Michael Simeone: On "A Colossal American Copulation"

I'd just like to briefly comment on the standing conversation on MAPS regarding Adrian Louis' "A Colossal American Copulation." It seems that at present, most of the critical work treating the poem is largely concerned with Louis' paradoxically resistant and cooperative relationship to dominant culture. Both Marsh and Beatty see the poem as taking dominant culture as its object, a model that is mostly accurate but effaces a crucial element of self-hatred present in Louis' work; the speaker of the poem is just as much a reflexive target of the poem's invective as the U.S. culture that surrounds him. This is not a poem about "flipping off the U.S" (Beatty); rather, it is a poem that treats the speaker's haunting dissillusionment with his own life given the frivolity of U.S. culture and the inevitable decay of the physical body.

Firstly, before anything else, I'd like to make a case for the moral indignation present in these lines. Beatty notes that "Louis undercuts the moral force of any item in his long list of 'fuck you's," but this is far from the case. Louis' poem is veritable freight train of "fucks," all irreverantly applied, accumulating a kind of vitriolic, hateful, and sanctamonious momentum that simply cannot be offset by the injection of lines such as "fuck a duck" (which, by the way, I have never heard uttered playfully. In fact, "fuck a duck" is far from harmlessly playful; it is the epitomization of frustration and agression without object. It is anger without a path of release. The line may be absurd, but it is a cruel, contained, and frustrated absurdity). This and similar "playful" variations (fuck you very much, fuck it again Sam, etc.) certainly contain some ludic interpenetration of tradition and discourse, (as does the whole poem), but it is a stretch to say that, given the violence of the poem's speech and the moral valence of many of its targets (vietnam, for instance), the poem's moral force has been undercut.

Indeed, the poem is a kind of angry whirlwhind, sparing little (only mother teresa escapes, but not unscathed; she still gets to be the object of a blunt "fuck you," and despite its retraction one line later, the illocutionary act of telling mother teresa fuck you speaks to the poem's near total lack of concern for the sacred, the respected, and the empowered). Through cursing things like his first sexual experience, his first cigarette, and Bob Dyalan, the speaker not only implicates elements of his life in the upkeep of a frivolous culture, but he also self-loathingly denies the pleasure that any of these things gave him. He thus not only negates the world around him, but also negates himself as a creature capable of happiness.

Crucial to this disillusionment with existance (NOT just U.S. culture) is a realization of the decay of the human body over time. The recount of his personal history through substance abuse serves as a grim reminder of the deteriorization of the speaker's own body, and his pre-emptive fuck you-ing of the man that will see him dead again speaks to the materiality and transience of human flesh. Most notable to this point, however, is his choice to round out the poem with an attack on the disease that affect's his "woman."

Here, the speaker is not lamenting his own choices, attacking the U.S., or even engaging in any kind of disturbing irreverance; he is literally shouting against decay, "Fuck Alzheimer's."

The conclusion of the poem, then, functions less as a nihilistic assertion of the middle finger (Beatty) and more of a frustrated realization of the speaker's position within a frivolus and unjust culture, an aging body, and the unforgiving attrition of life experiences and the passage of time.

On "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel"

Sherman Alexie has been published in the New Yorker. Alexie’s poem "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" is linked with those New Yorker publications, and with Alexie’s well-documented, unprecedented (at least for an American Indian writer) rise to fame, and with his second (or third, or fourth, after poet, novelist, and short story writer) career as Hollywood filmmaker. In other words, Alexie’s work has pop-culture capital, and "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" in part responds to that perception of his work and is in part constructed by it. 

This poem, already problematized for aesthete critics because of its long, unwieldy lines, its sarcasm, and its subject, is a poem-that-is-not-really-a-poem about how to write a novel. But it is also a poem about the different ways to write like an American Indian. "The Great American Novel," of course, is more a pop culture catch phrase than an actual literary aspiration. After reading Philip Roth’s novel of that name, it’s impossible to take it seriously. But "the Great American Indian Novel"! One reading that thinks, "Ah! A new, emerging, cutting edge ethnic voice in American Literature! Why, it would be impossible, given the melting pot-salad bowl-grand mosaic that is America to write the Great American novel, but the Great American Indian novel could be done. And in fact, it should be done; America needs such a thing." 

