In the fifth grade, when we came finally to the Civil
War, the teacher kept saying, We lost, we lost,
his eyes a shadowy grief under his favorite painting,
a laminated Dawe reproduction subtitled A fact
which occurred in America: a black man wrestling a buffalo
to the ground. The ground becomes his grave, I am the buffalo.
In the painting of the buffalo rolling his eye
to size up the man who will never be strong enough
to wrestle his way out of the definition of black,
I am trying to say, We are metaphors for each other, please
don’t kill me. The man is black but so is the buffalo,
so is the sky and so is the heart which keeps this fact holy.
In the painting I am the buffalo because I want to be loved
by pure physicality, a man with broad hips and broader anger
and a yoke around his neck which has not broken him
yet. In the painting about a buffalo’s last breath,
I am the dust matted on the lips. Kiss me, keep me
in your mouth, don’t let me dissolve into fact.
In the painting about a boy who writes, I am sorry we lost
the Civil War fifty times on the blackboard after school
in his deserted fifth grade class, I am the bone-white chalk,
I have always wanted to be someone’s defiled good buffalo.
In the painting the man tells the buffalo, Play dead,
I’ll get you out of this. In the defiled fifth-grade teacher’s
laminated copy of the painting, I am the racing pulse
of the boy getting his revenge when the teacher isn’t looking.
I am the time after we learned about the heroic Civil War,
on the playground when Day-Trion caught me alone
in the maze of trees and held me down with one hand,
kissed me with his tongue, licking my lip first, smoothing it
for his, my first kiss, on the ground, the leaves spreading
under us, black and wet. Deep in the animal-wrestled-down
part of me, the boy was bent like a tree over a maze
scribbling a hyphenated name in tiny scrawl in black ink
on a piece of paper, trying all hour during language arts
to get back to the maze when the teacher snatches up the paper,
his eyes widening at the darker revolt.
In the punishment, I was the blackboard, my body
lashed by loss and sorrow. I was the buffalo,
I wanted to lose the war; I wanted to stay black,
the filmy white chalk a sickness stretched over my skin.
In that America, I am always betraying the master.
—James Allen Hall
This poem is from Now You’re the Enemy (University of Arkansas Press, 2008).
Because what I love most in literature is a finely wrought poem, I cannot resist bringing poetry into every class I teach, regardless of whether poetry is part of the stated subject matter. I’m not sure, to be honest, that I believe in poetry as subject matter. I believe in poetry’s cartographic capacities—the poem as atlas of human emotion, intellection, struggle, and quest. In other words, I believe in the finely wrought poem as a map of the world.
In the twelve years since I began teaching at colleges and universities, I realize that I have never taught a subject that could be taught. This is not my first paradox. I have never taught math, for instance. I have never taught anything with a fixed or finite answer. And so poetry has been for me a remarkable companion in the classroom, given as it is to multi-valence. I began my career as a rhetoric and composition teacher, then became a women’s & gender studies teacher, and then taught a variety of courses in interdisciplinary Humanities, including the capaciously titled “Cultures of America” course at the University of Louisville. Not until 2012 was I hired onto the core faculty of a creative writing program where I would teach creative nonfiction and poetry by name. In building these new syllabi, I looked back to the literary texts that had proved most compelling and challenging for my students in former classes. I was looking in particular for a poem that epitomized what poetry was capable of—emotionally, intellectually, aesthetically. I needed a poem that covered a lot of ground, that was—topographically speaking—substantial, layered. In other words, I needed “A Fact Which Occurred in America” by James Allen Hall.
When I ask my students why they write poems, they most often relate some version of the following: to better express myself; to speak some essential truth about who I am. When I press and say, “Of course we can express ourselves all we want in our journals—why do you think we turn to poetry?” the question becomes harder to answer, for all of us. In my own reflections, I’ve come to believe that audience is an essential part of why we write literature—a longing to connect with others, across time and place and subject position. My journal is for myself, I might say—a private place where others are not invited to enter. But when I write poems, I expect to make them public at some point. They are written with an audience in mind. So, what do I owe this audience? And what do I expect in return?
My students and I discuss the need to give our audience a “well-made thing.” We may consider poetry a gift, but it must not be a sloppy gift, something that falls apart soon after opening. We expect, or at least we desire, for our audience to understand where we’re coming from, what matters most to us. Understanding may be accompanied by empathy, of course, but it doesn’t have to be. My students seem to want to be understood through their poems even more than they want to be loved or admired. And understanding is, to my mind, merely a more intimate way of saying learning. We write poems to learn, and we read poems to learn: more about ourselves, more about other people, more about this shared world we inhabit. James Allen Hall is a poet who has helped me, and in turn helped my students, understand more about what it means to be human.
