“Double Helix,” by Crystal Williams

Commentary by Amanda Moore, Contributing Editor

“Double Helix” is a poem with formal and narrative abundance, and I have returned to it frequently since first reading and hearing it as part of a MoMA project curated by Elizabeth Alexander asking poets to respond to Jacob Lawrence’s magnificent Migration Series. In the poem, Williams responds to Lawrence’s series by exploring connections between a speaker; her memories of her Alabama-born father; her friend and his father; and American history. To cover this vast ground, she engages an ingenious poetic form that employs repetition, the various narrative elements spiraling around one another and coming together to approximate a double-helix strand of DNA. The interplay between form and content reflects virtuoso craft and deeply rewards the reader with an ever-expanding understanding of how we relate to one another and what comprises our histories.

I am fascinated by ekphrastic poetry, which describes or responds to an image or painting, and I am interested in how poets in particular digest and rearticulate what they take from visual imagery. In the introduction to the collection Transforming Vision: Writers on Art, poems written about works from The Art Institute of Chicago, Edward Hirsch explains that ekphrastic poems are “invariably transformed into interpretation, into a space where one work of art generates and interpolates another.” As a reader and a writer, I find real richness in this interplay between artistic genres. Williams’s poem isn’t ekphrastic in the traditional sense but instead embraces Hirsch’s idea of interpolation by using the spirit of Lawrence’s series on the historical migration of black people from the South to the North to inform her narrative. Were the poem not a part of this MoMA series, I might not have known it was inspired by Lawrence at all, but this connection makes the poem’s themes and ideas—especially the connection between people and their histories—even richer.

“Double Helix” is divided into two parts, the first comprised of several distinct sections of prose poetry organized into stanzas, separated by double asterisks, that look like paragraphs. Resisting what she calls in her Poet’s Note “the tyranny of the line,” Williams doesn’t employ line breaks but embraces the music and syntax of poetic expression to inhabit the hybrid prose poem form. The piece begins in gentleness, the speaker recalling nights when her “father played piano & sang, his voice [a] raft on a quiet lake, an island of gentleness.” The gentleness, the speaker tells us, “is a choice,” and this choice, this father, this family, are all part of “the history of black people in America.” In that last phrase that (like many others) repeats throughout the poem, the speaker reminds us that she is giving us her personal experiences as a way to tell us “something essential” about a rich, complex history.

Coupling the personal with the more universal, Williams moves from the first stanza into the next via science—the concept of indestructible matter and how, when we breathe, “a millennia of history enters us & we cannot control, can only harness whom or what we host.” History is inescapable, and we can’t choose what we take in, what informed and shaped our world before we lived in it. The poem first offers us the choice of gentleness, and here, we have the reminder of the potential for its opposite, what “we cannot control.” Though we can’t change the past, which informs the present, we can “harness” what we’ve been given. We can make choices. The poem uncovers the inescapability and repetitive nature of American history and also reminds us of our own agency in the face of it.

This reminder is important as Part I winds on and the poem accrues “essential” and varying images through repetition, among them “blooming peonies,” a “desolate beast next door,” the “finger on a gun’s trigger,” “his father’s stubble,” “rotting fruit lain to ground,” and “the powdery backs of pollen.” These images spiral around significant understandings or worldviews: that “hatred will out,” that “malice had taught him mercilessness,” that “danger wets the wind.” There is also joy and hope here, the choice of gentleness again, the “divine, brilliant, bright children of god” who still “leapt & shrieked & at cake.” These elements and more repeat as the poem moves forward to make new connections, a constant shifting and regathering of material. Many phrases are repeated verbatim; for example, “raft on a quiet lake” appears five times. Others, in a strategy that could be said to resemble recombinant DNA, are repeated in shortened form and combined with other bits of other phrases. The word “because” recurs thirty-four times, emphasizing the cause-and-effect relationship between action and consequence, and the word “gentleness” is found seventeen times in the poem.

