Ears of Flesh and Blood: Roxane Beth Johnson's Black Crow Dress, by M. NourbeSe Philip

Black Crow Dress takes no prisoners—its subject matter, the experience of
African American slavery, is a difficult one, traumatic and overwhelming. The enslavement of Africans in the Americas and the Caribbean persisted for some 400 years and its pernicious legacy continues to reverberate within all post-slavery, post-colonial societies. In 2014, Hollywood bestowed some of its highest awards on 12 Years a Slave, a film which illustrates the challenges and potential failure that face artists when attempting to portray the surfeit of suffering and horror which marks the experience of slavery. The impulse appears always to incline towards excess, to show it all, which I suggest is impossible.  The result is often a retraumatising of the audience and/or an indulgence in the gratuitous display of black pain. Roxane Beth Johnson avoids this particular trap and succeeds in crafting a book that tells us as little as we need to know, which, paradoxically ushers her readers into a vast universe composed of these apparently small, tragic lives which, however, achieve epic status in the largesse of their compassion, patience, and resistance; their endurance of suffering and eventually their transcendence. Johnson trusts her readers to navigate with her the challenges of trying to tell yet not tell the tribe of stories of this small, remarkable collectivity of souls who inhabit Black Crow Dress, and who haunt us in those spaces of forgetting. 

“Don’t give me no words on a page to describe my suffering…” Johnson writes in “Middle Passage,” “Don’t look at me with your pity.  I don’t cry no tears. Ever. The taste just reminds me of the sea.”  The poems in this work are implacable, and remind one of the clear-eyed, unflinching gaze of Emily Dickinson. There is, indeed, no solicitation of pity, no tears are required, but we walk with these ghosts: lovers, Clea and Zebeedee, Caroline, lover to Tobias who owned her but not her soul, which he “never did own,” and which she predicts “will rise from ground like water turned into wine.”  There is Prudence, Tobias’ daughter, Zebedee his son by Caroline and his wife, Mistress Finch. 

This is lyric-driven poetry in service of community, history and a larger politic, where the lyric "I" steps aside in the face of something larger – perhaps memory. Black Crow Dress is narrative, yet it subverts narrative in its deliberate cultivation of the fragment; its rhythms are those of the blues and the latter’s abbreviated style, and the thump thump of the work song. Black Crow Dress is, indeed, a chorus of voices we have too seldom heard and listened to.

“A teacher says that I cannot be the narrator of their story”, Johnson confesses in “The Slaves Arrive and Do Not Leave for Months,” presenting the conflict about who should tell this story of ghosts – the poet narrator herself or one of the ghosts. She has been, in the words of Hamlet’s ghost, the “ears of flesh and blood,” but it is she who has to assume the role of Hamlet’s ghost and speak on their behalf: “...I could a tale unfold whose lightest word/Would harrow up thy soul, freeze thy…blood,/Make thy two eyes, like stars, start from their spheres….”

These are, indeed, harrowing tales: Tobias Finch rapes 11-year-old Clea, whom he bought at age 5 for his 7-year-old daughter, Prudence; Clea is attacked by dogs, loses her breasts and a little finger; his wife, the good Mistress Finch, allows an old slave starve to death;  Clea and Zebedee (Tobias’ son) fall in love but Finch sells him to another plantation, a fate no doubt better than the one his wife wished and had planned for him: "She’d extinguish her knife in his neck.” The plantation is never named – indeed, there is only one mention of the word plantation – when the ghost Zebedee, irritated by the word, “resists” the poet “writing the word new in the title of this poem.”

Black Crow Dress is also a love story or many love stories: the lovers, Clea and Zebedee, are thwarted in the life they want to start together after he’s sold off.  He dies, spending “the last of his lungs trying to run back home.” And, as between Caroline and Tobias, both of whom are dead by his hand, there appears to be a kind of love: “He loved his Caroline. He must hear she loves him…”; she with “a hole through the head,” he with “a mouthful of rifle for his own.” And even in death they will not each other go.

The poems in Black Crow Dress cluster around the characters mentioned above, but their stories hover over a multitude of stories.   Like Clea’s “milky-glass eye that trilled me with its magnifications, its ability to divide all you saw into infinite variations,” each poem opens out into “magnifications and infinite variations,” creating this sense of a tribe of voices clamouring to be heard.  In the final poem, “Goodbye to My Favorite Ghost Clea,” poet/storyteller/amanuensis, Johnson, describes her as an “old slave, genius, soldier, ghost.”  Clea herself claims five previous lives of which four are black:  a saint, a Creole, a life in which she lost an eye – as a soldier, perhaps -- a slave, and a white mathematician.  These lives tease the reader as the mind spins out thinking of what they may have consisted of.

Many of the references are steeped in Christianity but underlying that is a deep African spirituality rooted in the natural world.  Clea places broken ware on graves for instance, a practice common among groups from the Congo area, many of whom were taken as slaves to the United States. Zebedee urges that we think of him “(l)ike a stone, leave me for ages under a cypress then carry me for a while in your pocket, throw me into another river... which again links us to earth-based practices of African groups such as the Shona of Zimbabwe who believe that stones represent the Ancestors.  There is a particularity and specificity to the beliefs manifested in these quiet poems that shout their humanity – beliefs cobbled from the different ethnic groups that were hurled into the maelstrom of slavery.  This intense specificity explodes into a Blakean universe in which we can read other approaches to the spiritual—“Clea’s First Note Sent to Zebedee: “All that the emptiness can hold is nothing anyone can steal. Every part of me no one ever sees or hears or holds, you keep. I am an empty jar.” She could easily be talking to her God.

Johnson successfully exploits that capacity which Keats termed “negative capability” – the ability to be in the space of unknowing without reaching after a conclusion. She provides us details about the slaves, but tells the story aslant with more left unsaid than said, and it’s in those spaces, where the ghosts live, that the life of these poems exist, allowing us to read around them rather than about them–holding the bare bones of the “facts” such as they may be.  She tells by not telling.  Each line in “Slaves Out Back,” for instance, opens out possibilities and stories:  “this is our hammer– we use the forked end to pull nails from our hopes. This here’s how a mother let go a child to be sold; Here’s how we beat out birds to hide in trees.” The gift to us, her readers, is the space that allows us to recreate these hidden and lost lives. Our gift back to this tribe of voices that jostle and push us is to listen to them with “ears of flesh and blood.” 

M. NourbeSe Philip

M. NourbeSe Philip is a poet, essayist, novelist and playwright and former lawyer who lives in the space-time of the City of Toronto. Author of five books of poetry, one novel and three collections of essays, her most recent work, Zong!, is a genre-breaking, book-length poem which engages with law, history, and memory as they relate to the transatlantic slave trade.  Winner of many awards including Guggenheim and Rockefeller Fellowships and the Arts Foundation of Toronto Writing and Publishing Award, she is also a Dora Award finalist for her play Coups and Calypsos.