Original Criticism

Scott A. Campbell: On "Dust World"

Section I of Adrian Louis’s “Dust World” (1992) opens with the speaker standing in “a whirlwind of hot autumn dust” (line 1) and screaming “for the wind to abate” (4). The speaker is standing against the wind to save the poor surrounding him, presumably Indians of the Sioux reservation he seems to be on. The poor only surround him metaphorically, however, and he stands and speaks alone, exposed to the harsh weather. The solitude suggests his being ignored by or withdrawn from the community, as there is no indication of his being supported by some unseen group or any others’ awareness of his speech act. The power he speaks or acts against here, the wind, moves from an unseen and unknowable point, swarms around him, and moves on to some other point in the American West, linking together the lands ceded to whites by the Sioux and others. The overwhelming force of the wind proves itself in its triumph over the speaker at the end of the section: “I have no sylvan glades of dreams,/ just dust words/ for my people dying.” The words he shouts become lost in the “death wind” (7) and so he loses his only source of real power. The poem’s title indicates how the wind in its evacuative fury has become the ‘real’ of the entire world in the impoverished rural American West. The speaker has taken on an act of real bravery, one that evokes medicinal powers of certain pre-colonization Indian cultures in the West, and has done so without the support of those for whom he risks himself. But, his words are denied their power and are made into the same blowing dust that erodes the community from which he has separated himself.

In Section II the speaker moves into that community but fails to form any real connections to the people there and to uncover any meaningful, purposeful groups or acts to connect with. Those he does encounter depend on a markedly passive relationship with American culture for the behavior and subjectivity they express. The teenage mothers who lounge with their children on the hood of a very old car and the high school dropouts working at the video store both give the speaker quasi-sexual greetings. Neither group seems to hold much interest for him, however, and neither certainly has any of the usual indications of enticing sexuality in American culture. The girls’ waving “as if they know me” (15) mimics the behavior of high school students as they cruise and flirt, and the car itself has long been a sexually charged and sexualized object in America. The video store clerks mimic violence from an action movie, presumably one playing on a store monitor, and violence has been another medium for sexual arousal in America. The narrator believes, much as he does of the girls, that the boys are “are almost courting me … almost flirting” (26-27) because of his pronounced masculinity in the form of enormous biceps. He walks past both the girls and the boys, though, without speaking to them or making any sort of positive comments about them. He does note that the whiskey has taken over his voice at the end of the stanza, and he rewrites the ending of section I into another moment of powerless or impotent speech. The connotation of sexual impotence cannot be missed here, given the subject matter of the stanza and especially the line “ever so softly” (30), with its whiskey-fueled, whispered seductions and hint of the concomitant failure to act on those seductions. The girls and boys are the community that he has tried to save from the power of the post-colonization West but he cannot form any relationship to them, even of the most basic type. They lack the power of the adult world to identify on and act in their own best interests and to confront the power moving over the reservation as the speaker has in the poem’s opening. He wants to act as a father to the community, to become an authority figure, but cannot because of his own subjugation by an addiction to alcohol and his isolation. The isolation that ends this section deprives his speech of its power over those in the community he wants to help. His trip into town could change the grown children he meets into adults, but his words have been rendered “dust” by the effects of a colonizing American culture: Hollywood movies and Detroit cars that violently appropriate Indian cultures, alcohol that leaves him physically and socially impotent, and economic despair that makes teenage girls into solitary mothers and teenage boys into dropouts without prospects beyond being clerks.

The third section begins in much the same way. The eroticism of the Sioux girls has become blatant and even flaunted for all to see, as they “court friction” and rub their butts over the hood of the “hideous car” (34-35). They have begun marketing their sexuality as they use it to attract this father figure, and he responds by sucking in his stomach and peeling out the tires of his T-bird. In the sequence both sides act out stereotypical aspects of courtship in America, as prescribed by Hollywood-produced clichés and consumer culture. That culture enters their lives also in its appropriation of the Thunder Bird for the name of the speaker’s car. He and the girls signify their sexual identities by interacting with this dominant culture rather than with each other. The problem continues for the narrator at the end of the poem, in which he returns to the video store for the X-rated films he has forgotten in his alcoholic stupor. He rents the pornography from the exoticized, fighting clerks and ends the poem alone in a “wild-night redskin parade.” One meaning of “redskin” here is masturbation in the form of a literal self-abuse, something that damages him in its furor and, again, his solitude. His encounter with the town has left him isolated and replicating the exploitative system, in the form of watching pornography, that has objectified Indians for so long. Even the Sioux reservation in South Dakota, on which they live and which the speaker tries to defend against the plains dust storm, is a product of the same motivation. The desire for gold that opened up the Dakotas to whites produced violence similar to that of his desire for the women of the films—both involve a desire based on illusion and fetish rather than real, personal relationships, and both produce great wealth for people in distant cities too. After his failed attempt at resistance to the constant storm of white power there is no escape from its effects in his home, and he lacks the cultural agency, available to others in such things as attitudes of racial supremacy or the power of money, to form a life separate from the storm and its manifestations in his VCR. His isolation at the end only intensifies his vulnerability to intrusion by forces of the dominant culture.

