The Age of Phillis
by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Wesleyan University Press, March 3, 2020
232 pages, hardback, $26.95
I first learned about Phillis Wheatley Peters when I saw her statue at the National Museum of African American History in Fall 2019. Standing before me was the first African woman published in America. Fixed stoically in bronze in the Slavery and Freedom exhibit, she was placed in the center of the light at the end of the Middle-Passage tunnel, on the flip side of a brick quilt memorializing the first free slaves in America. She was thinking of a poem, quill held closer to her chest in one hand, her other hand loose and pointing down. I think she was right-handed, though I have a hard time telling the difference between left and right myself, something I struggled with when learning how to read and write as a child.
The next semester, I was intimately introduced to her work through Allison Joseph’s forms class, The Poetry of Black Women. We read “On Being Brought from Africa to America.” Discussing this poem for the first time was an experience. Things started to click. It was then that I knew self-hatred could be inherited and carried through the body––from my grandmothers, to my mother, to me––and that this inter-generational curse could be broken through words, the spark that drives my current obsession’s writing. This kind of work is called shadow work, sifting through the stories of inherited trauma to find self-love.
Summer 2020, I took an online Slave Narrative class taught by Dr. George Boulukos, who is a scholar in transatlantic culture. In that class we read widely and extensively, ranging from the earliest novels and autobiographies about the conditions of slavery, from post Antebellum America to the beginning of Jim Crow. Oroonoko, The Interesting Narrative of the Life of Olaudah Equiano, The History of Mary Prince, Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, Confessions, The Autobiography of Fredrick Douglas, to name a few.
Although I am grateful for getting a chance to read these texts and discussing how the conditions of slavery were portrayed in the novel as compared with autobiography, I was disappointed that we didn’t talk about Phillis Wheatley. Though Honorée Fanonne Jeffers’ The Age of Phillis is a collection of poetry and not a first-hand account, I want to make a case for this book to be required reading for any slave narrative class. Jeffers brings Phillis and her narrative alive on the page with tender attention to form and archival research into Phillis’s era: her childhood, her love life, her interpersonal relations, while connecting her story with the philosophical and political issues of the mid and late eighteenth century, highlighting the early consequences of the transatlantic slave trade in America.
The Age of Phillis, nominated in 2021 for a NAACP Image Award, is divided into thirteen chronological sections that start from her birth in 1753 and her life in Africa, to her death at the age of thirty-one in 1784. Although every poem can stand on its own, most of them follow an intentional sequence outside of chronology. I’ll discuss this more later in the review.
Jeffers ends the collection with an essay titled “Looking for Miss Phillis,” which was first published in The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks About Race. Here, she takes time to discuss her writing journey and the struggles she had with fifteen years of archival research. Each section in the collection is preceded by a wide range of relevant epigraphs. Some of the epigraphs exist as quotes from Black poets, while others are quotes from Phillis’s letters and poems, “TO BE SOLD” advertisements in newspapers for slaves entering America, quotes from philosophers and political leaders discussing the conditions of slaves. The words of Phillis’s poetic descendants––Black writers in America who soon followed in her footsteps like Countee Cullen and Langston Hughes––actualize a goal of this collection; to show how Phillis has influenced our poetry. Jeffers states that she “was not only curious about her life, but also curious how it intersected with the lives of other African Americans.”
This body of work is thick and resilient, but not dense. The poems ask a lot of important rhetorical questions about Phillis’s “age,” signifying the length in time she lived as well as her distinct place and period in history. For example, in the title poem, Jeffers begins by asking “how old was the child when she first laughed / in her master’s kitchen?” This question drives the rest of the poem to actualize the psychological prison that Phillis was put into by her caregivers, where she was forced to grow out of her African language and culture and expected to perfect a role that didn’t belong to her. And that same mind prison she was forced into by society, being Black and expected to act as a slave would, but instead was well read and well spoken. This contemplation leads to more questions like “what was the time when she answered //to her new name?” and “what was the age // of Phillis when she stopped turning East, /thinking of water in faithful bowls, / of her parents, //of love only ending in death?” These questions are heavy and paint a picture of a young girl who misses home in the face of slavery, but you can see from this poem how the tension between what was expected of her in society versus how she was raised by the Wheatleys would have impacted Phillis.
Not only is the narrative compelling in The Age of Phillis, but the variety of forms found here leave an imprint on every page. Like all Jeffers’s poetry, there is resistance, investigation, and playfulness in the way she uses epistolary, blues, sonnet crown, erasure, fragmented verse, found poetry, and contrapuntal forms. Most of them are arranged in sequences, the most prominent of which are the epistolary and the fragmented verse. There are twenty-five epistolary poems, titled “Lost Letter,” scattered throughout the collection in a roughly chronological order. Some of these imagined letters are between Phillis and her husband John Peters, while others are between her and her good friend, Obour Tanner, her and her owner’s family, her and political leaders, and letters that are about Phillis but not to or from her. Though the Lost Letters are speculative, through them, Jeffers summons Phillis’s voice by asking, “what would she say?”
The fragmented poems are also in the form of letters. Except for the first fragment, which is found in “Book: Love,” each of these is found in the sonnet crown titled, “Catalog: Revolution.” These poems utilize fragments of extant letters alongside Jeffers’s own lines, working in tandem with the Lost Letters by providing content for them. These serialized poems are the heart of the collection and exemplify the amount of research that went into this project.
My favorite poem in The Age of Phillis is “The Mistress Attempts to Instruct Her Slave in the Writing of a Poem.” The poem begins with an epigraph from “Niobe in Distress for her Children Slain by Apollo,” one of Phillis’s epic poems: “Note I. This Verse to the End is the Work of another Hand.” This is one of Jeffers’s contrapuntal pieces. There are three columns in this piece and three different voices, making this a persona poem. The voice on the left is Phillis, while the voice on the right is Susannah Wheatley, her owner and the one that picked out Phillis at the slave auction. Connecting these two voices is the poet’s voice in brackets. Since this is a contrapuntal, you can read the poem left to right in its entirety, but this is also meant to be read from Phillis’s column to the middle, and from the middle to Susannah’s column. Here is an example of how this works:
these are my poems [no one else] saw you on that dock
writes my words [no one else] wanted to take you in…
This poem is an ars poetica as it meditates on the nature and art of poetry. Here, you can see how Phillis’s spirituality plays an immense role in her craft, as if her words are divinely given to her from God. Or how her poems act as prayers that will bring her back home. But there is resignation in Susannah’s voice that Phillis will never make it back home:
He calls me ethiop [in the afterlife] those devils burn
negroes black as cain [may heavens rule] the chosen redeemed
may they lead you [to your mother] give your farewells…
It makes sense how Phillis would come to believe that her poems are not written by her own hand. It is a miracle! Aside from the reality that it would have been difficult for her to learn English, which many of the pieces in this collection contemplate, there is also the reality that most slaves never had the luxury of learning to read or write.
The Age of Phillis has had a profound influence on my own writing. It inspired me to pursue a sonnet crown that placed as a finalist in the Narrative 30 Below contest. It shows me that I can write a body of work like this, entrenched in rigorous research yet familiar and extensive. I found affirmation in these pages that it is possible to balance the life of a scholar and a poet. Jeffers has made Phillis’s historical imprint palpable, summoning her spirit, making her feel in the flesh, ringing her timeless voice to the present. In this collection, I found myself face to face with Phillis: reminded of our legacy as Black poets.