Like other American Indian writers, Alexie points out the impossibility of making one writer or book "representative" of American Indian cultures. The mainstreaming of African-American literature, with Richard Wright’s Book-of-the-Month-Club Native Son, faced the same problem earlier in the century, and to some extent continues to face it today. But more than that, the poem’s injunctions are informed not by Literature, but by dime-store novels and spaghetti westerns. The images are Hollywood images – "half-breed," "horse culture." Alexie even plays with that most contemporary and fashionable of Hollywood images – "An Indian man can be hidden inside a white woman./An Indian woman can be hidden inside a white man." The Great American Indian novel, by Danielle Steele – why not? This poem bodice-rips right along with her. A recent profile of Alexie in Utne Reader (Sept./Oct. 2000) quotes him as saying, "In order for the Indian kid to read me, pop culture is where I should be…I’d rather be accessible than win a MacArthur." He imagines his ideal audience as "rez" kids, like himself. Alexie comes across as flippantly cynical about his success, and the way his Indian heritage has played into that success – "It’s a crowded world out there, and everybody is clamoring for attention, and you use what you’ve got…And what I’ve got that makes me original is that I’m a rez boy" (72). Those imagined "rez boys" seem genuine, but also, to some extent, Alexie’s evocation of them is deliberate spin. He displays the requisite shame at being part of pop culture – so vulgar! So common! – and offers the requisite justification: it’s for the children. A few lines from "How to Write the Great American Indian Novel" undercut this bit of masking: "There must be redemption, of course, and sins must be forgiven./For this, we need children. A white child and an Indian child, gender/not important, should express deep affection in a childlike way." The poem hollows out this form of redemption; in the interview, Alexie uses it to misdirect. The Utne Reader article describes two photographs of Alexie, one with what he calls "the ethnic stare," and one "without the mask." Alexie not only uses pop culture – he abuses it. Letting the audience of his latest book see him "without the mask" spins even more subtly the image of the American Indian of letters; if they believe they glimpse something personal, if they think that they know him, his persona is cemented – as it is for the author of this article – by a perceived appeal to the universality of man.

Pop culture not only reaches more people than so-called high culture, it does different things than high culture. The construction of pop culture includes "general," widespread appeal – bestseller lists, Oprah’s choices, for example – and a predisposition towards enjoyment. A Danielle Steele novel is, according to this paradigm, more "fun" than Moby Dick. By associating himself with these expectations, Alexie can do more than reach a wider audience. He can open up the definition of pop culture to include American Indian works – thereby bringing bestseller readers’ attention to the people that a collective American unconscious have chosen to shunt off and forget. Alexie reads and re-forms pop culture so adeptly, in fact, that marvel has been directed almost exclusively at his persona, and to a lesser extent on how much fun his work is. Meanwhile, he subtly redirects markers of difference so that the political implications of his work hit on that pop-culture-forming American unconscious. Changing pop culture reaches not only rez boys – though that would be nice – but people who watch movies and read bestsellers and subscribe to the New Yorker. In Alexie’s hands, pop culture is a tool, a means to accessibility, a way to get read – but his use of pop culture represents not just a call to and a chance to influence a larger audience, but an area of contention within itself, engaging like nothing else with the concept of the "native." Along with the collective American unconscious, the concept of pop culture contains the image of a wellspring of visceral, internal truth – the same thing that the unsatisfactory permutations of "the Great American Indian novel" attribute to the American Indian. The poem critiques this conception of popular culture as much as it critiques the representations of American Indians within it – and for the same reasons. 

