Cary Nelson

Cary Nelson: On "The Young Housewife"

Along with Hughes and Frost, Williams is one of the three betterknown modern American male poets whose work includes a wide range of portraits of individual women. The difference, however, is that Williams's interest is consistently both social and erotic. Like Ransom, women are indispensable to Williams's work; without their presence in his poetry, his oeuvre would be substantially impoverished. Unlike Ransom, however, his perspective on women is rich and varied and generally affirmative; moreover, Williams often treats men and women in much the same way, something Ransom is disinclined to do. That does not exempt Williams from charges of sexism. No doubt many contemporary readers would be troubled by the characterization of women at various points in his work and find many of his "affirmations" reifying. Indeed no one who has grown up in a sexist culture will be entirely free of sexism, but Williams's work often partly triumphs over these limitations and it is, if anything, strengthened by comparison with other men and women writing at the same time.

Williams regularly wrote poems about men's and women's interactions and love poems to women throughout his long career; their approach can be sacralizing, irreverent, erotic, mythologizing, or realistic. His brief imagistic portraits of individual women remain among the best-known poems he wrote. These portraits are often sexually charged, but then almost everything Williams describes is. Like Amy Lowell's flower imagery, for example, or Georgia O'Keefe's flower paintings, Williams's flowers are charged with sexuality. Indeed, even his most spare descriptions of natural objects, as in the 1927 "Young Sycamore," are highly sensual. It is possible that the human body (and, more specifically, a woman's body) is the implicit object underlying many of the individual things he celebrates. Notably, however, his physical descriptions of men, as in the 1919 "The Young Laundryman," are also quite sensual and equally focussed on telling details:

. . .his muscles ripple

under the thin blue shirt; and his naked feet, in

Their straw sandals, lift at the heels, shift and

Find new postures continually.

Williams certainly fragments men's and women's bodies to describe them, but he most often does so in order to assemble either telling portraits of whole persons or representative characterizations of people's social positioning. If there is a hint of objectification in the process of representation in Williams's work, then, it seems relatively harmless; that is a cultural and political judgement on my part, but I am willing to make it. Representation wholly without objectification may in fact be impossible. When it predominates and when there is nothing else, that is another matter. But treating any trace of it in earlier periods as a fatal heresy is irrational. Recent fervor about objectification may be a contemporary neurosis we would be better off not imposing on our predecessors. At the very least, there is the chance that such charges are hopelessly anachronistic. On the other hand, as I suggested earlier, the arguments disseminated simultaneously with modernism by the first wave of modern feminism give more than sufficient warrant to read Pound's and Ransom's sexism severely and consider it misogynist even within its historical context. Williams, again, presents a more complex and nuanced case.

Part of what sustains poems like Williams's 1916 "The Young Housewife," in which the woman observed "moves about in negligee behind / the wooden walls of her husband's house," beyond its spare, precise description, is Williams's willingness to acknowledge and mock his presence as an observer. As with "Woman Walking" (pp. 66-67), the poet is never simply an invisible figure who wields the power to name and describe but rather a speaker whose voice effects a relationship in verse. And that relationship typically includes a genuine if sometimes whimsical reflection on the ontological issues at stake in the poet's role:

The poem masquerades at once as a piece of literal reportage and a fantasy surveillance, a celebration and critique of voyeurism. We may credit the speaker with some sensitivity to women's social status when the house is described as the husband's property, but we may also wonder (as one of my students suggested) if we can hear "negligent" and "negligible" judgmentally echoing within the negligee she wears, a garment as well that suggests more corporeal property rights. Whether the speaker would protect her, take advantage of her, or merely observe her in her shy vulnerability we cannot say. We cannot even be certain whose innocence wanes most notably in the poem's autumnal season, the speaker's, the young housewife's, or even the reader's, for we too are implicated in the poem's final recognition. Is it guilty self-recognition, mutual recognition, an exchange of glances, shame, regret, or delight in transience that sounds in the crackling leaves of the last stanza? One critic suggests that "the young housewife is metaphorically crushed in the last stanza," since, in the previous stanza's Shakespearean conclusion, she is herself compared to a fallen leaf. But it is as easily the moment and the fantasy relationship that give way as the car passes. Moreover, the only real pressure exerted is the poem's descriptive act of possession. Indeed, no fixed reading of Williams's short poems will survive sustained reflection, for--despite their straightforward narrativity--they remain so ambiguous and unresolved that one interpretation continually displaces or reverses another. Thus a particular poem may from one moment to the next seem distinctly sexist and generously understanding.

