From Where You Print

On Printing Rita Dove’s “The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude”

by Alex Green

(Gallery of Images Below)

Since I was a child, I have loved Rita Dove’s work. I often think of her poems as I go about my day. In honor of Dove’s February, 2016 reading at Emory University, I was asked to create a letterpress poetry broadside of the poem “The Spring Cricket Considers the Question of Negritude.” Copies of the poem—a large single sheet broadside intended for framing—were distributed to attendees.

Reading and re-reading Dove’s poem as I printed, my thoughts turned, time and again, to institutions. In Boston, industry and ideology were the earliest institutions, both wrapped up in the Protestant word of the Puritan Clergy. Before anywhere else in the colonies, the trade in books and printing thrived here, in support of these religious men.

Four centuries later, running hundreds of copies of this poem through the press in the oldest neighborhood in Boston, I thought about the unspoken story of the trade in the Good Word here. After all, the printers here in Boston did not always do the printing. Sometimes they had their women do it. Sometimes they had children or apprentices do it. Sometimes, they had their slaves do it.

We rarely think of slave-holding in the north, but it was once part of our heritage, just as it was below the Mason-Dixon Line. Printers, who often sold other goods and wares to stay afloat, kept slaves to do their hard labor, and sometimes to do their printing. And with the same whim of the notorious slave markets of the Antebellum south, they would sell slaves, too. I think often of a slave typesetting a single-sheet broadside of a different kind, listing items offered for sale by the shop, including himself.

When I first learned of the relationship between slavery and printing in early Boston, I was not terribly surprised. After all, the story of Phillis Wheatley, Boston’s great African American poet, has circulated for years. Wheatley gained renown for composing a collection of poems, and was then dragged before the city fathers, including John Hancock, because they could not believe that an African American woman could read, let alone write poems. Not exactly the story of a glorious revolution.

I always took comfort in the idea that it seems that the powerful often place the powerless in close proximity to the means of their liberation. Reading Dove’s poem, I am struck with a gnawing, inescapable, opposite sense. Where I saw an unwitting slaveholder, Dove sees the powerful, supremely confident in their own security. Little kids in the field with crickets, printers with slaves in the back room, all of them joyously playing with life, tempting fate, shaking the jar, trying to get as much of a thrill out those waning moments of another’s existence before twisting the lid shut.

 

Click Images to View Gallery

 

Alex Green is Artist-in-Residence at Arbalest Press.

 

Rita Dove is a recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in Poetry, and has served as United States Poet Laureate, and Poet Laureate of Virginia. In 2000, she was one of three poets to serve as the Special Consultant in Poetry for the bicentennial of the Library of Congress.