by Brenda Marie Osbey
from "Qu'on Arrive Enfin (a tale in-progress)"
and so we arrive at last in our native land —
the earth itself marked by slavery.
up there, in the open air, the stink, the hot funk of hot blood
the rowdy rebel-niggers of the past.
how we always return to this —
the city, the life
that slavery built,
tales altogether invented
as told by historians, founding fathers, the church.
but we are sick and tired of lies, dirty tricks and fraud,
we are sick of tales and of historians
sick of indigo, tobacco, rice and rum
we are sick of king-cotton and sugar cane
sick of it all
and can only wish hard-hard-hard
that the lakes, the bayous, swamps large and small
will have swallowed it all
erased it all.
History and Other Poems takes as its task nothing less than an examination and mapping of the never-ending evil of history of the Transatlantic Slave Trade and the still-palpable effects of European and American colonialism some seven centuries after the making of the New World.
Making, breaking and rebuilding language and languages to suit the needs of her characters and the worlds they struggle to survive in and against, Brenda Marie Osbey has created a compelling study of human will and the determination to wrest life and liberty from destinies long ago written out of history as we know it.
Aided by an extensive glossary and notes, this volume takes the reader on a series of gruesome journeys across the Americas, from Columbus's first encounter with the Guanahani Indians to the author's native New Orleans, trailing violence, destruction and oppression with every step, marking the geography of evil on the map of this New World.
History and Other Poems moves from present to past and back again to reveal the trauma of hearts and lives broken even as it underscores the heroic endurance, resilience and agency of the enslaved and their descendants.
Memory, culture, and language are the compelling cornerstones of History and Other Poems. In this magnificent evocative of the long ago past, Brenda Marie Osbey brings her amazingly accurate voice and probing vision to bear on an historical archive of the Americas from fifteenth through the nineteenth centuries and expresses her powerful twenty-first century reflections on the origins and imposition of the Atlantic slave trade. Exploits and exploitations mingle in the voyages of European explorers, merchants, and slavers and in the words of lost captives, dreamers, and workers in sugar, rice, indigo, or cotton. No pandering to stereotypes and no longing for idealizations here; Osbey reaches deep into her own brilliant imagination and into cultural memory to expose to new life a necessary but often buried history.
— Thadious M. Davis, author of Southscapes: Geographies of Race, Region, and Literature
Brenda Marie Osbey is not just a poet from New Orleans; rather, she is the poet of New Orleans. Osbey is a native New Orleanian, and her work has been colored from the start by Louisiana's extraordinarily mixed, Creole culture. Congo rhythms, the disciplined improvisations of Provençal troubadour and jazz musician blend in the vernacular heartbeat of her best poems. As an African American poet, Osbey is painfully conscious of the mixture of French, British, and Spanish exploration and exploitation that underpins both Louisiana's "créolité" and the global construction of race. In fierce, visceral, mesmeric, incantatory lines, Osbey's History and Other Poems demands to know "the real measure of human loss" caused by those twin constructions. Confronting the baleful legacy — all too readily disavowed — of the trade in human beings on which our modern world is founded, these riveting poems plunge the reader so physically into Atlantic history one can taste the blood and sweat and mucus, hear the beat of heart and drum and tide, feel the yielding flesh and hard but brittle bone. Not since Aimé Césaire have we had such a global or such a visceral take on the bloody chains that have yoked Europe, Africa, the Caribbean, and the Americas together. Not since Nina Simone have we heard such brilliant artistry in transforming anger into music.
— Simon Lewis, Associate Director of the Carolina Lowcountry and Atlantic World Program
Anointed with complexities, History and Other Poems is superbly executed. Brenda Marie Osbey's poems invite exploration of the chaos and créolité of history. They urge us to attend to their nuances, to be renewed by radical, rich aesthetic permutations. In her previous collections — Ceremony for Minneconjoux, In These Houses, All Saints: New and Selected Poems, and Desperate Circumstance, Dangerous Woman — Osbey acknowledged her sustained research and investments in history. History and Other Poems confirms her poetic mastery of time, space, and narrative, her authority to guide us in the process of becoming enlightened by the profound structures of existence. This is a rare book that secures our participation in and control of the dialogic imagination.
— Jerry W. Ward, Jr., author of The Katrina Papers: A Journal of Trauma and Recovery and Famous Overseas Professor, Central China Normal University (Wuhan)
Place this new book by Brenda Marie Osbey next to the work of Eduardo Galeano. After centuries, after Columbus, after the long era of discovery, comes the daughter of a new Negritude. Brenda Marie Osbey is a language explorer, a navigator of metaphors and stories. She understands that what cannot be erased becomes memory. Yes, there is "no history of this world that is not written in black." When civilizations clash poets are born. How long have we been waiting for Brenda Marie Osbey?
