In this month’s installment, reviews editor Adam Tavel examines two collections that explore history, race, and memory.
Cyclorama by Daneen Wardrop
Fordham University Press
$19, 82 pages
published March 2015
Bastards of the Reagan Era by Reginald Dwayne Betts
Four Way Books
$15.95, 72 pages
published October 2015
It is a strange irony that despite all of our war documentaries, battle reenactments, and tourist traps, the American Civil War remains a half-told tale. The valiant sacrifices of everyday Americans—particularly those made by women, Native Americans, and African Americans both enslaved and free—are usually overlooked among the strategizing of generals. In a series of compelling persona poems, Daneen Wardrop’s recent collection Cyclorama strives to remedy this failure of conscience. (For those unfamiliar with cycloramas, Kimiko Hahn offers this pithy explanation in her introduction: “The cyclorama is a technological ‘trick,’ a series of panels that surround a viewer 360° so he or she can experience an event or scene. Think of it as an early virtual reality.”) Told primarily from the perspective of women directly engaged in the war effort, Wardrop’s monologues bristle with tension, verve, and viscera, as she conjures the lives of cooks, domestics, prostitutes, and female soldiers passing as men in order to see direct action. Sustained by its meticulous rendering of character and its exotic motley of voices, Wardrop’s Cyclorama pays tribute to those unsung souls whose toil and sacrifice lifted the Union cause to victory.
Wardrop’s figures, though obscure, challenge the gendered and racial narratives we make of war. “Sarah Emma Edmonds,” the book’s opening poem, is also one of its strongest, centering on a woman who served the Union by passing at various times as a slave and male soldier, and whose very existence undermines the mythology of male heroism. Here and elsewhere, Wardrop’s long, conversational lines stretch across the page and rely on the sentence rather than the line break as her central propulsive force; occasional italics indicate quotations from primary sources. As the poem unfurls, Edmonds catalogs the various ruses she employs as well as the menial tasks she fulfills to buoy her fellow soldiers. The poem’s delight in espionage gives way to defiance, however, the more Edmonds meditates on the ever-present specter of death. While the poem’s second-person address remains hermetic—one never quite deciphers who the “you” is intended to be—this reader senses Wardrop herself speaking through Edmonds, particularly in the poem’s closing lines, where the true cost of war is laid bare, preparing us for the carnage to come:
Who was it held a thumb to stop a spurting artery for three hours while the soldier
put his affairs in order, finally had to undo the thumb, and he died in three
If the cuff chafes your wrist I’ve found a soldier leaning against a tree, clear-eyed,
ready to die, who recognized me and I her, for women, and she asked me to bury
her and keep her cover, and I did.
See me now. The wig tilts. The voice cracks. I don’t doubt doubt, I ride across
the line of it.
I don’t seem to be what I am, and the seeming is your weight.
Wardrop captivates with her unexpected narratives and keen attention to diction, which captures the shifting demands of each voice she inhabits. In “Women’s Sanitary Corps,” we follow the washerwomen who “enter this log-steepled tent,/white on the outside, but on the inside the deep maroon/of thick-spackled, internal things,” and struggle to make sense of the daily suffering they witness. “Public Woman” profiles the mercurial personality of a prostitute whose emotional comforts are just as valuable as her erotic talents, and the poem’s dense images and coy admissions are reminiscent of Norman Dubie’s vibrant personas:
For the shy ones: I lost my husband to a cannon, let me lean on your shoulder.
For the rugged ones: now.
They like my bright handkerchief:
ochre hand, carnelian ear, fire hip.
Say scandal and I will say egg.
Hold your nose at me and I will say butter.
My crinolines, the roan horses under my dress.
