Historical

Linda Reinfeld ON; "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"

~~Linda Reinfeld

Articulation of Sound Forms in Time can be read first of all as a journey of literary scholarship: it begins as a chronicle of Howe's researches into the myth of her own very specific locality as it appears in the printed histories of Hadley and Hatfield, Massachusetts. The focus of her investigation is the story of a seventeenth-century New England minister, Hope Atherton, who disappears during the course of a riverside battle between white settlers and American Indians and is thereafter presumed dead; some days later, however, he mysteriously reappears, unharmed but not entirely coherent, miles from the scene of the battle and on the opposite side of the river. Like the experience of the poet who explores the edges of consciousness, Hope's experience may be impossible to reconcile with the experience of what we think of as "mainstream" America.

Howe's Hope, in a dark moment, can sound like this:

rest chrondriacal lunacy  velc cello viable toil  quench conch uncannunc  drumm amonoosuck ythian

The apparent opacity of this discourse is deceptive. Given that the historical Hope Atherton, in the very process of crossing the river, must have been suffering from severe fatigue and hunger (he is reported to have gone for four days without food or drink), the passage opens into a number of possible and plausible (re)constructions: lunacy denotes madness but also carries with it a cyclical quality, an innocence that turns impotent in conjunction with the want and severe deprivation--here specifically the desire for and lack of rest--that precede it. Spatial dislocation, loss of ground, parallels "chrondriacal" dislocation in time. The neologism chrondriacal evokes a sense of periodicity but suggests more than the "chronicle" of a "hypochondriac," or "chronic" restlessness: the lunatic unpunctuated repetition of goodness uprooted and gone mad. The word velc--like Velcro--sticks, has the quality of a gulp; also, backward and truncated, it recalls cleave, pathetic in an instance where there is nothing to cling to. Sliding ls evoke a slippery medium: as language liquefies, it flows almost out of control. The lyricism of cello breaks down into the singular containment of cell and senses of isolation, while lo exactly places the speaker in the deep. As Lyn Hejinian remarks in another context, "To listen to music too closely resembles drowning."

[ . . . ]

The process is necessary because the ordinary unbroken literary language, as we have it literally exemplified in historical documents, has not been able to dramatize or even to record for public consideration the historical Hope Atherton's erratic, nondialectical journey through British and Indian forces, through the strong current of the Connecticut River, into a living present that would still prefer not to listen. When Atherton claims to have been left unharmed by the native Indians, for instance, his speech either is not believed, and is dismissed as crazy, because Indians are known to be heartless (such was the response he met from his contemporaries) or is believed, but then is dismissed as merely heartfelt, sentimental, because Indians are known not to be heartless (such is more likely to be the response today). Either way, his account is cast away, for the story does have holes in it. To my mind, the excellence of the kind of writing Howe attempts lies in its lacy, elliptical texture, the play between what one might call the discursive and dramatic Emersonian part of her poetry and the dark part, the refusal of that cocky American greeting (Good morning, good morning) so many of us as readers of American literature have grown to count on. The sound forms here articulated are sometimes more like gurgles than greetings. Such things happen: the trail can disappear.

[ . . . ]

In Articulation of Sound Forms in Time, Hope Atherton is first introduced by citing (without correction) the matter-of-fact and by no means fictional "EXTRACT from a LETTER (dated June 8th, 1781) of Stephen Williams to President Styles." Howe goes on to quote a substantial portion of this letter (literally, an account of an account) and by this doubled set of citations enacts the textual distance--and difficulty--through which Atherton is perceived: "Mr. Atherton gave account that he had offered to surrender himself to the enemy, but they would not receive him. Many people were not willing to give credit to this account, suggesting he was beside himself. This occasioned him to publish to his congregation and leave in writing the account I enclose to you."

For Hope--as for Howe in her dual role of scholar and poet--fugitive meaning is followed as it retreats from the complex battles of fact and theoretical speculation (how do we know what we know?) back into the black and white of primitive imagination, a vast minimalist canvas relieved only by bits of hearsay and copies of old letters.

[. . .]

The sixteen sections of "Hope Atherton's Wanderings"--each unnumbered section from two to fifteen lines long and each centered on its own unnumbered page--can be read as sixteen temporally consecutive and prosodically various articulations, that is, sound forms, of distress.

[. . .]