The poem addresses itself as much to American Indian writers seeking to "tell their story!" as it does to stereotypes held by white people. Even if Alexie were to write it, he implies, he would fall into those traps. He’d like to write it, though; in each line of the poem, as he inveighs against Hollywood stereotypes of American Indians, we know he would do it differently. "Smoke Signals," Alexie’s first film – screened at the Sundance Film Festival – could be read as The Great American Indian Road Movie. Its two main characters steep themselves in pop culture, both embodying stereotypes – one the stoic, the other the visionary – and showing witty awareness of them. The ethnic face is a mask, and a tool, but it is also, for Alexie, inescapable. Despite the creation of a persona who has "traded" on his Indian heritage to attract media attention, the accessibility of Alexie’s work depends on his embrace of that situation. For him, it is a matter of representing rather than being represented; the people in the Great American Indian Novel may not reflect his authorship any further than that. But "when it is finally written,/all of the white people will be Indians and all of the Indians will be ghosts." So this novel will be written – not the Great American Indian novel that Alexie might like to write, but novel after novel of earthy Indian healers, men who smell like horses and awake uncontrollable other-lust in white women. But if this representation is not the "right" one – and it’s clear from Alexie’s sarcasm that it isn’t – can there be proper representations of American Indians in literature? It may depend on by whom and to who the Indians are represented. 

Alexie would like his work to be accessible, and it is. But this poem wonders if that accessibility always has to come with a Hollywood ending, and what happens if it doesn’t. He can change that Hollywood ending, reach into the pop culture unconscious, and begin to recreate the image of the American Indian along with its double bind. But can the Great American Indian Novel be more than just a pop culture joke? And if it could, would anyone read it? And if no one read it, what would be the use of writing it? Pop culture may be a tool and a weapon, but Literature lasts. Alexie enters the Indians into the debate about the Great American Novel, pulling them into the question of American identity, reminding his audience – surely not only rez boys – that any novel claiming to be "American" must engage with the Indian in itself. But he wonders, and rightly, how far that injunction can extend. The Indians, in any work aimed at mass culture (Alexie wants to aim his work at mass culture; he wants to make money and he wants people to read what he writes), may be ghosts. They may, quite literally, be ghosts: the Indians are starving to death, as he points out elsewhere in his essays. If attention isn’t drawn to them – not only to their beautiful shields, but to their alcoholism, their poverty, their early and frequent deaths ("There must be one murder, one suicide, one attempted rape./Alcohol should be consumed. Cars must be driven at high speeds.") – they will, by the time anyone gets around to writing about them, be dead. 

The lyric speaker of Alexie’s "Indian Boy Love Song (#2)" has a complex relationship to oral culture (embodied in that poem, as it frequently is elsewhere, in the tongues and chests and hearts of women). He asks forgiveness from the women for his distance from them, asking that he be forgiven for not being Momaday – for not celebrating American Indian culture in appropriate ways. But those tongues and hearts, Alexie implies, don’t last. The chests are thin. The stories of the old women won’t last long. But if he writes them down – the stories about the old women as well as their folk tales and songs – they’ll live on. But then how can he sell that to the critic sitting in the stands at the powwow, eating his hot dog?

On "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians"

The Canadian artist Paul Kane, 1810-1871, whose oeuvre consists largely of sketches and paintings depicting landscapes and scenes of Indian life in Canada and the Pacific Northwest, plays a central role in Alexie's "Scalp Dance by Spokane Indians," named after Kane's painting of the same title. Much like Wendy Rose's "Truganinny," the poem begins with a quoted epigraph and subsequently takes on the voice of the woman portrayed in Kane's painting. The epigraph, taken from The Spokane Indians: Children of the Sun of "The Civilization of the American Indian Series," describes Kane's visit and the composition of his painting: "Its central figure, a woman who had lost her husband to the Blackfeet, whirled around a fire swashing and kicking in revenge a Blackfoot scalp on a stick. Behind her, eight painted women danced and chanted, as did the rest of the tribe to the beat of the drums."

Kane's contribution to and perpetuation of representational mythology finds an opponent in the voice of the depicted widow:

Always trying to steal a little bit of soul, you know? Whether it be poetry or oils on canvas. They call themselves artists but they are really archeologists.

Really, that's all any kind of art is.

And who am I, you ask? I'm the woman in the painting. I'm the one dancing with the Blackfoot scalp on a stick. But I must tell you the truth. I never had a husband. The artist, Paul Kane, painted me from memory. He saw me at Fort Spokane, even touched his hand to my face as if I were some caged and tame animal in a zoo.

