- In Other Words:Postmillennial Poetry and Redirected Language
When a poet affixes her name to a poem, is she claiming ownership? What if the words are demonstrably not hers, that is, wholly borrowed from someone else? In the July/August 2009 issue of Poetry, Vanessa Place published a poem titled "Miss Scarlett" whose opening lines are liable to provoke both recognition and queasiness:
Miss Scarlett, effen we kain git de doctahw'en Miss Melly's time come, doan you bodderAh kin manage. Ah knows all 'bout birthin.Ain' mah ma a midwife? Ain' she raise meter be a midwife, too?(339)
The names Miss Scarlett and Miss Melly are of course indelibly associated with the movie Gone with the Wind (1939), and the line "Ah knows all 'bout birthin" recalls a famous but unsettling scene when the black servant Prissy (Butterfly McQueen) proves unable to care for Melanie Wilkes (Olivia de Haviland) while she is in labor. Why would Place want to attract renewed attention to a role and a moment that are shaped through and through by crude stereotypes about African Americans? After playing a series of comparably demeaning parts in films such as The Women (1939), Mildred Pierce (1945), and Duel in the Sun (1946), McQueen decided that she would rather end her film career altogether than experience further insults to her intelligence and talents. Without an explanatory frame or accompanying critical [End Page 756] commentary, "Miss Scarlett" risks being read as an exercise in minstrelsy, a white poet donning blackface.
Place walks this precipice knowingly. She intends to disconcert her audience and prompt worries about the relationship here between persona and poet. She is also well aware of what today's readers are apt to do when confused by a text—turn for help and clarification to an Internet search engine. Sure enough, a few seconds with Google will reveal that the passage is neither a transcription of the film version of Gone with the Wind nor a free imitation in the manner of Donald McCaig's Rhett Butler's People (2007).1 Something much stranger is afoot. The poet has copied a passage word for word from Margaret Mitchell's Pulitzer Prize-winning 1936 novel, including every orthographic peculiarity, every "Ahm" for "I am," "w'en" for "when," "ter" for "to," and so forth (456). All Place has added are line breaks.
The rest of "Miss Scarlett" consists of borrowed language, too. A few more minutes with Google Books will illustrate that, with the exception of the occasional interjection, Place has lifted every utterance Mitchell credits to Prissy over a fifty-page stretch and strung them together sequentially without transitions:
"Some day, I'm going to take a strap to that little wench," thought Scarlett savagely, hurrying down the stairs to meet her.
"Miss Elsing ober at de horsepittle. Dey Cookie 'lows a whole lot of wounded sojers come in on de early train. Cookie fixin' soup ter tek o'er dar. She say—"
"Never mind what she said," interrupted Scarlett, her heart sinking. "Put on a clean apron because I want you to go over to the hospital. I'm going to give you a note to Dr. Meade, and if he isn't there, give it to Dr. Jones or any of the other doctors. And if you don't hurry back this time, I'll skin you alive."
"And ask any of the gentlemen for news of the fighting. If they don't know, go by the depot and ask the engineers who brought the wounded in. Ask if they are fighting at Jonesboro or near there." [End Page 757]
"Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett!" And sudden fright was in Prissy's black face. "De Yankees ain' at Tara, is dey?"
"I don't know. I'm telling you to ask for news."
"Gawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett! Whut'll dey do ter Maw?"
Miss Elsing ober at de horsepittle.Dey Cookie 'lows a whole lot of woundedsojers come in on de early say&mdashtrain. Cookie fixin'soup ter tek over dar. She; Yas'mGawdlmighty, Miss Scarlett! De Yankeesain' at Tara, [i]s...