Broadsides to Books: Walking with the Ancestors
Blood Ties & Brown Liquor
by Sean Hill
The University of Georgia Press, 2008
$18.55, Purchase at bookshop.org
Review by Deborah Bacharach
In Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, Sean Hill journeys through time in Milledgeville, Georgia from 1831 where a speaker describes a tin badge “precious as silver, his freedom, his travel pass, / his way back to me” to present day where Silas Wright tells us “The house I was born in still stands.” Like a good novel, we get to meet characters we care about and follow their lives. Written long before the official start of the Black Lives Matter movement, this book embodies that slogan, paying attention to a Black family’s stories. Hill uses silence, links between poems, a range of forms, and personas to bring us the news that is often hard to get.
These poems move through slavery, unjust laws, and WWI where “in boats bound for France / colored soldiers cross the slate ocean” through chain gangs, quiet days of fishing, and the taste of homemade pineapple ice cream. They are often most striking for what is not said. Hill lets an unspoken menace permeate the poems through his choice of details. “Nigger Street 1937” tells us the street is actually named “McIntosh Street,” an innocuous name “like the apple red.” But then the poem takes up that word “red” and starts and moving it down the street: “powders and syrups kept behind the counter at Doc’s / pharmacy,” “red like / stoked coals or embers red / in Sol’s forge,” and red like “the stitching around buttonholes / of overalls.” The red has moved from the shelves to the clothing people wear. It lives on them. And like the anger and violence blatant in the name “Nigger Street,” the red becomes more and more menacing up to the last part of the poem where Hill brings us inside the church:
in country churches on Sunday
mornings and in church the red
of the edge of white pages
in a black bound Bible
coming together closing red
as the congregation rises.
The red is violence, blood, with the Bible sanctioning violence against Black people. But Hill never says those words. He implies them with his descriptions, symbols, and silences like the spacing in the lines which implies something has been left out, skipped over. The reader can feel it and fill it in. He makes the reader proceed with great tension but feeling trusted to understand.
You know it’s a strong poem when you burst into tears as I did reading “Lessoning” where I felt both for the high school senior who doesn’t know how to teach his grandfather to read and so refuses him and the boy a bit older who does not forgive himself for abandoning his grandfather. But the poem gets even stronger because of its placement in the book. The very next poem “Learning to Walk” describes a speaker learning to walk with the help of braces and hearing the family stories of the men in the family caught and put on the chain gang:
The two stories are a powerful juxtaposition in themselves—hobbling by family that helps you correct your gait versus hobbling by the government that destroys you. But “Learning to Walk” also speaks directly back to the previous poem, “Lessoning,” where the speaker refused to help his grandfather learn to read. This juxtaposition adds an extra weight of guilt to “Lessoning.” Hill continually links poems in this way. The cohesion and tension he creates between poems is like a spring full of kinetic energy. It makes the whole book read smoothly and with great energy.
You can see in the section from “Learning to Walk” that the lines are quite short, just two syllables each. The entire poem is a form I’ve never seen before: 4 columns of 25 lines each. They look like a hobbled gait. Hill brings a range of structures to this book—haibun, long sectioned poems, letters with crossed out sections, a genealogy chart. The poem featured in Broadsided, “Insurance Man 1946,” is a villanelle. The formal, controlled structure plays against the salesman’s manic pitch and the horror of lynching underlies lines like “If you died right sudden, you’d need a will.” Hill also weaves in quotes from official reports and blues songs. The changing structures and voices keep the reader focused.
Hill has clearly interviewed family members to build these poems. At one point a speaker says, “What you want to know? / Ain’t nothing to tell.” But of course, as it becomes clear, there is plenty to tell. Using personas, Hill opens the poems not just to the details of the speakers’ lives, but their syntax and what they choose to pay attention to. He gives the personas control of the narrative. In a section of “B. Nov. 14, 1926: Grandmother Poems” he writes:
#4: SCHOOL IN TOWN
Tromp through the graveyard to get to school
this winter morning and ice is spiked up
from red clay. A shortcut for there is no
fire, so you keep moving past the slave graves
at the back in Memory Hill the white
cemetery. Skirt the Jewish graves—
letters on the stones strange to you—and arrive
at Eddy High name for Mr. C. Eddy
benefactor and petitioner
of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Prided by Blacks. You
chose to be behind a year: foolish I reckon,
went back to the sixth to be with cuddin Liza.
