Phillip Ernstmeyer

Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "Front"

Randall Jarrell’s “A Front” poeticizes an event described by Jarrell in a note:

A front is closing in over a bomber base; the bombers, guided in by signals from the five towers of the radio range, are landing. Only one lands before the base is closed; the rest fly south to fields that are still open. One plane’s radio has gone bad — it still transmits, but doesn’t receive — and this plane crashes.

In many ways, the poem is obscure and difficult to fix. Objects, such as the bomber that successfully lands, are insubstantial: “A glow drifts in like a mist [ . . . ].” The crash concluding the poem is conveyed not only aloofly, as if being witnessed from a distance, but with a splendor incommensurable with its horror: “All the air quivers, and the east sky glows.” For this reason, perhaps, Jarrell appended the poem with the annotation. It does effectively explain and coordinate the events represented in the poem, affording opacities in its narrative clarity and coherence. However, the poem — due in part to Jarrell’s note — is more complex than this narrativity. “A Front” is caught in the middle of multiple reciprocal but competing cell systems, and it can be read as a series of affronts, or confrontations, which seem to make sense of the wreckage.

“A Front” — as the sign which subsumes the poem — suggests multiple readings. First, it can designate shifting weather conditions and the boundaries separating these conditions. In this sense, a “front” is an atmospheric “transition zone” between cool and warm air masses. When a cool air mass replaces a warm air mass, atmospheric pressure spikes, producing virulent winds, heavy rains, and sudden drops in temperature. In Jarrell’s poem, exactly such an atmosphere is represented. For the pilots and traffic control, there is low visibility: “Fog over the base.” They encounter relentless precipitation: “[ . . . ] the flights drone southward through the steady rain.” And the rain that falls freezes: “[ . . . ] the bombers banging / Like lost trucks down the levels of the ice.” The atmosphere is dangerous and menacing; the weather corresponds to the season which devours “lives the season quenches.” In this way, “A Front” designates and reproduces the weather conditions of a cold front. However, the “front” is not merely an atmospheric transition. It is a gap, a rift, a divide demarcating the space betwixt ‘n’ between two frontiers: an unnamable elsewhere in process.

The bombers flying above the base, which go south to fields that are still open, reflect this transition zone. In the poem, their decision to alter their course and fly elsewhere is underscored by a language of flux:

 

                                    [ . . . ] no use for the rest

In drifting circles out along the range;

Holding no longer, changed to a kinder course,

The flights drone southward [ . . . ]” [emphasis added].

 

Significantly, where the bombers do ultimately land, if they ever even landed, remains unspecified. Indeed, the proximity and appositional relation of “changed to a kinder course” to “the rest / In drifting circles” suggests their new flight trajectory led nowhere. They fly south, but their fate remains unresolved; in the poem, apparitions of their images hang preserved in a hazy sky, going nowhere except in circles. The verb “drone” reinforces this motionless motion. The bombers could soarsurge, or even snarl southward; instead, they “drone,” releasing a monotonous, sluggish, melancholic sough, as if already bereft of hope. (Interestingly, as a noun, a “drone” can also be a “lazy idler” or, more provocatively, an “unpiloted aircraft navigated by remote control”). In “A Front,” the pilots’ status hangs perpetually in limbo, up “in the air.” They are not merely locked in transition; they are caught in the storm, between two masses, off the radar, in the indeterminate elsewhere which is neither one nor the other.

Simultaneously, the bomber who crashes and is given a voice in the poem encounters an analogous limbus and its corresponding gap. Like the other bombers, the plane flies in circles: “its shaky orbit.” (Notably, an “orbit” is not merely a circular course; it is a trajectory that one is constrained to follow. In this way, “orbit” reinforces the nuance in “drone” concerning aircraft controlled from afar, implying that traffic control has abandoned the pilot). But unlike the others, the pilot is cut off, all alone in the sky. The poem focalizes his failed transmission:

                           [ . . . ] one voice keeps on calling,

[ . . . ]

                                                                 Here below

They beg, order, and are not heard; and hear the darker

Voice rising: Can’t you hear me? Over. Over —

 

Like his fellow pilots, he goes nowhere; he speaks and awaits a reply, but he receives no response, and the duration of his waiting is prolonged. Suspended in this abeyance, drifting “downward in his shaky orbit,” he is left “twisting” — literally — “in the wind.” The irony is almost too bitter to be ironic: traffic control can hear the pilot, but the pilot cannot hear traffic control. He has lost control not only in the gap that marks a cold front’s boundary but in a communication gap. The atmosphere is being produced not only by one air mass pushing on another. “A Front” evokes the atmosphere which emerges when language plunges unto oblivion: the encroaching cold of death, unnamable.

