Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria"

If "The Bitter River," written at a time of disillusionment for Hughes in the early '40s, suggests no lasting vision of mass revolution, "Come to the Waldorf-Astoria" demonstrates a point in Hughes' career when such possibilities seemed not only feasible, but likely. I'd like to add to Shulman's observations about the poem's last "Christmas Card" section which, as he points out, takes on similar subject matter and tone as the later "Goodbye Christ"--the section that fully acknowledges his hope for an emerging revolutionary "salvation" which, Shulman also notes, presents communism as a new "religion" in itself. Let me start by talking about how Hughes tries to draw a revolutionary response from the oppressed subjects he writes about.

The entire piece, of course, works as a stinging social commentary on the "fruits" of capitalism--the satiric descriptions of the "swell board," the "Apartments in the Towers," the "undercover driveways," all of which are paid for by "the men and women who get rich off of [the poor's] labor." Hughes intends every bit of the poem's inflammatory tone. His representation of an utterly hypocritical yet heretofore unaccountable "upper crust" targets as its audience not only the rich and privileged within the capitalist system, but also those whose indignation is most warranted: the potentially powerful, dynamic "mob," those hit hardest by the Depression or other circumstances who have the potential to effect real change. Though Hughes divides this "advertisement to action" into distinct sections, addressing the "Hungry Ones," "Roomers," "Evicted Families," and "Negroes" alike, the penultimate heading, "Everybody," unites them in a common cause. The implicit threat--the possibility for strength in numbers--that exists in organizing those who should be able to "draw" their *own* "dividends," rather than reliquish them to the ones "who clip coupons with clean white fingers," can be seen in the class juxtapositions satirically offered throughout the poem.

The unseen observer-speaker presents a stark realism in conjunction with the absurdity of "Tak[ing] a room at the new Waldorf," "choos[ing] the Waldorf as a background for your rags," and inviting black Harlem to "Drop in at the Waldorf this afternoon for tea." Certainly the most invasive image for the privileged readers against whom the poem is directed would be that of "Mary, Mother of God . . . turned whore because her belly was too hungry to stand it any more" birthing her child in a "nice clean bed" at the Waldorf (though, as Shulman notes, critics of the later "Goodbye Christ" overlooked this seemingly volatile image). What does Hughes intend with these improbable juxtapositions? The image of an oppressed poor enjoying the luxuries of the rich they support, perhaps even spoiling or remaking those goods, "de-sophisticating" them (as the Harlem mob "shak[ing] hips" at the Waldorf would change the tenor of the dance, and the soiled bedclothes of the new Conception would literally and spiritually dim all surrounding grandeur), works as an intentionally threatening vision of unified change, one which foresees a *new* "background for society." Class lines are simultaneously blurred and reinforced through this technique; the reality of a capitalist nation sharpens those lines (imagine what would happen if black Harlem really *did* come to the Waldorf to dance), while the potential for a Communist future erases them, bringing the destitute within reach of what has long been their due.

The conversational, yet bitingly sarcastic, tone of the speaker's voice--juxtaposed with black vernacular under the section entitled "Negroes"--comes to its peak in "Christmas Card," the final stanza of the poem. Here the speaker of "Goodbye Christ" is, in some sense, born, rejecting the "old" Christ and offering himself as the new secular Messiah ("Make way for a new guy with no religion at all-- / A real guy named / Marx Communist Lenin Peasant Stalin Worker ME--"). The "new born babe" wrapped "in the red flag of Revolution" will start anew for a better cause, minus the capitalist "baggage" associated with the former Savior: "nobody's gonna sell ME / To a king, or a general, / Or a millionaire." This child, too, must be born in "the best manger we've got" right now, the finely wrought arches of capitalism--but arches, the speaker hopes, that the child will one day perhaps demolish or appropriate for different uses.

The speakers sees a new day dawning, and the "Christmas Card" attempts to send a powerful message of potential redemption and rebirth to those who would receive it--the decision must be to "follow him" or, more broadly, to follow the revolutionary impulse.

