Merton Lee: On "Black Men"
Lucia Trent’s poem “Black Men” is a short lyric in iambic pentameter composed in an abab cdcd rhyme scheme. The rhythm doesn’t strain the meter, line 3’s “in the sky” might tend toward an anapest, but the unstressed “stone” in “tombstone” makes it fall iambic. In its prosody, “Black Men” is not built of surprise, but of the accumulated weight of fulfilled expectation. The first stanza begins with a few lyric turns in imagery, the “hollow night wind” clatters, “the earth is leper-pale.” The third line presents a metaphor that stretches the imagination: “The moon lies like a tombstone in the sky.” This line’s awkward metaphor repeats in the final line of the stanza, “Three black men sway upon a lonely hill.” In both these lines the clichéd death imagery, tombstone and lonely hill, convey the plot of the poem. But the poetic excesses, moon as tombstone and the men eerily swaying, create an uneasy kind of nonsense.
The next stanza rapidly zooms in on the scene, closing the space for ambiguity, and then proceeds through weird logical leaps to an ethical decision. Of particular interest is the sixth line, “Soon earth will hide them with a mother’s care.” The earth in the first stanza was ominously leprous and silent, so here there is no warrant to link earth with its maternal aspect. But the anxious imposition of the maternal onto the earth at this moment dramatizes the poem’s fascination and repulsion to the three lynched men. The closeness of the titular black men makes the rest of the poem a turning away into false rationalism, the substitution of a mother’s care with an even more elevated “God’s great mercy.” All of this then culminates in the obvious: “A bitter scorn for those who hung them there.” Perhaps one reason why “Black Men” rings untrue is its perspective of observation, not of experience. The regular meter and lyrical images seem to too solidly fix the trauma of the poem, too readily provide a moral condemnation. For example, Trent’s poem doesn’t compare favorably to Claude McKay’s “The Lynching.” McKay’s poem “The Lynching,” like “Black Men” is formal, in this case a sonnet, and both poems are in third person narration. However, “The Lynching” actually narrates the event of the title in an intense, biblical diction. The end of the poem is as follows:
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun.
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue.
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee. (9-14)
This poem also ends with a sort of moral, but here the moral implicates those who see lynchings. In fact, the poem seems to condemn these onlookers more than the actual lynchers, since the beginning of the poem is narrated from the perspective of blinding pain and thus the perpetrators are invisible. This lack of presentation implies that lynching is caused more by social approval for lynching than the individual choices of violent men. Essentially, McKay understands the logic of the spectacle, that the visual presentation of the lynched body to the community is the means by which lynching consolidates white power and black fear. This is also the logic of 9/11 – according to Slavoj Žižek “the ‘terrorists’ themselves did not do it primarily to provoke real material damage, but for the spectacular effect of it” (11). Thus, McKay is at least partly justified in his condemnation for the white onlooker, that is, his condemnation of Lucia Trent.