by Elizabeth Hughey
Sarabande Books 2021
Paperback, $15.95
Genre: Poetry
Review by H. M. Cotton

Poet Elizabeth Hughey welcomes a new collection into the world with her Kathryn A. Morton Prize winning White Bull. This collection lands like a hammer on an anvil: forceful but with a delicate musical ringing. A note before the table of contents indicates that the poems within White Bull “are composed entirely of words taken from the letters and public statements of Theophilus Eugene ‘Bull’ Connor.” Connor was a formidable segregationist and Birmingham’s Public Safety Commissioner during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. He’s the one responsible for the violent assault with firehoses and dogs on peaceful protesters, many of whom were children. His brutality is preserved in the heavy pall he left lingering over Birmingham.

Hughey dismantles Connor’s words, catalogues them in a huge list, puts them under a critical microscope, and reassembles them into an entirely new creation. This is reminiscent of erasure poetry, in which a poet takes a text (such as a book, speech, song, etc.) and crosses out all the words they do not wish to use in order to make new meaning from the remaining words. What we see in Hughey’s work is a step beyond that.

Typically, erasure poetry maintains the form and semblance of the original writing, though its full meaning is redacted, leaving only a ghost of what was. Hughey, however, breaks down the whole thing. She undoes the line and form of Connor. She confiscates his words and returns them to the page in a way that undercuts Connor’s existence and defies segregation. As the speaker says in “The Papers of Bull Connor,” “I’ll take the words you left / for us and make new colors to wear / on my lips” and, “I will try to kiss the history / out of your words.” In doing so she’s broken down the whole structure, leaving in its place the blueprints of a future entirely different from the one Connor envisioned.

This idea of what is and what has been brings to mind the tension of inheritance. How do we take what we’re given and recapitulate it into something new and life giving? What has been handed down to us, and what we are handing down to our children? This tension sits on the surface as is seen in “The Belongings”:

We have to work
with what has been
handed down to us.
We eat off of the words
our grandfathers said.

The speaker feels caught in the collection searching for a way to break out behind the black-bar lines of sentences. This anxiety of words and inheritance continues on in the prose poem “Now Kiss the Word Lips on This Paper.” Except this time the speaker is a parent and observes how she dishes out words to her own son. A panic arises through the duration of the poem as it delineates how we subsist on words and take them into our body. How we are nourished—and made ill—by them.

The passage of time in this collection is especially intriguing. We can feel the speaker existing in a very youthful space at times as they learn how to navigate the world and its social constructs. At other times we feel the weight of adulthood and parenthood set in as the speaker questions the pretenses of the world. Above all, we feel a general dissatisfaction with the way things are and a demand for more: more authenticity, more safety for all in the spaces we occupy, something more than the brittleness of fake nostalgia. Each poem feels held up to the light to reveal watermarks of scars in an effort to examine how to heal.

My favorite pairing of poems in this collection is the back-to-back “Peach Preserves” and “Peachtree Circle.” Peaches are, by nature, a more delicate fruit. They bruise easily and yet at their center is a hard, unrelenting pit. Their blossoms are delicate and white . . . everything a Southern lady is supposed to be. So, it’s no surprise to find these two poems juxtaposed and focused on growing up as young white daughters “with fathers who woke early, footsteps loud / enough to be heard from another decade” and the obligations of “the list / that girls had to be born onto.” The first poem—“Peach Preserves”—captures that moment of youth right before it realizes it has been born into a world of gendered structure and obligation. While the second poem—“Peachtree Circle”—details the pushback after the moment of realization has struck. This rebellion is seen in the lines

They raise
their hands to go to the restroom

when they don’t really have to go.
They just want to get out of climbing

the rope, again, and the suicides.

And suddenly, with those last two lines, what has been about rebellion in gym class turns to commentary about surviving a social construct. It becomes about the fight for our lives and the lengths we would go through to avoid the crushing weight of what those who come before expect of us.

I do want to take a moment to comment on the stunning section breaks with their striking black pages punctuated with white Roman numerals. I know they read as numbers but this design decision beckons me to read the section breaks “I II III” as a building anaphora of the personal pronoun I. And asks me to find myself within these poems. These dark pages are then immediately followed by a page filled with seven vertical rows of words (presumably the catalogue of Connor) across which select words have been bolded—one from each column—and highlights phrases from poems to come. These feature phrases are

“what has been handed down to us”
“I became a post card of myself”
“summer separates us with the same trees”

This effect subtly reminds us of how Hughey takes control of Connor’s words and, I feel, rounds out the composition of the collection in a lovely way. This collection is more than just a reading experience. It is an experience that includes the physical element of the page: keeping us anchored to the here-and-now while we descend into the depths of our collective pasts.

In this collection I saw a Birmingham I am well-acquainted with in all of its physical beauty and often-stagnant promise. It seems we are always on the edge of something new but have tethered ourselves to the past. Hughey offers hope, however, through her wordsmithing. At no point in this collection do we forget these poems are an amalgamation of Connor’s words, because the collection itself is aware of its own identity and how it is working. It undermines Connor with his own words in an act of accusation, rebuke, defiance, admonition, and sanctification all in one. And, in the end, Hughey’s new words become self-fulling prophesy: “When I ask your words what they did, they’ll say nothing. They can’t remember how they were used.”

H. M. Cotton is a writer and teacher from Birmingham, Alabama.