Ellen McWhorter

Ellen McWhorter: On "Dirge"

Kenneth Fearing's "Dirge" tells a story of a male protagonist whose "boring rhythms and habits, not of factory work, but of white-collar drudgery" (Barnard) nonetheless fail to provide safety from the explicitly tangible and ideological effects of the (and "a") Depression. Unlike previous critics, I read the poem as rendering an extremely problematic representation of the protagonist's death: either he dies ordinarily (from old-age, or perhaps from ill health), as others suggest, or he dies by suicide. Acknowledgement of the latter as an interpretive possibility makes the poem significantly less playful than these critics would have it.

Stanza 4 begins: "And twelve o'clock arrived just once too often," suggesting frustration or exhaustion come to a moment of crisis. Yet, this gravity is, on the one hand, undercut by the comparison put forth in the next few lines, between this crisis moment and the exhaustion of routines like getting dressed in a "grey tweed suit." "[O]nce too often" and "just the same" are put in critical tension. Moreover, while the latter lines of stanza 4 chronicle a small (to the point of irrelevance) routine in the protagonist's life "walk[ing] one short step, [taking] one long look, [drawing] one deep breath," this routine is crucial, as it marks "just one too many." And given this final thrust in the direction of crisis, the previous chronicle might just as easily describe the final moments of the protagonist's life as his daily practices. In other words, like a scene from a movie, stanza 4 concludes by zooming in on a very particular moment, rendered here by Fearing in almost slow-motion. Again, he: "walked one short step, took one long look, drew one deep breath, just one too many" and then, moving on to stanza 5: "wow he died as wow he lived."

This first line of stanza 5 is, of course, equally ambiguous. The exclamation "wow" typically signals something shocking, or at least noteworthy, which in the context of the poem would gesture toward a death by suicide. "He died as he lived," however, suggests death in a more ordinary, boring, or even monotonous way. Discussing the use of onamotopoetics in general in Fearing's poem, Hunter claims that: "the language of comic books is imitated to describe in violent, exaggerated terms the routine of his life." I would suggest that instances such as the one presented above do indeed reveal a complex and problematic use of sound-words on Fearing's part. By acknowledging that the protagonist may have killed himself, we can focus not only on the truly violent possible effects of "the routine" on an individual psyche but also on trans-class depression underneath the Depression. Interpretations of this poem that overlook the possibility of reading his death as a suicide privilege a discussion of monotony in the Depression era over a discussion of death in the poem, despite the fact that an entire half of the poem is devoted to this death, whatever form Fearing means it to take.

Consider, for instance, the contradiction between Barnard's interpretation of the work done by Gropper's cartoon's for New Masses and the part this interpretation plays in her own discussion of Fearing's poem. She writes that Gropper: "combined strong modernist designs with a sharp demystificatory humor and an acute sense of the way in which the very form of the cartoon or comic strip, its stylizations and visual repetitions, might capture the more sinister rhythms of modern life." Yet, she does not provide further explication of what these sinister rhythms look or sound like, but rather offers regarding Fearing's poem, presumably in an attempt to be witty, "exercise machines" as a suitable metaphor for dangerous modern ideological institutions which (even further!) merely "train the worker for that powerless moment of (oof!) being fired," rather than starving the worker, and rather than forcing suicide on the worker as a palatable alternative to living under this ideology.


Copyright © 2001 by Ellen McWhorter

Ellen McWhorter: On "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"

In his essays on the "uncanny," Freud offers two particularly vivid moments of heimlich/unheimlich (uncanny recognition) around which he defines the concept itself. First, one experiences the uncanny when one perceives her/his "double"; second, when one is unsure about whether or not something is alive or dead. The central principle in both instances is a simultaneity of familiarity and unfamiliarity, that is, of ordinariness and extraordinariness all at once. According to Freud, a sense of the uncanny is built into our collective human psychology in the same way that the Oedipal (or Electra) drive is, and has similar roots in the initial separation from the mother.

