Poetry Sunday: “Clea’s Side of the Story,” by Roxane Beth Johnson

Like the one presented today, the poems in Black Crow Dress are all what is called “prose poems”—writing that employs poetic techniques like compression, music, and figurative language but without breaking the lines—and the poems unfold like mini-chapters in a many-voiced narrative so complete that readers can, after finishing the book, construct a linear story for each of its major characters. Some poems read like a transcription for the voiceless, and in them, Johnson individuates the history of slavery in America, making it personal and agonizingly real. Compressed to the point of indelibility, each poem interacts with others in the book in a structure that sometimes mimics call-and-response—not just between characters, but also between the characters and the speaker.

The poems in Black Crow Dress range widely across the landscape of human emotional and psychological experience. Sometimes horrific, sometimes deeply tender, Johnson’s lines  unfold with economy, precision, and great beauty, and they are vivid and accessible. As noted previously in this column, “accessible” sometimes wrongly indicts poems as facile or shallow, but it is a compliment when it describes poems as powerful, intelligent, and pitiless as these. The use of the same form—the prose poem—to express different points of view has the effect of clarifying the characters’ experiences, highlighting their similarities and differences, to reveal them as unique, highly nuanced, and complexly interactive. Training a focused, intimate lens on its subjects, Black Crow Dress transcends race to yield insight into the eternal universal human dynamics of power, love, lust, and greed.

“Clea’s Side of the Story” is a response to the poem that precedes it, the shockingly titled “Tobias Finch Tells How He Raped His 11-Year-Old Slave, Clea.” Both are persona poems, the latter related in the voice of a fictional character named Tobias Finch, sadistic white slave master and owner of the plantation. In it, Finch rapes Clea, and in that unspeakable act also despises her refusal to “flinch or beg” and the way she makes him think of his own daughter. “How outrageous that she would remind me,” he complains, and “that girl lived in herself quiet as an instrument keeps music.” The poem is brutal, calling out painful details like the child’s hands “small and crooked as walnut shells,” but it also extolls Clea’s dignity and rebellion in the form of her silence and refusal to allow herself to be emotionally violated. In the end, Finch dismisses Clea as “nothing to me but a stain on my clean, white sheet,” but Clea emerges as history’s victim and its hero. When she says in today’s poem “[m]y body is of a temple,” it’s in present tense, meaning what Finch has done has not touched her spirit, her essential and innocent core. Clea’s rage is powerfully and gorgeously expressed in “I am burned leaves crumbling in a fire of red it rushes.” Her integrity and strength of spirit lead her to a sacred place, a “hidden clearing” where Finch cannot follow. It’s a powerful moral victory and a recurrent theme in Black Crow Dress—inexorable, unvanquished, never-ending resistance to oppression, a message more important today than ever.

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