Original Criticism

Heather Zadra: On "Travels in North America"

Jeff Sychterz has succinctly described Kees’ “Travels in North America” in its relationship to the American Dream, aligning the speaker’s journey with westward expansion and the migration of Dust Bowl refugees; he then links these movements to the politics of economics and cultural erasure. Another lens through which we can approach the poem lies in Kees’ tension with a more “self” oriented concept of the journey, one connected in American culture by the individual’s freedom of escape and the gathering of lived experience. The expected progress of such a journey constitutes a shift from confusion or ignorance to some form of enlightenment, but Kees consistently reframes the implications of the trip, casting an eye of disillusionment on a failed land of opportunity. Despite brief glimpses of beauty, the poem ultimately reveals a cluttered but homogeneous landscape, one whose bleak sameness becomes a reason for searching for “some new enclosure” that, finally, may only be discovered through language. The speaker’s marginality as observer offers, rather than a romanticized vision of freedom from responsibility, the images that point to a post-World War II America sliding or melting into the indistinguishable lines, colors, and dots of a map.

Appropriately, the way in which the speaker actually remembers his trip is through identifying locations on “A ragged map, imperfectly enclosed by seaworn oilskin”—much as the speaker himself is “imperfectly enclosed” in the space of America. The blurred map is a visual reminder of the blending into uniformity that travelling through the United States imprints on the speaker’s mind: “And sometimes, shivering in St. Paul or baking in Atlanta, / The sudden sense that you have seen it all before: . . . / You have forgotten singularities.” Significantly, however, the speaker hones in on events that seem memorable for their specificity and that retain some beauty in their very descriptiveness:

 

brown walls hung

With congo masks and Mirós, rain

against a skylight, and the screaming girl

Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds

Who quoted passages from Marlowe and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

 

The act of naming the very moments he claims to have forgotten performs a political purpose, however filled with potential these images might appear to be. Against these and the rest of the poem’s “singularities,” Kees juxtaposes the inescapable existence of the atomic bomb, which could render all journeys meaningless in an instant:

 

The land is terraced near Los Alamos: scrub cedars,

Piñon pines and ruined pueblos, where a line

Of tall young men in uniform keep watch upon

The University of California's atom bomb.

The sky is soiled and charitable

Behind barbed wire and the peaks of mountains--

Sangre de Christo, Blood of Christ, this "fitting portent

For the Capital of the Atomic Age."

We meant to stop, but one can only see so much. A mist

Came over us outside Tryuonyi caves, and a shattered cliff.

 

The anxiety behind these words cancels out all potential for beauty in the otherwise natural setting; and the bomb, like the mist that covers the travelers, overshadows all specific details that come before or after these lines. Hence, though the speaker continues to articulate moments that could be read as negative or simply ambivalent, he “forgets” or subordinates them in the context of an America that, above all, could destroy its enemies (or itself) in a moment. The journey has, to some degree, ended before it has really begun; the following lines act merely as addendums that represent lesser degrees of human error.

No time-based indicators suggesting change interrupt the flow of memory, and the speaker fails to move, throughout the course of the journey, from disillusionment to edification. The continual focus of the poem, despite the multitude of places and markers, is on the impossibility of America eliciting any real sense of calm self-discovery or revelation. The details described at each location produce not a consoling sense of familiarity, but rather a sense of disorientation, as the speaker realizes his inability to ground himself in any distinguishing place:

 

And here, now textured like a blotter, like the going years

And difficult to see, is where you are, and where I am,

And where the oceans cover us.

 

In building up to these final lines, the poem moves through a series of landscapes whose brief moments of beauty are overshadowed by the speaker’s associations with them: “Driving west / One Sunday in a smoky dawn, burnt orange along the landscape’s rim, / The radio gave forth five solid and remembered hours / Of gospel singers and New Orleans jazz, / With terse, well-phrased commercials for a funeral home.” Even the potentially pleasurable remembrance of watching a hazy sunrise while listening to gospel music ends with a journey towards death, an ironic detail in this context—for even that journey has a definable end, which is more certain than the travels the speaker describes. A marked moment of uncertainty blurs these juxtapositions of negative and positive, beautiful and tainted, as the mind begins to lose focus and remains suspended in limbo:

 

[You] have forgotten why you left or why you came to where you are,

Or by what road and passages,

Or what it was, if anything, that you were hoping for.

 

Around the same time that Norman Rockwell was painting an idyllic America in scenes like "The Prom Dress," "The Soda Fountain," and "The Marriage License," Kees refuses to situate his verbal images in any such comforting familiarity. Rather, the familiarity he endorses effects a sort of mental paralysis, the result of viewing widespread contamination that overwhelms potentially redeeming qualities of the landscape. In place of the latter, we are given the reality of nuclear warfare, the cluttering of landscape with industrial markers and refuse—“rubber plant[s]” and “brownish film”—and the waste of America’s throwaways on the incoming tide. The notion that individuals still seek personal revelation in the midst of such debris becomes, in effect, absurd; though the speaker, like most travelers, reminisces about his “sightseeing” across America, his sight sees much more than the stereotypically romanticized journeyer. For the most part, he perceives a depersonalized void of "formica and television aerials / And rows of cars that look a little more like fish each year," images that render illusions of charming, idyllic scenes of America ridiculous. Instead, the vision is one of waste, of a civilization’s slow self-destruction represented in barren and broken things.

Indeed, it is better not to have seen some places—"Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan; / Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington / Are momentarily the shifting centers of a dream"—for then one can still imagine the possibility of their being untarnished, untainted with everything that has come before. Though the speaker’s reveries about the possibilities for each place allow him a brief reprieve from the depressing realities surrounding him, he cannot finally escape “that smell of rubber smoldering,” the grim reality of most towns he encounters. And even the most peripheral information renders the unseen towns somewhat sad in their implied likeness with the others:

 

Dalton, Georgia, “Center of a thriving bedspread industry, where rainbow lines

Of counterpanes may be observed along the highway. Here

The man whose Home, Sweet Home is known to all,

The champion of the Cherokee, John Howard Payne, was tried.”

 

To forget, perhaps, would be the greatest blessing of all, and to some extent, the speaker has forgotten specific elements of his trip. But he cannot forget the overwhelming impression of the memories on his mind, the fact that the journey has really never been more than “marking out a distance, / Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually, / Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space / Between the oceans.” And yet, this way of approaching the journey—representing it through language to “mark” not only distance but also the extent of desolation, and to seek a new place as yet unstained—is, perhaps, the only way in which one can also approach North America. The “enclosure” that the speaker seeks may not, finally, exist, for he brings with him, like the blurring map, the unerasable “stains” of his memory; but the act of articulating these memories may leave room for some alternative—if only suggested in its very absence from the scene he represents.

 

©Heather Zadra 2001

Jeff Sychterz: On "Travels in North America"

The American Dream is perhaps the most pervasive myth of American culture. The idea that America offers equal and unfettered opportunities for success to everyone regardless of race, sex and socioeconomic background forms the very foundation of our cultural consciousness. This dream has always been intimately tied to American geography; European immigrants looked to New York’s Ellis Island, homesteaders looked to the Western Territories, and Dust Bowl refugees looked to California for the fulfillment of their dreams and aspirations. Therefore, a pre-requisite for achieving that dream has always been movement, whether as a movement from downtown to uptown or across even greater distances such as the flight from rural farms to the big city at the end of the nineteenth century or the flight from the big city to suburbia at the end of the twentieth. Something about the vastness of the American landscape fuels this notion of endless opportunities and wide-open possibilities. Weldon Kees’s "Travels in North America" very appropriately develops the American landscape as an extended metaphor for the American Dream, and the journey as the search for that dream.

One of the most seductive qualities of the American Dream is its lack of specificity; the dream can be many different things to different people: for some it is a land without oppression, others food on the table, and still others two cars and a garage in which to put them. The one characteristic that unites these divergent desires is that America always seems to offer us something better than what we have, as long as we work hard or travel far enough. Because something better always exists, the American Dream is marked more by the search for it than the attainment of it. Kees’s speaker states the significance of the journey in this way:

 

Journeys are ways of marking out a distance,

Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually,

Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space

Between the oceans (91-4).

