Tuesday, November 07, 2006

REVIEW: Dolores Kendrick's The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women (William Morrow Company, Inc. 1989)

In his 1979 critical collection, From Behind the Veil: A Study of Afro-American Narrative, Robert B. Stepto posits, "The strident, moral voice of the former slave recounting, exposing, appealing, apostrophizing, and above all remembering his ordeal in bondage is the single most impressive feature of the slave narrative." But what of a collection of poems based on slave narratives? Is the remembering enough? And if it is not enough, what elevates this remembrance to poetry? This is the challenge faced by former Washington, D.C., poet laureate, Dolores Kendrick’s award-winning 1989 collection, The Women of Plums: Poems in the Voices of Slave Women.

The Women of Plums is based on actual interviews of female slaves conducted by the Federal Writers’ Project. Ambitious in scope, these poems, mostly dramatic monologues written in the voices of slave women, humanize the horrors of slavery. In "Sophie, Climbing the Stairs," a slave braves the threat of flogging to learn how to read. In "Leah: in Freedom" a runaway slave refuses to let her spirit be broken despite repeated recapture. In "Ndzeli in Passage," a slave’s sister chooses death by drowning during the Middle Passage over a life of enslavement in America.

While these situations are moving, the poems themselves, often, do not move. The lyrical execution of the dramatic scenes is largely uneven.

True, there are moments when Kendrick’s technique dazzles. Alliterative and assonant, "Liza Lily in Silks" turns and turns and turns, reveling in its own sounds:

Oh, this is a quiet dress.
Light. Airy.
I can take off soft

in it anytime I please
if only to tease
Edam. Get him away

from the horror of his hope
That traps him in that
House that both of us hate.

I wait…

Written in the form of a shopping list, "To Market, to Market" chills the reader with its utter inhumanity:
one Spinning Wheel
one Dresser Mirror
one nigger wench & child

The ballad form beautifully amplifies content in the tragic "The Ballad of Bethany Veney" where:
...when old Kibber came upon
us running brave and free,
he made John climb
(for the last time)
the way away from me
  Good God! the way from me.

With its crisp monosyllablics, the images in "Julia Carrying Water" sing with the clarity of Lucille Clifton:

though I walk through
briars and bristles

up hills and over
stony paths

in rooms brightly dark
with watery movin’

But in other places within the collection, the language too often dulls into what reads like transcriptions arbitrarily broken into lines, as in these prosaic passages from "A Slightly Colored Lady":

In slavery you had to be good or you’d
Make Marster mad and he’d sell you
Or beat you or both…

And you wouldn’t know ‘till ‘twas too late
‘bout Jonah who be sold ‘way from his family
And Lilliemae who stood on the auction-block

Or these lines from "Sidney, Looking for her Mother…":

And you detain me unlawfully. Do you understand the
papers, suh? Can you
read? No offense, suh. Oh, no! but the train for Austin be
here any
Minute and that be the place where I last heard my mother

Or still worse, these lines from "Jo Abandoned":

At least I think he could Though his feelin’s be slow
They usually firm and honorable Just wanted the best
Jack always wanted the best for himself I didn’t fit

Where is image? Where is metaphor? Where is music?

Ironically, the most lyrical language in The Women of Plums actually occurs before the title page in "Canticles of a Black Lady," the prelude to the collection. Hear the lovely music in "…Fly winds to sea-rocks and break/ a round of prayer upon their backs," "Their ripe dreams bitten into leave a sour sweetness in the membranes of the mouth," and "The women of plums are sweet and black./ Their flesh moist with tears of joy."

It begs the question whether the need for verisimilitude to the slave narrative transcriptions shackles Kendrick’s ability to lyrically deliver.

Dolores Kendrick does get credit for originality in content. Along with Rita Dove’s 1987 Pulitzer Prize-winning collection Thomas and Beulah, Kendrick’s The Women of Plums helped lay the foundation for the recent rash of book-length African-American verse based on historical figures including Natasha Trethewey's 2002 Bellocq's Ophelia, Quraysh Ali Lansana‘s 2004 collection, They Shall Run: Harriet Tubman Poems, and Tyehimba Jess‘ 2005 National Poetry Series winning Leadbelly.

As Stepto proposed was true of the slave narrative, The Women of Plums’ real strength is in its remembering and in its engagement of the "moral, strident voice." While some of the poems struggle on the page, they consistently cry out to be voiced. Thus, it is no surprise that Kendrick adapted the collection for the stage, where it won the New York New Playwrights Award in 1997.