As many of Williams's critics have noted, there is also a strong mythologizing element in the image of women in his longer poems, from "The Wanderer" to Paterson. The woman who is his guide in "The Wanderer" is both young and old, virgin and whore. The latter identity, moreover, is partly celebratory; she is a "reveller in all ages-/ Knower of all fires out of the bodies Of all men." For Williams, anticipating an argument that I do not accept but that some feminists would later make explicitly, women have stronger links to the transformative natural processes that all of us must undergo if we are to rise above the pettiness and violence of so much of human history. Though they are closer to nature, at least as some cultural feminists would claim, women are of course in no way unconscious figures. Rather they have special knowledge that men must seek to share and that Williams would bring into his poetry. Williams is also aware that not every mythic vision of women is beneficial. In In the American Grain, in a journey that Pound completed in the opposite direction (minus the monarchist component, which Pound left to another American expatriate), Walter Raleigh fantasizes himself on a voyage on the body of his queen when he plunges "his lust into the body of a new world."' It is a fantasy that ends in disaster.

What Williams shows us, finally, is one route to a substantially affirmative and generous heterosexuality in poetry. Williams clearly believed that sexual relations could reorient people toward restorative natural processes and away from the destructive tendencies in modern culture. This differentiates him from Eliot, for example, for whom failed sexual relations in The Waste Land and other poems exemplified the modern condition; indeed, for Eliot nature itself no longer offered any hope. In a culture whose inherited and active linguisticality is permeated with gendered binarisms, Williams sorts out these meanings and reconfigures and resemanticizes them. There were certain binary metaphors of gender he found productive and life-enhancing, others he considered destructive and demonic. That all these gendered binarisms were fantasmatic-artifices of cultural process with no necessary grounding in the facts of nature-Williams may never have realized. But if we wish to judge him we had best realize that all of us live partly by way of myth and ideology. What one does not find in Williams, however, is a thoroughgoing critique of patriarchal culture and all the gendered binarisms by which it sustains and reproduces itself.

From Cary Nelson, "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading, ed. Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt. Copyright © University of Michigan Press, 1996.

Cary Nelson: On "Christ in Alabama"

 The red-baiting of Hughes is part of a larger phenomenon that includes as well the long-term red-baiting of the civil rights movement. One of its effects has been to keep not only Hughes's more radical poems about class injustice out of print but also to keep many of his most radical and challenging poems about race either out of print or out of anthologies. "Christ in Alabama" is a case in point . . . . For nearly half a century this poem went virtually unremarked in academic literary studies, the only exceptions I know of being a misguided commentary by Stanley Shott in 1974 and a useful passage, quoted below, by Onwuchekwa Jemie two years later:

"Christ is a nigger" in two senses: in the historical sense as a brown-skinned Jew like other Jews of his day, with a brown-skinned mother—both later adopted into the white West and given a lily-white heavenly father; and in the symbolic sense of Jesus as an alien presence, preaching an exacting spirituality, a foreign religion as it were, much as the black man, with his different color and culture, is an alien presence in the South. Each is a scapegoat sacrificed for the society's sins. In particular, the white sin of lust has created a mongrel mulatto race ("most holy bastard") with black slave mothers ("Mamy of the South") and white slavemaster fathers ("White Master above"). And, once created, this race is cast out, disinherited, crucified . . . The cryptic simplicity of "Christ in Alabama" exhibits Hughes at his best . . . There is no decoration or pedantry. The poem is so stark it could almost have been written by a child.

Jemie goes on to say that the poem "evokes the feeling that great art so often evokes: that it could not have been done in any other way." In one sense Jemie is right. "Christ in Alabama," like many other great short poems, possesses an absolute and impeccable economy. No word could be taken away without losing a great deal. It is a miracle of condensation. Yet as Hughes himself would prove, there was indeed another way of presenting the text.

Two hundred years of racial trauma are driven full force into this thirteen-line, forty-seven word poem. It combines this astonishing historical compression with a remarkable level of rhetorical confidence and urgency. Each of the first three stanzas opens and closes in the same way: a concise, riveting definition ("Christ is a Nigger," "Mary is His Mother," "God's His Father") is balanced by an italicized plea or declaration—"O, bare your back," "Silence your mouth," "Grant us your love."