Copyright ©  2001 by Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "Three Songs about Lynching"

"Three Songs About Lynching" uses the conventions of song, including repeated phrases and lines that work as recurring "bridges," to enact and reenforce a terrifying depiction of lynching, one that becomes representative of each victim, each instance of death, no matter the varying circumstances of events. Just as traditional songs move from verse to verse, so too does "Three Songs" move from one "stage" of the lynching process to another. None of the songs retain the full effect of their significance without the others; thus, each song exists not independently, but as a part or verse of a "Grand Chorus" that intricately describes, laments, and rails against the ongoing travesty represented in the single lynching depicted in the songs.

If we decide to read the songs as units whose individual "tales" make up a coherent "narrative," one that reveals an even more overwhelming image of hate than each song would elicit read alone or separately, it is significant to note that the stages of the lynching, the order of the verses as we would expect to hear them sung or performed, seem out of place. If Hughes composed the songs to be published together, as evidence indicates he did for *Opportunity,* why not follow the logical path from the innocent man's attempt to escape, to his implicit capture and actual hanging, to his lone "silhouette" disturbing the genteel lady in her perfect world? It seems to me that, despite the horrifying nature of the songs' subject matter, Hughes chooses to follow a chronology of the black race's future potential for freedom and empowerment, rather than of actual events. While the hope that exists in the songs may appear insignificant, even trivial, in contrast to the sheer force of the evil that drives lynchings, Hughes finally forges life from death, just as the last stanza's gloss indicates: "life not dead at all."

In describing "Silhouette" in a word, we might adequately identify it by the term "hypocrisy." The song focuses on the "Southern gentle lady" who, even if she has not directly effected the hanging of the black man on "a roadside tree," is representative of white women who, by claiming rape or force by their actual lovers (or by making blatantly false accusations of rape), preserve their own reputation and condemn innocent men to die (thus, "silhouette" is appropriate not only for the shape of the lynched man's body against the landscape, but also for the shell or shadow of virtue or goodness that the Southern woman represents, and the sham illusion of justice that lynching pretends to carry out). Here lies a central reason for black lynchings in the early decades of the century; the "white womanhood" so jealously defended leaves little room for the black man's defense of himself. The woman's ability to "swoon" upon, perhaps, such a dreadful sight masks her own cruelty in causing the event, her hidden staunchness in affirming a crime that was never committed. Hope seems almost entirely absent in this song; "the dark of the [white] moon," significantly repeated, suggests both the evil impulses and motivations of the white woman, and the consentual sexual union of white and black that will later be denied. The speaker's command to "Be good!" may be read as white men's insistence that she acquiesce to the rape story, perpetuate the accusation to maintain her "innocence"--which does not excuse her but merely seals her part as murderer.

Another way to interpret the intriguing "Be good!", however, may relate to some potential for future change; if the speaker continues as the sarcastic, bitter voice heard thus far in the song, he may be imploring her to take the first step toward releasing black men from the injustice of lynching, for it is white women's voices that have the power to free them from their fates. At the same time, the power of the black poet in creating the words and tenor of the "satirically sentimental" song is indicated as "the world...see[s] / How Dixie protects / Its white womanhood." Through song, the poet attempts to make "the world see" another side of the same story, to reveal that Dixie's "protection" is nothing more than murder. In this sense, then, the poet becomes agencied in that he brings to light a new vision of truth, one that subverts the very words of racist ideology through satire and irony, and reveals a justified hatred of the causes that kill innocent men. 

Again, in "Flight" we can literally feel the utter despair of the hunted man; that the guiding speaker urges him to "Hurry, black boy, hurry!", cutting him off from any explanation of his innocence, suggests the impossibility of words in such a desperate situation. Words of truth don't matter here, for the whites construct their own truth, and escape from its consequences is the only real hope the fugitive has. Indeed, the hopelessness of the scenario feels almost oppressive as one reads the song, even as the speaker pushes the "sweating runner" on; to "Plant your toes in the cool swamp mud," and then to "Step and leave no track" seems an almost superhuman feat, for it is mud, not dirt, that leaves the most visible marks of travel. The hounds follow close behind; and even if the man escapes (which, given our united narrative hypothosis, cannot be), he will not be redeemed by any law governed by white men, and must wander in secret, cut off from his family and friends. 