The comparison of art with archeology parallels an observation by Vine Deloria, who in God is Red narrated a 1971 confrontation between AIM activists and archeologists at a dig in Minnesota. The archeologists upheld the myth that "the only real Indians were dead ones" (quoted by McGuire 63). Archeology necessarily paralyzes culture by embalming it, and its task ties inextricably with the imperative of museums. "The archaeologists were clearly surprised that the activists objected to what they were doing and that Indian people thought of archaeology as a form of oppression. The archaeologists saw themselves as the preservers of a dead Indian culture, while the activists, through their protest, sought to establish that their culture and their pasts lived on" (McGuire 63).

The speaker of the poem, like an encased artifact or a "preserved" culture, lacks a voice until Alexie endows her with one. In the painting, Kane usurps her identity to suit the configuration of his own vision, a vision that Heather Dawkins argues contains "an instance of imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 25).

The very objective of Kane's work extends from the imperialist practice of surveillance and containment. In the preface to the diary he published, Wanderings of an Artist Among the Indians of North America, Kane assumes his cultural authority: "The principal object in my undertaking was to sketch pictures of the principal chiefs, and their original costumes, to illustrate their manners and customs, and to represent the scenery of an almost unknown country" (Kane, liii). Kane stops short of divulging to whom the country remains "unknown" and his purpose in attempting to depict it. Kane's nostalgia for a subject "in which I felt a deep interest in my boyhood," having "been accustomed to see hundreds of Indians about my native village" (lii), evokes what I.S. MacLaren dubs "an almost Wordsworthian fervour for retrieving an innocent past" (MacLaren 1987, 180). If this tendency toward exoticizing comes from Kane's preconceived ideas of Indians, it undergoes further development as he choreographs the scenes he sketches. In Wanderings, he reports the reluctance he encounters when searching for a model that fits his conventions: 

"I wanted to sketch one of the females, but she refused, as she could not dress herself suitably for such an occasion, being in mourning for some friends she had lost, and therefore only wearing her oldest and dirtiest clothes.

After some difficulty, I succeeded in getting a young girl to sit in the costume of the tribe, although her mother was very much afraid it might shorten her life. But on my assuring her that it was more likely to prolong it, she seemed quite satisfied." (69)

This interventionist tactic resounds with fraudulent representation. How can Kane paint the customs and landscapes of an unknown country if he merely imposes his own narrow knowledge upon the canvas? If Kane aims to provide an ethnographic account of Native Americans through painting, then he seriously compromises and corrupts his intention by explicitly staging his portraits. The voice from Alexie's poem echoes this confinement as the woman protests her culture's imprisonment within the disciplined classification of Kane's gaze:  

You must also understand that we treated Paul Kane well even as he conspired to steal. Some sat still for his portraits and didn't smile because Kane insisted they remain stoic. That was his greatest mistake. Our smiles were everything; our laughter created portraits in the air, more colorful and exact than any in Kane's work. 

I have seen all his paintings and Kane never let us smile.

Here, Alexie illustrates not only the perpetuation of myth but the ideological enforcement of it as well. By refusing to allow his subjects to dress, pose, or gesture in ways that fail to accord with his perspective, Kane creates paintings that register a racist agenda. "They did non merely repeat already-held racist beliefs-they produced an imperialist discourse" (Dawkins 27).  More evidence suggesting the inauthenticity of Kane's enterprise comes from accounts that highlight significant discrepancies between the initial sketches drawn in the field and the subsequent oil paintings completed in the studio. MacLaren examines the significant revision that occurs within Kane's studio, implying his potential influence by the "corporate conditioning or artistic representations of the West" (1987, 181). Davis and Thacker compare some specific examples in which they discuss Kane's drastic style change. In looking at the two versions of a piece translated as "The Man that Gives the War Paint," they supply an intriguing analysis:

"In a manner typical of Kane's field sketches, the watercolor study clearly concentrates on the subject's bold, strong face, adding only the merest suggestion of a bare torso and ornamented wolf skin thrown over his left shoulder. . The canvas, in contrast, is a polished amalgamation of the portrait study and some additional props, in particular a fine eagle-head pipe-stem and decorated jacket. Between the preliminary and the final stages, therefore, quite considerable changes have been made not only in presentation but in general effect. The subject is no longer a rough, determined warrior but a groomed and contemplative chief." (Davis & Thacker 14)

