Bartholomew Brinkman

Bartholomew Brinkman: On "The Shield that Came Back"

N. Scott Momaday's "The Shield that Came Back," from the poetry sequence, "In the Presence of the Sun: A Gathering of Shields" takes as one of its central metaphors the Plains Indian warrior shield. Made from the thick chest skin of a male buffalo, the warrior shield is painted with talismanic-- often animal--symbols, such as birds and deer. It was commonly believed that the design on the shield, rather than the shield itself, would protect the warrior. In making the shield a prominent metaphor in his poem, Momaday places "The Shield that Came Back" within a long Indian tradition, drawing on one of its most important cultural markers. But the shield is also suggestive of Western tradition. The shield has been a prominent Western image at least as far back as the depiction of Achilles' shield in the Iliad and has resonated through much of the literature of the West. In suggesting both Indian and Western traditions, the shield as central metaphor and Momaday's poem in general signals its need, and the need of the Modern American Indian, to negotiate both of these traditions.

For a poem ostensibly about a shield, however, there is a disproportionate emphasis on a fan. It is, in fact, one of the jobs of the poem to work out the identification between the fan and the shield. The poem opens with Turning Around's instructions to his son Yellow Grass that, "'You must kill/ thirty scissortails and make me a fan of their feathers.'" The fan that Yellow Grass is to make--which will require a great amount of skill and effort both in hunting the scissortails and weaving together their feathers--will resemble his father's shield. As Yellow Grass tells Turning Around, of the blue and black and white and orange beadwork, "'Those are the colors of your shield." And the "tightly bunched and closely matched" feathers of the fan "could be spread wide in a disc, like a shield." In its shape and color, the fan is patterned after the shield, just as the son is patterned after the father.

After Turning Around is killed on a raiding expedition to the Pueblo country, Yellow Grass retrieves his father's shield "but the fan could not be found." The poem does not reveal what happened to the fan, whether it was lost, stolen, or kept close to the father, but much later, when Yellow Grass was an old man, he told the story of the shield to his grandson Handsome Horse, with the explanation "'You see, the shield was more powerful than the fan, for the shield came back and the fan did not. Some things,/ if they are very powerful, come back. Remember that. For us, in/ this camp, that is how to think of the world." The moral to Yellow Grass's story is that tradition is powerful and will come back to protect them. It is important for his grandson to remember that "in this camp" as they struggle through a marginalized existence encapsulated by Western tradition.

But the poem offers a means of resisting Yellow Grass's moral. The fan can be seen as not only an excellent imitation of the shield, but as its successor, an object in its own right and one that is lauded by the father. Although the shield returns, it is no longer necessary because Turning Around is now dead. But the fan, as a successor to the shield, is lost in the world, just as Yellow Grass as successor to his father is also lost. The son cannot be protected by his father's shield, but must recover his own fan just as his camp cannot be protected by tradition but must identify with it to make something new. The poem (which is itself not unlike the fan in its imitation and transformation of the past) suggests that, rather than looking back to traditional ways to be saved, one must use traditional ways to look forward. This is the way that the modern American Indian can survive in the face of Western tradition and begin to draw that tradition into its own.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Bart Brinkman

Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Crows in a Winter Composition"

Matthias Schubnell is right to suggest in N. Scott Momaday: The Cultural and Literary Background that Momaday's "Crows in a Winter Composition" strikes a Stevensian note. While "Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackbird" presents an obvious parallel, "The Snow Man" also suggests a way of getting into the poem.

The speaker in Momaday's poem is a scarecrow (if not literally, at least figuratively) and occupies a position similar to Stevens's snow man. In the first stanza, he embodies Stevens's claim that "one must have a mind of winter" to not find misery in the barren land. He is the listener, who "nothing himself, beholds/ Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is." For him, "The several silences,/ Imposed one upon another,/ were unintelligible." He is able to differentiate several silences as they are placed against one another-it does not all collapse into a single silence-but these silences are still unintelligible. It begs the questions: when is silence intelligible? And to whom? These silences are neither intended nor appreciated. There is no "misery in the sound of the wind,/ In the sound of a few leaves" as in Stevens's poem. The landscape is absolutely still. It is, as the title suggests, "a Winter Composition."

