In her influential critical study “Insight and Oversight: Reading ‘Tintern Abbey,’” Marjorie Levinson argues that the restorative tranquility Wordsworth finds in the “beauteous forms” of the Wye Valley contrasts sharply with the site’s actual material conditions at the time. As it happens, teams of vagrants and beggars congregated in the overlooked abbey’s ruins when the poem was written, and the river itself was busy with industrial traffic to and from a nearby ironworks. “Wordsworth’s pastoral prospect,” Levinson demonstrates, “is a fragile affair, artfully assembled by acts of exclusion.”
In “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen,” Rickey Laurentiis offers a similar critique on Wallace Stevens’s long poem “Like Decorations in a Nigger Cemetery.” While Stevens’s title refers, in his own words, “to the litter one usually finds in a nigger cemetery,” the poem glaringly omits any mention of the lives and deaths of actual African Americans, offering instead a characteristically artful, strange, and detached meditation on death. He evokes a grim landscape in which the sun of the imagination, “seeking something bright to shine on,” is left to “create its colors out of itself.”
How, Laurentiis’s poem seems to ask, can Stevens possibly reference the black dead with such insensitivity in the title of his poem? Moreover, how can he blithely assert that “No man shall see an end” after setting his poem “in the far South”? Why doesn’t Stevens stumble over the harsh social realities he both invokes and willfully elides? Five lines later, the poem notes how, in winter, being leafless makes the “blackness” of the trees become “apparent.” At this point the reader, sensitized to the poem’s evasiveness, might find it impossible not to envision a very different kind of “blackness” among the southern branches, and one that the poem persistently fails to take note of.
Critics have often shied away from the issue of race in “Like Decorations.” Then came Rickey Laurentiis. His powerful and brilliantly sustained “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen” recycles the form, certain thematic concerns, lines, phrases, and even something of the elevated tone of Stevens’s own fifty-part poem, but where Stevens skirts any mention of brutal historical facts, Laurentiis places them front and center. His is no “fragile affair.” “To navigate the dark you must listen, you must listen / To the dark,” Laurentiis writes, and (later) “So I flock to these photos of the paraded dead.” Looking at pictures of lynching victims, Laurentiis is able to perform a corrective on “Like Decorations,” contemplating and giving voice to what Stevens, for a complex of reasons including but certainly not limited to the aesthetic, excludes. In doing so Laurentiis recalls Hilton Als who, in his recent White Girls, writes:
And it’s those photographs that have made me understand, finally, what the word nigger means, and why people have used it, and the way I use it here, now: as a metaphorical lynching before the real one. Nigger is a slow death. And that’s the slow death I feel all the time now, as a colored man.
Take note of this: “Like Decorations” was first published in Poetry in 1935, the same year the Costigan-Wagner anti-lynching bill was defeated in the Senate. It doesn’t seem right to call this “ironic”—in part because the bill’s failure wasn’t exactly surprising. This was one of almost 200 proposed anti-lynching bills introduced to Congress between 1882 and 1968, only three of which passed in the House only to be blocked by the Senate. During this time a documented 3,446 blacks were killed through acts of mob violence. Reports have it that Roosevelt supported the Costigan-Wagner bill in private but refused to make any public endorsement of it for fear of alienating the South before an election year.
Towards the end of his poem, Stevens asks, “Can all men, together, avenge / One of the leaves that have fallen in autumn?” Laurentiis takes from this question both his title and his sense of mission. But “Of the Leaves That Have Fallen” is less an act of vengeance than of balance and repair, one that pays homage to what there is to celebrate in Stevens’s poetry but not by blinding itself to its lapses and omissions. It is work of great generosity and strength, and it refuses to evade what’s painful and ugly in its pursuit of insight and beauty. “To negotiate the dark you must open, you must open / To the dark,” and Laurentiis shows us just how it’s done. This bold and important poem will be read and reread for a long time to come.
Of the Leaves That Have Fallen
In the imagination there is no daylight and,
Like Wallace Stevens, I know the dark is crucial.
I sing, I grieve in it, I dream what haunts each night:
These bodies, even lynched, still are thinking.
Nothing is final, I’m told. No man shall see the end—
But them, my fathers, lifted into fire, like tongues.
To navigate the dark you must listen, you must listen
To the dark: the wind, a wind in the trees, the birds,
Birds shaping a sound around the green busyness in the trees.
It was when he only called for mercy as in “God, O Take Me
Higher,” while vanishing, shut up in heat, his eyes and veins
Rupturing, that I knew the night was made for many kinds of desire.
