Excerpted Criticism

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Gregory Woods: On "Torso"

Robert Duncan's poem "The Torso" ranks with the most acute love poems of the century. Its shifting focus corresponds with that of a man kneeling to fellate his lover: the collar bone, chest, navel, and pubic hair are examined in turn. But the occasion of the poem involves the two men in reversed roles. While the speaker's mind moves down the torso of the lover, the lover himself is on his knees, fellating the speaker. The fantasy of the one duplicates the deeds of the other. The effect, even if only one man is fellating the other, is of a mutual act, and of simultaneous climax. The parts of each are superimposed on those of the other and the two are, if not identical, indistinguishable. Like the words themselves, which fall over a wide area of the page leaving gaps within as well as between many of the lines, physical fragments are strewn, or seedlike sown, across an undescribed landscape which is nonetheless, in its parts, particular and detailed.

Poem, body, and landscape are one, located directly in front of our reading and kissing lips (the reader shares the speaker's point of view, and is implicated in his sexual act), and in front of and immediately within the locked gates of Paradise, to which the lovers' hands turn genital keys: "His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body" . . . "my hand in your hand seeking the locks, the keys." The features of the poem's gardens, far from being wild, have been carefully landscaped. They include "the red-flowering eucalyptus, / the madrone, the yew," with which the poem begins; the entrance, associated with the lover's mouth; the 'sleeping fountains' of his nipples; the temple of his belly, at the centre of which lies his navel, possibly associated with the omphalos of Delphi, supposed centre of the ancient world; and the root and flower of his groin. Each part of the body's topography (typography) is associated with a point near the entrance to the spiritual domain. Physical and spiritual consummation are approximate, drawn closer together by love.

Cary Nelson: On "Torso"

Duncan's stylistic and structural disruptions are designed to orient his poems around their own violated centers. Form is a clustering of dislocations: "The part in its fitting does not lock but unlocks; what was closed is opend" (BB, iv). In his introduction to TheYears as Catches, he announces that "These are poems of an irregularity"; the apparent thrust of a poem, its dominant metaphors, must contain its own "inner opposition or reproof" (Y, i). "I attempt the discontinuities of poetry," he writes, "to interrupt all sure course of my inspiration" (D, 91). Poetry centers itself only by establishing a discursive field and then shattering it. There must be, he writes, "no poem / without such a moment, broken, conquerd," but he continues with "only by what we did not know / of the design" (D, 123). Each betrayal projects a larger, more wounded coherence, a wider and less secure vision.

"The Torso" (BB, 63-65), number 18 in the "Passages" sequence, offers a good test of Duncan's aesthetic, for its chief disruption is one word. The title suggests some of the poem's potential for multiple and ambiguous connotation, since the image of a torso invokes the realms of both anatomy and sculpture. A torso's formal perfection can imply either its relative independence from the head and limbs or their actual absence. In either case, a torso invites a studied--potentially ecstatic or skeptical--distance from the human figure, a distance that is significant in what is essentially a love Poem.

The poem begins in a rush of natural images: "Most beautiful! the red-flowering eucalyptus, / the madrone, the yew." The syntax makes the trees analogues to the torso of the poem's title, but the next line, surrounded by white space, trails off in ellipses: "Is he. . ." The line is partly assertive, partly questioning; it makes the opening images hypothetical--castings of the verbal net for a proper central image. The speaker's reverie then incorporates a passage from Marlowe's Edward The Second. . . .

These lines from the play's opening speech are spoken by Edward's young friend Gaveston, who is recalled from banishment when the king ascends to the throne. Since Gaveston is eventually murdered, the quotation adds two connotations to the lover's image--regal and tragic. Those connotations will be foregrounded later in the poem; for the moment, however, the passage serves mainly to elevate and aggrandize the speaker's emotions, effects the next lines extend: "If he be Truth / I would dwell in the illusion of him." The archaic, slightly stilted construction prepares us for the self-conscious avowal of what is very nearly a romantic cliché. Yet the second clause also humanizes and thus comments on the Platonic reference to "Truth." A mixture of resistance and submission suddenly coalesces in the excited wish to be absorbed in the lover's person.

Then a particularly vital image surfaces: "His hands unlocking from chambers of my male body." We can visualize a withdrawal from an embrace, while also reading the line as a spiritual "unlocking," an opening outward of self. The outlines of the image, the meaning of "chambers," is ambiguous, recalling an earlier image of yearning so intense it feels "like the long trunk of another self / turning on his thighs to open life's arms" (RB, 90). Like the pronouns in "Sonnet 4," the pronouns in "The Torso" are almost interchangeable; a romantic fusion of self and other is caught in an image of a single pair of unfolding hands. This is the first of seven spaced lines, only one of them punctuated--at once scattered and provisional phrases, a faltering communication, and a verbal field vibrant with transformations. The next lines are ambivalent: "such an idea in man's image / rising tides that sweep me towards him." The tone is reverent, but also slightly compromised by Duncan's tendency to court a deliberately sentimental effusiveness. The mood brings the poem to its major disruption: ". . . homosexual?":

Duncan is aware that the sexual category can act as a restrictive label that deflates the mythic, transpersonal vision for which the poem is straining. Prefaced by ellipses, it closes the earlier "Is ..." and cancels the organic allusiveness of the opening listing. Italicized, the word challenges us to question whether his varied emotions and the poem's plural effects can be reduced to this single name. The impulse to include the word is at once political, aggressive, confessional, and purgative. The balance of the poem, he hopes, will demonstrate how inadequate the word homosexual is to describe his full experience. Yet we also need to read "Is he. . .homosexual?" as a single line, thereby traversing Duncan's romantic, philosophical meditation with the single essential question about availability. We must now read "The Torso" both as a fantasy about a stranger-- a fantasy constrained by the question of whether a relationship is possible--and as a meditation about an established relationship--one into which language and self-consciousness intrude with their effects of descriptive distancing. For each of these readings the category of homosexuality has the irreducibly double power Michel Foucault has analyzed in The History of Sexuality: it is both an exclusionary nomination and one that generates possibilities of action. By saying the name, Duncan wants to deprive it of its nominative power while retaining its subversive force, but it will always serve both as a political challenge and as an element of doubt in the poem. The decision to include it in the text moves beyond an aesthetic of honesty (whatever occurs in the field of the poem must be given its place) to become simultaneously assertive and self-defeating. Duncan breaks the intimate mood of the poem and probably undermines some readers' empathy in doing so. Like so much of the structural deflection essential in American open poetry, Duncan's decision reveals a sense of guilt and its attendant punishment; it establishes "the poet's own duality between doubt and conviction in writing." Moreover, for Duncan, as for Ginsberg, those emotions are given historical impetus by Whitman's comparable sexual anxiety. Personal and historical guilt finally become indistinguishable.

