By Heather Buchanan
This is no place to live alone.
This simple statement is the cornerstone of The Belle Mar by Katie Bickham. Set in an old Louisiana plantation house that has stood from 1811 through the present day, this collection links generations of characters across time. Through a brilliant use of atmosphere, tone, language, and visceral imagery, Bickham enables readers to grasp the subtle complexities of a brutal world that masqueraded itself as genteel.
Bickham’s house is dead, yet alive. Through interconnected vignettes, the poet masterfully employs a house full of ghosts to tell a long, sad story. Each poem takes place in a specific location, most often a room in the house. Each room served its traditional purpose, such as the kitchen, tool shed, or attic, but they also served a dual purpose within that slave society. In “Barracks, 1839,” a master gently calls out his slave, Abraham, for a punishment that will ultimately tear all the flesh from Abraham’s back. Upon his arrival at the barracks, the master is:
Grinning. Grinning like he might split in two
with laughing any second. “Abraham, m’boy,
m’boy.” He stalked a few slow circles round the room,
all the breath sucked from Abraham’s lungs…
“You know we got to go outside, son.”
In an earlier poem (“Library, 1830”), the granddaughter of the dying slave master feels driven by a moral cause, sneaking out to find the three slaves she is secretly teaching to read. As she prepares to meet them, she rationalizes:
You had to do bad sometimes, had to play tricks,
Had to sneak to have a good heart,
To guide your good heart home…
Having spent four months of “ghosting” to her room and copying pages at night, the granddaughter “had nearly smuggled out every last line / of Grandfather’s abridged Odyssey.” This carefully selected choice of text demonstrates Bickham’s strong command of literary devices such as allusion. Could the granddaughter be presupposing a future for three slaves by teaching them an epic poem about a perilous journey home, and how trickery could be used to outwit a cyclops?
Each poem in The Belle Mar moves forward chronologically, juxtaposing the worlds of master and slave. In “Attic, 1835,” the tragic legacy of slavery continues through the passing on of a plantation from a father to his son, a chain of human misery that will not be broken:
In his last minutes, his father had held his face
with the strength of a well man. “This will be
your bed tomorrow. That, your window,
those, your fields. They hunger, boy,
and you will feed them or they’ll swallow you.
As he takes in his father’s last words, the son feels the weight of his obligation to perpetuate this oppressive world: the fields, and the “churning / steady noise of the Mississippi…There was no returning, / was never any rising back up / above sea level.”
Through a sustained tone of detached matter-of-factness, masters, slaves, and women on both sides of this bleak dynamic make weighty decisions every day, decisions that have a finality that our contemporary society would find difficult to contemplate. In “Back Fields, 1849,” the slave Abraham makes the risky decision to run: “After the rains / we gone.” For the slave, choosing to run from the plantation likely means death; for the master, recapturing a runaway means contemplation of death for the slave. Bickham’s women simply know this:
“A woman knows which pains she’ll survive /
considering those she’s known before” (“Far Swamp,” 1825).
The language of The Belle Mar stays true to its context, sparse dialogue and tight descriptions upholding the truth of these characters’ lives. The title of each poem is based on the “purpose” of each room. Figurative language displays the conventions of Louisiana life: dried sticks of cane, iced tea, summer storms, the river and floods, a “graying maid,” all in support of themes of family, nature, and death.
One could argue that the characters of The Belle Mar are figures representing that larger slave narrative that is familiar to us, yet Bickham imbues each resident of this house with little touches of vibrant humanity that makes them something more than figures. Perhaps it’s the way Violet, standing in the kitchen, “feels the coming storm in her knees, / less pain than heaviness—the body’s way / of speaking with the earth” (“Kitchen, 1845”). Maybe it’s the way that teacher of slaves, Penelope, can “sprint the pecan rows”. Or likely it’s Old Israel, who chooses to hang himself rather than face an unknown future as a newly-freed slave, “fought them / when they tried to carry him… / spat and slapped when they tried to say prayers on him” (“Sugar House,” 1864).
The Belle Mar begins and ends with the house. Its dreamlike atmosphere is just this side of a nightmare, a place no one can ever escape. Bickham understands that the past and present will not—nor ever will be—separated. Even after Hurricane Katrina in 2005, the house endures. The owner remembers growing up in the house’s “haunted halls” (“The Belle Mar, 2005”) and dreads her husband’s plans to rebuild it:
She believed him. He would sink his last dime
into raising the house from this ruin.
But in her marrow, hope rose
like floodwater, hope
the house was finished…
In the final poem, “Parlor, 2012,” a woman inherits a key to the house from her mother. She is warned in a loving note to “Guard against rattling bayou ghosts, / the pinstruck bones who stalk the riverline.” The daughter knows better:
My mother was mistaken. Ghosts stay
close to home, grinding their teeth
in the walls, making their beds
in the warped floors. I see them
sweeping out of rooms just as I light lamps.
This is no place to live alone.
Heather Buchanan is the owner of Aquarius Press, now celebrating its 15th year. Willow Books, its literary division, develops, publishes, and promotes writers typically underrepresented in the field; recent collaborations include the publication of Cave Canem XII. A graduate of Wayne State University and the University of Michigan-Dearborn respectively, Heather has taught Composition, English, African American Literature, and World Literature at several colleges and universities. In addition to teaching, Heather presents on arts and literature at conferences across the country, most recently for the Ragdale Foundation. She has directed many events and conferences, including LitFest Chicago, Midwest Poets & Writers Conference, and the Idlewild Writers Conference. A Poet-in-Residence emeritus for the Detroit Public Library system, Heather also served on the Board of Governors for UM-Dearborn’s College of Arts & Sciences Affiliate and was the COO of the Wayne County Council for Arts, History & Humanities. A musician, she is currently working on a World War I centennial book and music project honoring the Harlem Hellfighters. She has been a reviewer for BlogCritics and MyShelf and has blogged for publications such as Poets & Writers.