Is this why they come to circle the hanging feet?
To look, to know they’re looking, to be
In communion as they look, search, sway erotic.
Oh watch the freak contortions bleed to one.
So I flock to these photos of the paraded dead
Like a fly to rotting: each with that inky smear that moors
The photo, though I know it is a man, was a man,
Strung up, ornament, meant to rally, as in Lord,
I done walked and done looked and done seen too much.
And meant to make his human heart a heart
Set in flames, though not a sacred heart,
Parted by the lance-wound, except they had it shine.
Sometimes they skinned the faces so the tongues,
When they fell, fell. Sometimes they yanked and
Hacked away, detaching limb from limb, upending.
Not Death, sometimes it was the dying that was crucial.
Seven hours once for the torture: I read this, thinking
About that body’s slow unblooding union with the night.
A man can die, of course, can be killed,
But can his intelligence, mind, the valley of his mind,
Which is his imagination, and extends,
Shuttles off, is nothing like the thoughtful
Knotting of a rope: a start, a middle, a definite end.
Yes, a lynching knows its story best balanced
Off a tree, but a lynching can use water, Sir,
Can use stone. To burn the skin alive incites a nervous
Smell, but bullet the skin alive and get a moan.
Now I understand the eccentric to be the base
Of design, as in this photo where the butchers
All look satisfied before the public annihilation,
Staring forward at the making of the photo, the lens.
And she was there because her son was there,
Suspended, beside her. No swinging, no sway,
Their bodies like leaves kicked off the bridge’s edge
High over the river that did the swaying.
To look, to know you’re looking, to be
Found looking at chemical and dye. If I make me
Watch these freak contortions bleed to one,
What’s thought when I watch the dying?
Choke every ghost with acted violence,
Stomp down the phosphorescent toes, tear off
The spittling tissues tight, you said, tight across the bones . . .
This was the American South, American night,
The Medusa, the live head with the many tongues,
The live tongues with the many minds, and the thinking
That through a kind of swank violence and
Through a kind of steel, a beauty, a pure and crucial
History, could be found, be restored and made endless.
Between the weight and the bearing of the weight,
The final struggle and the final release,
History and the sudden knowledge of a history.
Who knows the story of the pilfered god,
Osiris, unloaded and dismembered—or how his wife
Combed her imagination for his several parts,
An act of revisionist history, an act of love?
I do. This is what the boy in me knows when he decides
To enter in these photos, slowly, as into a city of snow.
The sense I get from you, Emmett,
And your recanted youth,
Says that another song about you is
Just another song you didn’t sing.
Sticky marsh. Churchyard. Bloody Elysée.
Boneyard. Transatlantic. Place for the gone unnamed.
Potter’s field. Civil War. A lump of dirt and spit.
All these brackish synonyms, huh, for death without a head.
“One day, the animal expressed a doubt,
So was collared, so was ordered upstairs, and Caesar,
Who starved resistance, listened, followed, found
Himself, ropes being tied to the wrists, the block
And tackle fastened thereto, hoisted tip-toe, very
Like the day we are born: that naked and dangling.”
Found looking at chemical and dye, I was
My mind debating a photo. Could it kill?
Is one thought when you watch the dying
“Which is deadly: the master or his work?”
When did you decide to try your endurance,
To turn back on this world dressed in a spectral night?
You know it by the ash, the wake of the crosses,
How “Shut up, Boy” burns beneath every tongue.
I wonder whose eye can resist looking back and
Not swallow them, these men: muted, gray, thinking.
I know about the will, its selfishness, its entire
Greed: how it is a dark power, a moon,
And is supreme, Sir, a blue and uttermost fiction.
Who is this boy that he should take these photos
And, as if into a river, slip in, fall in, am in
Complete submission, like a thumb to a mouth,
Like a thought into language, and am there,
Literally, with the hooded decade of these photos, a boy
Calling himself Isis, and I’m calling for you?
To find the body a boy has to find the pieces
Of the body: the sheriff’s son who got an ear, his cousin
A foot, the daughter who loves the ragged tooth,
Her souvenir, her only sanction with the dark.
Again and again the melody plays, cut like a tiara.
A voice rises. “This a nigger’s competence.”
Cut like a tiara, the melody plays again and again.
Disunion of the self develops perspective
Over strength. Your eyes may be of glass,
Sir, though your staff is a stick of blond ice.