"The Torso" does very nearly surmount these difficulties, but it has been prevented from doing so entirely. The poem continues as if its syntax detours around the intrusive word. The next line, "and at the treasure of his mouth," proceeds from the line before; there he will "pour forth my soul / his soul commingling." Robert K. Martin uses these lines to argue that the single "occasion of the poem is, of course, an act of fellatio," a reading that is partly accurate but overstated, as any exclusive reading would be. Commingling souls also suggest both breath and a spiritual communion. We cannot choose between an actual physical act, a fantasy, and the verbal changes rung on both. Duncan's aesthetic point about referentiality is that poetry demonstrates the world's multiplicity. "I thought a Being more than vast," he writes, and the verb suggests that every lover is partly imaginary insofar as he becomes a kind of supreme being. The interaction of lovers creates in each a representative, universal body "leading / into Paradise." The erotic figure is also religious, the Christian reference reinforced by the figure of the "Orphic Xristos" in "Passages 17," who "lifts me up to him, / lifted me up to him, embracing every fear I had" (BB, 60). This Being is a communal figure who is also the apotheosis of selfhood. "His eyes," the poem continues, "quickening a fire in me," the body becomes "a trembling / hieroglyph," a signifying field or a sacred text constituted by an alternative, celebratory naming. The body is a joyous cathexis of names. . .from "the clavicle" to "the public hair". . . .

Although this is a generalized, universal male body, this reading of the body as a text is still one of the relatively few successful descriptions of the male body in poetry. There are many unspecific images of bodily life in poetry, images that are essentially nonsexual or pansexual, but very few erotic representation the male body. The four italicized names, given in descending order as the eye travels down the body, are points of origin or nodes of force in a descriptive field, constituents of the body's textuality. Each name occasions an uplifting of substance, countering the eye's descending glance and paralleling the unfolding description: "the stem of the great artery upward," "the rise of pectoral muscles," "sleeping fountains ... waiting ... to be / awakened"; "the stem in which the man / flowers forth"; "his seed rises." The frankness of "nipples" and "pubic hair," the prosaic "navel" will displease some readers. Yet Duncan overcomes the graphic difficulties of the material; he manages to convey the instinctual attractions of his subject and place it in the verbal field of his overall vision. The sequence of vertical motions anticipates the reference to ejaculation in the last section, but the verticality is also overlaid with references to "root" and "stem" that simultaneously reinforce the organicism of the opening lines and recall the etymology of "torso" as the stem of a plant.

But Duncan is compelled again to risk his achievement. The line almost reduces the vision to infatuation: "a wave of need and desire over taking me." Yet we are not quite back again to the rhetoric of the earlier line about the "treasure of his mouth," for the space between "over" and "taking" requires us to read this line in two ways as well--as a description of consummated desire and of desire that overpowers. "Cried out my name" risks the same sentiment but survives because of the multiple dimensions of naming established in the poem. We are not only given a lover's cry; we understand naming as instinct vocalized and as a sound bound in a net of words. Naming is fateful, an imposition of verbal destiny. "(This was long ago, It was another life)," he writes, echoing "Sonnet 4," and we sense a wider eros at work--the attractions of a mythic form. A few lines later the mythic references are reinforced: "His look / pierces my side." The look, the sense of being seen, transforms the visionary lover into the wounded Christ; the speaker's erotic being is crucified. The lovers are caught in a net woven two millennia before. . . .

With delicate echoes of the Gospels, and with clear references to man's fall and to Christ's incarnation and resurrection, the lovers undergo a transformation built into the informing power of words like "falling," "rising," and "gathering." Election as lover, king, and sacrificial victim traverse one another in these ascending and descending displacements. "Gathering me, you gather / your Self," he writes, as the poem gathers its metaphors into an allusive field that moves outward and inward at the same time. As self and other are extinguished in an embrace, the lovers also enact a larger story. Adam, dispersed in all the members of the race, and Osiris, scattered afield, are gathered together in one figure: "For my Other is not a woman but a man / the King upon whose bosom let me lie."

If "The Torso" existed in isolation, we might say that it succeeds in surmounting most of the problems it raises. Its conflation of homosexuality and Christianity--its mixture of anger at conventional American stereotyping with its own romantic effusiveness--its sexual attraction and tension--all these are held together in the poem's verbal net. The formal gestalt Duncan achieves is not one of fully controlled and balanced ambiguity but one of radically fluid though counterpointed allusiveness. Nonetheless, a reader who puts sufficient work into the poem will be rewarded with an experience of a uniquely rich and open kind of textuality. Yet "The Torso" is not simply an isolated poem, and its relationship to the "Passages" sequence radically alters its force, placing it in a network of oppositions that is more disabling than constitutive. Thus the formal dissolution that Duncan courts in "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" and "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" is finally achieved when "The Torso" is read in the context of Bending The Bow as a whole. The associative field through which the vocabulary of "The Torso" resonates includes demonic echoes that are as strong as those the poem offers. The "rising tides that sweep" the lovers together in "The Torso" recur not only in the conviction that "youth will rise" like "new shoots / of the spring-tide" and in "the blood's natural / uprising against tyranny" but also in the "sea of toiling men" in the Vietnam poem "Up Rising," men who have "raised this secret entity of America's hatred of Europe, of Africa, of Asia" (BB, 94, 114, 81-82). One of the larger contexts of "The Torso," then, is satanic violence, a violence that moves through the poem and takes up its images to use them for darker purposes.

T.J. Boynton: On "Up Rising"

Robert Duncan's "Up Rising," excised from the larger work "Passages," understands the Vietnam War as a natural manifestation of what mainstream politicians call "The American Spirit." This spirit appears under various names in the poem, such as "mania," "hatred" and "vanity," and in all of its guises emanates from the "swollen head" of Johnson, the image with which the poem concludes. Superintending the war in the late 60s, Johnson takes his historical place among the twentieth century's other great "simulacra of men" (1), Hitler and Stalin, and duplicates their efforts in human extermination with napalm, setting the North (and South) Vietnamese communists' "hair a- fire" in gruesome parody of a "Texas barbeque." For Duncan, however, it is not so much Johnson that is to blame for roasting the Vietnamese as it is nationalist Americanism itself, the megalomaniacal "will" that runs through U.S. history from the time of its conception and that has crystallized since World War II in machinations of the military-industrial complex.

