Jeff Sychterz

Jeff Sychterz: On "Travels in North America"

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

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

 

Journeys are ways of marking out a distance,

Or dealing with the past, however ineffectually,

Or ways of searching for some new enclosure in this space

Between the oceans (91-4).

 

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

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

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

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

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

 

You have forgotten

Rooms that overlooked a park in Boston, brown walls hung

With congo masks and Mirós, rain

Against a skylight, and the screaming girl

Who threw a cocktail shaker at a man in tweeds

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

 

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

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

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

 

California’s a Garden of Eden.

It’s a paradise to live in or see.

But believe it or not,

You won’t find it so hot,

If you ain’t got the Do-Re-Mi.

 

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

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

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

 

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Jeff Sychterz: On "Crows in a Winter Composition"

Since the Romantic period many poets have used nature as a source of poetic inspiration. In Romantic poetry nature often operates as both a window to and a pattern of an otherwise indescribable metaphysical Truth. Nature however never offers this access freely or easily. The poet must come to nature—in the right frame of mind—muse awhile and wait for that sublime or epiphanic moment. The moment is important; truth never seems to just be there, waiting on the trees like fruit ripe for the picking. The poet must feel like she or he worked hard for and earned a momentary glimpse of truth. This working hard leads us to the catch-22 of transcendence in the works of writers such as Emerson and Wordsworth, the poet must keep his or her mind free for nature to work on, but must also keep the imagination working at overcoming nature and wresting from it the prize of enlightenment. The poet must be prepared to make the imaginative leap from material nature to ethereal Truth. What may seem at first as a minimization of human importance in the face of nature thus becomes another instance of human mastery of nature, albeit on a non-material transcendent plane. This Romantic trope of imaginative transcendence over nature (where nature can serve to only take us so far) continues to dominate much nature poetry to this day.

A number of modern American poems however illustrate not the triumph of the imagination but instead its failure to bring about the epiphanic moment. Some seem to suggest that human nature cannot grasp whatever truth may lie hidden, others that no metaphysical truth exists, and others—such as the poems of A. R. Ammons—that the very lack of a deeper order and metaphysical truth is exactly the transcendent truth offered us by nature. Of this eclectic group of poems, N. Scott Momaday’s “Crows in a Winter Composition” has one of the most complex and enriching of imaginative failures, despite the poem’s deceptively simple narrative of some noisy crows interrupting an epiphanic moment.

The crows certainly seem like a random insertion, an unfortunate addition to this silent winter morning. The scene is ripe for transcendence: the time is morning, the air is silent and the snow obliterates the hard contours of nature. All seems ready to blur and slip from material reality into a metaphysical realm lying between the silences and maybe even just under the crust of snow. The speaker’s mind is free to begin working, to take a Wordsworthian imaginative journey beyond nature and into another reality of luminous truth (the kind of journey that would lengthen the poem into a several page philosophic event). Therefore the reader feels just as uneasy at the sudden appearance of crows that break the silence with their cacophony of calls, and interpose themselves between the epiphanic promise and us. Not only are they an unwanted addition to the scene, they seem utterly unconcerned with the solemnity of the moment; they stand not only “in a mindless manner” but also right on the very source of transcendence, the “luminous crust.” This act could be compared to a group of boisterous punks deciding to hang out in a church during Sunday morning observances. No wonder the speaker regards them with “bright enmity.”

But the crows differ from the punks in one crucial way: unlike the rowdy punks who would be utterly out of place in a quiet church, the crows are of nature and belong to the world of the silent snowy morning. So the crows are less an interruption by an external agent, then an interposition by nature itself. Even the title suggests that the crows are part of the composition just as the snow or silence, maybe even more so. The title could be for a painting in which the snow and silence serves merely as background for the birds. The setting of the first stanza then exists only in relation to the crows, and not as a separate material reality.