 

The poem plays with the dual meaning of "distance," such that the journey into the American landscape should serve to mark off space as well as difference. Both space and difference would provide the speaker with a new perspective—a site from which he can reexamine and objectively reevaluate his own accomplishments. However, prior to these lines the poem has revealed that the journey serves only to elide the vast "distances" and reveal the profound sameness of the American landscape.

The poem’s opening stanza immediately defuses the power of the American landscape by presenting it to the reader on a map. On a map the person’s finger can slide in a second from San Luis Obispo to Kansas City: "Here is San Luis Obispo. Here / Is Kansas City, and here is Rovere, / Kentucky." Not only is America’s vastness brought down to scale, but Kees presents to us three random names without commentary, saying only "here is" as if the name on the map is all that differentiates these particular black dots. The map conceit continues to shape the entire poem, implicit in the ease with which the poem wanders randomly through the country, jumping from California to Ohio, New Mexico to Kentucky or Minnesota to Georgia, ticking off places the speaker has never visited but would like to, and describing places he has experienced. This technique causes unique places of the American landscape to run together and remain for the most part undifferentiated, as if they all are nothing more than "green ink blending into blue" (102); only the names signify them as unique.

Nevertheless, the place names themselves sound impressive and full of promise; the Spanish San Luis Obispo, with its full "oo" and "o" sounds has an exotic appeal, Kansas City seems to encompass the promise and excitement of a frontier state, and Rovere has a rich continental European connotation. The most overt statement of this theme occurs in stanza six, which begins with the statement, "possibly the towns one never sees are best." The stanza follows this casual proclamation with a litany of unique and suggestive place names that the speaker has not yet visited, such as "Wetumka, Oklahoma; Kipling, Michigan; / Glenrock, Wyoming; and Chehalis, Washington" (55-6). These unvisited but named dots on a map operate as "shifting centers" of the American dream precisely because they are not visited. The speaker directs our gaze to these names on the map and like him we desire them because they represent "distance"—removed from our monotonous existence by both space and difference. Just the sight of these place names arrayed on the page seems to promise a vast array of different cultures and experiences available to the ready traveler. Because of the allure inherent in their place names, we imagine that these cities hold something better for us.

Visiting these places however shatters this illusion of "distance." The first definite description of place we receive—the Seraphim Motel with its "well-fed moths" and tacky petunias—remains nameless. Unlike the previously named cities, this unforgettable black dot remains unnamed, as if the material reality of place erases any promise inherent in the name. Kees presents us with an America where space is elided and "distance" erased, not just by the ubiquitous automobile, but also by the smoothing out—as well as eradication—of cultural differences. Once visited the unique cultural promise of a city’s name is replaced by the same Laundromats, diners and numerous motels that dominate the American landscape. Every city looks like every other city and their details tend to run together: "Main, First, and Market fuse together" (71). The ultimate figure of this smoothed over landscape is the oxymoronic indistinguishable landmark: "There was a landmark, I remember, that was closed" (18). The speaker can remember that Santa Barbara had a landmark, but he cannot name it because its specificity has been erased, as if the landmark were some "tinned stuff" washed ashore "with the labels gone" (98). American culture washes over the landscape, like the ocean washes over the shore, breaking up rocks and smoothing them into one expanse of beach, on which is deposited the flotsam and jetsam of consumer culture.

Form emphasizes content in stanza seven, the stanza that most overtly deals with this running together of the American landscape. Not only is it close to twice the length of other stanzas, it also ends with the only enjambed line in the poem, spilling its contents into the following stanza:

 

You have forgotten

Rooms that overlooked a park in Boston, brown walls hung

With congo masks and Mirós, rain

Against a skylight, and the screaming girl

Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds

Who quoted passages from Marlow and ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore.

 

These lines not only run across stanzaic breaks, they also present an assemblage of different cultural words and images: masks from the ancient Congo, art from Modern Spain, tweed from contemporary Britain, and literature from Elizabethan England. Like the image of flotsam and jetsam in stanza nine, these lines reveal yet another aspect of the American landscape: where we do see diverse cultural influences they are often cobbled together in unique ways. Unlike the previously discussed smoothing over, this cultural assemblage is not entirely negative. Elsewhere in the poem the juxtaposition of different cultural influences can be beautiful, for example listening to New Orleans jazz while leaving Cincinnati (19-23), or seeing "a Navajo in levis reading / Sartre" in Santa Fe (33-4). It is through the "distance" created by such scattered epiphanies that we come most closely to escaping the monotony of American middle-class existence. These moments of beauty supply the only consolation in the speaker’s failed search for the American dream.

These epiphanic moments, however, are washed over by a rundown landscape of tacky motels, bad food, and indistinguishable landmarks (as well as threatened by the ever present atom bomb as discussed by Heather Zadra); and the poem suggests that we are powerless to change that landscape. At the Seraphim Motel, the speaker attempts to change his material conditions to no avail: "We threw a nickel in the wishing well, / But the moths remained, and the petunias too." Similar to the map reducing the distance of American geography, here the American Dream has been reduced to the act of tossing change into a wishing well. Despite this infusion of capital the speaker cannot satisfy even the simplest mundane desires, obtaining a room free of insects and tacky flowers. Even the specificity of the offering, "a nickel," indicates that a relatively large infusion of cash—if one considers that a typical offering to a wishing well in 1952 was a penny—cannot satisfy the wish.

But "a nickel in the wishing well" is hardly the proper application or sufficient amount of capital needed to better the speaker’s material conditions—or in other words to achieve the American Dream. The speaker and his partner(s) could bribe the manager into removing the tacky petunias and annoying moths, but if they had that kind of money they could afford to stay in a more upscale hotel. This particular material reality reveals the inherent paradox of the American Dream: in order to achieve it one must have a large supply of capital in the first place. A particularly glaring example of this paradox is memorialized by Woody Guthrie in the song "Do Re Mi":

 

California’s a Garden of Eden.

It’s a paradise to live in or see.

But believe it or not,

You won’t find it so hot,

If you ain’t got the Do-Re-Mi.

 

When refugees from the Dust Bowl tried to cross into what they thought was the fertile job market of California they were turned back at the border because they lacked sufficient capital. Meanwhile, visitors with enough money were allowed to enter the state.

Kees however can and does take us into California in the second stanza; but like the refugees from the Dust Bowl he finds his access to the American Dream blocked by a lack of capital. Even there the speaker is stuck in the America of motels with heated swimming pools and restaurant food with the "classic taste of tin." The one landmark that could possibly differentiate Santa Barbara from everywhere else on the map is not only indistinguishable it is closed: "There was a landmark, I remember, that was closed." One landmark that should differentiate Santa Barbara from the rest of the American landscape is its reputation as a high-class vacation town with fancy hotels and expensive restaurants. This reputation leads the reader to wonder if the landmark is closed for repairs or just closed to the speaker and others of his socioeconomic class. Also, the placement of this line closes the entire stanza, which begins "And here is Santa Barbara where . . ." with the word "closed." Therefore Santa Barbara, as a shimmering possibility above the washed out blasé American landscape, is closed to the vast majority of those Americans without the Do-Re-Mi.

In Weldon Kees’ "Travels in North America" attainment of the American Dream for the most part remains elusive, perhaps because of the vague and often-contradictory quality of American middle-class desires—we want something better, but don’t know what that something is. Each American city arrayed across a map offers the possibility of something new, something better, or something that offers us "distance" from the rest of the culturally smoothed over American landscape. Once visited, however, the reality of motels, indistinguishable landmarks, unattainable wealth, and bad food overwhelms and washes out whatever cultural significance the town might have. The only cities that maintain their individuality are those that we never see. These cities maintain their allure only as possibilities, or as dreams. Traveling through North America, therefore, reveals that the American Dream is nothing more than just that, an insubstantial dream with nothing material backing it up.

 

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Amanda Zink: On "Work"

Yusef Komunyakaa’s poem “Work” begins with the speaker’s negative resolution, “I won’t look at her,” a resolution that he repeats throughout the poem.  The reader does not know what his eyes are avoiding until almost half-way through the 55-line poem when one realizes that the speaker, presumably a black groundskeeper on an American Southern estate (ex-plantation), is narrating his forbidden attraction for the white lady of the house who is lounging, nude, in a hammock amidst a lush, tropical garden.  Inanimate objects like the lawnmower, the radio, the pitcher of lemonade and organic items such as the bumblebee and the exotic plant species play various roles in the poem: they are metonymic for taboo interracial human desire (as the desiring and the desired), they pull the speaker toward his object of desire, and they obfuscate the consummation of this desire.