Indeed, “A Front” as a poem is itself caught up in these turbulent atmospheric shifts and pressure changes. It irreducibly comprises two texts, two “masses” of variegated density, which collide, push on and supplement one another, and intermingle to create the muddled, tumultuous, bleak wreck which is “A Front”: the poem proper, versified and figurated, and Jarrell’s annotation, written in the unembellished (though no less nuanced) style of journalism. As acknowledged above, the note clarifies and coordinates the poem’s information and organization, giving greater narrative coherence. Likewise, it demystifies elements in the poem proper, such as “beams / Ranging from the five towers” (radio “signals”) and “the east sky glows” (the “plane crashes”). Additionally, it subjects “A Front” to a perpetual state of flux. The sheer presence of the note — postponing its affects on the reader and the ways they could negotiate it — suggests the poem proper is complete incompletely. Like the atmospheric conditions, like the bomber’s flying southward, like the failed transmission, “A Front” “is” (rigged in quotation marks) in transition. It “is” becoming, stuck in limbo, crushed on the razor-thin threshold between life and death. Whether the transmission from Jarrell’s note to the poem proper is completed, or the poem ultimately crashes and burns, or it just stays afloat “out there,” in space, unable to alight, remains uncertain.

No sign of hope is offered in the poem either. It is saturated with an overwhelming sense of loneliness and desolation. The death of the pilot which the poem records is not the courageous death undergone in war; there are no exploding bombs or crossfire, nor even an enemy in sight. His death is an “accident”: the result of unfavorable weather conditions and the choices made by administrative officials seated behind desks in control rooms. The concluding image of the sky aflame — and the failed transmission — articulate nothing except futility and loss. The poem is neither hopeful nor hopeless; it provides no sign of hope. It is inscribed betwixt ‘n’ between fervor and frigidity, staggering woozily in a dazed state of lassitude and disbelief. Everything is suspended, in transition, moving but going nowhere. It is a poem about things that do not come together, which fall asunder, and which make no sense: things beyond control, such as sudden changes in the weather and airplanes dropping from the sky.

In this way, “A Front” parallels David Perkins’ (MAPS) remark about Randall Jarrell’s representation of pilots in general: “[ . . . ] in his pilots Jarrell expressed the feelings of alienation, helplessness, regression, irresponsibility, and vulnerability that our vastly unmanageable, bureaucratic, technological civilization seems to create.” In “A Front,” the romance and heroism of war are peeled back, and revealed underneath the gloss is nothing subtract absurdity, avoidable error, the surreal. “A front,” then, is also a façade: the false appearance not only of heroism in war but of the difference between one side and the other. It is a site of battle — positioned closest to the enemy — but those who are closest are also one’s own allies. Like the cold front in the poem, binaries such as cool and warm, ally and enemy, commingle and create inimical conditions in reality. Thus “a front” is also a face, though it never becomes clear whose it is.

Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "The Nazi Doll"

Yusef Komunyakaa’s “The Nazi Doll” inventively satirizes the Nazi subject. Written in 1979, it is not an immediate response to the horrors of World War II and the Shoah but is a reflection on an event, almost thirty-five years old, that Komunyakaa, born in 1947, never experienced. The poem is conscious of its distance in two ways. First, rather than relating a “personal” experience, it contemplates a historical artifact of the Third Reich: a German doll from the Nazi era. (Though the poem does not indicate whether or not the doll portrays a Nazi, “Nazi dolls” did indeed exist. They can be seen at the Museum of World War II near Boston, and are simply traditional Kewpie dolls dressed in red storm trooper uniforms, with rosy cheeks and black swastikas banded on their arms . . . ). Second, the artifact itself contains a memory. Its memory, a “lampshade of memory,” swarms with “guilt” and “benedictions,” though Komunyakaa seems unable to possess them and identify their contents in the poem. These limitations cause the poem to make some unusual moves. Calling attention to its own historical distance and a memory not its own, Komunyakaa’s poem tips into surrealism and absurdity. The doll, in its inanimate taciturnity, speaks. Limited within its historical and existential capacity, “The Nazi Doll” inhabits a Nazi subject position which, quite unexpectedly, seems to solicit sympathy and forgiveness, but then implicitly opens those solicitations and their affiliated discourses to self-deconstructive critique.

