The Empire of Sadness

I received word recently that Annah Browning (CofC ’08) published her first poem in The Kenyon Review Online.  It’s a lovely, elegiac, subtly Whitmanian poem. This poem pairs perfectly with Whitman’s pre-war poems of crisis, even as it captures the distinctly elegiac strain of Whitman’s influence as it lasts into the twenty-first century.

The empire of sadness.  From this powerful opening, we enter a poem that is voiceless: “As if my tongue had not been swallowed.” And from lack of voice, we enter onto a strangely constrained dream vision where we are shown vague shapes of men, things, bird things.  The poem creates a claustrophobic sense of loss as the sky presses down.

Where’s Whitman here?  In that ever-receding circle of grass.  We are told at the end of “Song of Myself” to look under out boot soles for Whitman, to look to the grass, to that great compost of life and death, to “the beautiful uncut hair of graves.” Whitman loved the multiple resonances of his title “Leaves of Grass.”  The gesture was towards a de-centered organicism, and to the beauty nature’s minutia. But “leaves” is also a synonym for “pages,” which makes his title a textual metaphor as much as an ecological one.  As readers of poetry, we can find Whitman in the grassy leaves of his poetry as well–poetry, like leaves of grass, a constant wrenching of life and song from death and silence.   The poet Robert Creeley grew convinced, almost obsessively so, that the presence of grass in strong poems signified Whitman’s presence, whether intended or not.  I tend to believe him.

In Browning’s “Fable,” she mourns this distance between the present and the past, between one voice and another, between “you and I.”  You and I–perhaps the two most important, resonant words in Whitman’s poetry.

In the end, this circle of grass becomes the grave of something. We’re at a funeral.  A funeral for what?  In this fable or allegory, it could be anything: a lost voice, a lost country, a lost world–an empire of sadness in that shrinking circle of grass.

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