Is it possible to write about the South’s sullied history of slavery and racism with authority and understanding if you are not a person of color? In What Pecan Light, Han VanderHart demonstrates that it is not only possible but that the result can serve as a powerful indictment of transgression. The book’s epigraph, from the late Linda Gregg, signals the author’s method: “I don’t expect the light / to save me, but I do believe / in the ritual.” In the forty-one poems comprising this collection, VanderHart shines a light on their Southern upbringing and ancestors, and as the book unfolds, we see the poems collectively making a case for repudiation, rather than redemption.
VanderHart grew up in Alabama with family roots planted deeply in Southern soil going back several generations. In this, their first full-length collection (VanderHart also has a 2019 chapbook), the author uses the microcosm of their own family to explore wrongs of the South as a whole. In doing so, VanderHart’s book helps to fill a void identified by Major Jackson in his 2015 essay, “A Mystifying Silence.” Jackson says there is a “dearth of poems written by white poets that address racial issues” in contemporary poetry and asks, “How is it that poetry does not reflect and serve as a record of the evolution of our racial attitudes and progress [ . . . ]?” Jackson acknowledges that a few white poets are doing this but argues that if we are to have an honest discussion of race and ethnicity, it is essential that more white poets speak up.
One key to VanderHart’s success in writing about race is that they never seek to appropriate the experience or suffering of the enslaved. Instead, the author appropriates the language of the oppressors, including their own family, and in doing so sheds light on the damage done. VanderHart uses actual language of ancestors in several poems, letting their words do the work. “Having Taken Part in the Late Rebellion” details a third-great-grandfather’s appeal to be pardoned for his role in the Confederate rebellion. The poem recounts a long list of sins he says he “did not” commit. He “did not order the taking of [arsenals.]” He “[d]id not shoot or hang any person . . . for . . . disloyalty to the Confederate States,” and so on. But the most damning evidence is what he omits. VanderHart tells us he “Enslaved persons, but for this he does not ask pardon.”
The author’s exploration of language is also evident in two brilliantly executed poems that focus on the words “surrender” and “master.” In “Of Fences and Surrender,” VanderHart muses on the negative connotations of “surrender” in relation to warfare, asking “Why / is surrender a hard act for us?” then closes the poem beautifully by tying in a different association, one that will strike some readers as particularly Southern with its religious overtones: “And in our church last / Sunday: I surrender all.”
In “When Someone Says a Poem is Masterful,” the author weaves together tales of an ancestor, Emily Dickinson, and sailing ships into a critique of “mastery.” VanderHart writes, “I have a master in my family tree / . . . farmer and enslaver / . . . his word writ on bodies.” Emily Dickinson, in the act of revision, “helms herself” and “circumnavigates / mastery.” Mastery can change depending on the circumstances, VanderHart tells us: “a canvas sail is said to master the wind . . . but the wind can shred the sail.” The last stanza circles back to the poem’s title and perhaps offers a glimpse of the speaker’s own attempts at atonement:
to make will always be better
than to master
the field of the page better
than salt and sugar
of someone else’s labor
In the grim closing poem of the book, VanderHart once again uses actual language of the oppressor. The title of the poem “This is the Barbeque We Had Last Night” is taken directly from a 1915 postcard picturing a lynching. Taking a cue from that language, VanderHart never mentions lynching in the poem, but just as topics not discussed in polite Southern society cannot really be smothered by syrup and barbecue sauce, this poem emphasizes the presence of history: “Rib bones smoking against our teeth. All the honey and sugar cannot make it sweet.” VanderHart’s final indictment is this: “We wash / our hands. Nothing comes clean.”
Several themes run throughout the collection, and “Song of the South,” an early poem in the book, maps them out for us, so that by the time we arrive at the book’s end, we are both prepared for and horrified by the language and imagery of lynching. “Song of the South” drips with Southern references and begins by listing what the South ostensibly is. It is “sweet potato pie,” “gravy,” “a cast iron skillet,” “church on Sunday morning.” The poem then introduces the twin themes of race and silence that run throughout the collection: “Most of / all the song is black and white. Most of all / we don’t talk about it.” Finally, the poem’s startling closure brings in another thread stitching the book together: the wholesale complicity of the region’s dominant white culture, as the poem’s speaker reveals, “We name the pigs Caesar and Pompeii / knowing neither of them will survive.” These lines are chilling in their matter-of-fact delivery. The pigs are given names that were popular for slaves in the antebellum South because like enslaved people, the pigs are commodities, produced solely to satisfy the needs of owners. And everyone knows it.
In another key poem, “Confederate Statues Are Falling This Morning,” the author connects present with past by recalling a childhood memory: “I have a happy picture of myself / at my grandmother’s house in Ruston, // Louisiana: holding a turtle from the lake.” The author describes the speaker’s grandmother as “rumored // to have been a beauty queen” but “now with old corn silk hair.” VanderHart acknowledges their own inability to recognize racism as a child while also detailing the demise of a way of life:
like the turtle in the lake I was willing
to love a polluted thing, to swim and not care—
but the copper pant legs of Confederate men
fold and fall this morning, like so many crimped
hairs on a beauty queen’s head, in this humidity.
In these lines, the speaker and their grandmother are inextricably linked to the South’s troubled past. The gaze at family misdeeds is unflinching throughout the book. In “Where Art Thou: A Family Account,” VanderHart writes:
and when your mother
says, [we were] “too poor
to own slaves,”
They offer concrete evidence later in the poem:
I’ve seen the census
in my family’s
says we were poor
but papers say
we did enslave,
Though, as more than one poem notes, there is a silence in the speaker’s childhood, What Pecan Light hints repeatedly that the family was complicit. They were neck-deep in muck, as the ending of “A Visitor Says Things Are Rotting in Durham, North Carolina” describes: “We swam that sullen pond once, in desperate summer—rose / steaming, each hair covered in silt, more dirty than before.”
With VanderHart’s keen sense for metaphor, even the chickens serve as stand-ins for enslavement. Raising chickens was a family business for the speaker’s grandfather, and “Western One of Top Parish Broiler Producers’ (Ruston Leader, 1960)” implicitly equates chicken farms with plantations and enslavement. Just like the pigs in “Confederate Statues Are Falling This Morning,” in this poem we are dealing with commodities. The results, while perhaps useful, leave a stench:
a land fertilized with segregation, the soil and water
heavy with it. I’m told that once a year
my grandfather would haul a load of chicken
manure, spread it on his suburban lawn. …
My father says that when it rained
the smell was putrefying.
VanderHart never lets us forget about the blood in her critique of a South that is worn out and unraveling. In the closing lines of “Dixie Land Delight,” the author writes:
I’ve looked in the glassy eyes of dead
things. I’ve washed feathers and blood
from my hands. I’ve laid down on
a quilt, on an August day, watched
the threads slip from their seams.
While What Pecan Light is unrelenting in holding up the past to the light and revealing its cruelties, several poems offer a hope that is best summed up by “In a Dream I am at a Poetry Reading and I Look out the Window.” The last lines of this prose poem detail a rationale for exposing wrongdoing: “Let us light / this flag up / to give us a burning / to see by.” Ultimately, the goal is “to make the white ghosts / of the South / lonely /deny them our / continued company / our dreamscapes / our poetry.”
Poets of color have been exposing the South and its ghosts for years, but as Major Jackson notes, “it’s not like people of color have a choice . . . —especially if they are being true to themselves and writing their lives”. In What Pecan Light VanderHart seeks to address “the white ghosts / of the South” by bringing them to the light for all to see. What Pecan Light offers a white poet’s reckoning, one that Major Jackson argues has been absent from the conversation for too long.