Sunday, March 03, 2013

Swimming in History

An illiterate slave named Dave was purchased at auction in Augusta, Georgia in the early 1800s and taken to Pottersville, a small village in South Carolina.

There he was taught how to make pots, jugs, and jars on a potter’s wheel, and in time he learned the art of firing and glazing them, too, eventually becoming one of the best potters in the region.

And in some mysterious way--both courageous and profound--he learned to write, inscribing his poems in the clay.

In Etched in Clay: The Life of Dave, Enslaved Potter and Poet, Andrea Cheng has done the remarkable and brought Dave’s story to life.

Relying on historical records and adding her own imagined scenes, people, thoughts, and dialogue to offer what she calls “dramatic extensions of historically documented events and interactions,” Cheng uses her own remarkable skills as a poet to infuse Dave’s spirit in the poems that comprise this book.   

Cheng writes in an afterward that she first learned about Dave’s life while listening to a review of Leonard Todd’s Carolina Clay: The Life and Legend of the Slave Potter Dave, and then she read the book and found herself moved by the story.

“I had never heard of a person such as Dave," writes Cheng. "How did he dare to write on the walls of his jars at a time when he could have been hung just for reading a book?”

Like Dave, Cheng says, she is a poet. “I started writing poems when I was about eight, and I have been writing poetry—and prose—ever since. I was encouraged by teachers, family members, and friends. I cannot imagine writing at all in the circumstances under which Dave lived and worked.”

Here’s one of Cheng’s poems:

Etched in Clay
Dave, June 12, 1834

Only me here,
turning pots, making jars,
turning words inside my head
until I’m ready to explode
like a jar with an air bubble
in the furnace.

Here, on this jar
For all to see,
I’ll inscribe the date,
June 12, 1834,
and the word
Someday the world will read
my word etched in clay
on the side of this jar
and know about the shackles
around our legs
and the whips
upon our backs.
I am not afraid
to write on a jar
and fire it hot
so my word
can never be erased.
And if some day
this jar cracks,
my word will stay,
etched in the shards.

In addition to her poems, Cheng includes her own woodcuts, hoping the combination of poems and artwork will convey Dave’s story and “communicate his bravery, his dignity, and his artistry,” and, in some small way, “pay tribute to the quiet heroism of David Drake.”

She does all this and more in this amazing collection.

For more information about Etched in Clay, visit:

And to learn more about Cheng’s work, visit:


Dianne Ochiltree said...

What a great blog post, Bruce. Ms. Cheng's book sounds really wonderful and I can't wait to track down a copy of it and read it myself. Thanks for sharing your beautifully-written review!

Bruce Black said...

The story about Dave is challenging enough to tell in prose, but Cheng manages to tell it in verse, a feat that makes the book all the more remarkable, I think. Hope you'll get hold of a copy soon. Thanks, as always, for stopping by.