The school burned in ’25 and will again in ’46—
today by the stove you two rid your thighs of pins.
This is a speaker who is comfortable with different dictions, saying “benefactor” and “cuddin” and who can speak matter-of-factly about horrors like slave graves and the burning of the school. This is where she walks. This is who she is. Hill’s line breaks like “of the Freedmen’s Bureau. Prided by Blacks. You” let us see the speaker, the “grandmother,” as the person prided by Blacks.
That first line, “Tromp through the graveyard to get to school,” is both literal for the speaker but also symbolic of the entire endeavor of this book. In Blood Ties & Brown Liquor, Hill walks with the ancestors in order to learn. And we have the privilege of walking with him.
The Broadsided Poem:
“Insurance Man, 1946,” words by Sean Hill and art by Jim Benning, published September 1, 2006.
Three Questions from Broadsided Press; Three Answers from Sean Hill
BSided: Tell us about the process for this book. Did you interview relatives as it seems from “B. Nov. 14, 1926: Grandmother Poems”? Was it hard to get people to talk?
SH: Blood Ties & Brown Liquor grew out of an interview with one of my grandmothers. I was in a workshop in grad school, and a classmate challenged me to bring in a poem about a woman in my family instead of the poems I’d been bringing in about my father. I took this challenge as an assignment. I realized I needed / wanted to know more about my grandmothers’ lives to write some poems, so I approached them with the idea of an interview, and only one grandmother agreed to sit for an interview. That was an oddly formal informal interview. I had a pen and pad and a tape recorder. The “Grandmother Poems” draw from that interview. I decided to lean into fictionalizing the stories, the history, after those poems were published, and my grandmother expressed that she wasn’t comfortable with being the subject of my poems. That’s when I invented Silas Wright, a man a generation older than my grandmothers. That was freeing for me as a writer, and it made my grandmother and others collaborators of a sort instead of subjects.
I continued to interview both grandmothers as well as great aunts and uncles and older cousins and community members to get the voice, the experience, the texture of their times. These were informal interviews; I would ask about a specific thing to get them to talk about the past. I was living in Houston and attending the University of Houston for my MFA when I wrote most of BT&BL, so many of these conversations were over the phone and in the middle of other conversations, so they probably felt less like interviews. And when I was home visiting, I would always work my way around to something I wanted to know and allow for the space for folks to tell me the things I didn’t know I needed to know.
I also read history books and a lot of WPA (Works Progress Administration) narratives of the formerly enslaved. I didn’t have an outline, but I had ideas for assignments to help me explore the lives of the folks I wanted to write about. I turned to the things that highlight the human condition and wrote from emotions (poems about love and loss), with nature (poems about the greater than human world), about our built world (poems about the tangible and intangible things humans create), working through our days (serenades and aubades), and tried to stay grounded in bodies by writing through the senses.
BSided: Many writers struggle with persona: “Are we appropriating someone else’s voice or story?” Can you discuss your thoughts about personas in these poems and perhaps persona in general?
SH: That’s a big question. Thank you for asking me to approach it through my poems and process. I began writing poems in college, and of course, they were from my point of view and mostly about my experiences as a college student. I believe the “Grandmother Poems” were my first attempt at persona poems. I used my grandmother’s language and stories to create sonnets. In my earlier poems, I understood the first person point of view as the one that gave the reader a sense of immediacy, intimacy, and authenticity, and sometimes I would recast first person poems in third to create a sense of distance.
