Trigger warning: descriptions of rape and brutality.
Jenny Mitchell’s powerful first collection Her Lost Language draws elegiacally on the poet’s Jamaican ancestry to measure the impact of the British transatlantic slave trade on family lives. Map of a Plantation unflinchingly continues that theme. The foreword in this collection tells us that Jamaica remained a British Colony until 1962. Abolition of slavery came in 1838 but at that time it was the enslavers, not the enslaved that were ‘compensated for their loss’. The poetry here explores that irony and points us to a wider understanding of the legacy of slavery, bringing all sides of the experience up close and personal for the reader.
The collection is divided into nine chapters. ‘A Manservant Speaks/A Maid Transforms’ is from the fourth, headed Overseer. Here Mitchell uses lyric to powerful effect to tell the story of a slave couple running away. The poem is split into two parts, the first is in the voice of the manservant ‘My love and I escape along the path…’ The man’s perspective is left-justified and the woman’s on the right. The rationale for this construction is embedded in opening lines.
…her left hand so gently in my palm, the right hand placed above her swelling gut. Our child will know free land. It lies ahead.
The word ‘lies’ takes on multiple meanings here. That being free is ever going to be possible for this couple, or their child, is the lie they tell themselves. Perhaps the poet is also suggesting that freedom itself is a lie. They are caught. The man is beaten while the woman lets go of her left hand to flee but is overtaken by her pursuers, ‘Men run to pull her down’. Here is where the transformation begins. The woman dissociates herself from the inhumane into something infinitely more powerful. The earth, the landscape, the natural world. ‘I fold the land inside as I’m pulled down…’ Though clearly, she is being raped by the same men who have just beaten, possibly even killed the father of her unborn child, she rises above it. Dare I say, beautifully. Is this the transformation promised in the poem’s title?
Men lift me up and trees become my hair. It’s laden with each flower on this land hibiscus for the love I left behind. White orchids on my breasts become his hands.
I take this to suggest that survival of such violence requires metaphysical transcendence. After the assault, she is imprisoned and enchained:
I’m taken to a cell and made to strip. No light but it is clear my skin has changed not dark and soft as fertile ground must be. No orchids but two chains become my breasts.
Most striking here are the middle lines implying that some fundamental change has taken place. We are also left in the dark as to what happens, but there is a hint in the final couplet. What is taken can never be returned:
When I look up, the roof turns into sky each cloud, my child, sent to the far horizon.
Jenny Mitchell’s Map of a Plantation provides multiple perspectives on the issue of slavery and charts its lasting and continuing implications on successive generations. The poet achieves this with a deceptive simplicity that belies her deeply considered stance on the subject. This is a collection to be studied and revisited. Oscar Wilde once said the one duty we owe to history is to rewrite it. In order to rewrite history, we must first know and understand our part in it. Map of a Plantation invites readers to inhabit the lives of those whose wounding acts and scars continue to be borne in the present and transform themselves in the process.
Cheryl Moskowitz is a US-born writer and educator with a background in theatre and psychoanalysis. She is an editor at Magma Poetry and co-hosts the All Saints Sessions www.allsaintssessions.uk, an innovative poetry and electronics performance series in North London. Her pamphlet Maternal Impression came out with Against the Grain Poetry Press in 2021. @cherylmoskowitz
If you're going to hold someone down, you're going to have to hold on by the other end of the chain. You are confined by your own repression - Toni Morrison.
In Jenny Mitchell's Map of a Plantation, the treacherous bind of Western modernity’s limitless, brutal march for power has dire consequences for all concerned. Yet, reading poetry that offers a history of inner lives is empowering and ultimately enriches our lives in turn.
The poems act as invitations to not just think but feel, offering a journey through a brutal, colonial story of the lived experience of plantation slavery. Moving across different experiences of plantation ‘life’, everyone involved in the system of owning human beings as chattel had a role to play, some with agency and power, others in brutal oppression. Crucially all were caught inside a larger social, economic, and psychological system. The worst excesses of humanity were precisely that, human.
Within this humanity, the poems express a delicate and nuanced complexity of plantation life at any given moment. From its many, varied horrors to stolen moments of love, empathy for a mistreated plantation mistress, to the unspeakable terror of rape, child torture and selling. They disrupt one-dimensional views of slavery and racial economies by giving us new possibilities and deeper stories about inner lives and liberation.
Troubling and troublesome, the poems disrupt how we perceive and engage these long glossed-over truths, derailing any temptation to look away and think away the depth and truth not only of what happened but what is happening in the legacies of racial terror and transatlantic slavery today. With their own rhythm and pace, the poems transcend the merely intellectual, towards a fuller sensory realisation of moments in time and space, demanding that humanity cannot ignore the rich layers of life and love precariously held onto in those moments.