Such a subject position recalls World War II’s Nazi Trials. Convened in the years following the war, the trials prosecuted various members of the German Nazi party, including central political and military figures, doctors, and judges, for conspiracy, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. In popular contemporary discourse, the Nuremburg Trials — dramatized in Stanley Kramer’s 1961 film, Judgment at Nuremburg — are well known. From them came the so-called “Nuremburg defense”: the defense, frequently utilized by Nazi Party members, which claimed their innocence on the account that “befehl ist befehl” and they were merely “following orders” from their superiors. Though many offered this defense, Adolf Eichmann, whose 1961 trial in Jerusalem was broadcast live, is exemplary. Documented in Eyal Sivan’s stalwart 2002 film, The Specialist: Portrait of a Modern Criminal, Eichmann can be seen enclosed behind bullet-proof glass, riffling through papers, answering questions, and responding to the prosecution’s argument with startlingly mechanical precision, shocking nonchalance, and frighteningly self-righteous confidence. In the film, he emblematizes what Hannah Ardent called “the banality of evil”: the human capacity to commit inhuman acts under the supervision of an authority, nationalistic and otherwise. Simultaneously, like so many other members of the Third Reich, he portrays himself as a mere cogwheel in the machine, an automaton, a Nazi “toy” subject to the desires of others. In the film, he embodies a profound dissonance. Though monstrous, there festers in his inhumanity a humanity with which everybody can sympathize, even if only through nausea.

“The Nazi Doll” is tormented by this same dissonance. Initially, the poem contemplates and represents a horrendously and monstrously grotesque figure frankensteined together from a variety of objects. The doll, eerily propped “lopsided / in a cage” and enclosed behind bars reminiscent of a ribcage (not to mention Eichmann’s bullet-proof glass), resembles not a fully developed infant but an inchoately formed, freakish, ghastly, and misshapen fetus removed ex vivo. The figure is unheimliche, teetering on the edge of the unnatural and inhuman. Rather than the typical appendages possessed by infants at birth, it constitutes a fragmented, amorphous mass of bone and transparent tissue: “Membrane. / Vertebra.” Its brain — the storage space for its “lampshade of memory” — is warped, “twisted” from “a knob of tungsten,” the metal filament used in electric light bulbs. And its mouth “bleeds a crooked smile,” its lips the edges of an open wound, gash, or surgical incision which never ceases to ooze. Unequivocally the doll is appalling, gruesome, and nightmarish. Indeed, Komunyakaa underscores its dreadfulness, calling attention to its “bogus,” devilish tongue, its dishonest eyes, and the toxic stench of “arsenic” that seems to secrete from its pores and “sizzles in the air.” Faithful to the majority of “Holocaust” poetry, the imagery seems possessed by the utmost gravity. Carefully, through the detritus of diaphanous memories and the wreckage of eroded objects, it begins communicating the 20th Century’s most uncanny horror: the inhuman in the all-too-familiar human.

