A landscape in rural Tennessee (PxHere)

“I didn’t want to write a memoir,” writes Danielle Chapman in the preface to…her memoir. In the hands of another writer, the sentence might feel like false modesty: My story simply had to be told, despite my own best efforts. Or like advertising: My story is so shocking, so shameful. Turn the page!

But Danielle Chapman is a poet. She knows that words matter; she chose these introductory ones carefully, and she means them. Her slim memoir Holler contains plenty of pain—pain, the reader understands, it really might have been easier to leave unsaid. In Chapter One, Chapman’s father drowns in a snorkeling accident while she watches from the beach. She was only a toddler—lying on a towel underneath a sky that “darkened to a bruise.” Then, suddenly, a Styrofoam innertube, and a man, “bellowing like a viking as he dove,” swimming out in an attempt to save her parents, her father’s head disappeared beneath the waves. “To my own psyche, it’s gospel, the origin of consciousness,” Chapman writes of the scene.

Gospel, too, is the story of her “mother’s salvation,” offered as a kind of confession: “God told me I had to live to take care of you.” As she does occasionally throughout Holler, Chapman turns to literature to help her make sense of life’s ambiguities. In this case, Chapman’s text is Shakespeare’s King Lear, that “genius of perfect ambivalence, a stalemate between faith and despair, catastrophe and miracle, death and love, in which each side can claim the victory according to their temperament.” Her mother had “wanted to die” as her husband’s hand slipped from her grip. In that moment, she was Gloucester, ready to fling herself from the cliff. Ultimately, she chose to live. Ultimately, she was Edgar.

An entire memoir could be devoted to this childhood trauma. But it’s really only an introduction to what will consume the majority of Holler—and, in fact, only an introduction to the source of Chapman’s real reluctance to write her story down.

That reluctance relates not to her father, but to his father: Leonard Fielding Chapman, Jr., 24th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps, the grandfather who takes the place of the dad she lost. It is Chapman’s “Papa,” a decorated hero laden with medals, who takes center stage, accompanied by a cast of Marine “warhorses,” Southern stalwarts, and other “salt of the earth” figures. These friends and relations, to put it mildly, are “problematic.” They spew racist invective, and tell terrible war stories, and recommend the film The Birth of a Nation. They shoot dogs who go on to wander in the dust for days, wounded but not dead. They womanize; they drink too much.

These “good country people” are also complicated; they hurt, and they are hurting. They eat peanut butter logs and play ruthless croquet. They take “nerve pills,” and have their legs amputated. They suffer from PTSD and poverty; they burst into tears at inopportune moments. Even beloved Papa—who by contrast is noble and dignified, well-positioned, well-connected, graceful and, it must be said, good—can occasionally be goaded into a slur, or tell a too-rosy tale about his family’s past. Chapman, as an adolescent, holds any racism “up in his face.” As an adult, she repents of her “tendency toward the grotesque, my eye for every exaggeration, my prosecution of every foible”—even as she retains the moral and political perspectives that made her call out the affronts.

Danielle Chapman is a poet. She knows that words matter; she chose these introductory ones carefully, and she means them.

Chapman’s mixed feelings extend not only to people, but to a place: her family’s ancestral home in Fairfield, Tennessee, “a broken-down tavern built in 1790, where it had been forbidden to move the furniture since the Confederacy fell.” It is here, on summer visits, amid dusty furniture and mildewed books and collectibles fetishizing “White People’s History,” that she wakes into “American history as if into a second childhood, with the foreboding that one day it would be mine to own.” “Regardless of the sin I know to be sunk into its soil,” she writes,” there’s nowhere on earth I feel so uncannily at home.” Blood and soil, roots and branches, plenty of bugs and snakes. Her family tree is full of people who killed, people who gave orders for others to kill, people who held other people as property. Chapman feels the “bafflement of my connection to this hatred, this obscenity, which persists like some sort of ineradicable genetic disease.”

Holler isn’t symmetrical or chronological. A few chapters incorporate other texts; others mostly tell stories. Several take as their focus a single character; others study a world event, like the Vietnam War. Those looking for a full detailing of a life won’t find it here. After her father’s drowning, Chapman’s mother mostly disappears; her husband and daughters are mentioned only in passing.

These omissions may bother some readers; I found them artful. This is a memoir built on concept rather than plot, and it lingers and leaves out accordingly. If anything, it’s the chapter devoted to the drowning—essential for explaining Chapman’s biography, but thematically disconnected from what’s to come and heavy on that King Lear analysis—that feels out of place, almost unassimilated.

But perhaps that’s intentional, too, for at the very center of Holler is a kind of cognitive dissonance. Chapman has set out to document the “short-circuiting of her American nervous system”: on the one hand, the Trump-era fear that “half the country, the other half, was inhuman,” on the other the realization that “those people were my family: the ones who raised me and sacrificed for me and made it possible for me to grow up with the opportunity to disagree with them in print.” It ends not with further explication of that analysis, but instead, with an old family story. The wartime “friendship” between Chapman’s great-great-great grandfather and the family slave, George Singleton, is a confused tale of Confederate and Union allegiances, duty and dignity, that has implications for the present day, when the descendents of the two men gather for reunions at the Fairfield home. They sit eating blackberry cobbler and deviled eggs “among the furnishings” that one side’s ancestors “may have carried in on their backs a hundred and fifty years before.”

At the close, we find Chapman holding the leather-bound diary of one of her earlier ancestors, “the slave trader at the end of the road.” The book records names of the enslaved alongside documentation of “corn fodder, crimson dye, and scythes.” For “every notebook like this,” Chapman worries, “there are a thousand unread letters, twined up in cedar chests and shoved in drawers, shredded by mice to tatters…Who knows what I might find if I read them all?” A WWII-vet grandpa who used the slur “Japs” is one thing. But all those centuries of brutality, all that blood, all that complicity? Perhaps it’s too much. Perhaps the family will be disowned, this branch lopped off.

But Chapman doesn’t go there. The book ends with the story, with the reunions, with the diary, with the unease. There’s no opportunism here, no pandering to the political side to which she belongs, no sacrificing of one’s “problematic” family in order to absolve oneself. What Chapman has done with this book is much riskier, and more interesting, and more beautiful. She writes out of guilt and shame, moral conviction, and, when warranted, disgust. She also writes out of love. She makes allegiances with sinners, seeing that she herself is one. She writes, truly, what she doesn’t want to write, of “the people and places I came from, hoping that, if I could forgive them for what they were, I might be forgiven in return.”

A Poet Among Patriots 

Danielle Chapman
Unbound Edition Press
$28 | 190 pp.

Kate Lucky ​is an editor at Christianity Today.

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