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Clio goes roller-skating: Images of Memory in some poems by Mary Kennan Herbert

Clio goes roller-skating: Images de la mémoire dans quelques poèmes de Mary Kennan Herbert
Jennifer Kilgore
p. 233-248

Entrées d’index

Index chronologique :

20th century, XXe siècle

Index thématique et géographique :

culture, États-Unis, history, literature, littérature, société, society, United States
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Texte intégral

1A few words about Mary Kennan Herbert

Mary Kennan Herbert is a writer with midwestern roots. She was born in 1938 in St. Louis, Missouri, and spent most of her childhood there. During her adolescent years she lived in Tennessee. She obtained a University degree in art from Peabody College in Nashville. In New York, she pursued a career as editor in a publishing house until the 1980s, when a merger ended her job security. After several attempts at working for different publishers, she started something new. She began writing poetry again, for the first time in 30 years, and in 1992 decided to begin a graduate program in creative writing at The City College of New York, where she studied under Bill Matthews. Five months after she began writing poems, they started to be published.

  • 1  Hébert recorded by Kelton W. Knight, Anne Hébert, In Search of the First Garden, New York: Peter L (...)

Le passé est inevitablement lié au présent, et pour mieux comprendre le soi du présent, il faut comprendre le passé.
Anne Hébert1

  • 2  Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, London: Faber and Faber, 1975, 554.

When Memory is full
Put on the perfect Lid _
This Morning’s finest syllable
Presumptuous Evening said _
Emily Dickinson #12662

2The first task of this paper is perhaps to introduce the reader to the poet. Several interesting biographical statements about Mary Kennan Herbert can be found on the web. Essentially, she is a writer with midwestern roots. She was born in 1938 in St. Louis, Missouri, hometown of T.S. Eliot and Marianne Moore, and spent most of her childhood there. During her adolescent years the family lived in Tennessee, and she wrote some poetry, accepted for publication by the Southern Baptist Convention, which paid her with blue, cloth-bound New Testaments. She obtained a University degree in art from Peabody College in Nashville, helping to pay for her education by selling art supplies. After she got her BA she took a Greyhound bus to New York City. She married and moved to the suburbs, but her job and her children left her no time for creative pursuits in either poetry or painting. Her career as an editor in a publishing house went very well until the 1980s, when a merger ended her job security and 25-year seniority. After several attempts at working for different publishers, she gave up her career. She also got a divorce. Later she remarried and moved to Brooklyn.

3The summer of 1992 seems to have been a turning point. She began writing poetry again, for the first time in 30 years, and began psychoanalysis (but stopped 10 months later, due to lack of funds). She also decided to begin a graduate program in creative writing at The City College of New York, where she studied under Bill Matthews. Five months after she began writing poems, they started to be published. Aged 57, June 1, 1995, she obtained her master’s degree in creative writing and has since been teaching as an adjunct lecturer in several different Colleges in New York City, 12 months a year, to make ends meet.

4In five years of sending out poems (in the period from 1992 to 1997), she managed to get 100 poems published. As she described it, in a prose piece called “Poet or Perish” (posted on the web in 2002), “I was a frustrated writer who suddenly discovered that I had reached my mid-fifties [...] and I needed to work fast to make up for lost years”3. Her first chapbooks were published in Australia by Ginninderra Press beginning of 1997. Meadow Geese Press published her first American book, Coasts, in 2000. Her poems have been selected for poetry anthologies such as Mothers and Daughters: A Poetry Celebration (Random House 2001) and Line Drives, 100 Contemporary Baseball Poems (Southern Illinois University Press, 2002). She won first prize in the 1999 poetry competition sponsored by the Midwest Conference on Christianity and Literature and first prize in the Jerseyworks’ Poetry Contest in 2002 (see www.jerseyworks.com).

  • 4  This paper is a slightly revised version of a talk given January 16, 2004 at the University of Cae (...)

5As a means of entering the work of Ms. Herbert, I have chosen two guiding questions. First, from the description of the workshop “Image, écriture, histoire” held at the University of Caen: “Dans quelle mesure la dynamique visuelle participe-t-elle à la construction de fictions identitaires?” or, as I would like to put it in English, how do visual dynamics participate in the construction of identity (fictional or otherwise)?4 Secondly, what does it mean to be an American? I am guessing that this is a question Mary Kennan Herbert has asked herself many times. The poem “Fast Forward” (Inventory 6) speaks of her Polish father’s name change and religion change to become an all-American:

my father goes before a judge,
legally becomes a WASP.
He sheds his Polish name
like snakeskin. (Inventory 6)

Later in the same poem the father writes:

on the back cover of my baby book,
on the occasion of my first Thanksgiving:
‘Mother’s and Father’s greatest desire
for Baby Mary Emelie
is that she be a real honest-to-goodness
American Girl
in a country where you can carve a turkey
and not a map — Quoting Eddie Cantor’s
telegram to President Roosevelt
on Thanksgiving Day 1938.’ (Inventory 8)

Real honest-to-goodness Americans learn how to play baseball, and one of her baseball poems, “One princess, four knights” is a beauty:

  • 5  “One Princess, Four Knights” first appeared in Fan: A Baseball Literary Journal, winter 1997.

