Thursday, November 5, 2015

The Poetry of Dave the Potter

If P&PC has seemed a bit distant of late, well, that's because it's true. We admit it. We've been negligent, distracted, and otherwise occupied, turning our attention primarily to several longer-form projects that haven't lent themselves as easily as we might have liked to postings of this ilk. Those projects have been fun and sometimes frustrating. Some are finished and in the mail. Some are still in progress. Some are new—like, as of this very week. And given the limited amount of time we've got at the Library of Congress, we've pretty much buried our noses in the materials here. But that doesn't mean you're not on our mind, dear readers. We thought of you the other day, for example, when, as we went strolling through the National Museum of American History's "American Stories" exhibition, we discovered the work of poet-potter David Drake, whose story and work have somehow managed to escape our notice until now.

In some ways, it's difficult to say something about the incredible Drake that hasn't already been said—to much acclaim, we might note, by Leonard Todd, and also by folk and decorative arts scholars like those who contributed to I Made This Jar: The Life and Works of the Enslaved African-American Potter Dave—but maybe this posting can get get you to check out what they and others have written so far. (Be sure to also pick up Laban Carrick Hill's award-winning "picturebook poem" Dave the Potter: Artist, Poet, Slave.) Born around the year 1800, Drake was a talented, enslaved South Carolina ceramicist who, in addition to frequently signing his name "Dave," also inscribed his pots with short poems—a remarkable and daring move at a time when slave literacy was illegal and when South Carolina was enacting particularly harsh laws punishing slaves who read or wrote. (Here's a collection of Dave's extant verses.) We here at P&PC are particularly taken with the two-line poem on the jar featured in the "American Stories" exhibition, the last one Dave inscribed in 1862 before emancipation:
I—made this Jar all of cross
If you don't repent, you will be lost.

Among other things, we like the couplet's gnomic character; the relationship drama staged in slant rhyme between the "I" and the "you"; the poetic contract or blackmail; the slightly Emily Dickinsonian character of the dash and the capital letter "J"; the ways that words like "Jar" and "cross" resonate with various meanings that "cross"-fertilize and increase the poem's density; and especially how the association of "cross" with wood—how does one make a jar "all of cross"?—asks for a reading of the poem that pressures the relationship between Christ's (wooden) cross and Dave's (clay) jar as analogous sites of suffering.

Thus far, we haven't turned up any literary types who have studied Dave's verses seriously and at length as poems. (The enslaved poet George Moses Horton, also from South Carolina, has gotten more ink.) Most people—those not particularly trained in the mysterious and magical ways of literary critics—read Dave's poems as biographical markers or as small windows onto slave life. That is, they read the poems as informational pieces, rather than as the valuable literary or poetic pieces of art they are. And when we say they're valuable, we're not joking. The Smithsonian paid something like $40,000 for its jar, and we bet that other major museums like the Philadelphia Museum of Art and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, both of which have Dave's pots in their collections, ponied up similar sums.

We here at P&PC oftentimes wonder about the value of poetry in non-artistic terms—remember the case of the $400,000,000 poem?—and a $40,000 jar starts raising a number of such questions. How much of that $40,000 can be attributed to the poem, for example, and how much to the jar? In other words, if the poem weren't on the jar, how much would the jar sell for, and is the difference between that and $40,000 one way of figuring out the "value added" contribution of Dave's poem? We don't think that would be a horrible approach, though we will admit that, minus the jar, the poem itself probably wouldn't sell for much, so the poetic value and the ceramic value reinforce one another. But we also think that a $40,000 price tag on a jar produced by an enslaved poet-potter should also raise the larger and less theoretical question as to who is continuing to profit off of Dave's uncompensated labor? Dave didn't see a dime from his pots when he made them, of course, let alone the cool $40 G's that the Smithsonian's pot-poem went on to fetch. And the poem-pot wasn't returned to him after emancipation to sell or otherwise do with as he wished.

We in the P&PC Office are not in any way experts on the subject of reparations, but Dave's poem-pots seem like a perfect example of how and where the logics of reparations make easy and total sense. Dave made the pot. Dave wrote the poem. Dave deserves a significant chunk of the profit restored to him. We would like to think that the person or group who sold the pot to the Smithsonian did in fact turn around and give the profit it made to organizations focusing on some aspect of African American literacy or the arts. Did they? P&PC doesn't have the slightest idea how to find out. Did the Smithsonian—or the Philadelphia Museum, or the Museum of Fine Arts—make its purchase contingent on just such an agreement? We have no idea how to find that out, either. But perhaps the uncomfortable nature of such questions is one reason why people don't read or "value" Dave's poetry as carefully or as seriously as they might. To read it is to hear within the physical object a voice reminding us not only of the human labor that went into it as well as the conditions of that labor—"I made this Jar all of cross"—but of the still unfulfilled conditional in line two: "If you don't repent, you will be lost." Did Dave mean for these words to ring true 150 years later? We think so. Why else would he have put them in stone?