Through different voices and experiences, Mitchell's poems take on new layers of depth with every reading. The plantation mistress’s look, caught in the ambivalent inferiority of being a white woman in the shadow of her husband is made terrifying by her inner promise to unleash hellish retribution on slaves (‘First Draft’). The poems here whisper, sing and articulate the cost to both slayer and slain, master and slave, mapping territories of whiteness, racial brutality, and resistance.
Several poems remind us of the sheer terror, often conveniently anaesthetised by academic texts in their ‘objective’ analysis, that ‘reproduction of slavery’, was the reproduction of human beings, babies born into slavery and sold into death (‘New Master...’, ‘In the Birthing Room’). Ultimately, it is the cost borne by humanity, the moral consequences of legitimising such brutality so deftly offered to us in the imagery and language of magical realism (‘The Overseers Tail’). This is a story of stories, unfolding everyday lives revealing intimacies, connections, and endurance, essential if humanity is ever to face its past and future with integrity. Reminiscent of Octavia Butler’s and Toni Morrison’s work, these poems flesh out the bare, logical skeletons of modern, colonial systems. Singing the unspeakable, we hear voices beyond their usual barely noticeable presence in many creative and educational contexts in society.
The collection is indeed a map, a moving territory of emotional landscapes, making oppressed and oppressor relations so much more complicated. It is a love letter, resistance account, and reminder of both the power of racial systems and the impossibility of silencing voices and lives forever. This collection reflects unabridged grief, but rejoicingly reminds us how the human spirit can soar, even from the depths of despair.
Harshad Keval is a writer, educator and activist in race, global social theory, decolonial frameworks, and work across genres, methods and forms. @HarshadKeval
Unfurled, the ink is bright
four corners white as lace.
Not relic of the past
directions for the future.
So begins Map of a Plantation, a collection of poems inhabiting the voices and lives of enslaved people and enslavers on a Jamaican plantation. Mitchell’s message is clear: though this is history, the ink is fresh, the background dominated by white – and what these poems make us see must not be consigned to the past but used to inform the present, to shape a different future.
Immediately, we are plunged into the world of the plantation. Mitchell has a striking capacity to bring forth the lived experience of her characters. Many poems have a flashback-like quality, punctuated with fragmented sensory details (“fireflies / tapping at the windowpane”; “an odour like a charnel house”). Another Slave Lament concludes:
A woman starts to scream until it hurts my throat. I stop to feel the aching.
Here, the interweaving of first and third person suggests dissociation, a rupture in embodied experience which is both the product of a sustained attack on personhood and a necessary survival strategy – the mind untethering itself when the body can’t. Short, unembellished lines like this are frequent and potent: we feel their weight. Mitchell writes of people who nurture their own private agency and resistance: a woman plants a garden for her lost children “beside the stocks and the latrine”; a couple meet secretly in the forest where they “find release and both call out escape”. But these are precarious freedoms; the threat of death and sexual violence is behind every door.
Mitchell draws on natural world imagery to evoke a sense of time and continuity. Roots feature frequently, with dark undertones early in the collection giving way to images of growth and transformation (“They’re bubbling, black roots reforming”). Body, language and landscape fuse in potent metaphors that speak simultaneously of forced ownership and a deep vein of strength, of connectedness to land, self and heritage.
The collection draws attention to how the history of slavery is remembered – or suppressed. Another Vision of the Goddess sees the dead body of “the last field hand to be enslaved” covered in words, “distinct as moles”, which then inexplicably disappear. In John Crow’s Feast we eavesdrop on a political meeting, post-abolition, in which the narrative is spun, power shored up. We read with knowledge of what has changed – and what hasn’t. In Testimony of a Nurse, the final line, “I wear the mask pressed tight against my lips” nods to Paul Laurence Dunbar and Maya Angelou, and to the silencing still at work in our society.
Mitchell inhabits the voice of enslavers as well as enslaved. Here, brutality is not the dominion of monsters but people; it is business-like, efficient, its agents “prosaic”. And yet in their terrible, systematic cruelty and complicity, the enslavers themselves are dehumanised. In one nightmarish poem, Mitchell imagines the Overseer’s whip alive, tearing through his body: “A tail thumped on the floor”.
It is a testament to the writing that at times I felt the urge to put the book down (and often did). I’ll acknowledge, too, some trepidation in writing this review: why should I have a voice here, what ignorance might I betray, a white man and member of the oppressor group? And yes, I felt ashamed. As a nation, we’re a long way off genuinely facing up to the legacies of British colonial history and the reality of intergenerational trauma. Mitchell’s book provides vital education, but more than this it offers an emotional and physical engagement with a history that is too-often hidden. It is this unflinching commitment to witness that is the hallmark of her writing, and it is due to her skill as a poet – shifting between voices, sustaining rich and complex metaphor – that this works so effectively.
