Today I had the pleasure of hearing Omise'eke Natasha Tinsley give a talk on the voudon loa Ezili, a force of nature that protects femininity and creativity, as an epistemology for understanding Caribbean genders and transgenders. I have been working slowly and with great pleasure through Tinsley's book Thiefing Sugar: Eroticism Between Women in Caribbean Literature.
I was electrified to read the following sentence in Tinsley's Introduction: "What happens when the beloved/landscape and the poet/lover are both women?" Although Tinsley is writing about Caribbean literature and I'm writing about eighteenth-century gardens, these questions also describe the project of my own recent book, Sister Arts. I think that makes our books sisters.
In this afternoon's lecture Tinsley spoke movingly about the hard work of being a black woman (as instanced by the cultural work of misisis and madivines, the Haitian genderqueers who are the focus of her new research). She also talked about the transformative power of feeling good, and about the crucial role the imagination must play in that transformation. My friend Omi Jones was in the audience and asked Tinsley about how she was experimenting, post-tenure, with new, poetic forms of writing (for instance in her recent essay "Black Atlantic/Queer Atlantic.") And that made me think of Phillis Wheatley
whose poem "On Imagination" I read this morning as I continued to make my way through Black Nature, which I've written about here and here. It's always seemed to me a stunning poem on many levels, not least of which is the sheer ambition of writing a sublime and existential poem that engages with a major Enlightenment aesthetic debate, all from a position of enslavement. But not of the imagination, and that's the point. That's the way in which the virtuousity of Wheatley's poetry is always making a rhetorical argument in favor the humanity of the speaker, but in the face of dizzyingly high stakes that would have silenced a lesser talent. For your inspiration today, here is her poem:
Thy various works, imperial queen, we see,
How bright their forms! how deck'd with pomp by thee!
Thy wond'rous acts in beauteous order stand,
And all attest how potent is thine hand.
From Helicon's refulgent heights attend,
Ye sacred choir, and my attempts befriend:
To tell her glories with a faithful tongue,
Ye blooming graces, triumph in my song.
Now here, now there, the roving Fancy flies,
Till some lov'd objects strikes her wand'ring eyes,
Whose silken fetters all the senses bind,
And soft captivity involves the mind.
Imagination! who can sing thy force?
Or who describe the swiftness of thy course?
Soaring though air to find the bright abode,
Th'empyreal palace of the thund'ring God,
We on thy pinions can surpass the wind,
And leave the rolling universe behind;
From star to star the mental optics rove,
Measure the skies, and range the realms above.
There in one view we grasp the mighty whole,
Or with new worlds amaze th' unbounded soul.
Though Winter frowns to Fancy's raptur'd eyes
The fields may flourish, and gay scenes arise;
The frozen deeps may break their iron bands,
And bid their waters murmur o'er the sands.
Fair Flora may resume her fragrant reign,
And with her flow'ry riches deck the plain;
Sylvanus may diffuse his honours round,
And all the forest may with leaves be crown'd;
Show'rs may descend, and dews their gems disclose,
And nectar sparkle on the blooming rose.
Such is thy pow'r, nor are thine orders vain,
O thou the leader of the mental train:
In full perfection all thy works are wrought,
And thine the sceptre o'er the realms of thought.
Before thy throne the subject-passions bow,
Of subject-passions sov'reign ruler Thou,
At thy command joy rushes on the heart,
And through the glowing veins the spirits dart.
Fancy might now her silken pinions try
To rise from earth, and sweep th' expanse on high;
From Tithon's bed now might Aurora rise,
Her cheeks all glowing with celestial dies,
While a pure stream of light o'erflows the skies.
The monarch of the day I might behold,
And all the mountains tipt with radiant gold,
But I reluctant leave the pleasing views,
Which Fancy dresses to delight the Muse;
Winter austere forbids me to aspire,
And northern tempests damp the rising fire;
They chill the tides of Fancy's flowing sea,
Cease then, my song, cease the unequal lay.
Wheatley is, as Tinsley would say, one of Ezili's children.