Thursday, December 2, 2021

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers / Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay


Dido Elizabeth Belle, 1779

Portrait of Dido Elizabeth Belle Lindsay, Great-Niece of Lord Mansfield, and Her Cousin, Lady Elizabeth Murray, c. 1779 (by unknown artist)

by Honorée Fanonne Jeffers

A Black came in after dinner and sat with the ladies...Lord M...calls her Dido, which I suppose is all the name she has. He knows he has been reproached for showing fondness for her...

From The Diary and Letters of His Excellency Thomas Hutchinson,
        August 1779

Dido moves quickly—
as from the Latin anime.

Breath or soul.
Beside her, the generations-free kin,

a biscuit figurine in pink.
Dido standing in irony—

the lowest are taller here—
Elizabeth should provide

an unkind contrast: pretty, blond,
pale in uncovered places—

but no.
The painter worships the quickened other.

Dido, his coquette of deep-dish
dimples, his careless, bright love.

Forget history.
She's a teenager.

We know what that means.
Cocky, stupid about reality.

No thought of babies—
feathers in her arms.

She might wave them, clearing
dead mothers from the air—

and surely, she's special—
her uncle dressed her with care,

hid her from triangles and seas
outside this walled garden.

Let her be.

No Dying Mythical Queen
weaving a vivid, troubled skin—

but Dido, full of girlhood,
and Elizabeth reaching

a hand. Behave, cousin,
she begs.

Don't run away from me.

Dido was the great-niece of William Murray, First Earl of Mansfield; as Lord Chief Justice of the King's Bench, he is responsible for the Somersett ruling (1772), which essentially outlawed slavery in England, though not in the colonies.

Honorée Fanonne Jeffers
Photo by Sidney A Foster

Born in 1967, Honorée Fanonne Jeffers received a BA from Talladega College and an MFA from the University of Alabama. She is the author of one novel, The Love Songs of W.E.B. Du Bois (Harper, 2021), and five poetry collections, including The Age of Phillis: Poems (Wesleyan University Press, 2020), winner of the 2021 Lenore Marshall Poetry Prize and recipient of the NAACP Image Award for Outstanding Literary Work for Poetry; and The Gospel of Barbecue (The Kent State University Press, 2000), selected by Lucille Clifton for the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize. Jeffers has won awards and fellowships from the American Antiquarian Society, the National Endowment for the Arts, the Rona Jaffe Foundation for Women Writers, the Witter Bynner Foundation through the Library of Congress, and she was a 2021 USA Mellon Fellow. She won the Harper Lee Award for Alabama's Distinguished Writer of the Year, and in 2020, she was inducted into the Alabama Writers Hall of Fame. She is currently a professor of English at the University of Oklahoma.


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