In his essay “The Anxiety of Influence,” Harold Bloom says that criticism is the art of knowing the hidden roads that go from poem to poem. The poem is an act that perpetuates other acts and gives new life to the forms it repeats, and its influence helps to situate it. A poem under the poetic influence, when it is not utterly intoxicated, has an ultimate autonomy – while it engages with other poets’ work, it also contains its own motives.
Kevin Young takes some of the fun out of the art of knowing by making it quite clear what influenced his latest collection’s titular poem, “For the Confederate Dead”; instead he keeps much of the fun in hand to play it down the stretch in this personal and political book. As an answer to Robert Lowell’s “For the Union Dead,” the poem achieves its own motives, as did Lowell’s poem, which openly engages with his mentor Allen Tate’s “Ode to the Confederate Dead.” As poetic forbearer to Young, Tate seems almost inconsequential, but revisit lines like “In the ribboned coats of grim felicity,” and “The singular screech-owl’s tight / Invisible lyric seeds the mind / With the furious murmur of their chivalry,” and they seem to lift off the page as if in the relief of plaques that commemorate the monuments at the center of these three autonomous works.
In our culture of monuments, there are those that create a spectacle simply by falling (how shocking, if not exhilarating, to see such permanence actually be dismantled), and those that weather decades, inculcating inspiration and reverence. Lowell’s Boston monument is a “fishbone in the city’s throat,” and for Young, the Confederate monument is a “pale finger bone.” The monument itself, intended to endure symbolically, becomes itself a symbol of maligned immutability, and in Young’s “For the Confederate Dead,” the monument is a “giant anchor” with all the weight and immobility the metaphor suggests. In “Americana,” another poem in Young’s collection, the poet conducts a verbal boogie with personified America, and concludes by vitiating an American monument: the Statue of Liberty stands armed and backward.
With her Pulitzer Prize winning book Native Guard, Natasha Trethewey joins the ranks of those under such monumental influence. Her poem “Elegy for the Native Guard” takes its epigraph, “Now that the salt of their blood / stiffens the saltier oblivion of the sea…” from Tate. Trethewey writes more directly against “Ode to the Confederate Guard” and as a result, the glamour of Tate’s language is eclipsed by suspicion, as his heroes chivalrously “fall rank upon rank.” Trethewey‘s book is more forthright and less playful than Young’s (and is written from the other side of the Mason-Dixon), but they draw from a similar literary stream. Here is Trethewey, writing for The Virginia Quarterly in 2005; her concerns are clearly a complement to the research evident in her collection. Her reference is to Walt Whitman’s later writings about the Civil War:
Monuments all around the South serve to inscribe a particular narrative onto the landscape while at the same time subjugating or erasing another.
Probably no future age can know, but I well know, how the gist of this fiercest and most resolute of the world’s warlike contentions resided exclusively in the unnamed, unknown rank and file; and how the brunt of its labor of death was, to all essential purposes, volunteered.
Here, Whitman directs us to the unnamed, unknown rank-and-file white soldier and, inadvertently, to black soldiers as well—the legions of runaway slaves and freedmen who flocked to Union camps, first as contraband and then later as men (and women) eager to enlist—whose story has been left out of public memory of the Civil War and has only begun to be inscribed onto the man-made, monumental American landscape.
Today, social narratives are ambiguous by design. Our leaders and their charges fail to recall, their narratives are a froth of obfuscation. Ours is a world in which stories continue to get lost—even our own personal stories.
In Young’s poem the speaker says, “In my movie there is no / horses, no heroes / only draftees fleeing // into the pines…” The word “race” makes a cameo appearance by virtue of enjambment, but it dissolves, lost to its imperative form. The word lives instead in the mural in the café. The scene, intended by its owner as pastoral, has endured a dubious resurrection. It is below eye level, Young says, it is “too much around the knees” and in contrast to the monument that stands across from it.
The poem ends with a fraught figure — “Race / instead against the almost / rain, digging beside to the monument…” — that comprises a directive to labor and to race against imminent weather. It is not a directive to uproot or dismantle, but to dig beside; the result would be something parallel. Tate once wrote that reaction requires a radical removal of undergrowth to get to the roots, it is not accomplished by rearranging foliage. Stories make history live, but how can history’s stories be uprooted? Alternative narratives must be sculpted instead to retrieve the lost story. There are examples other than Young, but none better to illustrate that poetry is performative, not constantive – that it is indeed an act.
The epigraph of Young’s poem is a quote from Whitman’s “Song of Myself.” It signifies another American predecessor and heralds something unsettling. Whitman’s capacious and inclusionary poem is itself an American monument anchored in the literary culture, and it helped fix the author’s place as gray-bearded prophet and lover of mankind. When it comes to race, however, Whitman’s work is problematic, and the section from which Young’s epigraph is taken includes a scene where the “negro” is objectified in glorious detail as part of cataloging what the speaker sees. Young’s connection with, specifically, the last line of this section, may be attributed to his highly mischievous nature; Whitman’s line, as it appears in “Song of Myself,” is not what was intended when it was published. Instead, it has become disturbingly concessional. Here is the beginning of section 13 of Whitman’s iconic poem; its last line serves as Young’s epigraph:
The negro holds firmly the reins of his four horses, the block swags
underneath on its tied-over chain,
The negro that drives the long dray of the stone-yard, steady and
tall he stands pois’d on one leg on the string-piece,
His blue shirt exposes his ample neck and breast and loosens over
His glance is calm and commanding, he tosses the slouch of his hat
away from his forehead,
The sun falls on his crispy hair and mustache, falls on the black of
his polish’d and perfect limbs. I behold the picturesque giant and love him, and I do not stop
I go with the team also.
Here is the full text of Young’s poem:
For the Confederate Dead
By Kevin Young
I go with the team also.
These are the last days
my television says. Tornadoes, more
rain, overcast, a chance
of sun but I do not
never have. In my fridge only
the milk makes sense—
expires. No one, much less
my parents, can tell me why
my middle name is Lowell,
and from the Confederate
Monument to the dead (that pale
finger bone) a plaque
declares war—not Civil,
the States, but for Southern
Independence. In this café, below sea-
and eye-level a mural runs
the wall, flaking, a plantation
scene most do not see—
it’s too much
around the knees, heighth
of a child. In its fields, Negroes bend
to pick the endless white.
In livery a few drive carriages
like slaves, whipping the horses, faces
blank and peeling. The old hotel lobby this once was no longer
welcomes guests—maroon ledger,
bellboys gone but
for this. Like an inheritance
the owner found it
stripping hundreds of years
(at least) of paint
and plaster. More leaves each day.
In my movie there are no
horses, no heroes,
only draftees fleeing
into the pines, some few
who survive, gravely
burrowed beneath the dead—
silent until the enemy
bayonets what is believed
to be the last
of the breathing. It is getting later.
for wars no longer
there. The weather
more this time of year
than anyone every seed. The earth
shudders, the air—
if I didn’t know
better, I would think
we were living all along
a fault. How late
it has gotten…
Forget the weatherman
whose maps move, blink
but stay crossed
with lines none has seen. Race
instead against the almost
rain, digging beside the monument
(that giant anchor)
till we strike
fighting the sleepwalking air.
Copyright Alfred A. Knopf 2007