This leaves the reader with the sneaking suspicion that the crows are a purposeful interruption by nature, a Deus ex Machina brought in at just the right moment to break up any possible revelation of truth. The crows seem almost sinister, and the poem enhances this feeling by using the word “enmity,” which is often used to refer to a mutual hatred between two parties. So the second to last line could also indicate that the crows respond to the speaker’s “regard” with reciprocal hatred, as if they felt not only a greater claim to this winter morning but also indignation at the outsider who challenges that claim. The crows are also the enemies of his regard—enmity and enemy both sharing the same Middle English genealogy—in that they repel his attempts to integrate them into the scene on his own terms. Thus nature, through the crows, actively and purposefully resists the human imaginative faculty.

But perhaps “purposeful” is too strong of a word because the rowdy birds are not even ravens—the ubiquitous tricksters of many Native American myths and legends—so their interruption does not bring with it the comfortable structure of mythology to order our experiences. No the birds are simple common crows blundering through the solemn scene, without even the mindfulness of rational thought or a godlike task to keep human beings from discovering Truth. Yet nevertheless their insertion utterly closes the passageway between the physical and metaphysical world with their “definite, composed” materiality and “hard nature.” The weight of the physical crows seems to hold down the “luminous crust” and keep it from bursting forth under the gaze of the intuitive speaker.

That assumes, however, that the speaker was on the verge of an epiphanic moment; if we step back and look at the first stanza again other possibilities reveal themselves. The speaker tells us “nothing appeared” and immediately repeats the statement “Nothing appeared.” Rather than indicating the appearance of a transcendent vision, the speaker could possibly be registering his frustration at the lack of an epiphany. Even the “Therefore” beginning the second stanza can be read as referencing that frustration. The speaker could have already been “ill at ease” due to his failure when the crows arrived. The crows then serve a  a scapegoat; through the image of the crows feet on the “luminous crust” the speaker retrospectively blames the failed epiphanic moment on the arrival of the crows.

Perhaps the crows interrupt not a moment of transcendence but a Zen-like moment of unintelligibility. Perhaps the importance of this moment is not the triumph of the human imagination, but exactly its defeat. The speaker ends the first stanza by telling us that the silences “Were unintelligible.” The moment is precious because the speaker’s ego is shattered by a silence that takes on weight, and is in fact “several silences, / Imposed one upon another.” The speaker is indeed drawn out of the material world, and out of his own mind, but not given a vision of some transcendent truth. Instead nothing happens, nothing appears; everything is reduced to nothing and silence, including the speaker. All that is left is the Freudian pleasure of overwhelmed ego boundaries. The crows break this reverie and therefore bring an end to pleasure.

I am unwilling to give preference to any of the above possible readings, feeling instead that the poem puts all these possibilities in motion in a Haiku-like fashion. In fact the poem seems to fit the definition of its own title “Crows in a Winter Composition” not only because of its composite meanings but also because the poem itself is a composite of European (Romantic and Modern use of imagery), Japanese (the meditative Haiku form), and Native American (Animism and nature mythology) influences. From several different perspectives this remarkable poem presents a nature that maintains its integrity in the face of human imaginative mastery.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Jeff Sychterz: On "Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)"

Although I agree with most of Michael True’s reading of Rukeyser’s "Poem" I find his analysis hampered by a too narrow reading of the poem’s historical moment. What he regards as "a journey through discouragement, even despair" in the midst of the Vietnam War, I find to be a necessary lesson of survival in a much broader historical context haunted by World War II and anticipating an uncertain and troubled future.

Part of my disagreement with True stems from his cursory treatment of the poem’s final line. He says only that "the final line, a refrain echoing the opening line, makes an association between violence within and without: peacemaking in the individual and peacemaking in the social order." True seems to read the poem as ending on a triumphant note of realized resolution. The final line, even with the alteration of "world wars" to "these wars," does not suggest resolution to any conflict, internal or external. The verb "lived" does suggest a triumphant survival in the face of death and violence, but the rest of the line, "in the first century of these wars" deflates that triumphant note. To say that she has lived through the "first century of these wars" suggests that a second and maybe even a third century of unimaginable violence will follow before the peace described can come to fruition. I do not mean to say that the poem ends in despair, because although the era of "world wars" has not ended, the poem does look to a point—possibly in the distant future—when this era will pass.