Written in 1931 in response to a request for a poem about the Scottsboro case, circumstances which have been most ably analyzed by Michael Thurston, the poem turns the false accusation of rape lodged against nine young black men back on the South's dominant culture of white privilege and power. The South's real sexual violence, Hughes insists, is the historical violence white men have carried out against black women.

But no prose summary can match the fervor of Hughes's vivid declarations. "Christ is a Nigger" Hughes announces in the opening line, and in that one line a whole ideological field realigns itself to open a new vista on American history. Cast out, vilified, and crucified, the historical Christ returns to earth in serial fashion——in the person of every black man "beaten and black," every slave, every lynching victim, every post-Civil war black denied the full rights of citizenship. The black Christ was, of course, a common enough figure in the preceding decade. Countee Cullen published a long poem with that title; its frontispiece is still one of the notable graphic works of the period [Fig. 20]. But Hughes's bold gesture——linking Christ with America's most notorious racial epithet——makes a more powerful claim. It asks a contemporary American reader to understand the black man as the Christ of our time. Those who crucified Christ are thus linked with every racist white in the modern South. Contemporary Christians do not honor Christ, we may conclude; they gather like Pontius Pilate's Romans to murder him over and over again. The black man in the South serves the same social function as Christ did nearly 2,000 years ago.

Of course the archetypal black victim is the product of rape, especially the white rape of a black woman, for then the white father can repress his paternity by murdering his own son. William Maxwell has recently captured this drama succinctly:

the stock emblem of the crucified lynch victim is draped over four stanzas framing an apocryphal Christian trinity: a Scottsboro boy turned "Nigger Christ" with "bleeding," not blood-red painted, mouth; a black mother Mary enjoined to "silence," "Mammy" of this reviled son; and a white master/God-father without pity or love. The evident, iconoclastic political moral of the ensemble is that the South's champion miscegenationist—"White Master above"—has fingered his black sons for his own sins and chastised them in Scottsboro . . . we end with a black Christ on the cross and the three-way standoff of a frozen family romance, unable to speak its interracial name.

It is that historical family, sanctified only by violence, who enter in stanzas two and three. The South's omnipresent and universally denied trinity—white father, black mother, and ostracized black son—form the background for the South's repeated crucifixion scene: "Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South." There is a Calvary in every southern hamlet, the bleeding, ritualized product of denial and repression.

So much, at least, can be gleaned from the version of the poem Hughes reissued in The Panther and the Lash decades later in 1967. Yet in a very real sense Hughes never actually reprinted the poem. He finally issued a revised—and seriously weakened—version that converts the seven italicized lines to Roman type, thereby undercutting the poem's counterpointing dialogue; drops the capitalization of "Nigger," "Mother," and "Father" at the ends of lines 1, 4, and 7, reducing the parallelism in the definitions; and changes "Grant us your love" to "Grant Him your love," the last change arguably an easier and less complexly compromising plea.

The call and response quality of the original version will be apparent to any reader. The equal mix of Roman and italicized lines turns the poem into a mass choral dialogue. All the participants in the social drama of American race relations call out to one another in pleas and commands of uncanny power. I have divided a large class in half and had, say, the men read the lines in Roman type and the women the italicized lines. The effect is extraordinary, as if the poem were being performed by a Greek chorus, but also substantially unstable and open-ended. For Hughes does not tell us what groups should have responsibility for speaking these lines. Though the poem's general cultural indictment could not be stronger, it isn't easy to apportion or limit responsibility. Karen Ford has written eloquently about the early version of the poem:

The italics in the earlier version indicate that there are at least two levels of discourse, that the voice of the poem is not unitary and stable as in the later version. The alternating typefaces function visually and thematically as a call and response: the first voice asserts the ironic parallels between Christ and black people, and the response voice adapts that parallel into a highly ambiguous prayer refrain. Who shouts the italicized orders in the first two stanzas? Who urges black people to act like Christ (by silently submitting to beatings)? Such demands would typically issue from white racists, but here they seem also to come from blacks themselves in their effort to emulate the submission of Christ. These first two stanzas of the earlier version confuse the fact of oppression with the glorification of suffering that can result from it, especially in Christianity. The speaker here is both commentator and chorus, preacher and parishioner, whose voice blends in disturbing ways with the oppressor's.