Davis and Thacker propose that such changes result in part from the Kane's awareness of the "sensitivities of his white audience and knowing their Victorian preference for a unusual, embellished clothing on a 'noble' bearer, rather than the crude reality of quotidian 'savage' life" (14). Indeed, the painting "Scalp Dance with Spokane Indians" most likely derived from Kane's sketch of a Chaulpay scalp dance, indicating a casual blending of tribal customs and a misrepresentation on a much broader scale (Harper 226-27, 294). Dawkins additionally observes that some of Kane's paintings stem from the conflation of two or more sketches (27), a tactic that conveys a serious indifference for cultural accuracy. Kane's pronounced repulsion with his subjects, from his disgust with their "barbarous language [and] the horrible, harsh, spluttering sounds which proceed from their throats" (Kane 125), to his contempt for their lifestyle--"they are probably the laziest race of people in all the world" (147)--reveals an utter lack of the sensitivity required for any interaction with, let alone representation of, a given culture. With this established, we might agree with Dawkins' conclusion that Kane's work "is not a sketch of life as it really was, a document of Indians in their original state, but neither is it simply the perception of Indians through European filters. Kane's gaze, of observation and of knowledge, his sketches, paintings, and writings are deeply implicated in, and constitutive, of power" (27).

By invoking Kane and supplanting his voice with that of his hitherto silenced subject, Alexie redistributes power. Like Truganinny, the speaker here asserts her importance. But rather than concede the fragility of her voice, she sustains it with self-ascribed authority. "When Paul Kane touched me I struck him down and only the hurried negotiations of a passing missionary saved me from Kane's anger. But far from that, I am also a healer, a woman who reserves her touch for larger things." Though she depends on the "passing missionary"--another outsider-to "save" her from injustice, she takes refuge in her autonomy. She faces "the loss of soul" upon discovering herself upon Kane's canvas, and in another parallel with Truganinny experiences the void of excavation: "Ever since Paul Kane had touched me that day, I had felt something missing: a tooth, a fingernail, a layer of skin." As a veritable curator of or visitor to a museum, Paul Kane has absorbed the life of another into his own life, usurping it from its rightful owner. By placing the speaker on his canvas, he has stolen a part of her and paralyzed it within the confines of a gaudy frame; she retains only the inert absence of an amputated limb. But whereas Truganinny awaits death, Alexie's speaker stands resilient, recalibrating the view of her audience: "When you see me now in that painting, dancing with the scalp, you must realize that I didn't have a husband, that I never danced without a smile, that I never sat still for Kane." A direct appeal to our perception re-articulates power and knowledge and redraws the boundaries of "observation, classification, investigation and surveillance" (Dawkins 27) that comprise an imperialist discourse. And though Alexie's poem does not mend a fractured history, it retrieves the apparatus of self-representation and an ability to declare: "That is the truth. All of it."

On "Dust World"

Section I of Adrian Louis’s “Dust World” (1992) opens with the speaker standing in “a whirlwind of hot autumn dust” (line 1) and screaming “for the wind to abate” (4). The speaker is standing against the wind to save the poor surrounding him, presumably Indians of the Sioux reservation he seems to be on. The poor only surround him metaphorically, however, and he stands and speaks alone, exposed to the harsh weather. The solitude suggests his being ignored by or withdrawn from the community, as there is no indication of his being supported by some unseen group or any others’ awareness of his speech act. The power he speaks or acts against here, the wind, moves from an unseen and unknowable point, swarms around him, and moves on to some other point in the American West, linking together the lands ceded to whites by the Sioux and others. The overwhelming force of the wind proves itself in its triumph over the speaker at the end of the section: “I have no sylvan glades of dreams,/ just dust words/ for my people dying.” The words he shouts become lost in the “death wind” (7) and so he loses his only source of real power. The poem’s title indicates how the wind in its evacuative fury has become the ‘real’ of the entire world in the impoverished rural American West. The speaker has taken on an act of real bravery, one that evokes medicinal powers of certain pre-colonization Indian cultures in the West, and has done so without the support of those for whom he risks himself. But, his words are denied their power and are made into the same blowing dust that erodes the community from which he has separated himself.

