Now in early spring, cherry blossoms blooming in Wooster Square in New Haven, Connecticut transforms itself from the last vestiges of winter, but it was on one of those last cold and dreary days that I first visited Norfolk, CT, to stand by the grave of James Mars, one of the last slaves born and sold in Connecticut and a figure whom I had no knowledge of previously. Mars lived for ninety years from 1790 to 1880 and in his life saw unbelievable change take place. He also wrote a brief autobiography (that you can read here) that details his life in Connecticut, being separated from his family and hidden by kindly strangers, being bought, sold and finally freed due to the quixotic Gradual Emancipation Laws in the state. His life was a marker of our country's history and the more I researched him, the more he came alive in my mind. But the real key to help me envision what he might have been like was that photograph taken near the end of his life (see this photo) that shows him to be kindly, wise and possessed of a mischievous glint.
To write about James Mars, I chose to use a form of poetry first codified in 9th century Japan called zuihtisu (随筆). Literally in the Kanji script this combines "to follow" and "brush." To follow the brush, or random jottings, the form uses fragments, like snippets of poetry, lists, overheard anecdotes, newspaper clippings, etc. to form a collage that gives us multiple perspectives on a given mind or subject. Sei Shōnagon's famous "Pillow Book" is an exemplar of the genre. I wanted to use this form because I wanted to provide contextual clues to help us imagine James Mars and the time period he lived in. To even partially capture the complicated life of this self-taught and prodigious man who lived through the last era of Connecticut slavery, I combined invented portions, like a dramatic monologue in his voice, an epistolary poem written by his former master, and a cento composed of phrases chosen from his own writing, along with actual historical documents, like a list of goods from the time period, a map of the region and the history of slave laws in Connecticut. This juxtaposition was intended to narrow the aperture of the lens to show James in his distinctive and lively individuality, then pulling out to see the larger historical context, including elements of the culture and landscape in which he lived. By the end, I felt inhabited by James and felt it was incumbent on me to preserve his memory.
We normally don't associate Connecticut with slavery, yet from the Colonial era in the mid-17th century to right before the Civil War in 1848, slavery in various forms was legal and I strongly feel that is something from which we should not avert our eyes, especially when we consider the paradox of our state: one of the richest states in the country, yet possessed of some of the most blighted inner cities in Hartford, Bridgeport and New Haven. This complicated story, along with the courageous history of the Underground Railroad in our state and the contributions of African-Americans to the richness of our cultural life, both present and past, need to be investigated, documented and celebrated. Therefore I'm thrilled that the International Festival of Arts and Ideas as part of the Freedom's Journey project is allowing poets to encounter these historically charged spaces and grapple with the memory of figures, like Marion Anderson, the first African American opera singer to perform at the Met, Prudence Crandall who changed the face of education in the state by fighting against the issue of discrimination and of course James Mars, to create original works of art. Presenting my poem at the Norfolk Historical Society, under the gaze of Mars' himself, in a building in which he may even have stepped foot, was a distinctive pleasure, particularly given the response I got from folks in town who had come to hear the presentation. I had given them a part of themselves they had not before seen or even known they possessed, they told me, and they felt prouder and sadder for being better able to imagine their neighbor from generations past. And for a poet, I can think of no higher praise than that.