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On "Denmark Vesey"

Thierry Ramais

What I found extraordinary about Aaron Kramer's poem sequence, "Denmark Vesey" is that it combines both a very compelling story-line and shows great technical mastery in mixing different poetic "genres" and rhythms while maintaining a surprising sense of fluidity and connectivity between all its various subparts. "Denmark Vesey" is, in my opinion, much more than a simple collage or patchwork of poems, it is a tapestry of experiences that throw light on one another while creating a very strong sense of cohesive whole. This sense of cohesiveness is of course at first dependant on the cohesiveness of the story itself; as we move from poem to poem, we are being told the story of a place, of a man and his people. The story flows as a true narrative, it has a beginning (a presumably "historical" one, presenting the background of slave introduction to the Americas), a heart (the increasing tension between slaves and their owners and the story of Denmark) and an (open) end. In this tapestry, none of the poem is out of place, yet all can be read in isolation. They all tell a story within themselves while helping the main "plot" (the revolutionary wind blowing increasingly through Charleston) to progress.

In this short comment, I would like to illustrate how Aaron Kramer described this mounting tension between black slaves and whites owners in his sequence, how all of its parts contribute to create a sense of ominousness which never quite disappears and which, as it gradually forces the white owners into a state of constant fear, also forces readers into acute feelings of tension and expectations.

The first poem of the sequence, "The Kidnapping", in the way in which some of its lines are cut, already shows signs of this sense of (possibly deluded) expectations, signs that what is given by the "voice(s)" behind these lines might not be final, might be hiding something different from what is expected, something feared or reluctantly admitted. So, for instance, readers will probably willingly accept the fact that the villages the slave-seller's boat sails along should remain "unknown", until, as the sentence continues in the next line, they are taken aback and forced to realize that they are indeed not unknown to "those who lived there". The narrative voice itself questions its own stability when from the same line to the next it presents as fact that the slave- seller's demonic "inspiration" took place "one morning", only to retract itself in the next line, admitting it might have taken place one "night". Later in the same poem, the reader has hope that the "unbound waves" can possibly "render [.] the lamentations of the slaves", only to be forced to admit, as he/she reads the next line that, even if they did, their language should be one which only "the sky might understand". There is actually a strong sense of the poem itself attempting to translate that "lamentation of the slaves" into words while being aware that its readers are somehow bound to be unable to "understand" it, to interpret it as they should.

The "Revolt in Santo Domingo" (which took place in the 1830's and marked the beginning of increasing fears on the part of slave-owners about their own security and heightened feelings of distrust towards their slaves) literally haunts the whole sequence of poems (see, for instance, "before the doom of Haiti and Domingo reached like a nightmare into every bed" in "The Minuet". In this poem, it is the whites themselves which are presented as "ghosts" of themselves). Interestingly (unless I am mistaken), the insurrection of Denmark Vesey which took place in Charleston, a "real" historical event, took place in the beginning of the 1820's, ten years before the Santo Domingo Revolt. The distortion of time/anachronism is interesting and might reflect the fact that the later revolt looms over the Vesey revolt as a "future" ghost. The ominiousness of Kramer's poem being one less related to what happened before than one related to how future generations will turn against their white masters, how, as stated in "The planter's fright", "the weak [will make] themselves mighty and do whatever they will". The "Sunday Offertory Prayer", which follows directly the description of Vesey's nightmare, makes mounting aggressiveness very palpable. Behind the call to Jesus to "put forth [his] loving arms", the idea that "Hell" is to be "prepare[d] for those who've torn the love and laughter from us" colors the black slaves' thought with feelings of revenge. This cry for revenge, however, is perceived by the whites as scary "silences". The mixing of points of view throughout the sequence makes Kramer's description of the white's uncertainties about what they should expect even more effective. Once again, it is through the (anachronistic, as I suggest) image of the upcoming revolt of Santo Domingo that fears are expressed: "A Santo Domingo we'll never allow" scream the slave owners in "The Legislators Vote". This last part of the poem, with its short mish-mash of cries ("Look for whisperers!" "Fine them!" "Jail them!" "Bind them!" "Starve them!" "Brand them!" "Flail them!"), is one tainted with fears, fears which, like Vesey's words in "A Meeting at Vesey's", cannot but keep on growing once it has been sown. The idea that this "word" should matter more than the man himself is carried throughout the rest of the poem, as shown in the following extract from "The Sentence is Announced": "The word of doom went through their bars / to spend the night among them. / Get out, bleak word - you are not theirs! / Go haunt the ones who hang them!" Vesey's words are not his own anymore and are starting a whole process which will eventually lead to insurrection. The somehow optimistic metaphor of the word spreading, of its ability to empower the black community even after its leader's death is embodied further in that of the young man deciding to take up the job of hitting the hammer after his father melancholically ponders on the silent night: "Buy me a hammer; I'll beat all day and all night. I'll make it the angriest hammer that ever was heard in the night."

