The Ghosts of Monticello: A Recitatif by Carmen Gillespie

Lisa Russ Spaar Click to

Lisa Russ Spaar is the author of Satin Cash; Poems, Blue Venus: Poems, and Glass Town: Poems, for which she recieved a Rona Jaffe Award for Emerging Women Writers in 2000. She is editor of Acquainted With the Night: Insomnia Poems (Columbua UP, 1999) and All That Might Heart: London Poems (University of Virginia Press, 2008). A collection of her essays about contemporary poetry was published by Drunken Boat Editions in 2013. She was awarded a Guggenheim Fellowship for 2009/2010 and serves as poetry editor for the Chronicle of Higher Education.

There has always been something operatic, even tragic, about the idealistic sweep and hypocrisy of the American experiment, an ongoing narrative-in-the making perhaps never more bombastic and perversely dramatic than in our current historical moment.   Carmen Gillespie’s “recitatif” moves into the American spectacle/debacle, focusing in order to do so on the microcosm of Thomas Jefferson’s Monticello and giving voice to its haunted and haunting understory of racism, pretense, chauvinism, and varnished distortion. 

The book takes as its formal trope a musical “recitatif”—defined on Wikipedia as “a style of musical declamation that hovers between song and ordinary speech, particularly used for dialogic and narrative interludes during operas and oratories. An obsolete sense of the term was also ‘the tone or rhythm peculiar to any language.’”  With its cast of five key players—Thomas Jefferson, his deceased wife Martha, his slave/mistress Sally Hemings, Sally’s mother Betty, and enslaved artisan/overseer Isaac Jefferson—and its program notes, overture, movements, intermission, and coda—the collection makes use of and subverts the traditional Western musical form, presenting voices vernacular, silenced, or otherwise suppressed. 

One suspects that Gillespie, in choosing her title, also had in mind Tony Morrison’s short story “Recitatif,” a tour de force tale of the fictions of memory and of parenthetical identity between orphan girls of different races.  The genius of Gillespie’s book-length poem lies in the ways in which she manipulates refrain, rhyme, homonyms, punning, and other linguistic utterances to allow the identities of the powerful and the powerless to float over and turn into one another everywhere, in a frisson of ire, sympathy, and pathos.  And while Thomas and Isaac punctuate the performance, both with a heavy dose of dramatic irony, it is the women in this performance—Sally, her mother, and Martha—whose overlapping voices, moving in threnody and counterpoint, form the beating heart of the recitatif.

Gillespie opens the book with “Program Notes” that consist of a found poem comprised of two side-by-side columns.   The left is made of language from the actual  “Monticello Digital Classroom—Reading Level:  Elementary School” (“Thomas Jefferson was an incredible man” etc.) with the right-hand column offering a catalogue of parenthetical excerpts from Jefferson’s Notes on the State of Virginia (“. . . never yet could I find that a black had uttered a thought above the level of plain narration . . .”) as well as passages from more contemporary texts about Monticello and Jefferson.   These introductory “notes” for Gillespie’s recitatif signal what to expect in the “performance” that follows:  “plain narration,” often repetitive, in which meaning emerges from accrual, overlap, and the revelatory ironies of rhymes of all sorts—between words, between people, between circumstances.  There are few words in the book, for example, that couldn’t be read and/or understood by a child or an illiterate person.  Often the poems have the drive, swing, and encoded simplicity of field songs, spirituals, or prayers.  Yet, juxtaposed and taken together, these utterances by the “ghosts of Monticello” add up to a stunning, compassionate picture that is both indicting and revelatory.

Isaac Jefferson, who dictated a memoir of his time at Monticello after he was freed, and Thomas Jefferson himself both left behind records of sorts, so particularly moving in Gillespie’s account are the voicings she gives to the women in her quartet—Betty (who was Sally Hemings’s enslaved mother but also the mistress of the father of Martha Jefferson, Thomas Jefferson’s wife—making Martha and Sally half-sisters, both probably nursed in infancy by Betty), and particularly Sally and Martha, both bound—in very different ways—by the strictures of their time and place.    Gillespie’s plain-spoken utterances, offered without editorializing or politicized rhetoric, offer a fiercely feeling look at the plight of the powerful and the powerless in the realm of Monticello, and, by extrapolation, America, as these lines from “Martha and Sally Chant” suggest:

his slaves,
his caprice,
his possession

the U – S

and us.

Here is a poem in Martha’s voice, spoken from the grave (Jefferson loved Martha; on her deathbed in her early 30s, she made Jefferson promise never to remarry.  He never did, but he did have a life-long relationship afterward with his much younger slave, Sally Hemings, who, again, was Martha’s half-sister):

No surprise, this familiar landscape,
no escape to beyond, we are here.

No prologue, no Notes . . .
We locked near can hear

for all the years
just the beat of your lash

and the splash
of the down low.

In this house where we laid,
and, laid here, now we stay.

Bitter as roots do we stay,
unafraid to parlay

the low down—

sound mocks the abyss,
long prisoned unpromise—

How I hear?  Can’t you hear?
            Sister, please re-enter here—

From the beyond, Martha can finally speak (“unafraid to parlay”) of both the “down low” (what her family kept discreet) and the “low down” (the out-ed truth).  In a poem of her own, “Sally Sings,” Hemings acknowledges this sister-rhyme, but also articulates its limits:

Never odd nor even that is the breath of time.
The windy voice of leaves in eaves speaks of ocean
and tides wash the sand and rock the sand to rock.

What was is.  What is was.

What love, what word, what now, what song?
What’s in the breath of time?  Some wrong
way along this stay.  What is today?  Where went yesterday?

            This rhyme is mine, but not the song.

Perhaps most moving are the poems in which both sisters speak in counterpoint, to and at one another, completing each other’s sentences and borrowing each other’s phrases from other poems, to striking effect:

This Familiar Landscape

SALLY:          No surprise, this familiar landscape.
                        No escape to beyond, we are here.
                        No prologue.  No premier.  We will hear
                                    for all the years.

                        Even so, he was mine
                                    and will be for all time.

MARTHA:      In this house where we laid
                                    and where we were laid
                                    all and each entwined
                                    and entombed.

                        Now it seems we are each confined.

SALLY:          Now as bitter roots we stay

MARTHA:      unafraid to delay what we know we must say—

SALLY:          a sweet sound mocks this abyss,

MARTHA:      so long delayed this prisoned unpromise.

In the poem’s antepenultimate poem, “Betty’s Chant,” the narrator looks into the future, admonishing anyone wrongly shackled or dehumanized to “run / out of the gate / it is not too late / to end your hundred years of wait– / Run.  Keep the walk, your movement free / century by century.”   One important take-away from this original, important sound act of history is expressed in a poem in which the walls of Monticello themselves speak:

              Look around at what survives.  I see.  I see.
            But oh, how then to be

Freed of what I know,
what they have done,

from what they have sown.
from what they still own.

from what they must own. 

The stereoscopy of the phrases “still own” and “must own”—the pitch between wrongful possession and admitting and taking responsibility for that wrong—captures the inspiration and the ongoing lesson of The Ghosts of Monticello.

[Fairfax, VA: Stillhouse Press, 2017] $17.95