Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Andrew Hudgins - After the Wilderness: May 3, 1863

Since these poems are arranged in sequence, I'm having a difficult time choosing which poems to skip over.  So, my simple solution for now is not to skip.  After the Wilderness is the third poem in the book.  Maybe someone with better technical chops can help me out here; I think this is written in blank verse - iambic pentameter without rhyme.  I think I misidentified Child on the Marsh as blank verse.  After some research, I think it is actually free verse -- verse that does not follow a fixed metrical pattern.  Maybe some blank verse is also free verse? 

As I wade further into this book,  I begin to imagine Hudgins imagining himself inside of Lanier.  The Andrew Hudgins who is a son of the South, the son of a career military man, the Vietnam deferred college student.  Why did Hudgins choose Lanier as his vessel?  What does Hudgins have to say about the South, his father, his own choices in life?  It is interesting that Hudgins chose Lanier, who was both solider and poet.

According to Wikipedia, May 3, 1863 was the second bloodiest day of the American Civil War.  Although outnumbered more than 2:1, the Confederate Army, led by General Lee, fought to victory.  However, in so doing, they suffered an enormous casualty rate of 22%, lost one of their best generals to friendly fire and never recovered.

In After the Wilderness, Hudgins uses Lanier's brother Clifford's psychotic break to portray the sheer horror of the battle.  Just as in the preceding poem, Hudgins attacks the unnameable indirectly -- choosing an intimate if bizarre moment after the fighting is over. 

Lanier cannot find his brother and begins to search for him among the "fields of dead".  As he searches, he keeps tripping over men who are still alive and carries them to help or until they die on his back.  He spends the entire day and night peering into the faces of the corpses while imagining:

          the letter I would have to send our father,  
          saying Clifford was lost and I had lost him.

And I think it is significant that Hudgins is half way through his fourth page of poetry and his third poem before he pauses for his first strophe break here before continuing:

          I found him bent above a dying squirrel  
          while trying to revive the little thing.  

What a startlingly bizarre and effective image.  This is, I think, one of the first parts where I say to myself, "Well hello, Andrew"  I can feel him pushing through now, pressing up against this story. 

Hudgins continues his soldier as animal trope comparing Clifford to a "startled cat" and a "skittery mare".  When finally Lanier calms Clifford to a point, he helps Clifford kill and then bury all of the squirrels that had been left wounded on the battlefield. 

          We didn’t bury them all at once, with lime,
          the way they do on burial detail,
          but scooped a dozen, tiny, separate graves.
          When we were done he fell across the graves
          and sobbed as though they’d been his unborn sons.
          His chest was large — it covered most of them.  

So, the Lanier brothers show more respect and reverence for the burial of dead squirrels than of their own comrades.  In context, this isn't hard to understand as they and their comrades have sacrificed their humanity many days before.

After the burial, Lanier hugs and comforts his brother only to find that his brother has wet himself.

The image of two brothers carefully burying dead squirrels while surrounded by fields of dead soldiers will stay with me a long time.  I especially admire Hudgins method of working the fringes of the battlefield instead of throwing himself into the fray.  I find an element of respect in it.  Also, when one considers that Hudgins is attacking his own story tangentially through Lanier's; it starts to come together.


  1. That is a very affecting excerpt.

    And no, blank verse cannot be free. Blank verse is unrhymed iambic pentameter. But does it really matter? Frankly, when it gets down to counting stresses and syllables my eyes start to cross.

  2. Thanks, Laurie! Counting syllables and stresses makes my eyes glaze over, too. Part of my challenge to myself for NaPoReMo was to learn to correctly identify such things so I appreciate your help!

  3. You know, in my own poems, from the very beginning, poets with far more experience than I have been telling me that I was writing in pentameter - iambic or alexandrines or whatever. And they would go on and on about this, that and the other thing, with spondaic substitutions or, I don't even know what else. I had no idea I was doing any of that. It is just the way I write. Apparently, my ear has a natural sense for the music of poetry. I seem to be lucky that way. Alex has been told the same thing. But for both of us, if we start TRYING to scan, either our own poems or anyone else's, it just ties us in knots. Can't do it. Don't want to, either. There is a discussion in Voyages right now about meter and rhyme. Part of it is about Prufrock. And whether or not it is metered verse. I sense an underlying rhythm to the poem but I could care less about figuring out what it is. I do know that our evolutionary brain is hard wired for song and poetry - rhythm, repetition, rhyme and, yes, sense, are all important to our brains. So are action verbs and nouns. And from early childhood we have a sense of what works and what doesn't. So, most of the basics of what pffa keeps yammering on about, most children already intuitively know. Funny, as adults we need to work hard to relearn all that.

  4. Your synopsis really captures the heart of this poem and how affecting it really is. This was the one soldier poem I can really relate to, heartrending, not only for the devastation of war theme (which I cannot and hope I never have to fathom), but for the way the brother can't handle the destruction, dismemberment and sheer magnitude of death among his comrades. So he turns to something he can scale down his grief to, he finds and buries dead squirrels. I don't even know if its so much a real psychotic break, as a marvelous coping mechanism, of whittling down to size something so monstrous, you reduce it to the size of squirrel.

    It reminds me of these lines in Dean Young's, Whale Watch - Do not confuse size with scale:/ the cathedral may be very small,/ the eyelash monumental.