In prosecuting the war Johnson calls on the United States' natural human resources, "drawing from the underbelly of the nation/ such blood and dreams as swell the idiot psyche/ out of its courses into an elemental thing" (6- 8). Johnson orchestrates the conglomeration of these "blood and dreams" in part at the behest of "the professional military behind him" (13), the men at the "back of the scene" carrying out the "business of war" (15). It would seem momentarily that Johnson is merely a puppet of these men, and that the cause of the war is limited to the enclave of the Joint Chiefs. But in the third stanza Duncan links these mens' militarism with "the all-American boy in the cockpit" of "the ravening eagle of America," "loosing his flow of napalm" in a creative burst, "drawing now/ not with crayons in his secret room/ the burning of homes and the torture of mothers and fathers and/ children" (20-25). The "all-American boy" burns Vietnamese peasants with a facility equal to that with which he drew pictures as a child, and it is precisely his heedless, unconcerned pursuit of his aims that makes him all-American.

When Duncan connects this boy with "the private rooms of small-town bosses and businessmen," the council chambers of the gangs that run the great cities" and "the fearful hearts of good people in the suburbs turning the/ savory meat over the charcoal burners" (34-39), he shifts his emphasis somewhat from the people to those in power, although it is still the people's fear that allows the military nationalist status quo to reproduce itself. It is in the "private rooms" of the nation's capitalist controllers more than in the all-American's "secret room" that the plans of war are drawn up. It is in the "back of the scene" that "the atomic stockpile; the vials of synthesized/ diseases . . . [and] the gasses of despair" get concocted, and those who concoct them appear in public as normal as average citizens: "chemists we have met at cocktail parties, passt daily and with a/ happy 'Good Day' on the way to classes or work, have workt to/ make war too terrible for men to wage" (49-51), but their efforts have yielded napalm, and with Johnson at the nation's helm incinerating the innocent is not "too terrible" a prospect for war to be waged.

The mistake has been to give scientists, capitalists, generals and presidents the privacy and insulation needed to breed nightmares, and the blame for their activities resides partly with the American citizenry. America's "deep hatred . . . for the alien world" drives its war machine, just as its deep hatred for "the new world that might have/ been Paradise" inspired "a holocaust of burning/ Indians, trees and grasslands," all of which in the eyes of American power appear as "real estate" and "profitable wastes" (52- 61). "All our sense of our common humanity," the affection for "communal things" and for "communion," which the barbequing "good people" in the U.S. share with the agents of North Vietnamese "communism," gets devoured by Johnson's military industrial complex, and "the very glint of Satan's eyes from the pit of hell . . ./ now shines from the eyes of the President in the swollen head of the nation" (55-70). In the year following the composition of "Up Rising," Nixon took power and installed Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser. In an uncanny and dismaying irony, the poem's hyperbolic encapsulation of 1968 U.S. military policy, to fire on "any life at all or any sign of life" (24), in fact became U.S. policy under these two mens' reign. Noam Chomsky quotes Kissinger as saying, in an exchange with Nixon reprinted earlier this year in the May 27th New York Times, that the strategy of the Cambodian bombing campaign should be "anything that flies on anything that moves" (International Socialist Review, Sep.-Oct. 16 2004). The worst Duncan could imagine only equaled subsequent military policy under Nixon. More ironic, perhaps, and certainly more dismaying, is that to this day the public perspective on the war and its consequences for the Vietnamese has changed very little. Chomsky describes the response to the article in the times: "Was there any reaction to the Nixon-Kissinger transcript? Did anybody notice it? Did anybody comment on it? Actually, I've brought it up in talks a number of times, and I've noticed that people don't understand it. They understand it the minute I say it, but not five minutes later, because it's just too unacceptable. We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can't be. So therefore, it didn't happen. And therefore, it doesn't have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history." So it is that Duncan's "good people" refuse to come to grips with the actions of people who have run their country. And so it is that irreversible crimes such as the extermination of Native Americans, the incineration of the Vietnamese, and the cluster-bombing of Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah are allowed to proceed.

 

Copyright © 2004 by T.J. Boynton

Ian W. Reid: On "Up Rising"

It is only one of several "Passages: which explore the meanings of evil and of war. "Passages" 22 to 27 were indeed first printed separately under the title Of the War, while the same preoccupations extend into almost all those written subsequently and into some that happened to precede. "The Multiversity," for instance, is dominated by huge shapes of evil: "hydra," "dragon"--and "worm," which brings to mind not only the sinister image of dark corruption in Blake's "Sick Rose" but also the monstrous fiends of Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth, the wyrm and the miðgarðsormr. ("Mid-earth," incidentally, in the first of the "Passages," is miðgarðr; the second mentions a "worm," obviously no diminutive creature of the soil; the thirteenth imagines a fire-ravaged countryside like that caused by the dragon in Beowulf; and there are other references which similarly prepare us for this mythological view of warfare.) It is in "The Mulitversity" that the etymological significance of "evil" is elicited, "referrd to the root of up, ever." Though it may come near to moralistic diatribe, this poem is not inveighing against individuals; the sources of disorder are

 

not men but heads of the hydra

        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

                over us

 

--over us: that attempt to superimpose, to regulate from above, is the root of all evil.