As such, the landscape is an unfulfilled expectation. The poem opens with a dependent clause, "This morning the snow/ The soft distances/ Beyond the trees/ In which nothing appeared-" but the clause is left unanswered except for the repetition that "Nothing appeared." Nothing follows nothing and is fulfilled by nothing. As readers, we are placed in a similar position of the speaker who waits for something that does not come.

However, on the other side of the white space-a space that is not unlike the snowy landscape of the poem-is a second stanza. Into this second stanza, the crows came "whirling down and calling." They appear, but they do so when they are no longer expected. In addition to alluding to a long tradition of bird poetry, the American Crow, or Common Crow, in being entirely black, contrasts starkly with the snow (as black letters contrast with white space) and break the composition of the previous stanza.

The crows place the speaker "ill at ease." He is uncomfortable and quite literally ill, or a victim of evil, in his calm inactivity. This is because, in addition to breaking the serenity of the winter scene, crows are carrion birds. They feed on death. They announce to the speaker a winter misery that has previously gone unacknowledged.

The second part of the second stanza is problematic. The lines, "and stood in a mindless manner/ On the gray, luminous crust,/ Altogether definite, composed,/ In the bright enmity of my regard" can refer both to the birds and to the speaker. In referring to the birds, the lines suggest that the crows are subject to the gaze of the speaker, to his "regard"(in the same way that Stevens's snow man can "regard the frost and the boughs"). They can be incorporated into the scene.

If, however, the lines refer to the speaker, then it is he who is "definite, composed." The "mindless manner" is his, not the crows' (who, after all, are incredibly intelligent birds and ones capable of mimicking human speech). In this manner, the speaker becomes a part of the winter composition; he is an object, to be regarded by nature's own "bright enmity." It is in this way that the last line can be understood. In contrast with the "soft distances," the "hard nature of crows" is close. Close enough, in fact, to threaten the speaker's own nature.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Bart Brinkman

Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Poem (I lived in the first century of world wars)"

Muriel Rukeyser's "Poem" ("I lived in the first century of world wars") recounts the experience of war as mediated by the culture industry. The speaker grows more or less insane as she is exposed to newspapers and radios; she communicates with others through the telephone, establishing a network of madness. These instruments of mass culture are periodically interrupted by attempts to sell products, affirming Adorno and Horkheimer's assertion in "The Culture Industry: Enlightenment as Mass Deception" that "the basis on which technology acquires power over society is the power of those whose economic hold over society is greatest."

The culture industry becomes not only a way of relating war, but a means of constructing the meaning of war, "the ruthless unity in the culture industry is evidence of what will happen in politics" ("Culture Industry" 123). Soldiers mimic consumers in that they are "setting up signals across vast distances." And these signals, too, are rooted in an economy of "almost unimagined values." The totality of the culture industry threatens a totalizing, fascistic politics.

As she does in so many of her poems, Rukeyser tries to find in such oppression a place for poetry: "Slowly I would get to pen and paper,/ Make my poems for others unseen and unborn." In one sense, any attempt to make poetry declares allegiance to the culture industry-Rukeyser's poems are intended for those unseen, just as products are sold to the unseen. But Rukeyser does not make products. Her making of poems must be read in the sense of "to make love, to reconcile." What is important is not the poem, itself, but the act of making poems. And in this way, Rukeyser hopes to rupture the domination of the culture industry and war that draws on such domination. So, Rukeyser says, while "we would try by any means," by any technological mediation, "to reach the limits of ourselves, to reach beyond ourselves," such reaching is a failed project. Ultimately, what one must do is "to let go the means, to wake." One must recognize cultural and political systems as a means of domination if one hopes to escape such domination.

