Criticism & Features


Small Press Spotlight: Vievee Francis

By Rigoberto Gonzalez

Author Photo: Corine Vermeulen

Horse in the Dark, Northwestern University Press, 2012

Vievee Francis is the author of Blue-Tail Fly (Wayne State University Press, 2006). Her work has appeared in several venues, including the Crab Orchard Review, Rattle, The Best American Poetry 2010, and is forthcoming in Angles of Ascent: A Norton Anthology of Contemporary African American Poetry. She was the 2009-2010 Poet-in-Residence for the Alice Lloyd Hall Scholars Program at the University of Michigan, and is the recipient of a 2009 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and a 2010 Kresge Award. She is an associate editor of Callaloo. Horse in the Dark won the 2010 Northwestern University Cave Canem Prize for a second book.

Your book presents, among other things, an electrifying portrait of danger and hardship in a mostly rural-landscape in West Texas. Here, the sun’s “like the round hole/ of a lariat over a cow’s neck,” the “perilous knowledge” of snakes and other ground dwellers “will come up on you/ quick-like.” There’s no other choice for the land’s human inhabitants but to endure and learn to thrive. The horse, then, with its strength and resilience, becomes the perfect symbol for such survival. The title poem approaches this horse/ human comparison most intimately–when the horse and the rider “untwine,” the rider needs to run on its own two feet. This moment of self-reliance is echoed in a number of poems in the book that allude to the speaker’s awareness of racial strife and difference, like in the poem “The Cowboy’s Son,” in which the jackrabbit infestation becomes code for the growing black population in the community. Why is metaphor and allegory an effective way to approach such charged subjects as race in your work?

Metaphor and particularly allegory serve to make the abstract and the difficult, the extreme and the unspeakable tangible.  Conceptions and notions of race, like those around love or despair are too large to untangle, to unwieldy to digest. So a vehicle is needed. Or a concrete symbol to hold such weight. For years I wrote about the sun as an oppressive orb always placing everything in jagged relief under its indifferent yet revealing gaze. Years. And I did not realize I had taken for my own this collective symbol of what is bright, light giving, life affirming, and turned it into a personal symbol of cruelty, violence (from the perhaps necessary but disturbing coyote kills, to the casual attitude toward guns), racial strife that was always there hanging like a sun overhead, insistent in its disinterest (though life in West Texas was certainly better for my paternal side than life in East Texas had been for my maternal side). It took someone else reading my poems to point out the way I was using symbols, and then the hard task of admitting it to myself, because I wanted to see the sun like everyone else. I questioned myself, why did I reject sun [shine]? I did not want to look back and note the impact of my early childhood on my adult self. Now, of course I find much to value in West Texas, and take a rather expected pride in being a Texan through several generations, but much of my life I ran until I could face what the sun had come to represent.

I was intrigued by the poem “Anti-Pastoral,” in which the speaker complains: “I hate this measure/ of memory, the constant return to the creek, the field,/ the sundering South. I want release from the pasture/ of my youth, from its cows and cobs in the mouth./ Forgive my tiresome nostalgia. Forget it.” But this landscape is also connected to other disturbing domestic scenes. Toward the end of the book there were some arresting poems about the speaker’s conflicted relationship with her father and grandfather, Brutal Paw: “I planned this visit to make peace with my place,/ with my cotton-picker’s knuckles, my teeth/ sharp as a coon’s up a tree.” Writing about place and people is a double-edged experience (“there was darkness there–and light too—”) for the speaker. Perhaps it’s too simple to observe that writing is healing. What other reckoning comes from confronting, wrote Lucille Clifton, “the poet in her, the poet and/ the terrible stories she could tell”?

I don’t think I could say “writing is healing.” Not the kind of writing I do. Too many of the poets I know are not necessarily “healed” by writing, though for some it may  help maintain the life somehow through continuity if the writer works with regularity. I might say “reading is healing,” but the kind of texts I would go to for such healing bear no resemblance to the type of work I produce. My work is meant to be interrogative. It provides no answers; nothing is easily wrought or digested. In the main it neither soothes nor affirms. It may challenge or address ideologies or measures I feel are stagnant or reductive through the play of images, repetition, and iteration. In the writing of Horse in the Dark, I did not seek or expect healing, but I did gain a sense of liberation.

I realized as I was writing the book that I kept returning to the act of speaking, of articulation, of voicing in any way possible even in grunts and moans the buried or subsumed memory, and perhaps more necessary the silenced self. I wanted to speak for myself, of myself on my own terms. And I wanted to place myself within what was my formative context. To speak as a means of visibility. To be “heard” as a vehicle toward being “seen.” So what was unknown, what was allowed to be set underground through shame, ambition, pretension, whatever the impetus, through the process of writing is exposed and through reading communicated. But this process was arduous. It took years, and the kind of risk I had to mature enough to take. By the time I wrote “Anti-Pastoral” I was exhausted and determined that I had had enough excavation and could leave these early experiences behind me. Once the book was out, I knew that was a naive conclusion, that these experiences would never leave me and that what I ultimately sought was not “release” from the experiences as in now I’ve written it and can forget it, but a release from the negative emotions (and even the positive ones that overwhelmed me) the experiences engendered, and further, an acceptance of the past through an incorporation (as opposed to an evasion) of the experiences into my current life. I am Texan. I am also a Detroiter. A Hamtramckan. Southwestern. Northern. “Anti-Pastoral” describes what needs reconciling, attempting to not privilege any space, but to speak to the costs of each.

