The Curse of Slavery

Yesterday morning, men installed a gas log in my fireplace. I lit it and sat for a while with my rescue dogs, Schatzi and BoPeep, watching the leaping flames. The fire lent warmth, both physically and aesthetically, to the room. I felt cozy; the pups felt cozy. I pictured long-ago grandparents, having survived perilous ocean voyages from northern Europe to live out their lives in the New World, warming themselves in front of stone fireplaces.

It’s easy for me to slide back into history. I’m the family genealogist and my idea of heaven is finding a panoply of kinfolk assembled to greet me when I die: Quakers, Presbyterians, unbelievers, Huguenots, Papists, knights, farmers, kings, sea captains, peasants, preachers, etc. Saints and sinners they would be, with some, middling-good. For nearly all my life, I’ve gathered their stories and ache to speak with them.

My southern ancestors were slave-owners. Unlike actor Ben Affleck, who sought to hide his family’s slave-owning past, I admit it. It shames me, but it happened, and I can’t undo it. My planter ancestor, Peter Poyner, secured a land grant from the English Crown in 1680 and sailed to the New World. He paid his way, and the transportation costs for six others, who became indentured to him. He acquired 360 acres in Virginia. Subsequently, he bought land in North Carolina and moved there. When he died in 1715, he left several plantations to his sons.  

One of my great-great grandmothers was Keziah Ann Poyner, a direct descendant of Peter Poyner. She came with her family to Indiana in 1832, where she met Illinoisan James Blaine Handy and married him. Keziah and her brother had been left one slave to share in their father’s will, but they did not bring him or her with them when they came north. I’m guessing they sold the slave.

Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD) is, in part, written as an apology for my ancestors. Years ago when researching family at the Dallas Public Library, I found reference to a court record revealing slave punishments carried out by my Poyner ancestors on the North Carolina barrier islands. The barbarism of my people stunned me.

WTRRD is a work of fiction, focusing on slavery and its snarly reach into the present. In the book, the slave-owning family is the Creightons, founded by Old Peter, who lived to be one hundred years old. Like my ancestor Peter Poyner, Creighton secured a land grant from the Crown and arrived in the New World sometime in the late 1600s.  The excesses of the Creightons are imagined, but from the court record concerning my own people, not implausible.

Present-day characters, who live in fictitious Cherapee County, try to explain slavery to protagonist Maria Pell. June Whitehall informs Maria that slaves ran away from their plantation homes (Note: homes, not prisons). Later when she speaks of slave uprisings in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, June lapses into present tense: “We can’t sit around and let the darkies kill us!” In Chapter Twelve, Maria deplores slave executions. Her friend, writer Phoebe Burns says,” Don’t be judgmental, Maria. It was the times. A lot of people owned slaves. Those that rebelled posed a danger to society. Examples had to be set.

In WTRRD, set in 2014, characters have not left slavery issues behind. In a plea to wake people up, lawyer Seth Creighton laments the bad practices that have brought the community to ruin: “I mean our curse, slavery,” he cries, “and its after effects.” Does the plea move the community to positive action? How quickly can one change wrongheaded minds?

Read my book and see.

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At Lit by the Bridge Thursday night, I got up to read a poem, looked out at the audience, and saw two little girls. My poem was too strident for their ears, and I hadn’t brought another one, so I sat down. My unshared poem, “Memo,” addresses world leaders in unflattering terms. The second stanza lays out my case for being angry with them. In the third stanza, I posit that it was Gaia, not Yahweh, who created the world. The fourth stanza lists the horrors men have perpetrated on women throughout the ages. Finally, in an eleven-line stanza, I endorse women for positions of leadership. I didn’t want to be the purveyor of bad news that those little girls were growing up in a world where tradition and circumstance might try to place limits on their aspirations because of gender.

Women could rule the world—probably more ably than men—if men did not fiercely guard their positions. Like Gaia, an author is free to create her own worlds. As a result, my female protagonists always live strong in their universes. I once wrote a short story called “Dina, the Warrior,” in which a little girl, perhaps seven or eight years old, fights Death for her brother’s life and wins. My own brother died when I was 2 ½. He lived only four days, but he and I were alive at the same time; I was excited over his birth and viewed him in his tiny casket. I bonded with him for life; hence, the story about Dina and Finn. In another short story, a librarian endures an appalling rape by proxy. Her silverware represents her body. The aged tormentor is a sophisticated oil man seated next to her at a library banquet table. In full view of those assembled, he fingers every piece of her silverware, except a teaspoon, as he tells her how the Hopi fertility god Kocapelli rapes his victims. If she creates a scene, the librarian will lose her job. The ordeal plays out. She detaches. She gets through it unscathed.

In the hills and valleys of my life, I’ve found wells of strength within myself I never dreamed I had.  That’s why my female protagonists can fight Death, walk into dark alleys, kill snakes with a broom handle, pull people from fire, etc. I introduced Maria Pell, the protagonist in Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD) and in The Untold Story of Edwina. Maria is a professor of Poetics at an Indiana university. Her partner of nine years, Mathieu Joubert, is from Togo. He teaches Black Studies. In Edwina, she suspects he’s unfaithful and is greatly distressed. Two years have passed when we meet her again in WTRRD. This time, she’s sure he’s unfaithful and although hurt, moves on. Does she leave him? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

The strained relationship between Maria and Mathieu is only a subplot. The main plot centers around seemingly insoluble murders of Creighton family members. Maria is drawn into the mystery when one of her friends is involved. In a small racist southern town, she learns to grow a thick skin as an outsider, and demonstrates courage as an amateur detective. Endowed with psychic abilities, Maria encountered a malevolent spirit in Edwina, and one might think she’d learned to be more cautious in her spirit wanderings. Two departed souls attach themselves to her in WTRRD. Undaunted, she enters their realm.

