By Hai-Dang Phan
Composed of rustic landscapes public parks arepartly dreamscapes set off for communal sharing.—Susan Howe, from “Vagrancy in the Park”
“You are my brother”—William Faulkner, from Absalom, Absalom!
Waves of granite pavement outcrops, river of shadows, ghostly in the clearing between hickory and oak forest, the walk up lit with autumn. Exercisers in neon scaling the grey face of the mountain, Beyoncé and birdsong call and respond, the pines too in formation. I feel weathered as stone here after an hour’s hike beneath the October sky. Underfoot the mineral facts of these rocks: quartz, feldspar, and mica. A century ago, one November night, they set a cross ablaze on the summit, and today still gather the kindling…
The sentences above are from my notebook for October 2016, written during my first visit to Stone Mountain with my parents. In my ignorance, I had never heard of it. When they first suggested we make the pilgrimage to Georgia’s most-visited attraction, I grumbled in protest. A quick internet search had turned up images of three Confederate leaders—Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee, and Thomas “Stonewall” Jackson—on horseback, clasping their hats to their chests, all carved into the side of the mountain like great grey Civil War zombies. I also learned that on Thanksgiving of 1915 more than a dozen men climbed up Stone Mountain, pulled on white hoods, and lit a 16ft, kerosene-soaked wooded cross, marking the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan.
In these dark times I have taken to telling my friends that my parents have joined the Confederacy. I am only half joking. After more than thirty years of living in Wisconsin, my parents decided to retire south to Lawrenceville, Georgia, a suburb twenty miles north east of Atlanta, that city of a hundred hills “South of the North, yet north of the South,” writes W. E. B. DuBois. The property taxes are low, many of their Vietnamese friends (and their friends) already live in and around Atlanta, and it never snows. In my evolving mythology, it makes perfect sense for them to end up in the American South. They always talked about how what Americans called the Vietnam War was their civil war.
But my protests were in vain, and mostly for self-righteous show. On the half-hour drive there, sunlight strobed hypnotically through the green wall of Georgia pines. “Exit Jefferson Davis Drive,” intoned the GPS. When we set foot inside the park, I was surprised, relieved, and excited to see black, white, brown, and yellow bodies traversing the mountain. And us amongst this multitude! It looked more like a multicultural mecca than the spiritual home of the KKK. And thankfully, hiking up the mountain’s west side, the carving is out of sight. This way one can better envision democratic vistas.
We made our way slowly up the mountain, separately and singly, my mother light and limber leading the charge, my father with his bad knees sometimes lagging far behind, and me shuttling somewhere in between. Sometimes I would catch up with my mom or wait for my dad, but mostly we maintained our distances and talked little. On top of Stone Mountain, as my parents rested on the warm rocks, I took out Robert Hass’s Field Guide to read, which I had stashed in my backpack with our water bottles, bananas, and granola bars. In the small pool of shade cast by the wind twisted cedar, I read these lines from the end of “Black Mountain, Los Altos”:
Theymanufacture napalmin the fog where RedwoodCity sprawls into the bay.I think of the villageof Bien Hoa, the early springdeath in the buckeyesand up the long valleymy eyes flash, anotherknife, clean as malice.
If only because it contained another mountain, Hass’s poem was my field guide to Stone Mountain. I was struck by the lines of convergences, the lateral shoots it sent out across the Pacific, connecting Redwood City to Bien Hoa, California to Vietnam, and now to Stone Mountain of Georgia. I stored its music into my nervous system, grafted its verbal cadences and sequences onto my own emergent sensory impressions, and wrote imitative lines to orient myself. I thought of what I could see from Stone Mountain. Atlanta clear like a waking dream through the haze-free day. A hawk circling sorrowfully on thermal drafts.
That was October. Then November happened. In late December, I visited my parents again just before the New Year. I asked if we could go back to Stone Mountain. It was one thing we could agree on, and the first time was still a happy memory. But this time I am not there for recreational purposes alone, but also for research. I want to retrace our steps up Stone Mountain, take more pictures, collect pine cones, observe people, learn the names of things. These I will use as second knowledge to augment my sensory data, those mental notes my mind makes in a script I often can’t decipher. Loblolly is the pine native to the area. The mountain is technically a pluton. The rock’s layers have peeled off in whole sheets in a process of large-scale exfoliation. We walk amidst the erosions of deep time.
The first visit I only spent ten minutes in the Confederate Hall while my parents waited on a bench outside, so this time I am determined to see what I missed. On the half hour, “The Battle for Atlanta” played in the small theatre. Here the focus was on military strategy, Sherman’s relentless and ruthless siege of Atlanta. I don’t recall mention of slavery. Outside the Confederate battle flag still flew. My mom wanted to have her picture taken with the flags in the background. They looked pretty in the wind. I knew it was a lost cause, so I snapped the photo.