However, the weight of so much horror overwhelms the poem. The initially and seemingly unambiguous monstrousness and grotesquery of “The Nazi Doll” is ostensibly undermined and complicated by strikingly more attractive and welcoming imagery. Contrary to expectations, the doll’s “lampshade of memory” is not haunted by screams and rank with putrid decay. Instead, alluding to the Nuremberg trials, it is abuzz with the cheerfully exclamatory acknowledgement of contrition and the image of flowers in bloom: of a “guilt” that “yahoos” and “benedictions” that “blossom.” Additionally, evoking “the banality of evil,” its thoughts are naturalized. Juxtaposed with the “knob of tungsten” and the odor of arsenic, there are phosphorescent flashes glimmering in “a flurry of fireflies” and a mellifluous fragrance comparable to honey in “the song of dust / like a sweet beehive.” (Importantly, these troubling images are themselves troubled. First, they are hodgepodged together with the precarious suggestion of a venomous snake in “vowels of rattlesnake beads.” Second, although the poem focalizes their sweetness and bioluminescence, the “flurry of fireflies” and “sweet beehive” nonetheless do connote insects, as though the “beauty” of the images themselves was infested by creepy-crawlies . . . ). Dissonance torments the poem; one image contradicts another. Not only does the inhuman figure of the “Nazi doll” contain the human (and vice versa); its repulsive ugliness seems to be softened by a natural beauty which encourages sympathy. “The Nazi Doll” does not only occupy a Nazi’s subject position. Contained within its rhetoric, it sympathetically suggests that there is something natural immanent in that position which asks for and should be given forgiveness.

Yet this suggestion evaporates under closer scrutiny. Concomitaneous with the naturalizing language associated with confession and benediction, “The Nazi Doll” begins employing a diction which is absurdly surreal and comical, disauthenticating the subject’s sincerity. Contrary to normative behavior, its “guilt” does not regret or mourn; instead, alluding to the horrid inhuman humanoids of Gulliver’s Travels — and apparently ironically using the noun as a verb — the “guilt” expressed by the Nazi doll “yahoos,” as though celebrating its own accomplishment. Similarly, echoing Swift’s brutish characters, rather than being spoken by modern man, the doll’s “benedictions” effloresce in a caveman, “in its Cro-Magnon skull,” in a primitive mind which, unable to use language properly, confuses nouns with verbs. Such peculiar and sardonic diction satirizes the poem’s naturalizing language. The doll’s deceitful eyes and nefarious tongue discredit its confessed guilt and wishes for happiness and prosperity to the world which remains after the deliberate and systematic death of six million. Like Adolf Eichmann, enclosed behind glass, the Nazi doll is not only unbelievable; it is absolutely absurd. Moreover, the poem suggests, it has always been absurd. Its testimony, its sugar-coated “song” and scintillating, flowery speech, neither ameliorates its position in history nor compels forgiveness. Such linguistic pyrotechnics merely color the swastika-banded murderer’s cheeks rosy, dissembling its noxious odor, open and oozing wounds, and mechanical, man-made memory. Rather than sympathy, the language of the poem encourages ridicule and repugnance.

Ironically, through its naturalizing language, “The Nazi Doll” produces an uncompromising critique of both the “Nuremburg defense” and “the banality of evil.” Occupying a Nazi (doll’s) subject position, the poem does ask for sympathy and forgiveness, but it articulates the appeal in a language which ultimately divulges and scoffs that appeal’s unimaginably abhorrent contents: the malevolence and fallaciousness always already legible within the monstrousness and grotesquery only partially concealed by this “toy” of the Third Reich and its defense. In the end, Komunyakaa’s poem offers no forgiveness or sympathy. Considered in relation to Adolf Eichmann (and other Nazi Party members prosecuted for crimes against humanity), “The Nazi Doll” repudiates the defense which would disavow an individual’s responsibility for their choices in the world. Furthermore, in both the ironic portrayal of the Nazi as a “doll” and the refusal to implicate his own identity in the poem, Komunyakaa rejects the discourse which would naturalize the inhumanity and horror encountered in the concentration camps and crematoria of the Shoah. The Nazi is “uncanny,” simultaneously strange and familiar, only insofar as its own rhetoric and its gestures, like Eichmann’s, are fraught with contradictions. The Nazi “song of dust” is “like a sweet beehive.” It is infested with insects, and the insects are filled with poison.

 

Copyright © 2007 by Phillip Ernstmeyer.

Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "The Cat and the Saxophone"

Langston Hughes' "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" marks a solid contribution to modern American poetry. Though written in 1923, during the swing and ragtime craze, its innovative break with poetic invention is remarkably analogous to radical changes in modern jazz styles pioneered by musicians including Ornette Coleman, Eric Dolphy, and Albert Ayler in the 1960s. In the place of preset chord progressions, melody, and harmony, "free" and "avant-garde" jazz emphasized pitch and tonal variation and the improvisation of thickly layered acoustic textures. For example, late in his career, John Coltrane's phraseology turned towards exquisite fragmentation, interspersed by screeches and squeals, defying jazz conventions and baffling most critics. "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" performs a similar experiment. It is less comparable to an "orchestra score," as Jean Wagner (MAPS) has suggested, and more commensurate with the advances of the 1960s avant-garde, which pressed jazz to a threshold.

“The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” lacks many expected and identifiable poetic features. Unlike “The Weary Blues” — one of Hughes’ many “musical” poems — it is not directly representational; it does not orient a scene or relate a subject’s experience. Indeed, though it is ostensibly arranged in verse, it does not explicitly contain images, rhymes, or tropes. Instead, it records the textures of a space, or a speakeasy. Formally, the poem is an assemblage of three texts: the title, which cannot be straightaway related to the poem; Jack Palmer’s and Spencer William’s popular ragtime song, “Everybody Loves My Baby, But My Baby Don’t Love Nobody But Me,” typographically distinguished by capitalized lettering; and pieces of conversation, spoken in the speakeasy, represented without quotation marks. Significantly, although the references to “daddy” and “mamma” suggest male and female speakers, the absence of quotation marks welcomes to the poem a plurality of speakers. Furthermore, their absence, along with the capitalized lettering, suggests that rather than being uttered, like a traditional poem, “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” was written to be seen, a fact reinforced by the unspeakable, visual sign concluding it: a simple exclamation mark (“!”). Fragmented and juxtaposed, these texts oscillate back and forth, interrupting, reflecting, amplifying, and intensifying one another, like a jazz improvisation.

Through their exchanges, the texts perform a double operation: while insinuating certain images and emotions, they simultaneously stack together a richly exuberant ambiance. On the surface, “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” intimates a scene from 1920s popular culture. People are milling around a speakeasy, where they are not only socially enjoying drinks with company but, during the Prohibition era, are purchasing and consuming alcohol illegally: “Half pint, — / Gin? / No, make it / [ . . . ] corn” (2-4, 6). Simultaneously, a ragtime band is swinging LOUDLY. In this intoxicating environment, inhibitions are lost and spontaneity spreads contagiously. A woman, who seems unacquainted with her partner, suddenly demands a kiss: “Kiss me, / [ . . . ] / daddy” (10, 12). Then, there is the impulsive and overwhelming urge to dance — and to dance the wildly popular Charleston — conveyed through the affectionately exultant exclamation: “Charleston, / mamma!” (28-9). All of these atmospheric affects and impressions stimulate the reader at once. They are surrounded, soused by the sensations of risk, desire, and recklessness which come when all restraints are relinquished. Without images, without symbols, without metaphors, “The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)” imbricates an ambiance of inebriation, insouciance, delight, abandon, and danger: a texture of frenzy, similar to ragtime, communicated through short, raggedy, syncopated bursts.

Interestingly, below the surface, Hughes imbricates these ambient textures by coordinating texts in extraordinary ways. Notable is the synthesis struck between "Everybody Loves My Baby" and the couple's dialogue by harmonizing their terms of endearment; the word "BABY," repeated throughout the ragtime tune, reverberates through variegated permutations: "honey," "daddy," "sweetie," "mamma" (8, 12, 20, 29). Similarly, in a most exquisite moment, texts coincide almost flawlessly.

DON'T LOVE NOBODY

daddy

BUT ME. 

Say!

EVERYBODY

Yes?

WANTS MY BABY (10-6)

Originally, in Palmer's and William's lyrics, between "BUT ME" and "EVERYBODY" appears the word "Yes." But for the poem Hughes tweaks it. In the place of "YES" appears an equally monosyllabic and exclamatory "say!", and the affirmative "yes" that it replaces appears belatedly, slightly permuted, as a question: "Yes?" In this way, texts merge and diverge synchronistically. Like a jazz performance, "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" subjects "Everybody Loves My Baby" to a series of atmospheric and exhilarating intertextual conflations and displacements. In the poem, Hughes effectively rags the song lyrics, syncopates them, so accents fall, slightly delayed, between or behind metrical "beats," in vividly irresistible rhythms, and he noodles individual words, inflecting sounds with suggestive pitch and tonal modulations. He creates a "gut bucket" poetry, less concerned with constructing content than groove, texture, mood.

