by Joyelle McSweeney on Jul.31, 2012
The State with the History of Extermination, Disenfranchisement, Suffering and Fraud
Florida is an American state where Disney World is. It was claimed in 1513 by Ponce DeLeon as he searched for the fountain of eternal youth—he named it Florida for its floweryness. It took three wars and a few hundred years to finally exterminate the Seminole Indians from this land ( exterminate from the Latin, ex-terminus, push over the border) so that, in the 20th century, it could become a haven of real-estate fraud and delinquency, boasting of the greatest percentage of foreclosures in the US in 2008. Its Republican governor Rick Scott was elected in 2010 despite the fact that the company of which he was CEO was convicted of 14 felony counts of Medicaid fraud and made to pay the government $600 million dollars in fines. By some estimates, Rick Scott has attempted to purge nearly 200,000 suspected “non-citizens” from his state’s voter rolls; 80 percent of those forced to prove their eligibility are Black or Hispanic.
AND The Prettiest Name…
Florida is also, according to Elizabeth Bishop, the state with the prettiest name. While prettiness is associated with weakness, it is also a weapon: this is the ambivalence of the necropastoral. For Bishop, the prettiness of Florida is completely toxic, undead, ex-terminus, grown through with mangrove roots like corpse fingernails, flown over by condors and other flesh eaters. Debt, death and extermination flourish in this flowery state, exposing its necropastoral force. The poem begins:
The state with the prettiest name,
the state that floats in brackish water,
held together by mangrove roots
that bear while living oysters in clusters,
and when dead strew white swamps with skeletons,
dotted as if bombarded, with green hummocks
like ancient cannon-balls sprouting grass […]
Here the uncanny, subterranean shape of the mangrove with its massive rhizomatic root system ‘holds together” an unholy rotting landscape which exposes its corpses and its violence (it even reaches up out of the grave of the poem to claim the title as the first word in the poem). I’d like to suggest that this violence is not the antithesis of the state’s pretty name but a kind of prettyness—a kind of lethal charm that links floridity to death, like Eliot’s April—“ breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.” In Bishop’s poem, the flowers are rooted in death and bring the death, the extermination, buried in official history back over death’s terminus and into visibility: no longer expunged, exterminated. Indeed, it changes the whole state of Florida to one of terminus, riddled with death, florid, feverish. Further on in the poem,
Job’s Tears, the Chinese Alphabet, the scarce Junonia,
parti-colored pectins and Ladies’ Ears,
arranged as on a gray rag of rotted calico,
the buried Indian Princess’s skirt;
with these the monotonous, endless, sagging coast-line
is delicately ornamented.
Here the skirt of the exterminated cartoonish “Indian Princess” is made present through the pretty names of the flowers Bishop litanizes: Job’s tears, the Chinese Alphabet, the Junonia, Ladies’ Ears. Synesthetically, these flowers names’ communicate their absent if decomposing colors “as on a gray rag of rotted calico” the buried Indian Princess’s cerement. This coastline is partially decomposed and ornamented in flowery death. No wonder, in the next few lines, we find the prettiest state surmounted by “Thirty or more buzzards drifting down, down, down/Over something they have spotted in the swamp.” But importantly, this landscape is not just one of decay—the prettiness persists as decay and death’s delivery system—“On stumps and dead trees the charring is like black velvet.”
The biggest surprise Bishop saves for her closing lines. First, a flashbulb moon develops a true exposure of the state’s political and racial environment, including the deliberate and exhaustive disenfranchisement of Florida’s Black population since Reconstruction and its continued disenfranchisement under Rick Scott’s regime today: “the careless, corrupt state is all black specks/too far apart, and ugly whites; the poorest/post-card of itself.” Following this nadir, the poem ends in an act of mighty ventriloquism:
The alligator, who has five distinct calls:
friendliness, love, mating, war, and a warning–
whimpers and speaks in the throat
of the Indian Princess.
Here the Indian Princess- the trace of Seminole culture here refracted through a cartoon revenant from Barrie’s Peter Pan—rises as a kind of Lady Lazarus and speaks through the entire landscape. Rather than singing from the alligator’s throat, she unmans the alligator. He ‘whimpers and speaks’ from her throat. She appropriates him for her undead call. Against the dead matter of this poem itself, this debris, this suspension, this sense of floating like a dead fish in brackish water, the Indian Princess’s revenant voice cannot be contained in this poem but roars from without it, containing it. She gets the last word, which is no word. Only the mighty necropastoral force of absence, of erasure, of the disappeared, of death, ex-terminating itself, crossing back over the boundary into life.
The Indian Princess in Peter Pan , as Disney has made sure we all know, is called Tiger Lilly.
To allow Marosa Di Giorgio to speak from my throat, “Esa loca azucena nos va asesinar.”
[That crazy lilly is going to kill us.]