Back in late September, finding myself in New York again, I caught up with the poet Rick Barot over lunch at a café in Brooklyn Heights. He was working on poems for his next collection, and spoke excitedly of his Guggenheim-funded travel and research plans. After New York, there would be a month in London, with a side-trip to Madrid, then back in the States before heading off again for a month in the Philippines and Australia.
After lunch we walked and talked, strolling along the Brooklyn Heights Promenade. Below us on the BQE, invisible cars rumbled past, and across the East River the Manhattan skyline was dressed in glassy sunshine. Spotting the dull green figurine of the Statue of Liberty, my mind flashed past other times and other people with whom I had seen her through the years, private fleeting thoughts I kept to myself.
Turning to Rick, I told him about my time visiting The Pérez Art Museum in Miami that past spring (because I knew he loved museum-going), and how I stumbled across a piece—it looked like a copper flag or a sideways wave—from Danh Vō’s “We the People,” a fragmentary replica of the Statue of Liberty. The concept was to recreate, piece by piece, at a 1:1 scale, Frédéric Auguste Bartholdi’s Liberty, displaying it in fragments in museums and public spaces around the world, with the intent never to assemble the statue.
Rick was familiar with the artist’s work. In his poem “The Wooden Overcoat,” he told me, there is a moment that subtly alludes to Danh Vō’s disassembled chandelier installation. Beginning with the recent finding that “there’s a difference between a detail / and an image,” the poem goes on to offer a meditation on and enactment of an image as “something / activated in the reader’s senses beyond mere fact”:
I know the difference doesn’t matter, except in poetry,
where a coffin is just another coffin until someoneat a funeral calls it a wooden overcoat, an imageso heavy and warm at the same time that you forgetit’s about death. At my uncle’s funeral, the coffin
was so beautiful it was like the chandelier lightingthe room where treaties are signed. It made me thinkof how loved he was […]
Though the poem ends by noting how the differences just as often collapse in the poet’s mind in arresting ways, “and a detail is as luminous as an image: / the trumpet-vine, the fence, the clothes, the fire.” In any case, Rick said he had seen the chandelier—is the chandelier a detail or an image in the poem?—at MoMA a few weeks before writing the poem, and it made its way into his poem somehow… I wasn’t familiar with that particular work, but I knew the chandelier.
The chandelier appears in Vietnam: The Real War, a photographic history of the Vietnam War by the Associated Press that I had spent hours looking at and contemplating. In the black and white news photo from May 19, 1968, the chandelier indeed looks beautiful, a crystal supernova throwing light and shadow on the delegations from the U.S. and North Vietnam gathered for an early session of the Paris Peace Talks. The chandelier hangs above an almost absurdly large, square shaped table, at the opposite ends of which the respective delegations sit.
When I think of the photo of the chandelier lighting the room where treaties are signed, I also think of the photo on the facing page of the book, taken six days later in Saigon, of civilians searching through the debris of homes destroyed by Viet Cong rocket attacks, and how both photos are made stranger by the sight of only boys amidst the smoking rubble, some barefoot and in shorts like sleepwalkers, some wearing the same familiar short-sleeved white dress shirt I recognize from my parents’ old school photos taken before the war, and one in particular featuring my father, in today’s parlance, photobombing my mom’s class photo.
I recently e-mailed Rick to say hello, ask him about his travels, and solicit some of his thoughts on research and poetry, the general theme of my posts this month. His most recent collection, Chord (Sarabande, 2015), has remained close at hand in part for the way its poems elegantly open up the essayistic capacity of the lyric, and the musical combinations he plays through tuition and intuition, enchanted by the facts of the world as much as the world of images and metaphor.
In his response he wrote: “What I’m calling ‘research’ is probably too lackadaisical and impressionistic to call proper research. That is, if I were working on a nonfiction project, my research would have been more organized, intentional, thorough… But as a poet doing research I feel more like a… magpie. Picking up random things. Putting them away. And so on.”
Who knows how or why certain details and images get into our poems, and others fall out. Looking up Danh Vō’s “We the People” today, I realize that had we been walking through Brooklyn Bridge Park two autumns ago, we would have seen Liberty in pieces through the greenery—our thoughts free in that republic of shade.
Two veteran elms flanked the memorial. With their tops lopped off, they looked less like trees rising out of the vaulted earth than a stubborn pair of amputated arms. Approaching from the Common and Public Garden, you won’t see St. Gaudens’ stirring bronze relief sculpture at first. Facing the Civil War memorial, you might notice how the Colonel on horseback and his infantry are elevated above the street where you stand, your eyes level with the silent stomping hooves and boots. They are marching in the air.
