John Vincent: On "Denmark Vesey"

Despite the more overtly material disputes over which wars are waged—border conflicts, trade routes, natural resources—war is also very much a contest over language, a struggle for meaning. It is, in the moment of its occurring, engineered, enacted, and concluded through acts of language and, when the last shot has been fired, the subsequent histories that give it narrative permanence reveal the further structuring power of language—its ability to order, divide, and situate the many contending discourses that shape the event. Aaron Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey,” a poem sequence about a potential insurrection of slaves in 1822 in Charleston, North Carolina, entangles itself in precisely these struggles over language and the politics of representation. At a time in U.S. history when language was quite literally on trial for its power to name, to signify, the poem’s significance seems to reverberate with a political tension that is at once historically implicated in an effort to recover aesthetically the event of a controversial rebellion and subversively condemning of the political moment of its composition. The paranoid atmosphere of secrecy and deception in 1952, the nascent cold war ideology of good and evil, and the escalating HUAC trials with their imperatives to name, to uncover and display subversion, inform deeply Kramer’s understanding of U.S. history and the continuous manifestations of oppressive power that make it work.

In the sequence’s opening poem, an unremembered, unnamed voyager with “astounding business sense” is “inspired” by the prospect of using slave labor to amass a fortune in the new world. “That inspiration quickly turned to gold,” the poem recalls. This sentence enacts the initial divorce of idea from thing that will come to dominate the remainder of the poem. Missing from the transfer of an idea of wealth to its material accumulation are the numerous orders of power, control, and exploitation that work to produce such abundance. The elision of bodies and violence as an abstract “inspiration” is granted the agency to configure wealth hoists into stark relief the central adversarial relationship of the poem which is a wavering congruence between idea and thing/deed that will work itself out through language. As it mystifies slavery, the white community’s control over language emerges as an engineering of reality that forbids a recognition of its historical complicity with coercive violence as it substantiates a political formation built on systems of natural rights. While the system of rights is codified in a Constitution and understood as universally inscribed on the fabric of the universe, the practices of everyday life do much to indicate the fissure between conceptions of reality and their actualization in the real world. The occasional “shrill cry” emanating from the cargo hold of the slave ships goes, we presume, unheard since the poet feels compelled to ask the question: “did they [the captain and crew] translate the cargo’s message of despair and hate?” A vague “perhaps the free winds and the unbound waves rendered the lamentation of the slaves in language that the sky might understand” is the only imaginable consolation for what we must assume is an answer in the negative. (my italics) In this way, Kramer figures violence as linguistic as well as corporeal.

Language’s capacity to punch down dissent and seal up a consensual social order takes place in the second poem of the sequence. In it, a wife’s moral indecision in the face of the slave trade provokes the question “tell me what you mean” from her perturbed husband. He follows by marking the commodities that she finds so alluring as paid for by the bent backs of slave laborers. The anxiety surrounding naming is forecast in her response: “they glared so when you named your price.” Her meaning, however, is banished along with the bodies of those whose labor is exploited through the husband’s silencing command, “let’s hear/ no more of what you think.” Suppression arrives as the activity of the day and lends credence to the notion that silencing and containment are administrations of power that will rehearse their violence first in semiotic fields. The coupling of idea and thing returns in “Revolt in Santo Domingo” when, in the final lines, word of Haitian slave revolt threatens to penetrate the town in the form of “news” and the dominant orders of the town seek to fortify themselves against the “forbidden tidings” it bears: “And though the lords of Charleston raised a wall/ to keep the news away, it was not tall/ or thick enough—the news reached one and all.” The chaos that ensues gives way a series of inversions in “The Planter’s Fright”:

 

They curse at all that was holy,

make holy all that was cursed.

The wise old judges are sentenced,

the last-fed now eat first.

 

These inversions starkly dramatize the way that war is a contest for meaning since they describe rebellion not only as an overthrowing of territorial control and possessions but also as a semiotic undoing of the categories of value that help shore up a dominant ideology of righteousness.

What follows is an obsession with “the name” as poem after poem looks to join the name of Denmark Vesey with the “thingness” of the hammer of revolution. “Do you know the name?” is a repeated mantra of the central poems that keeps trying to bring into presence an incarnation of Vesey that arrives metonymically through the figure of the hammer, both literally as a tool of his carpentry and figuratively as a smashing out the forces of bondage that enchain a subjugated people. “Beat hammer beat! Nail down the boards!/ Make slavery a coffin!” While the hammer is employed as an image of revolt, its meaning is concealed from white listeners in another inversion in which they hear in its cadence only the construction of “new style” goods for their homes. Indeed a “new style” is at work on the horizon, although its fashion might be much more “revolutionary” than its purchasers would care for. Vesey’s dream in which the opulent ornaments of white homes are literally crafted from the body parts of slaves rejoins the commodities with the bodies that produced them and releases them from the mystification that has resulted from the moral silence of appropriation. If, as the black congregation confesses on Sunday morning, “Our veins have run dry between the rows of cotton,” it will be the word made flesh in the coming of Denmark Vesey brought on by the repeated invocation to “whisper the word” that will revitalize the body it names. To bring it into language is synonymous with the power to materialize its reality, that of Liberty, not as a hope for heaven but as a lived reality of the present, not as an idea but as a thing. This is the subject of Vesey’s “sermon” and enacts yet another inversion in its call to forego the hope of salvation only in the promised land since it resides on this earth as well. If the blood has run dry in the congregation’s veins, the promise of insurrection will unstop its repression and infuse the bodies with renewed purpose.

