Plain Thwart: On The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam
Poetry is like belief: you must doubt it in order to experience it most fully. I was betrayed by what I believed early on about poetry: that it was distant and terminally difficult. I had made a grievous error to think that poetry was above the political waste of this country’s historical and literary by-products. I was reading Robert Lowell, Allen Tate, John Crowe Ransom, James Wright and associated poets of Kenyon College, where I had chosen to study in part because of Lowell and Wright’s association with the school. I did not realize what I was doing—reading and writing poetry—was an incredibly dangerous undertaking.
That was my second grievous error. Four years later when I was studying poetry at the University of Texas I planned to write a book of poems about love and war, specifically the U.S. Civil War. A friend asked me how I would write such a book without writing about slavery. I did not know. The book would not be finished until I could answer that question. I had a new idea years later. I would rewrite Robert Lowell’s first book Lord Weary’s Castle. In Lord Weary’s Castle, Lowell condemns himself, his family, and everyone in the city of Boston, to Hell. I once lived in Boston for a year and a half so Lowell’s book made sense to me. In 2015, I wrote a poem called “Needle” and a poem called “Leviathan,” which were the origin of The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam. I was having a reaction to having been one among what I know were some of the last undergraduates in the country formally trained in New Criticism. If you need know one thing about New Criticism, know that, according to my training and its tradition, the approach I am taking in this essay is not only a moral crime, but a fatal flaw in my character. I am betraying at least two people whom I respect and love more than most people, and I am betraying the literary faith by which I learned to read so many kinds of canonical texts and write poems. I am not unafraid to be writing so, and in prose, of all things.
The poem whose incarnation starts with a spell has an easier time sustaining a fight than taking a loss. I threw away at least a couple books called “The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam” before I could write the fight that is The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam. I wanted to write poems that could eke out a fight against the poetry that had betrayed me.
Learning to translate poems from Tomaž Šalamun taught me how to fight in words. You start a poem with something intractable. The intractable gives the poem a cause and the cause gives the poem a measure, and by that measure the poem draws its breath, down to the last word. Sometimes, there are several intractable pieces to the poem. Sometimes the entire poem is intractable, like a witch, and the poem does not flinch and it does not blink. I wanted to write an entire book of poems that did not flinch and did not blink. I wanted to fight the very heart of New Criticism: against its tradition which had made me a keen disciple; for the stakes within it which I valued enough to risk saving; and against that within it which I had more than enough contempt to risk making incursions into it to attempt to destroy. To get a sense of what I wanted the poems to stand opposed to, read Allen Tate’s poem, “The Anabasis,” and T.S. Eliot’s three 1933 lectures at the University of Virginia, After Strange Gods, and feel the problem of poetry as pretense to Southern Agrarianism’s desire for aesthetic and racial autocracy. To get a sense of what I wanted the poems to rescue, read Robert Lowell’s Lord Weary’s Castle, and you might, like me, feel the truth of poetry as representative of the terror and the attention that cannot be split from one another, not in this country. I wanted to turn the castle of Lord Weary on its head, out of the dismal hope that a radical inversion would provide a foreclosure, a sign, an “ironic rainbow” (Lowell), against Southern Agrarianism, against the worst lights of New Criticism, Modernism, and the traditions of the histories in which these poetic inheritances could only ever rot.
