Dispatches from the Archives

Historical Traces in Archival Poetry

by contributing editor Rachel Kaufman

By Rachel Kaufman

In his 1978 article “The Historical Text as Literary Artifact,” Hayden White argued that elements of the past are not innately imbued with story. Instead, historians shape elements of the past into tragedies and comedies, “verbal fictions” that are a result of a literary process, a “process of refamiliarization.” Historical narratives, “a complex of symbols” as Hayden illuminates, then seem to mirror poetry, specifically archival or historical poetry, which refamiliarizes the past in a cross-stitched pattern of symbols. These symbols exist as such in the poem, as metaphor or sound or image, while hearkening back to their referent, the archival fragment or historical voice which they recall.

I’ve argued elsewhere that archival poetry—poetry which grounds itself in a historical narrative, historical characters, or the language or materiality of archival sources—acts as a medium of translation that is able to preserve the ambiguities and simultaneities of history. In this piece, I’ll briefly discuss the formal traces of history which surface in prefaces, endnotes, and epigraphs and enter two poetry collections grounded in the past to examine how these traces mark and blur the borders between history and poetry, past and present. I’ll finally turn to my own archival poetry collection Many to Remember, recently published by Dos Madres Press, and discuss my process in weaving history into the work.

 “The historical narrative does not image the things it indicates,” White wrote, but rather “calls to mind images of the things it indicates, in the same way that a metaphor does.” If a metaphor, and perhaps an historical poem more broadly, calls to mind images of the things it recalls, where do the things themselves exist in the world of the poetry book? Though often, I would argue, the metaphor and the poem do “image the things” they indicate, breaching the distance between poem and referent, symbolizer and symbolized, historical poems sometimes represent an image of the past without fully entering it, perhaps purposefully acknowledging the gap—the archival silences, worm-eaten words—between present-day poet and the past which she recalls.

In her 2019 poetry collection 1919, sociologist and writer Eve L. Ewing begins with a 1922 report entitled The Negro in Chicago: A Study on Race Relations and a Race Riot to tell the story of the 1919 race riot in Chicago. As described in the preface to the book, Ewing at first approached the report searching for information on housing segregation at the start of the Great Migration. Yet as she read on, she “kept getting sucked into other parts of the report,” which revealed Black life in Chicago a century before and read like poetry—“so narrative, so evocative, so imagistic…the report was like an old tapestry with loose threads sticking out, and I wanted to tug on them and see what I could unravel, see what new thing I could weave” (4). Passages from the 1922 report serve as epigraphs to the poems in the book and place the language of the archive in direct dialogue with the language of the poet. This dialogue sometimes suggests great distance between past and present, as in the first poem of the collection, “Exodus 1,” in which a passage about the religious significance of the migration of Black people from the South to Chicago between 1910 and 1920 and the songs sung as part of the movement (including “Flight Out of Egypt” and “Bound for the Promised Land”) give way to a poem which begins: “Now these are the names of the people of Adeline, which came into Mississippi.” The poem in some ways fulfills the call of the quotation, crafting a biblical narrative of Black people who “increased abundantly and multiplied,” filling the land of Mississippi before a meeting of the people’s counsel and a great exodus of the community from “the cotton, and the kings and their storehouses of browning blood.”

But Ewing also often refutes the archive’s claims, calling to mind images of the past without imaging them in the present, as she does with the epigraph to the next poem, which reads: “the presence of Negroes in large numbers in our great cities is not a menace in itself.” Ewing answers the archive’s violent arrogance—she writes, “How could someone claim to tell the story of Black people in this city?”—with her own visions, dreams, and images, and with the specificities of her language. In her 2013 article “The Archive and Affective Memory in M. Nourbese Philip’s Zong!” and 2020 book Immaterial Archives: An African Diaspora Poetics of Loss, scholar Jenny Sharpe writes on M. NourbeSe Philip’s poetry book Zong!, which tells the story of an historical event in which slave owners threw enslaved African people alive into the Caribbean Sea. Sharpe writes: “Zong! suggests that silences in official archives are not only holes to be filled with meaning—missing pieces of a counter-history—but also spaces of an affective relationship with the past. At the same time, its poems demonstrate that affect is not universal or free-floating even if its potential for realization happens across geographical space and historical time” (“The Archive and Affective Memory,” 470). Less experimental in form than Philip’s book, Ewing’s collection still manages to hold onto silences and prejudices in the archives without filling them in. In “The Train Speaks,” the poem which answers the “not a menace in itself” quotation, Ewing writes:

My children. My precious ones.
I can never take you home. You have none.
And so you go, out into the wind.

Held as her children yet released beyond the abilities of her words, the historical actors who Ewing speaks to and with (rather than for) extract themselves from the world of the archival document and yet do not entirely reattach to Ewing’s new language. A later poem, entitled “there is no poem for this,” quotes a horribly violent description of a white mob’s actions during the Chicago riot from the archival report and adds nothing else. In this case, Ewing embraces scholar Saidiya Hartman’s assertion that the archive is “a death sentence, a tomb, a display of the violated body” which must be approached without replicating its “grammar of violence” (Venus in Two Acts, 2). In Ewing’s book, history enters through language that is attached squarely to a static past and then unravels, traveling towards the wind, across the page of the poem and the lives Ewing emboldens without claiming ownership.

