Monday, June 27, 2011

Andrew Hudgins - A Soldier on the Marsh

I'll be honest.  This is an exhausting book.  There are no easy poems and Hudgins likes to lull the reader in with that old Southern boy trick that sweetly begs one to underestimate him -- common sounding words and plain speak -- then he sparks the trap and I find myself shaken and searching the poem to see how he did it again.

In A Soldier on the Marsh, one of five Marsh poems that anchor the book (Child on the Marsh, Soldier on the Marsh, Husband on the Marsh, Father on the Marsh and finally Christian on the Marsh)  Hudgins imagines Lanier, the soldier on leave, returning to the marsh of his childhood.

The marsh is no longer a place of wonder and bounty; now it is a place of flames, storms, blood. It seems wholly unhappy to have Lanier back.  I think Hudgins uses the colors red and green to symbolize the battle for Lanier's soul between the marsh (green) and the war (red).

Now, even blue is the color of  blood:

          Blue as blood hidden in the body,
          storm winds tore at oak leaves, which raged
          like green birds limed to whipping limbs,

Lanier sits in the marsh while the storm hurls leaves, acorns, and tree limbs at him.  As you might expect, he strips off his clothes and begins to play the flute. 

In the third strophe, it is sunset and the entire post-storm marsh seems consumed in the color red.  Lanier, naked and pale, is touched by this flame and becomes a flame himself:  a will-o'-the-wisp.  From the red on red on red landscape of the marsh at sunset, Lanier glows hot white.

The battle crescendos as Lanier makes his way home from the marsh.  The fields are on fire; a farmer is burning off his land:

         But where a dozen fires converged
         I found a bright green tulip tree.

Lanier watches as the tulip tree's leaves catch fire like torches, then inside:

         the green wood, hot sap chortled, sang
         until the branches blew apart
         like overheated cannon. The tree
         was opening itself to fire.

I have trouble here not just quoting the entire last part.  Basically, the tree explodes into the darkness and its embers burn like a "sprawled constellation" before burning out and giving way to the true stars and a song of a bobwhite (quail) singing "its stupid, cheerful name".

What does this mean?  Pretty simply, I think that Hudgins is saying that Lanier has survived the war but that a vital part of him has died.  Life will continue; but it has been irrevocably changed.


  1. "As you might expect, he strips off his clothes and begins to play the flute." Naturally. Thank you for adding a little moment of light humor there. (And aren't will-o-the-wisps cool as hell?)

    You're right this is some heavy, direct material. Your reading of the symbolism of the colors in this piece seems spot on. But jeez, what build up. And then a tulip tree explodes. This is really stark and wild imagery, even for war. I'm more than a little impressed.

  2. I'm having a hard time w/ these soldier poems. Not surprising since I don't like the subject matter of war, just don't have stomach for it, too much of a girl and all. Even w/ your inside scoop here, I still can't see what you are seeing. Which is not to say its not the intended and a worthwhile interpretation.

  3. janelo: I didn't know anything about will-o-the-wisps beforehand, so yeah, very cool!

    Jeanne: Thanks for stopping by! I agree that the soldier poems can start to wear on a reader. I'll have to try to highlight some of the lighter moments in the book next. There really is kind of a light, deft hand behind it all. I'm, no doubt, not doing it justice.