In her latest book, A Sunday in God-Years, Michelle Boisseau writes of her family’s personal legacy in the Southern tobacco plantation and slave trade of Pre-Civil War Virginia. Though there are short digressions, her work is mainly concerned with genealogy and her ancestors’ direct involvement with the trafficking of human beings. Perhaps most interestingly, she plays with monologue and point of view, writing from both the persona of an escaped slave a distant relative actually owned in 1834 and the point of view of various Boisseaus of yesteryear.
Due to her overt abolitionist stance and the guilt she seems to feel for her family’s transgressions, much of the work comes across as a sort of lyrical tirade with a painfully self-aware Boisseau at the center of the shame. She quite literally seeks to embody the voices of centuries past and in doing so, manages to shoulder the moral responsibilities for the Boisseau bloodline. But why are we, the audience, meant to care about the poet’s familial ties to the antebellum South? Why should we relate to her guilt and grief? Would a confessional reading of Boisseau provide insight as to the value and merit of what is perhaps shortsighted work when it comes to a topic that historically takes itself very seriously?
Confessional poetry is characterized by its intimate, personal, and often, embarrassing, ties to the poet’s life. Typically frank and full of self-loathing, this genre addresses difficult subject matters (such as mental illness, suicide, sexuality, and relationships) and chaotic cognitive patterns. Confessional poetry, could, on an extremely basic level, be described as the poetic airing of dirty laundry.
In the poem, “The Subscriber,” Boisseau writes from the point of view of the aforementioned relative who has just violently assaulted a man whom he has mistaken for his runaway slave:
…I’m on him and he’s hollering, Mercy,
Mercy as my cane snaps across his back,
my foot greets his head. When I go to turn
him over, his arm feels too beefy, too slack
the skin around his neck
This violent recollection is reminiscent of a confessional passage, yet it is a persona that Boisseau has created based on some historical documents she has discovered in her genealogical endeavors. While this scene did not occur (that we know of) and is therefore not personally connected to Boisseau’s immediate life, she positions herself as an extension of her predecessor. We are therefore able to glimpse Boisseau’s remorse and emotions surrounding slavery through the retelling of this scene. She is, after all a sharer of the Boisseau surname and the medium through which this tale is told.
The slave owner-Boisseau most likely would not feel remorse for his case of mistaken identity, yet at the end of the poem, he stands wistfully back to reflect rather ambiguously on his misguided attack. While he does not overtly condemn his own brash behavior, he certainly doesn’t overtly respect or revere it either:
Gibson’s coat. Two boys loading lumber in a cart
catch me looking around and style
themselves reading the grain in a board.
Sleeping in the day. This one was a laggard.
While the last passage is open for interpretation, one thing is for certain: Boisseau serves as mediator and manipulator of history.
In tingeing the historical with her personal belief system and writing of infamously “confessional” topics, Boisseau writes from a confessional perspective. While this personal involvement is what might be analyzed as an unjust rewriting and thus redirecting of the past, it may serve as more of a poetic vehicle for the personal airing of grief and the long-suffered implications of patriotism and the ways in which the past informs the present in terms of both national and personal identity. Boisseau may deviate substantially from the tradition of confessional poetry on the surface, but at the root of the poetry is the inherent desire to confess to sins she has committed through association with distant relatives. This, in turn, renders her “confessional by association,” allowing for audience acceptance of the domestic nature of her work.