Robert Duncan’s An African Elegy is a key poem within the poet’s body of work, an unlocking of desire and language. Surprisingly, it is not easily available today: the Selected Poems (Bertholf) does not bother to include it among the “Early Poems.” The poem is also significant for biographical and cultural reasons, which are part of its mystery. An African Elegy was written at Berkeley, 1942. It was submitted to and accepted by the then fairly young Kenyon Review, but following Duncan’s courageous, public and political declaration of his homosexuality (in Politics, 1944) the editor, John Crowe Ransome, refused to publish it. Readings of the poem have been fascinated with the question: is the poem about homosexuality or not? Much more interesting is why Duncan wrote an “African” death-song as a formulation of desire…as an attempt to map out early, spiritual, hermetical questions.
In the opinion of Ransome, the darkness of the elegy referred to hidden homosexuality. Duncan’s riposte was that the poem was about what cannot be known in the human mind: as he knew about his homosexuality, the darkness was not a metaphor for that. So, what is the darkness?
An African Elegy opens with a somewhat innocent view of Africa’s groves. In their “natural wonder/the wildebeest, zebra., the okapi, the elephant,/have entered the marvellous.” It is a child’s, enchanted perception. (Duncan records in The Years as Catches how Rosario Jimenez read Lorca’s Oda da Rey de Harlem to him and her reading awoke “some realm of my childhood dreams of wild and splendid animals and negro kings”). From this point, An African Elegy crosses over into an adult world and that of Lorca. The exultant and rhetorical repetitions (“distil there their red”, “distil/from their leaves the terrible red”) are a trademark of Lorca’s ode, as is the central image of “red”, blood, wildness, which recalls “tus rojos oprimidos” and “tu sangre estremecida”. As Lorca’s Black Harlem frames Duncan's africa a gay context emerges. (An African Elegy and Oda da Rey de Harlem are powerful outpourings of desire in a world where love is a “great sadness… a heart’s famine”). Yet Duncan does not rest with this. He extends his animal imagery into wolf/Woolf and through a mythological re-telling of Virginia Woolf’s suicide connects the poetry to a Neo-Platonic, hermetical view of life whereby Amor contains mor(s osculi) and Love appears as the “consort” of Death. The blackness of Africa, “the negro armies in the eucalyptus”, herald “our solitude” in the world and how we look through love at “the more complete black-out”.
The whole of An African Elegy is a poem about tides of feeling. Images ebb, flow, and merge. Anticipating H.D.’s hermetical method in her later poetry, Duncan’s images break in the sub-conscious and merge with its suicidal flow. Virginia Woolf releases “wolf” and becomes the Virgin/Ophelia/Desdemona just as the male writer becomes identified (implicitly with Hamlet and explicitly) with the Black Moor, Othello: “in jungles of my body, there/Othello moves”. Of course, the poet is all of this, especially the homosexual poet who erects an exulted male self but allows the remarkable feminine principle within him. At the close of the poem, Duncan draws back from “the halls of Africa” and terms them as “barriers”. He appears to suggest a Freudian awareness in which imagery of black Africa belongs to the super-ego beyond which the blackness of the id opens like a sea. The poet stands in his “towering Moor of self”/ego overlooking what hermetical tradition terms the blackness beyond blackness, nigrium, nigrius nigro. Love embraces death and child-like eros loosens the chains of the body into more than sexual pleasure.