Content Warning: Racism and other forms of oppression that intersect with ableism
For the past decade, there has been an increasing interest in ancestry. There are websites and television shows devoted to it, and DNA testing has become big business. While the reasons for this interest are various, one major factor seems to be that the understanding of personal ancestry can bequeath a sense of identity. These personal motivations are amplified even further in the context of the contemporary focus on identity politics. It is no wonder, then, that this concern with ancestry and its effects upon the perennial quest for self-definition has filtered into poetry chapbooks. In the case of Arden Eli Hill’s most recent book of poetry, Bloodwater Parish, this quest is not a sidebar, but the main focus of the inquiry.
As a poetry editor with Breath and Shadow, shortly after its founding almost two decades ago, and an early contributor to the Inglis House Poetry Contests of the same era, Hill has a long association with disability poetry. In Bloodwater Parish, however, he shifts his focus to another major component of his identity, the fact of his having been adopted and what the attending consequence of having deep but murky roots in Louisiana—with its complicated history of race relations and views of gender and sexuality—means. As befits genealogical exploration, the book gathers together various, often overlapping, fragments of the past and tries to stitch them into some kind of understanding.
Hill lets the reader know immediately the nature of the odyssey he will be taking the reader on in the title of his first poem, “For Adopted Children who Look Like Their Adoptive Mothers.”
North, where what the river carries up of the ocean
has lost its salt, Where are you from?
repeats when you answer Bloodwater Parish.
The question loses its emphasis on you, focuses on from. (p. 1)
The question of the extent to which one’s background affects how one is viewed becomes a specter that haunts the entire book.
The poems that follow next hypothesize the circumstances that brought Hill’s birth mother to give him up and the mother of his childhood (simply “mother” in the succeeding poems) to adopt him.
My birthmother told me:
I weighed my loss against theirs.
I weighed your gains. I grew you
for as long as I could, caught a glimpse,
then fell asleep again. (“The Third Nursery,” p. 4)
With these initial poems, Hill establishes the complexities of adoption as being the base factor in his search for identity, but there are others.
One of these factors is religion. Unlike most Southern states in which being Roman Catholic meant being marginalized, Louisiana, with its parishes instead of counties, was founded upon Catholicism. “In the Hospital” describes the poet’s baptism into a religion that, like ancestry, was thrust upon him “without consent.” (p. 5) This happened not once, but twice–first as he was nursed in the hospital by his birth mother, and second, at his adoption. The poem opens up the possibilities for further discussion. Though Catholicism is accused twice of trying to wipe out the past (“I wore white both times), it also carries within it the doctrine of original sin. Later attending Catholic schools, these religious attitudes continued to impact the poet’s conception of who he was.
In addition to adoption and Catholicism, two other factors impinging on identity–disability and gender–come into the mix with the book’s sixth poem “Explanation Framed in Near Sight”:
My mother, who did not want a stupid child,
had me tested and I was fitted with glasses.
They held circles of how the world is
to those who see it. Early then, I learned
my vision was inaccurate, correctable.
So, when I saw a boy in the mirror,
I blinked and waited for the image to pass. (p. 6)
Though these references are only suggestive at this point, they represent the other major ingredients in the stew that is Bloodwater Parish.
To say that Bloodwater Parish is an exploration that reaches no conclusion is not to criticize it negatively. Quite the contrary. After introducing all the factors that figure into his quest, all that the poet can do is to look at how they intersect, turning them over and looking at them in different lights as he experienced them in his upbringing. These are poems that, while they can tend to didacticism at times, are essentially poems that open up discussion. Perhaps the best way of honoring them, then, is to take a look at a few of the questions they raise.