A second effect of repeating the first line at the end of the poem is to enclose all of the poem’s activity inside a historical cycle of violence and war. All of the attempts to construct peace—networking, writing poems, and personal reconstruction—are circumscribed by war. Despite the hope that lines fourteen through nineteen engender, the poem does not achieve a peaceful resolution. Instead of offering an escape from carnage the poem offers us an example of everyday survival and resistance that operates under the shadow of war. In this way the poem casts the "men and women / Brave, setting up signals across vast distances" as partisans struggling behind the lines rather than as reformers safe on the home front. Rukeyser also invokes this partisan trope through a repetition of the word "unseen;" in the poem people remain unseen by both the capitalist machine and by the poet herself. Because of the inherent danger of partisan warfare, Partisans must remain unseen both to the enemy and to each other. They must operate in isolated cells so that the capture or infiltration of one cell will not compromise the entire partisan effort.

Two actions described by the poem particularly resemble the activity of partisans: the networking of friends, and the writing of poems. Both activities involve the opening of alternate lines of communication to disseminate counter-hegemonic discourses. Propaganda—as these discourses would be named in wartime—is a crucial weapon against occupying forces. Propaganda in the form of underground newspapers, leaflets, graffiti and broadsides not only help an oppressed populace maintain hope, they help that populace redefine themselves as a source of resistance and as necessary combatants against oppression. Without communication there can be no resistance. Rukeyser indicates that construction of alternative networks opposed to the newspaper and authorized media "devices" involves a certain level of risk; otherwise the men and women would not be "brave." Even the poet situates herself as not merely a recorder of everyday life, but as a fighter in this underground war. She writes poems to battle insanity and for the "unseen and unborn," not merely to remind them of what was endured, but to instruct them in how to fight, why to fight and what to fight for.

I find Rukeyser’s juxtaposition of her own poetry with that of official media sources suggestive given the journalistic techniques that she uses in her long poem sequence, The Book of the Dead. In that poem sequence Rukeyser energizes the disinterested, "objective" and "careless stories" in the official newspapers by juxtaposing them with first hand accounts, company documents, stock quotes and allusions to Egyptian mythology. The Book of the Dead does more than inform; it shocks, it condemns, it angers, and it wakes up the rest of us careless and disinterested individuals who blindly follow an oppressive capitalist system. In a way The Book of the Dead can be read as a work of propaganda that attempts to enlist our aid in a partisan war.

But I don’t mean to overplay the partisan trope for although a tone of vigorous and stubborn resistance does exist in "Poem" I find it tempered by a certain level of exhaustion. By casting the poem as a description of one day, which moves from "most mornings" through the day and into "the night," Rukeyser’s poem resembles stories told by survivors of the Battle of Britain, or of any number of German cities bombed by the allies. These stories, which describe a typical day and how one survived through it, often start "I lived through the Battle of Britain" or "I lived through World War II." For the "survivors" in this poem night brings with it a certain level of safety. They emerge at night after a day of bombing to find one another and try to rebuild what was destroyed during the day. The repetition of the word "try" is important, because it suggests a certain level of futility to the actions described. Any attempts at constructing peace are hampered by the violence of war. Tomorrow whatever has been constructed might be destroyed again. Therefore, both the external and internal rebuilding and restructuring are not complete by the poem’s close. The rebuilding has just begun but cannot be completed until we bring an end to the era of destruction and violence.

By situating the poem only in its immediate historical moment—the Vietnam War—Michael True misses the connections Rukeyser makes between that war and World War II, and subsequently reads the poem too optimistically. By bringing the concept of Total War to play in the poem, Rukeyser draws us, her readers, into the conflict; we can no longer pretend to be disinterested observers on the home front. The poem reconstructs us as part of her network and as combatants in a war that extends beyond the battlefield to encompass even the history of western society. We stand in the middle of an era of war, violence and oppression that directly targets us all. Her solution is more than a call for peace, but a wake-up call to the reality of war and an urging for us to fight as well. Only by fighting together—waging peace both internally and externally—can we hope to bring this era "of world wars" to an end.

