Summer Writing Resident Susan Bucci Mockler: Untold Stories

Susan Bucci Mockler is the second writer of the Summer 2022 cohort to spend a week onsite participating in our local residency program at Northern Virginia's Woodlawn & Pope-Leighey House and Arcadia Center for Sustainable Food and Agriculture. Our summer writers-in-residence focus their weeks on-site exploring ways to rediscover and re-purpose place and place histories, and use writing as a means to build community, to bring awareness to critical social and environmental issues, and as a creative force of empowerment.


Read on for a peek into Susan's experience below. You can also read more about Susan and her fellow residents (past and current) here.

 

My residency began the Monday morning after returning from a week’s family visit/reunion in my hometown late the night before. It was an exhausting trip—both physically with a long drive—and emotionally, with all the visiting relatives and reminiscing. Plus, I hadn’t seen many of the relatives for 2-3 years because of COVID. Shifting gears from that trip to the residency at Woodlawn the next morning was a little difficult.


I spent the first couple of days of the residency walking around the site, reading, researching, taking notes on some of the materials I’d found, and writing titles or a few lines of what I hoped might become poems. I was intrigued by some of the trees—purple leaf plum, crepe myrtle, boxwood. I picked up pinecones, took photos, sat on the grass, spotted a woodchuck darting out of the hole in a tree (then looked for it each successive day with no luck).


As a writing teacher, I encourage students to ask questions about anything they read: what is the intent of the author, who is the audience, and, most importantly, in my opinion, what is the author saying by not saying it? I didn’t’[t set out to do so, but proceeded, at least subconsciously, to conduct a “rhetorical analysis” of the property. I thought of the Historic Trust Association as the author, whose intent was to showcase this property, to educate the public, and to preserve the history and the site. But what is being said by not saying is the thing that intrigued me the most. I learned there is plenty of the history that has been whitewashed, buried, erased. The erasure of the enslaved captured my interest and my writing during my residency.


Before coming to the residency, I had a sense that I wanted to continue my work on raising the voices of the marginalized, a poetry project I’ve been working on in Arlington, Va. As I walked around the house and the property, I listened for those voices. I asked the site what it wanted me to know and what it wanted me to write about. And, as might be expected, what I heard was my own imagination trying to piece together what it must have been like for those here whose stories have been practically erased.


The manuscript of poetry I’m currently working on is tentatively titled The Science of Becoming Invisible. It explores ways each we becomes invisible either by our own intent or by others. I’m tying the poems to scientific theories and/or writing in poetic form (e.g., sonnets, villanelles, ghazels) rather than my traditional free verse. What I experienced at Woodlawn fits right into this work—I wrote the poem (still in draft) below, “Convex Mirror,” on the last day of my residency. I was taken by the large convex mirror that allowed the enslaved to see into the dining and music rooms and realize when food/drink was needed without having to remain in the rooms. The poem is a nontraditional sonnet in that it follows some of the traditional sonnet form. It contains 14 lines and provides a sense of rhythm and meter by using a 10-syllable line, but doesn’t adhere to the rhyme schemes of any of the traditional sonnet forms. “Stretching” the traditional sonnet form can be seen as an action of resistance related to the speaker of the poem. “Convex Mirror” also incorporates some of the physics and language of the object, for example, that the surface of the mirror bulges toward light and that images are reflected outward and are virtual and diminished.


Convex Mirror


We stand waiting outside the dining room—

platters piled with roasted chicken, kale, fruit.

We are here to sate their hunger—for food,

bounty, battle, cash crops, and freedom.

We will never hear our names spoken out

loud, but read signs reflected in the mirror,

its polished surface bulging toward the light

illuminating gestures we attend—

a nod, a hand to head, tweaking collars

on their shirts—a language that needs no words.

We stay on the fringes. Are we hoping

to be seen? This mirror reflects images

outward, and, as we stood then, we remain

upright, though virtual and diminished.


Among other things in the home that struck me were the painting, The Washington Family, by Edward Savage, displayed prominently in the house; and plastic fruit (which Shawn Halifax, the director, noted had been displayed on the dining room table before he stashed it in a closet).




The convex mirror



Below is another poem I wrote during my residency (also in draft form). It is inspired by the idea that the home and site have been “staged,” as one would stage a home for sale—and, in the case of what I learned at Woodlawn, “sanitizing” the history of the site (although steps are being taken to present a more representative narrative).


Staging a Plantation Home


Start with curbside appeal: make it appear

majestic; repaint doors and window frames,

shine up the wrought iron shutters, oil

creaking hinges. Lay down a path

of rounded pebbles, each carrying a story

from the river. Leave the smoke house,

let its ghosts stir pots of broth, hang

rabbits from metal hooks in the rafters,

stoke the fire. Tear down the slave quarters—

the neglected, stressed timber crumbling

beneath its own weight. Tear down any buildings

that interrupt symmetry of the main house.

Place a bowl of plastic fruit on the table—

apples, pears with red blush, a lone pineapple.

Hang a birdcage with a fake dove in the music room.

Is this the type of evidence we need? Evidence

that someone had time to think about fruit

and a bird’s mourning song, as though these gestures

could bring back what has been removed—the sweat of those

who built this house, their callouses and blisters,

torn skin from tilling and planting, faces

whose names have been forgotten

or never known. Keep only the aseptic lore—

of opulence, Southern charm and hospitality,

gilded staircases. Forget the lives, the bodies,

the truths erased

by this landscape.

 

Susan Bucci Mockler's poetry has appeared in several literary journals, including the Maryland Literary Review, peachvelvet, Maximum Tilt, Pilgrimage Press, Crab Orchard Review, Poet Lore, The Northern Virginia Review, Gargoyle, The Delmarva Review, The Beltway Poetry Quarterly, The Cortland Review, The Paterson Literary Review, Lunch Ticket, Voices in Italian Americana, and several anthologies. is currently at work on the project, Many Voices, One Community: The Healing Power of Poetry, supported by a grant from the Arlington Arts Commission. She has been a poet in the Arlington Public schools and teaches writing at local universities. Her poetry collection, Covenant (With) is due out from Kelsay Books later this year.