Saturday, October 16, 2010

Honorée Jeffers’s Outlandish Blues

Outlandish Blues by Honorée Jeffers. Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press, 2003

From the voice of a battered wife to that of a murdered gay white man, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’s unrelenting Outlandish Blues haunts the reader with the accounts of people who would otherwise be silenced. The rhythm of the poems, with repeating, pleading lines and phrases taken from spirituals, adds an emotional dimension that might have been lost without the presence of musical accompaniment. Drawing on the Bible, newspapers, and individuals, Jeffers creates the voices of a diverse collection of men and women who are at last allowed to speak.

In “The Battered Blues (Four Movements)” Jeffers creates the voice of a victim of domestic violence, a woman who dreams of killing her “master.” Jeffers laces song lyrics like “I’ve been downhearted since the day we met” to emphasize the long suffering pain of the speaker who is trapped with her abuser. She explores the isolation of the woman as receives advice from a shrink, preacher, and her mother, none of which help her. This set of four movements is powerful in its ability to give voice to a victim who must weigh the benefits and consequences of murdering her lover who “You know he’s going to kill me / He’s going to stab me in my sleep / He’s going to send me back to God / and pray his soul to keep.”

In “Now with the Morning,” Jeffers reflects on the 1999 murder of white gay man Billy Jack Gaither at the hands of two other white men in Alabama. The poem begins “Last evening they were happy with my / black skin stripped from twigs / … / Now with the morning their pale / knuckles must speak in tongues on their brother’s skin.” Jeffers uses Gaither’s murder as a way of calling to mind the question of the sins of the father being visited on his children, remembering the violence done by white people towards black people and now seen as whites against their own “brothers,” asking her reader if this is not a kind of punishment for the past.

Her poem ends “…The Word behind them / stamped into cooked offerings.” Thus, Jeffers notes the Christian ideals of the white men who found in the Bible justification for their violence toward black people and now for their violence towards gays, leaving an offering for their God in the form of the beaten, burned body of Billy Jack Gaither.

[By Emily Phillips]

Related posts:
Honorée Jeffers and Phillis Wheatley

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