On May 18, 2019, I graduated from the University of Minnesota Law School -- and after I put away my robes and medals and stacked my textbooks, I went through my papers to take stock of what, over the last three years, have gathered around me like fallen leaves. These include poems, short stories, and … Continue reading Robert Bly’s Dream Diaries and His Poem “Digging Worms”
While waiting in a Baltimore hotel lobby, I thumbed through one of its meant-to-be-seen-and-not-read bookshelves. There among old, leather-bound editions of Gibbon's History of the Decline and Roosevelt's Naval War of 1812, I found the collected works of William Cullen Bryant. A romantic, Bryant is known primarily for his poetic naturalism (see, e.g., "Thanatopsis") but he was also a prodigious translator, deciding at the age of 77 to translate Homer's Iliad and Odyssey. But as this was my first introduction to the poet, I knew none of this. Skimming the volume, I was not very impressed, but then I came across a poem that I stopped to read three times in a row. Its title: "The Murdered Traveller."
I’ve posted before about the Great War, including the anniversary of the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand and a sampling of political cartoons from the war's first year. Recently, while searching the newspaper archives for (and failing to find) a certain Russian-Anarchist-themed comic strip, I discovered the following photograph. Titled WAR, it depicts a Belgian woman—grief-stricken, the features of her face lost in dark shadows. It's amazing what one uncovers in archives. What begins with the discovery of a single photograph unravels into a politics, a profession, an entire life. As the poet Anne Waldman once told me, "archive is memory," and WAR reminds us how many war photographers have made this same refrain: "If HER face does not stop war, not all the sights of [Europe, Korea, Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan] would stop war."
Before there were cameras to document warfare, there were sketchbooks. So imagine then sketching a battlefield and, as smoke filled the air and bullets zipped past, trying to keep your pencil straight. This, though, was the experience of many artists, including Elijah Evan Edwards (1831-1915), who served as chaplain of the 7th Minnesota Infantry during the Civil War (1864-1865). The Minnesota Historical Society has three volumes of Edwards' journals, including a 1910 typescript he wrote synthesizing his pocket diaries from the war. In it he discusses daily camp life, the people he met, different battles, and so on. Besides being an invaluable, firsthand account of the Civil War, what makes the text rich is its being accompanied by several dozen sketches made from "hasty outlines finished from memory when I had leisure." "This is especially true of the battle scenes," he added, "since I had during the critical moments of the conflict neither leisure nor opportunity to make sketches." (p.1). It's these that distinguish Edwards' written account from others.
On April 15, 1865, lying in a boarding house across the street from Ford's Theater, President Abraham Lincoln died, the victim of an assassin's bullet. What was a week celebrating an end to four years of bloodshed was capstoned by one last tragedy. Though not everyone felt the same way, tens of millions mourned their fallen hero, and in Minnesota as well as elsewhere, this sorrow turned into disbelief, into anger.
Going through Bly's diaries and correspondence spanning his entire life, I felt empowered watching this writer grow, discovering that the youthful doubts I harbor are doubts he harbored, too. It felt validating. (I don't expect anyone but the writers in the audience to understand what I mean by this). Sometimes I'd even stumble across lines that, in variation, have appeared in my own diary ...
There's a common trope among conservatives that we're living in an era of moral and cultural decay, which is reflected in art and performance -- Elvis Presley! Marilyn Manson! Miley Cyrus! With a nervous sweat on their brow, these moral crusaders call for censorship, suggesting it's the American thing to do. (And, I suppose in some ways it is). But, alas, this kind of outrage is nothing new -- the following comic was printed in Illinois' Rock Island Argus in 1915. Replace the statue with Beyonce and the old white aristocrat with ... the old, white, aristocratic Gov. Mike Huckabee and it's just as relevant a century later. ...