Jonathan Totman was born in Sussex and now lives in Oxfordshire. His pamphlet, Explosives Licence, was joint winner of the 2018 iOTA Shot Award and was published by Templar Poetry the same year. Jonathan is a former Fenland Poet Laureate and co-edited poetry magazine The Fenland Reed for several years. Night Shift is his first full collection. @jonathan_totman
In ‘Map of a Plantation’, Jenny Mitchell reveals an incredible command of language and ‘re-memory’ bringing the denied experiences of the enslaved to the fore, viz-a-viz Toni Morrison's Beloved. It is a book of eight sections each giving a devastating voice to the main actors on a slave plantation. The ‘master’ inhabits space ‘[h]e dominates the map’ and ‘name[s] the places on the map’, names all he owns, including the enslaved. He travels, goes where he wills, where he chooses. He is a living embodiment of what it is to be free.
But how do you begin to write about the horrors of slavery? Tell of its terrors? In ‘There will be no rebel women’, Mitchell gives a disturbing yet stunning evocation of the matter-of-fact cruelty of this system of oppression that the ‘master’ helps to maintain. ‘Maid’ brings those that are enslaved into sharp relief from the shadows of history where the powerless do not usually have form, speech, presence, or the ability to reflect on their situation. In ‘Lot 48’, for instance, we find a woman who interrogates the indignity of being put on display and sold as chattel. There is also the exploration of an exquisite love between ‘a maid and a manservant’ in ‘I am the Song’. Through losing themselves in one another, they ‘find release and both call out escape.’ Stunning.
In the ‘Mistress’, Mitchell presents a complex figure whose power is an extension of the master’s and, we sense, her fears, frustrations and the fragility of her situation but her complicity too. ‘First draft’ shows the first bloom of marriage as well as the beginnings of understanding her place, her standing. In ‘Hunter’, Mitchell speaks of the mistress as the hunted, abused by her husband and yet this does not give her a sense of empathy with the black women around her but instead ‘her voice become[s] the hunter with his gun.’ Virtuosic.
In the ‘Overseer’ we hear his glee with doing the master’s bidding of seasoning slaves. We get a picture of the grinning right hand of the master, who freely beats children ‘so that the broken little workers [are] easy to control.’ Mitchell tells of women whose gender does not protect them from ‘becom[ing] the hanging tree’, whose remains are left to rot, ‘to stop all runaways.’ Chilling.
In the ‘late master’, Mitchell does not turn away from murderous thoughts of enslaved towards the slaver whether master or mistress or the terrible outcomes of humans as property in the ‘Nurse’, where even a woman’s child is not her own and quickly sold on and away from the mother. Mitchell shares these and other intersecting stories with humanity, bringing out the nuance in the small details of life on a plantation, to remind us that slavery dehumanises both the slaver and those that are enslaved. You get a real sense that Mitchell must share these stories in her arresting poem ‘How I Write About Enslavement’ as voices ‘scream break free, demand a page.’
History soaked in blood, sugar and whip is brought to life to unnerving effect. Mitchell’s collection is well-researched, masterful and moving. It is an important envisioning of a painful but much-needed narrative.
Lorraine Dixon is a music teacher and a poet who enjoys sharing her work in print and in performance. She has read her work at Fire and Dust (Coventry) and for Writing on the Wall’s Writers’ Bloc (Liverpool). She uses her poetry to explore the multiple elements of her identity as an older, working-class woman, born in Yorkshire and whose heritage is African-Caribbean. Lorraine has had poems published in the Train River Poetry: Anthology Summer 2020 (Train River, 2020), Geography is Irrelevant: poetry in isolation (Stairwell Books, 2020) and Where We Find Ourselves: Poems and Stories of Maps and Mapping from UK writers of the global majority (Arachne Press, 2021). @DixonLorraine2
Map of a Plantation (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2021) is Jenny Mitchell’s follow up to her prize-winning debut collection Her Lost Language (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2019). The collection gives voice to contrasting characters on a Jamaican cane plantation in order to examine the widespread and ongoing impact of enslavement. Tender and uncompromising, the poems seek to use the past to heal the present-day legacies of a contested and emotive history. This collection contains the winner of the Segora Prize 2020, the Aryamati Prize 2020 and the winner of a Bread and Roses Poetry Award. Buy it from The Poetry Book Society, here. @JennyMitchellGo