In this way, "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" is a "rag." Though neither the popular ragtime tune nor the speakeasy chatter contain concrete images, the title does convey a "cat" and a "saxophone," and a temporal period. If within the word "cat" can be deciphered "hepcat," Hughes' experimental poem becomes in its totality metonymic. "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" can be experienced as the evocation of the ambience created, after the nightclub has closed and all the squares have gone home, by a saxophonist blowing and burning late into night. Gushing from this cat and his saxophone comes the ragged, interjected, heavily inflected popular tune which constitutes "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)." In this sense, Hughes' poem is a bit, scrap, or remnant which after it has been used is discarded. Juxtapositions, atmospheric textures, and syncopations appear only in order to disappear metonymically, and to express, through the silent intervals after their erasure, a musicality too frenzied, too euphoric, too beautiful for words. In the end, language collapses; the poem is reduced to the strange, unspeakable exclamation mark ("!"), reserved in a space all to itself, which concludes it. Like the "gut bucket" technique, the "!" does not communicate a content, though its silence does elicit the vibration, felt throughout the poem, of effervescence and elation, undergone when all limitations have been removed and "everybody" cuts loose.

Examining "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" in this way suggests that Hughes' poem possesses remarkable originality. James Smethurst (MAPS) has suggested that Hughes' "attempt to represent a number of simultaneous voices within a single work" (understood relative to Pinsky's "formal heteroglossia") renders it distinctly and definitively "modern." However, in this case, the poem's multivocality seems to be subordinate to its technical virtuosity. Similar modernist poems -- poems which attempt to emulate musical experience -- such as Stevens' "Peter Quince at the Clavier" (1915), Eliot's Four Quartets (1936), or Tolson's "Dark Symphony" (1944) stress classical ("European") musical forms. Hughes' focus on jazz allowed him not only to explore new territory in American poetry; by implementing techniques of the genre, such as syncopation and improvisation, foreign to his contemporaries' stylistic choices, he could produce poetry of a wholly other order. Indeed, considering the resemblance between "The Cat and the Saxophone (2 a.m.)" and 1960s avant-garde jazz, his experimental verse may even have been ahead of its time. In it, the sax replaces the lyre of the lyric.

 

Copyright © 2006 Phillip Ernstmeyer

Phillip Ernstmeyer: On "Dust World"

Set in the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Adrian C. Louis’s “Dust World” unfolds against a devastated background. In the poem, teenage mothers with dilated pupils and “rotten teeth” loiter on the street, cradling their children and holding beer, soliciting sex. High school drop-outs who work at the local video rental store—“products of Pine Ridge High”—clownishly dance “like two cats in mid-air, snarling, clawless / and spitting,” shadowing in their practice “karate kicks” a casual attitude toward violence that resonates throughout the whole absurd landscape. Nothing remains untouched by ruin. Tormented by virulent gusts “from the Badlands,” the poem depicts an environment gritty and grimy with “hot autumn dust,” evoking the imagery of a post-apocalyptic wasteland. Forsaken, alienated, traumatized, it is a world bereft of hope, overwhelmed by feelings of irrevocable loss, permanent futility, and the impossibility of escape. All “lines to God” have been broken. The people are “dying people.”

Scott A. Campbell (MAPS) implies that the speaker in the poem saves “Dust World” from absolute cynicism. Without neglecting the speaker’s “impotence,” he argues that the Sioux man who ostensibly speaks “dust words / for my dying people” in section 1 and then recognizes his own interpellation in section 3 is the poem’s hero. He writes: “[the speaker] wants to act as a father to the community, to become an authority figure, but cannot because of his own subjugation by an addiction to alcohol and his isolation. [ . . . ] His trip to town could change the grown children he meets into adults, but his words have been rendered ‘dust’ by the effects of a colonizing American culture [ . . . ].” Later, he concludes: “throughout the poem [the speaker] maintains a commitment to [Pine Ridge citizens] and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own.” Campbell’s distinction is surgical. Though the speaker ultimately considers himself “like a stereotypical Indian,” he would transcend the imperialistic boundaries imposed upon him and other Pine Ridge Sioux by achieving a lucidity that acknowledges his words as “dust words” and his actions as swallowed by “the void.” In other words, for Campbell, though “Dust World” fails to induce a transformation, its speaker’s “dust words” still constitute “a real act of bravery” in their transparency.

