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

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Title Ellen McWhorter: On "A Communication to Nancy Cunard" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author Ellen McWhorter Criticism Target Kay Boyle
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 31 May 2015
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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