Jeffers, Honorée Fanonne: The Age of Phillis
The Age of Phillis by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers (Wesleyan University Press, hardcover)
Publication Date: March 3, 2020
I hope this doesn’t sound too reductive because I mean it in the best way possible(!), but while reading this collection, I felt I had stumbled upon a history book I never knew I wanted—one that showed so much precision, depth, and compassion for its immense speakers. Spending time with these poems reignited in me a profound love for poetry.
Honorée Fanonne Jeffers wonderfully succeeds in shedding new light on Phillis Wheatley and the time in which she lived. Through a variety of forms, such as persona, epistolary, ekphrastic, and found poems, this new collection presents a radical poetic study of one of history’s most important writers.
The book begins with Wheatley’s life before arriving in the Americas—with a birthing ceremony, a mother and a father, somewhere in The Gambia. Then we see conquerors arrive and steal people from their homes. Other poems trace routes up and down the coast of West Africa, and letters are sent across waves in a variety of voices and languages I felt were given thoughtful, respectful consideration.
In The Age of Phillis, attention is paramount. Jeffers sustains it, unrelentingly, aiming toward the periphery, venturing headfirst into the gaps and holes in history, refusing to look away from the long, brutal work of colonialism. And this brave attention lends each poem’s speaker an uncanny familiarity. Jeffers brings their stories and songs forward into our own time, successfully linking them to the injustices we see and feel today. For instance, alongside poems centered around historical archives are poems about contemporary mothers neglected by border patrol agents and children locked in cages along the U.S.-Mexico border. How can anybody speak of the past without pointing to the ongoing atrocities of the present?
What weaves together such large swaths of time are always these questions of why? how? who? and where? But what happens when there are no answers? What if the answers are muddied or disorienting or, worse, overwhelming? This is where Jeffers and her highly skilled craft shine. In the more than 200 pages, rounded out with hefty notes and bibliographies, I didn’t come across a single poem that felt extraneous.
Each poem has a sense of music, adding to a rhythm sometimes incantatory, sometimes meaningfully discordant. Each has a distinct tonal landscape, yet they still speak to one another. Sometimes poems delighted me with new insight; sometimes they disgusted me with detail; sometimes they enraged me with image. Whether expanding a canon, imagining a new reality, or confronting the injustices which still ail our planet, Jeffers’s poems are powerful compositions for serious intrigue. In actuality, Wheatley set off immeasurable rifts, which still inform human experience today and will inspire countless imaginations for generations to come.
I can’t overstate just how much I want everybody to read this book! I have never encountered a study of Wheatley, let alone a book of poems, that so vividly paints anybody’s existence and the time in which they lived in such a resounding way.
General George Washington Rereads a Poem and Letter He Received From Phillis Wheatley, and Agonizes Over His Response
February 28, 1776
Her letter trembles in my hand, dances
with confusion, swaying past the stars––
that she perched on fissures, such black chance:
on those black cheeks are there pagan scars?
An African, a girl who wrote this poem,
the hand graceful, the verse so stoked with praise
that I am consumed by clattering omen––
bold, she wrote to me, none of my house slaves
would dare, would be allowed this presumption
but northern men encourage the spilling
of ink by women and blacks, the gumption
of those who serve and cost pound and shilling.
Her quill and life defy my age’s Reason.
She steps in God’s house, a different season.
In 1773, a young, African American woman named Phillis Wheatley published a book of poetry that challenged Western prejudices about African and female intellectual capabilities. Based on fifteen years of archival research, The Age of Phillis, by award-winning writer Honorée Fanonne Jeffers, imagines the life and times of Wheatley: her childhood in the Gambia, West Africa, her life with her white American owners, her friendship with Obour Tanner, and her marriage to the enigmatic John Peters. Woven throughout are poems about Wheatley's "age"—the era that encompassed political, philosophical, and religious upheaval, as well as the transatlantic slave trade. For the first time in verse, Wheatley's relationship to black people and their individual "mercies" is foregrounded, and here we see her as not simply a racial or literary symbol, but a human being who lived and loved while making her indelible mark on history.