 

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Jeff Sychterz: On "Planked Whitefish"

"Over an order of planked whitefish" Horace Wild relates a series of horrifying images to his friends to explain why, after voluntarily serving in France during in 1915, he now advocates peace. The detached third person narrative of Sandburg’s semi-autobiographical poem avoids rhetoric or editorializing, focusing instead on four short, stark, and largely unadorned, images. Very different from other contemporary anti-war expressions, such as "I Didn’t Raise My Boy to Be a Soldier," the poem can hardly be called an anti-war manifesto. However, after the poem assaults us with those four images, we understand why Wild states, "‘I don’t care who the hell calls me a pacifist. I don’t care who the hell calls me yellow. I say war is the game of a lot of God-damned fools.’" Wild tells his friends—and the poem tells us—that because of those violent "circumstantial details" of war he wears his "blue (Peace) button in the lapel of his coat."

We might say that the horrific images themselves are enough to convince anyone to be anti-war; but representations of war’s violence can cut both ways, by either encouraging people to avoid war, or to enlist. The first two images, for example, resemble alleged atrocities committed by the Germans in their occupation of Belgium, as documented in the Bryce Committee’s "Report on Alleged German Outrages": "at Haecht several children had been murdered, one of two or three years old was found nailed to the door of a farmhouse by its hand and feet . . ." (Bryce Report, Aerschot and District. Period III. [September.]) and "At Elewyt a man’s naked body was tied up to a ring in the wall in the backyard of a house. He was dead, and his corpse was mutilated in a manner too horrible to record" (Bryce Report, Aerschot and District. Period II. [August 25th.]). Some isolationist groups saw the Bryce report as propaganda designed to incite Americans against the German "Huns" and bring the U.S. into the war on the side of the Triple Entente. Whether or not the accusation is true, the Bryce Report, as well as other representations of German barbarity and cruelty, did help to sway the isolationist nation to a position of ideological support for England and France. Representations of violence, therefore, can be used to promote either war or peace.

Sandburg, however, mitigates the pro-war possibilities of his poem through passive constructions, which focus attention on the victims and leave the perpetrators unnamed. In addition, the victims are all soldiers instead of innocent civilians (although the poem does not specifically describe the castration victim as a soldier it also does not name him as a civilian, and in context with the other represented victims the reader is left with the impression that he is a soldier). The poem, therefore, represents the soldiers not as victims of a specific enemy, but as victims of war itself. War, not the Kaiser, is the enemy.

This anti-war message is relayed to the reader through an extradiegetic narrator, but the message is authenticated by the words of an eyewitness to those events, Horace Wild. In the poem Wild is represented as a volunteer corpsman or ambulance driver, "running a truck puling ambulances out of the mud near Ypres in November, 1915," despite the fact that he volunteered as a pilot in the war. The poem’s representation of Wild as an ambulance driver—his flying is even described as driving—not only helps to authenticate the images of horror he brings back—an ambulance driver is more likely to see such atrocities than a pilot flying overhead—but also to make Wild more representative of American involvement in the war.

Before America entered the war many college students, and other young men, volunteered as ambulance drivers for the French cause. Their motives for joining were varied—some for the adventure, some for a love of France (Hansen, 128-31)—but for whatever reason, American ambulance drivers garnered much media attention back home. At a time when American reporting on the war was spotty and inaccurate the ambulance drivers were regarded as invaluable eyewitnesses. Many of them wrote letters home to local newspapers; some had their personal letters and diaries published in newspapers, magazines and books; and some, who were already professional writers, wrote articles for major metropolitan newspapers (Hansen, 85-7). By representing Wild as an ambulance driver the poem capitalizes on this reputation of the driver as an insider to European violence; one who brings authentic tales of the war from the front back to the American reader.

