Jaime Brunton

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

Jaime Brunton: On "Night, Death, Mississippi"

Robert Hayden's "Night, Death, Mississippi" (1966) figures the rural, white, Southern family it depicts as a space of complicity and indoctrination in racism and racist violence. Through the use of characters that are vocal, vivid, and, at the same time archetypal, Hayden creates a familial landscape that is, disturbingly, both nightmarish and believable. This effect is achieved by way of an unsettling proximity to the poem's Klansman storyteller, whose sexualized descriptions of participation in the castration of a black man reveal how racist violence is a community-building act, structuring and strengthening both homosocial and familial bonds.

As Thierry Ramais (MAPS) notes, the poem begins by positioning the reader in close proximity to the perpetrator of brutal KKK violence. Listening with him in the dark, close enough to smell the "reek" of his laughter, "His questions," as Ramais points out, become "our questions." The poem begins with the voice of an outside narrator, and quickly switches to the voice of the Klansman and back again. The lack of quotation marks or italics suggests a kind of channeling of this old man by the narrator:

 

A quavering cry. A screech-owl?

Or one of them?

The old man in his reek

and gauntness laughs -- (l. 1-4)

 

Rather than passively ingesting a story at two removes from the action, we are forced into a conversation of sorts with the Klansman -- one we can neither escape from nor contribute to. One effect of this proximity is to heighten the textual violence; because the story is channeled rather than quoted, the violence is re-enacted by the reader as performer. Reading the poem aloud, one inhabits a schizophrenic space, alternating between the voice of the Klansman and the unobtrusive voice of an unidentified narrator, with only a change in diction to indicate a shift in speaker. This effect is disorienting and troubling, for it requires an uncomfortable degree of identification with the old man. How can any reader inhabit such a distasteful character? How do we know how to read in his voice?

Hayden's occasional lyricism and depictions of familiar emotions and desires make this unnerving identification with the Klansman possible. The character longs to be part of a community; he desires a ritualistic mode of interaction with other men and with his son. All of these desires though, however lyrically rendered, are shot through with, and enabled by, both racism and unchecked sadism. The old man's tale begins with an expression of longing for the past, which he could relive "if I was well again." This longing is specifically for male bonding ("with Boy and the rest") as well as for what he perceives as the natural beauty of the ritual, which he recalls lyrically as "White robes like moonlight / In the sweetgum dark." This aestheticized image is followed immediately by his description of castrating a victim who is "squealing bloody Jesus / as we cut it off" -- making explicit the "cry" the speaker hears in line one. The speaker then takes the entire fifth stanza to savor those cries, reliving his sadistic pleasure -- in a most Sadean way -- through the act of storytelling. The final stanza of section one links this violent act back to the bonding ritual, telling how "Boy" has, through his participation, "earned him a bottle" that he and the old man will share as a way to strengthen their bond.

The first stanza of section two is more straightforward than lyrical in its recounting of the violence, following a subject-verb-object syntax structure to indicate a frenzied pace, both of the actual event and the old man's speech. The stanzas of this section are separated by italicized lines that one might read (as Ramais does) as "incantations" from the victim. Whereas this voice calls out to Jesus for help, the perpetrator, says Ramais, uses "Christ" as a "swear" or "interjection" in his fantasy re-telling. This interjection points to the specifically pleasurable nature of the brutality:

 

Christ, it was better

than hunting bear

which don't know why

you want him dead. (l. 30-33)

 

It is an act both premeditated and savored after the fact through its retelling. One imagines the storyteller passing this on to children and grandchildren (as certainly he has passed it on to "Boy"). Indeed, this section of the poem offers us more of a glimpse into the role of the family in the act. Moving from the dark forest of sweetgum to the interior space of the Klansman's home, the narration switches abruptly from the Klansman, to an unidentified (italicized) cry, and then to, presumably, the Klansman's wife:

 

You kids fetch Paw

some water now so's he

can wash that blood

off him, she said. (l. 35-38)

 

The family is the space where such violence is learned and upheld, with both the wife and the Klansman's children playing supporting roles. This theme is doubly emphasized by the names "Paw" and "Boy" -- the archetypal father and son who will pass on this lust for racially based hatred and violence generation after generation. The family does not question the acts of the father; the violent acts of castration and beating, with their overtones of sadistic homoeroticism, are treated as ordinary. Furthermore, insofar as participation in the KKK violence is considered a rite of passage into manhood, racism actually constitutes Boy’s subjectivity. Racial violence is thus normalized and reproduced in this setting, making the family the literal breeding ground for racism. 

The three italicized lines in between each stanza in section two, which do not clearly belong to anyone, function as commentary on the violence, and remove us for a few brief moments from the claustrophobic identification with the Klansman. After the old man's depiction of beating the victim, this disembodied voice cries: "O Jesus burning on the lily cross." Is this the victim? Someone sympathetic to him? We can't be entirely sure. The "Jesus" in this line is joined to “Christ” spoken by the old man in the next line: "Christ, it was better / than hunting bear." The contrast between calling to Jesus for help and using "Christ" as an interjection to indicate extreme pleasure clearly casts judgment on the Klansman. This ability to judge allows the speaker a more comfortable space of identification.

These lines also remind us of a world outside of the space of the racist home. Together they constitute a floating voice out there in the night, with no clear attachment to a community or a family, although one might read into their song-like quality a chorus of voices. Ultimately, the poem asks us to question the desirability of bonds of blood -- both the male homosocial bond created through the spilling of the black man's blood and the bond of the biological nuclear family. Trapped for a time in both of these bonds, we are forced to reckon with desires for attachment and belonging taken to perverse and bloody ends. Insulating oneself in one's community and family, which has traditionally been figured as a benign, apolitical choice, here becomes a grotesque act, and, furthermore, points to the ubiquitous and deep psychological attachments to white racism in the US. These spaces are safe only insofar as they protect and nurture perpetrators of violence, and thus the most desirable space in the poem becomes not the home, but the nebulous outside occupied by the speaker or speakers who interrupt that space.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Jaime Brunton