THE OPENING SCENE of Christopher Conlons poetic sequence The Weeping Time proves highly cinematographic. The train hisses as it stops. Pierce Butler, owner of Butler Island, disembarks into the warm Georgia spring rain holding two canvas money bags. What shall be done must be done. He will sell his 440 slaves. His beneficence will seal their destiny. He will press a shiny silver dollar into the hand of each one, until his money bags are deflated like twin hearts. As readers, we are already on the cusp of everything the dissolution of a great fortune, the mayhem of the biggest slave auction in American history, the Civil Wars delusions of grandeur.
As cinema, The Weeping Time features much in common with Gone With the Wind. It is epic in scope. It gives us the South through the lens of a troubled marriage. It goes heavy on Southern manners. Just as it is unwomanly for Scarlet OHara to eat ravenously in public (which is why she stuffs herself to the gills in private before allowing herself to be squeezed into her corset for parties), it is unmanly for Pierce Butler to take umbrage at the obvious inadequacies of women and slaves. He must simply bear the tragic burden of constant responsibility for his lessers. Conlons lens also focuses on two of these lessers Fanny Kemble, a British actress for whom marriage with Pierce Butler is the deus ex machina that gets her off the British stage, and Jack, a slave whose angelic high-tenor voice provides a ticket out of the rice fields until puberty hits and his voice starts creaking like a rusted gate.
Many poets these days write about history in narrative sequences such as The Weeping Time. Andrew Hudgins After the Lost War, Rita Doves Thomas and Beulah, Ellen Bryant Voigts Kyrie and Marilyn Nelsons Carver: A Life in Poems represent just a few book-length series of poems devoted to similar concerns (race, the Civil War, the history of the South, etc.). Persona poems i.e., poems in which a character, famous or not, gives his or her own first-person account constitute a natural choice for the methodology of such sequences. Although the subtitle for The Weeping Time is An Elegy in Three Voices, Conlon does not opt for persona poems. Instead we get Pierce, Fanny and Jack from the perspective of a third-person narrator, who paints all of them with the same ironic brush. In places, this flattens the narrative into something like a film script. The weakest poems seem to be waiting for actors to inhabit the words.
The truly memorable poems in the book give me scenes that I know for sure Ive never read in Faulkner, whose fiction treats similar material. In White, for example, black children metamorphose into white by spreading chicken shit all over their bodies. In Triumph: A Definition, the slave Obadiah performs magic tricks in red pantaloons, pulled along by a leash and rhinestone-studded collar. In The Infirmary, midwives strangle a woman in labor to make her convulse. A driving accentual rhythm emphasizes the hauntedness of all these stories.
As Mark Jarman and Robert McDowell once stipulated in an attempt to focus the attention of American poets back on the narrative, Emotion is inconsequential unless it is the result of a story. The story is communal; it is for others. The inconsequential emotion is the one felt only by the poet himself.
Conlon, I suspect, subscribes to this formulation. Ultimately, the strength of The Weeping Time lies in its commitment to the bigness of the story, to giving us Pierce and Fanny and Jack in cinemascope. Experiencing the unfolding of their lives on the big screen of the narrative sequence must surely give us pause. The forbidden question must come to our lips: how much progress have we really made on the race issue in the last 150 years?
Ann Neelon is the author of Easter Vigil, which won the Anhinga Prize for Poetry and the 1997 RPCV Readers and Writers Award for Poetry. She is currently completing a book-length sequence inspired by the Boston busing crisis. Recent work appears in the anthology Snakebird and is upcoming in the Mid-American Review. A professor of creative writing at Murray State University, she lives in western Kentucky with her husband and two sons.