Tuesday, June 30, 2009

The Poem as Novella: Julie Agoos, PROPERTY

If bookshelves were organized by substance -- rather than by author or subject area -- I would shelve PROPERTY between Karen Hesse's young adult novel in verse, WITNESS, and Edgar Lee Masters' SPOON RIVER ANTHOLOGY. And yet it's not "like" either, except in the sense that I long to experience it in performance. The one time I've heard it read aloud, there was only one reader. And that can't capture the sense of courtroom argument and the piling up of points that its centerpiece sequence, "Deposition," offers.

A handful of relatively straightforward narrative poems starts the volume. These set a scene: of a village or town where people watch each other across class boundaries, but fail to extend compassion across those lines. In "Hearsay" the speaker asserts:
All our lives were intertwined that way

farmers once, then all our houses
become boarding places, and then
vacation homes -- we'd tried

anything to just hold on.

But the neighborhood is defined by categories: the Polish man, the Black ones. And the weight of the past, of the prejudices on which each has climbed and trampled the ones at the bottom, turns an observation of "They didn't mean to hurt anyone" into a decision to pay neighbors to leave.

This almost familiar situation twists in the hands of the poet to become a distorted reflection of how European settlement of America trampled on the lives of the land's original inhabitants, and at the same time on the lives of Blacks who arrived from Africa and the Caribbean islands.

When the "transcripts" of the court proceedings detailed in "Depositions" slam the views of questioning counsel, of judge, and of witness against each other, the assertions of independence and equality shatter among the voices. "They were free men going back / all the way." But soon:
You saw a change in her. Did no one
else feel intimate enough to show concern
for someone in the town who'd lived a lifetime here
and now seemed dangerous --

A dangerous question that is itself an objection and an overruling.

Eventually the volume title PROPERTY becomes a double label: for the "stolen land" and for the "stolen people," the slaves and indentured servants who lost so much more than their inheritance.
Those are accounts of crimes--
we'll call them crimes although at the time
they weren't--committed some time back--
300 years ago--

So PROPERTY becomes a volume to "consider prayerfully" or "see mindfully" as America's Independence Day arrives again. Whose independence? And at what cost?

In one of the concluding poems, Agoos proposes that the past is "clean," which clearly she has already demonstrated is far from the truth. Her narrator protests, "it was all so long ago," and tries to "close the book / on someone else's life." We who follow take on the challenge that Agoos offers become certain: The book of history, of human lives, must stay open. Restoration and redemption are in some much later section of our volume.

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