Although the speaker is acted upon by the impersonal force of the storm, he lacks a sense of victimization. In section III he “cruise(s) through a small whirlwind/ of lascivious regrets” (43-44) after he has performed his masculinity by peeling out for the teenage girls. His whirlwind resembles the dust and wind of the opening but has come under his control here, and by extension it brings those regrets under control as well. Encased in this private, isolated dust storm he “happily” cruises the streets of this “welfare world” (45-46) without the purpose of the opening stanza; the ending of the poem clearly indicates a sense of loss. His solitude at the end only reaffirms that at the beginning, though, and so in this respect nothing has changed in his condition in the world. From his solitude he continues to act upon his social context, cruising through the town and evaluating its citizens’ status much as he went out to meet the windstorm. Throughout the poem he maintains a commitment to them and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own. The racist meaning of “redskin” from the last line signifies his self-awareness with regard to his being like the stereotypical Indian. He acknowledges his complicity in his occupying this stereotype and the masturbatory impulses sometimes involved in self-pity, and he moves beyond both of those with his shouting what he knows to be mere “dust words” into the wind. The self-control denied him by his racial and class identities he grants to himself with the act of speaking into the storm. Part of the poem’s poignancy comes from its awareness of the necessity of that stance, of shouting into the void, and its obstinate depiction of both the conditions of the people he would help and his inability to relate to them even in the act of protecting them.

Jim Beatty: On "A Colossal American Copulation"

I’d like to respond to John Marsh’s comments on “A Colossal American Copulation”. While I admire and would echo most of what John says about the poem, one point merits more discussion. In the course of his analysis, Marsh parenthetically remarks: “Perhaps it's too generous to explain away those critiques we might have more trouble cheering on (its possible backhanded racism-"Fuck every gangbanger in America"-and misogyny ("Fuck...That first pussy I ever touched.") by arguing that even the speaker has been corrupted by that which he so doggedly critiques.”

While I agree that simply celebrating Louis’s irreverent rejection of the US dominant culture would too easily elide some disturbing moments in the poem, I think that the comments Marsh quotes need to be more broadly contextualized. With respect to Louis’s derision of “gangbangers,” it should be remembered that those who we would identify–and who would identify themselves–under this moniker fall under nearly every conceivable racial category. Additionally, Louis follows up this statement by saying “Fuck furiously the drive-by shooters.” Here he is not just objecting to an oversimplified vision of a cultural identity–he is lamenting an all-too-real material practice of those who would call themselves by the name he attacks. Thus in saying “Fuck every gangbanger in America,” Louis is rejecting a commodified posture of rebellion that markets intra- and inter-racial violence to urban refugees of every color–be it African Americans or Latina/os in major urban centers or white kids in Oklahoma or even American Indians on the reservation. Rather than a racist dismissal of an ethnic counter-culture, Louis’s comment may well be a critique of how the commodified version of that counter-culture is deployed to mis-direct the legitimate rage of the oppressedclasses of all races in the US.

Another aspect of a broader context in which to consider some of the poem's more disturbing lines lies in Louis’s self-representation of his poetic project: “Well, the overall theme in my work is personal survival. I'm writing about my life. I guess deep down I sort of fancy myself as speaking for certain kinds of people who don't have a voicefor the downtrodden.” In enunciating the terms of “personal survival,” Louis is trying to come to terms with a postmodern barrage of (largely media-generated) images and phenomenon. Additionally, Ullman comments that Louis speaks as both an observer and a prime example of a condition, as both the accuser and the accused.” In this light, I read his rejection of “That first pussy I ever touched” as regret rather than hatred. I’ll agree that this regret is somewhat trivialized in being paralleled to a regret for “That first cigarette I ever smoked,” yet both do point to specific,often thoughtless adolescent actions that can have long-lasting physical, psychological, and symbolic effects–effects that Louis needs to symbolically reject along with everything else. Finally, Louis follows these two lines with the comic “Fuck it again, Sam,” moving past a simplistic nostalgia embodied in the line he re-writes from _Casablanca_, denying a longing for that first cigarette or first sexual experience–that one that all subsequent experiences in either respect will never equal–as well as a destructive infinite regret.

Finally, Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of “fuck you”s. He does this with obviously playful lines like “Fuck a duck,” a curse I’ve never heard spoken in anything but a lighthearted, albeit resigned, tone. Additionally, Louis startles the reader by including “Mother Teresa” in his list of “fuck you”s. He follows this up with an immediate response to his readers’ reactions by saying “Jesus, just kidding.” I find this to be the most disturbing line in the poem. Yet Louis insists that, at the very least, there is a line between what he is seriously rejecting and what he implicitly values. This line alone undercuts a critique that the poem is simply a reactionary rejection of everything with nothing positive to offer. While the playful and the scathing often overlap in the poem (e.g. the hilarious “Fuck . . . Sam Donaldson’s wig”), Louis deftly deflects, for the careful, sympathetic reader (i.e. one that won’t stop reading at the first “Fuck”) any sort of moral outrage the poem might occasion. In the nihilistic glee of his flipping off the US, we have critique, lament, and paradoxically celebration complexly inter-woven.

John Marsh: On "A Colossal American Copulation"

Adrian Louis's "A Colossal American Copulation" borrows heavily from Walt Whitman, whose poetics have been central to much of the American poetry that would follow. Louis, though, appropriates (as Ginsberg's poetry does) the free verse and cultural catalogues that Whitman used to celebrate and cohere a mid-nineteenth century America for its own later project of denouncing that same America. And while Louis' catalogue of what deserves to be fucked ranges freely over late twentieth century America, there is nevertheless a persistent logic to its categories. It targets violence made even more repugnant for its banality ("Fuck the men who keep their dogs chained./ Fuck the men who molest their daughters.") It especially criticizes acts of state violence. "Fuck the gutless Guardsmen / who were at Kent State...." and "Fuck, no, double fuck the Vietnam War." Beyond its critique of personal and state violence, though, the poem also aims at popular culture ("Fuck...The Immaturity of MTV. Those Monster Trucks.") and what we might simply call bad taste (Fuck...my other neighbor who has plastic life-sized deer in his front yard.") The poem is also free with its condemnations of its contemporary literary scene: "Fuck the Creative Writing programs/ and all the SPAM poets they hatch." "Fuck The Waste Land by T.S. Eliot. And all those useless allusions." And (my favorite): "F*U*C*K the L*A*N*G*U*A*G*E poets." Perhaps it's too generous to explain away those critiques we might have more trouble cheering on--its possible backhanded racism ("Fuck every gangbanger in America") and misogyny ("Fuck...That first pussy I ever touched") by arguing that even the speaker has been corrupted by that which he so doggedly critiques. Nevertheless, all these individual critiques add up to a wholesale condemnation of America and American culture. "A Colossal American Copulation" goes beyond something like reformism to reject the whole American cultural scene and even, I would argue, though they are only obliquely evoked, the foundations of that scene.

