Toward a New Historical Poetics: A Review of Elizabeth Holmes’s ‘Passing Worlds’

Coincident with the ongoing resurgence of American poetry among non-academic audiences—and responsible, in part, for poetry’s return to popularity—has been the collapse of that rhetorical distance that once marked off poetic “speaker” and author, the urbane New Critical lyric giving way, these days, to an authorial “I” proudly chanting its own autobiography. As in many poetries from the 1960s and ‘70s, the contemporary poetry market operates on what Marjorie Perloff calls an “authenticity model,” a neo-Romantic aesthetic in which individual experience and subjective sensibility—often rendered through vertiginous image-making, high lyricism, and tonal righteousness—signal the sine qua non of aesthetic merit. The popularity of such work is not undeserved. Indeed, our contemporary cult of personality offers a bracing reminder that notions of aesthetic “autonomy,” such as they are, have entailed as well the writing-out of those experiences too long deemed inappropriate for the polite, apolitical space of the page.

At the same time, a kind of counter-trend in American poetry has promoted the elision of that same authorial “I.” Far removed from the spotlight of celebrity—and often working to little national acclaim—writers like Martha Collins, Edgar Garcia, Mark Nowak, and Henk Rossouw adopt multiple viewpoints and imagine a range of historical personas who seem to embody the self-annulling impetus of Keats’s “negative capability.” Such work employs historical documentary to striking effect, evincing firm social commitment while retaining an admirable ethical and intellectual plasticity. Whether laying bare the ugliness of small-town racism, tracking hemispheric colonialism, exposing unjust mining industries, or documenting the rhetorical construction of apartheid, these writers tackle intricate issues with nuance, courage, and responsibility, attaining—in a kind of “new historical” poetics—toward the multi-dimensionality of human experience. They do so through bold, experimental matrices in which the poetic self is sutured to archival texts and subaltern voices, woven in with documented fact and imagined reconstruction. While “new historical” poets reaffirm the political investments of their younger and more celebrated contemporaries, they access those investments by alternate means, swapping out the authorial “I” for historical investigation, substituting ego with archive.

What makes Elizabeth Holmes’s Passing Worlds: Tahiti in the Era of Captain Cook (LSU Press, 2018) such a welcome addition to this “new poetic history” is the richness of the world Holmes renders, re-articulating, as she does, the multiple perspectives on and ideologies informing the earliest European voyages to Tahiti in the mid-18th century. As in cubist painting, Holmes’s work fragments and collages those perspectives into a single luminous text, so that the initial encounter between these cultures, for instance, evokes starkly opposed responses. “[M]oving on, at last a fine bay sheltered / the soundings good here safety at last,” Holmes writes, juxtaposing sea-weary Europeans with fearful Tahitians among whom “daring a fleet sets out to investigate / the strange craft that violates tapu).” Throughout Passing Worlds, Holmes allows these manifold voices to abrade, alter, erode, and inform one another, revealing colonial encounters as fraught with missed connections and miscommunications. The execution of a Tahitian for stealing an English musket, for example, prompts not only justification but self-examination among the colonizers:

The captain had a ship to provision—
ninety mouths to feed—
the transit of Venus to measure,
the empire’s advance to lead.

And yet that night we retired to the ship
not well pleased—guilty
no doubt of the death of a man
the severest laws of equity
would not have condemned.

Here, Holmes seamlessly integrates archival material—mostly from explorers’ journals—into her own poetic language, relating cross-cultural encounters in plain, yet lavishly material diction which nicely complements the depth of her imagination. Rather than over-writing inconsequential events with false lyricism, Holmes lets the gravity of these encounters speak for themselves, one of the many signs of sure-footedness and maturity in Holmes’s work.

Because Tahitian voices have been marginalized within the archive, Holmes imagines those voices into existence, using persona poems and free-indirect discourse as ways of imaginatively inhabiting the colonial experience from the point-of-view of the colonized. The risks in such appropriation—both ethical and aesthetic—are significant; one hardly does justice to history by channeling subaltern peoples for one’s own purposes, nor fashions an accurate nor affecting poetics by falsifying the historical record. Holmes is careful, however, to signal her own manipulation of these experiences, working her material in such a way that we encounter historical narrative as mediated, framed, appropriated. In the poem “Not Recorded: Girl,” Holmes eases into a speculative narrative about a young Tahitian woman:

She was sixteen or twelve or ten, and she bathed
in the river three times a day. Possibly
virgin, probably smoothed her hair
with coconut oil, her legs and buttocks likely
dark with elaborate tattoos. And she was curious
when chosen (ordered?) to lie with a stranger—

Holmes adopts a similar tentativeness in poems about two black servants on board James Cook’s Endeavor, writing that the ship’s “pitch and yaw likely made him sick— / George Dorlton had sailed maybe just once / […] The greyhounds maybe were in his care.” Constructed more as heuristic than factual documentation, Holmes’s poems recover subaltern experience while deftly marking and managing their own narration of alterity.

