Trailing the Sun’s Sweat, by Jacqueline de Weever
Published by The Poet’s Press
Reviewed by Dean Kostos
It’s thrilling to read the work of a poet who draws on varied interests, pursued with passion and erudition. That is the case with this vibrant collection of poems, written by Jacqueline de Weever. A professor Emerita of medieval literature, she is also an accomplished watercolor painter and collage artist. Her decades-long devotion to scholarship provides the underpinning to these hauntingly painful poems, written in response to The Journal of Christopher Columbus, translated by Cecil Jane. The famous explorer penned observations as he encountered the “New World” and its inhabitants, whom he clearly regarded as less than human. As if to crawl inside Columbus’s skull, de Weever writes:
Which leaf, which plant or flower packed
in parchment by botanists companioning
slave-ferries of humans wedged in excrement
can erase shackle bruises healed
to ridges of jelled skin?
Here, we witness the inner workings of colonialism in all its cruelty. To morally justify genocide, one needs to portray its victims as inferior. Even today, eminent domain is invoked to perpetuate superiority over native peoples. Sadly, imperialism has repeated itself through human history. But this is our country, where Columbus is lionized and celebrated every year.
A rhetorical question springs to mind: Why is this journal not better known? This collection forces us to question our notions of historical accuracy. However, the poet knows that it is crucial to show, rather than to tell. Instead of railing against the crimes and inhumanity perpetuated by colonialism, she avoids didacticism and finger-wagging. She creates delicate, broken settings in which violations are enacted: “[S]oft bellies of our islands, / penetrate our forests, / slice our drums.” We experience destruction and abuse as if they were happening to us now. The horror is amplified as she includes snippets of Columbus’s journal, much like a linguistic collage. Indeed, de Weever’s considerable talent as a visual artist informs her use of language. It comes alive through the agency of imagery: the nuanced colors, the feathery textures, the flicker of a dark butterfly. We are never manipulated into what to think or feel. Instead, we emerge from this timely and necessary collection transformed, for we have lived the anguish of the poems; we have sweated their blood.
The poet also explores the depth of human contradictions. In “Lament,” Columbus concedes, “All display the most extraordinarily gentle behavior.” Yet, later he asserts, “I took the natives by force to give me information.” This is acknowledged by a man who had no moral quandary in killing to obtain land and raw products. The poem weaves repetitions and rhymes, shifting from the first person of the journal to de Weever’s indictment of Columbus in second person, “You plot their enslavement and I weep / that their offers of cassava and casareep / did not contrive the magic wand / of their safety …”
One of the many gifts this poet possesses is the control she wields over voices. Plaintive wails rise from erased histories to ignite the reader’s awareness/empathy. To do so, de Weever always writes with lyricism and humanity. The speakers, whom de Weever would have us remember, are still “whispering lost languages in warm winds, / waiting for the cyclones of hurricane season / to howl their vengeance in the ocean’s / requiems.”
Indeed, “Currency” is a chant against forgetting: “Their ghosts infect later landscapes, in wind howls, / in lightning flash and thunder crash familiar / in Ghana and Malawi …” Notice the subtle use of alliteration and internal rhyme. It’s as if de Weever has transmuted the luxuriant colors from her artwork into the richness of wordplay and sonic invention. This as an example of synaesthesia—color and form becoming sound and syntax. But her literary devices are neither facile nor ornamental. They propel the reader into these poems and histories. She establishes a poetry of place. Setting, often associated with fiction, has an important job to do here as well. From the first page, we are transported in time and place. We smell the nectar and the sea. We see the “white ginger in clouds of butterflies.”
The journey, into the past and across the ocean, becomes the reader’s journey as “a slave shipped along routes / shown by the map on the wall. // He explodes, split open…” Like a cartographer, one moves through this book’s peregrinations, hearing a choir of disembodied voices, some speaking in apostrophe, directly to the reader,
Tonight I am Maya
weaver of the cosmos and its gods
into my garments
my shawl, my blouse,
although not my genes
but who knows?
We are drawn into the poet’s inquiry of self. Beginning with “I am,” she invokes the Hindu concept of the material world as illusion. She ends with a rhyme for her own last name; after all, this is about identity. Indeed, she is weaving times, places, fragrances, histories. She’s examining notions thought to be accurate, histories deliberately erased like a palimpsest. But, through the alchemy of language, these histories emerge again, begging to be heard, revealed in the audacious light of truth: “Memory—what is it? / Silence ripens into weeds / daring yellow.” Jacqueline de Weever does indeed dare to upturn our cherished, long-held beliefs about the heroes and victors, exposing “sacred landscapes” that may have vanished in their original state, but which live on—redolent and triumphant in these poems.