The narrative poem provides the simplest ground on which poet and reader can meet; there they are free of the relentless intrusions of critical theorists. The poet tells as best he can, and the reader listens, asking only, "And then? And then?" "After the Lost War" by Andrew Hudgins, already the author of a fine first book of poems, is an excellent case in point.
Using a method currently favored by such writers of fiction as E. L. Doctorow and Peter Ackroyd, Hudgins appropriates the life of a historical figure for the creation of a sensibility of his own devising. The pleasures obtained are similar to those enjoyed by the participants at a costume ball. The following could stand as a description of the method: "the way a lie that's passed from ear to ear/ might turn into the truth along the way."
The life appropriated is that of Sidney Lanier (1842-1881), poet, novelist, musician and critic. Lanier fought for the Confederacy in various battles including Chancellorsville, captained a blockade-runner, was captured and was then imprisoned at Point Lookout, where he contracted tuberculosis.
The last 16 years of his short life were given to marriage and his growing family, his writing, his career as a musician, and always the battle against the disease that took him at age 39. His name survives for most readers as a memory from a high school or college textbook.
If the reader also remembers a poetry that echoed Poe, Swinburne and Tennyson, the work of a heady melodist, he will find no such poetry here.
The convention of Hudgins' narrative is that Lanier, in a series of dramatic monologues, speaks a language wholly of our time in sentences that are simple, straightforward and visual to the point of obsessions.
The story told is of a decent and loving man whose life was consumed by two diseases, a public one that attacked the heart of a nation and the pathological one that raged in his lungs.
There is a quality that good witnesses and great liars share--particularity of detail--and Hudgins possesses this in the extreme, whether describing the horrors of war, the fevers of illness or a dog covered with porcupine quills.
I've spent whole days
talking with that dumb, suck-egg yellow dog
Or pulling broken quills out of its head
As it lay hooed across my thigh. His blood
is flecked across my work pants like a map
of dark red straws. Dog blood. It won't wash out.
The physical world that this Sidney Lanier inhabits engrosses us, but it is a strange, unsettling experience, for it is a world without transcendence of the physical. The life of the mind has been all but excluded from the world of this fictional Lanier. There are no abstruse meditations on prosody here. The love of man and woman is always physical, even in the twilight before death. The hope of transcendence he turns to again and again. On the battlefield, it is the moment of delusion:
The bodies, in dawn light, were simply forms;
the landscape seemed abstract, unreal.
It didn't look like corpses, trees, or sky,
but shapes on shapes against a field of gray.
In short, it looked like nothing human.
But the sun broke from the horizon soon enough
and we could see exactly what we'd done.
Even his beloved flute ultimately fails him:
Inside the instrument I find
brief sanctuary where there is
no death--almost no death--until
my awe veers out beyond control.
I stumble, gasp--a tremor through
the canticles of breath--and then
the whole song crashes into flawed,
The meter that serves as a binding agent for this book is blank verse, though more often tetrameter than pentameter. Why this preference for tetrameter one can only guess. That it can be a simple talking meter? Yes, but it can be song meter too, and this Hudgins avoids. That pentameter would lead one into a more meditative voice? And the physical wars against the meditation it might arouse?
That is perhaps the answer, because one does feel that Hudgins himself must find it passing strange that his gift for the particular somehow opposes our desire, and his Sidney's, to find in thought, in music, some comfort for this pain, some consolation for that ache.