Black Pastoral explores the complex duality of Black peoples’ past and present relationship with nature. It surveys the ways in which our histories (both Black histories and natural/ecological histories), our suffering and our thriving, are forever wound around one another. They are painful at times and act as a salve at others. Ariana Benson’s poems meditate upon the violence and tenderness that simultaneously characterize the entangling of the two, taking the form of a series of ecopoetic musings that re-envision these confluences.
Moreover, Benson’s poems illustrate the beauty inherent to Blackness, to nature, to the remarkable relationship they share, while also refusing its permission to collect idly, like an opaque skein of film obscuring uglier, necessary truths. Black Pastoralseeks to be both love letter and elegy, both flame to raze the field and flood to nourish the land anew.
If poetry is a form of prayer, then Black Pastoral
is church, pew, pastor, baptismal site, hymn, and a symphonic archive of our historical silences. This collection of poems is a transcendent appraisal of the blood that was extracted from Black bodies. In the tradition of Richard Mayhew, Ariana Benson challenges and forces us to de-romanticize the American landscape. At once tranquil and reflective, the poems in this collection—structurally innovative, formalistically demanding, lyrically fluid—provoke the reader toward a sublime reckoning. The milieus in Benson’s poems: a Middle Passage broom jump, a stacking of 'things' at Elmina’s Door of No Return, the breaths of Eric Garner and George Floyd meeting in a Rothko painting, are rendered beautifully through luscious aubades, ekphrastic poems that excavate ruins, anti-elegies, an exacting still-life, and alternative approaches to established forms. You will never feel alone in Benson’s landscape of organic belly songs. These poems (read pastorals, read lyrics) have a way of entering your bloodstream, re-birthing your soul, and altering your molecules until a tree is no longer a tree, but a retrospective exhibit of strange fruit bearing witness. Black Pastoral
reads like a canvas where one must question goodness in the face of evil, use a swim lesson to transport through America’s violent chronology, and bask in the light of love’s ultimate mercy and grace.
—Willie Perdomo, author of Smoking Lovely: The Remix
is not playing nice. In this landscape, even sweetness stings. On every page you'll stumble over an image, a line, a truth, that will take your breath away. These poems refuse to paint ‘nature’ as a beautiful, healing space untouched by human hungers, violences, and losses. Ariana Benson uses all the linguistic wizardry, emotional honesty, and formal dazzle at her disposal to bring us the fields and forests as she finds them: colonized, exploited, but still wild, and filled with what history has made Blackness mean.
—Evie Shockley, author of semiautomatic
Lucille Clifton wonders, when writing about trees, 'why/ is there under that poem always/ an other poem? Ariana Benson answers Clifton in Black Pastoral
with a series of poems that see the land as both dungeon against and co-conspirator to Black freedom. In poems blossoming into traditional and nonce forms, where the Black imagination is a reluctant crypt, Benson writes, 'There are some trees—the black mangrove, the longleaf pine—that cannot bear the loneliness of touch.' These poems touch the ancestors with love and witness.
—Phillip B. Williams, author of Mutiny
Boll weevil and blessing, spade and sweet field, tulip and tobacco; all these and more thrive miraculously, rivered through Benson's Black Pastoral
, a luminous forest of aubade, elegy, and voracious vision. These vibrant and stunning poems take us from indigo-pitted Cape Coast passages to sticky-knuckled oil spills with awe, insight, and an earthen solemnity. Here is a pastoral Blackened, billowing, heaved with history and blooming throughout with the possibility of a myriad of answers to the question what has apocalypse taught us/ but how to live/ unwholly?
—Tyehimba Jess, author of Pulitzer Prize-winning Olio