from "Letter to Lord Byron" by W.H. Auden (1936)
So many pleasures have been proscribed by the current dominant generation (and by their literary parents and grandpapents) that wearing a Mao jacket to a bookstore or to a poetry reading doesn't seem entirely out of order. It is worth noting, however, that Modernists, post-Modernists, and Classicists alike would probably agree that an author without a sense of play has very little reason to use poetic means, whether the smart ironies of Auden in the lengthy poem in Letters from Iceland (cited above), or the not-so-transparent narratives of Frost in North of Boston. Without that sensibility, as common to playing the dozens among adolescents in the South as it is to adults trying to solve economic problems in London, pressing one's nose to the grindstone of tabloid or television journalism, or to the finer wheel of academic criticism seems a more apt profession. What have such thoughts to do with Michael Lind's wartime epic The Alamo?
First, a preparatory note: the subject of this book, the war of Texas independence, or secession, depending on which side you were on, has occupied a good deal of folklore in both Mexico and the United States. To be honest, neither point of view on the conflict led by Santa Anna on the Mexican side and Sam Houston on the Texian side has ever quite expressed the truth of the matter, which is that both sides of the conflict were in the hands of people who had no claim but violence to the land they claimed the right to possess. Like the Romans setting aside the aspirations and existence of the Etruscans, both the "Mexicans" and the "Texians" were usurpers; it was a civil war between thieves. Having said that, it is worth noting that, sadly, this is the case for virtually every nation on Earth; the "original sin" of nationalism is most often that the boundaries of a new state cross into territory which used to belong to somebody else. There are many other troubling contradictions that make hash out of the mythology of the Alamo, particularly the brutal suppression of "Indian" nations in Mexico, such as the Aztecs and Mayans, and the Texian wish to join the slaveholding states to support its cotton and cattle agriculture. Michael Lind doesn't deny any of that. Perhaps, as someone who's been both a novelist and a journalist, he knows better.
This may not be why he chose rhyme royal stanzas, a difficult but not uncommon scheme in narratives going back 600 years to Troilus and Criseyde (Chaucer) in English literature, but it would be a good reason to do so. With its musical ebb and flow, which pleasure quite contradicts the story's movement toward war and tragedy, this highly contrived stanza creates ironic distance between the reader and the story, while at the same time allowing for a depiction of the real heroism on both sides of the conflict that would be impossible, even silly, in prose. I felt, in reading this book, that I was hearing the story of this conflict for the first time. The use of fixed stanzas also creates a sense of time, particularly of its inevitable passage, that gives the narrative a kind of velocity associated with movies or with Elizabethan drama, a velocity that can assume the appearance of fate. Look at these stanzas from near the opening:
The fog unravels. But this is no fog,
this blear amalgam of a scumbled dust
and stinging fumes. An isolated leg,
wrapped like a maize ear in a tattered husk
of trouser cotton, glows in noonday dusk.
A headless soldier bows; the freckling paint
has made his gulping pal a stigmaed saint.
Across the fuming field, the dying stir
among the dead. Their moaning and their throes
alert the splendid cavalry, who spur
their horse and parade amid their foes.
Wielding their spears as bargemen would use
their staffs to lever flatboats, lancers pole
from man to man and spare no pleading soul.
One thing you almost never get in movies about war are the "fumes" of the battlefield: the dust; smoke; even the gases from ruptured bodies, often mentioned in wartime diaries but almost never in the clean fighting onscreen, onstage or in most writing. Battlefields as they are somewhat detract from the heroic rhetoric offered by politicians willing to send their sons to die on them. Here, the rhyme royal stanza's play of rhyme and meter acts as counterpoint to the gruesome scene; in some respects, it allows this scene to be visible, as quickcutting techniques in cinema can do. Of course you wouldn't want to take that too far, or you'd end up with the giddy oddness of William McGonagall, the 19th century Scotsman whose sing-song poems about railway accidents and other disasters are so funny that they were once used by Robert Bly to illustrate the idea that all metrical verse contradicts real poetic expression. However, the use and utility of metrical and rhyming forms in storytelling throughout English literary history rather overwhelms Bly's assertions. The obviousness of this point has, however, been fought with no quarter (a favorite phrase of Santa Anna's) on university campuses for a long time.