Komunyakaa brilliantly employs the classical trope of sexualized flora in this poem.  After the speaker’s initial claim that he won’t act on this desire that he possesses from the outset of the poem, he begins to describe his body in terms of the landscape.  He has been “one solid motion from sunrise, / leaning into the lawnmower’s roar / through pine needles and crabgrass.” Mowing pine needles and crabgrass seems as unnecessary labor; the speaker is obviously distracted by the sexual act of the “Tiger-colored / Bumblebees [that] nudge pale blossoms /till they sway like silent bells / Calling” (l. 2-9).  This observation of natural reproduction is immediately followed by another statement of resolve – “But I won’t look” – making the preceding sexual act less entomological and more human.  The black and yellow bumblebee is a stand-in for the groundskeeper himself – a black man, perhaps with the “yellow” tinge of miscegenation in his blood – who imagines nudging the “pale blossoms” of the white woman whose sensuality is calling to him.

The groundskeeper and the lady of the house are alone on the property, as the next lines tell us; the husband is “outside Oxford, Mississippi,” “the teenage daughter & son sped off / an hour ago in a red Corvette/for the tennis courts, / & the cook, Roberta / only works a half day / Saturdays” (l. 16-21).  However, in the middle of this inventory of whereabouts and in relation to his report of the husband’s location, the speaker unexpectedly alludes to famed Southern author William Faulkner and his equally famous character, Colonel John Sartoris.  Faulkner, of course, wrote about all kinds of Southern psychoses; a fatal attraction between a black servant and a white plantation-owner’s wife, though mortally scandalous, would not be out of place in Yoknapatawpha County.  Komunyakaa’s speaker says, “Her husband’s outside Oxford, / Mississippi, bidding on miles / of timber. I wonder if he’s buying / Faulkner’s ghost, if he might run / Into Colonel Sartoris / along some dusty road” (l.10-15).  In these lines, the speaker insinuates that the husband could actually be Faulkner’s ghost or Sartoris himself.  Colonel Sartoris and his progeny appear in numerous Faulkner stories, and he figures largely as a Confederate army officer, a wealth plantation owner, and the builder of the county’s railroad.  Perhaps the husband is not a military man, but he is a plantation owner (with at least two “slaves” – Roberta and the speaker) and his plans to buy a large amount of woodland, presumably for industrialization, liken him to Sartoris’ acquisition of land for the railroad.  The husband might also be “Faulkner’s ghost,” assuming that this is not the spirit of the departed Faulkner himself, but the ghost that haunted Faulkner and his writings: his own great-grandfather, William Clark Faulkner, whose racist, proprietary personality haunted all of his writings and is the real-life progenitor of Colonel Sartoris.  The husband is linked by the speaker to all of the racist conflictions that characterize Faulkner’s writings, who is himself a modern-day “slave” on the husband’s “plantation.”  The husband’s house itself strengthens this connection, as the speaker describes “This antebellum house [that] / looms behind oak & pine /like a secret, as quail flash through the branches” (l.21-24).  The brooding quality of this house further recalls Faulkner’s world; the dark house on “Sutpen’s Hundred” in Absalom, Absalom! is also shrouded in vegetation and mystery, haunted by ghosts of a racist past and animated by murderous secrets both inherited and reenacted.

Immediately following the speaker’s narrative departure to Yoknapatawpha County is another statement of his crumbling resolve; “I won’t look at her.”  But at this point he does look at her, and the reader finally sees her, too:  “Nude / on a hammock among elephant ears / & ferns, a pitcher of lemonade / sweating like our skin” (l.25-28).  The sweating pitcher of lemonade is a simile for both sweating bodies: sweaty from the heat, sweaty from lust.  The woman now shares in the desire of the speaker as indicated by his use of the pronoun “our;” the sexual fantasy of the wealthy white woman and the working-class black man is playing out in the events of the poem.  He is drawn nearer by the soft sounds of Johnny Mathis on the radio and recalls the advice of his father: “Always give / a man a good day’s labor” (l.36-37).  An ironic recollection, since the speaker is indeed giving the woman’s husband a full day of work, working both his land and his wife.  Despite two more insistences that he won’t look, the speaker is pulled toward the woman by the self-propelling lawnmower engine, by the alluring aroma of honeysuckle, and by the sight of the woman’s breasts, which he describes metaphorically as “the insinuation of buds / tipped with cinnabar” (l. 46-47).

The climax of the poem is veiled by plant imagery and a narrative shift to free indirect discourse; the speaker cannot directly narrate this event that violates every “taboo, law, creed” of a racist Southern culture (l. 42).  The speaker is intoxicated on the heady scents of the flowers and the sight of the woman’s body; he is “drawn to some Lotus-eater,” so that the consummation of this desire is described after-the-fact as one coming down from a drug high: “Pollen/explodes, but I only smell / gasoline & oil on my hands, / & can’t say why there’s this bed / of crushed narcissus / as if gods wrestled here” (l. 50-55).  The speaker is once again the sexually aggressive bumblebee as the “pollen explodes” orgasmically, but without any fragrant trace of having lain with a flowering bud.  The narrator now employs mythical tropes in addition to botanical metaphors to tell his story; human senses betray and speech fails in the face of such a cultural atrocity.  By laying with his wife in the flower bed, the black groundskeeper has “crushed” the narcissistic white man’s code of Southern sexuality so that the “Work” of the poem, ironically, is to reinscribe the humanity of interracial sexuality in such stolen moments of intimacy.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Amanda Zink

Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "The Nazi Doll"

Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Nazi Doll” inventively satirizes the Nazi subject. Written in 1979, it is not an immediate response to the horrors of World War II and the Shoah but is a reflection on an event, almost thirty-five years old, that Komunyakaa, born in 1947, never experienced. The poem is conscious of its distance in two ways. First, rather than relating a “personal” experience, it contemplates a historical artifact of the Third Reich: a German doll from the Nazi era. (Though the poem does not indicate whether or not the doll portrays a Nazi, “Nazi dolls” did indeed exist. They can be seen at the Museum of World War II near Boston, and are simply traditional Kewpie dolls dressed in red storm trooper uniforms, with rosy cheeks and black swastikas banded on their arms . . . ). Second, the artifact itself contains a memory. Its memory, a “lampshade of memory,” swarms with “guilt” and “benedictions,” though Komunyakaa seems unable to possess them and identify their contents in the poem. These limitations cause the poem to make some unusual moves. Calling attention to its own historical distance and a memory not its own, Komunyakaa’s poem tips into surrealism and absurdity. The doll, in its inanimate taciturnity, speaks. Limited within its historical and existential capacity, “The Nazi Doll” inhabits a Nazi subject position which, quite unexpectedly, seems to solicit sympathy and forgiveness, but then implicitly opens those solicitations and their affiliated discourses to self-deconstructive critique.

Such a subject position recalls World War II’s Nazi Trials. Convened in the years following the war, the trials prosecuted various members of the German Nazi party, including central political and military figures, doctors, and judges, for conspiracy, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In popular contemporary discourse, the Nuremburg Trials — dramatized in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremburg — are well known. From them came the so-called “Nuremburg defense”: the defense, frequently utilized by Nazi Party members, which claimed their innocence on the account that “befehl ist befehl” and they were merely “following orders” from their superiors. Though many offered this defense, Adolf Eichmann, whose 1961 trial in Jerusalem was broadcast live, is exemplary. Documented in Eyal Sivan’s stalwart 2002 film, The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal, Eichmann can be seen enclosed behind bullet-proof glass, riffling through papers, answering questions, and responding to the prosecution’s argument with startlingly mechanical precision, shocking nonchalance, and frighteningly self-righteous confidence. In the film, he emblematizes what Hannah Ardent called “the banality of evil”: the human capacity to commit inhuman acts under the supervision of an authority, nationalistic and otherwise. Simultaneously, like so many other members of the Third Reich, he portrays himself as a mere cogwheel in the machine, an automaton, a Nazi “toy” subject to the desires of others. In the film, he embodies a profound dissonance. Though monstrous, there festers in his inhumanity a humanity with which everybody can sympathize, even if only through nausea.

