Joshua Poteat, The Regret Histories, Harper Perennial, 2015

Reviewed by Will Cordeiro

[Review Guidelines]

Joshua Poteat's third full-length collection, The Regret Histories, winner of a National Poetry Series award chosen by Campbell McGrath, provides an archaeology of an American city, portraying the invidious fault-lines that fracture Richmond's psyche. The poems interrogate their own figurative construction within the tropes of Southern Gothic, nimbly contrasting spare lyrics, murder ballads, prose series, litanies, and meditations; individual poems, frequently named after spurious bureaucratic departments, ironically trouble the rationalistic grid that occludes one's view of a living and ever-resurrected past. Poteat's collection is aware that from whatever historical vantage point one occupies, our terra firma is also a form of terror, since the dirt one stands upon was once a battlefield or a cemetery.   

Throughout the book, the forces of history seep out in granular detail, as dry-rot on a ceiling, smashed beer cans, and brick-dust. Pentimenti and residue. Plaster and casings. Another evening tumbling over on assorted detritus. Glass on the street makes "a whole new astronomy" (22). Such rubbish spills a zodiac, hieroglyphs, glimmers writing our fate. Two dresses hung on a line become ghosts who don't speak (43). Pieces of rope, smudges from riots, police tape, bloodstains, and chalk-lines.       

Richmond police prepare for race riots, Spring 1968; photo courtesy of Valentine Richmond History Center

Poteat's Richmond is scabrous, scarified, weed-choked, and charred—papered over, boarded up, and crumbling down. Poor white trash and black projects, the embattled remnants of confederacy, reconstruction, white flight, gentrification, drugs, and decline; crows picking loose crumbs, slow-burning trash fires, gunshots in the night, roadwork and rebar, barbed wire and oil slicks. All of which fragments nonetheless calcify to uphold the long-standing barriers of class and racial divisions, holding no easy escapes. Yet still and despite and because and against all of this, the speaker keeps "looking for a story that will light / my way out" (5).

The river of time, of consciousness, of identity meanders like the mangy gaunt-ribbed strays that patrol the neighborhoods. "There is rain, and there isn't. The river tells us nothing, absolutely nothing. It floods, it dries. It does what rivers do.... The dogs bark, but not for us," his anonymous speaker deadpans (67). And, rain or no rain, the river recoils, shrivels or shines, and it goes on, keeps going, another murmurous slur.

Jefferson Davis monument, Richmond

The poems resist any foregone self-righteousness, any gratitude or appeasement:

                                                       I know I'm supposed
to look past this, to recognize the syringes and pipes,
condoms and plaster, plate of chicken bones
on a mattress in the gutted kitchen, as a living ruin,
monument to a plague gone courteous at dusk.
...Something lonesome and tired in the design
of mold on the half-eaten walls, wallpaper faded
to powder, and graffiti like veins on the ceiling
spelling out exactly what history has always said:
fuck all y'all this is my house. We just weren't listening. (10)

The speaker comes close to romanticizing dereliction—transforming the scene into a courtly, a courteous rhetoric—then swerves away to read the writing on the wall: this house belongs to a history which the speaker cannot claim, which no one of us fully possesses but which like a ghost possesses us all.

Similar to Freud's vision of Rome, Richmond, too, under Poteat's pen becomes a palimpsest of half-vanished civilizations standing in for the mind's sedimentation, the recursive images of urban decay excavating buried attitudes and habits. The ownership of a place is always on contested ground. Each house has its foundation on another's grave; language, too, becomes implicated as a tarnished inheritance that's addressed to the dead. The entire map's deep-fried in the bubbling cauldron of colonization, genocide, slavery, holocaust, broken-window policing, oppression, and prejudice.      

Marc Swanson, "State of Emergency"

Poteat imagines the city as a pelt, the historian as a taxidermist that must reconstruct the animal. His narrator's anguish seems predicated on the knowledge that the very process of historiography replicates a new violence on its subject—skinning and stitching, stuffing and molding; it collapses; it transposes; it fiberglasses the viscera. It spines the tissue into false poses, shapes the fascia into sham forms, gristles it all into dioramas that offer a canned perspective. And yet, what other choice is there? To not "do" history would be to ignore, to overlook, to erase, to forget. To give up listening.

Can we imagine a self-critical taxidermy, then, in which, rather than displaying a trophy case of mounted heads—thereby replicating a heroic narrative; a story of conquest and progress; a dialectic of antagonists, the taxidermist instead assembles the wounded creatures into postures that would evoke pathos and compassion? Can we imagine a taxidermy that would recognize the specimen's decay, constructedness, and alterity? Can we imagine a taxidermy turned against itself—or a historiography that rips the fabric of its own grand narratives apart even as it necessarily posits, however provisionally, however remorsefully, a patchwork of counter-narratives that expose their own seams?  

Damien Hirst, "The Problem of Money"

I increasingly wonder (and I am increasingly disturbed by) whom these animals that Poteat invokes in his central litany might be: are these animals the collective carcass of history, the anima that inspires and expires through generations, the instinctive urges that prowl the liminal zones of our hearts, or some type of spiritual chicanery? Are these marginal figures of animals, perhaps, a demeaning minstrelsy like the gorilla suit that Enoch Emery dons in Wise Blood, a covert, grotesque, and odious metaphor for black bodies?

One perfectly reasonable answer to such questions: Fuck y'all and all your white guilt.

Mike Calway-Fagen, "Dyramid"

Yet, it is precisely the affective terrain of white guilt that is the emotional core of this book. Poteat, after all, dedicates his collection to Jake Adam York, whose unfinished lifelong project was to write a poem for every martyr of the Civil Rights movement. But, whereas I often find York's poems emotionally hollow and forced, constraining its presumably white liberal audience's affective response to polite applause for his project's good intentions, Poteat's work remains ambivalent and intractable—humorous, horrifying, sad, angry, and sublime all at once; an interpretive welter.

Kara Walker, "World's Exposition"

Poteat's work reminds me of Kara Walker's filigreed silhouettes which burn like black voids on their incandescently white museum gallery walls, an absurd provocation. The egregiousness of Walker's art critiques the framework of which it partakes, implicating its audience and making them uncomfortable, breaking down "appropriateness" to its root in "property," and thus throwing in relief the whiteness of institutions that mask theft, mutilation, rape, slavery, and killing fields.

Poteat's radioactive figurations likewise reanimate the bodies that official histories have suppressed underground, regretting his own involvement with such histories even as the poems rewrite new ones, dredging up a nightmarish zombie-land that haunts the dark cities of the American mind.