My reason for the above exegesis started with the observation that Randall Jarrell's war poetry--especially "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner"--packs quite a sickening punch in its concision. While the first four lines of this poem are admittedly descriptive, they also possess an abstract, almost cryptic quality that detracts from their more straightforward factuality. At bottom, a reader must at least puzzle through the connections between "mother's sleep," "the State," and the "dream of life." The poem's final line, however, leaves no questions to be asked. "When I died they washed me out of the turret with a hose." The line is breathtakingly concise and, given the aforementioned cryptic quality of the preceding lines, comes out of nowhere to be quite shocking. In "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner," "Losses," and "Protocols," Jarrell's speaker writes from the grave, and this seriously complicates some theoretical analyses (specifically psychoanalytic analyses) of his poems. Without an identifiable relationship between poet and a first person speaker worked out, it becomes difficult to interpret using words like "Symbolic," and "mirror stage." Placing a third variable-death-into a pre/post Symbolic model is tough enough, let alone placing a dead, speaking subject, and then trying to determine how exactly one is to conceptualize the poet ventriloquizing this subject. Freud's uncanny, it strikes me, is a place to start an attempt to talk about dead-speaker/subject/reader relations in Jarrell's poetry, and in particular the relations in "The Death of the Ball Turret Gunner."

On the most superficial level, one senses the uncanny of a dead speaking "I" describing the moment of being "washed out of the turret." Before arriving at the final line, a reader can assume that the speaker is alive, because, as I suggested above, the poem's previous references to death are couched in somewhat cryptic language. And so, alongside experiencing the shock of a gruesome image, the reader of the final lines experiences the shock of conversing with a ghost. According to Freud's model of the uncanny, this shock is doubly powerful because it blurs the distinction between the states of being alive and dead and, at least tangentially, confuses our conception of "whole" identities; the latter confusion, while not precisely conforming to Freud's idea of the "double," does touch upon the horror of perceiving a literally fragmented or dual identity (i.e., the speaker and the speaker's body that is washed from the turret). Formally speaking, the positioning of (what I'm calling) the poem's uncanny in the final line ensures that any overall shock proves lasting.

Finally, on a more personal note, part of my own trouble with analyzing Jarrell's poetry stemmed from the fact that I had no idea what to do with the relationship between a dead speaker and the poet per se. Normally, I'm not at all inclined to draw the "writer" into the interpretation, but in order to talk about the mother figure and its relation to consciousness in Jarrell's poetry (my initial topic of analysis), I realized that I would have to talk about psychoanalysis. But psychoanalytic models don't provide for a dead speaking subject, which led me to wonder what model Jarrell himself was constructing between a live speaker/poet behind the dead (whose words could be psychoanalyzed) and his dead speaker (whose words really cannot). Somehow along the way, I determined that this whole line of thinking rather missed the mark. To the best of my knowledge, only Freud's concept of the uncanny offers truly helpful psychoanalytic fodder for talking about the relationship between poet and speaker. In a poem that lends itself so easily to the interpretation provided in the previous paragraph, perhaps Jarrell means to reinforce the alive/dead confusion and, further, to signal his own deceased poetic double.


Copyright © 2001 by Ellen McWhorter

Ellen McWhorter: On "(To Be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)"

In Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History (1992), by Shoshana Felman and psychoanalyst Dori Laub, Felman writes:

The contemporary writer often dramatizes the predicament (whether chosen or imposed, whether conscious or unconscious) of a voluntary or of an unwitting, inadvertent, and sometimes involuntary witness: witness to a trauma, to a crime or to an outrage; witness to a horror or an illness whose effects explode any capacity for explanation or rationalization.

In some cases, she goes on to explain, a witness will be one of only a handful of survivors who have in their lives experienced firsthand a human tragedy of the degree of WWII's concentration camps and lived to talk about it, and for that reason must bear a marked solitude ("isolation" in Rukeyser's poem) alongside a marked responsibility. "To bear witness," Felman writes, "is to bear the solitude of a responsibility, and to bear the responsibility, precisely of that solitude." Oftentimes, this means to bear the responsibility of telling their tale of survival, and by extension, the responsibility to speak for those who no longer can. To put this another way, in order to speak, witnesses mark themselves as exceptions. While the witness herself is defined as such by her status of solitude (that is, by her status as a sole survivor), the act of testifying can bring about a broad range of important repercussions for those whom she addresses. Felman offers: "By virtue of the fact that the testimony is addressed to others, the witness, from within the solitude of his own stance, is the vehicle of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or a dimension beyond himself."