The poem begins and ends with a stanza expressing the speaker's resignation:

 

"They say there's a promise

coming down that dusty road.

They say there's a promise coming down

That dusty road, but I don't see it."

 

"Promise," in its abstractness, carries multiple meanings. The legal coercion of Indian Removal in the 1830s and 1840s, the promise of "assimilation," which is a nice word, to call forth House Resolution 108 from 1953, for "termination," and finally the promise of cultural autonomy and a decent way of life that goes unfulfilled even today. But that this promise is to arrive "down that dusty road" suggests finally a critique of the promises of Western Civilization and the promises of equality and equal protection under the law contained in the Declaration of Independence and Constitution, the American incarnation of the West. In an interview with Geronimo, a journal of politics and culture, Louis says of the United States

Oh, it's here. I try to ignore it if I can. (Pause) This country was founded on violence. So it's kind of like karma coming back to haunt us, you know. When the Spaniards came into the towns here they killed more Indians than Hitler killed Jews in his ovens. It's a greater holocaust here than there was in Europe during World War II. That's a historical fact. America is a schizophrenic country. On the one hand, it purports to be the peace loving center of the universe. On the other hand, it's got everything it has from violence and taking.

It's an open question whether the violence and barbarity at the source of America undermines any claims it can make for its contribution to democracy and freedom, its promises. For some, the abuses trump whatever good may have or will come. Except in "A Colossal American Copulation," there is no suggestion of those goods, those promises, which are infinitely promised but also infinitely postponed, until the speaker has given up on ever seeing them. Instead, we get the detritus of popular culture and a smug violence, metonymies for the larger culture, all of which the speaker equally, and with pointed language, rejects.

Ci: On "Skunk Hour"

Topographically and thematically, “Skunk Hour” and “For the Union Dead” are similar projects. Both poems deal with the New England consciousness and offer indictments of the Puritan value system. The opening sequence of “Skunk Hour,” which consists of four tonally subdued stanzas, describes the arrival of autumn in the beach town of Castine, Maine, where Lowell spent the summer of 1957 (Life and Art 124). This scene ostensibly comments on a particularly dispiriting ritual of autumnal desertion specific to East Coast beach towns. Yet Lowell ascribes great meaning to the sudden desolation enacted when the summer ends and the tourists pull up stakes and take their commerce with them. Steven Gould Axelrod voices the critical consensus on what Lowell is doing here: “[Lowell] is describing more than scenery, he is describing the rotting of a whole social structure” (Life and Art 125). The figures left behind stand as conflicted or empty signifiers. “Nautilus Island’s hermit / heiress” is a post-Puritan elect who, like the elect of “For the Union Dead,” uses her wealth not as a tool of beneficence but as a weapon of desecration:

 

Thirsting for
the hierarchic privacy
of Queen Victoria’s century,
she buys up all the eyesores facing her shore,
and lets them fall.
 

Elect and preterite immediately take on connotations of economic class in postwar Maine. These lines suggest “hierarchic” domination of the underclass preterite of Nautilus Island, and we can very well imagine these “eyesores” as the former homes of the working-class “lobstermen” of the next stanza. But the hermit heiress is herself on the brink of extinction. “She’s in her dotage,” and the fact that her “son’s a bishop” suggests a sterile lineage (not to mention a weird, lighthearted nod to Elizabeth Bishop). Castine’s “summer millionaire,” the capitalist successor to her aristocracy, also proves to be less than he seems. While Axelrod suggests that the millionaire has lost his money, “[he’s] past his prime — his yawl has been auctioned off ” (Life and Art 125), a better explanation may be that he is simply finished with Castine since it has been just another part of his false summer image along with his “L.L. Bean catalogue” facade. Either way, his disappearance signals another reduction of the town’s wealth. His “nine-knot yawl” is recycled by the village’s working-class lobstermen, which along with the heiress’s purchase of “eyesores,” enacts a collapsing of the elect and preterite categories in the merging of upper and lower class. The “lobstermen,” too, are a weird monstrosity that combines haut cuisine with manual labor. Linguistically, their name denies their humanity by bringing to mind a freakish amalgamation of lobster and man. The third figure of the opening sequence, Lowell’s “fairy decorator,” performs an antithetical operation that amounts to the same thing: “And now our fairy / decorator brightens his shop for fall; / his fishnet’s filled with orange cork, / orange, his cobbler’s bench and awl.” By subsuming work implements into his shop to attract tourists and their money, the decorator has imploded preterite objects into the trappings of election, but, as the speaker explains, “there is no money in his work / he’d rather marry.” The decorator’s willingness to suppress his homosexuality for the prospect of marginal pecuniary security further contributes to the opening sequence’s milieu of capitalism gone awry, a condition that even has a seemingly detrimental effect on the ecology: “The season’s ill — / . . . A red fox stain covers Blue Hill.” It should be noted that throughout these four stanzas Lowell consistently uses the all-inclusive “our,” a narrative technique that evokes not community solidarity but universal despondency (LS 83).