With the “Grandmother Poems” I was drawn to the first person point of view because I wanted that voice, my version of her voice, on the page. Hers was one of the voices I grew up with and knew well. But the stories in those poems, weren’t stories I knew before our interview. I wanted those things together, and I desired the authenticity of the first person point of view. And once Silas Wright came to me (literally I heard the name whispered in my ear), I was able to step away from the constraints of biographical details of my grandmother’s life and slip on more fully the mask of Silas in the persona poem.
I had a lot of anxiety about the process. I didn’t want to appropriate my grandmother’s story or voice, but I did want to celebrate it and our relationship. I didn’t want to use the persona of Silas to make false claims, but I did want to use that mask to explore the history and lives of the folks who came before me and brought me forth—my ancestors. I did my best to navigate their stories and the official record, which so often excluded them, to create art that honored them and presented truths. In the end, when some folks read the poems they thought they recognized folks that I hadn’t been writing about, so I guess I got close to the truth. I guess I wasn’t writing too far from the experience of my loved ones. In part, that’s what I wanted to accomplish with the persona poem.
The questions I have for folks who want to write persona poems are “why is the persona, the first person mask, what you’re reaching for?” and “what claim do you hope to make with the first person?” In my second collection, Dangerous Goods, I have a series of poems that explore the establishment of Liberia as a colony of manumitted African Americans. It was a solution to the problem of what to do with enslaved folks once they’d been set free, since granting them full citizenship and equal rights was out of the question. Across that series I have only one persona poem, I think because the persona poem wasn’t needed to accomplish my goals for those poems. And for those folks wondering whether they’re appropriating someone else’s voice or story, there’s a difference between writing a poem and attempting to publish a poem. You can write a poem and learn from that drafting, but you don’t need to make that public. And read other folks’ persona poems to see how it can be done. And read what folks have to say about persona poems and appropriation. Paisley Rekdal has a recent book titled Appropriate: A Provocation on this subject. In my current project, The Negroes Send Their Love, I’m trying to find the voice of the future Negroes—what would be the appropriate words for them to utter.
BSided: I know you were an editor at Broadsided from 2009-2016 and are currently a consulting editor. From an editor’s perspective, why do you think “Insurance Man 1946” was a good choice for a broadside?
SH: That’s a tough question, I don’t want to talk about my poem too much. I think a good Broadsided poem should challenge and should allow for discovery while providing access for an unsuspecting reader on the street. I think “Insurance Man 1946” hits those marks, and I think the inclusion of the note, which I appreciate you allowing me to do when I was an unknown poet submitting poems for your consideration, was important. “Insurance Man” is a persona poem in the voice of a Black insurance salesman. The title identifies the speaker and the era, which situates the reader. The title does the work of providing access.
As I remember it, there was a poem you didn’t take but sparked a conversation titled “Nigger Street 1937.” It seems the title was too challenging and blocked access. To some, the shock of the title mirrors the shock I had when interviewing my grandmother about her childhood. She matter-of-factly talked about the once vibrant Black business district in Milledgeville, calling it by the name she knew it as. I wrote the poem based on her memories and the memories of other older members of my family. And when I came across the Frank Stanley Herring painting that’s on the cover, it looked strangely familiar. It took me a moment to realize I was looking at the place in my poem. I was taken by surprise that I’d written an accidently ekphrastic poem.
I once read “Nigger Street 1937” at the start of a reading when BT&BL first came out, and a Black audience member came up to me and thanked me for the reading and said he liked everything he heard right up to when I read the “n-word.” I’d situate the audience by talking about the book’s project of focusing on the Black community of my hometown Milledgeville and their stories and such. I lost him with one word. A Broadsided poem can’t do that.
Deborah Bacharach is the author of Shake and Tremor (Grayson Books, 2021) and After I Stop Lying (Cherry Grove Collections, 2015). She received a 2020 Pushcart honorable mention and has been published in journals such as Literary Mama, Poetry Ireland Review, Vallum, The Carolina Quarterly, and The Southampton Review among many others. She is an editor, teacher and tutor in Seattle. Find out more about her at DeborahBacharach.com.