Such adroit maneuvering allows Holmes to bring historical personages to life as complex dramatic personae. Indeed, one of the most admirable aspects of Passing Worlds is its avoidance of characterological stereotype and easy ethical binaries. One will not find, in these pages, villainous European colonizers and victimized natives thrown together to underscore an obvious political point—Holmes is too astute for that. Rather, in scene after scene, Holmes reveals the multi-dimensionality of human experience, imbricating virtue and vice, innocence and aggression in finely-wrought character sketches and skilled documentary citation. “They weep to see a sailor flogged, even / for crimes against themselves,” Holmes writes of Tahitian islanders, “and beg the captain / to let him go. And yet inhuman custom / […] enjoying / free liberty in love […] every infant smother’d at the moment of birth.” The poem “Babel of Signs” likewise complicates the well-worn tropes of the “naïve” Tahitian native or “savage” indigenous warrior:

a fast canoe rams the cutter
shears off the mizzen boom, warriors
spring up to board, the first Tahitian
ever gun-shot dies

(they pull him up to stand
he falls again
they help him sit but he topples back

yet not one stranger has touched him
not with stone or club or spear
have they given him death)

The moment is a touching one, remarkable for the way Holmes evokes the isolation and pre-modern innocence of Tahitian islanders without reducing them to pitiable martyrs. Neither, in Passing Worlds, are European explorers rendered in stereotypical brushstrokes. At times, Holmes fiercely indicts European colonization, as when, in the poem “Incidental,” she employs anaphora to recount the litany of abuses wreaked by explorers. “They wanted food, water, sex,” Holmes writes:

They meant to advance science, seek adventure,
serve the king, win souls for Christ, or earn a wage
and stay alive. It was purely incidental

that the fleas on the rats on a French ship carried plague

that surgeons declared men clean, allowed them ashore,
not knowing venereal disease could incubate
months without symptoms

The archly rendered rebuke is a biting one, and indeed Holmes’s collection as a whole constitutes an extended—and quite moving—elegy for a world and people destroyed by European imperialism. But Europeans do not appear here as monolithic, undifferentiated agents of evil. In the poem “James Douglas, 14th Earl of Morton, President of the Royal Society,” excerpted from Douglas’s manuscript “Hints offered to the consideration of Captain Cooke,” Holmes reveals striking variegation within European perspectives on colonial exploration. “They are the natural and, in the strictest sense of the word, the legal / possessors of the several Regions they inhabit,” Douglas writes. “No European Nation has a right to occupy any part of their country, or settle / among them without their voluntary consent.” At a moment in our history characterized in many cases by one-dimensional invective, Holmes refuses to divide the world into good and evil, withholding condemnation in order to let the reader wade among a thicket of ethical perspectives.

Passing Worlds: Tahiti in the Era of Captain Cook deserves far wider recognition than it has received. The poem “A Tahitian in Paris” is a fine example of why. Documenting the voyage of the Tahitian Ahutoru back to Paris with French explorers, the poem suggests the gravity of these cross-cultural encounters in the wider scope of western civilization. In it, Holmes toggles gracefully between local and global, immediate and trans-historical experience. I will let Holmes have the last word, citing a passage which brilliantly deploys free-indirect discourse to undercut then-regnant stereotypes.  Here, a French aristocracy’s essentializing gossip supplies the very “myth” that will lead to its demise:

Tahiti was the talk of Paris—fertile land of simple, friendly people who never
had to work and enjoyed sex without the least restriction or shame. Real-life
noble savages.

Although during the long voyage to France Ahutoru had conveyed (in
Tahitian) a few sobering facts, the myth had a life of its own. It encouraged


Christopher Kempf

Christopher Kempf is the author, most recently, of 'What Though the Field Be Lost,' forthcoming in spring 2021 from LSU Press. Recipient of a Pushcart Prize, National Endowment for the Arts Fellowship, and Wallace Stegner Fellowship at Stanford University, he is a doctoral candidate in English Literature at the University of Chicago, where is completing a dissertation on 20th-century labor poetics.

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