This unhappy leveling effect is a result of the phenomenon that Charles Berryman describes as “the substitution of mere worldly success for the original Puritan ideal of salvation” (21). In this way, Lowell’s representation of Castine’s residents reimagines the process delineated more than half a century earlier by Max Weber in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism. According to Weber, the American emphasis on worldly success finds its origins in Puritan piety. The “melancholy inhumanity” inherent in Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, the ever-present uncertainty as to whether one was among the saved, “had one result above all: a feeling of unimaginable inner loneliness of the solitary individual ” (59). As the Puritans moved away from strict Calvinist doctrine and into what Weber calls Ascetic Protestantism, they naturally had to revise and redirect this fatalist outlook in order to maintain their membership, which resulted in the “Protestant ethic.” Since God’s intentions could never be known, the only way to ameliorate soteriological anxiety was to actively search for signs of personal election and, in the process, maintain total obedience to God’s commandments and laws. Humankind’s innate turpitude obviously made utter conformity a near-impossible task. “Restless work in a vocational calling,” Weber explains, “was recommended as the best possible means to acquire the self-confidence that one belonged among the elect. Work, and work alone, banished religious doubt and gives certainty of one’s status among the saved” (66; emphasis Weber’s). From this statement, it’s not difficult to see the connection that Weber draws between Puritanism and capitalism. The “methodically organized work” advocated by Puritan ideology evolved into a pursuit of material wealth: “the acquisition of wealth, when it was the fruit of work in a vocational calling, as God’s blessing” (116). The spirit of capitalism, then, rests in material wealth as tangible proof of one’s salvation: “restless, continuous, and systematic work” aimed at the accumulation of “investment capital” becomes “the highest of all ascetic means for believers to testify to their elect status” (116–17). As Pynchon’s narrator phrases it at one point in Gravity’s Rainbow, investment capital became “money in the Puritan sense — an outward and visible O.K. on their intentions” (652). Capitalism transforms the conditioned impulse toward salvation into a secularized exaltation of wealth and its forms of outward cultural signification, forsaking any hope of election in the spiritual sense. Weber’s theory is a key framework for understanding Lowell’s treatment of Puritanism. The characters in this first section of “Skunk Hour” have all tried to display a “visible O.K. on their intentions,” only to end up collapsed into the very thing they are trying to avoid.

The final four stanzas, which are perhaps the most commented-on of the Lowellian corpus, propel the conflation of elect and preterite to the poem’s forefront. The “One dark night” of “Skunk Hour” (LS 84) penetrates “For the Union Dead,” its poetic double, modulating into “One morning last March” (FTUD 72). Both lines have a haunting, quotidian quality. Lowell has written at length on the subject of this “dark night”:

This is the dark night. I hoped my readers would remember John of the Cross’s poem. My night is not gracious, but secular, puritan, and agnostical. An Existential night. Somewhere in my mind was a passage from Sartre or Camus about reaching some final darkness where the one free act is suicide. (Collected Prose 226)

Far from St. John of the Cross’s dark night, which ultimately leads to a perfect union with God, this dark night features a wholly absent God. Lowell inverts the narrative of mystical election to create a Puritan wilderness in which none are saved; the union simply never happens. Of the three adjectives (“secular, puritan, and agnostical”) that Lowell uses to describe his night, “puritan” is the most troublesome. “Secular” and “agnostical” make perfect sense in light of the existential aura that Lowell acknowledges. But why include the word “puritan”? We are speaking, of course, about “puritan” with a lowercase p, which can simply denote a rejection of sinful pleasures, but the word is heavily freighted coming from Lowell. One explanation is that the secularized Puritan struggle of the first half of the poem has been internalized by the speaker in the second half of the poem. The collapsed “our” of the poem’s first half telescopes into an “I” in the second half, culminating in the Satanic utterance “I myself am hell.” Carrying out the Puritan impulse to look for signs of election in everyday life (Puritan Origins 16), albeit in a perversely displaced manner, the “I” watches “love-cars” for signs of love (presumably a tonic to the existential condition) but finds only mechanized tombs that seem to mechanically copulate: “they lay together, hull to hull, / where the graveyard shelves on the town.” The speaker’s strange search is closely allied to the Puritan quest to make the invisible visible, an inclination that Pynchon calls the “Puritan reflex of seeking other orders behind the visible, also known as paranoia” (188). A psychologized iteration of Weber’s observation that relentless Puritan self-examination became displaced into the accumulation of capital, the peripatetic narrator attempts to accumulate evidence of election in the world around him in order to internalize it and find some comfort in his own election.

Lowell does offer at least a modicum of hope in the skunks “that search / in the moonlight for a bite to eat,” and the skunks further explain Lowell’s use of the word “puritan.” Sandra M. Gilbert identifies them as representatives of hell, “fiery familiars who emerge from the shadows of the graveyard to march, as if punning on Milton and Dante, ‘on their soles up Main Street,’ flaunting their demonic triumph ‘under the chalk-dry and spar spire / of the Trinitarian Church,’ ” but of all the animals in the veritable bestiary of Life Studies, it is difficult to see the outcast, malodorous, mustelid skunk as a demonic conqueror or “the militant brutish new order, commanding the ruins of the former civilization” as Axelrod suggests (Life and Art131). Rather, the skunks are the preterite, Lowell’s model of endurance in a secular wasteland where those saved and those left behind have become indistinguishable from one another. What we have here is not an affirmation of redemption, as one might suspect, but merely hope for survival. Outside the “Trinitarian Church,” outside the domestic sphere of “our back steps,” the mother skunk fights tooth and nail for existence, and unlike any other creature (or car) in “Skunk Hour,” she has managed to reproduce and provide for her offspring. Without hope for spiritual election, they carry on as purely willful subjects in the poem’s world of existential crisis. Accordingly, in a letter to John Berryman, Lowell called the skunks “horrible blind energy” and verified that his speaker does identify with them in a positive way, as a desirable alternative: “i.e. dropping down to a simpler form of life, and a hopeful wish for that simpler energy” (Letters 400). Their march is a march of defiance, a thumbnail sketch of how to endure modern existence. After the implosions and erasures of election, the evaporations of wealth and worldly pleasure, the preterite skunks stand at the end of the poem as a sort of displaced persons population, fierce survivors who “will not scare” in Lowell’s wrecked allegory of universal preterition (LS 84).