“The Nazi Doll” is tormented by this same dissonance. Initially, the poem contemplates and represents a horrendously and monstrously grotesque figure frankensteined together from a variety of objects. The doll, eerily propped “lopsided / in a cage” and enclosed behind bars reminiscent of a ribcage (not to mention Eichmann’s bullet-proof glass), resembles not a fully developed infant but an inchoately formed, freakish, ghastly, and misshapen fetus removed ex vivo. The figure is unheimliche, teetering on the edge of the unnatural and inhuman. Rather than the typical appendages possessed by infants at birth, it constitutes a fragmented, amorphous mass of bone and transparent tissue: “Membrane. / Vertebra.” Its brain — the storage space for its “lampshade of memory” — is warped, “twisted” from “a knob of tungsten,” the metal filament used in electric light bulbs. And its mouth “bleeds a crooked smile,” its lips the edges of an open wound, gash, or surgical incision which never ceases to ooze. Unequivocally the doll is appalling, gruesome, and nightmarish. Indeed, Komunyakaa underscores its dreadfulness, calling attention to its “bogus,” devilish tongue, its dishonest eyes, and the toxic stench of “arsenic” that seems to secrete from its pores and “sizzles in the air.” Faithful to the majority of “Holocaust” poetry, the imagery seems possessed by the utmost gravity. Carefully, through the detritus of diaphanous memories and the wreckage of eroded objects, it begins communicating the 20th Century’s most uncanny horror: the inhuman in the all-too-familiar human.

However, the weight of so much horror overwhelms the poem. The initially and seemingly unambiguous monstrousness and grotesquery of “The Nazi Doll” is ostensibly undermined and complicated by strikingly more attractive and welcoming imagery. Contrary to expectations, the doll’s “lampshade of memory” is not haunted by screams and rank with putrid decay. Instead, alluding to the Nuremberg trials, it is abuzz with the cheerfully exclamatory acknowledgement of contrition and the image of flowers in bloom: of a “guilt” that “yahoos” and “benedictions” that “blossom.” Additionally, evoking “the banality of evil,” its thoughts are naturalized. Juxtaposed with the “knob of tungsten” and the odor of arsenic, there are phosphorescent flashes glimmering in “a flurry of fireflies” and a mellifluous fragrance comparable to honey in “the song of dust / like a sweet beehive.” (Importantly, these troubling images are themselves troubled. First, they are hodgepodged together with the precarious suggestion of a venomous snake in “vowels of rattlesnake beads.” Second, although the poem focalizes their sweetness and bioluminescence, the “flurry of fireflies” and “sweet beehive” nonetheless do connote insects, as though the “beauty” of the images themselves was infested by creepy-crawlies . . . ). Dissonance torments the poem; one image contradicts another. Not only does the inhuman figure of the “Nazi doll” contain the human (and vice versa); its repulsive ugliness seems to be softened by a natural beauty which encourages sympathy. “The Nazi Doll” does not only occupy a Nazi’s subject position. Contained within its rhetoric, it sympathetically suggests that there is something natural immanent in that position which asks for and should be given forgiveness.

Yet this suggestion evaporates under closer scrutiny. Concomitaneous with the naturalizing language associated with confession and benediction, “The Nazi Doll” begins employing a diction which is absurdly surreal and comical, disauthenticating the subject’s sincerity. Contrary to normative behavior, its “guilt” does not regret or mourn; instead, alluding to the horrid inhuman humanoids of Gulliver’s Travels — and apparently ironically using the noun as a verb — the “guilt” expressed by the Nazi doll “yahoos,” as though celebrating its own accomplishment. Similarly, echoing Swift’s brutish characters, rather than being spoken by modern man, the doll’s “benedictions” effloresce in a caveman, “in its Cro-Magnon skull,” in a primitive mind which, unable to use language properly, confuses nouns with verbs. Such peculiar and sardonic diction satirizes the poem’s naturalizing language. The doll’s deceitful eyes and nefarious tongue discredit its confessed guilt and wishes for happiness and prosperity to the world which remains after the deliberate and systematic death of six million. Like Adolf Eichmann, enclosed behind glass, the Nazi doll is not only unbelievable; it is absolutely absurd. Moreover, the poem suggests, it has always been absurd. Its testimony, its sugar-coated “song” and scintillating, flowery speech, neither ameliorates its position in history nor compels forgiveness. Such linguistic pyrotechnics merely color the swastika-banded murderer’s cheeks rosy, dissembling its noxious odor, open and oozing wounds, and mechanical, man-made memory. Rather than sympathy, the language of the poem encourages ridicule and repugnance.

Ironically, through its naturalizing language, “The Nazi Doll” produces an uncompromising critique of both the “Nuremburg defense” and “the banality of evil.” Occupying a Nazi (doll’s) subject position, the poem does ask for sympathy and forgiveness, but it articulates the appeal in a language which ultimately divulges and scoffs that appeal’s unimaginably abhorrent contents: the malevolence and fallaciousness always already legible within the monstrousness and grotesquery only partially concealed by this “toy” of the Third Reich and its defense. In the end, Komunyakaa’s poem offers no forgiveness or sympathy. Considered in relation to Adolf Eichmann (and other Nazi Party members prosecuted for crimes against humanity), “The Nazi Doll” repudiates the defense which would disavow an individual’s responsibility for their choices in the world. Furthermore, in both the ironic portrayal of the Nazi as a “doll” and the refusal to implicate his own identity in the poem, Komunyakaa rejects the discourse which would naturalize the inhumanity and horror encountered in the concentration camps and crematoria of the Shoah. The Nazi is “uncanny,” simultaneously strange and familiar, only insofar as its own rhetoric and its gestures, like Eichmann’s, are fraught with contradictions. The Nazi “song of dust” is “like a sweet beehive.” It is infested with insects, and the insects are filled with poison.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Phillip Ernstmeyer.

Michael Simeone: On "Denmark Vesey"

The narrative of Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey” is preoccupied with the hazards of living in a society that communicates largely with the spoken word. In the poem, uttered words are often fleeting and uncontainable. From beginning to end, the ultimate success or failure of Vesey’s revolt depends heavily on the strategic use of closed mouths. But although Kramer convincingly imitates much of the oral communicative mode in the poem’s treatment of rumor and secrecy in the antebellum South, the predominant discursive mode of the poem, at bottom, resembles that of television and radio rather than the spoken word. Like television and radio, the oral communication presented in “Denmark Vesey” facilitates rapid and nearly uniform distribution of information, centralized means of transmission, and negotiation of distance through illusory proximity. Given both the time of the poem’s composition during the 1950s and Kramer’s political affiliations with communism, “Denmark Vesey’s” engagement with contemporary media serves as an investigation and indictment of both 19th century slavery and the prying eyes and publicized spectacles of McCarthyism during the Cold War.

Resembling television and radio in their ability to rapidly distribute information, many of the poem’s instances of oral communication are presented in a way that creates the illusion of information traveling across great distances with electric speed. The spread of information after the Santo Domingo revolt, “And though the lords of Charleston raised a wall / to keep the news away, it was not tall / or thick enough—the news reached one and all” (47), abstracts the news from the materiality of its oral channels. As readers, we do not see individuals speaking with one another to mechanically transmit the information. Instead, news of the revolt “reached one and all” in fewer than three lines; the information about the slave uprising achieves total dissemination in an exaggeratedly brief period of time, telescoped and virtually instant.

Similar patterns of (near) instantaneous data travel appear in other parts of the poem. The stories of the Haiti and Domingo plantations “reached like a nightmare into every bed…”(50), indicating that uniform and wide reaching patterns of information have spread throughout the entirety of the white community. Again, as readers we only see the end result of the transmission of the news, casting the illusion that the information travels faster than the material constraints of the spoken word. Furthermore, the paranoid caveat “Beware of the informer moon! / Beware of trees that tell for a price! / Liberty now has no public place” (53) demonstrates the effects of data tranmitted at electric speed. Fear of the sky and trees signals a disintegration of secrecy in the face of an eerily pervasive apparatus of information acquisition, transmission, and distribution. Without the concept of rapid data travel being implied by the rest of the poem, the pan-optic wilderness could not achieve the same terrifying institutional unity. Here, the southern countryside closely resembles the nightmare vision of Cold War America found in Edwin Rolfe’s “Little Ballad of the Americans—1954” where “The chief of all Inquisitors has ruled the wire-tap legal” and “They’ve planted stoolies everywhere” (7-10). Through its characterization communications media in the 1820s, then, the poem can simulteously implicate and criticize Negro slavery and McCarthy-age paranoia.

