Blood, Shadows, and Hoe Handles:
The Past as Lever in Poetry and Life
Here in the South, we have a bittersweet relationship with That Which Came Before — pick up a volume by Natasha Trethewey, Jake Adam York, or C.D. Wright and you’ll see what I mean. There are reservations and protestations, wrestlings with ancestors and angels alike, and of course, the inevitable introspections. Such a vast array of emotional discharges could only be produced by a place as rife with humanity (and inhumanity) as our southeastern United States.
We tell ourselves that we look back to look forward, following advice of the great. But in so doing we are forced to contend with all those events and people that have marked and populated existence leading to the present, our present. Running our creative hands over the tools and textures of the past has its share of risks — we often find that the hoe handle rubs blisters on our modern-day joints, more accustomed to the pen or keyboard. We notice that the rough and deeply grained wood of yesteryear is splinter-laden and unkind to our smoother and sleeker sensibilities. But if we’re lucky, we’ll handle the past vigorously enough to eventually draw blood: that same blood shed by prior generations whose sweat, struggle, and decisions (good or bad) allowed us to be here now.
During this blood-letting, we may lament the shadows — some so large that we feel we’ll never emerge from them, others so black that we’d rather forget. Yet even the shadows, ominous as those on Plato’s cave wall, grant us something. Maybe it’s progress, or maybe it’s that pressing sense of our own finitude. Whatever the outcome, we engage with history to influence our understanding. The notion is not a new one — thinkers from Aristotle to Twain have advised us to take such a comprehensive view of our own roles in time’s unrolling scroll. But today, understanding our real-life backstory and exposition is as vital as ever. Those of us who write out of the past understand that it has the power of Archimedes’ lever: It can move the world. For only through empathy with prior humanity can we begin to truly negotiate with ourselves.
In my part of the world, we continue to conversationally use the word “reckon” in two ways: we may mean “to deal with or manage,” or we may mean “to prognosticate or predict.” History, for the southern writer, allows both. We reckon with all that happened once so that we may reasonably reckon tomorrow. We handle the hoe so that the pen pleases us. Yes, there is hardness and ugliness in doing so. There are darknesses and difficulties and even intimidations. But when we inform our art and our life by That Which Came Before, we may begin to hoe our own row, write our own journey, and leave shadows that others call shade — a place of respite and, perhaps, inspiration.