Paradoxically many American ambulance drivers were pacifists, like Harvard novelist John Dos Passos and his classmate Robert Hillyer. But they successfully negotiated their pacifism and their desire to save France from German aggression by volunteering as non-combatants (Hansen 151-2). In the poem, however, Horace Wild never admits to being a pacifist; his statement, "I don’t care who the hell calls me a pacifist," is far from an admission like "I am proud to be called a pacifist." This statement indicates that the term carries a negative connotation; and that although Wild may not necessarily apply the term to himself, he will not argue if others do. Wild’s anti-war argument tends toward a visceral reaction to the extreme and unnatural physical mutilation of bodies rather than take a philosophical or moral stance against violence and warfare. The poem certainly assures us that he is not averse to violence: "Horace Wild, the demon driver who loves fighting and can whip his weight in wildcats . . .."

In fact the poem goes out of its way to ensure that the reader does not confuse Wild for a coward; more than that, the poem emphasizes the masculinity of not only Wild but of the whole environment of the poem. The homosocial setting is unmistakable, three male friends sharing a meal "at a downtown club," and at least two are the epitome of machismo; Horace B. Wild, who, as one of America’s first aviators, survived his share of near fatal crashes in the days when flying airplanes frequently led to crashing airplanes; and Charley Cutler, who was not only a "famous rassler," but also the 1914 National Wrestling Alliance (the earliest professional wrestling organization) champion. The odd man out is Sandburg, a poet; however by slipping in the statement "now out of jail," the poem represents even him as rough, ready and not afraid to go in harm’s way.

This, perhaps conscious, need to assert the friends’ masculinity seems to indicate that masculinity is threatened in the space of the poem. The source of this threat comes not only from the possible labels of coward or pacifist, but from the particular form that violence takes in the poem. The second violent image, "the genital organ of the victim amputated and placed between the lips of the dead man’s mouth," because of its threat of castration, particularly stands out from the other three images. However, although the threat of castration is probably enough to provoke Wild’s anti-war response, something else is particularly troubling about the image; despite the gruesome detail, it is erotically charged. Although all the images are noticeably unadorned by descriptive qualifiers—allowing the images to plainly speak their horror—the word-choice for this particular image is odd. First, the word "placed" is much more gentle than other possible verbs, such as "shoved," "forced," or "crammed." The verb bespeaks of a lack of force or violence; if the image were to contain a descriptor, one can imagine more readily the adverb, "gently" than others such as "rudely" or "roughly." Second, "lips" itself is erotically charged, both through its sound and through what it signifies: the primary non-genital sexual organ in human beings. Sandburg could have omitted this detail—saying instead "placed inside the dead man’s mouth," or even "shoved into the dead man’s mouth"—without affecting the brutality of the image.

I give so much attention to this line because I think its erotic charge complicates an otherwise straightforward anti-war message. For Wild, Sandburg and the reader to be attracted to such a repellant image is troubling, to say the least. Furthermore, the poem heightens the homoerotic tension in the following line, "And Horace Wild, eating whitefish, looked us straight in the eyes." Wild’s masticatory act not only symbolizes communion—in response to the Christ-like Canadian soldier of line five—but also repeats the indignity of the second victim. The whitefish stands in for both the flesh of the first victim and the castrated genitals of the second; symbolically, Wild fellates both victims. We can read Wild’s response to the represented violence as not only a reaction to inhuman mutilation, and a fear of castration, but also as a fear of his own homosexual attraction to the bodies of the dead soldiers—a homophobic response. Therefore, the cause and effect logic of the poem—"because of these instances of violence I am anti-war"—contains a further element: "because I am attracted to these images of violence, I find war reprehensible." Wild is horrified by his compulsion to symbolically (and perhaps literally) repeat those violent acts. Pacifism, a term often associated with women and intellectuals, paradoxically becomes a site where Wild can maintain his masculine self-image in the face of the horrifically homoerotic violence of the European war.