ONE PRINCESS, FOUR KNIGHTS

there were five of us    I was the eldest
the only girl    the one without wings

or so it seemed    not having any family jewels
nor even a good pitching arm

I ironed their tee-shirts and jeans
felt sorry for myself    dreamed of princes and castles

volunteered to play left field
dropped the ball

they pretty much ignored me
finally okay you can play if you want to

had two teeth pulled to accommodate braces
my jaw full of Novocaine  again offered to play ball

played till the armor began to wear off
so I bicycled home my mother tsked tsked

she told me to take aspirin
be brave like a boy (Inventory 16)5

Other poems indicate that this preoccupation with American (and feminine) identity is largely in the fore of her creative endeavor, such as “Adventures of An American Girl,” which highlights some of the American people and places she finds important, including “Massachusetts and Emily’s poems” (Coasts 26). But to return to the first question, “The Education of Poets” will work nicely to examine how visual dynamics participate in the construction of identity.

  • 6  “The Education of Poets” first appeared in The Palo Alto Review published by Palo Alto College (Te (...)

THE EDUCATION OF POETS

I was almost thrown by a horse.
My grandmother saw it happen.
She almost got kicked
when she tried to rescue me.

She dodged angry hooves,
falling — backward,
into the flower bed. I saw her
falling, into the peonies.

Her white hair, plump flesh,
surrounded by fat white flowers,
and now I see her stumble, then
tumbling into the flower bed.

I watch her fall.
The horse whirls, spins with me
clinging nervously, a horse
whirling in memory, like flung petals. (Inventory 5)6

There are three actors here: the narrator, the grandmother, and the horse. They are enclosed in four stanzas of four lines each, with verbs of observation in each stanza: “saw” (line 2), “saw” (line 7), “see” (line 11), “watch” (line 13). The visual image of the grandmother falling makes the strongest impression. This is so because the grandmother is the one seen by the narrator. Thirteen lines of the sonnet focus on the grandmother. The sounds that describe her fall could also be the sounds of impact with the flowers:

Her white hair, plump flesh,
surrounded by fat white flowers.

Finally, the grandmother is the one to save the narrator from falling off the horse and, at least metaphorically, into bad poetry.

6The title of the poem being “The Education of Poets”, the implications of poetic responsibility are present: the memory of the petals resulting from the grandmother’s fall must be preserved. This poem is the first poem in Herbert’s first published volume, An Inventory of Fragile Knowledge (1997), and its importance as an indication of intention cannot be denied. The rest of the poems in the volume are also “whirling in memory, like flung petals”.

7So, the reader may have deduced that this is a poetry of preservation, one dedicated to finding things which tend to get lost, to be forgotten. This functions on a personal as well as on a more universal level. The final poem of An Inventory of Fragile Knowledge, “Assume Crash position” is about what words the poet can muster in the final moments before death, but it also addresses, indirectly, the surviving poet’s memory-work of recovery.

8The fact that the memory at work is given in the simile of “flung petals” turns attention to the visual. Another one of Mary Kennan Herbert’s adolescent jobs to finance her BA in Art was that of organizing the slide collection in the college art department. Of this experience she wrote: “Staring at all of those images no doubt jolted my brain in poetic leaps; certainly they provided a storehouse of images to entertain my muse”7.

9Being an American patriot is not an unambiguous task for Americans in wartime, as we are all only too well aware. This was also true of the time period when Mary Kennan Herbert grew up in the 1940s. Her memories of this period are linked to her childhood, soldiers she met, and mourning for lost soldiers. But the tone of this patriotism is more distanced and universal than the exacerbated nationalism advocated by George Bush in 2004. For this reason, in this American election year, a closer look at some of Herbert’s poems about non-heroic war ... as in “War Stories” seems appropriate:

  • 8  “War Stories” first appeared in Phoebe: Journal of Feminist Scholarship,Theory, and Aesthetics pub (...)

