Cracking Open the Breath: Irène Mathieu’s Grand Marronage
reviewed by Cassius Adair
At the end of the first section of Irène Mathieu’s Grand Marronage, the reader is thrust into a swamp. For the twenty-some poems preceding, Mathieu has traced the memories of her paternal grandmother through the early twentieth century: Black New Orleans, the Great Migration, the Great War, and the private wars of class, domesticity, and violence that accompanied mid-century middle-class Black womanhood. But at the close of this cycle, Mathieu jolts us back two hundred years to 1735, to “a girl in a swamp / getting too free for her body.”
In “maron (circa 1753),” Mathieu’s transformation of the myth of Daphne and Apollo, the girl is fleeing, not from a lustful god, but from enslavers and their dogs, men in pursuit of the humans they believe to be their property. Some of the girl’s fellow escapees, we learn, “will hold their breath underwater for eighteen minutes / while armed men scour the shore.” But Mathieu’s “girl,” the maron or “maroon” of “grand marronage,” takes her flight further: rather than simply hold her breath, she transforms her body into a fig tree. As a tree, the girl’s breath is no longer at risk of being choked out by the dense swamp or the murderous men; it cannot be recaptured. Instead, the girl-turned-plant can inhale through her leaves, take in the clear air from the hot sky.
This scene in the swamp is the historical starting place for Irène Mathieu’s multi-generational poetic narrative. Grand Marronage gives voice to the poet’s Creole women relatives as they weave their way through centuries and through the United States, eventually giving way to Mathieu’s own contemporary narrative. “Maroon” (sometimes rendered in Carribean languages as marron or, as here, maron) refers to groups of enslaved Africans and their descendents who escaped into swamps and forests and mountainsides and established isolated communities there, acquiring a contested and fraught form of freedom. From this originary maron, then, her the matriarch of freedom, Mathieu establishes a theme that courses through the whole of the collection: the risks of breathing, of opening the mouth. For Mathieu’s speakers, one can breathe, one can sigh, one can even talk, but in doing so one might be exposed, caught out. As such, Mathieu’s collection is grappling with sound: the costs and benefits of quiet, the emergence of a suppressed voice, and the world-splitting thunderclap when one finally learns how to speak.
As if in reference to the wordlessness required to evade capture, the text of Grand Marronage is shot through with silence. Sometimes indicated with italics or bracketed white space or just emptiness on the page, these absences encompass both global traumas and intimate wounds. In “how to rain,” for example, the story of the Middle Passage comes to us as a fragment, having suffered a lexical amputation: “if these stories seem uneven-keeled,” writes Mathieu, “it’s because someone lopped off what / words we once had on the other side.” Both a literal description of the destruction of indigenous language through enslavement and a metaphor for the speechlessness left by intergenerational trauma, Mathieu stages this “lopping off” by closing the poem with emptiness:
here are their faces:
here their names:
In refusing to reanimate, even in fantasy, the names and faces of the lost, Mathieu asks readers to experience absence in the aggregate, feel the excision as a still-open wound. In other places, still, the silences mark friction of culture or class within the inheritors of that “lopped-off” story. For example, in “still life with pedigree,” a poem set in the present day, Mathieu’s speaker’s father asks whether her lover, “who was raised up in a country church who has an accent” is “[ ] enough,” the elongated blank space “a clutch of adjectives” that she dares not repeat. This tension within what blackness means, can come to mean, in a post-slavery landscape appears again in a small epigraph by Robin Coste Lewis that Mathieu attaches to her own poem “privilege reproduces itself:” “I begin to babble / any words I could think of / in four different languages, [...] in order / not to say these words: The black side of my family / owned slaves.” Read together, these moments reveal that even speaking can be a form of silence: the open interrogation of another’s fitness reveals itself to be an act of self-censorship, yet another lopped-off story. As Mathieu puts it in “archival,” “every telling is born with its / twin opposite, a not-telling.”
To speak of the lateral harm that sprouts from cultural trauma, to give voice to the inequities passed on within “this swamp hustle,” to be “just saying what it is,” is a profound risk. So often, then, Mathieu lets the hardest truths emerge only as a whisper.
