Audre Lorde said that “poetry is not only dream and vision; it is the skeletal architecture of our lives.” If some poetry serves as the bones of this architecture, Ariana Benson’s poems in her debut collection, Black Pastoral, now out from University of Georgia Press, are the joints that make those bones move. As Sharan Strange contends in her brilliant riff on the title, these poems suture “Black as Portal.” The transformative power of Black lives is the reader’s way into andthrough pastoral landscapes. Benson’s landscapes are not static, bucolic scenes hanging immobile in art galleries. There’s no watching the sun glint like pure honey off an immaculate pasture. Beginning with the gorgeous persona poem “Love Poem in the Black Field,” which repeats several times across the collection, these spaces are loud, dynamic, and dangerous. Not only can they be heard “over the / midnight / crickets,” they demand we look beyond the “pristine pastoral” to “what festers in the brush.”
Several courageous speakers in Black Pastoral “trespass.” They climb over whitewashed fences. They defy the curtailed, the trimmed, the pruned. The poems take turns waxing and waning their contradictions, nurturing miraculous Black blooms amid the treacherous Middle Passage, the heat of the Great Dismal Swamp, the brutality of chain gangs, the perils of miscegenation, and the injustice of Jim Crow laws. These characters, some real, some imagined, discover “wayward blossoms” or “June bugs’ grass,” to, as one speaker implores their beloved, “love in a field of our own making.”
Black Pastoral won the 2022 Cave Canem Prize, a first-book award dedicated to the discovery of exceptional manuscripts by Black poets of African descent. The phrase cave canem roughly translates to “beware the dog.” It is in a similar spirit that Black Pastoral offers razor-sharp fierceness that is also achingly tender in its warning. The poem “Strange Fruit Market” declares that if one cuts “deep enough, black flesh turns to gold.” Black Pastoral takes its most arresting cues from these contradictions embedded in nature, such as the trees that “haven’t taught me much / more than the difference / between weeping and watering eyes.” These pastoral scenes are both the cause and the cure, sowing hope alongside suffering. The breath from a kiss in the final iteration of “Love Poem in the Black Field,” puts it best: “we are weed and flower, both . . . we alive / Because of— we alive despite.” <Three poems from Black Pastoral appear in the Winter issue of The Georgia Review.>
Ariana and I are associate editors at RHINO, a poetry journal based in Chicago. She’s pursuing an MFA in poetry at Washington University in St. Louis, and I’m a PhD candidate in English Literature with a film and media studies concentration. Among many other things, Ariana is a 2023 Ruth Lilly and Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Poetry Fellow and expert crafter of ekphrastic poems. I was thrilled to chat with her during this blazing hot summer in St. Louis over several rounds of iced coffee at a local coffeeshop.
Laura Evers (LE): Let’s start with the stunning cover. Why a blown-glass flower installation, and what was the design and selection process like?
Ariana Benson (AB): The cover is stunning, isn’t it? The way it came together is maybe my favorite part of the publishing process, which can feel a bit more businesslike than artistic at times. I had been searching for an image for a while, and the press was very gracious in allowing my suggestions and input, and I stumbled across an exhibit curated by Andrea Barnwell Brownlee, the former director of the Spelman Museum, at the Cummer Museum in Florida. Debora Moore’s art was featured—specifically, this stunning blown-glass wisteria tree. I immediately looked for more images of her work, found the hanging orchids installation, and knew it had to be the cover. I think the way the glass flowers are suspended is so beautiful and haunting, a perfect parallel with the tone I was hoping to create with Black Pastoral itself.
LE: The flowers suspended in midair make me think of “Anti-Elegy for the Trees.” When the wounded speaker declares “How dare that tree not hold me,” there’s such a raw sense of betrayal directed toward the tree for refusing to “suspend” them in its branches. For the speaker, trees pose a slippery danger, and we should not be seduced into grieving their loss. This poem unravels the language of mourning so familiar in an elegy to craft something else rather polemic in nature. It’s a brilliant feat. Was this poem always conceived as an anti-elegy?
AB: “Anti-Elegy for the Trees” is probably the most deeply personal poem in the collection. It’s also one of very few poems that I’ve written that came to me mostly whole, concept to page. There’s probably a correlation there, but what I’m hoping to get at is that the entire experience of writing that poem was very raw and organic. I’m drawing from my own memories to develop the scenes within the piece—Hurricane Isabelle toppling an enormous tree just feet from the condo we lived in when I was a young child, my father climbing over it to get to work at the bank the next day, falling out of my favorite playground tree, scraping my stomach as I tried desperately to hold onto what would not hold me—all that is still so visceral and real for me, and each memory is surrounded in, almost drowned by, the presence of the trees. So in attempting to hold my own memories, the history of trees as tools for lynching in the American South, and the continued, devastating deforestation that un-greens our earth a bit more each day, I wanted to find a form that allowed me to honor all that death: of my childhood, my ancestors, our planet. If an elegy is, as I tend to believe, ultimately a form of witness, then with this poem I’m grieving the trees, but I’m also grieving what and who the trees bore witness to—those who live in their wake. In that way, it felt like I was turning the elegy on its head.
LE: There’s such a rich relationship between pastoral landscapes and ekphrastic poems. While reading Black Pastoral, I also thought of the cinematic force of Joy Priest’s Horsepower and the stark ecopoetics of Alexis Pauline Gumbs’s M Archive. Can you talk about these traditions and where you see Black Pastoral participating?