In Section II the speaker moves into that community but fails to form any real connections to the people there and to uncover any meaningful, purposeful groups or acts to connect with. Those he does encounter depend on a markedly passive relationship with American culture for the behavior and subjectivity they express. The teenage mothers who lounge with their children on the hood of a very old car and the high school dropouts working at the video store both give the speaker quasi-sexual greetings. Neither group seems to hold much interest for him, however, and neither certainly has any of the usual indications of enticing sexuality in American culture. The girls’ waving “as if they know me” (15) mimics the behavior of high school students as they cruise and flirt, and the car itself has long been a sexually charged and sexualized object in America. The video store clerks mimic violence from an action movie, presumably one playing on a store monitor, and violence has been another medium for sexual arousal in America. The narrator believes, much as he does of the girls, that the boys are “are almost courting me … almost flirting” (26-27) because of his pronounced masculinity in the form of enormous biceps. He walks past both the girls and the boys, though, without speaking to them or making any sort of positive comments about them. He does note that the whiskey has taken over his voice at the end of the stanza, and he rewrites the ending of section I into another moment of powerless or impotent speech. The connotation of sexual impotence cannot be missed here, given the subject matter of the stanza and especially the line “ever so softly” (30), with its whiskey-fueled, whispered seductions and hint of the concomitant failure to act on those seductions. The girls and boys are the community that he has tried to save from the power of the post-colonization West but he cannot form any relationship to them, even of the most basic type. They lack the power of the adult world to identify on and act in their own best interests and to confront the power moving over the reservation as the speaker has in the poem’s opening. He 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. The isolation that ends this section deprives his speech of its power over those in the community he wants to help. His trip into 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: Hollywood movies and Detroit cars that violently appropriate Indian cultures, alcohol that leaves him physically and socially impotent, and economic despair that makes teenage girls into solitary mothers and teenage boys into dropouts without prospects beyond being clerks.

The third section begins in much the same way. The eroticism of the Sioux girls has become blatant and even flaunted for all to see, as they “court friction” and rub their butts over the hood of the “hideous car” (34-35). They have begun marketing their sexuality as they use it to attract this father figure, and he responds by sucking in his stomach and peeling out the tires of his T-bird. In the sequence both sides act out stereotypical aspects of courtship in America, as prescribed by Hollywood-produced clichés and consumer culture. That culture enters their lives also in its appropriation of the Thunder Bird for the name of the speaker’s car. He and the girls signify their sexual identities by interacting with this dominant culture rather than with each other. The problem continues for the narrator at the end of the poem, in which he returns to the video store for the X-rated films he has forgotten in his alcoholic stupor. He rents the pornography from the exoticized, fighting clerks and ends the poem alone in a “wild-night redskin parade.” One meaning of “redskin” here is masturbation in the form of a literal self-abuse, something that damages him in its furor and, again, his solitude. His encounter with the town has left him isolated and replicating the exploitative system, in the form of watching pornography, that has objectified Indians for so long. Even the Sioux reservation in South Dakota, on which they live and which the speaker tries to defend against the plains dust storm, is a product of the same motivation. The desire for gold that opened up the Dakotas to whites produced violence similar to that of his desire for the women of the films—both involve a desire based on illusion and fetish rather than real, personal relationships, and both produce great wealth for people in distant cities too. After his failed attempt at resistance to the constant storm of white power there is no escape from its effects in his home, and he lacks the cultural agency, available to others in such things as attitudes of racial supremacy or the power of money, to form a life separate from the storm and its manifestations in his VCR. His isolation at the end only intensifies his vulnerability to intrusion by forces of the dominant culture.