As perhaps the most peculiar feature of Kramer’s poem, Vesey’s custom-made gallows also participates in a paradigm of knowledge acquisition not characteristic of the 19th century. The gallows itself is huge, “high enough to hang a cloud” (63), making it a public visual domain capable of being “seen for miles around.” Historical accounts of Vesey’s execution do not mention such a grandiose device, making it clear that Kramer specially opted to include such spectacular stage for Vesey’s death. The mythically tall gallows expand the scope of the execution’s audience and transform the isolated demonstration into a televisual event, for the image of Vesey becomes ubiquitous across several miles and is not constrained to a single locality. The way Kramer describes the execution also mimics the television in its mobilization of the spectator’s gaze. We know from the moment the gallows are introduced that they are quite tall, yet those looking on have no trouble discerning the smallest details of the execution: “And when the sun made bright the eyes in Denmark Vesey’s head, / the slavers could not easily believe that he was dead” (63). The distance between slavers on the ground and victims in the sky has neatly telescoped for dramatic effect. The execution is at once removed and apprehendable, locally experienced yet part of a centralized network of information distribution. These are key paradoxes of experience and reception negotiated by televisual communication that are not characteristic of the spoken and written word. Ultimately, Vesey’s death enters public knowledge in a way that only a television audience could fully understand; he is remote but visible, made available to an expanded public through a special device that allows him to be the object of looking.

It’s unsurprising given the historical context of this poem that the narrative is inflected by electric age media, but the influence of media here is not content-oriented (besides the oblique reference to the state, this poem clearly passes as an 1820’s scenario); it seems subtle and structural instead. Relations between characters and the ultimate undoing of the poem’s hero are influenced by contemporary techniques of information collection and dissemination, making this a poem just as much about the human cost of electric-age communication as it is about the evils of slavery. Indeed, it seems the two themes cannot be separated.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone

John Vincent: On "Denmark Vesey"

Despite the more overtly material disputes over which wars are waged—border conflicts, trade routes, natural resources—war is also very much a contest over language, a struggle for meaning. It is, in the moment of its occurring, engineered, enacted, and concluded through acts of language and, when the last shot has been fired, the subsequent histories that give it narrative permanence reveal the further structuring power of language—its ability to order, divide, and situate the many contending discourses that shape the event. Aaron Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey,” a poem sequence about a potential insurrection of slaves in 1822 in Charleston, North Carolina, entangles itself in precisely these struggles over language and the politics of representation. At a time in U.S. history when language was quite literally on trial for its power to name, to signify, the poem’s significance seems to reverberate with a political tension that is at once historically implicated in an effort to recover aesthetically the event of a controversial rebellion and subversively condemning of the political moment of its composition. The paranoid atmosphere of secrecy and deception in 1952, the nascent cold war ideology of good and evil, and the escalating HUAC trials with their imperatives to name, to uncover and display subversion, inform deeply Kramer’s understanding of U.S. history and the continuous manifestations of oppressive power that make it work.

In the sequence’s opening poem, an unremembered, unnamed voyager with “astounding business sense” is “inspired” by the prospect of using slave labor to amass a fortune in the new world. “That inspiration quickly turned to gold,” the poem recalls. This sentence enacts the initial divorce of idea from thing that will come to dominate the remainder of the poem. Missing from the transfer of an idea of wealth to its material accumulation are the numerous orders of power, control, and exploitation that work to produce such abundance. The elision of bodies and violence as an abstract “inspiration” is granted the agency to configure wealth hoists into stark relief the central adversarial relationship of the poem which is a wavering congruence between idea and thing/deed that will work itself out through language. As it mystifies slavery, the white community’s control over language emerges as an engineering of reality that forbids a recognition of its historical complicity with coercive violence as it substantiates a political formation built on systems of natural rights. While the system of rights is codified in a Constitution and understood as universally inscribed on the fabric of the universe, the practices of everyday life do much to indicate the fissure between conceptions of reality and their actualization in the real world. The occasional “shrill cry” emanating from the cargo hold of the slave ships goes, we presume, unheard since the poet feels compelled to ask the question: “did they [the captain and crew] translate the cargo’s message of despair and hate?” A vague “perhaps the free winds and the unbound waves rendered the lamentation of the slaves in language that the sky might understand” is the only imaginable consolation for what we must assume is an answer in the negative. (my italics) In this way, Kramer figures violence as linguistic as well as corporeal.

Language’s capacity to punch down dissent and seal up a consensual social order takes place in the second poem of the sequence. In it, a wife’s moral indecision in the face of the slave trade provokes the question “tell me what you mean” from her perturbed husband. He follows by marking the commodities that she finds so alluring as paid for by the bent backs of slave laborers. The anxiety surrounding naming is forecast in her response: “they glared so when you named your price.” Her meaning, however, is banished along with the bodies of those whose labor is exploited through the husband’s silencing command, “let’s hear/ no more of what you think.” Suppression arrives as the activity of the day and lends credence to the notion that silencing and containment are administrations of power that will rehearse their violence first in semiotic fields. The coupling of idea and thing returns in “Revolt in Santo Domingo” when, in the final lines, word of Haitian slave revolt threatens to penetrate the town in the form of “news” and the dominant orders of the town seek to fortify themselves against the “forbidden tidings” it bears: “And though the lords of Charleston raised a wall/ to keep the news away, it was not tall/ or thick enough—the news reached one and all.” The chaos that ensues gives way a series of inversions in “The Planter’s Fright”:

 

They curse at all that was holy,

make holy all that was cursed.

The wise old judges are sentenced,

the last-fed now eat first.

 

These inversions starkly dramatize the way that war is a contest for meaning since they describe rebellion not only as an overthrowing of territorial control and possessions but also as a semiotic undoing of the categories of value that help shore up a dominant ideology of righteousness.

What follows is an obsession with “the name” as poem after poem looks to join the name of Denmark Vesey with the “thingness” of the hammer of revolution. “Do you know the name?” is a repeated mantra of the central poems that keeps trying to bring into presence an incarnation of Vesey that arrives metonymically through the figure of the hammer, both literally as a tool of his carpentry and figuratively as a smashing out the forces of bondage that enchain a subjugated people. “Beat hammer beat! Nail down the boards!/ Make slavery a coffin!” While the hammer is employed as an image of revolt, its meaning is concealed from white listeners in another inversion in which they hear in its cadence only the construction of “new style” goods for their homes. Indeed a “new style” is at work on the horizon, although its fashion might be much more “revolutionary” than its purchasers would care for. Vesey’s dream in which the opulent ornaments of white homes are literally crafted from the body parts of slaves rejoins the commodities with the bodies that produced them and releases them from the mystification that has resulted from the moral silence of appropriation. If, as the black congregation confesses on Sunday morning, “Our veins have run dry between the rows of cotton,” it will be the word made flesh in the coming of Denmark Vesey brought on by the repeated invocation to “whisper the word” that will revitalize the body it names. To bring it into language is synonymous with the power to materialize its reality, that of Liberty, not as a hope for heaven but as a lived reality of the present, not as an idea but as a thing. This is the subject of Vesey’s “sermon” and enacts yet another inversion in its call to forego the hope of salvation only in the promised land since it resides on this earth as well. If the blood has run dry in the congregation’s veins, the promise of insurrection will unstop its repression and infuse the bodies with renewed purpose.

Escalating anxiety about a potential revolt awakens in the white imagination as people begin to sense that an unraveling of control is beginning to take hold. Colonel Prioleau cautions the town to adopt a more vigilant posture of surveillance in their treatment of slaves. If they have already begun to whip “twice as hard, to prove they still had power,” then they must also “take heed of how men pray.” In an ironic twist, he implores them to

 

Discover every whispered word!

Let every sigh be overheard!

Be careful when you see them laugh:

the joke may be our epitaph.

And when they bow too low, beware!

It is our burial they prepare.

 

To “discover” the word in this instance would be to discover “Liberty,” a dark irony that unpacks the failure of the language of rights, laws, and the Constitution to ever form meanings in regard to black bodies. What follows is a plea to install a new legal code, one that will function as a preventative, preemptive attempt to dispel the threat of revolution, a revolution that only exists as threat, that is, in words. The preventative measure accomplishes its goal ironically by fixing the prohibition in language:

 

“A law ! A law! let’s pass one now!”

