BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC
God, could Kieran sing!—
when we were bunked up in a barracks
with a rotting roof and rusty pipes,
and the acoustics otherworldly.
Songs about honeysuckle and goats
made the swamp air breathable, but only
when it was Kieran singing the platoon
to sleep, only when it was our lullaby.
He told me to write. Drinking stolen Icehouse
between woolen-wrapped beds, he told me
I had no choice. So, I wrote a poem
about my ex-girlfriend’s sister in a blue bikini—
he put it to an acoustic tune:
True Americana, we called it; and until August
when he drove to the woods and shot himself,
we sang it for the entire summer.
LOVE AND TIME IN AARON WALLACE’S “BATTLE HYMN OF THE REPUBLIC”
We often don’t pay enough attention to a poem’s title. Ignoring that doorway into the terrible beauty of Aaron Wallace’s “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” we’ll miss a central disproportion. Cunningly referenced nowhere else in the poem, the title’s allusion to Julia Ward Howe’s celebrated hymn to patriotism jump-cuts to the first line’s intimate exclamation: we feel a vertiginous shift in scale, as if abruptly descending from an aerial establishing shot to a close-up. The poem is replete with such enlivening disparities—rotting roof, rusty pipes, otherworldly acoustics?—but I’ll notice here two other, indelible, elements: its character development and orchestration of time.
In sixteen lines, we grow to love this singer whose name means “little dark one.” The platoon’s mascot, court vocalist, and surrogate parent at bed-time, Kieran also has an exclusive rapport with the speaker. He not only perceives his native talent, but he also intuits that this nascent poet has already posed to himself the Rilkean question—“ask in the stillest hour of the night: must I write?”—and answered “yes.” A mentor both empathetic and telepathic. Only after establishing that bond does Wallace introduce another vital quality of Kieran’s generosity—the power to make art from art. In a wildly eccentric take on the Keatsian equation, Kieran morphs the speaker’s poetic subject—“my ex-girlfriend’s sister in a blue bikini”—into a song whose title claims a distinct truth about American eroticism. Bikini is truth; truth, bikini.
For good reason, then, we love Kieran, and our love accounts for much of our heartbreak when he kills himself off-stage. But it’s the poem’s handling of time and timing that elevates a dreadful death to Aristotelian catharsis. Wallace tells the story of Kieran in the simple past tense, but not all past tenses are equal. In the first fourteen lines, Kieran’s singing sweetens the barely breathable swamp air of one remembered summer. In the penultimate line, his suicide occurs in a past-tense flash-forward to the end of that season. Thereafter, the last line’s return to prelapsarian innocence releases an almost unbearably poignant tension between festivity and elegy, glaring as the double-faced mask of classical Greek theater. In a stunning instance of dramatic irony, the platoon sings the fruition of Kieran’s and the speaker’s special bond, necessarily ignorant of what readers now know. The gun just fired can’t be unshot, however, so readers must hear the platoon’s celebratory hymn as a tragically proleptic dirge.