Criticism & Features



By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Cradle Song, C&R Press, 2009.

Stacey Lynn Brown was born and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, and studied at Emory University, Oxford University, and The University of Oregon, where she received her MFA in Poetry. She teaches creative writing at Southern Illinois University, Edwardsville.

Cradle Song is subtitled “a poem,” not a book of poems, though it’s a poem containing forty parts and an epilogue—a long poem—with shifting points of view, and which sweeps through different eras of the South. Only such a scope can hold both a respect for that landscape, but also offer harsh criticisms: “But white folks cannot fix by night/ what they break in the light of day,/ and it’s a luxury of race to believe/ that race is not an issue.” An then later: “To be a Southerner is to feel yourself/ forever draped in the mantle of the past,/ to pull at the corners of that threadbare/ quilt and know its incongruity, the feet/ or head always left bare, exposed/ to the elemental cold.” What kind of emotional and intellectual energy did it take to approach both Southern charm and Southern contempt? How is the exploration of contradiction and ambivalence connected to the role of this speaker as a young white woman coming to terms with the true nature of race relations even in her own home?

The South is a land of intense contradictions, a beautiful difficulty.  It contains great natural beauty and people who are capable of tremendous kindnesses, but it also contains a deeply entrenched history of racism, bigotry, and prejudice, often within those same people.  I knew that in order for the book to be honest, it had to reflect and contain these contradictions by telling as many truths as possible.

That’s why I chose to incorporate different voices within the narrative.  I’ve always been fascinated by the fact that two people can have a shared history of experiences but have completely different versions of it to tell.  So instead of just having the little girl’s voice, or the adult voice looking back, I knew that I needed to include as many different contexts and perspectives as possible in order to create a more fully realized portrait.  Like holding a gemstone up to the light, each angle and reflection and refraction adds dimension.  I framed it as a book-length poem in sections with the hope that each individual section would contribute some sliver of understanding aggregate to the whole.

Childhood is always confusing, as the young grow into an understanding of how the adult world works.  My childhood was spent navigating incredibly contradictory information that was specific to the region.  On the one hand, there was this engrained racism in my history and my family, and on the other, a tradition of entrusting African-American women with the care and raising of the children.  That irony wasn’t discussed.  And part of coming to terms with it was realizing that this type of prejudice was both inclusive and exclusionary: how can “we” feel this way about a group of people, but not this particular person, since groups are made up of individuals?  Sorting out this information, determining fact from fiction and bias from truth, was the real work.  Compared to a lifetime of trying to understand and reckon with these issues, the telling was the easy part.

If this epic has a heroine it’s definitely Gaither May Myrick, the African American caretaker, whose unconventional and unpredictable behavior challenges the type of the “black nanny.” How did you negotiate those poems written in Gaither’s voice and the startling revelations about Gaither’s personal life? It’s fitting almost that Gaither’s heartbreaking disappearance comes across as otherworldly—she was bigger than life. Somehow I suspect this isn’t the last we’ll hear of her. Is that the case?

Gaither had a huge influence on me as I was growing up, and she was inextricably linked with so many of the memories and experiences that molded me.  Whenever I tried to write about her in the past, she always punched out the margins of whatever I was working on.  My mistake was in trying to write about her, trying to summarize or superimpose language onto who she was.  I realized that for this poem to work, she would have to speak for herself.

But it was a tricky space to navigate.  I didn’t want to co-opt or appropriate anything, but I also didn’t want to let her, and her stories, simply vanish into the ether.  My only option was to tell about that shaded area where our worlds overlapped in the experiences that we shared and the stories she told me.  And that was true for all of the voices in the poem: I wouldn’t speak for other people, so each italicized section is my memory of a story that person told me, written just as they sounded to me.

These Gaither stories weren’t part of my early childhood.  As I got older, she chose to share them with me.  Maybe she wanted me to know her in a way that I couldn’t as a child.  Or maybe she just figured I’d get a kick out of them.  They were incongruent with her role as a caregiver to small children, but they made sense to me in the same way that Gaither did.  She drank, she carried a blade, and even though she tried to keep it from me, some of that outside violence crept in.  So finding out what she had done with that switchblade wasn’t particularly jarring.  It was just another layer, just another contradiction that revealed a truth.

The way Gaither slipped out of my life still haunts me.  It was as if I was too careless with the relationship, too trusting, too child-like.  I believed that she would be okay simply because she had to be.  And even though I was grown when it happened, getting that call was one of the first moments when I realized I was truly an adult—and that things are always this hard.

I can’t blame her for leaving that eldercare home.  It was a horrible place.  But I’ll always wonder where she was trying to go, and whether or not she got there.  If I ever find out what happened to her, I know that it will send me back to the page—but probably not as poetry.  The rest of this conversation seems more suited to nonfiction, so I suspect you’ll find her punching out the margins over there.

The end of Cradle Song comes full circle to the speaker’s pregnancy, to her own “Big Legs” (what Gaither nicknamed her charge). It’s a touching poem that signals a number of hopes—that a woman will be able to hold her own child (unlike the speaker’s mother or even Gaither), that a parent will teach her child outside of the social prejudices, that a mother will be pass on the legacy of love and affection to her daughter. Indeed this book offers a valuable lesson in the current climate in which this country has yet to deal with injustices against other groups. So, there is hope? 

Absolutely, there is hope—as long as there is dialogue.  That seems to be how real change happens: it begins when injustices are given voice and are brought into the mainstream discourse.  Any group without a voice suffers in silence.  But with language comes consciousness, and with consciousness comes change.

The South has a lengthy history of racism, but it also has a long history of dialogue about racism. That dialogue was an integral part of the Civil Rights Movement.  There is obviously a great deal of work left to be done on that front, but a lot of progress has been made.  Obama’s presence in the White House speaks to that, as does the fact that he only won three of the Southern states.  And now, other groups who have been voicing their collective consciousness are raising the stakes and bringing their rights to the forefront for change.  It’s clear to me that same-sex marriage is the next civil right to be assured.  Slowly but surely, states are beginning to map out legal and legislative ways to implement this protection for everyone.  And that legal protection is the first step toward demystifying the “others” and reducing the fear, ignorance, and hatred.

The worst thing we can do is to leave any one group out of the discourse and insist that who they are, what they have to say, and what they bring to the table is inferior somehow.  Dehumanizing a group opens the door to the unspeakable.  As long as we keep reminding ourselves and each other of our shared humanity—and keep questioning the legacies that are handed down to us—I believe we stand a real chance.