What needs to be emphasized, then, in a proper reading of those "Passages" that follow on from "The Multiversity" is that while they do give vent to a vehement sense of outrage at American belligerence in Asia they are not ultimately "about" that topical situation. To see them in a contemporary context alone is to misread radically. It is unsurprising that James F. Mersmann finds difficulty in coming to terms with Duncan's poetry of the ‘60's in his book Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War, since he makes the initial mistake of supposing that Duncan's work is or ought to be "protest poetry." True, Mersmann does recognize (despite his book's subtitle) that Duncan is neither "merely against this war in particular" nor "indiscriminately against all war in general"; but he cannot fully accept Duncan's position, and his uneasiness at the mythologizing impulse of "Passages" leads to some misinterpretation. The fact is that these are not anti-war poems but war poems, studies in struggle. While the Vietnam conflict is of course substantially present there, a ganglion of pain, it becomes simply the most salient manifestation in our day of an abiding social and spiritual reality which brings to poetry a mythic dimension. War, Duncan writes, is like love and poetry in that it expresses "the deepest forces and cleavings (adherences and divisions) of Man’s hidden nature"; and this conviction was operative in his work many years before Vietnam gave it a new focus. The fine long 1951 poem "An Essay at War," taking the Korean struggle as its immediate point of reference, is a set of variations on the same central motifs that move through the later "Passages." Even before then the preoccupation with war is discernible. Looking back on his earliest writings from the vantage-point of the mid- '60's, Duncan remarks in the preface to The Years as Catches:

The War itself and the power of the State I dimly percieived [i.e., already by the ‘forties] were not only a power over me by alos a power related to my own creative power but turnd to purposes of domination, exploitation and destruction.

It is in this light that we should read "Up Rising" and "The Soldiers": not as wishing simply to repudiate other men’s combative attitudes but as wishing to recreate, or discover the creative essence of, the antagonism that Duncan finds endemic in man and the universe. A poem of the '50's, probably his best-known work, had spoken of a decline in the life of the American polis, depicting modern presidents as rancorous, but adding:

 

                                            I too

that am a nation sustain the damage

    where smokes of continual ravage

obscure the flame.

 

The same willingness to acknowledge in his own pulses and in the poem's impulses something of what he finds monstrous in the abuse of political power gives to these "Passages" a referential range beyond mere invective. Only a superficial look at "Up Rising" could lead one to regard it as no more than a tirade against the Johnson administration, though it does incorporate that. What is it that "rises up" in the poem? Not only the overweening arrogance of a president whose "name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors" but also the fear of "good people in the suburbs" as they pile food on their barbecue plates; not only the waves of bombers but also the "deep hatred" of the new world for the old, or for any alien culture; not only the zeal of the "professional military" for victory but also the surge of infantile fantasies of destruction; not only America’s present passion for dominance but the half-buried guilts of its past, summed up by the historian Comager (in a phrase Duncan cites) as "Americans unacknowledged, unrepented crimes." "The Soldiers" took more than a year to compose, and during that lapse of time (reflected in the arrangement of poems in Bending the Bow, where thirty pages of other matter intervene between 25 and 26) some of the imagery enunciated in "The Multiversity" and "Up Rising" shifted again into a slightly different key. A contrast develops between the "first Evil," "that which has power over you," and its positive counterpart, the spirit which can

 

                fight underground

                                the body's inward sum,

        the blood’s natural

uprising         against tyranny

 

The first Evil, the primeval power over us, the embodiment of the blind coercive force "spreading his 'goods' over Asia," is Ahriman, the god of darkness who in Zoroastrian mythology contends with Ormuzd, god of light, for possession of the Mundane Egg. The "blood’s natural/uprising" is in part Duncan’s own heightened blood pressure, a condition for which he was receiving medical treatment at that time, just as the image of America tossing and turning in "fevers and panics" recalls the earlier poem "Shadows", in which the poet lies febrile like the ailing king of Grail legends, emblem of a waste land. That identification recurs in "Stage Directions":

 

And from the dying body of America I see,

or from my dying body . . .

 

There is a difficulty inherent in the rhetorical language of these war poems. Duncan himself is aware of it. Remarking that in them he seems unable "to move outside the almost hypnagogic high tone."

Cary Nelson: On "My Mother Would Be A Falconress"

Duncan's "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" is. . . introduced by a prose note that recounts its genesis in an aural compulsion: "I wakend in the night with the lines 'My mother would be a falconress--And I a falcon at her wrist' being repeated in my mind. Was the word falconress or falconess?--the troubled insistence of the lines would not let go of me, and I got up and took my notebook. . . in the poem there is another curious displacement upward, for the bell which is actually attacht to a falcon's leg by a bewt just above the jess, in the dream becomes a set of bells sewn round the hood, a ringing of sound in the childhood of the poet's head" (BB, 51). In effect, Duncan displaces his psychological motivation into a pre-eminently verbal process--the echoing of the poem's first line.

The poem begins by challenging the words "falcon" and "falconer." "Falconer" is not mentioned, but we recognze in "falconress" the failure of the established noun to cover both its male and female counterparts. The OED lists no feminine form for falconer; Duncan's coined term is an invasion by sound to deprive a word of its authority. The paternal command, signature for father and self, fails or falters. As Duncan writes in a more recent passage:

 

And I was immersed into the depths of the Water,

 

let down by that man who stood for my Father

 

into the Element before Intention

 

 

(or, in another version, cast into the Flood

 

drownd in the rage of the Mother of What Is)

 

In "My Mother Would Be A Falconress" the flood is a confusion of sound: "For she has muffled my dreams in the hood she has made me, / sewn round with bells, jangling when I move." This passage is a narrative version of the poem's verbal situation. The poem's title recurs as the opening line of both the first and second stanzas. Both that line and the second ("And I, her gay falcon treading her wrist") are controlling aural resources, undergoing repetition and variation that builds to an incantatory rhythm.

Against this verbal imperative, the poem's story exerts only limited pressure. The speaker's wish to be a falcon is derivative; he would be falcon to her falconress. He would tread her wrist, then take flight to bring her a bleeding prize. But he must not damage his prey; he must bring it back with its neck broken but otherwise perfect. Then a strain of resentment enters. If she will not honor his instinct, instead limiting his flight and controlling his lust to hunt, he will turn on her and seek her blood. At the end of her will's tether, he spies a land beyond these hills where falcons nest. He would go free, but even when she is dead, he cannot break her hold on him:

 

My mother would be a falconress,

and even now, years after this,

when the wounds I left her had surely heald,

 

and the woman is dead,

her fierce eyes closed, and if her heart

were broken, it is stilld

 

I would be a falcon and go free.

I tread her wrist and wear the hood,

talking to myself, and would draw blood.

 

These are the last two stanzas. In them, the will to take flight returns to the first line, becoming itself a function of the line's enactment. The narrative developments are variations of the key words and phrases introduced in the opening stanza. . . .

In this first stanza, he treads on her wrist, wanting to bring back a bleeding prize. In the first line of the fourth stanza, the wish is condensed: "I tread my mother's wrist and would draw blood." Wrists themselves can bleed, but the suggestion that he might attack his mother is still constrained by the opening context, in which the only blood is that of his prey. Furthermore, the third stanza details the hunt's violence, thus also helping to block the suggestion that he will turn on the falconress.

