Mar 7 2023
Poetry review – BEWARE THE TRUTH THAT’S MANACLED: Harriet Thistlethwaite reviews Prue Chamberlayne’s poetic exploration of slavery and its aftermath
Beware The Truth That’s Manacled Prue Chamberlayne erbacce-press ISBN: 978-1-912455-36-2 36 pages £5
This is an important poetry book as suggested by its striking title. Right from the first of its fourteen sonnets the reader is struck by Chamberlayne’s great sensitivity to linking; in sounds, timbre and meaning. The poems benefit from close reading, and also listening. The sonnet formality is employed quite knowingly, while even the Roman numeral ‘titles’ have their irony. The visceral underlies the line form.
Chamberlayne is writing about slavery and race relations with an emphasis on ‘Whiteness’, and even the ‘man’ in manacles has a resonance. The opening sonnet sets the scene: how ‘whiteness’ first sprouted on Virginian soil with the confusion of black mothers suckling white babies and added into the mix even half-siblings ‘wary’ of each other. The poem opens with ‘My father claimed we civilised the world’. That indeed is a truth that’s manacled. At once ‘my’ father raises the image of ‘Our Father’ which is referenced by the ‘we’ who supposedly civilised the world, bringing into play such a catastrophe of divisiveness. I don’t think I am mistaken in hearing hidden initial capital letters because ‘He’ is the opening word of the second sonnet. And yet of course we have a very personal element (for which do see the author’s biographical notes at the end) in this story.
The poetic voice is of one who was presumably schooled (‘at such expense’) in the righteous Christianity that caused ‘streams of blood’. Piety refers to it, and later ‘whiteness as essence of divinity’. And she is questioning her father since he cannot apparently even shake her lover’s hand, because he is black. We then learn that her father takes the ‘playing field’ position on them and us. Perhaps Chamberlayne has in mind here the saying that “The battle of Waterloo was fought and won on the playing fields of Eton.” And this idea (that everything can be viewed as a game) is echoed terribly in those ‘swampy fields’ of harsh labour that brought about so many slave deaths. Not play at all. Yet she knows in her ‘wriggling’ baby self a curiosity which fuels these sonnets’ themes and truths. Schooling has a lot to answer for in the ‘wash of false equalities’. For ‘we need to let the mess come in, to probe…’. And yet we are ‘loathe’ to ‘probe how we’ve been formed’.
The poem’s narrator subsequently becomes one of the modern parenting pioneers of mixed-race children to be found in ‘the vibrancy of Ladbroke Grove or Railton Road’. She is notably understanding:
We, white swans stuck in oil, need stamina to meet our own fragility, our fear-filled clinging to supremacy, our piety that blacks so loathe.
However, throughout these poems, the language used continues to be body brutish and darkly cruel in resonance. There are staccato idioms; references to warfare; split-off and bitter contrasts. For ‘there’s terror in prising wounds so glued, it takes such guts…’
Chamberlayne is a historian. We mainly focus back in time on the state of Virginia. (Note the ironic Virgin in that!) She considers mothers and babies – their blackness and whiteness are her topic of scrutiny. She writes bludgeoning words about white masters using their women slaves for both feeding their own white children and force-breeding more slaves. Mutual ambiguous hatred is thus surely rooted: ‘deliberately sown like some malignant weed’. There is a continual to and fro in reference to development from child to oft-misguided maturity which harks back to those manacles and whips.
Results in the nursery are well explored in Sonnet VI. The poet weaves in tenderness alongside her grasp of the babies there.
Manacles are forged at first beginnings –- a white child takes the helm in play, elbows the brown one to the side, the helper coos, We are all friends, and racism, taboo, is left aside --- the white child, already adept, struts on in its privilege. Did power then lurk in love that sparked from being called scurrilous?’
We have ‘elbows’, ‘coos’, ‘taboo’ leading towards the harsher ‘struts’, ‘sparked’, ‘scurrilous’.
Gradually the wider subsequent impacts are considered. ‘Whiteness’…
turned history back, undid equality of creed whereby freed servants could buy land and flourish, though always mourning homes and people tipped with blooded flux to tiger sharks and fish, those lost to swampy fields, the two-thirds dead.
And we see how half-rhyme endings link. Thus ‘creed’ is brought to ‘dead’. Indeed it often seems that the final pair of lines of essence in each sonnet form another kind of more philosophical sequence over the fourteen poems. There is a full respect for the poetic form being used.
Towards the last sonnets Chamberlayne contemplates wide societal and global implications. The final one begins ‘Our cruelty has purpose, like apartheid’. The rhyme sounds here are abundant: ‘progress’, ‘waste’, ‘whiteness’, ‘best’, ‘dice’, ‘crevice’, ‘suffice’. We might finally hear an echo of ‘sacrifice’? The lines pivot around a central one, ‘Can we discover openheartedness?’. The poet reliably holds ambiguity: ‘It seems that earth is playing out as hell —‘
Yet the ending line-pair is just a touch – a mere touch – upbeat.
Chamberlayne has fully fleshed out the whole vital concern in these sonnets. She has set her black ink on white space – and always with a sense of her own place in responsibility alongside those from the older white ‘playing field’.