That is finally what is so uncanny about "Christ in Alabama." It is a poem of searing truths uttered by ambiguous speakers. It is the reader's responsibility to sort through the poem's mobile indictments and negotiate a relationship to them and a level of personal and social responsibility. Just who, for example, utters the commands that conclude the first three stanzas? Who is it who calls on the black Christ to "bare your back" to the slaver's whip and centuries of oppression? Who cries out to the black "Mammy of the South" and urges, warns, orders, or pleads with her "Silence your mouth"? Are these the explicit commands of those in power? Are they, as Ford asks, the counsel of fellow blacks? Are they the implicit laws built into a culture so omnipresent and inexorable they need not be spoken aloud? Are these lines rife with anger or resignation? Are the speakers black or white? As each of the players in this historical tragedy steps forward to claim these lines, the words resound with equal power.

The brevity of the lines gives them the rhythm of refrains in spirituals or work songs, or, as Jemie implied, the simplicity of nursery lines. And the alternation of Roman and italic lines adds a haunting intensity to the poem's lyricism. "Christ in Alabama" is at once a protest against the legacy of slavery and a testament to its inexorable logic. It echoes at once with the sound of the lash and with lamentation.

As the poem proceeds, its referents become, if anything, increasingly less stable. For by the third stanza "Christ in Alabama" is still more powerfully dual—at once hieratical and secular. Its powerful critique cuts two ways, unmasking the faux divinity of white masters, politicians, and fathers and exposing the vulnerable logic of Christian symbolism. For the racialized logic of our secular hierarchies has corrupted Christian images of divine authority. "White Master above / Grant us your love." The lines are directed simultaneously to a human and a divine father; the two destinations are mutually corrupting. No wonder the editors of Contempo, where the poem was first published, instinctively realized the poem was explosive. Its equations depict Christianity as a form of tyranny.

Yet the poem also makes a claim for the spiritual power of black suffering. If Alabama blacks are modern Christs, their mothers modern Marys, then each cast out child is a "holy bastard," sacramental offspring of a brutal social ritual. And every utterance of a racial epithet is a worldly sacrament as well. "Nigger" is always "Nigger Christ," whether or not the sacred name is spoken, or so the poem insists in its fourth and final stanza.

Four lines long in its first published version (Hughes later changed it to five to offer a misleading visual form of resolution), the last stanza takes the form of a final definition that reiterates and solidifies the poem's consistent reasoning. It offers neither resolution nor consolation but rather inescapable confirmation. It reaches out spatially and temporally to name the geography and history of America's longest-running tragedy—"Nigger Christ / On the cross of the South." "Christ in Alabama"'s equivalent stanzas make for a poem of reiteration and intensification. It is an act of witness to the serial repetition of a public nightmare. Held up to us like a declaration and a mirror, it bars the way to the future, demanding that we recognize ourselves before we move on.

The emblematic silhouette by Hughes's longtime companion Zell Ingram above the poem serves much the same function [Fig. 21]. Wounds bared, the black Christ bars our way. We cannot pass beyond him to any alternative resolution. He is at once a victim and a herald. As Michael Thurston writes,

Zell Ingram's illustration looms immediately above the poem: a stylized silhouette of a black man's head and upper torso, his hands raised by his face, palms out. The figure stands in deep shadow—`lit' from behind and to its right—so that its features are indistinguishable. In fact, the figure is completely black except for the stigmata on each hand and the lips, which are white. Half again as long and a third again as broad as the text of the poem, the illustration dominates the page, casting the poem beneath into its shadow. . . The featureless face atop the poem substitutes for Christ's uniqueness the ubiquity of black suffering.

In this powerful illustrated form, with its mixture of Roman and italic lines cutting back and forth across the space of American history, "Christ in Alabama" remained largely unknown for decades, though Hughes's now rare 1932 pamphletScottsboro Limited prints the poem with the same use of italics and thus confirms Hughes's original intentions. There, however, it is accompanied by a Prentiss Taylor illustration that images the nine Scottsboro boys. Arnold Rampersad's 1993 edition of Hughes's Collected Poems unfortunately reprints the modified version from The Panther and the Lash, citing the December 1931 publication in Contempo but taking no note of Hughes's revisions. It is the original version that makes the strongest claim on our attention. Indeed it is one of the most compelling poems in American literature.

From Cary Nelson, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, Copyright © Routledge 2001.

