American Happiness: Humor and Horror

By on 7 February, 2017 in Uncategorized with 0 Comments

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Update: Jacqueline Allen Trimble, chair of the department of languages and literatures at Alabama State University in Montgomery was named as the recipient of the Seven Sister Book Award for the best book of the year.

Jacqueline Allen Trimble’s first poetry collection, American Happiness, exposes the central irony we live and breathe in the United States: the jagged edge between a “freedom and justice for all” national ideology and our real daily lives. Through sincere humor and horror, the slim volume’s vignettes limn that dangerous divide.

This gem of narrative poetry begins with praise for a strong woman, “How My Mother Taught Me to Write Poems.” Trimble’s admiration for her [step]mother’s courage meticulously frames the racial, gendered, and generational context for the following three sections of poetry.

A young widow, that woman embraced her maternal role. Trimble writes, “I was going to get the best education she could find,” “Whatever skirmishes or wars ensued behind my being at that [white] school, I never heard of them”(10). Through strength and humor, her mother protects her imaginative childhood and her faith in her gifts as a poet and an intellectual. Dr. Trimble, Chair of the Department of Languages and Literatures at Alabama State University, Cave Canem fellow and President of the Alabama Writer’s Forum, has also recently won a sizable grant from the Alabama State Council for the Arts.

Trimble describes another way her mother fostered her development as an artist: an early lesson in irony:

“I was dressed as a ghost (for Halloween)…the only little black child in the whole school … in a sheet with a pointed pillow case hat in which my mother had cut two little eyeholes. It was years before I understood why mother laughed and laughed and took so many pictures”(11).

And because irony is American Happiness’s central conceit, the poetry aptly begins with “Closure.”

The first poem, “Everybody in America Hate the South,” characterizes the collection’s tone, both funny and tragic. The dropped-‘s’ on the title verb amps an African-American code-switch indicative of pique and critique. This plain-speaker frames sickening facts within the ethos of the Caucasian culture of erasure. Hollywood’s “reconstruction” of the South is “the Magnolia memory,” a façade concocted to obscure the long history of white domestic terrorism against blacks. But behind that pretty silver screen, the South is “that land filled to the rafters with ghosts of lynched boys and … souvenirs – dried ears, fingers, genitalia like prunes”(15). “Romantic” Gone With the Wind tropes white-wash the past to confound the present, “Mammy …has now grown some dreadlocks and owns the chicken restaurant on the boulevard”(15). That woman’s updated hair and business proprietorship cannot hide the symbolism of food as a cultural marker of both comfort and deprivation.

The narrator declares, “America ought to say thank you, Miss South, for… taking on the sins of the whole country,” because American happiness rests on the South’s role as the nation’s sacrificial lamb and black sheep. “Maybe,” she adds, in that signature mode that joins humor and horror, “the South is [like] our crazy Aunt Hazel who runs naked through the house full of company shouting all the foolish things we think but can’t say”(15). The South is designated female, because in patriarchy women carry the burden and the blame for men’s sins. The country’s “crazy Aunt,” like Cassandra, trumpets naked truths that evoke pity and derisive laughter. Her “madness” lets others close their ears, turn away in shame, and scapegoat her. White America can ignore its injustice, as long as there is someone else to blame for the pain.

Trimble’s most powerful poems critique our collective nightmare through specific experience. In the “The Geography of Passion” section, Trimble seems to invert that vantage. The academic feel implicit in the title and the image of a map of emotion describe the tone of the chapter. But when it maps general, codified ideas onto personal truths, the poetry loses much of its bitter and sweet ironic power.

In “A Woman Explains the World to Her Children,” a mother advises her privileged offspring, “Your comfort is built on someone’s broken back. Even if it’s your own. Pick up your implement and move on down that row. Go on and sing while you’re at it”(51). Singing at farm work suggests an imaginary slavery-stained past, not anyone’s real back-breaking labor. Vague evocations feel cinematic, like a “Magnolia memory.” Emotional distance seeps in through words like “implement,” a vague, Latinate idea of a tool rather than the “rusty hoe” that would really break a back.

In “We are in Cozumel” a near-death vacation experience plays up Trimble’s strength – her ironic particulars speak universal truths. Mexico feels staged, “The guide says call him ‘Geraldo’… his accent sounds fake. Maybe he is a college student named Fred from Philadelphia.” But reality intrudes when the narrator almost drowns. Underwater, she wryly awaits death, “At the [funeral] service…my students will come. My coworkers too. Even the ones who don’t like me.” She greets her salvation much as she faces death, with stoic irony, “But, I do not drown. The guide…swims me back to shore where…bikini-clad teens await the skin cancer in their future”(49).

“American Happiness,” the last section, adroitly balances wit and horror. Through a few recent news items, Trimble shows how the U.S. flaunts its white-supremacist ethos. For example, one recalls a white man who shot a black college student because the boy played his speakers “too loud.” The man’s own prejudice scared him to death, but not his own death.

Within the twisted logic of American racism, a white man’s self-induced anxiety somehow justifies his vengeance on anyone who embodies his fear. The real victims seldom have time to cry, “Wolf!” Instead, armed men, bulletproof-vested in their white privilege, murder black boys. Many of Trimble’s best lines understate this horror, “What did the man think when the boy took the bullets as freely as they were given?”

The last poem, “Emmanuel Means God is With Us,” recalls Dylann Roof’s massacre of nine black parishioners in a deeply symbolic, venerated church. “Mother Emanuel,” the oldest African Methodist Episcopal Church in the South, is the first independent African-American denomination. 200 years old, the church has suffered and survived a long history of white violence. The poem implicitly asks God, “Why do You let these things happen?”

“God was already there when the boy walked in…

Still there when we prayed with him…

There when he almost changed his mind.”

But in the end, she indicts America’s religious twisted promise of freedom: religion, speech and peaceful assembly, as well the right of white supremacist boys to own and carry loaded guns into black churches. For that hypocrisy, Trimble says, “Praise God, Christian nation.”

American Happiness indicts this country for how racism twists even the promise of freedom into a means of subjugation. But the grace and humor of Jacqueline Allen Trimble’s poetry reaches beyond rage to forge a connection to anyone alienated, silenced, abused, all but obliterated by white/male hegemony. Trimble’s prose and verse vignettes comfort our sorrow but never lie to make us feel better. She took her mother’s gifts of humor, irony and steadfast love and she wove poetry that speaks like a true friend.

 

American Happiness by Jacqueline Allen Trimble is available through Amazon.

Lynne Schneider earned a doctorate in the frozen north, after which a miracle occurred: Alabama State University offered her a faculty position and she happily relocated to Montgomery where she teaches literature and writing, and where lovely people play tennis all year long!

 

 

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