“A Santo Domingo we’ll never allow!

“Look out for whisperers!” “Fine them!” “Jail them!”

“Bind them!” “Starve them!” “Brand them!” “Flail them!”

 

The law is “unanimously carried” and, when Peter (again the betrayer) rats out the conspiracy to his white masters, their response dramatizes, once again the complicity of word and revolt: “Shall we allow a freedman’s boast,/a word, to kill us off?” The word, responds the other, is not “idle,” and when a captured Ned persists in his silence despite the pain inflicted on him, it points toward the fact that while a version of the truth might already be known, they need the word to corroborate an “unidle” utterance, the name of Denmark Vesey now synonymous with an earlier word, Liberty. The conflation of word and deed in a law implemented to punish conversation has an analog in the yoking of Denmark Vesey with “liberty.” Once “the name’s out,” Vesey burns the list of names. When a captured Vesey’s lips fail to produce “a murmur,” the captors claim, “his rifles—they speak to us—each has a tongue./They call out the names and the list will be long.” Violence takes the place of speaking for both parties, and when Vesey is pronounced to die, the “word of doom” reclaims the power to lord over language under the aegis of white power. Unable to actualize the reality of liberty, the slave population must surrender its quest to join language and thing with a hope for the future. If liberty remains unrealized, however, “wrath” has not, though its harborers must retreat to the world of the “spirit” with the hope for a future materialization:

 

            “Ten thousand guns will sing our mass

            when we no more can hear it—

            and those who dread us in the flesh

            may dread us more in spirit.”

 

The final poem returns us to the prophesy of “The Word of Doom.” “The wrath of the people is restless,” claim the speakers of the poem, “it won’t stay locked for long.” It carries this warning to its conclusion, one which proclaims, “watch out for the Wrath of a People: it will come to claim its son. If Vesey has been crystallized in the image of the hammer now silent, the coming of the son will unlock the smoldering wrath of the people and be, once again, the word made flesh. The son’s pronouncement that his will be “the angriest hammer” registers in the superlative the eventual triumph of the word as it links itself again to deed, to action, to bodies and recovers the connection to a “politics by other means” which was Vesey’s revolutionary project.

Kramer’s poem represents a strange convergence of forces that contend with each other for power over language. If in 1952 the state is involved in the struggle to make names mean complicity with communism, Kramer occupies himself with a similar struggle, to make names mean a certain complicity with language. The state’s repeated invocation, “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?,” is part of a concerted effort to give ontological stability to through its power to define in singular, monolithic terms. Kramer’s sequence involves an effort, conversely, to make names, historical names, responsible for deeds of subversion and resistance against this very capacity of white power to administrate and discipline on linguistic fronts. The following decades will implicate themselves in similar trials all surrounding the historical event of Vesey’s possible insurrection and the corruption of the archive. For Kramer, however, the capacity to tell, to give an aesthetic shape to Vesey’s story, is one more victory in the struggle to make language represent, to materialize the ideas of justice, rights, and liberty, in its democratic grappling to reconcile the word and the deed. As a challenge to white discourse, to its privileged uncoupling of liberty from its material organization of the world, Kramer points accusingly toward the politico-juridical practices of Cold War paranoia that seek to extract a truth in language, a name, even as it subordinates the language of the rights it promises to protect.

 

Copyright © 2004 by John Vincent

Thierry Ramais: On "Denmark Vesey"

What I found extraordinary about Aaron Kramer's poem sequence, "Denmark Vesey" is that it combines both a very compelling story-line and shows great technical mastery in mixing different poetic "genres" and rhythms while maintaining a surprising sense of fluidity and connectivity between all its various subparts. "Denmark Vesey" is, in my opinion, much more than a simple collage or patchwork of poems, it is a tapestry of experiences that throw light on one another while creating a very strong sense of cohesive whole. This sense of cohesiveness is of course at first dependant on the cohesiveness of the story itself; as we move from poem to poem, we are being told the story of a place, of a man and his people. The story flows as a true narrative, it has a beginning (a presumably "historical" one, presenting the background of slave introduction to the Americas), a heart (the increasing tension between slaves and their owners and the story of Denmark) and an (open) end. In this tapestry, none of the poem is out of place, yet all can be read in isolation. They all tell a story within themselves while helping the main "plot" (the revolutionary wind blowing increasingly through Charleston) to progress.

In this short comment, I would like to illustrate how Aaron Kramer described this mounting tension between black slaves and whites owners in his sequence, how all of its parts contribute to create a sense of ominousness which never quite disappears and which, as it gradually forces the white owners into a state of constant fear, also forces readers into acute feelings of tension and expectations.

The first poem of the sequence, "The Kidnapping", in the way in which some of its lines are cut, already shows signs of this sense of (possibly deluded) expectations, signs that what is given by the "voice(s)" behind these lines might not be final, might be hiding something different from what is expected, something feared or reluctantly admitted. So, for instance, readers will probably willingly accept the fact that the villages the slave-seller's boat sails along should remain "unknown", until, as the sentence continues in the next line, they are taken aback and forced to realize that they are indeed not unknown to "those who lived there". The narrative voice itself questions its own stability when from the same line to the next it presents as fact that the slave- seller's demonic "inspiration" took place "one morning", only to retract itself in the next line, admitting it might have taken place one "night". Later in the same poem, the reader has hope that the "unbound waves" can possibly "render [.] the lamentations of the slaves", only to be forced to admit, as he/she reads the next line that, even if they did, their language should be one which only "the sky might understand". There is actually a strong sense of the poem itself attempting to translate that "lamentation of the slaves" into words while being aware that its readers are somehow bound to be unable to "understand" it, to interpret it as they should.

The "Revolt in Santo Domingo" (which took place in the 1830's and marked the beginning of increasing fears on the part of slave-owners about their own security and heightened feelings of distrust towards their slaves) literally haunts the whole sequence of poems (see, for instance, "before the doom of Haiti and Domingo reached like a nightmare into every bed" in "The Minuet". In this poem, it is the whites themselves which are presented as "ghosts" of themselves). Interestingly (unless I am mistaken), the insurrection of Denmark Vesey which took place in Charleston, a "real" historical event, took place in the beginning of the 1820's, ten years before the Santo Domingo Revolt. The distortion of time/anachronism is interesting and might reflect the fact that the later revolt looms over the Vesey revolt as a "future" ghost. The ominiousness of Kramer's poem being one less related to what happened before than one related to how future generations will turn against their white masters, how, as stated in "The planter's fright", "the weak [will make] themselves mighty and do whatever they will". The "Sunday Offertory Prayer", which follows directly the description of Vesey's nightmare, makes mounting aggressiveness very palpable. Behind the call to Jesus to "put forth [his] loving arms", the idea that "Hell" is to be "prepare[d] for those who've torn the love and laughter from us" colors the black slaves' thought with feelings of revenge. This cry for revenge, however, is perceived by the whites as scary "silences". The mixing of points of view throughout the sequence makes Kramer's description of the white's uncertainties about what they should expect even more effective. Once again, it is through the (anachronistic, as I suggest) image of the upcoming revolt of Santo Domingo that fears are expressed: "A Santo Domingo we'll never allow" scream the slave owners in "The Legislators Vote". This last part of the poem, with its short mish-mash of cries ("Look for whisperers!" "Fine them!" "Jail them!" "Bind them!" "Starve them!" "Brand them!" "Flail them!"), is one tainted with fears, fears which, like Vesey's words in "A Meeting at Vesey's", cannot but keep on growing once it has been sown. The idea that this "word" should matter more than the man himself is carried throughout the rest of the poem, as shown in the following extract from "The Sentence is Announced": "The word of doom went through their bars / to spend the night among them. / Get out, bleak word - you are not theirs! / Go haunt the ones who hang them!" Vesey's words are not his own anymore and are starting a whole process which will eventually lead to insurrection. The somehow optimistic metaphor of the word spreading, of its ability to empower the black community even after its leader's death is embodied further in that of the young man deciding to take up the job of hitting the hammer after his father melancholically ponders on the silent night: "Buy me a hammer; I'll beat all day and all night. I'll make it the angriest hammer that ever was heard in the night."