The formal constraints my poems employ are really just a florid expression of obsessive compulsive disorder, despite the medication, which does help with everything but the ordering of lines in poetry. The poems in The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam follow patterns picked up from looking at old orders-of-battle maps, in which opposing brigades and regiments are conveyed by rows and blocks of colored rectangles. Other poems follow exact line-lengths and dimensions of certain canonical poems that my poems oppose. One example of this kind of rip-off is in the second section of my poem “The Boston Evening Traveller”—the title of which is meant to affront Eliot’s poem “The Boston Evening Standard.” This second section, entitled, “A Detail amid Washington Goode’s Death in Leverett Street Jail,” circles the history of a public lynching by police of a Black sailor in Boston in 1849. I cast the poem-part after the shape and feel of Ezra Pound’s “Canto I,” down to the Latin and the quotational speech in Pound’s poem, a poem which also considers a sailor, albeit one who has the reins of history between his teeth, in stark opposition to the death of Goode, who, after losing his trial for murder based on circumstantial evidence alone, attempted suicide in his cell by swallowing tarred rope and plug tobacco, only to be summarily revived in order to face execution by hanging by the state. The police carried out his death in front of a lusty and rowdy public in part to appease them and in part to prevent them from storming the jail and lynching Goode on their own free-spirited terms. This was the last poem I wrote for the book, in early 2021. At this point, I began to call such a poem as this, this second section of “The Boston Evening Traveller,” a political translation, in this case, of Pound’s “Canto I.” By political translation, I mean taking a poem whose values you find objectionable, and casting it in a radically opposing, diametrically opposite light. “Political translation” feels like the right term for this process. For all I know, I read the term somewhere years ago and forgot. Tell me if you have heard of a “political translation” before this juncture in time.
A political translation is also, in poetry’s context, a history poem. But what is a history poem, exactly, distinct from other poems about moments in time? You could make a presentist argument that any poem is a history poem. I like that, but I don’t love it. To my mind, a history poem advances some dimension of poetry and some dimension of history in relation to one another. and in such a way that deems a poetic tradition without a history, and a history without a poetic tradition, as the double-bind the history poem must rupture, to achieve something in mutable written forms. To achieve something in mutable forms. It is necessarily speculative work, and neither satisfies the desires of historians nor the desires of poets. That’s all for the better of a history poem, which, like a history painting, is as much about the materials, the conditions under which it is made, and the circulation of materials with which it is made, as it is about the cry of its occasion.
In my estimation, the history poem is a closed circuit, in which a current of history cannot dissipate, unless the circuit releases the current onto the channel of poetry. In poetry this channel appears as lines-in-depth, as Geoffrey Hill called them. Syntax is the measure by which a rate of release is controlled: meaning’s flow. If you want the energy of the history in the poetry not to dissipate as the current is released from circuit to channel, you better keep that flow cutting back into itself as often as it drags forward, so that the energy is properly distributed across all words in a line as the history poem circulates the depths of its history, and the depths of its poetry. Such making is studded with electric shocks, black-starts, and small fires. The work of history poems is not for the faint of heart. You learn that the hatchet job you make of poetry and of history resembles a poem that is apparently thething, in and of itself, though it wants nothing to do with New Criticism’s thing in and of itself, and wants nothing to do with Horatian delight, though the poem is surprising in its conversions of energy to dark matter. I really mean it, is the thing. And despite all this I’m still asking myself: what is a history poem?
In 2016, I was living on a farm in the central region of rural South Carolina, working for room and board. Alcohol, drugs, shooting, and storytelling were the means by which the group passed the time in the early evenings and late into the nights. I got to help run the heads, hearts, and tails off a still, and helped taste the white dog that came off it. The ethanol killed my sense of smell for a week. I haven’t seen a muscadine grape since. Years later I’d begin a poem with the heads, hearts, and tails on the rack in the still, called “Anabasis.” That poem is in the book. Months later, when I was in Pickens on a writing residency, I started re-working a poem I had called “Poison Oak Candle for Southern Agrarians”. Months later, back on the farm, we had to burn a whole mess of trash and field debris for a project and a man said be careful not to burn the poison ivy the smoke can get in your lungs and put somebody in the hospital. That poem is in the book. History circles itself. I had a lively alcoholic addiction by then and although I did a lot of research on poems like “Poison Oak Candle for Southern Agrarians,” I could not tell you what the research was. I don’t know, because I was drunk while drafting at least half the poems in the book. I do recommend anyone writing poetry listen to Geoffrey Hill’s Oxford lectures, which kept me company while gardening, drinking, and writing, and which reflect some really important ideas in The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam, such as disproportion, oxymoron, monumentality, and bidding. You can hear in those Oxford lectures what a debt I owe to Hill, and why his name appears in the poem “Excoriated Station.” That poem is in the book.