One of the most evocative scenes in Cyclorama occurs in “Union Camp Music,” where underage Union enlistees engage in a battle of the bands with their Confederate counterparts, who are encamped on the river’s distant shore. Finally, the song “Lorena” brings both groups together in a brief moment of transcendent joy, and Wardrop’s ear for colloquial lyricism in the poem’s dreamy finish makes for one of the book’s best passages:
And we’re in the middle of our own voices gone honeyed and howling,
and I’m singin’, damn it, sure as singers pull air,
and it may be that Mary brushes her hair at home, hand tracking the gleam,
and it may be that this blast of mouths, this flaring of bells
sure as the sun can never dip so low, as our faces turn
the orange of clouds, a pitch that shapes and holds us
I’m here to tell you, that this singing,
that this damned singing troubles,
that this singing troubles
Two of the least effective poems in Cyclorama appear early in the collection and suffer from excessive exposition and strained sentiment. “Susie King Taylor,” the book’s second poem, celebrates the bravery and endurance of an African-American laborer, but Wardrop’s command of the voice falters:
The government hasn’t paid our black soldiers yet, of course they will never pay us black women.
First mission—our boys leave for Edisto and the camp turns lonesome, we know some of them won’t come back.
Its language stilted, the poem becomes predictable; the poet’s own moralizing compromises Taylor’s voice. Similarly, “Off for the War / Home from the War” confuses since its first section appears to be in the form of a letter from a wife to her husband at the front, while its second and third sections seem like diary entries. Regardless, the poem bogs down with Victorian gestures of longing. “Before you went, husband, you said the war will be over by next weekend,” the speaker naively complains, and later, she laments melodramatically, “Foot soldiers walk to their hearts./Officers ride a wave of remembering/that all blood is knowing.”
These poems aside, Cyclorama is a vast and noble achievement. While there has been no shortage of project books in American poetry over the last decade, Wardrop’s historical monologues have particular resonance at a time when questions of identity and power dominate our national discourse. Just as the book’s fourth and final section turns its gaze to the Gettysburg cyclorama as a muddled relic—part novelty, part wailing wall—complicit in the making of war mythology, Wardrop’s last poems acknowledge and accept their own artifice. Prescient but free of demagoguery, the restless phantoms in Cyclorama cry out for affirmation in one of 2015’s best books.
As its title suggests, Reginald Dwayne Betts’ Bastards of the Reagan Era relives another fraught chapter in American history. The book’s stark production values echo its cinematic interrogations of African-American life during the so-called “war on drugs” of the 1980s and early 1990s. With its imageless, charcoal cover, grainy silver lettering, and typewriter font, the book insinuates the ominous, corrupt bureaucracy before readers even crack its spine. Betts’ poems resurrect our not-so-distant past, where race relations and the justice system are not merely riddled with hypocrisy, but eerily indistinguishable from those of our present moment. Expansive, fierce, and devastatingly raw, Bastards of the Reagan Era is a potent jeremiad that grieves the poet’s own turbulent youth and the enduring havoc of our democracy’s failures.
Politically astute in their panoramic sweep, Betts’ poems honor the highest calling of the confessional mode, as both self and society are called to atone for the past. In the book’s sprawling sixteen-page title poem, the poet reckons with the troubled adolescence that led to his incarceration, yet the horrific imagery of prison forces the reader to confront the dehumanization that belies our lip service to rehabilitation. Though the sequence meanders through several narratives, the poem’s central tale is a recollection of a prison transport that is Dantesque in its hellish descent: the speaker is so bound by chains that his baton-guided walk is reduced to a waddle, and upon arrival, the guards force him to urinate while still cuffed and then eat a sandwich with “hands still wet with piss.” Remorseful and unwavering, Betts’ meditations on this nightmare journey widen to contemplate the fate of an entire generation of black men, who came of age when the symbolic gains of the Civil Rights struggle were undercut by their socio-economic reality:
Still if you listened back when someone said
To let a hundred flowers bloom, and you
Were watching when the martyrs, the Malcolms,
And Kings and Fred Hamptons fell, you might think of
How democracy, like communism, ends
In a body bag for the freedom fighters. Or
You might not care, you might have been like us,
Alive in the aftermath. You saw Rayful
Get locked and knew who the suckers would be,
(All we who fought for scraps we couldn’t hold)
And still you posted on corners lost in this.
