Kathryne V. Lindberg

John Carlos Rowe: On "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night"

Whitman's appropriation of military and political authority reaches its romantic limit when the power of "incarnation" quite literally becomes the power of parental generation and divine regeneration. Poems like "Come Up from the Fields Father" and "Vigil Strange I Kept on the Field One Night" complement the "Wound-Dresser" by claiming for the poet not simply the voice of mourning but also the power to resurrect the dead.

. . . Vigil" substitutes an intensely personal account of a soldier's death in the field for the "Sentences broken" that announce Pete's wounding to his family in "Come Up from the Fields Father." And the "son" of this poem is also the poet's "comrade," allowing the poet to claim the special intimacy that only veterans of war have for each other:

 

When you my son and my comrade dropt at my side that day,

One look I but gave which your dear eyes return'd with a look I shall

        never forget,

One touch of your hand to mine O boy, reach’d up as you lay on the

        ground.

 

The poet's vigil is earned as a consequence of shared battle, and the body he views so lovingly is inspired by his own sense of miraculous escape from death. As he contemplates this double, "leaning my chin in my hands," the poet has discovered the certain purpose that escaped the more emotional response of the parents in the previous poem: "Passing sweet hours, immortal and mystic hours with you dearest comrade—not a tear, not a word, / Vigil of silence, love and death, vigil for you my son and my soldier" ("Vigil," DT, 492). Even as the poet acknowledges the impotence of mere words before actual death, he does so only parenthetically and within the same aside recognizes what seems to contradict the claim that he cannot save this boy: "(I could not save you, swift was your death, / I faithfully loved you and cared for you living, I think we shall surely meet again,)" ("Vigil," DT, 492). Ritually wrapping his comrade in his blanket, the poet "envelop'd well his form," and "bathed by the rising sun, my son in his grave, in his rude-dug grave I deposited, / Ending my vigil strange with that" (492). Sweet reads this poem in conjunction with others that invoke the father for the sake of recalling "the healing power of adhesiveness," including "Quicksand Years" and "The Wound-Dresser."

"Vigil" is a strange combination of compassion and arrogant assertion through which "my son" quite literally becomes Christ buried by the poet/god just as the dawn announces not his "son's" resurrection, but that of the poet transfigured: "I rose from the chill ground and folded my soldier well in his blanket, / And buried him where he fell" (492). It is not, of course, Whitman's purpose to rationalize the carnage of the Civil War by invoking some vague reference to Original Sin and our collective "fall," but rather to suggest how the poetic voice can redeem all those who have fallen in the War. It is the form of the poetry that will not simply chronicle the War but claim the memorializing function that will quite literally "resurrect" poetic vision from the terror of History. By the end of the poem, the fallen comrade has become "my soldier," and he marches for the sake of the poet's triumphant resurrection.

Kathryne V. Lindberg: On "We Real Cool"

Of this poem Hortense Spillers, praising the "wealth of implication" in this "[l]ess than lean poem," says it is "no nonsense at all." Finding origi-nal artistry, in-crowd and in-race code, and a full range of traditional poetic techniques in Brooks's poem, Spillers say that Brooks's players "subvert the romance of sociological pathos" and, quite comfortably, she has them read Brooks's lines, thus:

They make no excuse for themselves and apparently invite no one else to do so. The poem is their situation as they see it. In eight [could be nonstop] lines, here is their total destiny. Perhaps comic geniuses, they could well drink to this poem, making it a drinking/revelry song.

I would like to bring Helen Vendler's recent mention of Brooks into conversation with Spillers's earlier tribute. Speaking with the well-earned authority of her position as a major reader of the Western canon and an influential critic of new poet candidates to that tradition, Vendler writes about the new national poet laureate in Callaloo, the most important wider-than-academic journal of black and Third World poetry. She generously praises and candidly corrects (explicitly not in the sense of "political correctness") the "Identity Markers" Rita Dove marshals to "confront . . . the enraging fact that the inescapable accusation of blackness becomes, too early for the child to resist it, a strong element of inner self-definition." At one point, Vendler economically dismisses Brooks in questioning one of Dove's "relatively unsuccessful historical excursions in a lyric time-machine." Not to make too much of a few lines, I quote her dismissal in full: "This [Dove's early 'odyssey' ] may owe something to Gwendolyn Brooks's 'We Real Cool,' but it avoids the prudishness of Brooks's judgmental monologue, which though it is ostensibly spoken by adolescetls, barely conceals its adult reproach of their behavior."