 

Works cited

Bryce, the Right Hon. Viscount, et. al. Report of the Committee on Alleged German Outrages Appointed by His Britannic Majesty’s Government. 15 December 1914. 26 April 2001 <http://www.yale.edu/lawweb/avalon/brycere.htm>

Hansen, Arlen J. Gentlemen Volunteers: The Story of the American Ambulance Drivers in the Great War, August 1914-September 1918. New York: Arcade Publishing, 1996.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Jeff Sychterz: On "Love is not blind"

In "Love is not blind" Edna St. Vincent Millay transforms a moment of anxiety over her lover’s lack of beauty into an attack on patriarchal notions of beauty and love. In the process Millay dis-covers the constructed nature of physical beauty, while recognizing that she cannot fully escape the patriarchal structure that "prize(s)" its own construction.

Reminiscent of Shakespeare's Sonnet 130, "My mistress' eyes are nothing like the sun," Millay's sonnet critiques the Petrarchan tradition of love poetry. Both sonnets reverse the values of the blason by listing physical "imperfections" instead of praising the transcendent perfect physical features of the love-object. But where Shakespeare catalogues physical ugliness for three quatrains Millay’s blason is remarkably short: "I know the imperfection of your face,— / The eyes too wide apart, the brow too high / For beauty." Through such brevity, as well as through a direct mention of her love’s "ugliness," Millay achieves a different tone from Shakespeare's sonnet. Shakespeare’s blason humorously undercuts the hyperbolic standard of Petrarchan beauty by replacing it with a hyperbolic ugliness, whereas Millay’s seems troubled by the inability of her lover to live up to the standards of Petrarchan beauty.

Also, Shakespeare’s series of "If . . ., Then . . ." constructions indicate that his mistress’s ugliness is contingent upon the overstated tradition of the Petrarchan sonnet—in effect Shakespeare’s speaker says "if the impossible standards of Petrarchan poetry indicate true beauty, then my mistress is not beautiful." However the final couplet, "And yet, by heaven, I think my love as rare / as any she belied with false compare," suggests that the traditional Petrarchan similes—hair like gold, eyes like the sun—are overstated and false. Because the speaker draws such an unflattering portrait of a lady who can be favorably compared to other Petrarchan love-objects, the poem brings the transcendent Petrarchan beauty standard back to earth, falsifies it, and evacuates it of meaning.

The speaker in Millay’s sonnet also seems to initially confirm that her lover is ugly: "I see with a single eye / Your ugliness." The first words of the sonnet—"love is not blind"—lead the reader to expect this conclusion, for the cliché that it reverses—"love is blind"—means that people in love are blind to their lover’s faults and imperfections. Therefore the speaker tells the reader that although she is in love she clearly sees that her lover fails to meet the perfect standard of beauty. But by ending the brief list of "ugliness" with the phrase "for beauty" she reveals—like Shakespeare’s speaker, only sooner—the contingency of those imperfections. She further emphasizes that contingency through enjambment; by placing "For beauty" at the beginning of line five a silent "at least" seems to fill in the barely perceptible pause caused by the reader's eyes moving from the end of one line to the beginning of the other. The poem stresses that the love object’s ugliness is contingent upon a certain definition of beauty.

This qualification marks a change of tone that would traditionally come at the beginning of the sestet. However, rather than continuing with the standard blason through the octave, lines five through eight reveal that beauty, not ugliness, is the contingent term; and the speaker calls into question not just the hyperbolic standard of Petrarch but the signifier beauty itself. "Loveliness" is not a natural given that has always existed, but instead something that has to be "learned." Millay’s description of this learning process is very Lacanian: the speaker's mind is inscripted by the word "loveliness:"

        Learned from earliest youth am I

In loveliness, and cannot so erase

Its letters from my mind, (ll. 5-7).

"Beauty" and "loveliness" are more than vocabulary terms that the speaker has learned in school, they are societal constructs that from infancy have shaped her unconscious.

