Yolanda Wisher on “American Valentine”

Introduction by Christopher Soto

Yolanda
 Wisher's debut collection of poems Monk Eats an Afro is blues: sorrow, soul, rhythm, breath. The poems in this collection coincide with italicized song lyrics (Wisher is a singer and musician, not just a poet). The narrator of these poems often speaks to the reader colloquially (recounting stories, images) then shape-shifting words, sounds, and meanings. "I be the ruby flo / I be the ruby flowin / that jewel / anciently / aggravatin / undulatin..." Wisher is a poet whose lyricality and vivacity are impossible to ignore. Monk Eats an Afro is a vivacious debut collection of poems.



American Valentine


I. "Slave Poet's 1776 Letter, 'New Discovery,' Is for Sale"
—New York Times, November 11, 2005

Phillis to Obour,
Valentine's Day 1776.
Her lacerating ink
worth $253,000.

In eight years
she will die broke,
but here
she slashes out
pulpit with pen
to sister-friend,
knows a thing or two
about BARBARITY, EVIL
and CRAFTINESS,
and still talkin bout REVOLUTION,
American as the LIBERTY
on her tongue
of Latin-edged lingo.

They sayin
this paper holy grail,
and yeah, this our birthright,
being black and writer.
Phillis speaks to us
across auction and museum,
sings the GOSPEL,
puts it all in
the big man's hands.

Look how the "P" curls
like the hook
of a Christmas ornament.
Look how she's
carved out a piece of
DOMINION for us
to sup on, our own
dreamy continent
to idle in,
her purple "X"
on the white sheet
of English Lit.

II.

why do I keep returning
to Miss Phillis
who used to be a sellout
who used to dance
that waitress two-step
that shuffle?

she was a first love
I sniffed the peonies
under her starched verses
and fingered the cornrows
under her waspy bonnet
and she cooed for me
gushed metaphorically
till we were both spent
but not sold

my Phillis
who got served
with the slave's
not the poet's
destiny.

VI.

riverine woman
wolverine woman
tambourine woman
Byzantine woman
Maybelline woman
magazine woman
libertine woman
evergreen woman
Springsteen woman
mangosteen woman
mezzanine woman
Benvereen woman
jujubean woman
aquamarine woman
velveteen woman



Yolanda Wisher on "American Valentine"

I was once a little black girl writing poems, and one of the standard gifts for birthdays and holidays, from those relatives who wanted to encourage me in my literary pursuits, was a book of verse – Shakespeare sonnets or the more cherished Phillis Wheatley collection. At the time, hers was the name they knew. The first black published poet. She became my measure.

Phillis (she's my homie, so we on a first name basis) was also a girl-child poet. And I fell in love with her, because she was the anomaly that I was, a black girl writing poetry in an awfully white world. She sure could rhyme. Had that read-a-whole-dictionary-in-prison-like-Malcolm-X kinda lexicon. Knew her bible backwards and forwards. Had a big voice that consorted with angels and Greek gods.

But when I went off to college and became a black studies major, I discovered that Phillis' black card had been revoked by many a sable scholar. And on the mean poetry streets of Philly, she wasn't as cool an influence to mention as Baraka or Sanchez. The anti-Phillis scholarship couldn't abide her genteel, house-negro upbringing, her biblical brainwashing. Perhaps we expected too much from her, more than we expected of ourselves in this new white world. We wanted her to be both talented and heroic, both mad and vernacular. And so for many years, I fronted on Phillis. I forsook her.

And then one day I stumbled upon this curious notion that one of her poems was a radical anagram, crazy proof (or a sign from glorious Heaven?) that Phillis was doing an Audre, using "the master's tools to dismantle the master's house." It got me imagining Phillis as Dan Freeman, the main character in The Spook Behind the Door. You know those black dolls that are just brown painted white dolls? Naw, that ain't Phillis. In my mind, Phillis became a secret spy or white-hat wearin gladiator out to topple the system, sending revolutionary messages via verse like Morse code, more than the frozen image of a young girl in a bonnet, caught in the rapture of inspiration.

The poem's epigraph is from a November 2005 newspaper article, which describes how one of Phillis' letters to an enslaved black woman friend, Obour, will be auctioned off by Swann Galleries later that month. The letter, written on February 14, 1776, reveals Phillis to be more patriotic than most of the white men upholding the war, the men running the show. She believed more in the idea of America than they did. Believed in an America that didn't really see her. And maybe she knew that and played the game. She had an unrequited love for this country. A tough love.

The letter's auction price of $253,000 (compared to the "trifle" that she was purchased for as a slave) signals that Phillis (or maybe just her words) continues to be of value on the open market. In the eyes of the slaveholding society in which she grew up, Phillis' command of the master's tongue gave her value above other black bodies. But her genius couldn't save her; like Hurston, like many a black woman writer, she died poor and ailing.

So, this poem is a reclaiming of Phillis, as I know her and read her. It's about getting back to my personal relationship with her, as a mother of this craft I am sworn to, as my poetry-Jesus. One day somebody will probably want to make a Hollywood movie of her life, lighten her up, make her cute as a button. But my Phillis has many parts, angles, sharp and soft, vulnerable and belligerent. This poem's about pulling back, like a caul, pieces of her life story. An elegy for an elegist.

 

 

 

 
 

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