Rukeyser concludes her poem with a refrain of the opening line, "I lived in the first century of these wars." The line is suggestive of two things. First, the line suggests that this is the first century of world wars. There will be others. The dominance of the culture industry and technological mediation will have lasting and devastating effects. Second, while the poem was written not much more than half-way through the 20th century, Rukeyser exclaims, I lived through these wars. Rather than using the present tense, which would be suggestive of the fact that the possibility of world war is not exhausted, and that another one could happen in her century, Rukeyser emphasizes the past. In doing so, however, she is making a distinction between living and surviving. While others may have simply survived the war, reduced to automatons and emptied of authentic experience, so that they never knew their times and now can't remember them, Rukeyser was still able to live. She can remember those times and is still able, after 20 years, to return to them in a poem.

 

Copyright © 2004 by Bart Brinkman

 

Bartholomew Brinkman: On "Ku Klux"

Langston Hughs’s poem “Ku Klux,” like “Christ in Alabama” or “Park Bench” performs in a short lyric poem an incredible act of historical compression. In presenting a scene where a black man is accosted by members of the Ku Klux Klan, the five ballad stanzas of the poem revisit the whole history of race relations in America that has been structured on a master/slave dialectic. Although white and black no longer legally participate in a master-slave relationship, the white man is still “mister” and the black man is still a “boy.” There is a race-based hierarchical relationship in place that is emphasized and essentialized by the white coats of the KKK and the “Nigger”-ness of the black man.

While the black man demonstrates his own subjectivity and agency as the speaker of the poem, the white men deny him this identity. “They took me out” can be understood as not only taking the black man out to “some lonesome place” to be tortured and murdered, but also as taking me out, of divesting the black man of his individual subjectivity. To them, he is not an individual person, but only a pejorative example of his race. However, even as the white men deny the black man’s identity–which is necessary to sustain the oppressive white/black dialectic–they are dependent on him. They ask him, “‘Do you believe/ In the great white race?’” They depend on his belief in and fear of whiteness in order to sustain the construction of whiteness itself.

The black man replies in the next stanza, “‘To tell you the truth,/ I’d believe in anything/ if you let me loose.’” The black man is pleading for his life and is willing to believe in anything they tell him to if they will let him go. But this cuts to the heart of the white/ black dialectic. As Hegel suggests in Phenomenology of Spirit, the master/slave dialectic allows for an independent consciousness of the slave, but thebeing-for-self of the master is not certain because it is dependent on recognition of the slave who is not in a position to freely acknowledge the other. In “Ku Klux,” the black man’s belief is contingent on his freedom, so that while he is tied up his acknowledgment of whiteness can’t be trusted.

But the white men fail to understand this contingency. One of them demands of the “boy,” “Can it be/ You’re standing’ there/ A-sassin’ me?” They take anything other than unqualified agreement as insubordinate and worthy of violence. In response to the black man, the Klan members “hit me in the head/ And knocked me down/ And then they kicked me/ On the ground.” This stanza characterizes a history of race-based violence–on a personal, national and international level–that plagued much of the twentieth century. Hugh’s ironic use of “A-sassin,” however, suggests that it is this very back-talk, this verbal confrontation (as exhibited by the poem itself) that threatens to dismantle the construction of whiteness and kill the notion of the white man. Against such violence, the victim still has the power to call into question the system of their oppression and the identity of those who are dependent on such a system.

The final stanza repeats the previous demand more emphatically, “‘Nigger/ Look me in the face–/and tell me you believe in/ The great white race.’” The black man, who has physically been placed in a subordinate position, is asked to affirm the identity of his torturers. He must do this through an articulation of his gaze (it is instructive to consider here bell hooks’s notion of the “oppositional gaze” although it is specifically gendered) . But in order for the black man to look in the white man’s face, the latter must remove his KKK hood–his sustaining marker of whiteness–and reveal himself as an individual. The white man’s demand becomes a desperate plea: he is begging for the black man to acknowledge some essential whiteness that is not dependent on an oppressive dialectic, but is biologically inherent and assured. We do not get the black man’s response to this last question (unless we consider it to be the poem itself) and we do not know his fate. But we are left with an impression of “whiteness” as fragile and poorly constructed, to be questioned even by a man under torture. Hugh’s poem interrogates the history of oppression based on race and calls into question the very category of race itself.

Copyright © 2004 by Bartholomew Brinkman.