[A]s the journey unfolds, Hope moves from an only slightly disturbed language of narration at the beginning of Part I of Articulation of Sound Forms in Time--

Prest try to set after grandmother  relieved by and laid down left ly  little distant each other and fro  Saw digression hobbling driftwood  forage two rotted beans & etc.  Redy to faint slaughter story so  Gone and signal through deep water  Mr. Atherton's story Hope Atherton

--where, in spite of the absence of the I and the conventions of reportage, distortion is relatively minimal (compression and omission, effects of haste and fatigue, produce a "hobbling" after-the-battle discourse, which, in view of the wreckage evidenced by driftwood and digression, we can interpret as a mode of imitation within the given narrative frame), into a world of militant accents more and more rigid and threatening:

Rash catastrophe deaf evening  Bonds loosd catcht sedge environ  Extinct ordr set tableaux  hay and insolent army  Shape of so many comfortless  And deep so deep as my narrative  our homely manner and Myself  Said "matah" and "chirah"  Pease of all sorts and best  courtesy in every place  Whereat laughing they went away

At this point in his wanderings Atherton seems to have encountered some soldiers from a British regiment, remnants as it were of an "extinct ordr." They are "insolent" and by their insolence insulated from the tragedy around them, "deaf" to the "catastrophe" and "so many comfortless" of whom Atherton is so keenly aware. They are deaf also to the language natural to Hope, speaking as they do in accents unfamiliar to natives, white or Indian, of America. Howe cites matah and chirah; similarly, "Pease of all sorts" breaks down into a variety of meanings in conflict with one another: "Peace" as a greeting or term of surrender; "pease" as a form of porridge and by extension a plea for food. The verbal structure of this section, moving from the staccato of the first line, where each separate word demands an accent and refuses to move into syntactic combination, to the short two-word phrases of the third and fourth lines ('set tableaux"), then on to the more fully developed combinations of the fifth through eighth lines ("Shape of so many comfortless") and the narrative statement of the final three lines ("Whereat laughing they went away'), figures the predicament of individual person in relation to collective language, for as the words come together into coherent patterns of "courtesy in every place," all pattern is ironized and Hope is abandoned. If Hope Atherton survives, if poetry survives, it is, oddly enough, by virtue of isolation from human company and communion. To the extent that language makes sense, to the extent that it forges connections, it risks falsity and bad faith: it becomes regimental, the enemy. Only those chosen are saved and only the poet--specifically, the poet set apart by a capacity for visionary experience--can hope to emerge from chaos with something like self-possession ("My voice, drawn from my life, belongs to no one else"). As we move toward meaning, "deep so deep as my narrative," we move into a language so fluid that the rescue of reason becomes impossible. But then, it is not in reason that Howe has put her faith.

Faith should make it possible to read even the most profoundly mysterious visionary script. In the two sections preceding Hope's public address to his "loving friends and kindred" (one wonders who may be counted among them) language approaches perfect innocence, empties itself in the perpetual motion of reflection and refraction. Thought dissolves into the medium of thought so that the word alone, like Hope in the destructive element immersed, generates the zero degree of meaning that makes possible a providential imagination of grace and the renewed possibility of life.

[. . .]

The relation of the two "Posit gaze" sections of the poem to each other--where each of the lines performs a specific reflective action--dramatizes the constructive role of the poem in action: simple repetition, for the first line of either section is a simple duplication of the first line of the other; reverse reflection and condensation, inasmuch as the second through fifth lines of the two sections are composed of the same words exactly but with the words repeated backward and placed closer together in the second section; double repetition mixed with reverse reflection, since the sixth and seventh lines of each section work like a refrain ending with a one-word exchange: upside and sideup become sideup and upside in the second section. Language is inevitably caught by its capacity for imitation. As so often happens in the poetry of deconstruction, meaning or the negation of meaning resides not in the perception of formal depth but in the contingent activity of lateral motion.

Howe's Hope walks the fine line between art and chaos: "Nothing deserves to be called an art work that keeps the contingent at bay. For by definition, form is a form of something, and this something must not be allowed to degenerate into a tautological iteration of form. And yet the necessity of this relation that form has to something outside itself tends to undermine form. Form seeks to be pure and free of all heterogeneity, but it cannot be because it needs the heterogeneous. The immanence of form in heterogeneity has its limits" (AT, 315-16). It is possible to argue that language pushed to the limit of form cannot work successfully as art--to argue, for instance, that the heterogeneity of a line like "MoheganToForceImmanenceShotStepSeeShowerFiftyTree" is threatened by Howe's attempt "ToForceImmanence" or, conversely, to argue that "tree fifty shower see step shot Immanence force to mohegan" disintegrates into an undistinguished mix of unrelated and incommensurable vocabularies. "This tendency of English syntax to break thought down into its smallest, self-contained parts is probably the most formidable barrier to dialectics," comments Weber in his preface to Prisms (P, 13); Howe's poetry extends this tendency within the language to the point where translation into the order of legible prose becomes nearly impossible. Howe is no dialectician. It is not possible, however, to dismiss the argument provoked by such writing without at the same time dismissing the possibility that the human capacity for argument is inseparable from the human capacity for hope--or, in the allegorical figure of this instance, Hope. Hope is possible precisely because of, not in spite of, the decadence of language, our inability to bridge the great gap between the one and the many, truth and reason, faith and mystery. "In a world of brutal and oppressed life," writes Adorno, "decadence becomes the refuge of a potentially better life by renouncing its allegiance to this one and to its culture, its crudeness, and its sublimity" (P, 72).

