Vortex

Pre-Dew Poems

Pre-Dew Poems

Negative Time

Negative Time

After Malagueña

After Malagueña

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