Mapping the surface of the poem
Being readers and writers of literature in general, and poetry in particular, requires a deliberate and concentrated watchfulness. In order to see more, we must look differently. When we encounter a poem on the page, it may be useful to ask ourselves how we know it is a poem in the first place. Why is this text a poem as opposed to something else?
While many poems lurk and linger and make good homes inside of prose, passing beneath the genre radar until or unless these passages themselves are read aloud, plenty of other poems announce themselves in visible ways, and this is where the practice of close noticing comes in. For instance, I might ask my students, “How do we know ‘A Fact Which Occurred in America’ is a poem just by looking at it?” As they develop a more sophisticated poetic lexicon, they will be able to tell me that the lines enjamb rather than wrap around, that the lines are arranged in stanzas instead of paragraphs, that these stanzas are each comprised of three lines—or more precisely, that they are arranged in tercets—and looking more closely still, that these tercets are unrhymed. This poem is an example of lineated free verse. As such, the poem provides guidelines—not a formula, but a legend—for how it is meant to be read.
Letting the poem speak for itself
Before my students and I begin to speak about the content of a particular poem, we allow the poem to speak to us. Typically, I invite at least two students to read the poem aloud so that it can be heard in more than one voice. This is not a purely symbolic gesture. I want us to experience together the sonic variety and complexity that are present in a single poem.
If you read aloud or listen to “A Fact Which Occurred in America,” you will be struck by the exquisite prosody of this poem, made possible by the poet’s deft use of many quintessential poetic techniques—alliteration and anaphora stand-out among them. From the beginning, we are drawn into the poem through sound: the firm “f” in “fifth” and “finally” in the first line, followed by the slightly softer “w” in “War” and “we.” Alliteration is present throughout the poem, as consistent as it is subtle. At no time does the poem turn tongue-twister. Rather, the alliteration carries us smoothly over the bridge between word and image. Near the end, the alliteration culminates in phrases we see and feel at once, the visual and visceral united through sound: “I was the blackboard, my body / […] I was the buffalo, / […] I wanted to stay black, / the filmy white chalk a sickness stretched over my skin. / In that America, I am always betraying the master.”
There is also the matter of the refrain. Five times this poet-speaker repeats the phrase “in the painting.” We don’t have to know (now or ever) that this repetition of a word or phrase in successive lines has a name, that the name is anaphora, that orators of all kinds have long relied on the power of repetition to capture and keep the attention of their audience. But we will inevitably feel ourselves brought back to attention, even drawn to a fuller attention, each time we hear this phrase. Anaphora is a more effective way to emphasize a detail than any amount of underlining or italicizing in printed text. This is because anaphora is an aural technique, and poetry, in its first and purest form, is an aural art.
“In the painting” James Allen Hall as poet-speaker will reveal to us not only what he sees but what he learns by seeing, and with successive repetitions how his own learning (and with it, ours) continues to evolve. First, he is describing the subject of the painting (ekphrasis): “In the painting of the buffalo,” but soon he identifies with the subject of the painting strongly enough to replace it (metaphor)—“In the painting I am the buffalo.” As we hear this line, we may think to ourselves, Life imitates art. Then: “In the painting about a boy who writes […],” the poet-speaker imagines himself part of a new painting (symbolic) made in response to his experience with the original painting (literal). As we hear this line, we may think to ourselves, Art imitates life. We may also realize that the poem has become a kind of painting in itself (analogue).
The repetition of “In the painting” ultimately gives way to a deeper, more resonant anaphoric refrain—“I am”—which appears nine times throughout the poem. It is easy to miss these two small words when reading them on the page, tucked inside the tidy boxcars of the lines, but they have an incantatory effect on the listener of this poem, who is primed already to hear them in a deeply primal way. After all, “I am” is the essential iamb. This is the sound of our pulse, our heart. It is our first and foremost human rhythm. The words are then, not coincidentally, the invocation of our most basic and significant declaration of self. Who are you? We ponder. Perhaps we stutter. Then, we begin: I am.
Mapping the poetic sub-terrain
Little riddle: “What has many doors but no key?” A poem, of course. I like to think of it this way: However you enter a poem is not as important as how you leave it. And this, too: however you leave a poem may not be as important as how the poem leaves you.