In another recent poetry collection, Salient by Elizabeth T. Gray, Jr., history emerges in the book’s preface, in which Gray weaves together the Battle of Passchendaele, a battle in Belgian Flanders in 1917, and the chöd ritual, a “severance” practice which descends from twelfth-century female Tibetan Buddhist saint Machik Lapdrön. Interspersed with interjections (“how could that be? who was there?”) and lyrical images (“dark drawings of the battlefield,” “exhausted men advancing slowly uphill for weeks in relentless rain through waist-deep mud”), the preface nods to historians’ debates about generals’ and politicians’ decisions yet dwells in the affective. The preface finds its momentum in the poet’s questions, her wanderings through the sensorial world of the past which emerge in lines of prose driven by rhythm and beat—“For so far? For so long? In the rain? How could one imagine this? How did one explain it to oneself, to loved ones?” The poet not only draws from archival materials but from her experiences walking the ground “in all seasons and all weathers,” the preface thus rooting itself to the poet’s body and the bodies and minds of the historical figures she explores. The preface then transitions to the chöd ritual with a personal grounding: “I grew up with terrible nightmares, and across from our town’s seventeenth-century burial ground.” And yet the chöd ritual, as Gray describes it, requires dismembering one’s own body and offering the pieces to harmful beings who, “once sated,” would vanish. The poet writes: “the practice that had fascinated me was about severing one’s attachment to one’s individual self…I began Salient by placing these two poles of obsession in proximity to one another. And waiting. In the charged field between them I originally thought I might find The Missing.” Gray is thus neither searching for that which the archive and the passing of time withhold nor for the “subaltern treasures” latent in the past’s canon, to use historian and anthropologist Ann Stoler’s language. Instead, Gray is entering empty space, the “charged field” between two disparate yet deeply connected worlds, to find presence in absence, “The Missing” unkempt yet arrived.

Salient fulfills its promise, brilliantly weaving together the archive’s language with the poet’s simultaneous desire and refusal to create cohesion or connection. The language of history, “Trench map sheet 28 NW 2 St. Julien C.28.a.5.5.” or “Chief of Staff to General…on the evening of 6 June 1917, hours before nineteen mines were detonated under the Messines Ridge,” is wound and unwound by the poems. In the poem, “Construction of Trench Systems: Explanation of Diagram #7,” technical language of war surfaces in strict lines

Two distinct lines
of wire entanglement
in front of the first line

and then collapses:

….Now try
to find your
way back through
all this in
the dark.

The “Notes on Sources,” which appear at the end of the book, are neither strict historiographical footnotes nor direct extensions of the poems. They sit between genres and include expected information, such as publishing information for books on mapping or the chöd ritual, as well as lyrical bursts, such as “For the curious:” and “Geographical names and map coordinates have been altered to locate the poem in the Ypres Salient. This poem is dedicated to the Infantry Captain with the Cat, who taught me how to read it.” Filled with personality and recognition of the role of imagination (the map coordinates have been entirely altered to fit a new geography), Gray’s footnotes demonstrate a potential new mode of citation. In her notes, referenced sources, the voices of historians and of primary sources, visual and auditory, meet the poet’s voice. The notes reveal the poetics latent in the labels of maps, the “sound ranging” method of locating coordinates of hostile artillery, and the sonic playground of captains’ titles, including “His Majesty’s Twenty-Third Foot, The Royal Welsh Fusiliers.” One note reads: “The gyalpo (lit. ‘kings’) are spirits that bring illness, impersonate leaders, and supposedly cause insanity.” Literal translations yield to simultaneous truths, and mythology meets history in “supposedly,” in the poet’s license to believe what she chooses to believe.

In my own collection of poems, entitled Many to Remember, I grappled with genre and with the moments in which history entered the text (in both the Preface and Notes sections). The collection, grounded in my archival research on New Mexico crypto-Judaism and the Mexican Inquisition, often required background information. But the archival history of crypto-Judaism in Mexico and New Mexico, especially after the fall of the Mexican Inquisition in 1821, is filled with absence, and it is this absence many of the poems attempt to explore, unravel, and preserve. I ended up including history esoterically, weaving archival fragments into a preface grounded in my family’s history and writing Notes that would indulge curiosities but leave much to be further researched or simply imagined by a reader. In a book of poems interested in how absence can be translated from archive to poem through form and through the line, it made sense to me to include history primarily as fragment. In this way, I attempted to ground the poems in their history, to give readers some insight into my process of translation, but to mostly leave archival gestures as objects to be interpreted, verbal fictions whose process of refamiliarization was only partially complete and whose reference remained at once image and metaphor. In this way, I felt I could leave the poetry without burden and motion towards the form of the archive, the objects I had held, and the fragmented histories with which I began.

Rachel Kaufman is a PhD student in History at UCLA and focuses on memory, religion, and diasporic identity in Mexico and the U.S. Southwest. She is interested in the ways in which literary and historical texts transmit the past and the affective world of the archive, and her current research focuses on New Mexico crypto-Jewish memory practices and the Mexican Inquisition. Her prose has been published in Rethinking History and The Yale Historical Review, and her poetry has appeared on and in the Harvard Review, Southwestern American Literature, Western Humanities Review, JuxtaProse, and elsewhere. Her first book of poetry, Many to Remember, was recently published by Dos Madres Press. She received her B.A. from Yale in English and History.

Featured Image: Archival seal, courtesy of the American Jewish Historical Society.

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