The Sealey Challenge: Underworlds

Patrick Sylvain's UNDERWORLDS, with a Seminary Co-Op Bookstore bookmark, held in front of plant stems turned to gold by the setting sun

Sometimes poetry comes at just the right time, fitting the moment and the mood and the zeitgeist like a tailored glove. Patrick Sylvain’s unflinching Underworlds is such poetry: drawing an unflinching line from Christopher Columbus’s reign of terror to bloody dictatorships and violent U.S. interventions on Haitian soil, doggedly detailing anguish tinged always, even in the face of natural disaster, with defiance and with pride, it is poetry very much of this world in which we find ourselves.

Much like Eve Ewing’s 1919, which I have discussed before, Underworlds is history cloaked in poetry, or poetry masquerading as history, a far more blunt and brutal retelling of Columbus than many will ever hear, words drawn straight from the pens of those who fought against Columbus in his own time—as well as Columbus himself, who gleefully detailed his own atrocities. In “State of Occupation,” Sylvain refers to U.S. soldiers as “…descendants of Columbus” (p. 9), and surely the brutality of repeated U.S. interventions has borne that epithet out, much as I’ve no desire to be part of a line stretching back to a man who condoned the torture of children.

Underworlds is a small book that carries a tremendous weight of sorrow, but it bursts at its seams with defiance and with pride. Haiti may be battered, and it may be sorrowing, but it is defiant and it is hopeful and it is proud, even in the face of horror stretching back to Columbus and the slave trade and beyond. It is short and powerful, and it fit this moment like a second skin, reminder that the past will never leave—and that it is our obligation to understand it, to honor those who lived before.