Where, then, to find a vision of freedom, agency? Perhaps we can see the poet's gesture toward the future in his very description of despair, and in the following lines of the next song. Here I'm thinking of Hughes' "The Bitter River," when he mentions the quenching of his dream: "The book studied--but useless, / Tool handled--but unused, / Knowledge acquired but thrown away, / Ambition battered and bruised." Notice that it is the fleeing "black boy"'s physical motions that are marked out in the song's lines--the necessity to run for his life, true, but also the potential one day to show physical, and underlying mental, strength in the face of opposition. The terms used in the chase, the "planting" of the feet in preparing to take off, the precise "stepping" that must be calculated to achieve maximum speed, suggest not only the "could have beens," as in "The Bitter River," but also what might be in the future. 

Perhaps "Lynching Song" is the most difficult to read for its brutal, gleeful cries to "Pull at the rope! O! Pull it high!", but it is in this song that the sympathetic voice of the second song, and the bitter voice of the first, come together to create an alternative, subversive strain to the calls of the lynchers. That the song is to be accompanied by trumpets indicates some fanfare or victory; but the sound of their "empty wonder" reveals the utter futility of the whites' triumph over the dead man. The strong, virile body of the second song is not overcome or defeated by death, for it symbolizes a race that decries and denounces the horrors done to it thus far, and that refuses further abuse: "NOT I." The body speaks the message of its people through its very silence and stillness. Though the words of the poet interpret the message's meaning for readers, the image of the body itself asserts blacks' refusal to submit to another kind of death that whites have committed themselves to through hatred: an emotional death, a deadening of the senses and of all human compassion that does not end with life, but that passes on to--and poisons--future generations. The speaker's voice interrupts the lynching song by mimicing it, turning the cries of its perpetrators onto themselves: "Pull it, boys, / With a bloody cry / As the nigger spins / And the white folks die." Thus, with each pull of the rope, the whites effectively tighten the metaphorical noose around their own necks. Hearing something awry, they must question the voice that has spoken out of turn, out of phrase; "The white folks die? / What do you mean-- / The white folks die?". This moment reveals not only the whites' anxiety over the inversion, but also the utter unawareness that the lynchers have regarding their self-destruction. The final words again, "NOT I," end the songs with the future dream-vision; though justifiably angry, even raging against the injustices of whites, blacks will not submit to the same emotional death that whites have, nor will they allow themselves to become objectified, vilified by whites' hatred.

Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "Imagine the Angels of Bread"

Martin Espada's "Imagine the Angels of Bread" is a fascinating combination of the vengeful and the visionary, of anger and compassion, and of reality and dream. The speaker imagines a worldwide release from oppression, depicting an escape, among other injustices, from inhumane work conditions, tenant evictions, and politically motivated murders. The poem proceeds by way of a series of near-apocalyptic revolutionary reversals, by inverting long-standing injustices as Espada, on the one hand, imagines those in power themselves suffering for the first time--"squatters evict landlords"--or, conversely, dreams of liberating the poor and the victims of discrimination.

"Imagine the Angels of Bread" is divided roughly into three phases that transition with each stanza break, and that correspond to the speaker's internal motivations, culminating in the appearance of the Angels of Bread. The first expresses rage and some level of retribution; the second, a freeing of the oppressed and the existence of hope, and the third, a call to action in accomplishing the "imagined" of the poem's title. The final lines recognize the reality of the present time, even as they look toward a future in which change must define what "this year" will bring.

