NPM Feature #2: Camille Dungy

Okay. So I’m not doing great on the whole daily blogging goal. But I’m going to keep going, even if it means I only manage to talk about four poets I admire.

And admire is exactly the word I would use for Camille Dungy. Maybe even venerate. Because Camille write historical documentation like I want to write historical documentation and will never write historical documentation.

Let me back up. I LOVE poems and poem series that explore history using archival source material. Some of my favorites include Diane Gilliam Fisher’s Kettle Bottom, David Mason’s Ludlow, and Tyehimba Jess’ Leadbelly. I know there are dozens and dozens of other poets who have blazed ground in historical documentation (C.D. Wright and Muriel Ruckeyser immediately come to mind), but these three were foundational for me as I worked on Uprising.

And then I read Camille Dungy’s Suck on the Marrow. Using diverse archival sources, Camille creates linked fictional narratives of Virginia slaves in two households from 1842 to 1850, ending a little over a decade before the Emancipation Proclamation. She also pulls in the story of a free black man (Joseph Freeman: “Hadn’t been a slave // in his Daddy’s line since ’73.”) who gets sold into slavery. He is separated from his wife Melinda and son Jacob, for whom he pines.

What strikes me most about Camille’s poems isn’t the fact that she made successful poems out of documentation (which is so hard), but that she created evocative, compelling, heartbreaking, and visceral poems out of documentation. Take, for example, this except from the poem “Born on this Place,” which is written in the voice of Molly, a slave on the Jackson Farm, about the loss of her mother and two siblings.

The month a milk cow shattered Mama’s shoulder

and left her worth little more than half a hand,

Jackson threw in Sol’ and Hannah when he sold her

to a trader came here on his way to Tennessee.

Didn’t hurt him much to lose Mama and two quarter hands,

Jackson raised his stock so well. They say

my father was the stud who worked this farm one week,

a wedding gift from the Missus’ father to his newest son.

Twelve children were born in this place in March of ’33.

I could go on about the craft of this, how Camille juxtaposes one family against another and draws a comparison between the slave owner’s coupling to the inhumane forced couplings on his land, or how the title of the poem drives home what it means to be “born” a slave.  But really, just, holy shit. These poems aren’t the reconstruction of dusty bones. They are a resurrection of lives lived.

The whole book is amazing, including the last poem of found text and the “Primer” at the end, in which Camille discusses her archival sources through captivating lyracism.

Camille’s latest book is Smith Blue, and I can’t wait to read it.



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