Cary Nelson: On "The Harlem Dancer"

An objectifying look or verbal representation does not preclude a variety of other perspectives; indeed it is both a form of celebratory play and a form of concentration that can be empathic. That may be the case, for example, in Claude McKay's 1917 "The Harlem Dancer". . . Of course there is no guarantee that the speaker in the poem reads the dancer's feelings accurately, facial expressions being notoriously open to multiple interpretation. Gender here is caught up in other systems of value—as it necessarily always is—and here those other values include the moral system that frames the poem and prejudges the prostitutes and the night club or brothel setting. Nonetheless, McKay does insist that the dancer is both an admirable symbolic figure and an individual, dual recognitions crucial to the other context that energizes this text—race. The phrase "grown lovelier for passing through a storm" reaches beyond her skilled triumph over the dance hall setting to reverberate throughout black history, or so the poem urges us to believe, and the dancer's pride and beauty stand for everything black Americans have won from adversity. Yet her mastery of the dance--along with its suggestions of materially constrained and compromised transcendence--is also specified and limited in a crucial way, for she has triumphed at the historical intersection of gender and race. Indeed, gender and race here are inseparable from history; they are social values, not unchanging essences.

If McKay's poem is somewhat compromised by its unselfconsciously judgmental opening and closing lines (and by a formalism that does not altogether serve this subject well), one finds few compromising elements in Langston Hughes's poems about women. 

From Cary Nelson, "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Marketing Modernisms: Self-Promotion, Canonization, and Rereading, ed. Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt, copyright © 1996 by the University of Michigan Press.

Cary Nelson: On "Women"

This is the same poet who in 1923 also spoke in the harsh persona of Medusa and who six years later stood with Cassandra, declaring herself "the shrieking heaven lifted over men, / Not the dumb earth, wherein they set their graves." Yet in "Women," at least on the surface, it seems she writes a poem with which Pound would find himself comfortable. Certainly it seems to elaborate the same generic metaphors of female passivity and male vitality. In this case, however, a great deal depends on whether we credit the female signature above the poem; if we acknowledge that a woman wrote the poem or that the speaker can be considered female then the poem is less stable than it appears. Yet gendered authorship cannot actually constrain or guarantee the semiotic effects a poem can have. Actually, as long as any woman who attempts to read the poem aloud is not struck dumb, an unlikely eventuality, then the gender of the speaker is at least demonstrably reversible. And as soon as a woman reads the poem almost everything the poem says is proven untrue.

If a woman speaks "Women"'s lines, then the poem in most of its figures undoes all its apparent propositions and assertions. "They do not see cattle cropping red winter grass," the line that opens the second stanza, exhibits exactly the precise visually observed detail that the line asserts women cannot see. Moreover, the detail is sufficient to equip any reader--male or female--to imagine the scene it describes. Much the same is true of the sound of snow water in the lines that follow, lines that themselves paradoxically enact and enable the very capacity they rhetorically deny. Two stanzas later we read that women "cannot think of so many crops to a field / or of clean wood cleft by an axe." Yet here too the reader of either gender is provoked to visualize exactly what the lines describe--to enumerate the crops a field can grow, to imagine the fresh wood exposed by a sharp axe. Similarly, the opening stanza, which declares that women have no wilderness in them, speaks knowingly of the wilderness that it claims women do not know. And if their hearts are really "tight hot cells," then something of wilderness energy and watchfulness has found its way into the home. Indeed, if women "stiffen, when they should bend," then they are capable of resistance, not compliant, as a more conventional image would suggest. Finally, to hear "a shout and a cry" behind "every whisper" is not simply to be fearful but to recognize a hidden wild energy in every domesticated impulse.

This is not to say, however, that there is any perspective from which the poem is likely to seem unambiguously feminist in its assertions; it mounts every feminist claim as a counter-assertion, written against the grain of (and at work within) every patriarchal cliche about femininity. The poem is poised to reverse itself, and it powerfully demonstrates how every sexist utterance is undermined from within. The poem's subject is more properly understood not as "women" themselves but rather as masculinist discourses about women, the declarations about women that our culture habitually makes. Those discourses, the poem shows, inevitably contradict and disqualify themselves. Yet it also puts these discourses in circulation again and reminds us--with excruciating precision--of women's culturally imposed self-containment and self-denial.

Moreover, the poem finally leaves these matters to our intervention, to the work readers must do. And the last lines--with their  ambiguous advice about letting life go by--remain irreducibly open to multiple interpretation.

Bogan's bid to disentangle resistance from within prevailing commonplaces--a project I believe to be too rigorous in this poem to be unintentional--has often been misunderstood. But then misrepresentation and dismissal have been the fates of many of the radical modern rereadings of gender.

From "The Fate of Gender in Modern American Poetry," in Kevin Dettmar and Stephen Watt, eds. Marketing Modernism (University of Michigan Press, 1997).