Part I also introduces the speaker’s friend Avi, whom she gives a book on “black migration from the American south” because she is “trying to say: we have cause to care for & track our wounds.” The connection between the book, Lawrence’s painting series, the speaker, and Avi becomes clear when he, in turn, shares the book with his father, a “holocaust survivor” who asks, “why do you insist on reading me my story?” The poem draws together the experiences of black migrants and Jewish people under the “vicious hand” of their oppressors; the “burnings & bodies & swinging, cold chicken & packed trains” is familiar to both groups, who are “escapees casting towards a northern brink they could not fully understand, away from an ending they did.” With this connection, the speaker and Avi form “an ecosystem of gas & fire, double helixes & light, the story of-, the choices of-, our fathers knotted between us.”

Here, the poem makes evident one of its strongest connections to DNA, the carrier of genetic codes and information we find in all living organisms. Like the poem, DNA’s double-helix structure is made of up of two strands, or helices, intertwined through a series of connections often depicted as ladders. While these strands aren’t comprised of the same information, they do move in the same direction and are, like the speaker and Avi in the poem, “knotted” together.

This connection to DNA suggests that the speaker, Avi, and to some extent all of us are part of the genetic makeup of America: “Our traumas, the bright blue mysticisms & burnt orange murmurs, our joys & muddled currencies are archived in genetic code.” Our stories are strands that spiral around the effects of the resulting historical traumas and joys, and we are deeply and inescapably intertwined with the very nature of our form, our country.

Part II of the poem is a single block of prose poetry in which the lines, phrases, images, and characters of the first part’s various sections are combined to create new narrative elements and deeper understanding. Williams is playing with the contrapuntal here, a poetic form I fell in love with in her “People Close to You” from Detroit as Barn and in Tyehimba Jess’s stunning collection Olio, both great reads for those who want to further investigate the form. A contrapuntal poem is one that combines two poems, and sometimes more, into a single work. Often the poems are in columns that can be read both across and down for meaning, offering multiple ways to read and interpret lines and syntactical phrases. In their purest form, contrapuntal poems are almost like zippers, with two independent strands meeting in the middle, interlocking to form a whole, invisible seam.

What I love about Williams’s interpretation of the contrapuntal in “Double Helix” is that the zipping together isn’t neat and tidy. By using lines and images out of order and in new contexts in Part II, she binds the strands of DNA ever tighter and reminds us these deep connections can be inexact and multifaceted, interdependent and contingent. Williams crafts a version of American history that pulls together the speaker’s memories of her father with those of Avi’s so that the two are indistinguishable: “I am not of my father’s blood but am of Avi’s father.” Likewise, the poem’s big ideas about divinity and hatred, harvesting and hosting, mercilessness and control exist side-by-side in an authentic, complex relationship: “Alabama & Holocaust knotted between us.”

The density of the text in this section, the lack of line breaks, and the abundance of punctuation such as ampersands, commas, and em dashes make the second part of the poem feel breathless and urgent, aware of the multitude of traumas and experiences that have happened and are currently happening. Lest we get overwhelmed by the implications of these histories which inevitably repeat, the poem offers us in closing the great gift it gave us from the very beginning—gentleness: “I know no better way to explain the history of humans than to tell you at night, my father played piano & sang, his voice our raft on a quiet lake, an island of gentleness & gentleness is a choice, is a miracle in America.” This gentleness is a respite, but it isn’t a given. In the end, the poem reminds us we must choose this gentleness actively; make a raft for it on a quiet lake. Like the father in the poem, we must sing the gentleness and make the miracle of it possible.



Contributing editor Amanda Moore‘s poetry has appeared in journals and anthologies including Zyzzyva, Cream City Review, Tahoma Literary Review, and Best New Poets, and she is the recipient of writing awards from The Writing Salon, Brush Creek Arts Foundation, and The Saltonstall Foundation for the Arts. She received her MFA from Cornell University, where she served as Managing Editor for EPOCH magazine and was a lecturer for the John S. Knight Writing Institute. Currently a 2019 Fellow at The Writers Grotto, Amanda is a high school teacher and Marin Poetry Center Board member, and she lives by the beach in the Outer Sunset neighborhood of San Francisco with her husband and daughter. Author photo credit: K.C. Ipjian.

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