Irène Mathieu
Grand Marronage
Switchback Books

Reviewer: Vivian Wagner

Irène Mathieu’s Grand Marronage is a collection of poems about escape, freedom, community, and intergenerational trauma. The term “grand marronage” refers to people who escaped the slavery of plantations and established their own communities outside of slave society. The book’s poems explore literal and figurative grand marronages, and the ways that Creole and black people in Louisiana and beyond have struggled to create a sense of identity, meaning, and purpose in the aftermath of slavery.

Mathieu, who’s a pediatrician and public health researcher as well as a poet, explores liberation as a theme in this book—what liberation means, how it’s experienced over generations, and how it’s an ongoing process rather than a single historical event. The collection opens with an epigraph by Mathieu’s paternal grandmother, Louise M.L. Mathieu, whom Mathieu has said in an interview with Richmond Magazine “identifies as a Creole and is originally from New Orleans: “One open door leads to another. There will be more and more things coming out to liberate the soul and the body.”

Liberation, in other words, is multilayered. It occurs over time and space, in the souls and bodies of both those originally liberated and those who come after. The poems in Grand Marronage tell multiple stories about liberation and escape, from the bonds of slavery and systemic racism as well as from sexism, sexual violence, and a variety of other cultural constrictions, limitations, and cruelties.

The first poem in the book, “after the Louisiana Purchase, black New Orleanians sought alternatives to the emerging Jim Crow order,” looks at the experience of resistance on a bodily level:

how beautifully the body makes itself—
            or God—

aorta tucked behind the spine,
who’s forever spooning
bony protection at our backs,
as if it knew we’d be prone to stabbing
from birth till after death.

Trauma and self-protection are experienced first in the body, and it’s the body that makes sense of the world through its vessels, bones, and nerves. It’s not just human bodies, though, that have these experiences: the landscape in this poem, too, is flesh: “this city is a pulse & the Mississippi / one big blood vessel.” And the trauma and bodily memories of both the people and the landscape are passed down through generations:

the next generations will wake up
on this side of the century
still muttering their names, even the ones
none of us has ever known.

This poem establishes that investigating and narrating intergenerational trauma and memory are at the heart of the book’s project. And Mathieu, with the deft eye, ear, and hand of a poet-doctor, seeks both to understand and heal this trauma.

After this initial poem, which stands on its own, the book is divided into four sections: LM, mid-1900s; AD, early 1900s; LM, late 1900s; and IM, early 2000s. The initials in these section titles refer, presumably, to Louise M.L. Mathieu (LM), the black poet Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson (AD), and Irène Mathieu (ID), though the references are not explicitly stated but rather grow out of the poems’ images and speakers. Together, the sections demonstrate how layers of trauma, liberation, and narrative speak to each other across time and space.

The poems in the first section, “LM, mid-1900s,” are chaotic and fragmented, embodying the experiences of a woman struggling to find meaning, identity, and value in a culture that’s stacked against her. The section’s opening poem, “[silence],” begins as follows:

awake, alone
                         with him beside her:
a chronic emptying.

There’s a desire on the speaker’s part to understand herself in the midst of the detritus of her life and culture (“Gourmet magazines, Reader’s Digests, photo albums in / shoeboxes, crumbling novels, thinning paper of all sorts, her skin”) at the same time as she’s experiencing a sense of hopelessness. Who is she? What does her life mean?

This poem that begins with a “chronic emptying” then ends with an emptying into meaning: her truths, we hear, “empty into something / and someone drinks up / and we call this history.” That history might well be the poem itself, and that someone the poet, who’s carefully picking up the bits and pieces of a grandmother’s life and putting them together into a meaningful narrative.

The second section, “AD, early 1900s,” explores the imagined voices of two early twentieth-century black poets: Alice Moore Dunbar-Nelson and her husband, Paul Laurence Dunbar. Their relationship is at once loving and fraught with violence. “man with vase of violets,” for instance, begins as follows:

the last time Paul tried to kill me
I forgave him
even as I ran.

Later in the poem, the speaker says, “I wanted Paul to see / how a life as dark as bruise could be loved.” Their complicated relationship illustrates how the violence of slavery can be transmuted, finding expression in the relationship between men and women; trauma, unresolved, shows up in new forms.

The third section, “LM, late 1900s,” explores the later years of Louise M.L. Mathieu, as well as the ways that her life embodies history, memory, and a constant struggle for liberation and escape. In “privilege reproduces itself,” the complicated history of a Creole family is explored, as well as the inheritance of power, violence, and trauma:

there were slaves in our family,
some related and some not.
money gotten by blood
tends to stay in the blood,
which has no race …

Later we hear of “this swamp hustle passed through the / umbilical cord,” emphasizing how history is embodied by people.

The poems in the final section, “IM, early 2000s,” bring the narratives of trauma and liberation into the current century, demonstrating how recovery and healing require a deep understanding of the past. “to know a thing,” for instance, begins as follows:

every poem I write is about the same thing:
how ordinary it is to want a long line of sunrises,
bowls of oatmeal with you—in other words

what my parents have collected –
while the world goes on dying.
who am I to wish for more life
than even this slow-burning planet?

There’s at once a sense of hopelessness and possibility in this poem, capturing as it does the poet’s desire to tell a story that might, ultimately, be doomed:

the steady approach of entropy, it’ll break your heart.
how like us it is to know a thing by name
and at the same time swear it’s not true.

The poems throughout this collection are concerned with naming the most troubling elements of the past, as well as identifying the ways in which those elements might be transformed by understanding and love. And though entropy might be inevitable, these poems suggest that perhaps it need not have the last word.