"My Bad Attitude Toward the Pastoral": The Country and the City in the Poetry of C.S. Giscombe
Assistant Professor of African American Studies
Tuesday, October 23, 12-1:30pm
Part of the Global Urban Humanities Colloquium The City and Its People, Rhetoric 198-3 / ARCH 198-2, Rhetoric 244A / ARCH 298-2
In C. S. Giscombe’s 1994 book-length poem Here, the speaker struggles with pervasive fear about the connections of racial violence and location—particularly in peripheral spaces in which the urban and rural blur together. In a subsection of the poem, titled “(1962 at the edge of town),” the speaker is riding from his grandfather’s church funeral in Birmingham, Alabama, to the burial at the edge of the city. He describes the shifting vantage as one in which “the city got lush in places then gave way,” and where “the pastoral” is also ominously “looming up close as well.” In another segment of the poem, titled “(the future),” the speaker confronts his self-described “bad attitude to the pastoral,” and immediately pictures himself as endangered on a rural Southern road: “myself on one of those red dirt roads/I’d seen from the air, caught unlucky//w/ night more palpable every minute, that/for future.”
In the mid-1980s, literary scholars started actively debating whether the extensive real-life blurring urban and rural geographies made the contemporary pastoral mode a literary impossibility. Terry Gifford also noted a simultaneous burgeoning of literary critical work that identified new types of pastorals (Freudian, queer-ecofeminist, urban, etc.), in which the meaning of the term ranged “from anything rural, to any form of retreat, to any form of simplification or idealisation.” Depending on one’s perspective, the pastoral might be a long-established literary mode or tradition, or it might instead be a content area that positively or negatively “describes the country with an implicit or explicit contrast to the urban.” Elliott argues that, instead of offering a fixed definition of the pastoral, Giscombe’s poem works by implication and accretion; Here blurs temporal and geographic boundaries in order to highlight the ways in which America’s rural traditions of anti-black violence blur into, and shape, contemporary African American urban life.
Chiyuma Elliott is an Assistant Professor of African American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley. A former Stegner Fellow, Chiyuma's poems have appeared in the African American Review, Callaloo, the Notre Dame Review, the PN Review, and other journals. She has received fellowships from the American Philosophical Society, Cave Canem, and the Vermont Studio Center. She is the author of two books: California Winter League (2015) and Vigil (2017).