By: Sue B. Walker
Reviewed by: Jennifer Horne
Negative Capability Press, 2008
$10, Compact Disk
Alabama Poet Laureate Sue B. Walker recently released a CD. No, she has not become a musical artist as well as a poet (although there is some quite nice singing on this CD); rather, Walker has recorded two of her longer poems, “Blood Must Bear Your Name” (28.51 minutes) and “We Are All Alike” (12:15 minutes).
A brief biographical introduction begins the CD and is followed by Walker’s own introduction to “Blood Must Bear Your Name,” the title poem in her 2002 collection from Amherst Writers and Artists Press (www.amherstwriters.com/BookBld.html). The idea of listening to a nearly half-hour long poem might seem daunting at first, but this powerful narrative poem draws the listener in and keeps one’s attention throughout. Told in the voice of a white woman in the form of a letter to her son, the poem centers on the murder trial and subsequent hanging of a female slave in 1855. Writing late at night, the speaker, Virginia Adams March, unfolds a complex tale of sexual desire, power, and transgression. “I’m afraid to read what I’ve scribbled in the dark,” she says. Still, she feels compelled to tell her story and that of the slave woman, Ninevah, pronounced here “Nonih-Vea,” who was her father’s mistress. After her death, she imagines, her son Billy will take from around her neck the key to the cherrywood box on the mantel and open the box to find the letter she has written to him, revealing all.
Opening with the trial and hanging, the poem moves back and forth in time, covering Virginia’s young married life, including her lack of knowledge about sex and childbirth, her mother’s death and Virginia’s subsequent return to her father’s house, and the murder of her father. The poem also raises questions of patriarchy and ownership of women, white and black, “free” and enslaved. “A gentleman owns his women,” Virginia’s brother claims, and she herself knows it to be true that “It’s the law women are subject to their men.”
The second, shorter poem on the CD, “We Are All Alike,” is another persona poem, this time in the voice of a woman on Death Row in Alabama. After fourteen years in prison, the woman is nearing execution, and she reflects on her life and upcoming death in plain but lyrical language, referring to her marriage as “our failed fairy tale.” Again, the poem’s narrative sweep draws one in. Why did this educated, thoughtful woman murder her husband? The poem includes a roll call of women on Death Row and to some degree effectively personalizes women who might ordinarily receive little sympathy.
“We Are All Alike” is dedicated to Sister Helen Prejean, author of Dead Man Walking, and opens with opposing epigraphs, one pro–capital punishment from George Bush as governor of Texas, and another from Albert Camus, from “Reflections on the Guillotine.”
Sue Walker has a pleasing reading voice, strong and clear, dramatic but nuanced. On your next hour-long car trip, these suspenseful poems would make a good alternative to a mystery novel.
Copies of this CD may be ordered from Negative Capability Press at www.suebwalker.com/ Feb 2009
Jennifer Horne is the Poetry Book Reviews Editor for First Draft Reviews Online. Her book of poems, Bottle Tree, is forthcoming from WordTech Press in early 2010.