In an interview with Espada, Steven Ratiner points to the poet's ability to challenge "the official history" in his work, to define new heroes in that history and, in Espada's words, to let anger "be a recurrent feeling in the poems as long as you vary the tone." Certainly all of these components make up, to some degree, "Imagine the Angels of Bread." The first stanza is perhaps the most explicitly angry in its redistributed punishment of those who have long inflicted the same wounds on their victims:

This is the year that squatters evict landlords, gazing like admirals from the rail of the roofdeck or levitating hands in praise of steam in the shower; this is the year that shawled refugees deport judges who stare at the floor and their swollen feet as files are stamped with their destination[.]

The voice of the poem is assisted in its project even by the repressive objects it names: "police revolvers, / stove-hot, blister the fingers / of raging cops, and nightsticks splinter / in their palms." Explicit violence is contained in that the instruments typically used to cause death and wounding do not simply turn on their owners, but become impotent in their hands. Similarly, the last image of the stanza suggests not a retributive justice, but an anger put to positive means, rather than resorting to the same horror enacted on innocent bodies, as "darkskinned men / lynched a century ago / return to sip coffee quietly / with the apologizing descendents / of their executioners." Here, the very act of apology, while never sufficient to atone for the deaths of those wrongly accused, does provide for some link to a future that, while perhaps not yet achievable in the here and now (the significance of "this is the year," unbounded by a specific time, enables the future and allows for indulgences in the spiritually miraculous and fantastic throughout the poem), envisions unity and some peace.

The second stanza leaves behind direct oppressors, as anger becomes more concretely reshaped into hope. That the body (or many bodies) are fragmented in this stanza--into hands, eyes, an ear, heads--suggests their current status as mere instruments of work, dissociated from personhood or individuality. At the same time, these are vehicles for interpreting sensations, for comprehending and knowing the beauty of a released nature, "the earth that sprouts the vine," "the rooster-loud hillside," "the coffee plantation country" that, freed from death, might flourish unworked, unsoiled. Both the natural and the manmade are invested with the potential for redemption, even if, at this time, they can be "imagine"d only in negatives, in what actually happens in the here and now.

The third stanza, then, urges on the vision described in the poem thus far; the persistent "if"s stack upon one another, increasing the urgency and potency of language and, necessarily, of action. For the answer to each of these "if"s is, of course, "yes, yes, YES!", and one can almost imagine the speaker on a platform, reminding his listeners of past triumphs over horrific slaughter, abuse, and ownership, while ehorting them to realize the potential that THIS is the year, the time, when action will result in full success. The final lines of the poem encompass both the truths with which we are currently faced ("humiliated mouth[s], teeth like desecrated headstones"), and the redemption possible through a secular resurrection, a rising up not of Christ, but of the people. That the body remains fragmented, but that it is now a "mouth" that is imaged signifies the place where change begins (initiated by the mouth, the words of the speaker-poet, agent of change); these mouths will not fill with bread, but with "angels" themselves. Thus, somewhat as Tim Dean notes in his MAPS essay on Mark Doty's "Homo Will Not Inherit," the marginalized and their cause becomes santified, holy. "This is the year" that history will be written for the future, and death will be overcome by the transcendent.

 

Copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra

Heather Zadra: On "I Forgot for a Moment"

One of the striking features of Millay's "I Forgot For a Moment" is its seemingly uncompromised willingness to idealize, perhaps even gloss over, the reality of the highly charged situation at hand: the defeat of France by and retreat of Britain from German forces in June 1940, Mussolini's declaration of war on both nations, also in June, and Britain's refusal to accept or negotiate Hitler's demands, resulting in the initiation of full-scale naval warfare between England and Germany (Overy). Millay's poem seems ready to forget the political volatility of the time in favor of a fantasy of peace and harmony, of "striped fields of tulips" and "straight roads / Lined with slender poplars," even as that fantasy is so utterly unrealizable as to seem only "as if I slept and dreamt." Compared to her antiromantic sonnets, this piece appears to do just the opposite of the former's intention: rather than debunk an idealized myth of love or war, "I Forgot For a Moment" allows the speaker to indulge in a pretty dream-world in which political action can be surrendered in favor of watching the nice peasants plow the verdant land.