It is a marvelous tour de force, this attempt by Susan Howe to read a surface from beneath it, to "posit" or position the self within language just below the level at which it might appear to make sense--no less wonderful than the somewhat more simply presented reading of the historical Hope Atherton as he addresses his congregation upon his return from underwater exile:

Loving Friends and Kindred:--  When I look back  So short in charity and good works  We are a small remnant  of signal escapes wonderful in themselves  We march from our camp a little  and come home  Lost the beaten track and so  River section dark all this time  We must not worry  how few we are and fall from each other  More than language can express  Hope for the artist in America & etc  This is my birthday  These are the old home trees

"There is nothing that gives the feel of Connecticut like coming home to it," wrote Wallace Stevens. "It is a question of coming home to the American self in the sort of place in which it was formed. Going back to Connecticut is a return to an origin." Like Stevens, like Eliot, Howe goes back, back to a significant landscape ("words are my way in sylvan/imagery," she writes at the outset of Pythagorean Silence) and back to the fragments of significance rescued from the works of an earlier time. These bits and pieces broken from their contexts--dislocated, as Hope Atherton is dislocated--have something pathetic, childlike about them:

[. . .]

What is most touching in the discourse of Hope, what makes it appear as art, is in part its presentation in a mode of almost childlike fragility: Hope cannot quite say what he means, but his moments of articulation, his perception embodied in the poem as a work of art (Howe's Hope) are meant--for a time--to go beyond the limits of intention.

Excerpted from a longer essay, "Susan Howe: Prisms," in Linda Reinfeld, Language Poetry: Writing as Rescue. Copyright © 1992 by Louisiana State UP.

Cary Nelson: On "The Asians Dying"

Merwin's "The Asians Dying" is his most famous poem overtly about the Vietnam War; it merits an analysis by infiltration, a criticism surrounded and deadened by the poem's political echoes. I quote the poem's lines, in order, interspersed with my commentary. "When the forests have been destroyed," he writes, "their darkness remains," their heaviness and their thick foliage weigh on us like our guilt. No defoliation, no consuming fire, is decisive. The landscape, leveled in the outside world, rises again in us. The shadows amongst the trees are now a brooding absence and an inner darkness. In our eyes are traces of each obliteration; our will is choked by compulsion, our sight layered with erasures:

The ash the great walker follows the possessors Forever Nothing they will come to is real Nor for long

As readers, we too are possessors, but the poem's images decay through association. The enlightenment the poem offers is experienced, paradoxically, as suffocation. We are possessed by a past which invades each anticipation; ruinous memories seep into every future. "Over the watercourses / Like ducks in the time of the ducks"--the only remaining migration is our residual unrest--"the ghosts of the villages trail in the sky / Making a new twilight." The only constant is our discontent, the only change the rhythm of returning nightmare. Twilight is the moment when consciousness--itself a confusion of misdeeds--submits to new violence.

The poem is a tapestry of recognition and forgetfulness; its lines comment on one another endlessly. Each image (unique in its context) is immediately enfolded by a torpor of historical sameness; in an age whose destiny is past, each name names everything. The poem is a claustrophobia verbally enhanced by false relief; each new line rediscovers old ground.

But Merwin's fine musical sense always provides for surprises in tempo. These verbal shocks (like their unpunctuated lines) bleed off into silence, but that only increases their hold on us:

Rain falls into the open eyes of the dead Again again with its pointless sound When the moon finds them they are the color of everything

These lines are set by themselves on the page. If we could, we might join them to another stanza to deaden their horror. The lines relate a simple fact, one we secretly knew but had not consciously thought of, but the image lends the war an unbearable solitude. It is as though a single and essential benediction were lacking at the core of everything we are. It is too late; death cannot be contained. We cannot bury the dead of Vietnam; raindrops hammer at their delicate eyes, we cannot reach out to close them. Already they are the color of everything, for everything has taken on their color: their violated sight is taken up into the limpidity of the air.