Cary Nelson: On "Beaufort Tides"

1934: the date is an approximation, but the poem, "Beaufort Tides," is a depression era poem by John Beecher (1904-1980), who became a poet and a rebel while working twelve-hour shifts at an open hearth steel furnace in Birmingham, Alabama. His fellow workers include both whites and blacks, and he writes poems about their lives and about the historical and economic determination of their suffering from the mid-1920s until the end of his life. It is first the steel workers themselves he focuses on, both in a neutral language of flat description ("a ladle burned through / and he got a shoeful of steel") and in dialect ("Henry Matthews was a blas furnace man / He slung a sledge an he shovel san"). Then the depression broadens his focus to all the southern poor. Finally, in poems like "Beaufort Tides," Beecher takes up the layering and mutual implication of past and present in race relations in the American South. It is as if the material ruin of the depression becomes a figure for a violent, oppressive, and still powerfully determining history that is never far from consciousness. From the slave trade through emancipation and beyond, whites and blacks were bound together. Now neither has much ground for hope; a history that might free them of their past is almost beyond imagination . . . It is the nation as a whole, of course, that is invoked in the poem's final lines. To read the poem now is once again, to realize how current many supposedly "topical" political poems remain. The sense of a contemporaneity layered with history is achieved partly with a deliberately mixed Anglo-Saxon vernacular and latinate diction. "Blood," "fear," "hope," and "shout" coexist and clash with "scavenging," "colonnaded," "destiny," and "jubilee." Despite the civil rights movement of the 1960s, we cannot predict what tide might remove the burden of our history.

Beecher's poem, notably, reflects not only his Southern upbringing but also a general movement among white poets during the 1930s. Responding both to the inspiration provided by African American poets in the previous decade and to the Communist Party's insistent emphasis on race and attacks on racial injustice, white poets by the end of the 1920s were beginning to write not only about black history but also about the problematics of whiteness. 

From Cary Nelson, Revolutionary Memory: Recovering the Poetry of the American Left, Copyright © Routledge 2001.

Cary Nelson On "Diving into the Wreck"

Her better poems always exact a certain price from anyone willing to participate in their vision. The kind of political awareness she advocates may cost a loss of personal freedom. The voyage into new territory may require us to adopt a generalized, mythic identity. The reader who accepts her vision uncritically has probably repressed the real anxieties accompanying self- recognition and personal change. The enthusiasm for her efforts to create a myth of androgynous sexuality is a typical case. To applaud the androgynous psyche or to announce this as its historical moment is easier than actually living out its consequences: "I am here, the mermaid whose dark hair / streams back, the merman in his armored body ... I am she: I am he." We all have more varied sexual impulses than we can act on, but will Rich's romanticized androgynous figure, "whose drowned face sleeps with open eyes," help bring them any closer to realization? While that is not a criterion one would ordinarily apply to all poetry, it is relevant in Rich's case. Unlike Roethke, she cannot take pleasure in the powerlessness of poetic solutions to social and historical conflicts. Her poetry continually testifies to her need to work out possible modes of human existence verbally, to achieve imaginatively what cannot yet be achieved in actual relationships. Moreover, she hopes that poetry can transform human interaction. Yet perhaps that is not, after all, the point, at least in poems like "Diving into the Wreck," despite its call for "the thing itself and not the myth." For what we have here is the myth, as Rich herself has now implicitly acknowledged: "There are words I cannot choose again: humanism androgyny" (DCL, 66). "Such words," she goes on to say, "have no shame in them." They do not embody the history of anguish, repression, and self-control that precedes them. "Their glint is too shallow" (DCL, 66); they do not describe either the past or the life of the present. As Rich has recently written of bisexuality, "Such a notion blurs and sentimentalizes the actualities within which women have experienced sexuality; it is the old liberal leap across the tasks and struggles of here and now." Indeed "Diving into the Wreck" demonstrates that one can suppress difficult feelings by mythologizing them. It may be that both Rich and her readers are relieved to have their fear and their desire conjoined in symbols so stylized and abstract.

From Our Last First Poets: Vision and History in Contemporary American Poetry. Copyright © 1981 by the Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois Press.

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.

Cary Nelson: On "Letter from Spain"

Langston Hughes spent half a year in Spain in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, visiting troops on the Republican side, talking with people in Madrid, and acquiring extensive wartime knowledge. His wartime poem "Letter from Spain," given to Edwin Rolfe for him to publish in Volunteer for Liberty, the English language magazine of the International Brigades, in November 1937, is a splendid example of the way he uses colloquial language to put the struggle between democracy and fascism in Spain in a broad context of international racism and imperialism.