However, while the speaker’s self-recognition in section 3 does introduce hope into a world where all else has withered up and blown away, Campbell’s reading oversimplifies how Louis’s poem diminishes that speaker’s “bravery.” It is true that the speaker fashions himself as a kind of hero. Yet, before his concluding self-recognition, his self-representations prove incongruous with the descriptions of a subject “aware” of himself and others. Focalizing his brawn and swaggering machismo, the speaker accentuates his “biceps as thick as [the video store clerks’] thighs,” which he suggests both intimidate and command respect, since the store clerks are “aware that I could dust / their wise asses individually or collectively.” Likewise, he draws attention to his sexual virility. Wherever he appears, whether in a parking lot or a video rental store, he perceives himself to be providing a tantalizing erotic spectacle for the “teenaged mothers,” “court[ing] frication” on the hoods of their ‘70 Chevy, who “wave at me like they know me,” as well as for the “two young attendants,” who are “almost courting me, / in a weird macho way almost flirting.” Though these images provide no specific information, such as the speaker’s age or actual physical appearance, and he calls himself “fatherly,” indicating an older man, these descriptions imply that he is muscular and handsome. Later, these implications are reinforced by his “new T-Bird.” Emblematizing masculinity par excellence, the speaker’s “hotrod” contrasts with the derelict Pine Ridge backdrop, signaling his superhuman status amidst a world of “dying people.” Supporting Campbell’s reading, these images demonstrate that the speaker is a parody of white American masculinity: a man comparable to Hollywood fictions such as “Dirty” Harry Callahan or Frank Bullitt, whose rugged appearances make them irresistible sexual icons as well as intimidating, intrepid, lion-hearted heroes.

Yet, throughout “Dust World,” excluding the conclusion, no signs indicate that the speaker recognizes his interpellation. Quite the contrary, in sections 2 and 3, he seems oblivious to his caricatured impersonations. While the speaker perceives himself to be the champion of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, Louis’s irony burlesques that self-aggrandizing posture. For example, when the speaker approaches the video store attendants, he claims that he could “dust their wise asses,” yet the narration of the encounter, albeit without focalizing the slight, reveals that the boys do not check him out; theyignore him. Claiming that “this is the whiskey talking now,” the speaker attempts to attract their attention, saying “Heyyyy . . . ever so softly,” only to be greeted by silence. These two details do not quite square. If the speaker genuinely posed a threat to or commanded the respect of the clerks, it seems that they would be more attentive, even if only out of fear. If he were a macho-man, he would not say “heyyyy”; he would snap his fingers, bang the counter with his fists, or deliver a witty wisecrack, if he needed to do anything at all. What these incongruities suggest is that the speaker is neither a macho nor commanding presence. He performs his masculinity according to the scripts of Hollywood cinema, but unbeknownst to himself he performs it unconvincingly. Though he attempts to portray himself favorably, every image of the speaker’s cartoonish masculinity obliquely refers to a powerlessness repressed by that portrayal.  

This irony permeates section 3. Narrating his departure from the video store parking lot, the speaker travels a circular detour that takes him “past [his] house” and then back to the parking lot, where he “re-enter[s] the store.” Campbell suggests that he has merely “forgotten [the videos] in his alcoholic stupor,” but the previous omissions of his narrative urge another perspective. There, where the clerks are still behaving like “clowns,” the speaker arrives at his concluding flash of self-recognition. He says:

I stare them down and place two cassettes, both rated X, on the counter. It’s Friday night and I’m forty years old and the wild-night redskin parade is beginning.

