After Dear Future (1996), D’Aguiar exhibits a decline—of execution, not passion—in this verse-novel about a black-white love affair in the slave world of the Civil War era.
When a white plantation son rapes a young black slave, the result is a blossoming of love that might never have been expected but that grows and flourishes as doomed love affairs always have and always will. Impossible that the lovers remain in the South, Faith and Christy make a try for freedom in the north, turning to the services of the rustic but dedicated idealists and hermit-like love-couple Tom and Stella—but when Tom paddles them down river under cover of night, a vicious ambush awaits them, and the couple’s panicked attempt to flee ends only in a gruesome scene of Faith being repeatedly raped, Christy forced to watch, after which the two are separated forever. Christy—starting with his fighting each of the rapists in turn—drifts into the pitifully numbing life of a professional boxer while Faith, dying in childbirth (she’s 17), bears the orphan son (“My earthly father white, / my mother, black”) who subsequently tells this entire agonized tale. In some stretches, D’Aguiar manages to maintain an intensity that lets the reader forget the artifice of the whole being told in eight-line stanzas—most especially, perhaps, in the Civil War section (“history is shelves of human spines in the dark”)—but elsewhere the story slows to all but a stop while an increasingly hyperbolized rhetoric fails to take up the slack (“avoiding the whip, stick and chain is their goal, / with their skin as a badge of anxiety”) and tortured rhymes take over (“woe was me, / I was without a mom and dad, have pity”), or feminine rhymes become inadvertently risible (“a crack in the armature / invisible to untrained eyes, that feeds / on our discontent and gives it imprimatur”).
In equal parts passionate and stylistically confined, an ambitious effort that never quite soars beyond its method.