Thierry Ramais: On "Denmark Vesey"

What I found extraordinary about Aaron Kramer's poem sequence, "Denmark Vesey" is that it combines both a very compelling story-line and shows great technical mastery in mixing different poetic "genres" and rhythms while maintaining a surprising sense of fluidity and connectivity between all its various subparts. "Denmark Vesey" is, in my opinion, much more than a simple collage or patchwork of poems, it is a tapestry of experiences that throw light on one another while creating a very strong sense of cohesive whole. This sense of cohesiveness is of course at first dependant on the cohesiveness of the story itself; as we move from poem to poem, we are being told the story of a place, of a man and his people. The story flows as a true narrative, it has a beginning (a presumably "historical" one, presenting the background of slave introduction to the Americas), a heart (the increasing tension between slaves and their owners and the story of Denmark) and an (open) end. In this tapestry, none of the poem is out of place, yet all can be read in isolation. They all tell a story within themselves while helping the main "plot" (the revolutionary wind blowing increasingly through Charleston) to progress.

In this short comment, I would like to illustrate how Aaron Kramer described this mounting tension between black slaves and whites owners in his sequence, how all of its parts contribute to create a sense of ominousness which never quite disappears and which, as it gradually forces the white owners into a state of constant fear, also forces readers into acute feelings of tension and expectations.

The first poem of the sequence, "The Kidnapping", in the way in which some of its lines are cut, already shows signs of this sense of (possibly deluded) expectations, signs that what is given by the "voice(s)" behind these lines might not be final, might be hiding something different from what is expected, something feared or reluctantly admitted. So, for instance, readers will probably willingly accept the fact that the villages the slave-seller's boat sails along should remain "unknown", until, as the sentence continues in the next line, they are taken aback and forced to realize that they are indeed not unknown to "those who lived there". The narrative voice itself questions its own stability when from the same line to the next it presents as fact that the slave- seller's demonic "inspiration" took place "one morning", only to retract itself in the next line, admitting it might have taken place one "night". Later in the same poem, the reader has hope that the "unbound waves" can possibly "render [.] the lamentations of the slaves", only to be forced to admit, as he/she reads the next line that, even if they did, their language should be one which only "the sky might understand". There is actually a strong sense of the poem itself attempting to translate that "lamentation of the slaves" into words while being aware that its readers are somehow bound to be unable to "understand" it, to interpret it as they should.

The "Revolt in Santo Domingo" (which took place in the 1830's and marked the beginning of increasing fears on the part of slave-owners about their own security and heightened feelings of distrust towards their slaves) literally haunts the whole sequence of poems (see, for instance, "before the doom of Haiti and Domingo reached like a nightmare into every bed" in "The Minuet". In this poem, it is the whites themselves which are presented as "ghosts" of themselves). Interestingly (unless I am mistaken), the insurrection of Denmark Vesey which took place in Charleston, a "real" historical event, took place in the beginning of the 1820's, ten years before the Santo Domingo Revolt. The distortion of time/anachronism is interesting and might reflect the fact that the later revolt looms over the Vesey revolt as a "future" ghost. The ominiousness of Kramer's poem being one less related to what happened before than one related to how future generations will turn against their white masters, how, as stated in "The planter's fright", "the weak [will make] themselves mighty and do whatever they will". The "Sunday Offertory Prayer", which follows directly the description of Vesey's nightmare, makes mounting aggressiveness very palpable. Behind the call to Jesus to "put forth [his] loving arms", the idea that "Hell" is to be "prepare[d] for those who've torn the love and laughter from us" colors the black slaves' thought with feelings of revenge. This cry for revenge, however, is perceived by the whites as scary "silences". The mixing of points of view throughout the sequence makes Kramer's description of the white's uncertainties about what they should expect even more effective. Once again, it is through the (anachronistic, as I suggest) image of the upcoming revolt of Santo Domingo that fears are expressed: "A Santo Domingo we'll never allow" scream the slave owners in "The Legislators Vote". This last part of the poem, with its short mish-mash of cries ("Look for whisperers!" "Fine them!" "Jail them!" "Bind them!" "Starve them!" "Brand them!" "Flail them!"), is one tainted with fears, fears which, like Vesey's words in "A Meeting at Vesey's", cannot but keep on growing once it has been sown. The idea that this "word" should matter more than the man himself is carried throughout the rest of the poem, as shown in the following extract from "The Sentence is Announced": "The word of doom went through their bars / to spend the night among them. / Get out, bleak word - you are not theirs! / Go haunt the ones who hang them!" Vesey's words are not his own anymore and are starting a whole process which will eventually lead to insurrection. The somehow optimistic metaphor of the word spreading, of its ability to empower the black community even after its leader's death is embodied further in that of the young man deciding to take up the job of hitting the hammer after his father melancholically ponders on the silent night: "Buy me a hammer; I'll beat all day and all night. I'll make it the angriest hammer that ever was heard in the night."

 

Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais

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