Thus "the nights disappear like bruises but nothing is healed / The dead go away like bruises." Dawn is merely burning darkness. There are no more beginnings. We are not truly healed (nor can the poem heal us); we are uniformly, though not terminally, wounded. The body politic absorbs its crimes; they are its substance: "The blood vanishes into the poisoned farmlands." The war is the absolute limit of knowledge: "Pain the horizon / Remains." Above us, trembling but unfulfilled, "the seasons rock," now unnatural signs that no longer signify; "they are paper bells / Calling to nothing living." For a world that will not be reborn, seasonal change is mockery. And the poem, too, is a paper bell; it tolls no prophecy, for its message was apparent long ago--embedded equally in every historical act and in every line.

"The possessors move everywhere under Death their star," Merwin concludes, but he is naming all of us, not accusing anyone, for the poem too possesses a history it loathes. "Like columns of smoke they advance into the shadows / Like thin flames with no light." What we are has corrupted the elements we are made of; all that we cannot see is unspeakably known to us. "They with no past," he writes, "And fire their only future"; the pronoun reveals not the clarity of distance but a special kind of self-knowledge--forgetfulness and revulsion in contest. The possessors have no past because what they do cannot be distinguished from what they have been. The final line is merely a rebuke, a false seal on the poem's form; fire is the future already with us.

By Cary Nelson. From W.S. Merwin: Essays on the Poetry. Ed. Cary Nelson and Ed Folsome. Copyright 1987 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois.

Lowell: On"For the Dead Union"

Robert Lowell's poem, "For the Union Dead" follows the mind of a person as he interacts with the landscape of modern Boston. What he sees dismays him, especially insofar as he compares it with an older Boston. For it is an historical poem, one which tries to show a relation between the past and the present. It tries to show this relation in many ways, but most obviously in its superimposition of scenes from an earlier Boston upon parallel scenes from what the Chamber of Commerce has been calling "the New Boston." Some examples. The old South Boston Aquarium, once the centerpiece of a park overlooking the harbor, has been gutted by vandals. The Boston Common, a Colonial grazing pasture, is being exhumed to provide parking places. Thomas Bulfinch's golden-domed State House must be propped by scaffolding so that "the garage's earthquake" will not topple it. The Memorial to Colonel Robert Gould Shaw, the young Boston Civil War hero, who, along with most of his Negro regiment, was killed in the assault on Fort Wagner in 1863 is similarly buttressed. These violations of the past are complemented in the poem by today's monuments—"giant-finned cars" and advertisements exploiting the bombing of Hiroshima.

"For the Union Dead" is an historical poem in another sense, also. It is an occasional poem, composed for and first read at the Boston Arts Festival in June, 1960. In many ways the poem repeats an earlier ceremony, the dedication of the Shaw Memorial in 1897. On that occasion the speakers were William James, whose topic was "that lonely kind of valor (civic courage we call it in peace times)," which Shaw exemplified, and Booker T. Washington, for whom the Monument stood for "effort, not complete victor." Lowell's poem returns to these themes

[. . . .] 

But the civic courage of Shaw, who "rejoices in man's lovely / peculiar power to choose life and die," but who "is out of bounds now" has been replaced in the twentieth century by "savage servility."

[. . . .]

The poem is an historical poem in still a third sense. The poet himself has suggested that he thinks of it as "a Northern civil War poem," and his replacing the original title "Colonel Shaw and the Massachusetts 54th" with the present one, "For the Union Dead," suggests a comparison with Allen Tate's "Ode to the Confederate Dead." However, in one very important way at least, the poems are quite different. In each poem a speaker looks back to a more heroic age, but in Tate's he is cut off from the past. In "For the Union Dead" the speaker creates the past.

That statement requires explanation. It can be demonstrated, however, that despite the historical subject, occasion, and theme, the "facts" of history are of little importance in "For the Union Dead." Indeed, nearly every historical observation in the poem is inaccurate.

First, the epigraph, the motto of the Society of the Cincinnati, of which Shaw had been a member, has been rewritten to translate "They leave all behind to serve the country," instead of the correct "He leaves all behind to serve the country." The motto (omnia relinquit servare rem publicam) is correctly transcribed on the Shaw Memorial. The misquotation may, of course, be just a slip up by the poet, (like the misspelling of Boylston later in the poem) but this change does emphasize that the sacrifice at Fort Wagner was a common one.

