Please join me on Monday, October 23 at 7:00 PM EST, for a reading of work from the most recent issue of Washington Square Review. I have three poems in this issue, available for purchase here, edited by Melissa Ford Lucken. I will be reading with many of my wonderful co-contributors.
My article on the influence of the Underground Railroad on the plot of Henry James’s The Portrait of a Lady appears in the most recent issue of NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction. The article focuses on a house in James’s masterpiece that the author based on his grandmother’s home in Albany, New York. This grandmother, Catharine James, whom the novelist stayed with as a boy, lived near numerous stations on the Underground Railroad.
While The Portrait of a Lady features an unusual number of grand homes, the Albany house is not one of them. One critic, Marilyn Chandler, characterizes the home as an “architectural joke” compared to the other houses in the novel. When Isabel first meets the aunt who takes her out of Albany to Europe, this aunt, Mrs. Touchett, calls the home “very bad” and “bourgeois.” (Mrs. Touchett lives in a more typical house in the world of The Portrait of a Lady, an Italian castle.)
I argue that the “very bad” house in Albany operates as a spatial representation of the novel’s plot — or to use the term preferred by James, the novel’s “ado.” In the preface to The Portrait of a Lady, James calls the word plot “nefarious” before reflecting on the process of creating an “ado” for Isabel in terms that evoke the “square” and “large” Albany house. He metaphorically describes constructing the novel’s narrative action as building a “square and spacious house” around his isolated heroine. Isabel when staying in Albany remains notably isolated, choosing to be alone. She consistently appears in a room whose door to the “vulgar street” is bolted shut and “condemned.”
In my analysis of the Albany house as a symbol of the novel’s plot, I consider the history of the upstate city in different decades, including the 1850s when Isabel daydreams in front of the bolted door and the Underground Railroad was particularly active in Albany. I ultimately assert that the history of Black people in the US crossing regional and national borders in the 1850s in pursuit of freedom centrally and problematically determine James’s highly influential plot about an innocent, white American woman travelling to Europe in search of personal freedom.
Fourteen Hills, a journal I have long enjoyed, has published my found poem, “Communications for Health-Care Worker,” which begins with a chipper email from a cadaver lab and gets more chipper with each new nonfictional message for our US employee.
Thank you, editors, especially poetry editor, Elijah Kerns.
I wrote an article about Dickens’s 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, and his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the US, American Notes. In the article, I discuss how Dickens uses the elements of the pastoral, a poetic genre usually associated with natural beauty and pretty lasses, to deliver a strong political message. The article is available on Humanities Commons; the abstract is below:
In his 1843 novel, Martin Chuzzlewit, Dickens used the pastoral mode to deliver a strong message about labor. To communicate this message, he employed the mode’s many traits, including its retreat into and return from the rural landscape and its focus on the country worker, traditionally the shepherd. This essay follows the novel’s pastoral retreat into the United States, where young Martin comes to understand the realities of manual labor through his physical interactions with the American landscape. His companion, Mark Tapley, meanwhile, performs the emotional labor of the servant by initially shielding middle-class Martin from this painful knowledge. Both men, however, must confront manual labor on a massive scale upon reaching “Eden,” a hideous landscape that Dickens constructed referring to passages from his travelogue about his 1842 trip to the United States, American Notes. The landscape in Eden documents the decaying atmosphere of slavery as recorded in Dickens’s travelogue. It also recreates for Martin the physical experience that Dickens had as a child of entering a vast, foreign world of factory work. Ultimately, Dickens’s uses the pastoral to uncover a horror that usually lies beneath a beautiful surface: that the civilized landscape demands enslaved or nearly enslaved labor for its construction.
The wonderful new issue of descant is here. In it is a poem I first wrote in a workshop with Art Smith, who recently passed away. I revised the poem with renewed faith after hearing Nikki Giovanni mention redlining as a possible subject of poetry.
This poem, “Roller-Skating in a Redlined Neighborhood,” opens:
Eva whizzed down a church
handicap ramp and slapped
side-view mirrors of parked
cars. I leaned forward, going
backwards, onto red rubber
knobs bolted to my toes.
Like erasers, they rubbed off
in bits. Eva’s home was close.
Mine was behind a tongue
of tires—commuter traffic—
stuttering S where the avenue
bent. It stared, open-shuttered,
at the end of Eva’s street.
She said when her father
came back from Vietnam,
she looked into his coffin
and told him to get up.
I said, “That’s so sad”—
but she told me, “No. I didn’t
understand then.” My empty
house stared at no one
in particular. Eva’s step-dad,
a parole-officer, had prison
one step back in his voice…”
Thank you, editors at descant, for giving this poem a home. Thank you too Art Smith in memory and Nikki Giovanni.