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The Challenge of Phillis Wheatley (poem)

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“Phillis Wheatley frontispiece” by Scipio Moorhead – This image is available from the United States
Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a40394
I’m currently taking a MOOC from Stanford University Online called “Ten Premodern Poems by Women,” led by Eavan Boland. It’s essentially a poetry appreciation course, fostering a broader sense of women’s essential and often neglected contributions to the canon of English-language poetry. Each week, Eavan Boland introduces a poem, and then offers some historical and biographical – and even a little formal – context, and then discusses the poem with a guest speaker, usually (so far) one of the Wallace Stegner Fellows in poetry from Stanford’s Creative Writing Program. The course is very enjoyable and informative, and taking it is giving me a chance to try to re-connect with the student experience: we have weekly writing assignments, informal responses to each text. In the past few weeks, the prompts for these assignments have invited participants to compose poems of their own, either in the style of the work we’re reading that week or in reaction to the context and themes of a given poem. I had never really looked too closely at the work of Phillis Wheatleybefore – the first poet of African descent to publish in English. The facts of her life are well known: at about seven years old, in 1761, she is stolen from her home in Senegambia and transported on the slave ship Phillis to pre-revolutionary Boston, where she is purchased by Mrs. Susan Wheatley for a “trifle” of either ten pounds or ten dollars; “Phillis” has a gift for languages that her new “family” encourages, and by the time she reaches her teens she excels at poetry; in 1773, around her twentieth birthday, her poems are collected and published (in England, not in Boston) as Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. Read through the lens of our own time, many of these poems can seem deeply troubling, as they appear to praise slavery – in highly conventional late 18th-century style – as a means to Christian salvation:Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain, / May be refin’d, and join th’ angelic train.” In his 1922 preface to The Book of American Negro Poetry, James Weldon Johnson lamented that

one looks in vain for some outburst or even complaint against the bondage of her people, for some agonizing cry about her native land. In two poems she refers definitely to Africa as her home, but in each instance there seems to be under the sentiment of the lines a feeling of almost smug contentment at her own escape therefrom.

Reading Wheatley now, I feel what we get aren’t outbursts but cracks in the mask, in her formal poetic façade, at which something like an agony, suppressed in the interests of her survival as a child in bondage, briefly shows through. What we have, after all, are the poems of a teenager. After her manumission, when she was 28 or 29, Wheatley is said to have composed another 142 poems, now lost; I can only imagine that some expression of that pain must have found its way into that work, silenced by circumstance. One of the ways to honour Wheatley’s legacy, it seems to me, is to risk writing a little way into that silence: not to speak for her – although, in ventriloquizing her seven-year-old self and transposing her voice into an English she didn’t have at the time, I ‘m aiming at least to gesture at that fraught and awful gap, the racially, culturally and linguistically marked distances of the Middle Passage. (“Yummy,” I discovered, is one of a few English words imported from Wolof, Phillis Wheatley’s native language.) I wrote this piece, torsioning the pentameter/hexameter couplets that were a mainstay of her early style, as an homage and as an attempt to encounter those distances. The challenge of encountering Wheatley, Henry Louis Gates argues, “isn’t to read white, or read black; it is to read.” I wanted at least to begin to address that challenge. And since the poem was submitted to a public forum anyway, I thought I might as well republish it here, myself.


“Phillis Wheatley,” July 1761, about seven years old
I, young in life, by seeming cruel fate 

Was snatch’d from Afric’s fancy’d happy seat . . .
I‘m not sturdy enough. My two loose front teeth
fall out: I make a charm to ward off certain death,
jamming them between tarred planks near the keel
like deciduous tokens. I can’t feel
the ghost of my lost mother’s touch. Wolof
has no such words. Crammed bodies reek; men cough
up on themselves, yoked in rusting collars
to be unlocked only weeks later when we dock.
A lady tours the wharf. For ten pounds or dollars
she gets to become my good Boston mummy.
She gives me an apple. I say, “Yummy.”
She tells me, that’s a funny way to talk,
and makes me leave my carpet-scrap cloak behind,
I imagine because she’s afraid I might trip.
She rechristens me after that bad ship.
If only she knew my true name, I shouldn’t mind.

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