Hughes's biographer Arnold Rampersad describes this as "a maudlin dialect poem in ballad-epistle form" and says it is typical of the sort of "proletarian doggerel" Hughes wrote in the 1930s and 1940s. Rampersad also reports, apparently echoing Hughes's account in I Wonder as I Wander, the second volume of his autobiography, that some of the American soldiers objected to Hughes's use of dialect, since most of the black volunteers were educated. Since the poem adopts the voice and persona of a black volunteer in the Lincoln Battalion, it is understandable that some Americans felt the use of dialect misrepresented their comrades, but it is equally easy to imagine that others among the Lincolns would have understood why Hughes put the poem in what is actually a rather mild form of dialect--not simply to appeal to common people, as Rampersad suggests, but to make a specific political point: that the common sense of oppressed people gives them an appropriate experiential basis for understanding international politics. For all their fabled ferocity, the Moors were partly there as canon fodder, expendable because they were black. The view from Alabama therefore had the potential to clarify fascism's racist character--to link Franco's use of Moorish troops with Mussolini's conquest of Ethiopia, for example--and to identify imperialism as a form of international racism. The relative universality of working class interests, moreover, also made for a vantage point from which it was possible to understand why British industrialists and financiers supported Franco; a progressive Spain threatened not only one source of potential profit but also, by its example, many others. A fairly complex set of political relationships are thus condensed into a brief poem in ordinary language, and the ordinary language asserts more clearly than any other kind of language might that expertise in international politics need not be restricted to those in power and authority. Indeed, one of the notable things about the volunteers in Spain was the diversity of their class background. Political understanding is thus not an elite, moneyed, high cultural capacity; it is in some ways the clarity that comes when some of that obfuscation is swept away. The use of dialect in the poem makes possible the material instanciation of some of those insights. Thus when the speaker looks across to Africa, makes the appropriate connections between his Spanish experience and global racial and financial relationships, the moment of recognition makes it possible to envision the existing structures of power undone, to "seed foundations shakin'." "Seed," an improper usage quite proper to dialect, is actually a pun: it is a moment of sight and insight which is also the fertile seed of radical change. The proffered handshake is an offer of alliance politics, a simple gesture of solidarity dependent on nothing less than a different understanding of the world. Yet the difficulty of reaching such understanding, the power national cultures have to impede such knowledge, is apparent in the Moor's failure to recognize the speaker's offer.

These interrelationships are foregrounded and heightened in the republication of the poem in the January 23, 1938, issue of The Daily Worker. There three of Hughes's poems in the voice of the black volunteer Johnny, "Dear Folks at Home," "Love Letter From Spain," and "Dear Brother at Home," are printed as a dramatic double-page poster bordered with illustrations that blur the distinction between the Spanish peasant and the American worker. The sombrero-clad peasant plowing a field behind a horse in Spain is substantially interchangeable with an American sharecropper. The farmer taking a hoe to the land before his modest home could easily be either here or in Spain; indeed, the industrial strikers just below him carry signs in English. The Republican soldiers in the images clearly stand guard over their mutual interests. Grouped together this way, the poems also reinforce these connections. "Folks over here don't treat me / Like white bosses used to do," Hughes writes in the first poem; those who might are on the other side: "Fascists is Jim Crow peoples, honey— / And here we shoot 'em down."

By Cary Nelson. Copyright © 1999 Cary Nelson

Cary Nelson: On "Portrait d'une Femme"

For some poets an attack on women became a kind of set piece of their early careers, almost a necessary apprentice undertaking, one of the decorously validated component of an appropriately marketed literary career. The two most famous instances are no doubt Eliot's "Portrait of a Lady" (1911) and Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" (1912), poems that embody attitudes quite characteristic of their authors' work at that time. In both cases the poets have apparently come to believe that Western civilization, in a period of decline, has erroneously given over to women the authority to maintain its threatened traditions. Yet women's essential being itself either threatens or diminishes everyone who becomes entangled with them. For Eliot, women's precious triviality makes for a life of empty, gestural anxiety. Pound admits these creatures have their allure; one alas repeatedly turns to them in fascination to see glittering "trophies fished up," bright riches that distract but have no substance. Indeed that is the core of female being -- gaudy found objects masking an inner emptiness: "In the whole and all," the speaker in Pound's "Portrait d'une Femme" concludes, there is "Nothing that's quite your own. / Yet this is you."

