PHILLIS by Alison Clarke
Review by Bill Neumire
In 1773 with her book Poems on Various Subjects, Phillis Wheatley became the first African American to publish a book of poetry. Hailed from New England to England as “the African Genius,” Wheatley, who was a slave, led a complex spiritual, aesthetic, and intellectual life, inspiring generations of artists and abolitionists churning through history to the present day. In Phillis, Alison Clarke adopts Wheatley’s voice as well as the voices of some of the host of those to whom she played muse. Clarke’s lengthy book of poems—moving from prose blocks to centered free verse lineations, to pages dominated by white space and mapping—is a biography and persona pseudo autobiography in poems, with lines like, “This poem, my poem, about this tempest, appeared in / The Newport Mercury in 1767. I was 14 years old.” It is a bold, perhaps too bold, pose to assume the thoughts, feelings and intentions of such a monumental figure, but Clarke uses her study of Wheatley’s diaries, letters, history, and poems to construct a living voice. The result offers readers, in first-person, both the unfathomable story of Wheatley’s writing career as well as the unimaginable cruelties of her life as an enslaved Black person in North America. Clarke, who is the author of The Sisterhood Series and winner of the Diversity Magazine Award for Writer of the Year and Book of the Year, provides in these pages a novelesque research paper in journalistic form such that when the reader finishes, much is learned.
We immediately encounter Wheatley as a figure divided between realms when she says, “My name on this Earth is Phillis.” The persona regularly invokes Christianity and classical mythology in addition to making persistent use of Latin epigraphs, such as Sir Christopher Wren’s epitaph, “Lector, si monumentum requiris, circumspice” (if you seek [his] monument, look around) and Virgil’s, “Fessos tuto placidissima portu accipit” (This most peaceful place welcomes those who are weary to its safe haven). Indeed, borrowing from Wheatley’s writings, Clarke fills these pages with references to the historical poet’s religious devotion, her classical education, and her fluency with the Latin language as she seeks many corners of the external world for support. The most monumental form of support, though, comes from Wheatley’s African ancestors, figures that act as Chorus, muse, and succor. In ‘My Name Is~’ she calls herself, “Griot, soothsayer, Teller Of Story, Daughter Of / The Fulani, Keeper Of Secrets.” And in the same poem her ancestors are described with vibrance:
Swirls of Amaranth, Tangerine, and Ebony surround the
They are hovering in clouds of colour and light.
Through her pain and exploitation and slavery, she turns to these ancestors, to “the sounds of home [that] soothe [her], they sustain [her]. / They say: ‘Hold on.’” Though this persona is filled with purpose and self-confidence, Clarke makes Wheatley’s loneliness and fear evident as well, saying, “There are no friends out here, and I don’t know / what to do,” and “Solitude Is Language.” She confronts naysayers quite directly in lines like, “There are those who will look into my poetry and / wonder why I didn’t write about this, why I didn’t write about my Homeland, why I didn’t write more about my parents, the former life.” This Clarke version of Wheatley allows the historical figure to offer explanations and intentions and defenses. And when she has moments of “Why write about a life that was ripped from you?”, she remembers her “mother: the soft surge of / life that gave us no choice.”
Mantras drive this poetically created Wheatley as she reminds herself, “You are creating art so / you can free your people,” imagining her words as a “papyrical lantern.” Through her pain she prophecies that her “gift of writing [will] / somehow / Help [her] escape this.” The future for her and for her descendants lies, as she notes in ‘The Old Colony House,’ in her writing: “If I can prove that the / muse rolled off my tongue and into the pen, I have a chance to be free.” And she is a strategist expressing justifiably ambivalent thoughts about her white supporters, as here in ‘F’:
I must do it in a way that will not offend, that will not unleash
anger against me or my cause, but instead lend to man’s
capacity for empathy, and the sense, a belief in Justice, For All.
That is my mission, that is my duty, being the ‘Ethiop.’ That is
why I am still here.
The book is in the language of destiny, of the kind of responsibility that eliminates self. She knows prophetically that “pages of poetry become my Emancipation / Proclamation,” and she will make “suffering (…) into / something to be listened to.” The book, as research, is teeming with history, wide-ranging in its name dropping: Mather Byles, Cotton Mather, Robert Calef, Siptoraaki, Archibald Bell, Granville Sharp, James Albert Ukasaw Gronniosaw, Benjamin Franklin. The poems even speak from the additional personas of Harriet Tubman, Lewis Adams, Booker T. Washington, but in a familiar, a singular voice as if each of the speakers is also Wheatley. The real question, the persona asks, “Did Phillis ever think she would make history—herstory?”.
Formally, the book ranges; there is prose, epistolary, centered lyric free verse. The early prosaic form opens into very airy spacious lines
later on, as in ‘M’:
………we aerate light and purpose
………we forge On
In the end, the book forges a “troubling music” that calls haunting “an art form.” It’s research as art form, allowing readers to learn about the subject and experience artistic catharsis simultaneously. It allows the reader to wonder, alongside Wheatley and the rest of her line of influence, “Did we do enough?”.
Bill Neumire’s first book, Estrus, was a semi-finalist for the 42 Miles Press Award and his second manuscript was recently a finalist for the Barrow Street Prize. It will be published in 2022 by Unsolicited Press. He serves as poetry editor for Verdad.