Sunday, February 14, 2016

Robert Duncan, An African Elegy Re-visited


Duncan's "Towards an African Elegy" or "An African Elegy" as it appears in The Years as Catches (1966) is a high-tide mark in Duncan's work and in the history of gay poetry. Sadly, as is the way with criticism in the C21, it is a poem often referenced, but  never actually read. It is a poem that is talked about rather than imagined. The nadir comes with the student aimed essays written on the net that authoritatively state the importance of the work and then use its difficulty to avoid investigating anything of worth. Duncan's Guides in poetry were the strong-willed Modernist visionaries: Pound, H.D. and Olson. And he has come to share their fates-- references to difficulty are allowed to justify poor critical insights and prejudice. 

The best starting point for "An African Elegy" is Thom Gunn's essay in Insights, Working Papers in Contemporary Criticism, Robert Duncan, Scales of the Marvellous (1979). Here, Gunn sketches the conflict behind the poem and states with simplicity the bravery of Duncan's actions in his article in Politics (1944). Duncan made his homosexuality "a matter of public record. His early bravery found few imitators...[.]" (p.143). Duncan did what no other poet had done in that essay, linked sexual openness with poetic openness. "An African Elegy" became the test case for that openness when John Crowe Ransom re-examined the poem and decided it was unfit for publication in the Kenyon Review. Ransom wrote to Duncan in no uncertain terms:

Originally I thought your poem very brilliant, and it occurred to me that Africa was a fine symbol for whatever was dark in the mind, and that you explore the symbol well ...But since then you have written the courageous piece in Politics in which you say that the homosexual poets have usually symbolized their abnormality and palmed it off on the innocent ‘little magazines.’ And you propose in the future that they be less furtive.....As to the present poem...it seems to me to have obvious homosexual advertisement, and for that reason not to be eligible for publication [.] 

(Letter dated October 26th, 1944).

As Gunn intelligently points out, other homosexual writers were present in the journal. Duncan's sin was the act of self-advertisement. He was not prepared to be a poet in public and homosexual in private. There was going to be clarity and no wondering about the sexual nature of Duncan...a break with tradition, so no poems with an ungendered "You" (Auden), no poems hiding a love of men behind romantic commonplaces of human friendship (Owen), no poems dressing naked male desire in religious oratory (Hopkins) and no poems translating homosexual desire into heterosexual imagery (Symonds on Michelangelo).

It is often stated that "An African Elegy" is a poem that suffered unduly because there is no homosexual element in the poem and the suppression was just a consequence of Ransom's prejudice towards Duncan's confession. It was not like Winters disliking Whitman for his sexual choices in Song of Myself or disliking the poetry of his student Gunn because of his gay themes. "An African Elegy" is innocent of all such references. That is not really correct! Kenyon Review--under Ransom--was the voice of the New Criticism. Though the personal and textual element of the elegy would have remained outside the interests of Ransom, as a New Critic, and it is here that much of the homosexual context resides, Ransom would have been tuned-in instantly to the "fine symbol" of Africa. And he would have known that just as Africa stood as a representative for the spiritual dark, Duncan's essay in politics had opened with a parallel between the suppression of African Americans and American homosexuals. That parallel would have allowed Ransome to see the released "Negro" in "An African Elegy" as a code for the free homosexual. And that unease would have been re-enforced by Duncan's suggestion in Politics that homosexuality was seen as "unnatural" and maybe "supernatural" and "occult":

The law has declared homosexuality secret, non-human, unnatural (and why not then supernatural?). The law itself sees in it a crime, not in the sense that murder, thievery, seduction of children or rape is seen as a crime—but in an occult sense. 

(Politics, 1944, p. 210).

In his Introduction to The Years as Catches, Duncan acknowledges the rising of the poem. At Berkeley, in 1942, Rosario Jimenez read him Lorca in the original. Out of that encounter with the homosexual Lorca,  the rhetoric of "An African Elegy" began to swell.  Lorca's "Negros. Negros. Negros. Negros" became the pulsating "Negroes, negroes, all those princes" (TYAC, p.34). Behind that moment is the memory that Lorca's poem came from his encounters in the homosexual world of Black Harlem. And further back, the fact that Lorca had ventured abroad to escape his suicidal thoughts. Two elements there, Blackness and suicide, re-surface in Duncan's "An African Elegy". There is a dark under-tow within the poem that references homosexuality.

At the opening of "An African Elegy", Duncan imagines "the groves of Africa" and their symbolic fauna. Emphasis falls on "wildebeest", wild, "zebra"/wild horse, "okapi" and "elephant". It is a world of mixed linguistic roots and Afrikaan, Congolese, Pygmy and Greek origins fuse to picture a place of knotted life. These lead into the "marvelous", "natural jungle" of the "mind". For the rest of the first paragraph, Duncan imagines the primal scene of Africa. In Lorca's poems blood has no doors, but in Duncan's "the Swahili" open the doors of Death and blood. In 1940, Duncan created an impromptu female Swahili dance with friends: this was at a time when he was intrigued by Shamanism and the wild ecstasy that came with dancing. The Shamanic pulse is created through the driving verbs from "There the Swahili" to "barking of dogs".