— E. Ethelbert Miller, Director of the African American Resource Center, Howard University
Interviewed for the Faubourg Tremé documentary amidst Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, a visibly shaken Brenda Marie Osbey didn't bow down. Her courage made a never-to-be-forgotten impression on the film's countless viewers. In History and Other Poems, she has forged her grief, her anger, and her passion into an equally unforgettable tribute to her ancestral city. It is a matchless gift to Osbey's admirers both at home and abroad. And for those who want to know what New Orleans means, it is required reading.
In her "little history part one," Osbey disses the "wearied and wearying lessons" of an invented past. Her subjects inhabit a world of European conquest, deadly microbes, filthy slave fort dungeons, horrific ocean crossings, and chattel slavery on sugar plantations from the Caribbean to Louisiana. In the arc of Osbey's lessons, there "is no history of this world that is not written in black."
In conjuring the "nearness of our slave-i-tude," she cuts to the heart of slavery's lived reality and its 21st-century legacy. Like her New Orleans literary forebears, she understands the city's genius and the necessity of getting its history right. She does exactly that in this brilliant tour de force.
— Caryn Cossé Bell, author of Revolution, Romanticism, and the Afro-Creole Protest Tradition in Louisiana, 1718-1868
Brenda Marie Osbey's new poetic sequence deepens the historical record of the Atlantic world with poetic truth; her probing metaphors are never less than figures of thought representing the archetypal drama of the period that still shapes the power relations of our own.
"History" is a major production . . . remarkably successful in providing us with what academic scholarship typically neglects or finds so hard to capture, namely felt history. . . . Osbey's poem is a brilliant exercise in cultural archaeology — reminiscent of Robert Hayden's groundbreaking poem "Middle Passage." No detail . . . is without significance.
— William Boelhower, literary editor of Atlantic Studies and editor of New Orleans in the Atlantic World
Brenda Marie Osbey has weaved history into the rich texture of an epic poetry that only she can write: the fascinating, disquieting voices and sounds of sensuality, rage, power, beauty, death, voices speaking intimately through the censored chapters of history, now brought back to life.
— Rédouane Abouddahab, Professor of American Studies, Université Louis Lumière – Lyon II, France
Nothing better describes the work of Brenda Marie Osbey than the phrase "truth and beauty," although I might, on second thought, prefix this with "powerful." You cannot help but wonder how deep is the well she reached into to bring us such language.
— Charles E. Cobb, Jr., Chair of the Middle Passage Ceremonies and Port Markers Project Advisory Board, and Visiting Professor in the Department of Africana Studies at Brown University
The beauty of Osbey's poetry lies in its depth, in its ability to call up multiple realities, to expose the layers of social, cultural, familial, and individual history. . . . In her poetry, memory creates a spectral space in which the dead and living coexist and change one another.
— Shari M. Evans, University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth. "Spectral Space: Memory, Loss, and Reclamation in the Poetry of Brenda Marie Osbey"
But Osbey's poems walk the line of danger. They recall dangerous people; they wield dangerous words. Her work will speak to you of the familiar in ways that make it strange; it will speak to you of the unfamiliar in terms that you know you've heard before.
— Evie Shockley, Writers at Rutgers Reading Series, Rutgers University
In History and Other Poems, Brenda Marie Osbey brilliantly puts her hand inside our history, toting the heft of centuries, and pulls out wisdom that is newer than the latest scheme of human domination. Not since Robert Hayden's "Middle Passage" has the rape of Africa been so devastatingly told.
— Joanne V. Gabbin, Executive Director, Furious Flower Poetry Center, James Madison University
"History is your own heartbeat." So wrote Michael Harper. Few poets have attended to America's beating, bleeding heart as closely and as tenderly as Brenda Marie Osbey. In these poems, as in her past work, she traces the mortal marks our past has left on our city streets, in the rhythms of our feet. If history has been a coffle, it is also our freedom train.
— Aldon Nielsen, author, Black Chant: Languages of African American Postmodernism and Mantic Semantic, Kelley Professor of American Literature, Pennsylvania State University
After the myths, the fables, the abridgments, the approximations, and the outright lies that masquerade in its name, what, then, is history? Osbey asks then answers this most prosaic of questions, in the most magical form. Traversing centuries, circling the globe, by land and sea, these bewitching poems bear the stamp of her linguistic dexterity, her vernacular range, her Olympian intellect, her sheer poetic heft and genius. With this volume, Osbey establishes once more — just as she has in volumes past — that her name will be/is indeed already writ large in the history of the narrative poem, in the world's pantheon of treasures.
— Deborah McDowell, Alice Griffin Professor of English at the University of Virginia
Click here to listen to Brenda Marie Osbey discuss History and Other Poems