Monday, September 01, 2008

Conserving with Andrew Hudgins

Because art is thought by many, especially those with a penchant for avant-garde theorizing and creating, to bloom most effectively in a kind of "eternal now," the prospect of art that merely conserves an illustrious (or tragic) past would be unattractive indeed. Yet, obviously, poetry has a rich history. It would seem that writing the kind of verse which espouses this richness (even if, strictly speaking, it invents nothing) might have its own kind of value, its own kind of richness. Conservation only becomes ambiguous if we work under the assumption that the past is dead. Time spent going back can be time spent wisely.

It would be difficult to find a less progressive book than Andrew Hudgins' After the Lost War: A Narrative. The book documents the life of poet/musician Sidney Lanier, who fought for the Confederate Army before working professionally as a musician. Stylistically, the book is homely, linear, earthy, and shot through with a silver lining of mysticism. There is absolutely no reason that this book could not have been written and published in 1919, or 1909, or 1899 (it actually came out in 1988.) Hudgins is both conserving a bygone era and conserving a specific character that dwelt in this landscape. It is a fractured, war-torn, bitter landscape, that nonetheless offers much in the way of sensual richness. For me, the most effective poem in the book is Burial Detail, which enumerates an experience Lanier had during the Civil War:

Between each layer of tattered, broken flesh
we spread, like frosting, a layer of lime,
and then we spread it extra thick on top
as though we were building a giant torte.
The lime has something to do with cholera
and helps, I think, the chemistry of decay
when slathered between the ranks of sour dead.
I know what we did; I'm not sure why.
The colonel had to ask us twice for volunteers;
the second time I went. I don't know why.
Even in August heat I cannot sleep
unless I have a sheet across my shoulders.
I guess we owe our species something.
We stacked the flaccid meat all afternoon,
and then night fell so black and absolute
it was as if the day had never been,
was something impossible we'd made up
to comfort ourselves in our long work.
And even in the pitch-black, pointless dark
we stacked the men and spread the lime
as we had done all day. Though not as neat.

They were supposed to be checked thoroughly.
I didn't look; I didn't sift their pockets.
A lot of things got buried that shouldn't have been.
I tossed men unexamined into the trench.
But out of the corner of my eyes
I kept seeing faces I thought I knew.
At first they were the faces of anonymous men
I may have seen in camp or on the field.
Later, as I grew tired, exhausted, sick,
I saw they were my mother, father, kin
whom I had never seen but recognized
by features I knew in different combinations
on the shifting, similar faces of my cousins,
and even, once, a face that looked like mine.
But when I stopped to stare at them
I found the soft, unfocused eyes of strangers
and let them drop into the common grave.

Then, my knees gave. I dropped my shovel
and pitched, face first, into the half-filled trench.
I woke almost immediatly, and stood
on someone's chest while tired hands pulled me out.
It's funny; standing there, I didn't feel
the mud-wet suck of death beneath my feet
as I had felt it often enough before
when we made forced marches through Virginia rain.
That is to say, the dead man's spongy chest
was firmer than the roads that led us--
and him--into the Wilderness.
For six or seven days I had to hear
a lot of stupid jokes about that faint:
folks are dying to get in, that sort of thing.
I wasn't the only one to faint.
You'd think I would have fainted for my father,
for some especially mutilated boy,
for Clifford or my mother. Not for myself.

In the hot inexhaustible work of the night
a good wind blowing from a distant storm
was heaven, more so because the bodies needed
to be wet, to ripen in moisture and lime,
to pitch and rock with tiny lives,
or whatever it takes to make them earth again.
Okay, I'm sorry for this, for getting worked up.
The thought that they might not decay
was enough to make my stomach heave.
Some men I've argued with seem to think
that they'll stay perfect, whole and sweet,
beneath the ground. It makes me shudder:
dead bodies in no way different from my own
except mine moves, and shudders in its moving.
I take great comfort in knowing I will rot
and that the chest I once stood on
is indistinguishable from other soil
and I will be indistinguishable from it.

But standing there, looking out of the grave,
eyes barely above the lip of the earth, I saw
the most beautiful thing I've ever seen:
dawn on the field after the Wilderness.
The bodies, in dawn light, were simply forms;
the landscape seemed abstract, unreal.
It didn't look like corpses, trees, or sky,
but shapes on shapes against a field of gray
and in the distance a source of doubtful light,
itself still gray and close to darkness.
There were a thousand shades of gray,
with colors--some blue perhaps and maybe green--
trying to assert themselves against that gray.
In short, it looked like nothing human.
But the sun broke afrom the horizon soon enough
and we could see exactly what we'd done.

Ultimately, humanity is what binds the history of poetry together. It is, I would say, humanity which Hudgins gives us, and humanity which needs to be preserved. Innovations change forms; allow us to understand reality in new ways; broaden our perceptions of what is possible; yet we, as human animals, will not be substantially altered by new aesthetic forms. Hudgins, in the creation of this book, invested all his cultural capital in conservation of humanity, and, for me at least, it works like a charm. It makes most avant-garde poetry look shallow and fickle. That it could have been written in 1919 matters not.

P.S. I'll be reading at the Dreamscape Festival at the new Highwire in a few days.

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