The first three lines [in the thrid stanza] are almost identical. The changes read like a litany of prescribed variations, ritually embroidering an unchanging theme. The fifth stanza concludes with a comparable intonation, reasserting the insistence of the pattern: "I would bring down / the little birds to her / I may not tear into, I must bring back perfectly." Then, in the first line of the next stanza, the anger reaches for its voice: "I tear at her wrist with my beak to draw blood." Yet the fury cannot take flight; it cannot become a separate vehicle of the falcon-son's will. Every word in the line, as well as the rhythm of the line as a whole, has prescribed connotations. Each sound echoes what has gone before. Even the falcon's eventual desire to break loose from the falconress springs from her own will for flight. It is "as if her mind / sought in me flight beyond the horizon."

The words for an isolate, individualized self cannot be found. Each verbal gesture incarnates the total order of the poem, as if every word branched out from a single trunk. Toward the end of the poem, Duncan gives explicit evidence that the maternal entanglement is verbal [1]. When the falcon flees, it is as if the falconress's own remorse at his violence sought relief:

I flew, as if sight flew from the anguish in her eye beyond her sight, sent from my striking loose, from the cruel strike at her wrist, striking out from the blood to be free of her.

The changing forms of the verb "to strike" almost encompass and obliterate the narrative dimensions of the act. If the main drama is clearly verbal, then the poem is not a parable intended to unveil a psychological truth. Indeed it is not a parable about language. From Duncan's perspective, the poem has no referential purpose, no allegorical message. It is an instance of the will speech has to break free of the mothering ground of language, a will itself a function of that ground.

This is a richly echolalic poem, using perhaps as much repetitive and self-referential language as a poem can without becoming pure content-free sound. Yet it exists at the edge of that void. It courts that Lady of "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" whose embrace is emptiness. Each elaboration, each unfolding phrase, renders the center progressively more vacant. The variations are cancellations. The exuberance of the language becomes a decorous melancholy:

 

The ever emptying cup,            the vital

 

source that solaces no thirst's throat

 

Poetry is of this natural vacancy:

 

----------

[1] Duncan's own mother died shortly after his birth, and he was later put up for adoption. There is therefore a specific sense in which his relationship with his biological mother is exclusively verbal, For all of us, however, the language of family relationships is invested with substantial power.

 
 

Thom Gunn: On "My Mother Would Be A Falconress"

In "My Mother Would Be A Falconress," from Bending the Bow, the mother appears as a distinct and close figure, no less mythical for her clarity. The images of her as Falconress and him as the obedient little falcon who is later to break away from her enable Duncan to dramatize the whole series of conflicts involving possessiveness and love on the one hand and freedom and the need for identity on the other. Every detail is strangely right, showing how his life is patterned by her contradictory demands: she holds him by the leash of her will, but she sends him out into the world on fierce errands, to kill the little birds, but be is to return with their bodies without eating them himself, but she rewards him with meat. Her ferocious love keeps him in her control by its very inconsistency.

 

She lets me ride to the end of her curb

where I fall back in anguish.

I dread that she will cast me away,

for I fall, I mis-take, I fail in her mission.

 

And the pattern that she has created is still retained. Years after her death, he still longs both to be her falcon and to go free. It is a startling poem both for what it is and for what it suggests. It suggests, for example, the ferocious goddess who demands sacrifices as her due; and on the other hand it embodies a perfect example of what Gregory Bateson calls the double-bind (typically used by the mother) which he sees an the principal cause of a common type of schizophrenia. Yet these are only implied in the poem, where the mother is merely, completely herself, so living that she is impossible to deny.

This poem, too, originated in dream. A version of its first two lines came to him in sleep, as he records in the prefatory note. And at one point, he the falcon even dreams within the dream.

 

I have gone back into my hooded silence,

talking to myself and dropping off to sleep.

 

But there is a sharpness of focus to the poem that makes it unusual in Duncan, much of whose success elsewhere in his later work depends on the changing or even blurring of focus. I find it unprecedented in his poetry.

Christopher Beach: On "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow"

Duncan sees in Pound's early writing on Imagism and on the troubadours the possibility of an almost Whitmanian aesthetic, but one that is too firmly entrenched in the past. Pound's thought "does not go forward with contemporary scientific imagination

to a poetic vision of the Life Process and the Universe but goes back to Ficino and the Renaissance ideas" (PC, 190). In Duncan's "opening" poem, "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," he creates an ideogram that can include both of his predecessors and that has indications of both past and future.

 

It is only a dream of the grass blowing

east against the source of the sun

in an hour before the sun's going down

 

whose secret we see in a children's game

of ring a round of roses told.

 

The "dream" and the "secret" are words from the realm of mystery, a level of language Duncan feels Pound tries to exclude from his poetic world. These are words "pregnant" with meaning, and they bring "children" into the field of knowledge and experience that make up the poem and the book, this particular manifestation of future life is, like the female sexuality that produced it, absent from Pound's vision.

But the image works on two other levels as well: the "grass blowing / east against the source of the sun" is a metamorphosis of a Poundian ideogram, that of east as the sun caught in branches, and a powerful evocation of the Pound of the Pisan Cantos and after—"a man on whom the sun has gone down" (C, 430) .These same three lines also allude to Whitman, to the grass of Leaves of Grass blowing in the winds of time and to the "mysterious" and "prophetic" message of Democratic Vistas and that dream vision, "Song of Myself."

There is also a Duncanesque pun here: "the source of the sun" is also the source of the son, Whitman as father to Pound in the last "hour" of his life and subsequently Pound as the father to Duncan himself. Duncan is now a child seeking "permission " to enter his phase of "mature" poetry, ready to take responsibility for the field as "a given property of the mind / that certain bounds hold against chaos." "We see" (vision as phanopoeia and as apotheosis) the clear and defined image (though through a dream) as we experience the explicitly musical (melopoeic) properties of language in the nursery-rhyme line "of ring a round of roses told." We also encounter the logopoeia of a "dance of the mind" at the end of the poem, a dance that involves the juxtaposition of two central images. The last line of the poem, "everlasting omen of what is," reconciles past, present, and future, bringing together in the poetic process a childlike openness to new experience, the work of the present poet, and the inspiration provided by predecessors such as Whitman and Pound.

