Melissa Girard: On "Tenebris"

Like many of Grimké’s short, intense poems, "Tenebris" ends with a question: "Is it a black hand, / Or is it a shadow?" (lines 12-13). Ultimately unanswerable, the question destabilizes Grimké’s already tentative politics and poetics. The question highlights the poem’s shadow play, leaving the reader unsure whether "Tenebris" is an urgent social warning or a critique of reading racial politics at face value. Grimké’s speaker in "Tenebris" is compelled to speak, compelled to disrupt the preceding representation through a pointed question and internal critique. The speech act proliferates the poem’s representational and interpretive possibilities, marking and asserting the always ambivalent relationship between representation and interpretation. Always shifting and unlocatable, "Tenebris" will never divulge its "secret": the real and the unreal are equally marked by desire and equally invested with political possibility.

The speaker in "Tenebris" carries the reader into her own fantasy, a world to be read, after Lacan, as never only personal or private, but always blurring individual boundaries into the public.

The poem’s imaginative desire counters the omnipresent white fear of "darkness," demanding a politics that recognizes the specificity and sensuality of the black body. "Tenebris" contextualizes the black body, robbing white society of its homogeneous fear of miscegenation, a foundational fear that Grimké reads as the unspoken social imaginary. By blurring representation and fantasy, by constructing a vision of racial politics grounded in fantasy, "Tenebris" searches for a new form of political resistance. The poem’s fantasy, its imaginative wandering into the world of shadows, is built and maintained only for a moment, but its radical potential will continue to haunt racial politics beyond the boundaries of the page.

"Tenebris" is an ominous poem, playing upon images of dark and light, and the subsequent association of darkness with all that is evil and unknown. Grimké’s imaginative exercise leads the reader into this darkness, into a racial economy.

 

There is a tree by day

That at night

Has a shadow,

A hand huge and black,

With fingers long and black. (lines 1-5)

 

Here, the trope of a tree can never be just a tree. Gesturing toward a history of slavery and its legacy of continuing violence to black bodies, Grimké manipulates the image of the tree, evoking its grotesque combination of beauty and death. The tree’s "shadow" is a shadow of slavery, of lynched bodies dangling from trees. More than sixty years after Grimké, Sethe in Toni Morrison’s Beloved will struggle with this traditional image of poetic beauty in a similar way, remembering, "Boys hanging from the most beautiful sycamores in the world…remembering the wonderful soughing trees rather than the boys. Try as she might to make it otherwise, the sycamores beat out the children every time and she could not forgive her memory for that (6)." Grimké binds the tree to a history of violence against black bodies, leaving the reader to wonder if the welcome shade and protection the tree offers during the day can even then really be safe.

When a black hand emerges from the tree, then, during the night, the association carries with it this history of violence. Of course the tree’s shadow is a black hand, evidence of the inseparability of the body from poetics, of slavery from poetry, of history from representation, of imagination from reality.

The sensualized corporeality of a huge black hand is at once specific and highly depersonalized. The "fingers long and black" are visible "All through the dark, / Against the white man’s house" (lines 6-7). The hand is always on the brink of penetrating the white man’s sanctity, his house. The tree’s shadow, taking the form of a specific black hand, though one not tied to an individual person, points toward white fears of miscegenation at one of their most susceptible points. The white man’s house serves as a trope for his safety, his purity, his protection, and, ultimately, his subjectivity. The poem points toward the black domestic labor that fuels a substantial part of the economy and, particularly, sustains a white standard of living. Such exploitation necessitates a literal proximity between the races, so that the white man’s power, his domination over black workers, is also the germ of his paranoia. The poem plays on a history of the plantation house, the source of white power and white fear. At night, the exploitation of black labor transforms into a source of fear, a fear that white comfort is reliant upon black labor, and even further, that whiteness itself is reliant upon "darkness" to derive its meaning. In the white imagination, black bodies, de-particularized into a homogeneous mass of "darkness" take on hyper-real shapes and fantastic forms. Grimké forces the reader to ask, is it a shadow or is it a black hand? Is the fear "real" or only "imagined"? Grimké’s insight is that white fears are located both on the material and the immaterial, forcing black bodies into a double oppression, at once rooted in the real and the always possible threat.