 

Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais

Michael Callon: On "Call"

Audre Lorde's "Call" shoulders the enormous responsibility of heralding the "coming" of Aido Hwedo, a multi-faceted history whose "faces have been forgotten."

The poem features a speaker who is deeply invested in recovering this history, an effort that will require something more than simple remembrance and sentimental nostalgia--a politically charged articulation of what has been lost to time and it’s relevance to the present. As the poem opens with a desire for this "forgotten" history, it carries within its tone issues of culpability, for we inevitably question why and how this particular history was subsumed. Given that Lorde was African-American, such loss resonates with the consequences of slavery, only one of which was the gradual erosion of certain practices, traditions, and even mythologies belonging to distinct African cultures. Lorde has a seemingly impossible task before her: the reclamation of a history subsumed by time. Ultimately, Lorde’s recovery is actually a mixture of unearthing and rewriting that seeks to not only restore what was lost but to also politically restructure it in the service of a progressive feminist program that recognizes and praises black female activists.

I read "Call" as a poem that allows its title to lead into the first line: "Call Holy ghost woman / stolen out of your name / Rainbow Serpent / whose faces have been forgotten" (lines 1-4).  At first glance, these opening lines appear to command this enigmatic "Holy ghost woman" to reclaim Aido Hwedo (the "Rainbow Serpent") by "call"ing it forth.  However, there is also a sense in which the speaker, who identifies herself as "a Black woman," may be implicated in "the Holy ghost woman." For she later proclaims "and I believe in the holy ghost," which then rhetorically and ideologically connects the speaker to the "Holy ghost woman," who previously appeared distinctly separate from her. Thus, the opening call for Aido Hwedo is one that is actually directed inward by the speaker’s implicated self. Indeed, the speaker’s relationship to this figure is further complicated when we consider the historically vexed relationship between Christianity and slavery.

As it echoes loudly in the signifier "Holy ghost woman," Christianity returns us to considerations of its problematic and conflicted employment during the Transatlantic slave trade: the Bible was often used to cite divine "justification" for slavery and the supposed inferiority of blacks, and it was also used to argue for the necessary abolition of slavery, even while its promise of salvation also became a source of hope for many slaves.  (We should also note here that "holy ghost" appears in he poem three times, a number symbolically important in some forms of Christianity—The Trinity of God, Christ, and the Holy Ghost). The result is that the speaker’s heralding of Aido Hwedo is juxtaposed with her relationship to Christianity. Rather than simply substitute one for the other, she moves towards a program of gendered history that embodies the power and political activism of black women like Rosa Parks and Winnie Mandela, and this is an act that requires more than the recovery of Aido Hwedo’s faces and names; it requires an ongoing recognition of those women who are "enduring warring / [and] sometimes outside" this historical entity.

We might take note here that the speaker in "Call" envisions a relationship to the past that parallels the speaker’s desire in Lucille Clifton's "at the cemetery, walnut grove plantation, south carolina, 1989," where Clifton visits an old slave plantation and discovers a double error during a tour: slaves of the plantation are not mentioned and the names of female slaves are missing from a preserved inventory. Clifton then urges the slaves to speak from the silence of death and offer their names to her. In Lorde's poem, the forgotten past’s return is imminent and she paradoxically declares that "I have written your names on my cheekbone" (line 20). Clifton's speaker, however, expresses a powerful desire to know names that will mostly likely never be revealed to her. Clifton’s poem closes not with the expectation that the names will be obtained but with the disappointing and reverberating silence of the graveyard. Consequently, her power in the poem stems from her awareness of the missing names and not from an implied or explicit ability to actually restore their identities. The speaker's power in "Call," however, radiates from her position as a prophet/activist that announces the past's inevitable arrival even as she works to salvage it: "Aido Hwedo is coming."

Returning to Lorde, then, a third figure (aside from Aido Hwedo and the "holy ghost woman") that is crucially important to the speaker’s recovery project is the "Mother" who she asks to "loosen my tongue or adorn me / with a lighter burden." These lines grace the first and last stanzas in a way that hints at but does not reveal the initiating cause for the speaker’s efforts to revive Aido Hwedo. This "Mother" appears to be some force that has prompted the speaker to speak life back into Aido Hwedo, and the gendering of this figure is significant in that the speaker, "a Black woman," is being prompted to recuperate "ancient goddesses," even while she offers up women like Thandt Modise, "she who scrubs the capitol toilets," and Fannie Lou Hamer. Such a lineage establishes a powerful matrilineal order in which the past, present, and future are inflections of various black female figures that move specifically within spheres of political self-empowerment.

One might also argue here that the "Mother" is actually Aido Hwedo, calling on the speaker to flesh it in words and give it presence again in the collective psyche. Either way, for the speaker, "call"ing Aido Hwedo goes hand-in-hand with acknowledging legacies of modern women activists. It’s possible that Lorde is constructing her own divine trinity with Aido Hwedo, the "holy ghost woman," and "Mother," entities that are not easily resolved with one another.

The energy and action of the poem coalesces around womanhood. There is no mention of men, except as "sons of my daughters," so the work that is to be done, the recovery project, is solely in the hands of women who can "loosen" their tongues and offer up voices that revive Aido Hwedo. The speaker, and other women like her, are preparing for an engagement that will be fought with "scraps of different histories." In fact, she informs us that "On worn kitchen stools and tables / we are piecing our weapons together" (lines 8-9). It’s through the piecing together of these historical scraps that a new and hybrid history will emerge, one that contains the lost names and faces of Aido Hwedo and that’s also capable of linking, without losing geographical and social specificity, the political activism of women like Assata Shakur, Yaa Asantewa, and Rosa Parks. Furthermore, in the aforementioned lines, kitchens, spaces usually identified with traditional gender roles that restrict women to nurturing and caretaking functions, are turned into rhetorical and intellectual ammunition factories whose products become "weapons" against the tomb-like silence of the forgotten past. Thus, women become history-wielding warriors demanding truth and recognition.

Towards the end of the poem, the speaker becomes a conduit for various voices:   "my mother and Winnie Mandela are singing / in my throat" (lines 73-4). This "singing" is a polyphonic testimony to the strength, endurance, and history of black women. This history is not destructively exclusive, because she is endeavoring to exhume a substantial part of it from a tomb of silence ("one iron silence broken") that has significance for all oppressed and marginalized groups. This is not to say that Lorde is making a universal statement in this poem but that speaker’s desire to exhume the past resonates has analogs within the history of other peoples (i.e. some Native Americans born in the later part of the nineteenth century were forced to abandon their native culture at boarding schools). The aforementioned polyphony performs a "call," beckoning the reader to recognize the endeavors and sacrifices of black women ("my whole life has been an altar"), and the ideal response to this "call" would include an awareness of what has been lost to time. Lorde does not seek to define black womanhood in 'Call," rather she works with a silenced history to revivify the historical importance of black women's dedicated activism, and this endeavor is complicated by the historical legacies of biblically supported slavery and cultural loss.

Heather Zadra: On "Petroglyphs of Serena"

I felt quite compelled to write about this poem because I grew up connected (in a paradoxically disconnected sort of way) to the images Louis presents so starkly and realistically. In fact, through much of his work I could match his bleak, yet intensely powerful, depictions with scenes I've witnessed since I was a child in White River, South Dakota (just north of the Rosebud Indian Reservation and a couple of hours east of Pine Ridge), where my grandmother and father were raised and where I spent every summer growing up. "Yellowbird's Store" becomes the local Wig-Wam, where milk costs $3.50 a gallon and *is* "powdered with Great Plains dust"; I can see the "broken-down '72 Olds" (or maybe it's a Plymouth) rusting in a front yard; and, as in "Dust World," everybody knows that, even if young people do escape this town (and many, many don't), they still "have...two strikes/ against them even if they did graduate." A close friend of my father's, a white man who's now a dentist in Chicago, can rattle off the names of the dead, names that composed most of his graduating class--high school classmates who, over the years or early on, were killed in tragic, split-second accidents, who died of alcoholism, or who are barely hanging on and have forsaken the title of "living." He is white, like my father, and that "helped"--for whatever that's worth. They didn't have the history or the precedents to deal with that their Native American friends did, even as they recognized their own race's blame in shaping that history. But sometimes they talk about it and sound amazed that even they got out, and that once they did, they actually succeeded in what they tried to do "out there." We still visit, but Dad pretty much stays around the house, which lies just outside of town a mile or so.