Although the speaker is acted upon by the impersonal force of the storm, he lacks a sense of victimization. In section III he “cruise(s) through a small whirlwind/ of lascivious regrets” (43-44) after he has performed his masculinity by peeling out for the teenage girls. His whirlwind resembles the dust and wind of the opening but has come under his control here, and by extension it brings those regrets under control as well. Encased in this private, isolated dust storm he “happily” cruises the streets of this “welfare world” (45-46) without the purpose of the opening stanza; the ending of the poem clearly indicates a sense of loss. His solitude at the end only reaffirms that at the beginning, though, and so in this respect nothing has changed in his condition in the world. From his solitude he continues to act upon his social context, cruising through the town and evaluating its citizens’ status much as he went out to meet the windstorm. Throughout the poem he maintains a commitment to them and a simultaneous awareness of their problems and his own. The racist meaning of “redskin” from the last line signifies his self-awareness with regard to his being like the stereotypical Indian. He acknowledges his complicity in his occupying this stereotype and the masturbatory impulses sometimes involved in self-pity, and he moves beyond both of those with his shouting what he knows to be mere “dust words” into the wind. The self-control denied him by his racial and class identities he grants to himself with the act of speaking into the storm. Part of the poem’s poignancy comes from its awareness of the necessity of that stance, of shouting into the void, and its obstinate depiction of both the conditions of the people he would help and his inability to relate to them even in the act of protecting them.

John Lowney on "A Step Away from Them"

Another poem that conveys its preoccupation with time and death through the transience of the lunch break is "A Step Away From Them." Whereas "Personal Poem" is more concerned with the interplay of the political with the personal in the contemporary "avant-garde," "A Step Away From Them" affiliates 1950s "vanguard" art with the historical avant-garde. The preoccupation with time opens the poem, with the announcement, "It's my lunch hour." It reappears soon after, when the poet looks at "bargains in wristwatches," is ironically suggested in the reference to Times Square, and explicitly signals the transition from present impressions to reflection on darkness and death, which takes place exactly at "12:40" (CP, 257). The images and actions described in the opening two verse paragraphs—shirtless laborers eating sandwiches, skirts "flipping / above heels," cats "playing in sawdust," a "Negro" smiling at a "chorus girl" (ibid.)—counteract the concern with time with their sensual vitality; they occur in rapid succession, in short enjambed sentences. The details of the urban scene draw the poet away from self-consciousness; "I" appears only in the references to time in the opening verse paragraphs.

The shift from the Lunch Poems' "strolling" poet who pauses at a "sample Olivetti" to the poet who "ponders" over the "eternal questions of life, co-existence and depth" occurs immediately after the announcement of the exact time in "A Step Away From Them." The artificial light of "neon" in daylight accentuates a darkness present even at noontime, as awareness of the transience of the lunch break initiates the reflection on mortality. This shift from natural light to neon is repeated with the association of "JULIET'S CORNER" with "Giulietta Masina," the Italian actress married to Federico Fellini (CP, 258). The movies provide the nighttime light with their "heavenly dimensions and reverberations and iconoclasms" ("To the Film Industry in Crisis," in CP, 232) to escape from the darkness of self-consciousness, especially from the consciousness of mortality. This preoccupation with death embedded in the structure of the lunch break becomes most apparent in the subsequent transition from present impressions to memory. Reflecting on the deaths of friends who were also public figures—Bunny Lang, John Latouche, Jackson Pollock—O'Hara fuses private memory with commemoration of artists, especially Pollock, who were commonly portrayed as tragic "victims" of the cold-war demands placed on artists. O'Hara momentarily takes a "step away" from his own autobiographical stance, replacing "I" with an impersonal, typical "one":


And one has eaten and one walks,  past the magazines with nudes  and the posters for BULLFIGHT and  the Manhattan Storage Warehouse,  which they'll soon tear down. I  used to think they had the Armory  Show there.