With this model of testimony in mind, we can find at the heart of Muriel Rukeyser's "(To be a Jew in the Twentieth Century)" (1944) a debate over--and between--the solitude and responsibility of a survivor. Rukeyser's poem does not announce itself to be situated within a particular national context, but we can imagine that the testimony of a person practicing Judaism in mid-twentieth century Germany resounds differently than the testimony of a young American practicing Judaism in the latter half of the twentieth century. In the first case, the testimony comes from a survivor who witnessed Hitler's campaign to exterminate everyone of the Jewish faith (or race, depending on which theorist you read), and who successfully avoided this extermination him/herself. In the second case, the testimony perhaps carries more weight as proof that Hitler failed and Jewish lineages still propagated after the war. In any case, despite the explicit qualification in the first line of the poem that what comes next takes as it foundation the fact that the subject being discussed IS Jewish, Rukeyser's speaker muses over taking the "gift" of Jewishness and rejecting the "gift" of Jewishness. It seems to me that these musings may be read as questions of testimony.

Throughout the poem, Rukeyser keeps the meaning of "gift" eclipsed by the many internal states brought about by its acceptance or rejection by a Jewish subject. The origin of refusal, she makes clear, is the desire "to be invisible" (ln 3). Here we might remember Felman's argument that to act as a witness means, one the one hand, to mark oneself out as an exception, that is, to draw attention to a subject position that is somehow painfully "different," even if ultimately reparative. We can surmise that the threat of this positioning is exactly what would cause the subject being discussed in "(To be a Jew)" to wish for invisibility in the first place. Yet, refusal of the gift carries negative consequences: "death of the spirit, the stone insanity" (ln 4). In terms of Jewish testimony, a silent witness corresponds, in a sense, to Hitler's partially successful extermination of Jewishness. One cannot assert success against him, nor can one speak from a witnessing subject position from a point of invisibility. And when one neglects to "bear the responsibility" of witness--by my reading, to refuse the gift--one ensures the more wholesale internal isolation and solitude imaged in the poem as "death of the spirit" and "stone insanity."

Acceptance of the gift causes its own special set of torments. According to Felman's theoretical model, testimony entails remembering and attempting to put into words horrors of an impossible scale. Rukeyser writes that acceptance of the gift is acceptance of "evening[s] deep in labyrinthine blood/ Of those who resist, fail, and resist" (lns 6-7). These are no doubt insufferably painful memories, intentionally conjured as a result of the gift, whether put into words and told to a non-witness or not. Moreover, acceptance of the gift may result in its own form of "isolation" (discussed above in the context of Felman's work) or--further--"torture of the flesh" (ln 10). As we well know, to be a Jew (and especially to make Jewishness known in the public sphere) in 1944 was to risk violent, residual WWII racism, no matter the country one inhabited. Nevertheless, according to the speaker of Rukeyser's poem, the totality of the negative consequences of accepting the gift do not outweigh the hope and spiritual wholeness engendered by acceptance. If I can invoke Felman's argument one last time, it might be possible to complement Rukeyser's cryptic final word on the matter of being a Jew in twentieth century ("impossibility") with Felman's discussion of the redemptive quality of testimony. Felman writes of testimony as "the vehicle of an occurrence, a reality, a stance or a dimension beyond [the witness]," and infuses this definition with the spirit of a counter-force to internal suffering in/and isolation. It is a "whole and fertile spirit" writes Rukeyser, who "[dares] to live for the impossible." Only the act of testimony offers to a witness the possibility of moving through the isolation and solitude of witnessing, Felman offers. Perhaps then testimony is a "guarantee/ For every human freedom" (lns 12-13)contingent, of course, on acceptance of Rukeyser's mysterious "gift," which I have suggested, of course, can itself be read as the acceptance or refusal to testify.