AB: I love that you referenced those books, because they were both major inspirations as I was developing my own concepts of Black nature, landscape, and Southernness while writing Black Pastoral. In my experience, “nature” as we categorize it is a place of deeply sensory experience—the sights, sounds, scents, textures . . . these are the elements of the ways we write about nature. So it felt natural to incorporate ekphrasis as part of the conceptual practice for this collection about nature. I also have been told a bit that my work has a “cinematic” quality, which I think stems from the way I synthesize scenic imagery. An image never feels static to me, even a painting or a photograph. I can’t help but imagine all that occurred in a place before it was captured or recreated. Moments, even historical ones, to me are less “preserved in amber” and more playgrounds for memory.
LE: Another ekphrastic expert, Robin Coste Lewis, has said that she is “a pastoral poet trapped inside a postcolonial body” (Voyage of the Sable Venus). What do you make of poetic identity and how has yours informed Black Pastoral?
AB: Wow, I love that description. I guess using that framework, I’d call myself a historical poet singing with a pastoral poet’s voice. Less elegant, I think, but I’m trying to say that though I love nature and landscape and will be endlessly inspired by their uncanny beauty, the impetus for my poetic practice is primarily history. I do a lot of research before I ever approach the page. I want to know what happened in the past, who walked this land before I did. What did they see between the trees, under their suns? Nature is a very useful lens, I feel, in translating those histories into the present, as much of the landscape in which those moments are rooted still exists, even if it does in a decaying form. But it is mostly a lens, a way to collapse time and bring pasts into present conversations. I want people to remember that history, especially in America, especially for Black Southerners, isn’t really that long ago. Perhaps by setting it in the “timeless” landscape of nature, filtering it through the sieve of lyric and affect, I can find a way to translate past experiences into the now.
LE: Will you talk a little bit more about how you incorporate your historical research alongside lyric and affect? Do you look for balance, or something else?
AB: I think I look to be moved, as a general reading practice. So for me, even if a poem is inspired by my research, it’s rooted in affect. Lyric, I find, is a way of modulating the emotional tenor of the poem. I can use extended syntax to stretch a feeling to its limit, I can use sonic devices to give it an arrhythmic heartbeat. I read about those who, rather than be enslaved, freed themselves into the depths of the ocean, and I imagine they must have felt painfully, achingly alive. To me, my work as a poet is to use the tools at my disposal, language, facts, archival photographs, historical documents, innate knowledge—to conjure the feeling of that specific aliveness. To then fashion, from all those different experiences of life, a kind of understanding of myself, my Blackness, my histories. Less a search for balance, I suppose, and more for an aggregated truth, even one that’s really my own.
LE: Heady sensuality strums throughout Black Pastoral. From “Said Tobacco to the Hand” to “Dear Moses Grandy. . . . Love, The Great Dismal Swamp,” and of course, the multiple variations of “Love Poem in the Black Field,” the charged relationships between nature and people move this book into unexpected and alluring places. How does the erotic drive your work?
AB: In her Uses of the Erotic, Audre Lorde writes, “The erotic is not a question only of what we do; it is a question of how acutely and fully we can feel in the doing.” This framework is the one I apply, though largely subconsciously, when I write. I do try to infuse a feeling into the doing of writing, of creating narratives, of delving into the world of the tiniest scene—the boll weevil who has God’s ear, for example. I think the erotic functions to make the small things big, to take what is virtually imperceptible beyond a cellular level and magnify it into something tangible, something lived. And I hope to do that in my poems, both with nature and with Blackness, and Black love in particular. I use sensuality to make the smallest hair on the back of your neck stand straight. There’s also something of a missioned logic to the eroticism of Black Pastoral, in that one of the major projects the collection tries to achieve is the destruction of the false dichotomy between urban and pastoral, natural and human. I believe that if we can understand what we, in our urgent worldmaking, “other” as separate from ourselves, as sensual, as deeply feeling, as erotic, then we can start to bring ourselves a bit closer to what exists outside of our sequestered worlds, closer to truly sharing the one we have while we have it.
LE: I relish this technique of using “sensuality to make the smallest hair on the back of your neck stand straight.” Black Pastoral shows that Black love perseveres and excels in these moments.
AB: Yes! I think that’s what Blackness is, among many other things—a perseverance of sense, sensuality, and feeling, despite it all.
LE: I’m reminded of the last line in “Epithalamion in the Wake” that reads, “A love that knows nothing / but ocean is one they cannot drown.” Talk about hair-raising! For all its flora and fauna, Black Pastoral also deals poignantly with bodies of water. What role does water play in destroying these false dichotomies, especially since traditional pastoral scenes so often foreground landscapes against rivers, ponds, or lakes?
AB: This is a fantastic question. Perhaps because water is often conceptualized as a uniform, singular thing (whereas a forest is comprised of trees, a field of grasses . . .) it’s a less approachable subject as it relates to the pastoral, which, I’ve found, prizes separation, both of experience and aesthetic, often via detail and illustrated contrast—a soft brown doe against the raging green of pine, for example—and so doesn’t easily satisfy as a subject of that kind of writing. But for me, water is exciting precisely because it works against disintegrity. It takes an atomic form that can be separated as easily as it can be joined to itself—just as rivers split and come together in perpetuity. So in this way, perhaps water is a useful image and metaphor for pushing against these dichotomies, not only because it cannot be categorized as inherent to the pastoral or to urban landscapes, but also because it’s fundamentally inseparable from itself. Just as we are fundamentally inseparable from nature, no matter how hard we try to wrest ourselves from its grasp. It rains, and then slowly, surely, the water returns to the sky to fall again. That cycle, that refusal to be interrupted—that brings me a peace greater than I can put into words.