As Norman Finkelstein has observed, "Often I Am Permitted . . . " is a "seminal post-modern lyric"; it is an embodiment of the Poundian virtues of precision and workmanship but at the same time allows the freer play of "rhetoric" that is a legacy of Whitman and of the Romantic tradition. It is a poem intended to be read in the tradition of Whitman, Pound, and Williams as an "open" and "inclusive" work, less interested in its own autonomous "intramural" relations than in its multivalent relationship to sources in the natural world (spatial), in poetic models (temporal), and in the realm of an informing spiritual experience (eternal and virtually unbounded) that allows a larger field of poetry to be "folded" into the poem. The poem also serves more locally as an introduction to the poems that follow it in the book and, indeed, through the open-ended "Structure of Rime" sequence, to poems that are to come after the end of the book. Most of the poem's resonances are not apparent without a knowledge of the other poems in The Opening of the Field and, indeed, without some previous knowledge of Duncan's work and derivations.

Duncan's vision of the field, "meadow," or "pasture" as a communal place consisting of various interacting living communities, yet also open to the human community, establishes the poem and the book to follow in the choric tradition of Duncan's predecessors. It moves from the personal statement of the title to the shared vision of a secret "we see in a children's game." Like Duncan's poem, the secret can be appreciated only in the context of a larger community of concerns. Duncan's poetry in The Opening of the Field demonstrates the desire he shares with Pound and his other primary models to reach outside the concerns of a contained, isolated, solipsistic, or hermetic "lyric self" to the needs of a poetic or artistic community, to the needs of a "world community" of common ecological and spiritual concerns, and to the sense of community as nation exemplified by Whitman's Democratic Vistas and Pound's "American Cantos."

Cary Nelson: On "Often I Am Permitted to a Meadow"

"Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow" is the first poem in The Opening of the Field; the reader thus connects the meadow in the poem with the field in the book's title. Field is a broad term referring to various landscapes, to the notion of a perceptual gestalt, and to Olson's idea of composition by field. Does the shift to a meadow signal a more specific landscape? A meadow suggests a single harmonious climate, a space protected by its surroundings. "Opening" a field implies a liberating or pioneering gesture, an entrance or exposure. Returning to a meadow implies the recovery of past intimacy, the restoration of secure resources. The poem's title domesticates the revelatory title of the book. The meadow here is a memory to be inhabited; its emotional connotations are private and delicate. Yet we also wonder if this meadow is the field the book would open.

The poem's title is its first line, effecting a beginning in medias res that conflicts slightly with the line's strong assertion of composed renewal. The word "permitted" is a gesture of humility, undercutting any connotation of will or urgency. Almost without effort, the speaker finds himself in the presence of this meadow. . . .

These first three stanzas complete the sentence started in the title. The meadow now seems almost an imaginary hortus conclusus, an enclosed garden protected from the outside world. The setting is so "made-up," so constructed, fictional, that its otherness shows little congruence with the imagination that gave it life. Yet intimacy and otherness are inextricably part of the same texture; in the poem they echo within the same shell of sound. The partial rhyme of "mind" and "mine" reinforces the meadow's ambiguities. "Made-up" and "made place," the first implying artifice, the second solid construction, are not mutually exclusive alternatives. Similarly, "that is not mine" and "that is mine" appear to be opposite, yet visually and aurally they are mutual reverberations, alternatives reflecting one another. The very composure and perfection of this made place lend it a sense of difference, of exclusive containment. But this meadow is also the place where we always are, the mind's ground and the setting for its development. It is "so near to the heart," this otherness that constitutes the self."

The word "pasture" broadens the "meadow" of the first line. The pasture is eternal because it is so thoroughly "made-up" as to last forever and because it acquires an impersonality and universality linking it to every other "made place." It is a place, not just a thing, because its isolation is confirmed by our being there. Enfolding the pasture in the medium of thought makes it a place with "a hall therein," with an entrance and a means of passage. The pasture is the field where the mind feeds on its own substance--the human body, but the body both specific and general. Like Duncan's image of the body of primitive man, it is without preconceived outline and conscious in all of its parts. This makes the mind's energy visible, "as if it were the mind itself / which descends in the poem / and becomes manifest" (FD, 86), while also "encumbering in its concretion and weight the longing for ecstatic flight the soul knows" (C,62).

As we finish the opening stanzas, we sense an uneasiness that also hints of freedom. If forms are mere shadows, they have no special permanence. Yet Duncan will later write of "the ascendancy of the shadow / in the blossoming mass" (RB, 169), so even a transient form gives satisfaction in completed structure. Nonetheless, the structure here is also a dissolution:

 

Wherefrom fall all architectures I am

I say are likenesses of the First Beloved

whose flowers are flames lit to the Lady

 

She it is Queen Under the Hill

whose hosts are a disturbance of words within words

that is a field folded.

 

These next two stanzas present a conventional invocation to the muses, a gesture appropriate to the book's first poem." Again, however, the architectures "fall," and we can read this falling as a loss of variety and innocence, as well as a falling into place, as forms find their necessary order. The tone of these stanzas recalls medieval hymns to the lady and courtly love poems, but that decorous surface masks a more unsettling communication--that the poem's formal imperatives, its ordering structures, are really "likenesses" of a much wider set of verbalizations. This suggests that the poem's progress is determined by connections inscribed in the words themselves. A "disturbance of words within words," the poem is a ritual performed in the Lady's honor and in her service--"she," Duncan writes later, whose breast is in language, who "sends her own priestesses of the Boundless to these councils of our boundaries" (T, 19). A "disturbance" is any reorganization along fresh lines of association. The "field folded" is an archetype of poetic form: a field of associations doubling back on themselves to create a formal gestalt. Only within that limited frame can we glimpse "the Hosts of the Word that attend our words" (T, 19).

The result is a fiction, a dream momentarily resisting the larger pressures of the language. . . .

The dream works its changes among the grasses at the surface of the field of meanings. It troubles the depths briefly, sounding rhythms that set the poem's pace and establish its configuring image sequences. Despite its apparent originality, the poem is a variation on a codified ritual, like a children's game. The secret of this children's game is the belief (the historical truth of which is irrelevant to Duncan's purpose) that the rhyme dates back to the bubonic plague, when flowers were carried to ward off the odor of decay. Elsewhere Duncan describes poetry as an infection of meaning, a disease erupting in the body of language: "The ear / catches rime like pangs of disease from the air," he writes, "For poetry / is a contagion" (BB, 32).