Escalating anxiety about a potential revolt awakens in the white imagination as people begin to sense that an unraveling of control is beginning to take hold. Colonel Prioleau cautions the town to adopt a more vigilant posture of surveillance in their treatment of slaves. If they have already begun to whip “twice as hard, to prove they still had power,” then they must also “take heed of how men pray.” In an ironic twist, he implores them to

 

Discover every whispered word!

Let every sigh be overheard!

Be careful when you see them laugh:

the joke may be our epitaph.

And when they bow too low, beware!

It is our burial they prepare.

 

To “discover” the word in this instance would be to discover “Liberty,” a dark irony that unpacks the failure of the language of rights, laws, and the Constitution to ever form meanings in regard to black bodies. What follows is a plea to install a new legal code, one that will function as a preventative, preemptive attempt to dispel the threat of revolution, a revolution that only exists as threat, that is, in words. The preventative measure accomplishes its goal ironically by fixing the prohibition in language:

 

“A law ! A law! let’s pass one now!”

“A Santo Domingo we’ll never allow!

“Look out for whisperers!” “Fine them!” “Jail them!”

“Bind them!” “Starve them!” “Brand them!” “Flail them!”

 

The law is “unanimously carried” and, when Peter (again the betrayer) rats out the conspiracy to his white masters, their response dramatizes, once again the complicity of word and revolt: “Shall we allow a freedman’s boast,/a word, to kill us off?” The word, responds the other, is not “idle,” and when a captured Ned persists in his silence despite the pain inflicted on him, it points toward the fact that while a version of the truth might already be known, they need the word to corroborate an “unidle” utterance, the name of Denmark Vesey now synonymous with an earlier word, Liberty. The conflation of word and deed in a law implemented to punish conversation has an analog in the yoking of Denmark Vesey with “liberty.” Once “the name’s out,” Vesey burns the list of names. When a captured Vesey’s lips fail to produce “a murmur,” the captors claim, “his rifles—they speak to us—each has a tongue./They call out the names and the list will be long.” Violence takes the place of speaking for both parties, and when Vesey is pronounced to die, the “word of doom” reclaims the power to lord over language under the aegis of white power. Unable to actualize the reality of liberty, the slave population must surrender its quest to join language and thing with a hope for the future. If liberty remains unrealized, however, “wrath” has not, though its harborers must retreat to the world of the “spirit” with the hope for a future materialization:

 

            “Ten thousand guns will sing our mass

            when we no more can hear it—

            and those who dread us in the flesh

            may dread us more in spirit.”

 

The final poem returns us to the prophesy of “The Word of Doom.” “The wrath of the people is restless,” claim the speakers of the poem, “it won’t stay locked for long.” It carries this warning to its conclusion, one which proclaims, “watch out for the Wrath of a People: it will come to claim its son. If Vesey has been crystallized in the image of the hammer now silent, the coming of the son will unlock the smoldering wrath of the people and be, once again, the word made flesh. The son’s pronouncement that his will be “the angriest hammer” registers in the superlative the eventual triumph of the word as it links itself again to deed, to action, to bodies and recovers the connection to a “politics by other means” which was Vesey’s revolutionary project.

Kramer’s poem represents a strange convergence of forces that contend with each other for power over language. If in 1952 the state is involved in the struggle to make names mean complicity with communism, Kramer occupies himself with a similar struggle, to make names mean a certain complicity with language. The state’s repeated invocation, “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?,” is part of a concerted effort to give ontological stability to through its power to define in singular, monolithic terms. Kramer’s sequence involves an effort, conversely, to make names, historical names, responsible for deeds of subversion and resistance against this very capacity of white power to administrate and discipline on linguistic fronts. The following decades will implicate themselves in similar trials all surrounding the historical event of Vesey’s possible insurrection and the corruption of the archive. For Kramer, however, the capacity to tell, to give an aesthetic shape to Vesey’s story, is one more victory in the struggle to make language represent, to materialize the ideas of justice, rights, and liberty, in its democratic grappling to reconcile the word and the deed. As a challenge to white discourse, to its privileged uncoupling of liberty from its material organization of the world, Kramer points accusingly toward the politico-juridical practices of Cold War paranoia that seek to extract a truth in language, a name, even as it subordinates the language of the rights it promises to protect.

 

Copyright © 2004 by John Vincent

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Title John Vincent: On "Denmark Vesey" Type of Content Criticism
Criticism Author John Vincent Criticism Target Aaron Kramer
Criticism Type Poet Originally Posted 09 Jun 2020
Publication Status Original Criticism Publication No Data
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