(CP, 258)

In replacing "I" with a reified self as past other, O 'Hara situates his own act of commemorating avant-gardist figures in an irretrievable past. This act of momentary self-destruction replicates the response to imminent apocalypse that O'Hara saw animating Pollock's painting, but it also evokes Pollock's violent death. The violence of Pollock's painting reflects a repressed subtext of postwar American culture, and the poem questions how the act of internalizing this violence can be an effective mode for counteracting it. The poem then proceeds to implicate this sense of imminent destruction as an ongoing condition of American modernization; the "Manhattan Storage Warehouse / which they'll soon tear down" is associated with images linking the reified body with ritual violence, "the magazines with nudes / and the posters for BULLFIGHT" (CP, 258). Finally, the release from morbid self-consciousness, from the reflection on mortality, occurs through the poet's oblique affiliation with the historical avant-garde. This act of affiliation stresses the role of memory for reading the present, as the isolated "I" misconstrues the location of the event that marked the arrival of the European avant-garde in New York: the Armory Show. As in "Memorial Day 1950," "A Step Away From Them" appropriates historical narratives to structure personal memory, but personal memory in turn capriciously subverts the authority of historical narratives. And as in "The Day Lady Died" and "Personal Poem," the "post-anti-esthetic" surface of "A Step Away From Them" steps away from morbid self-consciousness not only through immersion in the overdetermined present but through reflection and reconstruction of the cultural and historical patterns that inform the moment.

from The American Avant-Garde Tradition: William Carlos Williams, Postmodern Poetry, and the Politics of Cultural Memory. Lewisburg: Bucknell UP, 1997. Copyright © 1997 by Associated University Presses.

John Hatcher on: Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves

'Aunt Jemima of the Ocean Waves' portrays Hayden's own mythological figure of resilience. . . . Hayden uses the figure of Jemima as an archetypal symbol of the displaced Afro-American identity. The woman's lengthy narrative recounts her adventures from her days as the 'Sepia High Stepper' in Europe, to her present status in a sideshow as a 'fake mammy to God's mistakes'. As he listens to her intriguing narrative of 'High-stepping days', the persona finds in her a beautiful image of survival and strength, in spite of her ‘unfinished' or fake identity born from the original displacement of the culture. . . .

from From The Auroral Darkness: The Life and Poetry of Robert Hayden. Copyright © 1984 by John Hatcher.

Bonnie Costello: On "The Fish"

[By the midpoint of the poem] [t]he poet does not simply relinquish her desire for imaginative contact with the fish. But her attention shifts from spatial to historical imagining. History is no longer distant and figurative but "still attached" in the form of "five old pieces of fish-line, / or four and a wire leader / … with all five big hooks / grown firmly in his mouth." Five wounds on a fish make him a Christ figure, but the epiphany he brings the poet has nothing otherwordly about it. The domestic images at the beginning of the poem, followed by the battered body of the fish, evoke the poet’s unconscious life, the uncanny return of the repressed which can "cut so badly." But Bishop can entertain such self-reflection now within the larger context of the life of nature and the beholder’s tentative grasp of it. She no longer has to define a discrete interior space through dream or symbolic abstraction in order to explore her subjectivity; she has brought the self out of nocturnal seclusion and explored its relation to everything under the sun.

There is also a pervasive but ambiguous sexual quality to the fish. An untamable, corporeal energy violates the domestic world of wallpaper and roses. The fish, a he, hangs like a giant phallus, yet as the beholder imagines his interior, its "pink swim-bladder / like a big peony,? He takes on a female aspect. Indeed, the hooks in his mouth suggest that phallic aggression is the fisherman’s (woman this time) part. This hermaphroditic fish challenges the conventional hierarchical antithesis of female nature and male culture. Here there is no struggle, and the victory is not exclusive.

For Bishop, nature mastered as static knowledge is a fish out of water. Its beauty and venerability belong to time. Yet it can be entertained, with a certain humility and lightness (such as simile registers), for its figurative possibilities. The poet "stared and stared" even though the fish did not return her stare. Her imagination transforms a "pool of bilge / where oil had spread a rainbow" into an ecstatic (and perhaps deliberately excessive) "rainbow, rainbow, rainbow!" Such an epiphany, set as iut is in the highly ephemeral space of the rented boat with its rusted engine, must be of mortality. The grotesque is the style of mortality not because it makes us turn away in horror but because it challenges the rigid frames of thought and perception through which we attempt to master life. All the conceptual and emotional contradictions that emerge within the description of the fish point to the letting go.


from Bonnie Costello, "Attractive Mortality," Chapter 2 in Elizabeth Bishop: Questions of Mastery (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1991), 63-64.