Copyright © 2004 by Thierry Ramais

John Vincent

Despite the more overtly material disputes over which wars are waged—border conflicts, trade routes, natural resources—war is also very much a contest over language, a struggle for meaning. It is, in the moment of its occurring, engineered, enacted, and concluded through acts of language and, when the last shot has been fired, the subsequent histories that give it narrative permanence reveal the further structuring power of language—its ability to order, divide, and situate the many contending discourses that shape the event. Aaron Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey,” a poem sequence about a potential insurrection of slaves in 1822 in Charleston, North Carolina, entangles itself in precisely these struggles over language and the politics of representation. At a time in U.S. history when language was quite literally on trial for its power to name, to signify, the poem’s significance seems to reverberate with a political tension that is at once historically implicated in an effort to recover aesthetically the event of a controversial rebellion and subversively condemning of the political moment of its composition. The paranoid atmosphere of secrecy and deception in 1952, the nascent cold war ideology of good and evil, and the escalating HUAC trials with their imperatives to name, to uncover and display subversion, inform deeply Kramer’s understanding of U.S. history and the continuous manifestations of oppressive power that make it work.

In the sequence’s opening poem, an unremembered, unnamed voyager with “astounding business sense” is “inspired” by the prospect of using slave labor to amass a fortune in the new world. “That inspiration quickly turned to gold,” the poem recalls. This sentence enacts the initial divorce of idea from thing that will come to dominate the remainder of the poem. Missing from the transfer of an idea of wealth to its material accumulation are the numerous orders of power, control, and exploitation that work to produce such abundance. The elision of bodies and violence as an abstract “inspiration” is granted the agency to configure wealth hoists into stark relief the central adversarial relationship of the poem which is a wavering congruence between idea and thing/deed that will work itself out through language. As it mystifies slavery, the white community’s control over language emerges as an engineering of reality that forbids a recognition of its historical complicity with coercive violence as it substantiates a political formation built on systems of natural rights. While the system of rights is codified in a Constitution and understood as universally inscribed on the fabric of the universe, the practices of everyday life do much to indicate the fissure between conceptions of reality and their actualization in the real world. The occasional “shrill cry” emanating from the cargo hold of the slave ships goes, we presume, unheard since the poet feels compelled to ask the question: “did they [the captain and crew] translate the cargo’s message of despair and hate?” A vague “perhaps the free winds and the unbound waves rendered the lamentation of the slaves in language that the sky might understand” is the only imaginable consolation for what we must assume is an answer in the negative. (my italics) In this way, Kramer figures violence as linguistic as well as corporeal.