Before The Women of Plums, never before had there been such an assemblage of voices of female slaves in verse. But poetry demands more than originality in content. It demands originality in technique. In this regard, the fruit of The Women of Plums is lyrically bittersweet.


BLUE said...

"But poetry demands more than originality in content. It demands originality in technique."

yeah, i feel you ... but when i look around me at what's currently being published, i have to wonder if either of those requirements is in the minds of editors or writers (or listeners or readers, for that matter) in our contemporary times. i wrestle all the time with ths question: what does it mean to be *original* anymore? and why does it matter?

when TWOP entered my life, i was so overjoyed to see it. reading this work was about the narrative for me, not necessarily about the poetry. Kendrick's work made the mythic slave woman a tangible human for me. all my life, i'd heard stories about american negro slaves and their oppression and suffering. this book put me imaginatively inside the slave woman's life.

all these years later, maybe this narrative would bore me to pieces. i mean, who but me has complained the loudest about being bored with what publishes as poetry??? lol.

but this book is still a treasure. in the vein of anna julia cooper, it is a "when-and-where-i-enter" canonical directive.

in 2006, after the coming of edward p. jones (the known world), after barbara chase-riboud (sally hemings), after jewell parker rhodes (douglass' women), of course the content here becomes a little pale. and maybe the image/metaphor/music elements that make us all do our usual dances are not so impressive (anymore).

but the execution of the telling, the literary act of putting me inside the lives of these women, of not having this be a book-length tale focused only on the demonic effects of the mean-spirited massa or the slaves inescapable suffering, is significant and will stay one of my pivot points for a long time.

(these were WOMEN!)

thanks for making me revisit this. and thanks for your visit to PLUMS, too.

BLUE said...


Caroline Jackson Smith, a brilliant stage director who teaches at Oberlin, did an adaptation of TWOP and staged it at Karamu, where my friend Terrence Spivey is now artistic director.

one of the poems, "Peggy in Killing" also was adapted for an opera.

and wanted to share this bit of information on what matters when writing poetry from Dolores Kendrick (quoting Donald Hall) (she was poet laureate of D.C. -- is she still?):

"Dolores Kendrick sites the work of Donald Hall, US Poet Laureate and colleague, on the subject of what matters when writing poetry. The following is a quote from 'Breakfast Served Any Time All Day' by Donald Hall reprinted from the Exonian, copyright Donald Hall, September 1, 2004:

'Remember what matters...Remember that you love poems, those old stars burning in the sky forever...Remember that you work not for publication, not for NEA grants, not for listing in Poets and Writers, not for praise, not for notoriety, not for money, not for Guggenheims, not for Pulitzers, not for Greek Islands, not for APR, not for Yaddo, not for tenure. Remember that you work to make a star that will burn--outside you and even for a while after you--high in the sky.'"

and what does the cynic in me say to all of that?



people can become such an irony when you stand them up like paper dolls next to their life's work and their many awards ...

M. Ayodele Heath said...


Thanks for sharing those comments from the Kendrick interview. I really miss our conversations. You always provoke the larger questions.

I realize that I am setting myself up for irony by even writing this review of TWOP. I only did it 1) because it's a requirement here in my last semester and 2) because Ira Sadoff thought that it would be an interesting exercise for me, in particular, based on some of my work in dialect.

As I assemble my own manuscript, I see choices which I've made which make me guilty of the same sort of lyrical laxness of which I'm accusing Kendrick. I, too, find myself shackled to slave language, particularly in my poem, "Genealogy."

Everything I've learned in this MFA program tells me to cut "Genealogy (of the Byrd Family" from the manuscript. The images are not that fresh. The tone is a tad too sentimental. The central metaphor has already been done (a la "I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.")

But the performer in me knows that, despite these cliches, the piece works dramatically. Sure, I could tweak the poem to become more literary, but the performer in me is choosing not to make those changes. I am, in full awareness, pushing to include that poem and about 3 or 4 others in the collection which operate on the same tropes for the sake of (melo?)drama - "On Closing Woodruff Park," "Urban Percussions," and "Home." I am fully aware that these poems won't stand up to the scrutiny of literary critics, but I am pushing forth because not every poem is a literary poem. There are oral poems. There are songs. There are tone poems. Each has its own purpose; each has its own set of standards.

Even in the short history of literay poetry, some poems are more imagistic, others more narrative, others more rhetorical, etc. I recognize why Kendrick made the choices she made for TWOP and I, given the same project, would have likely made identical choices to stay true to the slave voice. But I am able to separate the right-brained artist in me who would make those choices from the left-brained critic in me who says those choices are unpoetic.

I learned more about myself from that review that from any other critical document I've ever written.