Pear-blossoms and Mule-eyes: Mule & Pear by Rachel Eliza Griffiths
The black woman is “de mule uh de world.” So says the world-wise and work-weary Granny, Janie’s grandmother in Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God. In making this now famous declaration, Granny not only has her say on black women’s place in global history; she also bequeaths a sort of heirloom gift, boxing in a few short syllables the gristly self-understanding that ushers whole decades of literary black girl protagonists into womanhood. Toni Morrison’s Baby Suggs (Beloved, 1987), Edwidge Danticat’s Tante Atie (Breath, Eyes, Memory 1998), Gayl Jones’s Great Gram (Corregidora, 1975), Meriama Ba’s Ramatoulaye (So Long a Letter, 1989) — all these women have said it, one way or another: “Life for me ain’t been no crystal stair.” And implicit in that message is a warning to the listener, breath quiet or lash-sharp: it won’t likely be any different for you, so get ready.
In each of these novels, as in the famous line from Langston Hughes’s “Mother to Son” above, black woman wisdom takes center stage. These writers clear their throats and invite the reader to pull up a chair, a crate, a phoneline, a footstool, and listen in while the experienced black woman speaks. And while the writers above reflect only a part of the black female literary canon many contemporary young black women writers admire, few of us have attempted literally to speak back to this wisdom, swish it around in our own mouths and call their fictional conversants by name as we pass the dialog on. This is precisely Rachel Eliza Griffiths’ project in Mule & Pear, her third poetry collection. Bending Granny’s dictum into her title, Griffiths offers thirty original poems, each responding to the pearls, prayers, and perplexities of the black female literary pantheon.
Bending Granny’s dictum into her title, Griffiths offers thirty original poems, each responding to the pearls, prayers, and perplexities of the black female literary pantheon.
Most of the poems in Mule & Pear— and certainly the strongest among them — echo and respond to some of the most important black women characters of the past 100 years. The poems give voice to a cross-generational dialogue that includes protagonists from American classics like Nella Larsen’s Passing (1929), Jones’s Eva’s Man (1976), Alice Walker’s The Color Purple (1982), Morrison’s The Bluest Eye (1970), as well as from lesser-known American texts like Valerie Martin’s historical novel Property (2004), and contemporary African classics-in-process like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun (2006). Yet while Griffiths’s focus is on the most poignant, memorable and troubling characters of black women’s fiction, black female characters from male-authored works like Jean Toomer’s hybrid New Negro text Cane (1923), and August Wilson’s play Two Trains Running (1992), as well as voices from Adrienne Kennedy’s play Funnyhouse of a Negro (1964) and Nina Simone’s classic 1966 song “Four Women” share the pages of Mule & Pear with foremothers of the black female novel.
Plucking chords from each of these voices, Griffiths orchestrates collaborative testimonials and incisive debates about the most pressing issues facing black women’s writing and black women’s lives. Her structuring conceit of a poetic conversation with literary history does important work in making the collection cohere. The themes that have characterized these histories — the ownership, commodification, and exoticfication of black women’s bodies; regimes of femininity, and Eurocentrically-defined beauty; the impossible confluences of love of self, love of other, and commitment to an unloving world — are conjured and contested by all of the collection’s speakers, even the few whose literary lineages are obscure.
Yet the strongest poems in the collection are those that further the conceit, reminding us explicitly of the tragic and gorgeous sameness of black women’s experiences over time. The haunting of history echoes most clearly in poems like “Sarah Suckled By Her Mistress, Manon Gaudet,” in which Griffiths reconsiders the narrative of Martin’s Property from the perspective of the novelistic protagonist’s black female slave. Newly escaped to the North, Sarah relives the experience of “suckling” her childless white female owner at the mistress’s command (a brand of cruelty under-examined though not undocumented in accounts New World slavery, and reflective of the intersections of capitalism, racism, dehumanization and deep stigmatizations of same-gender desire). Describing the creaming and sugaring of her coffee in the emancipated North, Sarah speaks from the vantage point of a freedom continuously haunted by the terrors of her bondage. “My mistress knows nobody going listen if I tell it,” she says. Then, to the reader: “Listen to me.” Her message here resonates throughout Mule & Pear, telling of a black female freedom that is as bitter as it is sweet and a moment of transcendence that is total and incomplete at once.
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