Language’s capacity to punch down dissent and seal up a consensual social order takes place in the second poem of the sequence. In it, a wife’s moral indecision in the face of the slave trade provokes the question “tell me what you mean” from her perturbed husband. He follows by marking the commodities that she finds so alluring as paid for by the bent backs of slave laborers. The anxiety surrounding naming is forecast in her response: “they glared so when you named your price.” Her meaning, however, is banished along with the bodies of those whose labor is exploited through the husband’s silencing command, “let’s hear/ no more of what you think.” Suppression arrives as the activity of the day and lends credence to the notion that silencing and containment are administrations of power that will rehearse their violence first in semiotic fields.
The coupling of idea and thing returns in “Revolt in Santo Domingo” when, in the final lines, word of Haitian slave revolt threatens to penetrate the town in the form of “news” and the dominant orders of the town seek to fortify themselves against the “forbidden tidings” it bears: “And though the lords of Charleston raised a wall/ to keep the news away, it was not tall/ or thick enough—the news reached one and all.” The chaos that ensues gives way a series of inversions in “The Planter’s Fright”:

They curse at all that was holy,
make holy all that was cursed.
The wise old judges are sentenced,
the last-fed now eat first.

These inversions starkly dramatize the way that war is a contest for meaning since they describe rebellion not only as an overthrowing of territorial control and possessions but also as a semiotic undoing of the categories of value that help shore up a dominant ideology of righteousness.

What follows is an obsession with “the name” as poem after poem looks to join the name of Denmark Vesey with the “thingness” of the hammer of revolution. “Do you know the name?” is a repeated mantra of the central poems that keeps trying to bring into presence an incarnation of Vesey that arrives metonymically through the figure of the hammer, both literally as a tool of his carpentry and figuratively as a smashing out the forces of bondage that enchain a subjugated people. “Beat hammer beat! Nail down the boards!/ Make slavery a coffin!” While the hammer is employed as an image of revolt, its meaning is concealed from white listeners in another inversion in which they hear in its cadence only the construction of “new style” goods for their homes. Indeed a “new style” is at work on the horizon, although its fashion might be much more “revolutionary” than its purchasers would care for. Vesey’s dream in which the opulent ornaments of white homes are literally crafted from the body parts of slaves rejoins the commodities with the bodies that produced them and releases them from the mystification that has resulted from the moral silence of appropriation. If, as the black congregation confesses on Sunday morning, “Our veins have run dry between the rows of cotton,” it will be the word made flesh in the coming of Denmark Vesey brought on by the repeated invocation to “whisper the word” that will revitalize the body it names. To bring it into language is synonymous with the power to materialize its reality, that of Liberty, not as a hope for heaven but as a lived reality of the present, not as an idea but as a thing. This is the subject of Vesey’s “sermon” and enacts yet another inversion in its call to forego the hope of salvation only in the promised land since it resides on this earth as well. If the blood has run dry in the congregation’s veins, the promise of insurrection will unstop its repression and infuse the bodies with renewed purpose.

Escalating anxiety about a potential revolt awakens in the white imagination as people begin to sense that an unraveling of control is beginning to take hold. Colonel Prioleau cautions the town to adopt a more vigilant posture of surveillance in their treatment of slaves. If they have already begun to whip “twice as hard, to prove they still had power,” then they must also “take heed of how men pray.” In an ironic twist, he implores them to

Discover every whispered word!
Let every sigh be overheard!
Be careful when you see them laugh:
the joke may be our epitaph.
And when they bow too low, beware!
It is our burial they prepare.

To “discover” the word in this instance would be to discover “Liberty,” a dark irony that unpacks the failure of the language of rights, laws, and the Constitution to ever form meanings in regard to black bodies. What follows is a plea to install a new legal code, one that will function as a preventative, preemptive attempt to dispel the threat of revolution, a revolution that only exists as threat, that is, in words. The preventative measure accomplishes its goal ironically by fixing the prohibition in language:

“A law ! A law! let’s pass one now!”
“A Santo Domingo we’ll never allow!
“Look out for whisperers!” “Fine them!” “Jail them!”
“Bind them!” “Starve them!” “Brand them!” “Flail them!”

