Geoffrey Brock

Geoffrey Brock. Photo Credit: Martin Miller
2001 Hearst Fellow
Fayetteville, Arkansas

Research at AAS

I was a William Randolph Hearst Fellow in 2001. As it turned out, I was in the very early stages of work on a motley group of poems about various episodes and figures of American history, poems that would come together more than a decade later in the collection Voices Bright Flags (2014). For me they were experiments in the limits of political poetry and what is sometimes called “public poetry,” as distinct from the more personal poems I was also working on the same time. Those poems were based in part on research and included pieces about the 1619 arrival in the Virginia Colony of the first slaves, Captain Cook’s widow, the Civil War and the Gold Rush and Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show. I tended to focus on minor figures in quiet moments, often just before or after major, noisy events—figures and moments that touched in some, often oblique, way on the displacements, migrations, and conflicts that have shaped our history.

Wilson's Ivory-Bill: 1808

I recall two poems in particular that I began under the generous dome. The first, “Wilson’s Ivory-Bill: 1808,” was inspired by an account by Alexander Wilson—a Scottish poet who remade himself as the father of American ornithology—of his harrowing stewardship of an Ivory-bill woodpecker, demonstrating that high-minded naturalists could also be, in their own ways, brutal colonizers. Here is a relevant excerpt from Wilson’s American Ornithology:



Ivory-bill woodpeckers from American Ornithology by Alexander Wilson
To read more of Wilson's account on the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker, click the image above.

And here’s my poem, which gently reshapes and fictionalizes Wilson’s account in an effort to create a kind of historical fiction from that documentary source:

Book cover of Voices Bright Flags. Two photos of taxidermied woodpeckers.


Monroe’s Doctrine: Good Friday, 1865

The second poem, based on events recounted in Mary Boykin Chesnut’s diaries, is called “Monroe’s Doctrine: Good Friday, 1865.” Like the best diaries of private citizens, Chesnut’s is wonderfully unguarded (because not for public consumption) and full of vivid observations and reflections. Her description of the aftermath of emancipation marvelously evokes the complex weirdness of relations between masters and slaves, on the one hand, and between slaves and their northern liberators, on the other. It was, in particular, Chesnut’s brief second-hand description of a slave named Monroe that particularly fired my imagination. Here are two passages from Chesnut:



April twenty-third excerpt from Mary Boykin Chestnut diaries



May second excerpt from Mary Boykin Chestnut diaries

Every time I read this passage I’m staggered anew by the wrenching ironies of a slave instructing his mistress in the strategic use of silence in the face of power. Monroe’s unrecorded point of view seemed so crucial that I wanted to imagine the scene from his perspective, lending him a voice to complement—and counter—hers. I invented certain details, conflated others, in an effort to evoke Monroe’s dignified intercession and his mistress’s difficult (as I imagine it) surprise:


About the Fellow

Geoffrey Brock is the author of two collections of poems (Weighing Light and Voices Bright Flags), the editor of The FSG Book of 20th-Century Italian Poetry, and the translator of numerous volumes of Italian poetry and prose. His poems appear in journals such as Poetry, Paris Review, and Yale Review, as well as in the Best American and Pushcart Prize anthologies. He has received fellowships and prizes from the NEA, the MLA, Poetry magazine, the Guggenheim Foundation, the Academy of American Poets, and the Cullman Center at the New York Public Library. He teaches in the MFA Program in Creative Writing and Translation at the University of Arkansas.

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