Ellen McWhorter: On "A Communication to Nancy Cunard"

Kay Boyle’s "A Communication to Nancy Cunard" in many ways encourages readers to suspend disbelief in the ability of a political poem written by a white bourgeois female to avoid speaking for anyone; an interpretation invested in indicting Boyle for speaking "for" might devolve too easily into a dismissive discussion of the poet’s appropriation of voices in the poem. Indeed, Boyle makes clear that "communication" can work in far more complex ways. The poem benefits from being read as self-consciously working through what can and cannot be put into words, how historical atrocities can be represented and by whom, who can and cannot use language and why, and in what forms/genres they are permitted to speak or remain silent. If we take Boyle to be telling the story for those who cannot tell it themselves, due to numerous circumstances beyond their control (ranging from physical imprisonment to race and class), we downplay her obvious concern with how one represents Scottsboro when one is writing a poem and her obvious acknowledgement of poetry’s problematic relationship to political activism. Further, we risk foreclosing a discussion of the poem’s experimental modes of representing events like Scottsboro under the aegis of a problem with appropriation, a problem which I believe Boyle fairly straightforwardly anticipates and tries to address. At bottom, even if one reads Boyle’s foremost agenda as that of raising political awareness of the Scottsboro goings-on and sympathizing with those wrongly convicted, the poem’s title (and first stanza especially) suggest a simultaneous adjustment or expansion of Cunard’s poetics regarding these subjects, from which a reader might tease out some strand of Boyle’s sense of her own position/empowerment as political poet/activist.

Boyle’s poem is framed in part by its repeated invocation of a distinction between who the poem is "for" and who the poem is "not for." Indeed, "These are not words set down for the rejected/ Nor for outcasts cast by the mind’s pity/ Beyond the aid of lip or hand or from the speech" because, perhaps, pity in some forms can be patronizing. Individuals (poetry readers?) content in merely pitying those wrongly convicted thus participate to some degree in their marginalization, that is if pity is no more than an initial response to the event. When pity ceases to incite the poetry reader to become involved in remedying the Scottsboro sentences, and their logical extensions into early 20th c. race dynamics, it merely reinforces the division between leisure and immediate need that some forms of racism were (and still are) predicated upon. Moreover, Boyle suggests, the efficacy of words as a vehicle for political dissemination and resistance to racism comes to an end, while real people still inhabit a wounded, outcast "beyond." By signposting in this way who she intends (or expects) as her audience, and by announcing at the outset the limitations of messages wrapped in a poetic form, Boyle implicitly critiques armchair theorizing about racial politics, including a critique of poets who do not acknowledge the limitations of working in a medium so fraught with abstract and tangible privilege. The "abandoned" in line 6, which come to include Ozie Powell, Haywood Patterson, and Victoria Prince among others--these variously exploited scapegoats set against Sheriffs Sandlin and Blacock, the jury venireman, and the Sunday school teacher--are not intended/expected to hear the poem.

The second stanza of Boyle’s poem begins to specifically chronicle the Scottsboro case, and to hint at the circumstances that brought the nine convicted men/boys into the railcar in the first place. An unidentified speaker, likely one of the previously mentioned women, from within the boxcar says: "‘Christ, what they pay you…don’t/ keep shoes on your feet./ Don’t feed you. That’s why we’re shoving on’" (lns 15-7). Later, in what appears to be part of one of his trial testimonies, or perhaps part of a letter written to Boyle, Haywood Patterson recalls: "The depression ran me away from home, I was off on my way to try my very best to find some work." Lack of a living wage, then, alongside broadly strewn racism and sexism, brings together the boxcar riders, which include black men and white women. Towards the end of the poem, the speaker incorporates the "for" and "not for" structure which began the poem into a final extended explanation of who was in the boxcar on the fateful day and why:

Not the old or the young on it [the train], nor people with any difference in     their color or shape, Not girls or men, Negroes or white, but people with this in     common: People that no one had use for, had nothing to give to, no place to     offer     (lns 92-4)

Here, the earlier suggestion that the depression forced lesser-paid workers to relocate takes on greater proportions: these men (and to a lesser extent women) garnered a use-value as scapegoats for racist atrocities that they could not commit in the social climate and hierarchies of early 20th c. North America. The nine black men who were falsely convicted of raping the two white women served the purpose of maintaining a boundaried national white identity in a collective white social consciousness; because of race, class, and the depression, the poem suggests, they were excluded from serving another more materially capitalistic purpose for a society powered largely by privileged white men.