“I don’t think that anyone has to get themselves to go and watch lovers in a parking lot necking in order to write a poem,” Frank O’Hara griped, “and I don’t see why it’s admirable if they feel guilty about it. They should feel guilty.” O’Hara’s cutting analysis insightfully prods at the greater issues of “Skunk Hour” and offers some much needed relief from Lowell’s anomie:

Why are they snooping? What’s so wonderful about a Peeping Tom? And then if you liken them to skunks putting their noses into garbage pails, you’ve just done something perfectly revolting. No matter what the metrics are. And the metrics aren’t all that unusual. Every other person in any university in the United States could put that thing into metrics. (Lucie-Smith 13)

Lowell explained that the detail about watching lovers wasn’t from personal experience, “but from an anecdote about Walt Whitman in his old age” (Collected Prose 228). The hidden presence of Whitman — the “bard of democracy” — is significant, especially when taken with the simultaneous allusion to Paradise Lost. David Lehman attributes O’Hara’s distaste to “the grandiose egoism of a speaker who likens the welfare of the body politic to the state of his psyche and quotes Milton’s Satan, ‘Myself am Hell,’ without saving irony” (348). However, in light of the Calvinist drama that unfolds in the first four stanzas, there is something ironic about Lowell’s identification with Satan. Lowell transposes Milton’s great Puritan struggle between heaven and hell onto Whitman’s democratic vision: “the prostitute and the President” living in perfect accord, creating a democracy of preterition where the “hermit heiress” suffers equally alongside the “lobstermen.” Theological categories collapse, and moral balance is lost. O’Hara is right; the result is revolting. That’s the point.

Perhaps Marjorie Perloff is correct when she contends that “Skunk Hour” falters when Lowell attempts to “make his own malaise representative of the larger condition of an America in decline” (“Return” 81). But one aspect of the poem that has gone strangely unnoticed is the way in which the skunks’ march presages real preterite marches, the civil rights, women’s rights, and Vietnam War protests that would erupt only a few years later. “Skunk Hour” is most important to twenty-first century readers not necessarily as a confessional testament to “America in decline” but as a mapping of the fault line between the “tranquilized fifties” and the volatile 60s, where formalism ruptures into confessionalism and the obstinate skunks transmute into Mailer’s Armies of the Night. Lowell himself, elect by most measures, took part in several protests against the Vietnam War. Underlying his support of the anti-war movement, however, is the deeply conflicted suspicion that distinctions between right and New Left, conservative and liberal, and war apologist and anti-war protestor are insignificant in the depolarized twentieth century. While “Skunk Hour” explores America’s Puritan legacy in allegorical terms, Lowell would move towards more concrete expressions of this catastrophe in For the Union Dead.

Melissa Girard: On "We of the Streets"

Wright’s “We of the Streets” reminds me (not surprisingly) of the opening pages of Native Son. In these pages, Wright presents the psychic and geographic boundaries that confine Bigger Thomas, a network of intricate signs that everywhere express the fatal determinism of a life intersected by race and class oppression. The meaning of these social markers of oppression is most succinctly ingrained in Bigger’s consciousness in the poster of a politician pointing at him, the caption reading “YOU CAN’T WIN!” Without going too far on a tangent, I point this out to show the way that “We of the Streets” maintains a similarly constructed system of social markers: here, we have the same tenements, chimney-broken horizons, sticky-fingered babies, stringy curtains, the roar of the “L,” and even billboards. Yet, the poem works to recuperate these signs of shared oppression as emblems for collective empowerment. The streets, the literal and figurative boundaries of oppression, serve as the site of renewed optimism and strength.

“We of the Streets” is an extremely sensual poem. Even the opening line expresses power through scent:

Streets are full of the scent of us—odors of onions drifting from

doorways, effluvium of baby new-born downstairs, seeping

smells of warm soap-suds—the streets as lush with the fer-

ment of our living.

The smell of bodies, eating and washing, the intimate scents of daily life, fill the streets. Wright’s celebration of these smells, making the streets “lush with the fer/ment of our living,” counteracts the typical aversion to these kinds of odors in a public space—smells of living, personal people, literally bursting out of the buildings that seek to contain them. The odors announce an ownership of the streets by the people who live there. The scents are familiar, indicating a wide variety and number of people who call the streets their own. The streets are “full of the scent of us”; literally, the scent indicates an excess of power and energy, bodies ready to lay claim to their streets.

The poem continues, stating “our bodies are hard like/ worn pavement” (line 4). The poem is interested in the line between the body and the physical environment it inhabits. Like Bigger Thomas who feels the effects of racism and class oppression manifest in his bodily outbreaks of violence and sexuality, the “We” in this poem feel their bodies worn down by environmental oppression. However, the poem also states, “our frater-/nity is shoulder-rubbing, crude with unspoken love; our pass-/ word the wry smile that speaks a common fate” (line 5). The street that these people have come to love, is not only a physical boundary, but a site of its own production. The bodies of those residing here are not merely written upon by oppression: they are bodies that express what words cannot express, a fraternity and love due to shared oppression. Bodies express in public what words cannot always express; in this site of shared meaning, new possibilities emerge.

The poem focuses on this intra-community expression.