Second, contrary to the implication of the poem, excavations for the Boston Common garage were not the reason for the bracing of either the Shaw Memorial or the State House, each one a quarter of a mile away from the blasting. The State House was undergoing restoration; the Memorial was being propped up until the city had managed to allocate funds for its repair. The neglect into which both had fallen speaks eloquently enough to the speaker's point, but not so eloquently as his vision of the active destruction of the past by bulldozers does.

Third, William James's statement that he could "almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe," which in the poem seems to suggest the continuing urgency of the issues which Shaw's career raises, seen in the context of his address at the dedication ceremonies, merely praises the verisimilitude of the relief. What James said was this: "Look at the monument and read the story—see the mingling of elements which the sculptor's genius has brought so vividly before the eye. There on foot go the dark outcasts, so true to nature that one can almost hear them breathing as they march."

Fourth, though it is true that Shaw's father wanted no cenotaph to his son's memory, it was not he who referred to his son's troops as "niggers." According to the National Anti-Slavery Standard, the remark was supplied by the Confederate officer who, questioned about the location of Shaw's grave, replied, "We have buried him with his niggers." The phrase evidently became something of a Union rallying cry. But the actual reaction of Shaw's father was quite the opposite. He wrote, "Since learning of the place of our dear son's burial, we would not remove his body if we could. We can imagine no better place than that in which he lies, among his brave and devoted followers, nor wish for him better company. My only desire in this respect now is that I may someday be able to erect a monument over him and them.—What a body guard he has."

Fifth, the linking of the "Rock of Ages" with the Mosler advertisement is the speaker in the poem's idea, not the adman's. For although the Mosler Safe Company saw the preservation of one of its safes during the bombing of Hiroshima as an event to be publicized ("The Hiroshima Story Comes To Life With A Bang!"), I have been assured that this company never adopted the slogan "Rock of Ages" in its advertising.

Yet, although the scenes in the poem are historically inaccurate, they represent a kind of ethical truth which is more important to the speaker's purposes. The contrast between old and new is for him a contrast between something intelligent, decent, and past, and something destructive, desolate, and present. The imagery is consistent with the narrator's view of history. Most of it is related either to ascent or to descent, which, as Northrop Frye suggests, are the spatial equivalents of the desirable and the undesirable. The desirable past is seen as an upward movement. Colonel Shaw resembles "a compass-needle"; he has "an angry wren-like vigilance, a greyhound's gentle tautness." He is "riding on his bubble." 

[. . . .]

[T]he tendency of the present is downward. "Dinosaur steamshovels" "gouge" for us "an underground garage." The South Boston Aquarium, the scene at the beginning and at the end of the poem, reflects this historical movement from ascent to descent. Once the "bronze weathervane cod," symbolic of man's dominion over the lower orders of nature, stood atop it. Man no longer has this dominion; in fact he has descended to the lower order himself, as the final lines of the poem make clear. 

giant finned cars nose forward like fish; a savage servility  slides by on grease.

 The landscape of the poem then is not so much the city's as it is the poet's. It is not photographed, but felt. It is not history , but autobiography. But the poem is not the work of a modern laudator temporis acti. Though obviously sympathetic to the past, the speaker belongs to the present. His past is an imagined past, the Union soldier is "abstract." The present, however, is real, and the speaker, as much as anyone else, is part of it. He creates the imagined virtues of the historical past, but shares the downward tendency of the present. His nose "crawls like a snail"; he must "often sigh . . . / for the dark, downward and vegetating kingdom / of the fish and reptile," and must "press" and "crouch" like a beast.

In short, this poem is of a piece with that poetry in Life Studies, For the Union Dead and Near the Ocean which has a subjective narrator. Comparison with an earlier poem suggests the distance that "For the Union Dead" stands from the poet's former historicism. In "Where the Rainbow Ends" from Lord Weary's Castle, the speaker states:

I saw my city in the Scales; the pans  of judgment rising and descending.

That poem had rhyme, meter, and stanza form; it rested on an equally ordered and orthodox system of belief and values. "For the Union Dead" lacks rhyme and meter, and has a stanza form which serves no prosodic or rhetorical function. As if to correlate with this loss of form, the poem's narrator offers no solutions, no guidance, no control—only his ability to conceive of a nobler way of life may be seen as hopeful. But unlike Colonel Shaw, the speaker cannot direct his life; he has no compass-needle. More than judging the modern condition, he bears witness to it. 

from "The Poet as Historian: 'For The Union Dead' by Robert Lowell." Concerning Poetry 1.2 (Fall 1968).