Secretly, there is a glamour here.
Not just the glamour of a human death
But death’s exploitation, a bruise
Across a photo reel, a century in an instant.
What will the mind do for thinking
When a body stalls, slows, diminuendos
But continue? The thinking gone on and,
Like grief, grown as pregnant as the night?
Imagine: his body, like a pendulum, a tongue,
A fever that won’t break, gorgeous, that furious core.
My mind debates a photo of that killed
Man, lynched man, the error between his thighs,
Which is also dead. The master’s work,
I see, was to snap the penis off, control it in a jar.
I have to find the mother whose snot
And crying now constitute her son,
The boy she nursed in her own arms, kissed
And sung to “Hushaby.” I have to find
The father whose anger has won, who rocks
But still refuses tears in every face of weather.
Blood runs the length of this body, stoic
Against the trees, stoic so that the lean of her
Head, seems, if briefly, of her desire alone. If you look
You might consider the odd morphology of regret,
Or instead the beauty of that lean, cocked gently, pleasure.
Or this one, whose body they swung up this time
With chains, so that as he hung there the hanging
Was as much a gouging, a clawing into
The neck’s plastic flesh, a breach, what art is.
To negotiate the dark you must open, you must open
To the dark: dirt, the hundred worms beneath you, beneath
Where hands come to claw the dirt, let, and lay you down.
The boy has found the bones, the tendons to the muscle,
The nails, the lips, both eyes, both ears.
“Osiris,” he says. One heart, both feet, both thighs.
But what of that still missing stitch between the thighs?
History, here is my muscle, my skin, my crucial
Blood, my heart, my stubbornness, my thinking,
My hauntedness, my ghosts, my American tongue:
I give it up. I give it all away. Here is my ending,
My making, a tableau of me traced against the night.
Take my unworthiness, my privilege. Take my hand.
“Hushaby, baby, please don’t you cry. Go to bed now, time for bye-bye.
When you wake, there’ll be cake, and all the dream horses,
Little thunders with their eyes picked at by bees and butterflies.”
Man, lynched. Man, errored between the thighs,
But there was no mistake. Flesh is deliberate.
To snap the penis off, control it in a jar I see
Is to forget mist that is golden is not wholly mist.
In the story, Isis shaped the penis out of gold.
Made of gold, the penis radiated like an ember.
An ember in Isis was a warmth in her, was a child,
Who would conquer the jealous, a dominion of blue.
Who is this boy in me in need of the thing,
The needful thing that marks him “Boy?”
Did he also need the heavy nights of drenching
Weather to return to him his people?
“And Caesar therefore became example
To all the slaving rest who did of course
Remember those awful wailing sounds
That didn’t stop but only grew those nights
His master slipped the stairs to kneel,
As if a fallen god, down before him.”
What evidence is there for innocence at night
Among my fathers, whose nights were and still are?
Who hears but will not reckon this might be the fool
Who shuns the dark preceding him but, in shunning, will become.
Lord, lift up the dark, its dry crucial
Bones. Grant me the night’s insatiable thinking.
Rend me, O God, O blank tongue.
Whatever I’ve found in their absence I’ve found
Repeated in me. These photos, these worked
Effigies moving like echoes, the mothers of thought.
No mistake, deliberate as flesh is is the night.
Is this why they come to circle the hanging feet?
Mist that is golden is not wholly mist.
The new world communion is this: erotic.
In the story, Isis shaped the penis out of mud.
Made of mud, the penis rounded inside.
A circle in Isis was a world in Isis, was a love,
That would travel the mind, an eye for every idea.
The camera positions:
Between the weight and the bearing of the weight.
The camera questions:
The final struggle and the final release.
The camera makes a choice:
History and the sudden knowledge of a history.
That quick incision. A cut. Close but not
Too close to the base. Swift, and with a fist
Pressed down, to prevent the blood—
So the boy’s penis unlocks like a votive door in which leaves
Fly out, falling, and, historical, also having fallen.
Dance for me, starlight, in the skittish whips of the water.
I’m bleeding. Glint for me, aperture in the sky.
Kiss me, deeply, deeply, the one I’ve resurrected. Sing as you rise.
They are like bronze statues emblazoned
Like squares of metal; like sure men
Emboldened and dipped in oil; like confessions
Whispered at the longest tables: these bones that build a canon.
The trees are seeking something more than blood
To shine with. A street has now been likened
To a tree. What number of hands, together, can wash it clear?
But my hands move to bring that color closer to your lips.