Throughout the poems, the narrator (presumably but not necessarily Hill himself) points to clues that he might be of mixed racial ancestry, so he addresses two poems, “Ancestry Exercise One” and “Ancestry Exercise Two,” to others who might be making similar searches. “Ancestry Exercise One” is subtitled “(To the white descendants of Black women who survived by passing as white. From a white person whose lost then found history once looked to point this way).” The tropes used in this poem are a map of the world on a blackboard that has been covered over by white chalk fingerprints and the coffins in Bloodwater parish where people are buried above ground to prevent the floods from coming and mixing those of different communities. The poet notes that even though “the board has grown blacker where your finger picked up chalk” (p. 13), racial heritage has been so obscured through custom and family stories that it is impossible to be certain about one’s origins.
Despite–or perhaps because of—the difficulty in this determination, Hill is critical of whites who claim a mixed racial identity for superficial purposes. “Ancestry Exercise Two” also has a subtitle, “(For the white people who say they have ‘a Cherokee grandmother,’ from a white settler.)” While it may be one of the book’s more awkward poems, the message is clear: You can’t erase the damage done by hundreds of years of destruction and exploitation by claiming identity, braiding your hair, and protesting against a pipeline. None of that will mitigate guilt or responsibility. As Hill succinctly puts it, you can’t “Trade ancestors like they are beaver pelts.” (p. 14)
Another frequent image in Bloodwater Parish is the prosthetic leg. Three poems take as their subject an uncle of the author who lost a leg as a child due to a shotgun blast. While these poems are the most specific about disability, they are also among the most precarious. It is always dangerous to make a physical disability into a metaphor, given the pejorative purposes to which this practice has been put in the past. Hill compares his experience of being given up by his biological parents and transplanted into a new family to his uncle’s loss of a leg and learning to have to adapt to an artificial one. It is clear Hill’s associations with his uncle’s leg are positive ones: “his prosthetic left leg, newly decorated with skulls and rock band logos, it was cool” (“Uncle Toby’s Left,” p. 17) and just as he preferred his adopted parents to his birth parent, “I loved the strange leg best” (“Uncle’s Leg, p. 7). Nevertheless, in the context of the problematic relationship between biological and adoptive that weaves through the book, it is fair to ask just when such comparisons are appropriate. As with other poems in the book, its serves to make us ask questions of the language we use (as well as how language is used by whom).
A final issue that Hill raises is stated clearly in his poem, “You don’t see me as queer: erasure as compliment.” As the title clearly signals, this poem is addressed neither to the LGBTQ community (whose members already know well of the poem’s themes) nor to the LGBTQ community’s adversaries, but, rather, to a liberal mainstream audience whose ethics are rooted in humanism and a belief in universals. It is a point of view familiar to those who grew up in the sixties, concerned with trying to make a case for equal rights on the basis of a shared humanity through the elimination of perceived differences that kept people apart. Hill points out to his readers the problematic ramifications of this viewpoint, in the first stanza:
You say you don’t see me as queer
You can’t see me. I’m the ghost
of a girl, gone in the glistening silver. (p. 35)
To universalize, in Hill’s view, is also to erase. He uses the remainder of the poem to reclaim an identity by building up the portrait of a specific individual, the speaker. This is another poem in the collection grappling with shifting paradigms, and one of those conversation starters that make this collection worth reading.
In creating Bloodwater Parish, Arden Eli Hill attempts to shine light on a region not frequently highlighted in disability poetry. During this exploration, however, Hill raises some messy questions that might also be asked of those with no particular interest in Louisiana’s past. This is not a poetry collection that culminates in an epiphany. Though the book gives room for the interplay of crisscrossed themes, its primary value is in the individual poems and the questions about identity that they raise. That, in itself, should be enough.
Title: Bloodwater Parish
Author: Arden Eli Hill
Publisher: Seven Kitchens Press
About the Reviewer
Michael Northen was the facilitator of the Inglis House Poetry Workshop from 1997-2010 and the editor of Wordgathering from 2007-2019. He was also a participant editor in the anthology Beauty is a Verb: The New Poetry of Disability and the anthology of disability short fiction, The Right Way to Be Crippled and Naked (both from Cinco Puntos Press).