January 25, 2009
Shocking discovery leads to a chapbook

Catherine Sasanov was stunned. It was 2005 and she had just come across, in some old family papers, a will written in 1857 by her great-great-great-grandfather that contained an astounding revelation. Among the possessions he was leaving to his sons and daughters were nine slaves.

It was inevitable that Sasanov, a poet who lives in Jamaica Plain, would ultimately write about this. The result is “Tara,” a chapbook published recently by Cervena Barva Press of Somerville.

In poetry, as in most things, one size does not fit all. A poem can stretch out for the length of a whole book, or be a bite-sized couplet. And a poetry collection can be a hefty “new and selected” weighing in at several hundred pages or the more typical length of roughly between 60 and 100 pages. The less familiar chapbook, is generally a bite-size 40 pages or less and it typically deals with a single subject.

“I didn’t set out to write a chapbook,” says Sasanov, who is the author of two full-length collections, one previous chapbook, and a libretto. But the discovery of slave ownership in her family was all-consuming and she knew she would not be able to write about anything else until she had dug deeply into it.

“It took a day or two to sort out my feelings. I knew this wasn’t going away.” So Sasanov started a journey of research and reflection that became “Tara.”

Central to her thinking about it was her acknowledgment that this was not her story to tell and that the telling itself once again claimed an ownership she was not entitled to. The final lines of the poem, “His Personal Property: Inventory and Appraisal Sheet, 1860,” read, “Owned by the blood that owned you once/ what right do I have to track you down?”

And yet, without her words, at least part of the story would remain untold. She has dedicated “Tara” to the memory of the slaves, Flora, Ben Eliza, George, Henry, Henderson, Edmund, Alex, and Easter, “and all the others related to them/ by blood, marriage, and bondage--How is it I could have come so close/to never knowing that you existed?”

Although Sasanov plans that the poems in “Tara” will become part of a full-length manuscript called “Had Slaves,” she feels that the chapbook format is ideal for the “Tara” poems. She is very interested how a poem looks on the page, how white space can enhance its meaning, and how it can be presented it a way that guides the reader to “hear” it as she intends. A chapbook often allows more freedom for a non-traditional presentation.

The opening poem, for example, is a spare 20 words, but they spread in a single line across three pages and gather power as much from the blank space as from the words: “Here, even the fragments must be pieced together/ so let me follow you to the paper’s edge until/you disappear.”

As Sasanov notes, a chapbook is small and very portable, In a work like “Tara” it can be poetry boiled down to its most concentrated essence.

City Type features the city's writers exploring their world. If you have suggestions, contact Ellen Steinbaum at citytype@globe.com.

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