Line thirteen links the word "beauty" with "men" and therefore reveals the problem as one much greater than definitions of physical attractiveness. The "letters" that are inscripted on the speaker's mind are those of patriarchal values that are distributed and enforced through a patriarchal language; and that patriarchal language helps to form the speaker's unconscious. The speaker" cannot so erase / Its letters from (her) mind" because her "mind" has been partially formed by the word "loveliness." The poem indicates that psychic colonization by the patriarchy extends even to the term and act of love, (ironically love is traditionally thought to be a woman’s realm). Therefore the "must" in line eight carries with it a negative connotation: Millay's speaker is doomed to always experience love through the patriarchy; she can only experience a love that has been determined by masculine language and values. She can never rid herself of the notion of beauty.

But the poem paints love as more than a linguistic prison; "the sovereignty of love" is "more subtle" than patriarchal language. The différance inherent in the signifier "faultless" allows the speaker to form a resistance to a patriarchal determined "love." So when the speaker says that because of her early inscription by "loveliness" she cannot "trace" her lover "faultless," she means something different than simply not finding her woman attractive. The speaker cannot apply words like "beauty" or "loveliness" to her lover without the lover failing to measure up to these physically over-determined signifiers. "Faultless," however, does not mean that the speaker can only describe her lover in negative terms such as "ugliness." In fact, a great deal of room exists outside the negative blason—which faults only her brow and eyes—where we can assume that the lover possesses an abundance of qualities that make her an object of desire for the speaker.

But why focus on two imperfections rather than on any of these more desirable qualities? Because the Petrarchan/patriarchal beauty standard inscripted in the sonnet form presupposes a physically perfect love-object; the slightest imperfection would disqualify any woman. Thus the love-object in the sonnet can either be perfect—and therefore nothing more than a fantasmatic projection of the Petrarchan beauty standard itself—or flesh and blood. And the flesh and blood love-object can only ever be defined in the sonnet in relation to that ideal standard, and therefore can only be defined by her distance from that standard, i.e. by her imperfections.

But the speaker never actually describes her lover as ugly. Instead she explains that her lover’s body is too imperfect "for beauty," not necessarily for herself. She quite probably finds her lover very physically attractive, but the sonnet—as the patriarchal/hetero-normative expression of love—is ill equipped to describe homosexual desire; the physical aspect of that desire cannot be rendered in language (compare for example Shakespeare’s vague description of the young man in Sonnet 18 with the explicit blason of the Dark Lady in 130). The problem lies with language itself: those desirable qualities (must) remain outside the realm of language, for the patriarchal/hetero-normative language cannot render them verbal. The moment that the speaker attempts to "trace" her lover in written letters the lover escapes from the poem:

So am I caught that when I say, "Not fair," ‘Tis but as if I said, "Not here—not there— Not risen—not writing letters."

The speaker cannot represent her desire or her lover in the poem, because the speaker's desire—and the lover's desirable qualities—exists outside the patriarchal/hetero-normative language that the poem must rely on for expression. The poem can only repudiate the speaker’s homosexual love it can never confirm it. The speaker’s love, therefore, is a "love that (cannot) speak its name."

But how can Millay’s speaker get outside the hetero-normative language to access her lover as an object of desire? She seems somewhat able to escape a patriarchal determined love but not in the space of the poem, for when she attempts to describe her lover she is "caught" by the colonizing language of the patriarchy. Instead she must "trace" after her lover. In addition to the drawing reference, "trace," also means "to traverse," to "find a vestige of," and "to discover the remains of." These definitions add a sense of discovery, adventure and even of linguistic archeology to the speaker’s attempt to verbalize her love. The speaker does more than describe her lover; she seeks after her by digging through and past linguistic notions of beauty to dis-cover her lover and her own desire. While men restrict themselves to the linguistic world of "babbling," the speaker actively pursues her lover through and then outside the linguistic space of the poem, into a non-verbal world of queer desire.