Managing Editor’s Note: In this post, Richard Cambridge asks us to consider how we can “chart the landscape of desire,” and concludes that we’ll “need something stronger than poems. [We] will need to make spells.” It is with this willingness to step right “across the border” and into the landscape of Danielle Legros Georges’ world that Cambridge offers his lush, complex, and thoughtful review. Enjoy this exploration of poetry that “yearns for the just and true.”
Landscape of Desire
by Richard Cambridge
Winner of the Sheila Margaret Motton Book Prize, 2016, (New England Poetry Club)
How to chart the landscape of desire? A pencil is a good start, a draft, a poem. But soon you’ll be dipping a pen in blood, your own blood, and the blood of your ancestors and your enemies. You’ll have crossed the border and entered the landscape. You’ll need something stronger than poems. You will need to make spells.
Danielle Legros Georges possesses the disciplines of a poet-warrior—spell, chant, ritual, theatre, incantation, painting, scholarship—to lead us through the landscape and catalogue the complicated geography of person, country (Haiti and the United States—Boston), and history, where we make home and how we find love, the consequences of colonialism, war, and race, the desire to make sense, and the necessity of beauty in our lives.
Yet when we open the book it is music we hear, “If blues, then,”—a deep bass call that thrums across the pages to the last poem’s ecstatic response of desire fulfilled—“I Want You.” So, with the soundtrack on and the surety an abundant welcome before us, let’s take a walk through Legros Georges’ landscape of desire.
Legros Georges is sacred dramaturge after Peter Brook’s “The Holy Theatre,”1 creating the condensed Passion play, “The Easter Rara,” binding up the wounds of the restaveks—Haiti’s child slaves—in the raucous, jubilant parade.
She is priestess in “Intersection,” walking among the trapped and the dead of Haiti’s devastating earthquake in 2010, repeating her grim psalm:
The earth shook. A portal opened.
I walked through it. The earth shook.
A portal opened. I walked through
it. The earth shook. A portal opened.
I walked through it. The earth shook. A
portal opened. …
the poem continues repeating, the radical enjambment mimetic of the earth breaking, we fall between the lines: subtext is context. There is slim hope in the last line when tension lifts and the tense shifts to the present, “A portal opens,” and we make our way out, “Into the Next Town,” (the next poem) to ask the unanswerable question:
… How does a country
bury its too hastily
There is another value to Legros Georges’ landscape: it is saturated with flowers so vivid it hurts (in a good way!) the imagination to receive them.
In Dreaming by the Book, Elaine Scarry’s work on literary cognition, she uncovers five formal practices verbal artists (Scarry’s term for poets and writers) use to make images fly into the reader’s imagination. One is Floral Supposition.
Flowers can be taken as the representative of the imagination because of the ease of imagining them. That ease is in turn attributable to their size and the size of our heads, their shape and the shape of our eyes, their intense localization and the radius of our compositional powers. [ ]…the tissue of the flower is the work table on which imaginative life gets processed; [ ]… The petal becomes the imagination’s surrogate retina.2
Many poems are titled as paintings: The love tribute “The Flowers Mr. Miranda Planted for his Dead Wife” that do double duty as comic assault, “they bludgeon passersby / with their beauty.” In “Landscape in Violet,” the metaphysics of being and not-being—“Don’t shout. / Be the tree felled in the blue woods.” The exquisite “Instances of Blue,” a meditation after Rothko, improvised like jazz, shaded with the blues.
The heart-breaking dramatic mural of the Haitian triptych “Lingua Franca with Flora,” depicting the country’s Edenic lush state, the bougainvillea—“explode / hot pink, burst red, blown clean in the trade / winds that sweep down like a Moorish lover; it’s humiliation, the Rose de Chine “stripped like a god of his name: / … made to show his black blood / in the shine on the boots of American Marines, / 1915.” And it’s present, ravaged but stubbornly beautiful state portrayed by a young woman—“she will emerge a goddess in a rinsed / azure shift, after birdbath in alley…” who pins a chevalier de nuit to her dress on the way to rendezvous with her lover.
The voluptuous striptease “Still Life in Green and Violet,” —reveals beauty as a mask for loneliness and a desire to be made whole in another—“Who / would want this mass and make it glow?” The intensity of this poem borders on cross species love found in Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
Other poems have floral and vegetive matter woven into them: Olmstead’s “emerald / Necklace” in “Praisesong for Boston.” Legros Georges celebrates herself, “…flesh-flare of leg on sidewalk walking, / into fern, green stone, grass, tree, one more word // and I will be swimming in a garden…” in “Pleasant Street, Spring.”
Yet Legros Georges’ floral aesthetic value yearns for the just and the true. In “How Else” the landscape sears with the horror of rape, and its courageous overthrow:
How else to say that rape is used as a weapon
Of war but rape is used as a weapon of war.
Your child who runs in a verdant field.
. . .
A child separates the dying from the future.
The death dealers flee. This child looks
The future in its face.
Racism in “Poem from the Real World,” a deft hybrid of reportage and poetry:
… It’s a temperate lovely
day: Indian summer (Indian summer asterisked for further
study), blustery, and again it comes: nigger.
“For the Poorest Country in the Western Hemisphere” (I keep seeing “Most Beautiful” for “Poorest”), one may ask why it is so?