It’s mid-August, I’m in Boston with my friend the poet Nate Klug. Driving into the city from his hometown, we spent the morning in Cambridge, Harvard, then drove across the river to Boston, visiting the Public Library, tracing a course through the Boston Common and Public Garden. I’ve never been to Boston. I was coming from Vermont. Having grown up in a small town in Wisconsin, the northeast States felt foreign to me. And ancient. Nate asked me if there was anything in particular I’d like to see. The Shaw Memorial.
I knew the memorial only through Robert Lowell’s touchstone poem, “For the Union Dead,” and cross-hatched drawing of St. Gaudens’s Civil War relief by Francis Parker on the cover of my various editions. In the poem, it takes five stanzas full of Lowell’s jagged reportage, nervy consciousness, and muscular music before we arrive at the site of the poem’s subject.
Lowell only glancingly describes the black soldiers of the 54th Massachusetts regiment as “his [Shaw’s] bell-cheeked Negro infantry.” The most striking description of the soldiers is borrowed from William James, who “at the dedication … could almost hear the bronze Negroes breathe.” And later it’s Shaw’s father in quotes who uses the n-word when speaking of his son’s undignified burial in a ditch. Aside from these troubled and troubling citations, the all-black volunteers of the 54th receive scant attention. In Lowell’s poem, it’s all about Shaw—
Their monument sticks like a fishbonein the city’s throat.Its Colonel is as leanas a compass-needle
He has an angry wren-like vigilance,a greyhound’s gentle tautness;he seems to wince at pleasure,and suffocate for privacy.
He is out of bounds now. He rejoices in man’s lovely,peculiar power to choose life and die—when he leads his black soldiers to death,he cannot bend his back.
—which is also to say, it’s all about Lowell; or, the Boston Common and its civic surrounds refracted and reconstructed through the poet’s imagination, memory, and research.
Posted in front of the memorial that afternoon was a lone Civil War reenactor of the 54th. In dark blue sack coat and sky blue trousers, he was dressed for the wrong season and wrong war. Spectacled under a kepis, he also looked more like an AP history teacher than a soldier. Scattered at the base of the memorial were a few conspicuous objects—a binder, the donation, a wooden musket—like so many personal effects of the Union dead. His mission was to make the bronze breathe again.
He played Sgt. William H. Carney, and told us about William Carney, the first African American to receive a Medal of Honor for his heroism and courage at the Battle of Fort Wagner, where nearly half of the regiment perished. When a tour bus lurched to a stop in front of the memorial, our reenactor paused in the middle of his account and, turning his ear to the teenage announcer, fact checked the bullet-pointed history lesson.
Over our reenactor’s shoulder, I watched Nate walk up to the memorial for a closer look, his hands knit behind his back the way people do in museums. I was so absorbed and preoccupied with our reenactor, that I didn’t spend as much time looking closely at the actual relief though the beauty, dignity, and solemnity of the memorial was not hard to appreciate. When our history lesson was over, I made sure to place a Lincoln in the donation cup and ask our reenactor if he wouldn’t mind letting me have a picture taken with him. The next weekend he wouldn’t be at the Memorial. There was an event. He was going to visit his grave, meaning Carney’s, if his Commander gives him permission. He was bringing his camera. He was going twenty-first century.
The geography of my imagination has been shifting. New maps are being drawn up. The boundaries are changing. It feels exciting, unsettling, and disorienting to go in a new direction, even if it means returning to the place you come from. On the dry erase board by my writing desk, I’ve taken to writing the names of working titles for poems still very much in progress, sometimes just the faint hope of a poem to come: “On Stone Mountain,” “Of the 54th Massachusetts Regiment of Volunteers,” “Letter from Lubbock,” “That Afternoon in Cabramatta,” “My Viet Cong,” “My Mother Says the Syrian Refugees Look Like Tourists,” and “Gone With the Wind.” I suppose they function like places I’m trying to get to, arrive at, though I know I may never get there, or if I do, they’ll be different from what I set out for.
Leaving the Shaw Memorial that day, Nate said I could write a poem about the reenactor. And indeed for the past few months I have tried and failed to recreate that encounter on Beacon Street at the edge of the Boston Common. I wonder what Nate’s gift for pure lyricism and prayerful attention would make of that hour. Poems are reenactments. Poems let me step back into and dwell inside a thought or feeling. They map spots of time. As with reenactments, I know it’s fake, artifice, imperfectly reconstructed. In the poem as reenactment, there is no living history, the past never dies, and one way forward is back.
Tags: Nate Klug, Rick Barot, Robert Hass, Robert Lowell, Susan Howe
Posted in Featured Blogger on Tuesday, February 21st, 2017 by Hai-Dang Phan.