For example, try and find a college course on poetry that includes the narrative poet John Masefield, whose work seems to have exerted an enormous influence on Michael Lind. Masefield, in The Widow in the Bye Street, The Dauber and several other of what we would consider book-length narratives (3000 lines or more), used rhyme royal to tell stories about possessive widows, sailors, and a variety of characters. Although dated now, as is any literary expression after fifty years or so, these once very popular stories are still enjoyable to read, if occasionally silly (not so silly as Tennyson or Longfellow can be, however), and are wonderful examples of how to make a difficult stanza sound almost conversational:
Dully, he got his time-check from the keeper.
"Curse her," he said; "and that's the end of whores" --
He stumbled drunkenly across a sleeper --
"Give all you have and get kicked out a door."
He cashed his time-check at the station stores.
"Bett'ring yourself, I hope, Jim," said the master;
"That's it," said Jim; "and so I will do, blast her.
from The Widow in the Bye Street by John Masefield, 1912
Considering the time (1912), such stanzas would have passed for social realism when they were written (Masefield never got as smarmy as Eugene O'Neill did in such work as Anna Christie.) Such appears to be the objective of Michael Lind, to write using a diction that's recognizable to a readership far outside the ordinary realm of poetic utterance in 1997 (the first printing from Houghton Mifflin was roughly 33 times greater than the average number of sales for a book of poetry). For one, while there is occasionally a foray into commentary, there's also a great deal of dialogue, with dozens of characters drawn sharply enough so that we know them by what they say. Much of the narrative is turned over to recollections, as in Book II, where the ultimate Alamon commander, William Travis, tells a lengthy story of his arrival, and of the struggle at Anahuac, a story much spotted with Travis's own background and attitudes, as you would expect, as it's in his own voice:
"The commandant of the presidio
was one of our own breed, a fellow named
John Davis Bradburn. Before Mexico
enrolled him in its ranks, he had been famed
back home in Mississippi, where -- ashamed
though he was to admit it -- his face haunted
post office walls. At least there he was wanted.
"Of course we smuggled goods in from the States;
that was the country's custom, one defied
by no good Texan. As for tariff rates,
those formed, at most, a rough-and-ready guide
to calculating the commander's bribe.
The Latin officer's less strict than sly;
his motto: 'I obey, but don't comply.'...."
As soon as an author puts a story in quotes, as happens at extravagant length in Conrad's Nostromo, you know that you're in the realm of memory and personal opinion, a lesson Lind learned well. The story's recounting becomes debatable, and leads to other quoted versions or even to imagined versions of the same story. It also allows the expression of ideas and attitudes of a given time, because they can be attributed to the characters in the historical setting and not mistaken for the author's. A Texas narrator's pride might get in the way of discussing the nature of "free trade" in 1835 (or now). The phrase "one of our breed" in 1997 might cause a fight, for example; it was a common phrase then, or so the quotations lead us to believe. Discussing the national character of an officer would be considered far from correct nowadays, but it was a commonplace then. The quotations, in other words, become a means at creating ironic distance, a form of serious play where the author pretends to be overhearing someone with a very particular story to tell, one which may contradict or reinforce the story line. In a history with as many conflicting claims as the Texian war of independence, this is not only appropriate; it's necessary. It is also much in keeping with contemporary novel writing, to whose audience Alamo, written by the successful author of the novel The Power Brokers, aspires.
