The problem with poetry is the poem. The problem with the novel is the novel, with music music, and so on. Any form is, in a certain light, limited by the very boundaries that make it it. And so poets from time to time look for a more spacious form, not only resisting the container but leaving it behind, in the writing, in a search for poetry—maybe I should say Poetry—which is bigger and broader and deeper than the form. Czesław Miłosz, for instance, describes in Unattainable Earth how as he tried to “approach the inexpressible sense of being” he noticed his labor included “the act of the poem, but,” importantly “not only” that; he saw that he was “not only” in his life “busy creating ideal objects that bear the name of poems.” Which led him to ask: “Why not include in one book, along with my own poems, poems by others, notes in prose, quotations from various sources and even fragments of letters from friends if all these pieces serve one purpose?” If the aim—the obsession, the need—is something like an adequate representation of this life, the particular shape matters only provisionally, matters only insofar as it gets us to the place of Poetry. This is an argument both for and against the primacy of form.
Chet’la Sebree arrives at a similar premise in Field Study, her second full-length collection. Fitting that she at first thought she was writing an essay, she has told me, and only after twenty or so pages realized this wasn’t exactly the case. The book is not so much a collection of poems, or even one long poem, but an unclassifiable sequence of sentences, fragments, rhymes, quotes, pop culture annotation, sampling of all sorts, questions, and definitions. Her first book, Mistress, chosen by Cathy Park Hong for the New Issues Poetry Prize, often seemed to inhabit in lyric the persona of Sally Hemings. Her second, the expansive Field Study—156 pages, including ten pages of notes called “Additional Data”—shares with her earlier work the frank look at sex, colorism, Black womanhood, and the elusive nature of desire—even, or especially, one’s own.
A few pages in, Sebree, who was raised in Delaware and Richmond and who directs the Stadler Center at Bucknell University, defines her purpose at the outset with a question: “Were white men my kink?” Interracial desire as fate or burden or circumstance or choice. A desire entwined, of course, with cruel history. But history is not quite her subject, at least not directly, not the kind we read in textbooks. Personal territory is her interest, personal history which can’t help but intersect with the history of this nation and this moment. Each spot of language in this book is separated by a thin line about an inch long, so that it stands alone, such as this: “In retrospect, I can explain the liminality with which middle-school me was grappling.” Or: “On this I feel I need to be explicit: I do not covet whiteness.”
Sebree instead outlines early on the ground she’ll be studying: “This field is my brain’s backlog of books and a lot of bedrooms.” And: “This field has maps made of men, of finger pads, of scrotal sacs. My muscles a Moleskine.” These lines, I should say, aren’t broken like lines of verse. The book unfolds most often by way of freestanding bits of what appear to be prose: Sebree’s central proposition is the sentence, basic unit of prose here conscripted into the realms of poetry. There isn’t enjambment here, but that doesn’t mean these sentences aren’t lyrical and smoldering, consistently gorgeous and often brilliant. And in this context it’s arresting when she does veer into occasional rhyming couplets, like “Somehow still a wet nurse from actual babes / to Alabama-special-election saves.” These show the poet’s hand, show that poetry is her root after all, that what she writes will have as much in common with music as with prose—and simultaneously the abrupt shiftings within the sequence, multiple times per page, emphasize the refusal to stay in one genre, emphasize, that is, Sebree’s search for a more spacious form. There are almost clinical—anthropological, Claudia Rankine-like, field-study-like—notes on penises, particularly white ones, genre and narrative theory (“If this were a memoir, it might start…”), aphorisms (“Importance is subjective”), genetic commentary (“The twenty-three in me is a whisper”), Joe Brainard-like remembrances often as psychologically-charged as they are damning social critique (“Someone who loves me told me no one gave a fuck whether I lived or died when I was a teen”), and ironic humor winking at the reader’s chosen awkward position of the sometime-voyeur (“Netflix: are you still watching?”). The book is also shot through with lines from other writers, from Mikki Kendall, bell hooks, Cheryl D. Hicks, Ali Wong, Lupita Nyong’o, Maya Angelou, Shara McCallum, and others. What these lists I’ve sketched don’t show is the way all this gets woven together with supreme artfulness, so that the book speaks with the gravity of both the cento—that socially drawn, communal radiance—and the confession, with the range of both the epic, epochal and historical, and the vertically plunging personal lyric.
JESSE NATHAN: Do you see anything more clearly, now that this book is finished, about the nature of desire? How, for instance, did you come to end on the image of cannibalization?
CHET’LA SEBREE: I think I was always writing this book in some way. I look at poems from graduate school and realize I’m asking the same sort of questions about identity and desire. Then I look at Mistress—my first book, which features poems in the imagined voice of Sally Hemings and a contemporary speaker who shares my name—and I see how many of those poems are in conversation with Field Study. In fact, when people ask if I’m the speaker in Field Study, I tell them the truest thing I can say is that it’s the same “Chet’la” speaker from Mistress; she’s just taking up more space.
But the impetus, more concretely, was Shonda Rhimes’s Scandal and a conversation with the then-director of the Stadler Center, Shara McCallum, in 2016. I write this in the book, but she asked me if I still watched Scandal, and I found myself in a rabbit hole about desire and interracial relationships. After four years and lots of research, I can’t say anything concretely about either, other than that desire is so complicated, and I think I made my peace with that writing Field Study. There’s this quote from EG Asher’s Natality that opens the final section of Mistress. It reads: “I need / a body to be messy in.” I think that’s what I’ve learned or what I can see most clearly now about desire. All my speakers are taking up space to be messy, and in that messiness they’re fully human. Since my speakers are Black women, this feels radical—a space for us to be in all of our complexities.
As for that final image of cannibalization, I also have Shara to thank for that. As I embarked on this project, she offered some sage advice: “Don’t write about what you’re not willing to cannibalize.” I understood her to mean, “Don’t write about what you’re not willing to process or digest,” but also “Don’t write about something you’re not willing to destroy in some way.” Cannibalization is defined by the consumption of one’s own species, of something to which you have a fundamental connection. You are ingesting a part of what is familiar to yourself to give yourself nourishment, but you are also killing it. To me, there’s a violence more intense than carnivorism because of the intimacy. To be in partnership with someone is to be aligned with them, to bring them into the fold of your world, to unite your worlds even. To digest and process and destroy what once was, in this process of writing, is violent, even while there can be some nourishment achieved by way of closure, or something like closure, something approaching it.