The law is “unanimously carried” and, when Peter (again the betrayer) rats out the conspiracy to his white masters, their response dramatizes, once again the complicity of word and revolt: “Shall we allow a freedman’s boast,/a word, to kill us off?” The word, responds the other, is not “idle,” and when a captured Ned persists in his silence despite the pain inflicted on him, it points toward the fact that while a version of the truth might already be known, they need the word to corroborate an “unidle” utterance, the name of Denmark Vesey now synonymous with an earlier word, Liberty. The conflation of word and deed in a law implemented to punish conversation has an analog in the yoking of Denmark Vesey with “liberty.” Once “the name’s out,” Vesey burns the list of names. When a captured Vesey’s lips fail to produce “a murmur,” the captors claim, “his rifles—they speak to us—each has a tongue./They call out the names and the list will be long.” Violence takes the place of speaking for both parties, and when Vesey is pronounced to die, the “word of doom” reclaims the power to lord over language under the aegis of white power. Unable to actualize the reality of liberty, the slave population must surrender its quest to join language and thing with a hope for the future. If liberty remains unrealized, however, “wrath” has not, though its harborers must retreat to the world of the “spirit” with the hope for a future materialization:

            “Ten thousand guns will sing our mass
            when we no more can hear it—
            and those who dread us in the flesh
            may dread us more in spirit.”

The final poem returns us to the prophesy of “The Word of Doom.” “The wrath of the people is restless,” claim the speakers of the poem, “it won’t stay locked for long.” It carries this warning to its conclusion, one which proclaims, “watch out for the Wrath of a People: it will come to claim its son. If Vesey has been crystallized in the image of the hammer now silent, the coming of the son will unlock the smoldering wrath of the people and be, once again, the word made flesh. The son’s pronouncement that his will be “the angriest hammer” registers in the superlative the eventual triumph of the word as it links itself again to deed, to action, to bodies and recovers the connection to a “politics by other means” which was Vesey’s revolutionary project.

Kramer’s poem represents a strange convergence of forces that contend with each other for power over language. If in 1952 the state is involved in the struggle to make names mean complicity with communism, Kramer occupies himself with a similar struggle, to make names mean a certain complicity with language. The state’s repeated invocation, “Are you now or have you ever been a Communist?,” is part of a concerted effort to give ontological stability to through its power to define in singular, monolithic terms. Kramer’s sequence involves an effort, conversely, to make names, historical names, responsible for deeds of subversion and resistance against this very capacity of white power to administrate and discipline on linguistic fronts. The following decades will implicate themselves in similar trials all surrounding the historical event of Vesey’s possible insurrection and the corruption of the archive. For Kramer, however, the capacity to tell, to give an aesthetic shape to Vesey’s story, is one more victory in the struggle to make language represent, to materialize the ideas of justice, rights, and liberty, in its democratic grappling to reconcile the word and the deed. As a challenge to white discourse, to its privileged uncoupling of liberty from its material organization of the world, Kramer points accusingly toward the politico-juridical practices of Cold War paranoia that seek to extract a truth in language, a name, even as it subordinates the language of the rights it promises to protect.

Copyright © 2004 by John Vincent

Michael Simeone

The narrative of Kramer’s “Denmark Vesey” is preoccupied with the hazards of living in a society that communicates largely with the spoken word. In the poem, uttered words are often fleeting and uncontainable. From beginning to end, the ultimate success or failure of Vesey’s revolt depends heavily on the strategic use of closed mouths. But although Kramer convincingly imitates much of the oral communicative mode in the poem’s treatment of rumor and secrecy in the antebellum South, the predominant discursive mode of the poem, at bottom, resembles that of television and radio rather than the spoken word. Like television and radio, the oral communication presented in “Denmark Vesey” facilitates rapid and nearly uniform distribution of information, centralized means of transmission, and negotiation of distance through illusory proximity. Given both the time of the poem’s composition during the 1950s and Kramer’s political affiliations with communism, “Denmark Vesey’s” engagement with contemporary media serves as an investigation and indictment of both 19th century slavery and the prying eyes and publicized spectacles of McCarthyism during the Cold War.