Of course, I'm setting this analysis up to refute my own intentionally overstated claims thus far, for I think that the poem, while genuinely striking *for* its vision of a world devoid of corruption, also performs a very specific political task in the images that underlie the words themselves. These representations are significant not for their articulation but for their very absence in the piece. In Gale's depiction of Millay's life, he describes her as a "once-pacifist" poet who became enamoured with the cause of the Allies and began "to call for preparedness and then...dash off pro-British and pro-French propaganda verse." Though Gale somewhat trivializes Millay's investment in her "war work," he does point to the specifically political nature of these poems, and certainly we can see the strength of this commitment in Millay's justifiably accusatory "Say that We Saw Spain Die" of 1938.

From a purely aesthetic perspective, "I Forgot For a Moment" is quite lovely to read; we can almost see the images rise before us, Millay's emphasis on color and order, "straight[ness]" and "bright[ness]," having the effect of a precisely planned, carefully constructed painting. The verses are sing-songey, even nursery rhyme-like, and give the poem a sense of innocence appropriate to the speaker's reaction to her surroundings, and to "a world...inept / At twisted words and crooked deeds." The speaker's emphasis on the blending of human creations and natural elements further lends to the sense of balance evident throughout the poem. "The peasants on the skyline ploughing," like the "straight canals" that provide water for the "fields of tulips," demonstrate the symbiotic relationship between nature and those who care for it.  And yet, in looking closer, in searching beyond the artistic, even quality of the poem, we can see shadows of a more serious call to action, hints of the bloodshed that will not *allow* Millay's readers to "forg[e]t" the countries that so desperately need American popular and military support in this historical moment. The terms that the speaker uses to describe her slip into reverie, for instance, never enable her to submit to complete oblivion; even as she may have "forgot[ten]" France and England's present states of horror, it is only "for a moment," a brief instant in time. After this she, like the readers to whom she speaks in the poem, must rise and awake, work toward some version of the dream in the context of a relatively bleak reality. Similarly, the very invocation of words such as "tank"--even as the word is negated in the phrase "not a tank"--forces readers out of the dream-moment and into the realization that, somewhere, right now, tanks *are* "crushing the tulips" so carefully planted in a village, a plot, somebody's garden. 

Millay uses other, less specific terms to suggest the atrocities of war, even as she places them in the context of untainted beauty and peace. The speaker's concern to discern individual shades of red in the tulips (previously she describes only "yellow" and "white"), "Scarlet strip[s] and mauve strip[s]," invokes shades of blood, soaking through, perhaps, onto "strips" of gauze, and the "level lowlands" that bloom for "Mile after mile" simultaneously suggest the aforementioned tank's "levelling" of acres upon acres of land. The image of "Broad ships" allows us only to see the sails, for the hulls--the places where the weaponry and machinery of war are kept--are "by tulip-beds concealed." The poem's pointed covering-up of the articles of war necessarily reveals them to readers, makes them more significant than the images that actually concretely appear. Millay's intention becomes clear in her use of such a linguistic approach; absences become conspicuous and noticable, and emerge as reasons for the impossibility of forgetting--much less ignoring--which is the right side to take in the war. Millay crafted a speaker who mimics and then undercuts the widespread isolationism of American readers.

The most explicit indicator of the speaker's position, of course, is in her description of the "wrong side's" false oaths as it breaks into the dream-world and is silenced: 

...the harsh foreign voice  hysterically vowing,  Once more, to keep its word, at length was disbelieved, and hushed.

In this closing image, the imagined world allows concrete reality to enter its space more tangibly than the poem has done thus far. The power of the poem lies in its ability to not only suggest the grief and horror enacted in the days preceding July 1940, but also to provide a more substantial vision of the desired end to the conflict. In other words, even as the speaker envisions the defeat of fascism and Nazism in her mind, she burdens her readers with their own "heavy care," their responsibility to make such an articulation a reality.

copyright © 2001 by Heather Zadra