“A Toothless Crackhead was the Mascot,” one of the book’s early standouts, is written in the style of a script outline and exposes how frequently our discussions of blackness devolve into stereotypes and clichés. Equally compelling is “At the End of Life, A Secret,” a legato dirge written in the second person where the reader is compelled to watch their own autopsy, where the cause of death is “$4,000 worth of crack—22 grams—/all that moves you through this world.” “Elegy with a RIP Shirt Turning Into the Wind” offers a staggering vision of obliterated innocence, particularly in its closing lines, where a simple game of pickup football reveals an ominous context:
Touchdowns are as rare as angels
& when the boy turns his body,
the RIP shirt slants against the wind,
& there is a moment when he is not
weighed down by gravity, when
he owns the moment before he crashes
into the other boys’ waiting arms & they
all look like a dozen mannequins,
controlled by the spinning sneaker
strings of the dead boys above them.
Betts’ lyrical gymnastics remain dexterous throughout since he unifies poetic yearning with vernacular expression. In both subject and style, Betts extends the legacy of the Black Arts Movement, as the influence of Ishmael Reed and Etheridge Knight are palpable in passages that quickly modulate between elevated registers and everyday speech. These lines from “Countdown to Armageddon,” the first section of “Bastards of the Reagan Era,” serve as a representative example:
And Peanut, from three cages down, he stare
Transfixed like some mad bullfrog into this
Sally port’s opaque. I almost say:
“Shook one’s afraid of sleep,” but think his bid
Enough to let the dogs of his anger
Loose on the world, after these nights in a cell
Become nothing but more nights in a cell.
The nickname “Peanut,” the vernacular phrase “he stare,” and the prison slang are juxtaposed against the Victorian lushness of “Sally port’s opaque” and “dogs of his anger,” and the result is that Betts’ language has all the energy and flash of a fireworks finale. These same qualities resonate in “Elegy with a Cell Door Closing” and the collection’s long final poem “What We Know of Horses,” where the mired symbol of a horse represents both the power of addiction and the desire to be free from one’s demons.
By the end, the relentlessness catalog of pain that sustains Bastards of the Reagan Era becomes almost too much to bear, and a few poems stall out as mere roll calls of grief. In a bold gesture that acknowledges the book’s obsessive, cyclical structure, eleven of Betts’ poems bear the title “For the City That Nearly Broke Me,” which simultaneously celebrate and indict Washington, D.C. In the last three of these poems, dominated by the anaphora of lost friends and battered street names, Betts struggles to move beyond the shout-outs. As with any elegy, there is a need to call things by name—“those names/& young faces tatted on shirts/& jackets, those clear closed caskets”—but these lists ultimately remain lists.
A stirring chronicle, Bastards of the Reagan Era documents decades of blackness in an attempt to understand the tragic impact of institutionalized racism. It serves as a grim reminder that, in a culture where celebrities and politicians are regularly absolved of vile transgressions as long as they make the apology circuit, we rarely extend forgiveness to young people in our own communities who self-destruct out of desperation and rage. Betts’s poems are riveting, wrathful psalms for our times.
Much is made of poetry’s capacity to soothe, to heal, and to transcend. Less is said of poetry’s corrective power in the private act of reading, when we must confront the complex, disquieting truths about ourselves and the wider human experience. When our best poets turn their gaze to history, freed from the confines of scholarship, they grant the dead to speak their neglected wisdom, which, if it cannot save us from ourselves, may at least give us the courage to combat the most toxic injustices of our age. Daneen Wardrop and Reginald Dwayne Betts honor and expand this literary tradition. As our tense but necessary discussions of race, gender, and power ring one year to a close, books such as theirs illuminate the promise of another.