Our emblems are street emblems: stringy curtains blowing in win-

    dows; sticky-fingered babies tumbling on door-steps; deep-

    cellared laughs meant for everybody; slow groans heard in

    area-ways. (4)

Where Bigger Thomas looked around his world of stringy curtains and rat-infested one-room apartments and saw a world devoid of possibility, a world absent of meaning, Wright is here re-presenting that world as a way of identifying cultural specificity. Typical markers of poverty are reconceived as shared culture. The poem attempts to show the ways that signs of oppression produce a shared cultural language that can (and should) be radicalized as a foundation for collective action. 

The poem’s final stanza points toward this world of collectivization:

And there is something in the streets that made us feel immortality

when we rushed along ten thousand strong, hearing our

chant fill the world, wanting to do what none of us would do

alone, aching to should the forbidden word, knowing that we

of the streets are deathless…

The final stanza enacts a specific shift toward a vision of political empowerment, transforming the street, the home, into a site of freedom. That the streets are also home, makes the political vision that much more libratory. Those involved in the action will feel “immortal,” “deathless,” with the knowledge that they have transgressed the possibilities of individuality. In a world frightened and unable to speak its desire for freedom or for change, collectively, that freedom can take place. 

The poem’s political vision is presented in a somewhat lyrical form that is fragmented through line breaks and shaped through indentation. Words are hyphenated, sometimes awkwardly, in order to maintain the poem’s form. The highly descriptive “poetic” voice is held back by the poem’s boundaries. The poem also employs a number of semi-colons to maintain coherence among its often long sentences. The final stanza’s ellipses mark the transgression that the poem points toward, the breaking free of boundaries, and into immortality.

Chase Dimock: On "A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island"

A Few Queer Notes on Frank O’Hara’s “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”            

Without its title “A True Account of Talking to the Sun on Fire Island”, the queer space of O’Hara’s poem taking place on Fire Island could pass easily undetected without the image of hoards of tanned men partying on the beach evoked at the mention of the now famous gay resort. Although the poem itself has little to say explicitly about sexual identity or its attendant politics, I believe that it benefits from being situated in the specific context of Fire Island’s history in the lgbt community. Today, Fire Island is a famous summer vacation spot populated heavily with gay men during its high season. While the 21st century discos, raves, and circuit parties on the island today make it a carnival atmosphere, in the time of Frank O’Hara, Fire Island was more of a traditional east coast village of summer homes—just prominently populated by queer men and women. Fire Island was an especially popular destination for gay writers and artists. In her ethnography of the resort, Cherry Grove, Fire Isla, Esther Newton mentions the legend that W.H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood once attended a party at the famous Duffy’s Hotel dressed as Dionysus and Ganymede. Whether this is true or not, it establishes the space Fire Island occupied in not just gay culture, but also gay literary history, as a space that nurtured and inspired queer expression. Since even before O’Hara’s stay, Fire Island has had a place in the gay imaginary as a queer oasis—an escape from the bigotry and obligatory discretion of urban life. Along with promising romantic liaisons (however brief their durations) Fire Island was also a rare space of queer domesticity where gay men and women could live almost like their straight counterparts in the suburbs and residential communities outside the city.             

The “Hal” in this poem is Hal Fondren, a friend of O’Hara’s who, according to Joe LeSueur in Digressions on Some Poems by Frank O’Hara, rented a beach house on Fire Island every summer with his “longtime companion” Jack Shaw (183). O’Hara was staying with Fondren and Shaw in their summer home while he wrote this poem in mid July of 1958. It is then significant that O’Hara chooses this specifically queer space, a gay oasis, as the place of his quasi-mystical communion with the sun. Not only does the idea of the sun as a spiritual entity like God choosing to speak to O’Hara and give him encouragement to write poetry (even leaving him “a tiny poem in that brain of yours”) speak to a certain narcissism, (“You may not be the greatest thing on earth, but  you're different.”) but he also writes the poem as an homage to one of his influences, Valdimir Mayakovsky who previously wrote a similar poem about talking to the sun at a summer cottage. Thus, it makes sense that O’Hara would have this spiritual experience at a gay Mecca, and by channeling Mayakovsky’s poetic conceit, O’Hara queers Mayakovsky’s original poem, rewriting it in his own space of divine sensual and sexual revelation.             

There is a certain queer transcendentalism to O’Hara’s communion with the sun on Fire Island. O’Hara touches on the specificity of Fire Island as a place where queers could be open in nature with the sun’s explanation of why it chose to speak to O’Hara on the island:             “Thanks and remember I’m watching. It’s             easier for me to speak to you out             here. I don’t have to slide down              between buildings to get your ear.             I know you love Manhattan, but             you ought to look up more often. The sun explains that it would have been much more difficult to reach O’Hara in his urban home because it would be blocked by the buildings. Gay identity and culture was made possible in its present form due to urban spaces where single men and women could move away from the family home, work independently, and form communities based on common interest and desire. Thus, gay culture is overwhelmingly shaped by and associated with the realities of urban living in a cosmopolitan environment, represented by O’Hara’s mention of the buildings. Conversely, gay culture is rarely associated with rural communities or the wilderness. Fire Island would have been the one community in that era that constituted a well-known queer space outside of a densely populated metropolis. Living on Fire Island would be far from roughing it, but it is nonetheless an environment chosen for its natural beauty, including the beach and the pines from which it gets its name. Fire Island is the gay Walden Pond—where queers could escape the urban jungle and safely commune with nature (and sometimes commune with each other in the nature of the bushes). If Mayakovsky’s communion with the sun at a summer cottage could be restaged in a queer context amidst the sexually repressive cultural atmosphere of the 50s, Fire Island would have been the logical, if not only choice.