Yet neither of these two poems is quite uniformly or simplistically misogynistic. Eliot's is a historically specific engagement with the early twentieth-century culture of female patronage, salons, and hostessing and thus partly a class- rather than gender-based critique. Nevertheless, its picture of a certain time and class is clearly gender differentiated, and the structural maintenance of this fragile world of empty forms seems to fall distinctly to women. What Eliot implies in his style of partly self-reflexive revulsion Pound explicitly projects and personifies. Thus the two poems are written in quite divergent voices. Eliot, whose quintessential male protagonist at this time was Prufrock, adopts the voice of self-incriminating critique; he returns to sample the very social world he savages. Pound, on the other hand, casts out and castigates the alluring if vacant sirens whose voices would drown him. Pound's prototypical male figure at the time was Mauberley, and unlike Eliot he saw himself as a man of action. Eliot to some degree shows us both men and women implicated in the world of fallen social relations women have come to oversee; Pound here is Odysseus trying to get past the sirens. Both, however, can be seen as revising and reversing James's map of gender relations in Portrait of a Lady (1881), which offers us a woman who in some ways is the one uncorrupted, if assimilated, figure in a corrupted world. Thus Eliot in his much looser, more meditative and dialogic "Portrait of a Lady" and Pound in his rhetorically focused and almost univocal "Portrait d'une Femme" both show us women of baubles and bric-a-brac who lead men and their civilization to its collective doom.

That is not to say that there is nothing to admire in these poems. Eliot presents a world in which no position external to social life exists from which we might securely critique it, a stance many contemporary theorists would endorse. And there is unquestionably pleasure to be had in the layering and counterpointing of elegance, exhaustion, and wit in his rhetoric. Pound on the other hand offers a bravura performance that elevates complex metaphoricity to something approaching declamatory public speech: "For all this sea-hoard of deciduous things, / Strange woods half sodden, and new brighter stuff." Yet both poems are also instances, whether deliberate or not, of the backlash discourses that swept across America in the wake of nineteenth-century feminism's gains and that would intensify in response to early twentieth-century feminism. It is not anachronistic, then, to question what sort of cultural work these poems do; there would have been good reason for a reader sensitized to feminism to have found them offensive when they were first published in journals or later reprinted in books by Eliot and Pound. In tracking grounds for both approval and disapproval, in recognizing that both textual and socio-historical complexities are at stake in any full evaluation of the poems, I am of course undermining and purely aesthetic response to them. Marketed for decades by academic readers as unproblematically aesthetic objects, the poems in their own time were arguably efforts to reach out to audiences troubled by women's changing roles and identities. Indeed, the poems are clear enough in their distaste for women that some readers of this essay have found anything other than their unqualified rejection unacceptable. On the other hand, a more conservative reader thought my criticism of them seriously misguided. Such are the politics of contemporary criticism; it may be that I can please neither of these camps. It is the conservative reader, however, whose position seems to me to be the least defensible.

In case such a reader were inclined to underread the attitudes toward women unhesitatingly put forward in these and other poems, or to find some exculpatory explanation for them -- note, for example, Pound's "Canto II" and his gendered offer to breathe a soul into New York ("a maid with no breasts") in his poem "N.Y." -- one could turn to Pound's most remarkable programmatic statement of his misogyny, his substantially more than half mad introduction to his translation of Remy de Gourmount's The Natural Philosophy of Love. In putting forth the notion that the human brain is basically "a great clot of genital fluid held in suspense or reserve (p. vii)," Pound allows that this is so obvious and reasonable a hypothesis that it needs little proof. In human creativity and on the evolutionary scale, of course, men predominate. The brain is, after all, essentially male seminal fluid. Insects, on the other hand, are inherently female: "the insect chooses to solve the problem by hibernation, i.e., a sort of negation of action (p. ix)." Men act, "the phallus or spermatozoid charging, head-on, the female chaos . . . . Even oneself has felt it, driving any new idea into the great passive vulva of London (p. viii)." It takes Pound eleven pages to lay all this out in detail and by the end it is quite impossible to take it as Swiftian satire. By now, of course, the effect is partly comic, at least in part because Pound mixes his overwrought paeans to phallic creativity with a clubby, chatty style that implies he is casually gathering representative anecdotes from the limitless evidence available to all of us. But make no mistake about the bottom line: Pound believes all of this, and the arguments here underwrite his poetry.