Resembling television and radio in their ability to rapidly distribute information, many of the poem’s instances of oral communication are presented in a way that creates the illusion of information traveling across great distances with electric speed. The spread of information after the Santo Domingo revolt, “And though the lords of Charleston raised a wall / to keep the news away, it was not tall / or thick enough—the news reached one and all” (47), abstracts the news from the materiality of its oral channels. As readers, we do not see individuals speaking with one another to mechanically transmit the information. Instead, news of the revolt “reached one and all” in fewer than three lines; the information about the slave uprising achieves total dissemination in an exaggeratedly brief period of time, telescoped and virtually instant.

Similar patterns of (near) instantaneous data travel appear in other parts of the poem. The stories of the Haiti and Domingo plantations “reached like a nightmare into every bed…”(50), indicating that uniform and wide reaching patterns of information have spread throughout the entirety of the white community. Again, as readers we only see the end result of the transmission of the news, casting the illusion that the information travels faster than the material constraints of the spoken word. Furthermore, the paranoid caveat “Beware of the informer moon! / Beware of trees that tell for a price! / Liberty now has no public place” (53) demonstrates the effects of data tranmitted at electric speed. Fear of the sky and trees signals a disintegration of secrecy in the face of an eerily pervasive apparatus of information acquisition, transmission, and distribution. Without the concept of rapid data travel being implied by the rest of the poem, the pan-optic wilderness could not achieve the same terrifying institutional unity. Here, the southern countryside closely resembles the nightmare vision of Cold War America found in Edwin Rolfe’s “Little Ballad of the Americans—1954” where “The chief of all Inquisitors has ruled the wire-tap legal” and “They’ve planted stoolies everywhere” (7-10). Through its characterization communications media in the 1820s, then, the poem can simulteously implicate and criticize Negro slavery and McCarthy-age paranoia.

As perhaps the most peculiar feature of Kramer’s poem, Vesey’s custom-made gallows also participates in a paradigm of knowledge acquisition not characteristic of the 19th century. The gallows itself is huge, “high enough to hang a cloud” (63), making it a public visual domain capable of being “seen for miles around.” Historical accounts of Vesey’s execution do not mention such a grandiose device, making it clear that Kramer specially opted to include such spectacular stage for Vesey’s death. The mythically tall gallows expand the scope of the execution’s audience and transform the isolated demonstration into a televisual event, for the image of Vesey becomes ubiquitous across several miles and is not constrained to a single locality. The way Kramer describes the execution also mimics the television in its mobilization of the spectator’s gaze. We know from the moment the gallows are introduced that they are quite tall, yet those looking on have no trouble discerning the smallest details of the execution: “And when the sun made bright the eyes in Denmark Vesey’s head, / the slavers could not easily believe that he was dead” (63). The distance between slavers on the ground and victims in the sky has neatly telescoped for dramatic effect. The execution is at once removed and apprehendable, locally experienced yet part of a centralized network of information distribution. These are key paradoxes of experience and reception negotiated by televisual communication that are not characteristic of the spoken and written word. Ultimately, Vesey’s death enters public knowledge in a way that only a television audience could fully understand; he is remote but visible, made available to an expanded public through a special device that allows him to be the object of looking.

It’s unsurprising given the historical context of this poem that the narrative is inflected by electric age media, but the influence of media here is not content-oriented (besides the oblique reference to the state, this poem clearly passes as an 1820’s scenario); it seems subtle and structural instead. Relations between characters and the ultimate undoing of the poem’s hero are influenced by contemporary techniques of information collection and dissemination, making this a poem just as much about the human cost of electric-age communication as it is about the evils of slavery. Indeed, it seems the two themes cannot be separated.

Copyright © 2004 by Michael Simeone



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