John Marsh: On "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango"

As I write about Martin Espada in April and May of 2001, the island of Puerto Rico, which often figures in many of his poems, is suddenly in the news again. The New York Times, among other media, is giving national coverage to the protests against the United States Navy for its continued use of the island of Vieques as a bombing range and a place to stage its simulated war games. "Small Island Becomes Big Rallying Cry," Andrew Jacobs reports in the April 29, 2001 The New York Times. And I wouldn't bother to point out the political blind spots in Jacobs' article if "Small Island Becomes Big Rallying Cry" didn't confirm much of what Martin Espada has claimed about U.S. imperialism towards Puerto Rico (and other Latin American countries), specifically the racism and erasure of history that makes such imperialism possible.

The article begins by quoting a protester ("This is the Vietnam of my generation. We want to stop the mayhem. We want to make a difference.") and Farrique Pesquera, an independence advocate ("People have no self-esteem here.... They have been brain-washed to think that they can't survive without America, that all our air comes from the north. Struggles like this one will change that.") But from this relatively high water mark of journalism, the rest of the article is reduced to how the bombings may or may not have affected tourism. "But most of the tourists who take the 20-minute flight from San Juan," the article cheerily ends, say large-scale development [what might happen if the Navy left] would also be a tragedy. Paul Smith, 37, an audio technician from New York, said he found the Navy's presence here insulting but admitted that he liked the unintended result. "We wanted to find a place that wasn't superdeveloped, where there isn't a casino and where music isn't piped into the street.... I'm sure it must be awful to live with all that bombing, but I have to admit that if it weren't for the U.S. military, this place would have been ruined long ago."

At least the Times and Paul Smith acknowledge that the bombings and the recent death caused by them are "tragic"; that they share this status with an imagined (over) development that would ruin Puerto Rico's Edenic otherness is less encouraging. (Vieques--and by extension, Puerto Rico--would be "ruined" if the U.S. military allowed "tragic" superdeveloped casinos and piped-in music. The suggestion is that the U.S. military is keeping such ruination and tragedy at bay--not perpetrating ruination and tragedy. Keeping the world safe from tackiness, as it were.) Such willed political naivete is indeed laughable, but unfortunately all too common: Puerto Rico exists, and since its colonization in 1898, has existed, as an instrument of American interests, whether for simulated war games, a firewall against other Latin American countries, or as a more or less tacky tourist getaway. Mention is made in the article of "the real problem"--"poor roads, an overburdened sewer system, poor schools and an unemployment rate near 50 percent"--but no mention is made of the source of those problems. Especially occluded from the article is the one hundred year history of U.S. Puerto Rico relations, which includes bloody repression of Independence movements that sought to correct such inequality and privation.

In an interview with Steven Ratiner, Espada explains

I begin my book with a series of historical poems concerning the island of Puerto Rico for two basic reasons. First, the need. My sense of the educational system of this country--having been through it myself and also having taught in that system--is that it has in general no sense of history beyond `souvenir history,' the kind of history that is commemorated every Fourth of July. A very superficial understanding of history. And that furthermore, there is no sense of the history of Puerto Rico whatsoever, which is not a coincidence. Any time a country is a colony of another . . . you can expect that the history of that people will be conveniently forgotten at best, and suppressed at worst.

My inclination is to argue that Andrew Jacobs and the New York Times fall somewhere in-between conveniently forgetting and actively suppressing Puerto Rican history. American reporters, as "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango" demonstrates, are notoriously at a loss for any deep understanding of the politics and history of Latin American countries. And although the occasion for the poem is El Salvador and not Puerto Rico, I would nevertheless like to read "The Skull Beneath the Skin of the Mango" from the perspective of the erasure of history and requirements of imperialism evident in Jacobs' article and theorized by Espada above.

The poem begins with a woman, "with the tranquillity of shock," describing "the Army massacre" to a group of reporters. The massacre goes unnamed, though it could refer to the massacre of hundreds of civilians in the town of El Mozote in 1981 by a battalion of soldiers trained and funded by the U.S. Army, and the woman achieves a level of tranquillity, partly because such massacres were (are) all-too common. "The historic role of the United States in El Salvador," Howard Zinn writes, "was to make sure governments were in power there that would support U.S. business interests." Part of that historic role involved training, funding, and propping up undemocratically elected governments that committed frequent human rights abuses against their citizens in efforts to consolidate power.

The description of the massacre in Espada's poem, though, belies the lack of material evidence--"there were no peasant corpses,/ no white crosses..."--and reporters fill their notebooks with rows of words but mutter skeptically "that slaughter/ Is only superstition/ In a land of new treaties and ballot boxes." The reporters reluctantly record the history, but a history that (for them) has no meaning beyond myth and superstition. Further, they've come to believe their own lies: that new treaties and ballot boxes, metonymies for new (U.S. supported) government regimes, have ushered in a new age of democratic elections and reforms that make obsolete the violent past. Except that the "new treaties and ballot boxes" simply continued, at least in El Salvador, political corruption and violent repression. Reporters, and by extension the American readers of their reports, are unwilling or unable to make sense of history and its relation to the present (abuses)--a point the second stanza of Espada's poem dramatizes:

Everyone gathered mangoes Before leaving. An American reporter, Arms crowded with fruit, could not see What he kicked jutting from the ground. He glanced down and found his sneaker Pressing against the forehead Of a human yellow skull, yellow Like the flesh of a mango.