The second paragraph opens with a composite creature, a man who is "dog-headed and "zebra striped" and walks "like a lion". This creature, which recalls the cynocephali described by ancient Greek visitors to Africa, is Death. From this wild canine creature, Duncan leaps to a pun on Wolf/Woolf, thus rhyming darkness and death with the suicide of Virginia Woolf. Like a dog himself, Duncan follows the "scent" that leads him to the "hounded" Woolf. Transformed in imagination to a " white Afghan hound", like Sohrab the afghan in Between the Acts (1941)--the final creative work before her suicide--Woolf makes her way into the fog. Woolf is white against the black of death, a recurring motif that begins with the "zebra" stripes of line 1. In The H.D. Book (1959 onwards), Duncan discusses Between the Acts as a novel about "giving birth to one's self" (p.493) out of darkness. And this is the direction in which the elegy tends.

The short third paragraph of the elegy, locates the poem in winter, in the fading light, amongst the Eucalyptus Grove at Berkeley. Duncan is waiting for "the negro armies" and life to retreat to the forests and leave his mind in solitude.

Paragraph four of  "An African Elegy" begins a recapitulation of the poem's opening. Duncan return to the wilds of Africa and closes the section by paralleling Africa and himself:

I know
no other continent of Africa more dark than this
dark continent of my breast.

(TYAC, p.34).

Reaching back into the Harlem of Lorca and the Harlem Renaissance, Blackness touches what it was for the White artists: a fascination with the primitive and the spiritual that linked male desire and crossed the racial barrier.

As Woolf became a sign for the mind's darkness, its madness, Desdemona now becomes a sign for desolation. Hearing the rhyme between mona/woman and moan, Desdemona "wails within the body", like a "demon", a howling wolf that has lost a love absorbed by the ego of Othello. 

In paragraph six, the poet cries out. "And I cry" translates the Biblical "awah" and the crying of jackals. Behind the poem lies the symbol of Anubis, the dog-headed/jackal-headed god Of Death. Africa is now a serpent-like entity in the "coild and secretive ear". An Orphic descent into the Underworld begins as Duncan listens to the pulse of blood in the ear. There is a long, winding progression of sound from "Hear!" to "Hear", into "ear", into "hear" again and then into a visual rhyme with "hEARt". The lines mimetically twist as "in/jungles of my body, there/Othello moves. This inter-penetration by sound and blackness is deeply sexual...to a point where dark Death becomes a "lover like a hound". Lorca despised the racism of North America in Oda al Rey de Harlem, which as already said was the poem that became the ground for "An African Elegy." He cursed North America for degrading its African Americans. Duncan's transformation of Lorca is felt as he recreates the royalty of Africa, of people who "were as giant kings". (Readings that connect the elegy with Conrad's negative Congo and its heart of darkness venture in the wrong direction). A deep example of poetic digestion and transmutation comes in Duncan's remembrance of the line "a tu gran rey prisionero, con un traje de conserje"/"your giant king imprisoned by a door-man's uniform". The Black male was a guardian of doorways in Harlem and this for Duncan inflates with creative breath to an image of his Africa, one in which Africa is a doorway to the spiritual and the double facing Black "janitor" who opens and closes Harlem's doors for its White patrons is Janus (the root of "janitor"), the God who faces two ways, towards Death and Life, who closes one year and opens the next. This lies behind the cryptic line "This was the beginning and ending of the year." 

At the close of the elegy, Duncan declares that "The halls of Africa" are barriers against "the deep". These fictions swell to keep desolation at bay. Gunn notes in his essay that Duncan is "the Seeker" in his poems of the 1940s and there is a continual sense of unfulfilled desires. It is this dissatisfaction that ends the elegy-- that indeed makes the poem an elegy. Seas turn against themselves, into spaces that are empty. The roots of love and sexuality are vacant. The Sirens that emerge out of the waves of sound in the poem are "tired" and untouched. They are passive and undisturbed by the sexual sea that thunders around them. Sadness creeps into the world of the "marvelous" because there is a chasm between Duncan's emergent homosexual desires and poetry, between imagination and reality. "An African Elegy" is a lament by a poet who is trying to unite his body with mind. The emotional image that captures Duncan's disenchantment and discontent, at the close of the elegy, echoes both the sea imagery of the homosexual Hart Crane and the contempt that Duncan pours on the term "gay" and society's attitudes  in his article in Politics:

a wave surging forward, breaking into laughter and then receding, leaving a wake of disillusionment, a disbelief that extended to oneself, to life itself.

( Politics p.211).

and seas
disturbd turn back upon their tides
into the rooms deserted at the roots of love.

(TYAC, p.35)

For Duncan, "gay" is a piece of camp gaiety, light-hearted nonsense (at odds with the spirit of elegy and the depths of homosexual life). The final attack that Duncan launches in his essay is seeded in the earlier elegy and its sadness. When Ransom rejected the poem, he rejected a poem that was in a sense out-of-date. Duncan's essay "The Homosexual in Society" was his answer to "An African Elegy", his step towards healing the schismatic wound identified in the poem; and like a Shaman he knew that the essay's prophecy would be a form of death, for a Shaman must put life on-the-line and fall into Death to utter the truth and bring new life to his tribe. 

Duncan told the truth when he said that the blackness in "An African elegy" was not a metaphor for homosexuality. (Blackness referred to what was hidden from the human and his homosexuality was not hidden from him. That was a mis-reading). Even so, the poem is a poem linked to homosexuality. It is a song by a poet who sees the drowning Orpheus (like Woolf who committed suicide by sinking into the River Ouse) and Duncan, knowing Renaissance mythology according to Ficino and the Italian Hermetic Neo-Platonists, would have known that Orpheus in their version of the myth was ripped apart, his head thrown into the waters, because he turned (as Duncan himself did) from the love of women to men. 

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