Look at genre fiction, whether mystery, fantasy, science fiction, horror, or combinations thereof. Look at so-called serious trade fiction. These days, the vast proportion of the text is contrived of dialogue. Because of television, we know what most things look like. A small suggestion about the surroundings in San Antonio will set off resonant recollections in millions of people, such is the power of distributed images on television and film, as well as those collected by tourists on film and video. But what people said to create the conditions for what they did cannot be photographed, nor described in a few lines of lovely verse; and, as Aristotle understood in Poetics, written 2300 years ago, what people say to justify and drive what they do is the major task of what we call fiction, and what he called the dramatic poem. Michael Lind, as William Gaddis, whose novels are comprised mostly of dialogue, is not skipping an essential by not making most of this book descriptive; he goes to first principles by concentrating on the personal, cultural and economic conflicts that created a moment of high drama and deep tragedy on March 6, 1835, all of which he illuminates with concentrated dramatic scenes, as the debate over war with Sam Houston in Book I, and in the preparations for the sack of the Alamo on both sides. The effect of this is to create expectations quite different than those in a carelessly made movie or mythmaking story about a war. We don't expect a heroic moment, in the sense that the good guys are going to win; we expect a heroic moment where a tragedy will be enacted because of the misconceptions, inflexibilities, and impossibilities of negotiation on both sides. Nor are we allowed to escape the consequences, as the mythmaking movie or book usually allows with its cardboard cutout battle scenes.
Lind couldn't spare us the sack of the Alamo; that's where all of this was heading, regardless of the fact that we probably have a better idea of why it happened than did anyone at the time and most since. Lind starts with an almost beautiful scene, the arrival of Santa Anna near the fortress beside the mission at the Alamo:
Outside the fortress wall, the trumpets blent;
the regiments divided at the sound;
a slender horseman galloped through the rent
and reared his horse and waved his crescent crowned.
Between the crumbling mission and the town
the roar resounded: Viva Mexico!
Viva el Presidente! Mexico!
Before his army the magnificent
commander feinted. Borrowing a lance,
a javelin an obliging sapper lent,
Santa Anna rode, unmindful of the chance
of injury. His horse began a dance
beneath him, on the brown creek's southern shore;
hurling the lance, he now renewed the war....
It is that way before the killing starts, the beautiful parade, the brass out front posturing and beckoning, the ranks arrayed in patterns that will dissolve five seconds after the first shot; it is heartbreaking to anyone who knows what will happen next, which midway through Book IX in Part 3, begins to look and sound an awful lot like any other war. The rhetoric is drowned in screaming and blood:
Antonio Paredes, cratered, crashed;
his soldadera, sifting through the field,
Would find him later, his eye socket smashed
by flying nails. Gonzago Pico's shield,
a lucky coin, failed to slow what peeled
the sunburned skin from the old muleteer's arms
and leather from his face -- so much for charms.
And on it goes, not for one or two, but for more than a hundred stanzas,to the end, with Lind naming names, with a sketch of each one who dies, a bit about where they come from, a solitary aspiration, the name of one of their children -- the approach transforms the storytelling in a way that makes the ghastly truth of it both bearable and more painful. Why bother when nameless victims seem all the rage in cinema and in books?
About thirty years ago, Susan Sontag, in a lengthy essay on images, suggested that if no effort were made to connect a human quality to images of brutality, whether from Auschwitz or the Ia Drang Valley, such images would become a sort of ghastly modern pornography. Lind, as is true of most good storytellers, seems to know that implicitly. The unrelenting slaughter that he reports in the last books of The Alamo never goes by without the attachment of a human face to the one who's dying. And so, the story becomes one as much about consequences as actions. Instead of row upon row of nameless bodies, as one gets, for example, in much of contemporary action movies, we know them all. It's a fiction, of course; we don't really, but for a little bit we think we do, and because of Lind's careful research and sustained objectivity, we're a lot closer in this highly contrived poetic epic than in any story tried on this subject before. It's as if a door were opened to a world you thought you knew, but in fact knew nothing about. It's a lot more interesting than Davey Crockett and John Wayne.
Because of that, and in spite of occasional slips, such as Lind's somewhat maddening use of comparisons of contemporary things with what was current in 1835, one hopes this book will get the popular support its widespread reviewing would seem to suggest it's on its way toward winning. If there isn't room for such storytelling in contemporary poetry's pantheon, maybe the pantheon should be closed for repairs. The Alamo by Michael Lind is highly recommended and I hope Houghton Mifflin sells a hundred thousand copies. Then, as is now true in Britain after the success of Craig Raine, a storytelling poet may actually have some dim prospect of writing for an audience instead of for the approval of the tenure committee.
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