It's eerie, almost, seeing this world through Louis from the inside, in a way that, even as my grandmother and her mother always welcomed the many poor Lakota Indians who appeared shyly at their home (as they ate together, my relatives always promised to pick them up in a beaten-up old van on Sunday morning for church), I never had access to in my own experience. That I am white, despite the deeply-held sympathies that I learned and felt growing up, and that I can honestly feel as I write this post, rightfully excludes me from any notion or understanding of what this dispossessed, displaced people has undergone, or continues to undergo. A naive realization, and one that I've implicity understood for some time now, but one, I think, that describes exactly what Louis intends for his white readers.

"Petroglyphs of Serena" gives us "snapshots," so to speak, of a dying world, a world in which even the Native American speaker cannot find a way out. Its language is distinctly personal and individualized, at the same time that the poem's description of one small reservation town and its inhabitants suggests hundreds of other, similar towns and people stretched across the region. And yet it is not for the white people that Louis presents this picture, or if it is, he does so in a way that includes them only as figures complicit in the Native American destruction that is simultaneously the Indians' own "self-destruction." As the biographical sketch indicates, even as Louis dreams of "that simple urge to scalp a white man," he also refuses to gloss over his own, and his people's, part in damning themselves: "Our children have no respect / because their parents cannot connect / the values of the ancient chiefs / to the deadly grief that welfare brings." Still, it is ultimately the white race that has brought Native Americans into the conditions that urge on a people's self-ruin. The poem is thus inevitably dependent on whites' involvement in its construction, at the same time that it stands as a sort of infirm monument to a once self-reliant people.

The yearning for a return to a simple, communal past that can no longer be reclaimed except in memory, through those who remember for the people as "the grandmother[s] of us all", echoes throughout the poem. The speaker understands the impossibility of going back to "the old days" and can find no viable way to redeem the future, to save generations that must otherwise be subjected to the same conditions that he, and numerous others before him, have been. Thus, he can only question, rather than provide answers to, those who, likewise, cannot respond to such unanswerable concerns:

 

The question is, can the children be saved?

And if so, then why? Will they ever be whole

or do we just add them to the dark days

of casualties from Sand Creek

to Ira Hayes?

 

The speaker's only "solutions," or perhaps we might call them escapes, are to move away from reality by imagining redemption through revenge ("the sweet, sweet squeak / of blade hitting headbone. / The snapdance of sinew / yanked awry"), or through escapist sexual pleasure which, even as it invests him with the sense that he is "safe and guilt-free," is only fleeting and ultimately defeating: "I love to graze on the sparse, black / cornsilk in the valleys of the Sioux / and it will be my downfall." The speaker's descriptions of his sexual impulses fill the beginning of the poem, and are cut off abruptly by Serena's death; they are then replaced by vengeful imaginings revolving around white men, white traders, and their abuses of Native Americans; finally, by the end of the poem, sexual acts once again become the focus, this time, perhaps, with Serena's sister. All of these shifts unsuccessfully attempt to elide the enormity of what has happened to a culture, an entire tradition, and turn into a twisted cycle that mimics the seasonal changes recurrent throughout the poem. Much of the vitality of Native American traditions have revolved around the importance of continuous change, often epitomized in nature, and here Louis puts such forms to a darker purpose. The freezing Indians in their poorly insulated homes, for instance, perform a deeply ironic ritual, once ceremonial but here desperate, as they "shiver-danced around woodstoves / and howled the most wondrous songs / of brilliant poverty."

There's so much more to do with this poem, and I've only touched the surface (e.g., what *about* Serena's death?), but it might suffice to close in noting that the poem's speaker, though still angry, is exhausted, tired, perhaps a bit like Hughes in his later poetry. It is 1997, and still he paints the same pictures he's been trying to sell for thirty years.

Christina Scheuer: On "Looking for Judas"

In “Looking for Judas,” Adrian C. Louis conflates Native American and Christian myth, binding them together through the central imagery of the poem. Louis’s poem begins when the speaker of the poem kills a deer and hangs it in the barn, and as he reflects on the body, the image of the “five-point mule” recalls Christ’s crucifixion: “Gutted, skinned, and shimmering in eternal/ nakedness, the glint in its eyes could/ be stolen from the dry hills of Jerusalem.” After he imagines the deer as a Christ-figure, however, the speaker tries to return to a time before “the white man/ brought us Jesus” in order to tell the story of the way in which Native Americans once communed with the spirit of the “Deer People.” These two narratives are brought together dramatically in the penultimate line, in which the speaker says that the deer’s “holy blood became ours.” In both myths, the “holy blood” symbolizes intimate connection and communion, a union between physical and spiritual realities. The narratives that Louis weaves together are both stories of a death that leads, presumably, to communion, rebirth, and regeneration, and yet the history of the “white man’s” genocide of Native people makes such an easy communion unthinkable.

As the speaker continues to regard the deer that he has just killed, he attempts to place himself and the deer within the context of the story of the Native people’s connection to the Deer People. Though the speaker includes himself in the “we” of the story, his repetition of the phrase “They say” makes it clear that he has already distanced himself from his narrative, relying on hearsay or on another’s discursive authority:

 

They say before the white man

brought us Jesus, we had honor.

They say when we killed the Deer People,

we told them their spirits

would live in our flesh.

 

The “They” of the poem remains necessarily ambiguous and nebulous; the speaker cannot identity the “They” as a familiar person or as a particular group of storytellers with whom he can personally relate. Rather, he views one of the central stories of his own culture as if he were an outsider looking in on the narrative. The co-existence of the two cultural myths in the poem reveal that the speaker cannot remember or speak of a time “before the white man,” so that the “They” of the poem not only refers to his Native ancestors, but also to the white people who have appropriated, fixed, and disseminated the stories of his people. Through movies, television shows and novels, American consumers have become familiar with the “white man’s” version of stories about Native people’s relationship to the land and to animals, and it is impossible for Louis to tell this story without echoing the white stereotype of the “noble savage” whose intimate connection with nature make him seem both more and less than human. Therefore, Louis is necessarily alienated from his own story, unable to find “honor” in a narrative that has been appropriated by the very people who systematically destroyed his culture.

After constructing his narrative, however, Louis adroitly dismantles the story through the mockery of his last line: “Or something like that.” With its swift disruption of the reader’s expectations, Louis’s last line is a brilliant use of irony that transforms everything that precedes it. The speaker’s final statement reclaims the narrative from the nebulous “They” that had seemingly controlled it, thereby restoring the speaker’s discursive authority. By seizing control of the story, Louis skillfully undermines the white stereotype of the noble savage; the self-mockery and irony of the last line makes it clear that he is deeply aware of the way in which his story has been appropriated by white culture. Even though this last line reclaims the speaker’s authority, the implications of the speaker’s mockery are fairly devastating, quickly severing any hope that the speaker might find some mythic connection with the deer and, therefore, with his own culture.

If the deer is a symbol of Christ, then the title of the poem, “Looking for Judas,” leads us to ask who, exactly, is the great betrayer. “Judas” cannot simply be identified as the speaker of the poem because Judas himself did not physically kill Christ; the betrayal, then, lies not in the central action of the poem, but rather lurks behind it. If we read the text of the poem through the title – that is, read it “Looking for Judas,” – then the words “the white man/ brought us Jesus” take on an entirely new meaning, suggesting that the white man “brought [them] Jesus” in the same way in which Judas brought Jesus to the Romans, using the Christian religion as a means to satiate their avarice and lust for power. Read in this way, the focus of the Christian myth as it is played out in America is not redemption, but rather a betrayal rising out of an unpardonable greed, and the guilt of Judas is no longer contained in one man, but rather disseminated among the population.

Deeply aware of the way in which his story has been appropriated, Louis uses irony to dramatize the speaker’s alienation from himself, from his history, and from the deer, whose spirit never “live[s] in [his] flesh.” However, because the Native and the Christian narrative are so inexorably linked within the poem, the failure of communion between the speaker and the deer reverberates out through the Christian myth. Through the title of the poem and his use of Christian imagery, Louis shows that the “white man’s” history of greed and deceit has likewise alienated them from their own central narrative of salvation, revealing them as the betrayers of Christ rather that his messengers—casting them as strangers in the house of their own myth.

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