It’s rewarding to write strong women characters. Perhaps I was influenced by the measured derring-do of Nancy Drew in the Carolyn Keene series. Certainly, I pored over those books as a girl. I never saw myself as Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty, or The Little Match Girl. Wonder Woman was more my style.

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Writing Poems in a Another Voice for Where the River Runs Deep

where the river runs deep

Storms passed through North Aurora early Saturday morning and my little dog Schatzi was fit to be tied. I wrapped her in a thunder shirt, lay down on the sofa beside her, and stroked her neck until dawn. As a result, I was too tired to attend my Saturday morning Early Riser get-together at the Limestone Café in Batavia.

I hated to miss that gathering of friends, who are also connected to the writing world. Energy is high–creative people bonding at the top of the day. We support each other in our artistic endeavors. My new book, Where the River Runs Deep (WTRRD), is dedicated to the Early Risers.

Open Sky Poets met in the afternoon. Six or seven of us get together every two weeks or so to read our work, receive critiques, and good advice.

In WTRRD, character Amen Hotep Jones is a poet and since I created him, it is, of course, I, who wrote his poems. I tried to find a voice for him, separate from my own. Whether or not I was successful has yet to be determined. Amen was African American, grew up in the Carolina swampland, and ended up in an Illinois prison. The following, part of “The Astarte Poems,” are his:

Big-hipped woman
I saw you laying in a box
A dove sitting on your head,
Your breasts peaked like stiff egg whites.

I behold you, woman of clay.
Your laughter is an aria of joy.
Be the sonar of love
where the river is deep.
Wake us all.
Wake us all.

Velvet skin, like a hound’s ear.
During the night, did the honey bees sting your lips?
Did you comb the night into your hair?
And is the moon your tiara?

My sweet puppy, BoPeep, is part hound. And I was probably thinking of her with Amen’s mind when I wrote the first line. I can see BoPeep, ever watchful for rabbits, running along beside him on the banks of the Orchy River.

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Kirkus Review of Spy Car and Other Poems


Lynne Handy
Push On Press (56 pp.)
$10.00 paperback
ISBN: 978-0-692-61233-0; January 18, 2016


If poetry is a car, this debut collection hums and purrs like an expertly tuned machine.

Good poetry is about pressure—how much force one can pack into, and wring from, the fewest words—and it’s clear from the get-go that Handy is fully aware of the nature of that struggle. One can hear it in “Something Like a Sonnet for Lucie Brock-Broido,” when she writes, “she lifts her pen to torque / A primer for divining spells.” Much can be divined from the poet’s choice of the verb “torque.” Another author might have opted for the more conventional word “write.” Torque, by contrast, is rotational force: the power that carries an object around a fixed point, and with this simple word, Handy gives readers a whole picture—of pen pressed down to page on the fulcrum of a poet’s knuckle. Poetry, she seems to say, is pressure and, thus, work. Her verse is chock full of such little joys, of words and phrases that, when pressed, give way to images, stories, and worlds. A high point is the title poem, in which the speaker marvels at her grandson’s rehabilitation of an old sports car: “he replaced / the brakes, ignition, clutch hydraulics, / pumps, belts, hoses, and the choke. / Its bracken chassis overhauled, / the vintage MGB positively preened.” Later, the young mechanic takes her on a ride, and they sweep “along Illinois highways, / eyes riveted through a shared windshield.” To her credit, Handy doesn’t romanticize the relationship between grandmother and grandchild, but she does show what they hold in common: the clear windshield, the road, or perhaps the work. This is a book about rehabilitating language, and readers are sure to enjoy the ride.

A book that takes old words, spruces them up, and puts them out on the highway again.

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The Green Woman

greenwoman5The Green Man, his handsome face (depends on which Green Man you’re looking at) surrounded by foliage, is a pre-Christian symbol, representing fertility, death, and rebirth. Though his face may be found throughout places of worship in Europe and the Near East, he figures predominantly in Celtic mythology.

greenwoman8The Green Woman is not the mate of the Green Man. She was not born from his rib. She arrived in the explosion that formed Earth and reigns alone. If she met the Green Man in a meadow, she would nod, exchange pleasantries, but go on her way.

greenwoman4She may be linked to Aphrodite or Astarte, or any of the other ancient love goddesses, but she is inextricably tied to nature. She is the song in a poet’s heart as she walks in a forest. She is the thrill that runs through the body when exploring an ancient woodland. She partners with the sun and moon, catches rays that warm the seedlings and monitor the tides. She watches trees grow, rivers cleanse themselves, oceans foam. She watches over children reveling in the sun, squirrels skittering over branches, honey bees searching for pollen.

She cares about the environment; she cares about Earth’s creatures. Over time, she will appear in all her manifestations in this space and give voice to triumphs and yearnings.

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