Russell, Lauren: Descent
(Tarpaulin Sky Press, 06/02/2020)
Lauren Russell, in her new collection, Descent, ventures into the silences and omissions of her great-great-grandfather’s diary. Robert Wallace Hubert was a captain in the Confederate Army, who, after losing the Civil War, fathered more than twenty children by three of his former slaves. One of them was the poet's great-great-grandmother Peggy Hubert, who, as Russell puts it, was “a Black woman silenced by history.”
Russell early on states, “I am writing into the space where one story trails off and another begins—.“
Portraits, letters, census data, photos of military prisons, photocopies of diary entries, and documentation of slave holdings from the National Archives—all of which are braided throughout the collection—help to contextualize what Russell calls her “biomythology,” borrowing from Audre Lorde’s “biomythography.”
In some instances, these artifacts and paraphernalia are glimpses into Russell’s meticulous research processes. But more interestingly, in other instances, they serve as historical subjects she refutes and contends with. Russell’s lyrics, scenes, and even her own diary entries from her travels press up against this one documented reality. In doing so, she posits multiple realities as truth, privileging the reader with a gorgeous and sweeping presentation of possibility.
In this collection you will find an unrelenting analysis of Hubert: In his diary he never discloses his experiences with PTSD or his two years in a federal prison camp, though he records lines from magazines that, if read alone, would paint him a sentimental man, missing home and his loved ones. Against the starkly realistic backdrop (of Hubert’s entire net worth consisting of human beings) Russell makes legible her great-great-grandfather not merely as a monster but as an example of lost humanity. At this end of the spectrum, the omissions and erasures—what Hubert leaves out of his written history—are catastrophic for both master and slave. While tracing her family’s genealogy, the poet is fueled to further inquiry by trauma’s ability to imprint on and change entire genomes. Hubert’s delusion, his inability to see his slaves as human beings, becomes one obvious and lasting residue Russell refuses to ignore.
Beside Robert, Russell envisions her great-great-grandmother Peggy. In some instances she’s a young girl, before having birthed twenty children into slavery, before having learned how to cook. You’ll see her nurture her kin. You’ll hear her talk back with candor and strength, and endure despite man’s brutality. Throughout it all, constantly undulating, this fabric of time, this particular ocean of inconceivables, while encountering hundreds of years of “fact” and “evidence” against Peggy’s human existence, through mastery of craft and insight, you’ll wade with Russell into a determination for discovery and creation.
I’m moved over and over again by Russell’s principles, by her conviction, her curiosity, by just how adept this poet is at uncovering questions that, she says, “have yet to enter her mind.” It’s both exhilarating and inspiring to read. I am intrigued most by her simultaneity: this juggling of both conventional truth and lyric truth so vital to making justice. In Descent, an utterly thrilling and compelling collection of poems and essays written for all those erased and silenced, Russell not only uncovers stories lost to history, but also invites the reader into a broader sense of the human imagination.
Peggy / An Inventory
She has a recipe for cornbread and one for curing hog cholera
and another for keeping quiet and another for children born
too close together. She has a cast iron skillet and a pale blue
bandanna and a steel thimble she slips over her finger when
she works up a quilt, a shirt, a song. She has a wash pot and
a boiling stick and a fear of ha’nts and a way of looking twice
over her shoulder. She has an apron she rips into rags in one
smooth motion and a song for every kind of weather but
days when the sun will not shine out. She has a butcher knife
and a paring knife, a knife for extracting chiggers, a knife for
scraping hogs, and a knife she hides under her bed before
births to soften the pain. She has a deep belly groan like the
HE&WT Railway grinding toward Houston, and even her
lullabies crack like kindling. No one will own to hearing her
cry, but her laugh is the crash of breaking glass––sharp, high,
and exactingly brief.