Through the Doors of History: Tiana Clark’s I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood
By Bernard Ferguson
In I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood (University of Pittsburgh Press, 2018), Tiana Clark writes a sequence of poems in which the speaker imagines herself in conversation with Phillis Wheatley, a slave who, after learning to read and write, became the first published African American. It is believed that Phillis fostered a friendship with Obour Tanner, another slave who, against the odds, learned to read and write. The two seem to have had a strong correspondence with each other, as there are numerous letters that were found and preserved in which Phillis addresses Obour. But, unfortunately, there aren’t any known records of Obour writing back to Phillis. It is believed that whatever Obour once wrote to her dear friend Phillis is now lost in the long and dark mouth of history.
In the impressive feat of “Conversation with Phillis Wheatley #14,” one of the poems from the sequence, Clark imagines what such a letter from Obour to Phillis might look like. She imagines what Obour might have said about the slave ships that carried her and Phillis, the ships “pitching, / sometimes inside the skin under your skin—chanting…” The poem takes a hard look at the miracle of two slaves conversing with each other through writing, and it imagines how Obour might have sung praise to the chains and whips: “the vast|empty spaces, where two slaves / (who could read and write) could touch—each other.” Obour seems to sing:
Let us marvel at the Love and Grace that bought
and brought us here. Amen.
The poem is an entirely difficult read.
It is the job of the poet to transcribe what was once said, to jot down the whispers, to use imagination to see what must have happened before but what might not have been recorded. It is also the job of the poet to make sense of it all—to make sense of the moments that have brought us to our present bodies, to make meaning of our previous selves and the experiences we’ve had as well as the experiences of those who came before us. In I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, Clark puts her ears to everything: the soil above the graves of slaves, the photos of her ancestors, and even the Rihanna song pouring out of the headphones in her ears.
In “Nashville,” after a racial slur is hurled at her (or her speaker), Clark unravels the history of gentrification in Downtown Nashville and, in the poem, she is “kissing all the trees” searching through the decades, asking “Who said it/ Who said it/ Who said it?” The poem is brilliant in the way it shows how one incident can echo long and maybe never stop. Much of the rest of the collection works like this, too. In “After Agon,” while revisiting the dancing bodies of Arthur Mitchell and Diana Adams, the first interracial duet in American ballet, Clark’s speaker imagines what she might learn from the photo of her dancing, interracial parents. The poem reads:
....I’ve been staring at the only picture
of my dad, he is holding my mom at her hips. I am trying to find what parts
of me are his.
Later, In “After Orpheus,” Clark writes, “Yes, I am always looking back // at my dead,” and I think she is speaking, plainly, of how she navigates the page, how she speaks to the present by turning her gaze toward the past.
Yes, unquestionably, Clark is an incredibly talented writer whose lines are perfect, muscular, and waste no words, (and I’m using close to zero hyperbole here. For example, in her poem, “First Tree, at Church Camp,” a female bodied speaker attempts to fit in with a gaggle of young white boys. The poem is one that navigates religion, race, gender and the bodily differences between the sexes. It reads:
It was such a beautiful dare. Thinking
I was no different, I pulled down my shorts
and tried. I did not squat. I could be a fountain
just like them if my body would engender me so.
Each one of these lines can stand on their own; sturdy, and self-capable. Just like this, Clark’s precision and use of narrative pacing is impeccable throughout the book), but it bears noting that while she is a masterful poet, she is also a talented historian, compelled and invested in showing her readers that there was once blood on the leaves of our favorite trees. In every poem, there is some past moment that Clark speaks to, or else some past voice that rumbles beneath her masterful lyric—as in the sprawling epic, “The Rime of Nina Simone,” where Clark shows up to the poem in the company of Nina Simone and imagines herself in conversation with the singing legend.
Even at the end of the book, after all the poems are done, Clark’s “Notes” section spans a few pages and includes thick paragraphs that give contextual information and additional insight into the lineage of her poems—one poem was written after Clark read an article in The New Yorker, another was written as an elegy for Kalief Browder, and another references John Berryman’s (racist) blackface alter ego, Henry. It would seem that there are no poems in this collection where Clark shows up to the page alone, without a photo of an ancestor in her hands or a list of epigraphs waiting eager in her pocket.
And because I brought up epigraphs, it is important for me to talk about “Soil Horizon,” a poem that appears early on in the collection, a poem that Clark positions into a larger conversation via an epigraph that reads:
...the ghost of history lies down beside me,
rolls over, pins me beneath a heavy arm
— Natasha Trethewey
Trethewey’s words are a fitting entrance into the poem, but her words might also be a suitable door to enter the collection at large. Many times throughout the book, Clark takes this ghost of history, cleaves its body down the middle, and performs an autopsy. In I Can’t Talk About the Trees Without the Blood, Clark is keen to find the ways in which history can be made to breathe.