My understanding of what comprised my ‘self’ was at what I reckoned as irreconcilable odds with the world around me. A world my father and his father and his were so much a part of that I can’t think of parts of Texas without them immediately coming to mind. So I became silently defiant (though for that part of the country still far more vocal than a daughter “should” be). I waited for the chance to enact my own ideas, and eventually to speak them. Silence became a refuge I protected, a place where free of censure and fear I could further develop an interior landscape I’d grown to deeply value. But my silence had also become a prison from which I couldn’t release myself. I could speak, but never to my own experiences, or my own feelings. I became objective, which looked like integrity, but it lacked true personal investment. I did not know how to speak to the paradox of place. I longed for aspects of the land, even as I rejected some core tenants of Texan and black Texan culture. Regarding my family, here were people I loved; here were people who I did not reveal myself to (as much for their protection as mine really). In writing Horse in the Dark I began to break down the walls (silence being only one) the culture at large and I had advertently and inadvertently built. Toward the text, the reader may note a number of admonitions to “run” or “break the fence” which is a way of freeing oneself. Again, release. 

Besides farm and ranch animals likes horses and pigs, Horse in the Dark is also inhabited by such creatures as snakes, scorpions, armadillos, and coyotes. There are some surprises (though not entirely unexpected considering the prominence of the horse as trope): a sea horse, a centaur, Pegasus. Indeed, an inclusive bestiary. The poet is like the Queen of Sheba in another poem, “a woman whose knowledge of beasts/ was as boundless as [Solomon’s] understanding of man// and each preferring the equanimity of night/ whose darkness encompasses all.” That poem also states, the garden she walks on “was no Eden.” Indeed, little is romanticized or idealized about the animal (humans included) world in Horse in the Dark, though there’s a freedom in shedding form, skin and fur–beneath “steams the vocabulary/ of flesh, crosshatched into meaning.” Is there solace in the statement? What is gained or what lessons are learned by turning the flawed human gaze toward animals?

Horse in the Dark began as a personal investigation of self and place. I don’t openly discuss “skin” in terms of tone in the book. I don’t have to. The gaze upon me as an African American and as an African American has never been “real” or consistent, thus, never of true value to me.  I demanded more from my own gaze back. I wanted to take the notion of skin a step farther into a play of skin as hide, as material: hair shirt and crocker sack, as a firmer boundary that I might mark and then, un-seam.

I am, as I said, of rural stock if you will allow, so I am ultimately close to the earth, the field, what grows and is grown, the pines of the region, the blue bonnets, the roses. Does this make me more “animal” than say someone who has no idea what it takes to get a chicken into the stockpot? So there is 1) the personal connection to animals or what is animal through the rural, farming/ranching, 2) the historicity of being part of a human group lawfully configured as an animal then set to work with the plow alongside them, then there is 3) the black female body historically and culturally set in oppositional aesthetic (by all groups) through the mechanism of slavery, and the subsequent extension of the sharecropping system, and 4) media which serves largely to reinforce ideas of the black female body as beyond pain/aesthetically other/animal. I wanted examine and note how much of this I had internalized. But this clearly leads not only toward but away from the personal doesn’t it? Into larger, Ovidian questions of how much of man is beast? What do man and beast share? Take this farther into our collective mythologies of the man/beast, from centaurs to tikbalangs. Humans have always wondered how to parse ourselves from the animal world, or how to close the gap or even insist there is no (deny) parsing. I took Michael Collier’s suggestion to read Ovid’s Metamorphosis after I had the initial draft of this book. Though I was familiar with the myths, I had not read this particular book prior. While writing these poems, I did a rereading of Lucretius’s, On the Nature of Things, which of course examines things of “mortal stock.” So Horse in the Dark became for me a much larger interrogation of what it is for me to be human and what it is to be human at large without boundary.

You are no longer living in Texas, and have been living a slightly peripatetic existence for some time now. How have the different landscapes you have called home shaped or redirected your work?  

I’m so happy to answer this question as I am temporarily making my home in the mountains of North Carolina. I’ve never lived in (?) mountains before. I am writing as if on fire. How else to negotiate this Blue Ridge? I feel myself falling into states of awe every time I walk outdoors, or even look out from the windows at the mall bookstore. Mountains everywhere. I write and I weep. I can’t seem to take it in and I’ve been here about four months. My interior landscape/s are shaken by shifts in the external landscape. I immerse, take in each place (past, present, city, county, the diverse communities that have embraced me, and now my “family” home) as home. In this I have looked to other writers who were nomadic in their impulses after having led childhoods where they moved place to place (Vazirani, Walcott, Zagajewski…). I am an army brat, so perhaps it is no surprise that I seem unable to settle into one place. Even looking back through time, in the memory of a place I can be moved into poetry. What else is Horse in the Dark, if not a negotiation of the remembered landscape, which in the end is as much imagination and a litany of questions as it is reality. So much colors memory. I use several methods to indicate the slippage of memory. Now that I am not in a city I have long lived in, fought in, loved, Detroit, how will I write about it. It too will become a remembered landscape and its negotiation on the page writing “of” a place will be different than writing “from” a place. I am currently driven by this Appalachian environment (that in many ways brings to mind East Texas for me) to write the moment at hand, as I make my peace with the shadowed and lit moments recalled in Horse in the Dark.