Review of ‘Map of a Plantation’ by Jenny Mitchell

Regular readers of this blog will know that my intention is to give both a platform and publicity to debut publications of new talents. Just occasionally, however, I like to do something different and review the current publications of more established writers. Jenny Mitchell I am sure will be familiar to many of you as one of the most exciting, up-and-coming writers of her generation and her latest publication, Map of a Plantation (Indigo Dreams Publishing, 2021), is, I believe, one of the finest books of poetry to be produced so far this year.

This uncompromising collection makes the overwhelming horror of the history of enslavement personal and particular through poems written from the perspective of the enslavers and the enslaved: the Master, the Maid, the Mistress, the Overseer, and the Nurse. It offers the reader an unflinching insight into the systematic, dehumanising brutality of an economy in which fellow human beings are perceived of and treated as commodities or ‘crops…to reap’ (Lot 48); in which the cruel overseers whip ‘a fire’ on backs’ (Minnie’s Lament); in which ‘slaves must not know love’ (Prohibition Against Love); in which ‘Children have to answer to the name of beast (Prohibition Against Love), are beaten ‘happily’ (‘The Overseer’s Tail) and sold off for profit; and in which sex is used as an instrument of power to ‘break’ women’s will ‘on a strong brass frame’ (The New Master in Confidence).

Throughout the collection there are chilling images that make the evil of this regime palpable for readers. No sensitivities are spared. In the poem, In the Birthing Room, Mitchell describes the moment when ‘A girl like me grabbed for her new born son/ dashed him on the floor, cracked dead/ before he could be branded, chained’. Mitchell’s matter-of-fact account describes a day-to-day reality that forces the reader to consider the extremes of suffering that might make a mother kill her new-born son to save him. This is a truly evil regime where humanity is replaced by the ruthless pursuit of profit. The perversity of this is vividly realised in the surreal account of The Overseer’s Tail in which we witness the man’s transformation into a terrifying beast, a physical manifestation of his actions as he lays into defenceless children: ‘His stoop was now an aching crouch/ hands so tight he dropped the whip. Against his will/ he barked as hairs, coal-black and needle-thick/ pushed out of his calloused palms/…/His spine curved like a bowing bridge, pushed him on all fours.’  The images of ‘barking’ and ‘dropping on all fours’ suggest the Overseer’s role also dehumanises him: it releases an animalistic cruelty that is as destructive to him as it is to his victims, for this is an agonising transformation (‘Pain ripped through his arms’). A similar idea is developed in Mitchell’s accounts of the deaths of the Master and the Mistress.  Though their abuse of others might bring them riches, it does not bring them peace; they ultimately suffer too. Furthermore,  the Death of the Final Master is described as though evil has rotted him from within: ‘The undertaker says the smell is too diseased/ for an aged man on natural causes./ No punctures to his frame and yet/ an odour like a charnel house/…a brittle crust.’

Physical brutality, however, is not the only tool of oppression explored by Mitchell. Throughout the collection there is an emphasis on the role of language. She shows us how the suppression of language and voice was a key tool of subjugation. In fact Prohibition Against Love begins with the statement, ‘Free expression of the voice cannot be allowed’ because it may encourage insurrection. It is also significant that the breaking of the Mistress by her husband results in her becoming an ‘elective mute’,  and that the Mistress’ maid associates the possession of language with rebellion: ‘I’d like to turn a thief/ steal Ornate as she names cloth./ Fill my pockets with Flamboyant.’ As a result language and voice are seen as means of resistance, as ways of challenging oppression. In this collection Mitchell gives a voice to the enslaved that was denied them at the time and in doing so she is making a contribution to the current debate on this shameful period of British (and indeed European) history, for whilst these are events that happened in the past, Mitchell makes clear that their legacy persists in the present.  In the collection’s eponymous poem: she describes the map of the plantation as ‘Not relic of the past/ directions for the future’ and she concludes with the lines: ‘This giant is the hanging tree/ apt symbol of a master. He dominates the map./ Roots creep along the path.’  These four lines with their images of ‘directions’ and ‘path’ and the symbol of the oak tree suggest that these events cannot be dismissed as something that has happened, is over and better forgotten: she is suggesting the reverse. She shows that the consequences are enduring and that, as a result, we need to listen to such voices.

This, therefore, is a powerful and important collection written by an exceptional talent. It is poetry that makes a difference by confronting an uncomfortable reality that some would like us to ignore. It deserves all the accolades it has already earned and I hope this review helps to encourage yet more people to read it and reflect on these important issues.

Jenny Mitchell is winner of the International Poetry Book Awards 2021 for her second collection Map of a Plantation. It was chosen as a ‘Literary Find’ in the Irish Independent and a Poetry Kit Book of the Month. She has won the Ware, Folklore and Aryamati Prizes, and a Bread and Roses Award, as well as several other competitions. A debut collection, Her Lost Language, was voted One of 44 Books of 2019 (Poetry Wales). She has just been made Artist in Association at Birkbeck, University of London. To find out more about Jenny and to buy a copy of Map of a Plantation click here.

Unmuted, the latest collection by Nigel Kent is available NOW for £7 + P&P (£1.90) UK only, for more details, including how to order, click here and message him using the contact form.

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