The book has an intense fixation on the deployment of Jeanne d’Arc as a figurehead for right-wing political theater, in which she, and the cause for which she fought, are forced to stand for white supremacy’s spiritual conviction during the U.S. Civil War, persisting even still in the present. See Marine Le Pen and her National Front in contemporary France for another example of Jeanne d’Arc articulated as a racially violent toy, a fantasy in the present’s history. Robert E. Lee, himself a mythologized figure for the planter class and its descendants, owned a sword emblazoned with a quotation most often attributed in reference to Jeanne d’Arc: “Aide toi et Dieu t' aidera,” or “Help yourself and God will help you.” More commonly in the French idiom, “Dieu” (God) is “ciel” (literally, sky, but is taken also to mean God). You can understand from that quotation a lot about the role of belief in the U.S. Civil War, and, by extension, the problem that The Reckoning of Jeanne d’Antietam has with belief when it becomes a violent instrument. Many of the poems in the book, including “Speculative Fire,” “In Swatchel-Cove,” “Appomattox Agape,” “The Gods of Repositories,” “Whit Women,” “Seawall: Perjury,” “In Heresey Relapse,” and “Mary Rowlandson Beach House for Forgiven Narcissists,” concern themselves with the cataclysms that are partially contingent upon Jeanne d’Arc and figures like her as politicized emblems in this ardent repository of reactionary political programmes and racial violences. As with all writing, the inherent danger, and reality, of poetry is that poetry itself is a repository for all kinds of political trials by fire. My particular book’s fire is reserved for anyone who is set against doubt in favor of brute certainties. In the final attempt to write a book of history poems against the repository nature of both poetry and history, I wonder on whose terms and under what circumstances the book will appear to succeed and/or fail. But that is a question for you, and not for me.
In 2016, I drove down from North Carolina, where I had been camping comfortably in my then-car at various rest stops and Wal-Mart parking lots that summer, to Andersonville, Georgia. The historical site, near Oglethorpe, is also almost six miles south of Macon State Prison, which sits about a three hundred yards back from State Highway 49, bathed in tower searchlights. Andersonville was one of the earliest concentration camps in the modern world, and was in use between February 1864 and April 1865. It bears repeating: just north stands a late-modern site of the prison industrial complex: Macon State Prison remains in service, and will have its thirtieth anniversary next year. I am thirty-seven, and grimly certain that this state prison, and the nearly sixteen-hundred U.S. state prisons like it, will remain in service long after I am dead. New prisons will be built and the U.S. will continue to expand the penitentiary nature of its territory from within. Out of a certain feeling, and out of a sea-sickness about this certain feeling, I wrote three poems called “The Etymology of Union.” Each of these poems is in the book. It cannot go without saying that to have written any of the poems in the book, one must have attempted to write against the language that legitimizes the racist legal fictions from which the U.S. state draws its reason and its life-blood. I have provided each of these moments of context for the book with the knowledge that the poems themselves provide no such favor themselves, except by dint of illusion, allusion, and occlusion, except by plain thwart. There is no exit from such context, so I will put this sentence out, pluck the other one fresh from the pack, burn through the incompatibilities, and remain no one, and none the wiser, despite my several curdled attempts at limpid prose stylings. Abide with me. Take to heart these words: there is no valediction of poetry in prose. None at all. And, as Shakespeare’s Antony said in Julius Caesar, bear with me, my heart is in the coffin there with my book, and I must pause until it reaches you.
All of which is to say: I do not have any real answers. Is my secret argument throughout this essay woefully sentimental in its attempts to consider these matters? I want to know as much as you do (and I really do not know). You can ask me in person what my book is about, and I’ll say it circles the U.S. Civil War and the contingent atrocities and attendant beliefs, and that it attempts to do so in ways that resist narrative, theme, and through-line, which is what the first poem in the book, “The Sound Earth,” says, in its own way. My friends will say I’m cheapening my work by resisting a more deft and mindful approach to it, an approach which I typically bring to poetry and especially to the work of others, like Tomaž Šalamun, for example, in my “Translator’s Preface” to his Opera Buffa. For a contrasting essay on poetics, I direct you there. But even as prose still leaves me sometimes cold, I say that through every line of this article here before you, I bring the same mind to this prose as to the poetry in my own book. I still believe poetry need be difficult. The blood of it leaves legible tracks.