The American's arm crowded with fruit suggests the process of exploitation by American businesses, which had to rely on government repression to insure their presence. Further, the American reporter, in this process, unknowingly kicks up the past, a skull from a peasant's corpse, the skull whose absence disappoints everyone in the first stanza. The stanza makes an explicit connection between economic imperialism and government massacre--and finally a connection to the inability of American reporters to grasp that connection, thus making shoddy and obeisant journalism complicit in both economic imperialism and government massacre. That is a theme continued in the final section:

He wondered how many skulls Are crated with the mangoes For sale at market, how many Grow yellow flesh and green skin In the wooden boxes exported To the States. This would explain, He said to me, Why so many bodies Are found without heads In El Salvador.

The reporter attempts to make a joke out of the connection between decapitated bodies and the exporting of fruit to the United States--indeed, he can imagine no other historical or political explanation for decapitated bodies in El Salvador. The irony, though, is that his joke is precisely the relation between foreign exploitation, American consumption, and political violence. "The Skull Beneath the Mango," to borrow from Marx, resists reifying the commodity, instead showing the relations between individuals--repression and slaughter--that mask themselves as innocent products, mangoes. The reporter, who has all the pieces, literally stumbles over history and the material evidence (skulls beneath mangoes) that would allow him to make the connections. Espada's poem, then, does the historical and critical work that the American reporter is unwilling or incapable of doing--an unwillingness and incapacity that does not (witness "Small Island Becomes Bug Rallying Cry") require much effort to establish, but does (witness the continued abuses and inequality in Puerto Rico and other Latin American countries) perpetuate naivete and American complicity with those abuses.

Copyright © 2001 by John Marsh

Michael Simeone: On "Bully"

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.”  In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists use to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very people’s Roosevelt sought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up the dominant narratives of the state.  He describes a statue of Roosevelt situated in the school auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez.  Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated war broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest.   Unable to reconcile the statue with some narrative of statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war not only voices a condemnation of the war but also contaminates the language and images of memorialization with the contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal.  

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber  or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses,  or a podium to clatter with speeches  glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating him in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at containment or submission.  The destruction that he unleashed against the brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish- singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.”  The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution. Roosevelt is surrounded

by all the faces  he ever shoved in eugenic spite  and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race,  hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors.”

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that the most aggressive, imperial nation on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually kicks the bully’s ass. That is, that a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses.  The installation of belletristic icons like Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of stormtrooping Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his portraiture.  As mongrels all, we spill over into each other.          

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone.

Jonathan Vincent: On "Bully"

Espada’s “Bully” is marked by layers of irony that work to implicate the monumental totems of US nationalism in a playful but immensely subversive toying with the word “invasion.” In a largely Puerto Rican school in the US named after Theodore Roosevelt, vainglorious invader of Cuba during the Spanish-American War, Espada uses the same racist tropes white nationalists have elsewhere used to convey their anxiety about immigration to speak of a similar “invasion” of the US by the very peoples Roosevelt fought to subdue.

The opening stanza functions as a kind of deconstruction of the monumentality that seals up dominant narratives of the state in something like what Donald Pease has called an “ahistorical supranational essence.[1]” He meditates on a statue of Roosevelt situated in the auditorium of a school that once shared Roosevelt’s name but has since been changed to Hernandez. Emanating from the statue is a “nostalgia” for the Spanish-American war, an entirely fabricated military episode broadly considered to be a morally despicable act of conquest and a masculinizing adventure aimed at overcoming any lingering “effeteness” of the late nineteenth century for white American men. Unable to reconcile the statue’s message with some narrative of benign statesmanship, the speaker’s attempt to draw out Roosevelt’s nostalgia for war voices not only a condemnation of the war but also labors to contaminate the language and images of memorialization with the very contagions and violence they so often seek to conceal. As Walter Benjamin has famously quipped, “There is no document of civilization which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.[2]

[E]ach fist lonely for a saber or the reigns of anguish-eyed horses, or a podium to clatter with speeches glorying in the malaria of conquest.

Implicating Roosevelt in the aggressive but invisible counterparts that are unspoken correlaries to early twentieth century nationalism, the speaker takes a perverse pleasure in noting that the very “mongrels” that he fought to eradicate as a progenitor of nativist white nationalism have actually come spilling out from around any effort at their containment or submission. The destruction that he unleashed against the Brown Other has returned to undo him as the “army of Spanish-singing children” devours the “stockpiles” of the cafeteria and “leap naked across murals.” The murals, we presume, are the legacy of heritage lessons that now cover the institution in paradoxical juxtaposition to Roosevelt’s hubristic testimonial to white nationalism.

Roosevelt is surrounded  by all the faces he ever shoved in eugenic spite and cursed as mongrels, skin of one race, hair and cheekbones of another.

The point, of course, is that “mongrelization” is now a fundamental feature of life in the US and the final satirical jab is thrust as the staid and sober Victorian mustache that adorns his face under the disciplining gaze of the torturous monocle is sprayed with graffiti “in parrot brilliant colors” by the brown faces which ominously “surround” it.

The moniker “bully” that Espada assigns Roosevelt resonates with even more irony in that one of the most aggressive, imperialistic nations on earth thrives on stories of the little, insignificant common person who eventually overcomes some paralyzing dread to kick a thuggish bully’s ass. That is, a treasured theme of Americanism is the subversive undoing of the tyrant who lords over the wishes of the masses. The installation of belletristic icons like statues of Roosevelt in American schools is actually antithetical to a spirit of democracy which the hordish throngs of laughing Puerto Rican children storming through the hallways of Hernandez undo through their subversive recasting of his militant portraiture. As mongrels all, Espada seems to suggest, we spill over into each other.

 

[1] See “Hiroshima, the Vietnam Veterans War Memorial, and the Gulf War” in Cultures of United States Imperialism (Duke, 1993), co-edited with Amy Kaplan, p. 558.

[2] See “Theses on the Philosophy of History” Illuminations (HBJ, 1968), p. 256.

 
 

Copyright © 2004 by Jonathan Vincent

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