Published in Issue 62.4: Fall 2023
Why We Chose It: Michigan Quarterly Review reader Michael O’Ryan on why he recommended “JUNO, FAR FROM DORCHESTER, SOUTH CAROLINA, 1733” by Melissa Range for the Fall 2023 issue. You can purchase the issue here.
Melissa Range’s “JUNO, FAR FROM DORCHESTER, SOUTH CAROLINA, 1733”, immediately captivated me for its effective utilization of a palindromic framework to enact its narrative. Incorporating details from a newspaper ad describing “Juno”, a young enslaved-plantation escapee, the primary source Range chooses to quote from often functions as a quasi-unreliable-narrator, highlighting the tenuous relationship between the act of naming and truth, as well as language’s overall capacity for erasure. The poem serves as a container for the tension between reality and falsehood, carefully choosing what it explicitly names or refrains from naming (consider the irony in the slave ship Juno traveled on wielding the title of “Speaker”). Range’s formal choices both serve to complement as well as complicate Juno’s journey: while the bifurcation between stanzas mirrors her self-emancipation and subsequent setting forth on a new trajectory, the palindrome form dictates a requisite return to origin. Such return invites us to reckon with the cyclical nature of the violences endured with the reappearance of the Speaker in the final line. The linguistic repetitions and permutations at the line-level weigh the story with the gravity of the past while paradoxically allowing a building upon itself through reformulation. This is a richly crafted poem, which much like a palindrome’s initial line, calls for a returning to.
Not two weeks after arriving on the Speaker
from Cabinda—salt and caulk,
acute horizon—she abolished
the transaction her enslaver
thought secure, emancipated
herself from that plantation.
You can read about it
in the South Carolina Gazette—
a handsome reward offered
for Juno, Juno named by whom?
Thought to be fourteen or fifteen.
Described as new, strait-limbed,
with a large scar on her right knee,
The captain, the trader, the enslaver—
their names not hard to find
in the primary sources.
Swamp map, primary source of the river
she plotted. (Their names not hard for her to forget—
captain, trader, enslaver—
their whereabouts unknown to her,
unregarded as a scar one has carried long.)
Needle grass, cypress knees, palmetto limbs—
she was fourteen, or fifteen, or sixteen, or twelve.
Juno not her name; her name, she knew.
She handed herself forward,
her body moving west from the Gazette ad
she wouldn’t read if she could.
Her home not that plantation.
Her name emancipator. Though
the enslaver’s next transaction was secure—
headed to London, then Cabinda,
salt and caulk, horizonless—
the Speaker leaving port not two weeks later.
Melissa Range is the author of Scriptorium, a winner of the 2015 National Poetry Series (Beacon Press, 2016), and Horse and Rider (Texas Tech University Press, 2010). Recent poems have appeared in Ecotone, The Iowa Review, The Nation, and Ploughshares. Range is the recipient of awards and fellowships from the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rona Jaffe Foundation, the American Antiquarian Society, and the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown. Originally from East Tennessee, she teaches creative writing and American literature at Lawrence University in Wisconsin.