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Stephanie Burt reviews Poetry and Bondage

Andrea Brady. Poetry and Bondage: A History and Theory of Lyric Constraint. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2021. 442 pp.

Review by Stephanie Burt

11 May 2022

This monograph from the US-bred, London-based poet is a model of argument across historical periods; it’s capacious, ambitious, judgmental, and obviously valuable. Andrea Brady argues that from imperial Rome to today, “poets invoke bondage as metaphor while effacing the actuality of bondage” (p. 351). Figures for enforced constraint, imprisonment, and chattel slavery, as well as for animal control, underpin much if not all Western lyric practice. Fortunately, some poets—mostly recent ones—rebel, imagining freedom only “revolution” can bring (p. 413).

Brady’s exegeses of contemporaries—M. NourbeSe Philip, Rob Halpern, Lisa Robertson—benefit from her sympathy with these poets’ stated projects, from Robertson’s exaltation of ornament over structure to Philip’s history-scouring Zong!, whose “multiplicity of voices” flourishes fully only in live performance (p. 200). Her claims about older poets end up as strong as a certain kind of critique can be. Modern Western life rests on a history of chattel slavery, settler-colonial genocide, environmental exploitation, and their present-day legacies, incarceration among them: “No site is innocent” (p. 378).

Any work of art that uses metaphors may thus be said to use—to appropriate—real-life cruelty. If we accept this logic—if poems about figurative containment “efface” prisoners, and poems about figurative work efface actual laborers—then almost no poem and no poet can "escape whipping." “Slavery and servitude were persistent tropes in early modern love poetry,” which did not free actual slaves (p. 34). Thomas Wyatt’s “chains, traps . . . knots, binds, bands and collars” trope—but efface—prisons in which he spent time and animals that he hunted (p. 48). The traditional claim that poets in prison find spiritual liberty (as in Richard Lovelace or Boethius) propagates “the liberal valorization of the individual,” effacing “the collective nature of poetic practice” (pp. 205, xi).

There’s more. Emily Dickinson’s sexualized fantasies of bondage echo, and thus appropriate, travails of people for whom her sometime mentor, the “radical abolitionist” and Union officer Thomas Wentworth Higginson, campaigned (p. 174); “slavery constitutes an open wound in her time,” one that “infects” her verse, which “shows no sympathy to enslaved people” (pp. 177, 173). Roman “elegists imitate slavery” thanks to the symbolism of elegiac meter, which they compare to shackles; “at the same time, they fuck and whip actual slaves” (p. 310). There is no way to depict a poetic subject in traditional terms without exalting constraints that keep people unfree.

Two narrower arguments inside this expansive one would have made perfect short books on their own. The first concerns radical poets who undermine notions of coherent identity, recoverable history, and lyric unity. Thus Zong! does not imagine the voices of drowned, kidnapped West Africans but reacts to the fact that we cannot. Robertson’s works encourage us to “notice the surface,” to “translate the bondage of tradition into ornament” available for “civic flourishing” (pp. 376, 362, 370). (One could argue—as I have—that G. M. Hopkins and Marianne Moore do that too.)

The second concerns only poems about, or written from, literal incarceration and enslavement: these poems invite double parallels between form as voluntary constraint (one that might free the soul) and prison as involuntary restraint (the body as prison but also the Tower of London or Lorton). Such a book would investigate (and Brady does) how poets attentive to carceral systems build resistance into their work: Terrance Hayes’s “Model Prison Model” (which Brady mentions) could prove central, as could Samson Agonistes. Such a book could look (and Brady does) at parallels among horrific nineteenth-century prisons where convicts faced solitude and enforced silence, the torture that is solitary confinement today, and solitude in Romantic lyric (see p. 89). It would show (and she does) how “poems produced in prisons contribute to the history and theory of the lyric,” including poets—Judy Clark, Michael Knoll, Lolita Lébron—from prison anthologies (p. 83).

But the book Brady wrote extends, uneasily, further. There’s attention to William Wordsworth’s late sonnets supporting the death penalty and to Ovid’s complicated sexual politics and to Marlowe’s as a translator of Ovid and to the Southern Agrarians’ Eliotic nostalgia for antebellum organic culture. There is, too, the lyricization thesis, effectively propounded by Virginia Jackson, Yopie Prins, and others, which claims that modern concepts of lyric poetry arose either from the Romantics or from the New Critics. “Contemporary lyric [is] a genre whose gains in terms of the exploration of subjectivity entail losses [in] the relatedness of earlier communal forms” (p. 256). Both Brady and the twentieth-century readers she critiques seek that lost relatedness in Black life. Thus white “negrophile collectors” looked behind bars for “authentic” song: “just as Wordsworth turned to rural life . . . [Alan and John] Lomax searched the prison farm camps” (pp. 238–39). But folk songs “could not really be lyric,” because white critics would not attribute individuality or interiority to the imagined—or real—Black people who sang (p. 220).

Brady’s misses come with homoerotic Victorians. “Sadomasochistic texts,” among them the poems of A. C. Swinburne, rely on “a superstructure of signs whose basis [lies] in actual enslavement or exploitative class relations,” if not in “the racialized language of animality” (p. 343). Pet-play enthusiasts, beware. Worse yet, Swinburnian fantasy is “the expression of a psyche stalled in infantile orality” (p. 326). As for rope play, the “tensing, flexing and slackening of the verse . . . under the strict control of the poet” in the sprung rhythm of Hopkins’s “Harry Ploughman” “subject the reader to a controlling, if not to say, sadistic bondage that mirrors Harry’s bondage by the plough” (p. 340). I do not recognize Hopkins here; nor, I suspect, would my BDSM friends recognize themselves.

Brady accepts what seem to be a lesson of Afro-pessimism (as per Frank Wilderson III and Jared Sexton): there is no way to present a coherent, unified, speaking subject (at least in English) without reinforcing the carceral legacies of slavery (see pp. 128, 206–08). If you accept that thesis, all else follows. If you do not, or cannot, Brady’s study looks brilliant in parts but unfair as a whole. As for creators and poems neither white nor Black—from Carter Revard to Hinemoana Baker to Monica Youn—they would spark a very different book. This one’s highs and lows fit the thesis that Brady adopts from Philip: “we are, none of us, innocent or absolved,” and only an almost unimaginable commitment to liberation and abolition, “beyond the reach of the language currently at our disposal,” will do (p. 147).