With their decorous rhetoric, the last stanzas further the same notions:

 

Often I am permitted to return to a meadow

as if it were a given property of the mind

that certain bounds hold against chaos,

 

that is a place of first permission,

everlasting omen of what is.

 

The title is repeated and the poem brought round to its origin. But the formal resolution (like the end of the children's game) will also be a falling down. Returning to the beginning suggests that the several stanzas were only the circular unfolding of the first line, a disturbance within its words. The poem is like a first field on which we ventured forth, at once an origin and an initiation. Every return brings unexpected changes: "We must come back and back to the same place and find it subtly altered each time, like a traveler bewitched by lords of the fairy, until he is filled with a presence he would not otherwise have admitted." The poem's field is "where the disturbance is, where the words / awaken" (RB,51 ) unpredicted changes. It appears to hold a boundary "against chaos," yet "the sound of words waits-- / a barbarian host at the borderline of sense" (FD, 135). The poem is a "place of first permission" where a universe of words is given one of its voices. Poetic speech has the tension "of the ominous, for a world that would speak is itself a language of omens." So this meadow, giving illusory bounds to infinite speech, becomes an "everlasting omen of what is."

"What is," the governing ground of reality, is for Duncan essentially a reservoir of potential interchanges: "In a field of interacting melodies a single note may belong to both ascending and descending figures, and, yet again, to a sustaining chord or discord." The poem creates its own field within the larger field of words by establishing lines of force between specific harmonies and disharmonies. These "are rimes, Sounding in each other" and "the rimes or reoccurrences are knots in the web or tissue of reality." "That one image may recall another," Duncan writes, "finding depth in the resounding, is the secret of rime and measure. The time of a poem is felt as a recognition of return in vowel tone and in consonant formations, of pattern in the sequence of syllables, in stress and in pitch of a melody, of images and meanings." "Rime" for Duncan covers interactions among both sounds and images, as well as interactions between them.

In "Often I Am Permitted to Return to a Meadow," this net of sound and meaning keeps the meadow image coherent despite the associative digressions. The images of the Queen or Lady and the stanzas about the children's game would disrupt the poem if its verbal ground were not strong enough to support them. The poem's aural design is exactly sufficient, managing simultaneously to sustain and threaten. It includes the antiphonal phrasing of the second line and the first phrase of the third, the assonance of "made place," the consonance of "heart" and "thought" and later of "field folded," the visual rhyme of "near" and "heart," the repetition of "there" with "therein" in the fifth line, the internal rhyme of "all" and "hall" in the second stanza, echoed by "fall" in the third and "fall all" in the fourth. Throughout, there is considerable alliteration. Duncan does not establish a strict sound pattern but employs a variety of devices to make the aural field freely associative and unpredictable. Sound and meaning become mutually supportive, while seeming outside the poet's full control. Sound could, we fear, make the poetry nonsensical. Yet there is considerable attraction in the supreme and empty meaning lodged in the random architecture of sounds:

 

        rhymes that mimic much of loss,         ghost goings,

 

                        words lost in passing,         echoed

 

        where they fall,          againnesses of sound only

 

        This failure of sense is melody most

Jim Beatty: On "Birdwatching at Fan Lake"

Among the long, multi-faceted tradition of "nature" poems, one of the most striking examples of a productive, decidedly anti-idealizing reflection on the social function of the natural world is Anita Endrezze’s "Birdwatching at Fan Lake." Rather than a disingenuous myth of Romantic transcendental connection between the autonomous subject and her dematerialized sublime landscape, Endrezze highlights how our interactions with our surroundings are mediated through social, cultural, and discursive practices. Rather than a mystical "communing" with nature seen as the special "skill" of the Indian in dominant Anglo mis-representations, "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" enacts a subjective, communal translation of experience into an evocative, compressed reflection of how we produce the natural world while at the same time being produced by it. Endrezze rehearses the ultimate act of creation–she speaks, and nature is, while at the same time nature speaks her, and she is.

On MAPS, Leslie Ullman attempts to describe this dual motion when she asserts that Endrezze employs "metaphors interweaving the natural world with the landscape of human emotion." This presupposes, however, that "the natural world" and "the landscape of human emotion" could exist as separate entities, a possibility for which "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" does not seem to allow. Ullman’s perspective seems even less productive when she speaks of a "primal sensibility" in Endrezze’s poetry. Despite Ullman’s seemingly genuine intentions, the word "primal" evokes the history of dominant Anglo distortions of the indigenous cultures of the Americas, reinscribing the myth of non-coevality upon which that history is predicated in an attempt to claim Endrezze as an authentic "Indian" voice. I think that Cary Nelson is far closer to the mark in his introduction to Endrezze in the Anthology when he says that "she has been unusually successful at finding linguistic equivalents of Native American views of nature." Rather than some pre-historic (or ahistoric) melding of the natural world with human subjectivity, Endrezze remarkably demonstrates how the two can be inter-connected and mutually constitutive.

"Birdwatching at Fan Lake" enacts a complex, contemporary vision of this inter-connectedness. Far from a "primal" Indian vision, the poem bears out Endrezze’s own caution on MAPS about imposing a vision of "Indianness" on her work: "Although I'm Yaqui I don't speak for all Yaquis. I speak for me and my experiences as a woman, a half-Yaqui, and a wife and mother." The poem demonstrates a dual individual and collective sensibility much in the same manner that this warning does. Endrezze opens with a collective vision by placing her poetic vision in the dynamic interactions of the speaker and her companion as they work together to produce the natural world around them. One source that produces their shared vision is the birdwatching guide that is the "genesis of egg and feather," in the process of "begetting / the moist nest of the osprey." The poem recognizes from the start how our perceptions of nature are in part discursively produced. The speaker goes on to demonstrate, however, that this discursive production is not exclusively textual, for she actively deploys her poetic voice to create remarkable images such as "the birds fly / into the white corridor of the sky" and the equally evocative reflection wondering "does the ruffed grouse’s drumming / enter into the memories of trees?" Rather than a Romantic vision of the natural world as a separate, empirical "reality" waiting for the proper "primal" vision to appreciate it in a more appropriate manner, "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" self-consciously highlights and enacts the discursive production of what we see in nature.

