In 1773 Phillis Wheatley, a Black woman who had been enslaved in Africa and taken to America, published a volume of poetry, barely out of her teens. She was the first Black person in the US (and the UK) to do so, and this monumental achievement has sealed her iconic status ever since. Edmonton author Alison Clarke’s collection of poems, Phillis, is a tribute to this achievement and simultaneously marks her own inheritance of Wheatley’s legacy for Black women writers.
The collection is part poetic exploration and part historical exposition. We learn of Wheatley’s harrowing journey as a child crossing the Atlantic in a slave ship. We are guided through her education in letters, English, Greek and Latin by the Wheatleys, the Massachusetts family who enslaved her as a child (yet recognized her intellectual abilities). And we witness her ultimate accomplishment: the publication of Poems on Various Subjects in London. Clarke’s collection ventures forward, too, dramatizing Wheatley’s influence on later figures of Black history.
Clarke infuses much of the collection with a ruminating, incantatory voice that helps ground the reader in a text spanning two centuries and three continents. She also invokes Wheatley’s poetic presence, with many references to individual poems and minor evocations of Wheatley’s 18th-century neoclassical aesthetic. She especially captures Wheatley’s fondness for Greek and Latin classics, and her regular invocation of the muses.
In fact, poetic muses dominate the text, but with an added dimension. Clarke situates the African Wheatley within this very European literary legacy, showing her as not only familiar with it but familial within it: “Mother Mnemosyne,” she intones to the mother of the Muses, “gift me with articulation/ That I may convince those that I am thy worthy comrade… make me your tenth daughter.” However, this is not a simple plea to be recognized by the symbols of Europe. Far from it. In her own inspired turn, Clarke introduces the West African griot tradition, granting Wheatley the profound role of storyteller, musician, historian and keeper of ancestral memory. Thus, Clarke’s Wheatley communes with her African ancestors throughout, and she is given the griot name Siptoraaki. “Griot, soothsayer, Teller of Story, Daughter of The Fulani, Keeper of Secrets, revealing only what is necessary, keeping our Life, those private things, private.”
The collection’s achievement is the melding of oral African and classical European traditions. The result is a text that conveys both the history and poetry of Wheatley’s extraordinary life. And though one sometimes yearns for more poetry than history, Phillis is a worthy encounter with an icon of Black literature.
—Bertrand Bickersteth is the author of The Response of Weeds.