But if I am to presume to teach a poem to someone else—this act that cannot be done and yet cannot afford not to be done—I must choose which door to open and then I must find a way to keep it ajar. The door-stop that I choose for James Allen Hall’s “A Fact Which Occurred in America” is the concept of imbrication. This is one of the words I am most grateful for in my own vocabulary. It comes to me from my education in women’s & gender studies, but its origins are not theoretical at all. Think of the stones on a cobblestone road or the tiles on a red tile roof. Picture the ways in which these objects overlap—how they never lay smooth and flat, evenly side by side.
I have always wanted to use poetry in my classroom and in my life as a portal to the most important conversations I can have—conversations including race, gender, and sexual orientation. But I don’t want to trivialize these topics by suggesting that they exist in isolation or that they can or should be isolated. At the same time, I don’t want to trivialize poetry by suggesting that a poem is a “race poem” or a “gender poem” or a “sexuality poem.” Identity, the arrow to which that sacred phrase “I am” is always pointing, cannot be so neatly parsed, and poetry should never be placed in service of such limited, singular ends.
When I think of “A Fact Which Occurred in America,” when I study its presence on the page or pronounce its words aloud, I realize that James Allen Hall has made a poem that is intrinsically imbricated. Identity is always already overlapping in his fluid lines, his unparsable stanzas. We begin with a white boy contemplating the painted image of “a black man wrestling a buffalo / to the ground.” Observation cannot be severed from interpretation: “the man who will never be strong enough / to wrestle his way out of the definition of black.” The white man who was once the white boy contemplating the painted image of the black man comes to a deeper understanding of the power hierarchies that play out around race vis-à-vis skin color—that keep the black man pinned (socially, economically, and emotionally) the way the buffalo in the painting (physically) did.
So this is a poem about race? Yes, but not race only. There are many doors into the poem, recall, but no single key. Race is imbricated with gender here, as in life. Race is imbricated with sexuality here, as in life. (Art imitates life, we might say.) The same white male poet-speaker tells us, “I want to be loved / by pure physicality, a man with broad hips and broader anger / and a yoke around his neck which has not broken him.” This speaker announces his same-sex and cross-racial desire in the same stanza. Desire is like a poem: inherently imbricated, intrinsically multi-valent. The speaker cannot separate orientation and race in theory any more than he can separate them in practice.
Moving by analogy, he shows us the painting first, a hypothetical scene: “a black man wrestling a buffalo / to the ground.” But it’s art, we might argue. It’s myth. This never really happened. (Despite the painting’s subtitle—A Fact Which Occurred in America.) Then, juxtaposed on the adjacent page, he shows us a scene from experience. There is no way of knowing if this ever really happened either. (Despite the poem’s title—A Fact Which Occurred in America.): “on the playground when Day-Trion caught me alone / in the maze of trees and held me down with one hand, / kissed me with his tongue.” The speaker has “always wanted to be someone’s defiled good buffalo” (hypothetical, wish) and later tells us, “I was the buffalo” (actual, experience). The speaker has told us early in the poem “I am the bone-white chalk,” a metaphor for his light skin, and he tells us later in the poem, “I wanted to stay black,” a metaphor for his identification with the other as well as his brief merging with the other at the moment of his “first kiss, on the ground, the leaves spreading / under us, black and wet.”
The best poems do not sum up, so neither should we attempt to sum them up. There is more than one door, just as there is more than one “America.” If our speaker ends with the line, “In that America, I am always betraying the master,” we know there are other Americas, too—extant and imagined, yet to be mapped. I leave this poem hopeful, angry, sad. I have passed through a poem into a painting into a narrative and back into my own heart. I am left to contemplate the “animal-wrestled-down / part of me,” my own complicity in and resistance to racism. I am left to contemplate the evolution of my own desires—the first work of art that provoked me, the first person to whom I could honestly say, “Kiss me, keep me / in your mouth, don’t let me dissolve into fact.” This poem reaffirms the imbrications of my many selves—white, female, lesbian—and leaves me feeling closer, not farther, from others. Instead of a key, this poem, as with so many poems by James Allen Hall, leaves me with a compass and a will to explore.
-Julie Marie Wade
*Julie Marie Wade is the author of Wishbone: A Memoir in Fractures (Colgate University Press, 2010; Bywater Books, 2013), Without: Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2010), Small Fires: Essays (Sarabande Books, 2011), Postage Due: Poems & Prose Poems (White Pine Press, 2013), Tremolo: An Essay (Bloom Books, 2013), and When I Was Straight: Poems (A Midsummer Night’s Press, 2014). She teaches in the creative writing program at Florida International University in Miami.
On the first Sunday of every month, Structure and Style will feature a guest post by a fantastic writer. This is our fifth month with a guest post.