Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ Mule & Pear: Review
By Mecca Jamilah Sullivan
This review first appeared in Cerise Press Vol 4. Issue 10
The black woman is “de mule uh de world.” So says the world-wise and work-weary Granny, Janie’s grandmother in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In making this now famous declaration, Granny not only has her say on black women’s place in global history; she also bequeaths a sort of heirloom gift, boxing in a few short syllables the gristly self-understanding that ushers whole decades of literary black girl protagonists into womanhood. Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs (Beloved, 1987), Edwidge Danticat’s Tante Atie (in Breath, Eyes, Memory 1998), Gayl Jones’s Great Gram (Corregidora, 1975), Meriama Ba’s Ramatoulaye (So Long a Letter, 1989)—all these women have said it, one way or another: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” And implicit in that message is a warning to the listener, breath quiet or lash-sharp: it won’t likely be any different for you, so get ready.
In each of these novels, as in the famous line from Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” above, black woman wisdom takes center stage. These writers clear their throats and invite the reader to pull up a chair, a crate, a phoneline, a footstool, and listen in while the experienced black woman speaks. And while the writers above reflect only a part of the black female literary canon many contemporary young black women writers admire, few of us have attempted literally to speak back to this wisdom, swish it around in our own mouths and call their fictional conversants by name as we pass the dialog on. This is precisely Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ project in Mule & Pear, her third poetry collection, published by New Issues Press (2011). Bending Granny’s dictum into her title,Griffiths offers thirty-eight original poems, each responding to the pearls, prayers, and perplexities of the black female literary pantheon.
Most of the poems in Mule & Pear—and certainly the strongest among them—echo and respond to some of the most important black women characters of the past 100 years. The poems give voice to a cross-generational dialogue that includes protagonists from American classics like Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), Jones’s Eva’s Man (1976), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), as well as from lesser-known American texts like Valerie Martin’s historical novel Property (2004), and contemporary African classics-in-process like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). Yet while Griffiths’s focus is on the most poignant, memorable and troubling characters of black women’s fiction, black female characters from male-authored works like Jean Toomer’s hybrid New Negro text Cane (1923), and August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running (1992), as well as voices from Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) and Nina Simone’s classic 1966 song “Four Women” share the pages of Mule & Pear with foremothers of the black female novel.
Plucking chords from each of these voices, Griffiths orchestrates collaborative testimonials and incisive debates about the most pressing issues facing black women’s writing and black women’s lives. Her structuring conceit of a poetic conversation with literary history does important work in making the collection cohere. The themes that have characterized these histories—the ownership, commodification, and exoticfication of black women’s bodies; regimes of femininity, and Eurocentrically-defined beauty; the impossible confluences of love of self, love of other, and commitment to an unloving world—are conjured and contested by all of the collection’s speakers, even the few whose literary lineages are obscure.
Yet the strongest poems in the collection are those that further the conceit, reminding us explicitly of the tragic and gorgeous sameness of black women’s experiences over time. The haunting of history echoes most clearly in poems like “Sarah Suckled By Her Mistress, Manon Gaudet,” in which Griffiths reconsiders the narrative of Martin’s Property from the perspective of the novelistic protagonist’s black female slave. Newly escaped to the North, Sarah relives the experience of “suckling” her childless white female owner at the mistress’s command (a brand of cruelty under-examined though not undocumented in accounts New World slavery, and reflective of the intersections of capitalism, racism, dehumanization and deep stigmatizations of same-gender desire). Describing the creaming and sugaring of her coffee in the emancipated North, Sarah speaks from the vantage point of a freedom continuously haunted by the terrors of her bondage. “My mistress knows nobody going listen if I tell it,” she says. Then, to the reader: “Listen to me.” Her message here resonates throughout Mule & Pear, telling of a black female freedom that is as bitter as it is sweet and a moment of transcendence that is total and incomplete at once.
But as the second half of the collection’s title suggests, black women may be the “mules uh de world,” yet they are also heirs to a special joy– the insight, love, and self-replenishing pleasure Janie finds under Granny’s “blossoming pear tree.” An exquisitely quiet joy undergirds Mule & Pear’s movement through literary history. Loss may weight the mule’s lids, Griffiths reminds, but pain can sprout blossoms in the blink of an eye. So insists the speaker of “Leg Done Gone,” an imaginative ventriloquization of Morrison’s infanticidal mother character Eva Peace. For her, the people, thoughts, and feelings black women kill to survive are never really absent. Instead, they find themselves “all here in my universe./ They tell me things/ about the past & future/when I think God’s gone/ in the present. Tell me/ to come home to them. Come home/& love us, they say.” And as the speaker of “Risa Takes a Look & Gives it Back,” (inspired by Wilson’s subversively self-mutilating Risa in Two Trains Running) puts it, “meanness in this earth/ is as pleasurable as beauty.” Making sure to bring the paradox home, Griffiths’ Eva demands “you listening to me, girl?,” calling the reader to join in her universe of voice and vision, in which joy and tragedy, love and violence, are two lights cast on a single slice of living.
Griffiths herself is no stranger to the travails and triumphs of the black girl alighted on words. Her first two collections, Miracle Arrhythmia (2010) and The Requited Distance (2011) show the impressive range of her imagination, a range which spans artistic genre and media. Also a photographer and painter, her close attention to light and visual contour explains the unusual eyes of some of her speakers. The speaker of “Ester Courts King Barlo,” for example, declares: “I see how color beats me,/ stole the gloss from beauty.” And the speaker of “Dear Celie” confesses toWalker’s protagonist her wish “… to see/ a smile knock/ at each door/ in your mouth.”
These moments of sight stuffed into sound are not interruptions in Mule & Pear—they stud Griffiths’s poetics like seeds, reminding the reader of the smoothness and the bite of the stories her women tell. At the close of this collection, the major thing one is left wanting is more—more women brought into the conversation, more voices from genres beyond fiction, or from more locations in the African Diasporic world. “What would Griffiths’ speakers say, one wonders, to Billie Holiday’s passed-down parables in the blues classic “God Bless the Child” (1941)”? How would they respond to the hard-won woman-wisdom of Nnu Ego in Nigerian novelist Buchi Emecheta’s The Joys of Motherhood (1979), or to the defiantly direct courtroom testimony of 19th-century Caribbean-born slave autobiographer Mary Prince (1831)? But that is not Griffiths’s goal in this collection. This conversation is more or less local in its geographic and temporal spans, but it’s expansive in its scope of thought and feeling. The want you feel at the end of Mule & Pear is just the kind of want you hope for in turning the last page of a good book. It’s the wish that the voices you have been sitting with will not leave, the promise that the conversation will continue.
Mecca Jamilah Sullivan, Ph.D. is from Harlem, New York. Her fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Callaloo, Best New Writing, American Fiction: Best Previously Unpublished Short Stories by Emerging Writers, Crab Orchard Review, Robert Olen Butler Fiction Prize Stories, Baobab: South African Journal of New Writing and others. She is the winner of the Charles Johnson Fiction Award, the William Gunn Fiction Award, and scholarships, residencies, and other honors from The Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, American Short Fiction, Glimmer Train, Hedgebrook, Yaddo, and, most recently, a 2011 Emerging Writer Fellowship from the Center for Fiction. She received her Doctorate degree in English Literature from the University of Pennsylvania, and currently teaches at Williams College. Her short story collection, Blue Talk and Love, will be published later this year.