AMERICAN BOOK REVIEW
United in Love and Violence
THREE: A TAOS PRESS
P.O. Box 370627
Denver, CO 80237
Veronica Golos’ Rootwork packs structural elements as densely as the underground root system of a tree that graces its cover and many of its pages. She weaves at least three different organizing principles into her material, starting with the absolutely beautiful graphic design, which is dominated by the cover’s crisp photo of a sculpture of a root in electrical wire, paper, acrylics and fabric, created by contemporary Cuban artist Jorge Mayet.
Each chapter begins with a block of yellowing parchment, as if from an antique book, on which we see the chapter number, the years covered by the chapter, the Mayet root image and the words of a popular spiritual. After a blank page, the second printed page of the chapter always contains quotes. To the right of the poems presented as letters or diary entries of either American abolitionist John Brown or his devoted wife May Day Brown sits a postage-stamp sized image of whoever’s voice it is. One or more poems in every chapter is printed over a shadow image of Mayet’s root. With occasional variation, the book repeats this visually rich and antique-looking design pattern eight times.
The second structural layer is the story told in Rootwork’s seven chapters plus coda. The narrative takes a circuitous route, going back in time from Mary Brown mourning her husband’s lynching in 1859 to the early days of their 1833 marriage when he was twice her age, and then forward to the end of Mary’s life.
The third level of structure involves the interweaving of the three types of documents that Rootwork comprises, all written by Golos even when attributed to either Brown or his wife: 1) entries from Mary Day Brown’s notebook and letters to her from John Brown, plus the reconstruction (from ‘notes’ of Francis Watkins Harper) of a speech Mary gives near the end of her life; 2) a “chapbook” of May Day Brown’s poems titled “Water Cure” that stands roughly in the middle of the book;” and 3) very modernistic poems that Golos calls “ghost code” poems.
Each of these types of poems has its own typeface, and each is written in its own style. The contrast between the aesthetics of these three styles is striking. The letters and notebook entries are prosy and plain-speaking, light on imagery and very heavy on narrative:
Mrs. Frances Harper has agreed to deliver this letter.
I trust her completely, as do you. She will help, I believe,
in the days to come. Trust also in the Lord. (Golos, 12)
We have the slate and coal
to mark the lines &
together we copy the words of God. (Golos, 70)
What makes these poems compelling is the story they tell: the history of their relationship focused on the Browns’ self-appointed mission in life—to root out slavery. In Rootwork, both John and Mary are equally devoted to their spouse, their god and the abolitionist movement, both with a blazing fervor, but of a grim sort, as if the most tender of loves could not be made to crack a smile.
In stark contrast to the plain style of these imaginary historical documents stand the imagistic and open-ended ghost code poems. The ghost code poems unfold in stark images, changing perspectives, unconventional syntax and a relentless musicality:
into the hair of tides
I am still damp
when I wake from before
deep in this
in-between (Golos, 18)
can kill) –conjure wish//
screech– field –holler– blues
(for)king (Golos, 25)
in froth foam— in free domes
dress in the skins of
sky and horizon
home. (Golos, 94)
The 14 poems of “Water Cure” stand somewhere in between the open-ended modernism of the ghost code poems and the prosaic narrative of the letters and notebook. They speak in a straight-forward manner, but with the elevated sense of meaning that is the essence of poetry:
into each other, named in order
to press each word
cleanly, our forgetting flesh
so fragile. (Golos, 55)
I knelt in dry dirt—
Scraped even against the day’s heat—
Traced thick rootlines with my fingers; (Golos, 49)
This overarching architecture that Golos creates of poetic styles, document types, chapters, quotes from spirituals and design elements adds a classical elegance and solemnity to the poems of Rootwork that underscore the seriousness of purpose that John Brown and Mary Day Brown bring to their marriage and their life’s work. In a certain sense, the stunning design and intricate structure creates a formal, church-like atmosphere that seems to sanctify the Brown’s belief in violence in pursuit of justice.
Golos makes it easy for the reader to understand the complexities of Rootwork in an illuminating preface that describes how she got the idea for the book, gives us a little of the Brown’s history and connects their story to the broader and still relevant issue of the role of violence in confronting racism and injustice. She also explains her title, which refers to an anecdote Frederick Douglass tells in his 1845 biography, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass. Golos relates that after a beating by an overseer, the slave Douglass ran into the woods, where he encountered another slave, who gave Douglass a root and said, “Carry this in your right pocket, and the man will never hit you again.” (Golos, xvii) If we take that superstitious statement symbolically, then the Browns were engaged in the root work of freeing America’s slaves.
This reader came to Rootwork with two extremely strong and long-held emotions. On the one hand, I despise the cuteness of poems that masquerade as letters (although I have never displayed such a prejudice against epistolary novels). On the other hand, I absolutely adore any fictional or nonfictional work that glorifies the fight against slavery, partially because the way American literature and pop culture sometimes fawns over and idealizes the Old South can be truly revolting. Thus, I started reading Rootwork ready to both love it and hate it. What I discovered is that because they told the story of the Browns, the epistolary poems kept my interest. Meanwhile, the many fine images and interesting rhythms in the poems of “Water Cure” section and the ghost code poems are well worth the price of admission.
Marc Jampole wrote Music from Words (Bellday Books (2007). His poetry has appeared in many journals and anthologies. He writes the OpEdge blog, which appears on the websites of two national publications.