The speaker explicitly forecloses, however, a reading of these images as an authentic view of nature coming out of an ahistorical "Indian" past. Rather than a lone, privileged subjective vision, these images are dynamically produced in the speaker’s interactions with her companion. Their collective project–firmly rooted in the present with material details such as the "salt crackers"–is the grounds upon which the possibility of her striking representation of nature is predicated, for they "travel" to the space of this vision together. The necessity of the collective nature of this endeavor is highlighted by the disruption her companion causes in trying to take control of the journey, symbolized by his "hand on the oar." (The phallic imagery here is the thin basis upon which I’m choosing to gender the speaker’s companion masculine). His attempt to take control causes the speaker to think of separation, which would mean the end of their instructive visions of the natural world. It is at this pivotal point that the simultaneous production of their collective subjectivity by nature becomes apparent. The speaker’s "Love" makes amends for his transgression in trying to take control by giving voice to nature’s production of their subjectivity. He achieves this by redirecting the poetic gaze to a frame containing nature, symbolized in the birds, dynamic history, embodied in the "kingfisher[‘s] / . . . eggs [which] are laid on fish bones," and human culture, the "orange-vested children" sharing the scene with the birds. While the speaker’s lover threatens their complex, interwoven relationship with nature by trying to assert his control of the other two subjects (i.e. the speaker and nature), his discursive reintegration of their collective existence prevents an irreparable rift.

He solidifies this inter-connectedness in identifying her "hand" as a "wing," which initiates a lasting re-birth both in their human relationship and in their collective relationship with nature. The speaker evokes a sense of lasting continuity by affirming that the "herons / . . . are pewter" who "wear / medallions of patience." The poem closes with the vitality of their heart newly infused with life, for the "currents between" them are "full of hearts that beat quick / and strong." "Birdwatching at Fan Lake" is a remarkably complex account of how human subjects can inter-act with nature in a unified manner, informed by social relations, human culture, and history. The possibility that the poem enacts forestalls the much lamented disjunction between humanity and nature (e.g. "The world is too much with us") by undercutting the logic that makes such an artificial separation possible in the first place.

 

Copyright 2001 by Jim Beatty

Jaime Brunton: On "Dear John Wayne"

In Lousie Erdrich’s “Dear John Wayne,” the depiction of an on-screen battle between John Wayne’s character and a Native American Indian tribe mirrors a larger ongoing cultural battle between white colonizers and Native Americans. Italicized lines voice a rhetorical battle between the poem’s narrator and the figure of John Wayne as representative of the colonizers. Ultimately, it is the narrator who strikes the last, and most powerful, blow.

From its first lines, the poem sets up a scene suggestive of battle. In stanza one, the audience (composed of Native Americans) in cars at the drive-in movie can do nothing "to vanquish the hordes of mosquitoes" who "break through the smoke screen for blood." This violent imagery carries into stanza two, which begins to describe the action of the film, but without clarifying that this action occurs on-screen rather than in the present moment in the real-life space around the audience. The film screen is, like "the smoke screen," easily ruptured, suggesting the possibility of that the textual violence of the film can produce material effects. This conflation of on-screen space with 'real' space points to the power of popular representation to supply distorted cultural narratives about the history of colonization. It also reveals a hierarchy of values attached to indigenous bodies (which the film’s white characters seek to eradicate) versus bodies of:

 

[…] the settlers

who die beautifully, tumbling like dust weeds

into the history that brought us all here

together: this wide screen beneath the sign of the bear. (ll. 13-16)

 

The end of this third stanza reminds us again of the presence of the screen, and acknowledges how the present moment is informed by "the history" portrayed there.

Stanza four again dissolves the barrier of the screen as John Wayne's face fills not the screen, but rather the entire “sky." His giant "face moves over" the crowd of Indians "in a thick cloud of vengeance" directed at real people in the present moment. Wayne’s scars "make a promise: It is / not over, this fight, not as long as you resist." This call to battle continues in the next line, set off between the stanzas: Everything we see belongs to us. The white face that expands to cover the audience’s literal field of vision reads as a gesture to the saturation of whiteness in our cultural field of vision, as well as to the expansive white colonization of physical space.

As the narrator watches Indians in the crowd laughing (perhaps at the camp quality of the film?), she offers her counter to this claim of white ownership: "The eye sees a lot, John, but the heart is so blind. Death makes us owners of nothing." John Wayne, a mere image, cannot answer back, and the movie ends with the poem’s narrator seemingly getting in the last word.  

Yet despite the confident claim of their spokesperson, in the "true-to-life dark" the film’s spectators become "speechless and small." They are "back in our skins" -- that is to say, out of the diegetic world and back to the real and present world, where their "skins" (i.e. their racial identity as Native Americans) determine the material conditions of their lives. In this sense, John Wayne's assertion of ownership is accurate, as the narrator goes on to suspect in the final stanza, imagining Wayne's voice again:

 

How can we help but keep hearing his voice,

the flip side of “the sound track”, still playing:

Come on, boys, we got them

where we want them, drunk, running:

They'll give us what we want, what we need. (ll. 36-40)

 

The last two lines of the poem, however, offer a surprising evaluation of Wayne's philosophy, and act as the battle's final blow to the now-deceased actor and what his films represent:

 

Even his disease was the idea of taking everything.

Those cells, burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins. (ll. 41-2)

 

The lines are open to multiple simultaneous readings. At the most basic level, they assert that what takes everything destroys everything (even itself), just as that cancer that killed Wayne in real life died along with his body. The philosophy of domination and imperialism, Erdrich suggests, destroys both the owner and what is owned. Imperialism is figured as a self-defeating enterprise.

On another level, this ending can also lend agency to the Indians watching the film, highlighting their active resistance to imperialist domination. The repetition of "skin" -- the poem's final word -- echoes the earlier line that depicts the film's audience being "back in [their] skins." That the cancer cells are described as "burning, doubling, splitting out of their skins" also points toward the generative nature of both the disease and the act of colonization: the cells can be read as the colonized, who, burning with rage, will multiply and retaliate by “splitting out of their skins” -- that is, by exceeding the limits imposed upon them by virtue of their status as racial minority. Cancer acts here as a literal punishment to John Wayne and a metaphorical outcome of colonization. In this way, Wayne's earlier promise that the fight "is / not over... not as long as you resist" becomes recast as a rallying cry to the colonized.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Jaime Brunton

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