Of the Leaves That Have Fallen
Mar 31, 2014
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
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March 31, 2014