Palpable is his determination. Both his stare and the certainty with which he drops the cassettes on the counter—a gesture dramatized by the meticulously end-stopped lines—suggest a man resolved in his purpose. The implication is that the speaker returns to the video store not because he “forgot” the cassettes but because, embarrassed to be renting pornography, he lost his nerve and skulked away without them. In this sense, his softly uttered “heyyyy” betrays him; less than “the whiskey talking,”  “heyyyy” reveals the speaker abashed, choked with shame, and almost speechless with timidity. His “stare,” rather than confrontation, signals sheer fortitude to complete the task. He is not being ignored by the clerks out of fear; to them, he is just inconsequential.

Glimpsing the speaker at this moment is shattering. In section 3, when the teenage mothers wave at him, he already intimated his true physical appearance, and the concluding revelation pulls that peripheral detail into the center: rather than the muscular and chiseled features of a Hollywood actor, he has a “gut” that he must self-consciously “suck in.” Then, in the last lines, it is revealed that the speaker is not youthful; he is “forty years old.” Though he does consider himself “fatherly,” the number “forty” connotes being “over-the-hill,” past one’s prime, and the speaker’s age symbolically inflects his fatherliness with infirmity and disintegration. Moreover, the image of a grown man renting X-rated videos undercuts his sexual virility. Rather than a mouthwatering sex-machine, desired by everybody, the speaker has no genuine romantic prospects subtract pornography and masturbation; he is an isolated, lonely, unloved man, confined to a world of narcissistic fantasy, and too impotent to forge meaningful interpersonal connections. He is not the figure performed by Clint Eastwood or Steve McQueen. He is a coward, not only too embarrassed to rent adult videos, but too pusillanimous to command the clerks’ attention beyond his effete “heyyyy.”

This is the detail that Campbell oversimplifies. While the speaker does recognize his interpellation and impotence in the poem’s concluding lines, that self-recognition simultaneously calls to mind the fact that he has not maintained “throughout the poem [ . . . ] awareness of [Pine Ridge citizens’] problems and his own.” Until the end, in the second and third sections, his problems are dissembled for him by his over-compensatory swashbucklery and braggadocio. Furthermore, after the concluding self-recognition, the reader may be inclined to reread “young attendants” and “teenaged mothers” not as “clowns” or “court[ing] frication” but as symbolic extensions of the speaker’s own misrecognized feelings of inadequacy and self-loathing. In this sense, not only is he unaware of himself; the Sioux man’s own self-awareness forbids him from recognizing his “dying people” as well.

Perhaps his self-recognition is heroic, but “Dust World” insists that the poem’s speaker is a tragic effect of American colonialism. Campbell may be correct that his limits are imposed by “his own subjugation [ . . . ] to alcohol and his isolation,” but the ironic exposure of his immaturity renders the thwarted possibility that he “could change the grown children he meets into adults” a non sequitur. This is not to say that Campbell (whose biceps are as thick as my thighs) is wrong. There is bravery in “Dust World.” However, more than the courage of self-recognition and speech, it is Louis’s irony that asserts its prominence, and what that irony suggests about bravery is unforgiving. Juxtaposing the speaker’s avowal of his interpellation and racial self-hatred in the concluding lines with the return to the video store, Louis insinuates that the conditions of “Dust World” can only produce acts of bravery equal in their audacity to renting pornographic film. The action may be daunting, accompanied by anxiety and shame, but the intensity of that intimidation is darkly humorous and maladroit in comparison to the task of recovering from genocide.

If there is heroism in “Dust World,” it is located in Louis’s irony. While the poem does not dissimulate the traces of colonialism in the Pine Ridge Reservation, Louis’s irony tends to subordinate white American imperialism. As does the work of Sherman Alexie—to whom Louis dedicated “Dust World”—Louis’s poem primarily examines the difficulties of Native Americans’ hegemonic relations to themselves and one another. (Even the line “Here is the Hell the white God gave us,” while meriting serious consideration in isolation, cannot be regarded with the same gravity in a poem that labors to place its speaker so far into question.) Louis’s indictment is dark, but in the very least his irony extends to every Charles Bronson in the Pine Ridge Reservation the opportunity to see themselves ironically. Indeed, perhaps Louis’s sardonic words are “dust words”—almost nothing, but sufficient to provoke major transformation. In these words, every Pine Ridge Sioux would see both their interpellated identity and the shame disguised by that interpellation, but they would also see that shame and scripted subjectivity exposed to ridicule, critique, and change.