Stanzas four and five simultaneously paint an extremely detailed picture of those whom the poem is "for" and offer two specific privileged white male perspectives on the status of black/white race relations during the Scottsboro trial. The jury venireman (ln 17), whom the poem is for, first pridefully refers to his own successful ability to "think things out" (ln 19), and then proceeds to offer a horrendously racist and illogical account of "how the nigger race begun" (ln 27) which calls upon the widely disseminated myth of a white human and an ape coupling. The Sunday-school teacher (line 28), whom the poem is also for, continues the conflation of black men and beasts, but also offers a perspective on the intersection of gender and race relations. He says in testimony:

There is a law reaching down from the mountaintops to the     swamps and caves— It’s the wisdom of the ages, there to protect the sacred parts of the     female species (lns 34-5)

Given the fact that the accused men did not rape the white women involved, and given that the story was fabricated by white men, one might read the teacher’s remarks as revealing an anxiety over who has access to "the sacred parts of the female species," which might in turn be read as another attempt to preserve a sense of a boundaried national white identity in a collective white social consciousness. Notably, those intent on preserving their racial "claim" to the bodies of the women willingly submit the female body to a bogus (and albeit immaterial) rape, and in so doing reemphasize the fact that the accusations serve primarily to reinforce racial boundaries and not to "protect the sacred parts of the/female species."

One gets a clearer sense of exactly what social position the teacher perceives himself to occupy when he calls upon lofty laws and "the wisdom of the ages." To put this another way, the teacher accesses and aligns himself with these abstract modes of control and righteousness, that is with a logic of necessity. Haywood Patterson, on the other hand, explains his conviction in the following manner: "…misfortune befalled me without a moving cause. For it is events and misfortunes which happens to people and how some must whom are less fortunate have their lives takes from them and how people die in chair for what they do not do." In contrast to the teacher’s confidence in a longstanding and causal "wisdom of the ages," Patterson perceives himself to be the arbitrary victim of misfortune, which falls upon the "less fortunate," which could mean the lower classes, the racially disprivileged, or simply those unfortunate people upon whom misfortune falls. In any case, the jury venireman and the Sunday-school teacher call upon the effects of fundamentally rule-governed universe (even if it is obvious that their arguments work by illogic) which they are in line with, whereas Haywood Patterson senses the arbitrariness of fortune, that is a logic of contingency, which discriminates against him.

But this is not only discrimination within the realm of abstract causes, or organizing principles of the universe (i.e., "logics," or the level of thought preferred by armchair theorists), as Boyle goes on to suggest. The section of the poem entitled "The Testimony" consists of an explicit comparison of the ways language-use privileges and disprivileges certain speakers in certain social circumstances. Haywood Patterson’s apologetic plea for patience appears directly beside Victoria Prince’s virtually contentless testimony. A reader familiar with the outcome of the case would no doubt sense the irony of Boyle’s juxtaposition. Haywood Patterson requests:

…be patiene with me         and remember Most of my English is not of         much interest And that I am continually Stopping and searching for the         word (lnes 49-53)

while Victoria Prince repeats " I cain’t remember." In the Scottsboro case, Boyle suggests, a white woman’s inability to remember and thus articulate the circumstances of her rape, likely because the rape was invented, collided with the black man’s seemingly genuine attempt at articulation. Within the judicial sphere, Price’s silence and Patterson’s uneven speech both serve to convict him; she did not need to speak in order for him to be convicted, and nothing he could have said could have prevented him from being convicted.

Returning finally to the issue of voice in "A Communication to Nancy Cunard," I would like to suggest that each of the instances discussed above points toward Boyle’s primary concern with the intersection of race, gender, and language-use, which problematizes a reductive reading of the poem on the grounds of "appropriation." On one level, her poem attempts to raise social/poetic awareness of political/racial atrocities being committed contemporaneously, but this attempt also includes a critique of politically inactive theorizing that a poetry reader might be inclined towards. On another level, her poem distinguishes between a disprivileged audience beyond the aid of words, and thus in large part beyond the poem’s sphere of influence, and the audience empowered by whiteness, maleness, universal "wisdom," and/or mastery of language (and silence). "Communication" as such radically interrogates the intersection of words and politics of race, class, and gender. 

Copyright © 2001 by Ellen McWhorter