As the poem continues, Grimké further reinforces the way that white safety is literally built upon the blood of black hands, black bodies:

 

Against the white man’s house,

        In the little wind,

The black hand plucks and plucks

At the bricks.

The bricks are the color of blood and very small. (lines 7-11)

 

The poem maintains a delicate tension between the homogenized darkness of white fears and the specific smallness of one black hand, plucking at tiny bricks, one at a time. This tension particularizes the black body, and re-focuses a politics of resistance, literally, on the ground level. As in much of her poetry, Grimké appears to find both aesthetic and political value in that which is small and specific. The poem suggests a number of historic and political readings in this brief moment. The black hand that plucks brick by brick evokes the massive political project of dismantling white power, slow and painful work, but, ultimately, destabilizing. The "blood" mentioned in line 7 moves the poem between its contemporary moment and the past, symbolizing the black bodies by which and upon which white power has been built. At once corporeal and symbolic, the jolting mention of blood further complicates the poem’s play between the corporeal and the figurative, reality and fantasy, race and representation.

Perhaps Grimké’s most incisive comment on race relations can be found within the poem’s insistence upon ambiguity. The "darkness" that troubles the poem makes the distinction between the real and the unreal impossible. Grimké recognizes that white fear and racism are founded upon an always possible threat more than they are on any necessary correlation to reality. In this sense, "actual" danger is irrelevant. Even more radically, the poem suggests that white security itself is manufactured through the threat of an impending encroachment by a mass of darkness. The sanctity of the white man’s house only exists through the structural and literal exclusion of the racialized other. It is the very "darkness" that the white man fears that enables the construction and maintenance of his subjectivity. So, too, is the threat of miscegenation necessary for Anglo-Saxon purity to derive its meaning. Grimké’s fantastic rendering does not throw light on this homogenized darkness, does not dispel its existence. Rather, she attempts to recuperate the specificity of a sensualized black body, a more productive site for her to ground a politics of resistance. Grimké’s challenge to a racial economy in which subjectivity is derived through racial abjection is not to pretend the abject does not exist, but to de-homogenize the abject, to invest it with a specific corporeality.

The final lines, then, take on an ironic play:

 

Is it a black hand,

Or is it a shadow? (lines 12-13)

 

The poem plays with the imagination, exposing the paranoia of turning shadows into bodies, and reminding the reader that the poem’s metaphor was always just a possibility. Yet, by this point, the danger that fills the poem will not so easily dissipate. We return to the beginning of the poem, and remember that the black hand is a fantastic act, a fanciful rendering of the tree’s shadow. The poem even critiques the speaker’s own shadow play, mocking her indulgence in turning shadows into bodies. By asking whether a black hand is ever really a black hand, the final lines ask whether the line between "shadow" and "body" can ever be stabilized. What remains despite (because of) the poem’s radical uncertainty, is a more clear understanding of the speaker’s own desire to enter a world of fantasy. The poem’s shadow play ruptures a world in which individual desire is not recognized as a social desire. The reader may never know whether the "threat of darkness" is real or imaginative, and whether one possibility is less frightening than the other. However, the poem makes clear that fantasy structures are political, and may even be the site within which to locate political resistance. Grimké tropes white society’s fears of miscegenation, reinvests these fears with a specific corporeality, and in so doing, founds political resistance within the racial body itself.

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Criticism Overview
Title Melissa Girard: On "Tenebris" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Melissa Girard Criticism Target Angelina Weld Grimké
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 15 Jun 2020
Publication Status Excerpted Criticism Publication No Data
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