Even though Vendler indicates that Brooks's poem is not properly addressed lo the white critical tradition, her response does not fail to register, however unwillingly, Brooks's double movement at to narrow and to expand the usual distance readers of poetry traverse in becoming—or resisting becoming—"We," whether real cool or not. By making Brooks admonish the adolescents, Vendler makes pretty clear who isn’t We-not to say who "We" isn't. It seems that, however fallen, Brooks, tile poet, simply must share the critic's position above those pool players. Curiously, from their different aesthetic and experiential positions, Vendler and Spillers both give valid readings of the poem, and it is no accident that they fix on the pronoun that hangs out there like the prepositions from William Carlos Williams's famous wheelbarrow.

Not to dwell overlong on the ethos or impact of the very different constructions invited by Brooks's "We," I add Brooks's own commentary on the poem, which is delivered as stage directions for her public readings:

First of all, let me tell you how that’s ["We Real Cool"] supposed to be said, because there’s a reason why I set it out as I did. These are people who are essentially saying, "Kilroy is here. We are." But they’re a little uncertain of the strength of their identity. The "We"—you’re supposed to stop after the "we" and think about validity; of course, there’s no way for you to tell whether it should be said softly or not, I suppose, but I say it rather softly because I want to represent their basic uncertainty. (RFPO, 155-56)

Characteristically, Brooks invites both identification with and objectification of the young men—depending, perhaps on such categories as the race, gender, age of her/their audience. There is something cunning and deceptive both about the openness of Brooks's "We" and her variable distance from both the pool players to whom it refers and the people—at least since its Broadside republication—it seems to rename. Rather like the young white man who, in Brooks's Story about Baraka, heeded a call not intended for him, or the "You" of "Primer for Blacks," that shifty pronoun works a critique on audience overidentification and poet's supposed representativeness. After all, isn't she supposed to correct the young punks, not to follow them as new leaders? But which she? The writer of "We Real Cool," The Bean Eaters (1960)? Or the writer of the 1967 broadside "We Real Cool"? And should the differences of context text and thus of content be fixed—either in the sense of "healed" or "halted"? Brooks put(s) her readers, specifically a black audience that is not limited to the no-longer-New Blacks of the sixties, to work on such questions.

Rather than stand as the highly decorated, proper, and representative lady and/or poet for her race (the "lady ‘negro poet’"), Brooks chose to transform a black audience into poets or, as William Blake might say, prophets. Brooks's address is wider than Whitman's mutual embrace of writer and his people. More literal, literary, and liberating are her encouragement and publicity in favor of young poets than the hope that one day, perhaps crossing to Brooklyn on a ferry, one might think her thoughts. Indeed, it might be that her greatest offense against the literary and academic establishment(s)—the refusal to rest on her (canonical) laurels and apparent dismissal of the capital "P" of Poetry, which is also her refusal to repeat the talented-tenth or exclusive single, sanctioned post of (non-) representative poet, such as Hughes in the Harlem Renaissance—encrypts her most direct engagement of literary history.

Despite a fair amount of thunder and fire, her statement is no "No in thunder," but a generous "Yes" to those systematically excluded from the academic and elitist poetic apparatus.

Lindberg, Kathryne V.  "Whose Canon? Gwendolyn Brooks: Founder at the Center of the 'Margins.'"   Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers.  Ed. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996.  283-311.

Kathryne V. Lindberg: On "of De Witt Williams on his way to Lincoln Cemetery"

Recall for a moment De Witt Williams, as he visits in death the haunts of a youth that, after Brooks's treatment cannot remain ill-spent.  There is no small freight of literariness in the parody of the interstate journey of Lincoln's bier recorded in Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloomed" and the skewed identification effected by the substitution of "Nothing but a plain black boy" for "Coming for tocarry me home" of the spiritual's second line. 

Lindberg, Kathryne V.  "Whose  Canon ? Gwendolyn  Books : Founder at the Center of the 'Margins.'"   Gendered Modernisms: American Women Poets and Their Readers.  Ed. Margaret Dickie and Thomas Travisano.  Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 1996.  283-311.