Howard Faerstein remembers standing near the sculpture of Sojourner Truth in his hometown on a summer day. She lived there in Florence in the 1840s and 1850s, in a community of black families, men and women who had escaped slavery. This summer, after George Floyd was killed, the town held a vigil there. This fall he is working on a new poem honoring her memory, in themes of loss and family and reunion.
In these short weeks before the election, Western Massachusetts poets have come together at the historic home and studio of the sculptor of the Lincoln memorial, to share work that feels relevant to this time and in that place.
Faerstein, poet, professor and editor of the journal Cutthroat, gathered with poets from the Pioneer Valley in Voices of Poetry on October 10 at Chesterwood, a live reading outdoors with Matt Donovan, Director of The Poetry Center, at Smith College; Amy Dryansky, winner of the Massachusetts Book Award in Poetry; Richard Michelson, former Poet Laureate of Northampton; and violinist and composer Concetta Abbate.
They have created an afternoon together at the historic home and studio of Daniel Chester French, sculptor of the Lincoln memorial, to share work that feels relevant to them today, in this time and in that place.
As they imagined the event, they talked over monumental sculpture and memory, the Lincoln memorial and the years when French created it in the Reconstruction after the Civil War — when Black men served in Congress and the U.S. passed legislation protecting rights to education and the vote, though many Americans who were not white would not be able to exercise those rights for another hundred years.
When Michelson thinks of the Lincoln Memorial, he thinks of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. standing in front of it in 1963.
“It’s an image sacred in so many minds,” he said.
“I’ve been thinking about liberation, freedom, Ruth Bader Ginsberg,” Donovan said, “… the moment we’re in, or the long moment we’ve been in, and how I could think about that. What does it mean to be free, to be liberated, and to have that taken from you — and who decides?”
He is hearing reflections at every reading he has taken part in, he said, on this moment in time and what it means to be an American.
“We are thinking about that now,” Dryansky agreed, “and centrally about who we put on a pedestal — historically, in town squares, in front of courthouses — who is invisible, who a hero is, who a liberator is.”
They spoke together virtually from their studies and studios, and Michelson and Faerstein each at different times from theirs.
They asked who gets remembered, and how.
“So much of the act of a memorial, the complication, is the silence of a memorial,” Donovan said. “… Who controls the narrative?”
Faerstein recalled a memorial he often saw growing up in Brooklyn, walking through Prospect Park. Daniel Chester French designed a relief sculpture as a memorial to Gilbert du Motier, Marquis de Lafayette, and Faerstein focuses on the man who stands beside Gilbert, holding his horse.
His name is also Lafayette — James Armistead Lafayette — and he served in the Revolution, though he was still enslaved. He gathered information as an agent behind the British lines, Faerstein said, information key to winning the Battle of Yorktown, the battle that ended the Revolutionary War.
When Faerstein was growing up, no one talked about James Armistead Lafayette, he said. Now some people have begun to recognize him and remember his name.
‘What does it mean to be free, to be liberated, and to have that taken from you — and who decides?’
In one of his favorite poems, he recalls a memorial celebration in Provincetown when he and his partner walked through town.
“… July 4th, nearing dusk,
when we joined the promenade up Commercial Street. Couples arm-in-arm: men
with men, women with women, women with men. The smell of mud at low tide. A
street musician played a Bach suite on her viola, an elegantly dressed woman
sang from Carmen in faulty French. …”
The poem calls on an artist to choose with intent what she records, he said — as Donovan writes about an artist who photographs the details of his daily walks:
“… how dust freckles each lemon tree blossom, or how
his horses stir in their decrepit stalls, watching rain pool in the dark palm
of a shovel & in the earth
between their hooves.”
“One thing poetry and art can do in this moment,” Donovan said, “at least for me, one reason I’ve been turning to poetry and art … to remind us what matters and what’s worth preserving.”
Michelson also considers what memories and stories are preserved, in his work — looking at an old photograph of his grandfather with his mother:
“Sure, it’s blurry, she says; he’s shaking like your grandfather,
davening the way all old men do at the edge of their dreams.”
At Chesterwood he was planning to read work on art, on sculpture, and work that feels timely to him now, in Covid-19 and the election and Black Lives Matter, and in French’s garden on a fall afternoon.
“One thing I love about poetry in real life,” he said, “I think wherever you read (your words aloud, the place) inflects its own vision on the poetry you’re reading. Poetry isn’t in stasis. It grows. It means different things to different people. … When I read poems to children, or in a synagog, or in a black church, it’s fascinating to see how they reverberate. I grew up Jewish in a black neighborhood, and that’s in my poems.”
He writes about his family surviving World War II and about his father years later, in new York, shot and dying …
“… for a half-empty briefcase, a gefilte fish sandwich,
and a New York Post which the next day would have
his picture on the twenty-eighth page …”
Poems can wrestle with violence and anger and grief, he said.
“You can hear a poem that talks about the shooting of black children, and it’s devastating. It devastates you.”
At the same time, a poem can honor their lives, hold them and bring them close, and give them dignity in clear, beautiful words.
“I feel hope is implicit in poetry,” he said, “even in poems with a message of no hope. You can’t write a poem if you don’t have hope, because the act of writing poetry itself is a hopeful act.”
Dryansky compared vivid color in the official portraits of President Barack and Michelle Obama with the formality she sees in many portraits and monuments.
“When you memorialize something, do you suck the life out of it?” she asked. “Is it meant for the living or the dead? What we think of as a public face is stripped, including of what we consider humanity — love, passion, sorrow. We consider those not fit for public consumption, and so we get this kind of flattened, homogenized vision …”
“When you put it that way,” Donovan said, “It’s such a lack of imagination. I’m missing that humanity.”
This story first ran in the Berkshire Eagle in October 2020. My thanks to Features editor Lindsey Hollenbaugh.