At the level of the word, even, Mathieu knows the power of the hush, the shh, how to stifle a sound. Grand Marronage is flush with sibilant monosyllables (among other esses), giving the entire collection the sense, alternately, of something being said under the breath, or the sharp inhale of shock when one dares to speak. These s-words speak their meanings, often, undercover, as if always carrying with them the possibility of transformation, fugitivity: to stir a pot of gumbo is always also to stir up or rouse something; stern, a serious look and also the head of a dreadful ship; a sink at a woman’s kitchen counter invokes also those who never emerged from under the water (the swamp or the Atlantic), who sank.
[A partial list of the monosyllables through which Grand Marronage sighs:]
[Spit / slice / snap / stab / scalp / skin / suck / sweet / shell / steam / stalk / sweat / ship / slink / snake / seam / salt / sea / stroke / splash / skull / sky / stones / slap / slop / slouch / silt / shore / sleep / seed / swamp / slip / sniff / split / sigh / strike / slick / shed / spring / sheet / struck / sink / smoke / stuff / shard / star / stem / space / sole / soul / swish / sing / slave / spin / spread / spot / spew / strong / string / shin / snow / smooth / sin / stretch / splice / sheen / speak / seek / sauce / stout / shrimp / stir / stove / sharp / strung / shuck / self / safe / swear / swath / soft / shrink / swirl / shield / sick / stern / shift / shoes]
In Grand Marronage, to speak—to go beyond the hushed whisper—requires one to split oneself open. As the mouth opens, so does the whole body. A physician herself, Mathieu has a rich vocabulary of dissection and dismemberment, and interweaves the voice with images of slicing, cutting, cracking. In “misunderstandings,” for example, the speaker “thought that speaking was a way of inviting disaster,” and images being “a surgeon excising every bruised place.” A domestic scene of cutting peaches with a kitchen knife, a medical scene of bending over operating table, and the breaking open of silence when one tells family secrets: all of these mingle together, stanzas blurring one image into the next, until it is clear that there is no distinction between breaking, breathing, and speaking. Even across multiple poems in the collection, the sounds of snaps and shatters echo: cracking the protective shells of crawfish for a boil (in “astacology”), “a woman breaking open a pecan” as a metaphor for racial passing (“a foolish controversy over the color of the skin”), and the imperative to “break the mirror” in order to “send your tongue traveling thickly / around the world” (“stage directions”). When the women in Mathieu’s poems find ways to open their mouths, to stop holding their breaths, and speak out loud, they risk pain and trauma. Yet they also tear apart the racial, gendered, sexual subjugation that has made them learn to breathe shallowly, preserve air, stay ready to duck under the water. To make a meal, to heal the body, to tell the truth: all these things start, in these poems, with a break.
Yet breaking open the mouth is also the act of liberation. In “love poem,” the figure of Mathieu’s grandmother allows her voice to crescendo as she edges closer and closer to her stubborn man: “she starts to murmur, / yes, yes, yes under her breath, shakes her head, and then / laughs out loud as if amused by her own voice.” When a woman who has, in the pursuit of a respectable life, “cull[ed] words / from her throat like a sculptor,” realizes that she must find her own voice again, that “to be reborn is to / break the building, / to gleam,” she “launches her handbag force-/ fully over the wall, kicks off a pair of high heels, and climbs over the wall, pausing / briefly at the top to give a wild shout]—.” The laugh and the shout, the blessed release of air from the mouths of women who have inherited a million ways to hold their breath: it is here that Mathieu offers a glimpse of transformation. As she puts it in “the jig,” “the act of writing, the act of running / (of breathing), / is generally forward-moving from this view, / but then, time is a Mobius strip, / loose and open as a laugh.” In Grand Marronage, Mathieu lets go of silence, blends her own laugh with the laughs of generations, lets her women ancestors open their mouths. Together, they all breathe freely.
Note: additional music and sound is from Blue Dot Sessions and FreeSoundArchive.org. Thanks to Irène Mathieu for reading the list of s-sounds for us; Mathieu was otherwise not involved in the production of this review.
Cassius Adair is an audio producer, writer, and researcher who lives in Charlottesville, Virginia. Currently, he is an associate producer on the nationally-distributed public radio show With Good Reason. In 2018, he was selected as a New Voices Scholar by the Association of Independents in Radio. His writing appears in American Quarterly, American Literature, Avidly, Make Literary Magazine, Nursing Clio, Misadventures Magazine, and is forthcoming in Semiotic Review. He is now writing a book about transgender people and the Internet.