You should be called beacon. You should
be called flame. Almond and bougainvillea,
Garden and green mountain.
Why is Haiti’s beauty framed as a failed aesthetic and ethical imperative? The United States took sixty years to recognize the first free Black Republic in the Western Hemisphere. What could have been if Haiti’s revolutionary spark ignited the southern U.S. slave states? Legros Georges’ prophetic insight is measured in the cost of our present moral and political crisis.
“A Dominican Poem” bears witness to the unmaking of a citizen—you can change the past—by the Dominican Republic’s Constitutional Court ruling in 2013 stripping citizenship from Dominican-born people without a Dominican parent, going back to 1929.3 The poet’s stern interrogative rebuke is a repetition of “Who” (ten stated, five implied) so much so you begin to hear an owl whooing.
“Indigenous peoples of the Americas believe the owl can help unmask those who would deceive you or take advantage of you. …It is also feared that the death warning is in the hoot.”4 A light for the people; a warning for the powerful.
There are brief poems of pure pleasure: “Egg,” “Love Spell No. 8,” “Only,” like static from brushed lips; and “Arc,” “Willing” and the title poem, “The Dear Remote Nearness of You,” the sweet release of a deep kiss.
And poems of risk and daring: In “Light Thief” Legros Georges slips inside Lucifer’s head exposing the art of his darkness, and has the moxie to steal just enough gleam to create the sex-charged “Love Potion No. 6.” Have I read a more erotic poem? Had I been reading it beside my lover…well? You may want to try it—the poem, and if you dare—the spell.
In “Binary Death” she traps death in a language poem then spins it into a spell. She secularizes Paul’s “O death where is thy sting”5 which is just a transcendence of the sting. She plucks death’s stinger: death is—and only is—death. “once once” she spits. What brave heresy.
Poet, artist, historical witness, warrior, priestess, Legros Georges’ wide ranging talents often occur in the same poem, (she reminds me of Anna Deavere Smith’s one-woman, twenty-one persona performance Let Me Down Easy)6 shapeshifting and multicrafting as the poem’s organic unity calls for. When this happens, stunning aesthetic harmonics occurs, as in “Poem of History,” a fourteen-couplet poem with a final, single-line stanza.
Legros Georges has sublet an apartment in view of a university campus from Jamal, an acquaintance, who has left for Egypt to chronicle history-in-the-making, the Arab Spring. She is moved by Jamal’s undertaking, sensing something of her own history, although she is, for the moment, unaware of the connection. So she hums into life a refrain—the theme is history—each time with a variation, recovering her own personal history, and how it is bound up with “The university sprawl[ed] like a beast. …” outside her window, arriving at her source—the light dawns physically and figuratively—“like the light of my lamp on Jamal’s // Table-turned-desk on which I write history (sixth stanza, seventh variation).
And so begins her reclamation of race and identity, and indictment of slavery and erasure. She takes up a brush in one hand, creating a pentimento, “I draw water from the waters of history, safe from the blood of history” (eighth stanza, ninth variation), a radiant space filled with “lilies standing bright as stars,” as her other hand picks up a pen and begins to rescribe a palimpsest of a university patrolled by the descendants of slaves:
… Patrolled by dark
Guards drawn from the dark city periphery,
An irony not lost on them, in inky corners
Posted. Shielding the denizens of the university
From others like them. Inside and out.
… the colossal
Structures. The sources of knowledge.
the dramatic quartet of poem and painting and song and scroll arriving together, and resolving in the final line:
A dark flower. A guarding of history.
A virtuoso performance and a stunning achievement.
I’ve saved my personal favorite for last, “Carson Beach.” James Dickey said of Derek Walcott, “He could turn his attention on anything at all and make it live with a reality beyond its own; through his fearless language it becomes not only its acquired life, but the real one, the one that lasts.”8 I have passed by Carson Beach a hundred times in the decades I’ve lived in greater Boston, and I’ve never seen it, even remotely, as Legros Georges paints in her poem. Now it’s the only way I see it. This is what poets do. It is as close a work of alchemy I know. Danielle Legros Georges doesn’t so much as stand on Walcott’s shoulders as leap from them, finding her wings as she falls, then soars, to found her own poetic country. I invite you to explore her landscape of desire.
1. Peter Brook, The Empty Space: A Book About the Theatre: Deadly, Holy, Rough, Immediate. (Simon & Schuster, New York, 1968), Ch. 2 The Holy Theatre.
2. Elaine Scarry, Dreaming by the Book. (Princeton University Press, Princeton, 1999), 64-65, 68. (My thanks to Richard Hoffman for introducing me to Dreaming by the Book.)
3. Danielle Legros Georges The Dear Remote Nearness of You.
5. I Corinthians 15:55 KJV.
6. I saw Anna Deavere Smith perform Let Me Down Easy at the American Repertory Theatre in Cambridge, MA in October, 2008. The A.R.T. noted in its Press Release: “Let Me Down Easy … is a journey in search of human qualities that are too seldom in the news—compassion, generosity, and grace in the face of a complex world … a virtuosic exploration of the resourcefulness of the human spirit.”
7. James Dickey, The Worlds of a Cosmic Castaway, New York Times book review of Derek Walcott’s Collected Poems 1948-1984. February 2, 1986.