WAR STORIES

I look over at their porch
and see our neighbor kiss his wife
the first time I ever see any man kiss his wife
a hero home from WWII on furlough
and public smooching is regarded as a good thing
this being the land of the free and this man
the defender of democracy
sweeps his wife into his arms
and they bend long and low in their sweet embrace
against the peeling wooden bannister of their porch in St. Louis
I being five am much impressed with passion
and can see how a brave soldier can
make any lady swoon

we took a trio of soldiers out to dinner
they are young and laughing
it is the least we can do says Dad
they are fighting for our country
these guys in uniform bend close to ask me my name
their courtesy like pieces of carefully folded paper
the little gold bars on their caps like slivers of the sun
laughing and smiling they are longing to have a good time
and I watch them for a long time while we walk into the future

worthy of an entire book
my cousin in the  Navy home from the Pacific
comes for a visit and easily lifts up my best friend and me
and holds us high in the air over his head
he is the handsomest swab we ever have seen
I am seven and too embarrassed to look at him or return his smile
I don’t think I can stand
being up in the air like this held so securely
by those handsome brown hands that know about the sea
and the endings to stories (Coasts 19)8

10This is a poem about seeing things, as the verbs “look”, “watch” and “see” (used four times) indicate. The three stanzas present three different scenes. In the first stanza, the movie-like embrace the five year-old sees, is highlighted for the reader as “the first time” the child has witnessed such marital affection. It is described with a child’s language: “public smooching is regarded as a good thing”, and with the abbreviation of history class: “WWII” (line 4). The image is stereotypical, like a visual cliché, a romantic moment in a war movie, or a scene from Gone With the Wind (1939).

11In the second stanza, the three soldiers the family invites to dinner are “slivers of the sun”. (Notice also the homonym son, sons of the fatherland, and like sons for the father). Clichés, verbal this time, are at work, such as “it is the least we can do” (line 16). These soldiers are doomed, but their uniforms are sparkling. Perhaps it was fortune cookies at the end of the meal that inspired the visual simile, “like pieces of carefully folded paper”. Or should that image be associated with the folded letters to inform their mothers of their deaths? But for the young child, “their courtesy” is what is remembered as she watches them “for a long time while we walk into the future”.

12In the third stanza, the child is seven when her cousin in the Navy returns from the Pacific. His strength and handsomeness are on exhibit as he “holds us high in the air over his head”. The youngster and her friend are ready to swoon for him, (wonderful 19th century word, “swoon”, reminiscent of past wars such as the American Civil War) ... except for a more adult thought that intervenes:

I don’t think I can stand
being up in the air like this held so securely
by those handsome brown hands that know about the sea
and the endings to stories

13The language works in euphemism to say that the cousin’s hands know about death, and the ends of soldiers’ lives. So the three-part narrative of the poem’s structure, highlighted in the first line of the third stanza by “worthy of an entire book” is undermined in the last line by “the endings to stories”. The closing negates the propaganda images and clichés of the earlier moments in the poem. The total effect is to reinstate value to the lives that were lost, and to subvert the discourse of propaganda, which accompanies war in any country.

14Another undermining of propaganda occurs in “WATCHING Victory at Sea” which begins:

Fifties ennui:
Friday nights we watched TV,
Victory at Sea, with Richard Rodgers music
and that voiceover with noble litany:
the Japanese, the Japanese, the Japanese
take over the Pacific, but only for 30 minutes,
until our boys arrive with air power,
holding our dreams aloft, delicately,
for a half an hour. (Coasts 37)

  • 9 Top Gun was just re-released on DVD in 2002, aptly timed for the current war in Iraq.

15The allusions are visual once again: to TV programs like Victory at Sea, “WWII news footage”, the dancing cowboys of the Broadway musical Oklahoma (1943), and then Viet Nam, the permanent TV news broadcast of the 1960s. The poem falls in its last line, with death conveyed in the visual “old television sets, dog tags”. The fall is also in sound, as “dog tags” stands apart, giving a closure of sound (with the opening of the vowels, and the two /g/). The decline toward death is made more powerful with the bringing of the past into the present by mentioning Tom Cruise, an allusion to that popular movie of the Reagan era, Top Gun (1986) where Cruise learns about flying an F-14 at the “Top Gun” Fighter Weapons school9. Inspired by Reagan’s defense policy phrase “Star Wars” and box office hit of the year, it generated the largest influx of recruits to the US Navy since conscription in World War II, and can be considered precursory American propaganda for the 1991 Gulf War.

16As in the previous poem, the childhood memories, recalled visually, are linked with now. The ending is so powerful because those final words “dog tags” create a break with the fiction of propaganda to describe the reality of war, then and now. Propaganda of even earlier wars is called to mind in “Oyster Bay”:

Once upon a time in our century
when our century was young,

yellow journalism reporters convened
on Oyster Bay where the Summer White House

raised its flag at Sagamore Hill
each Memorial Day when our bully President

arrived to rule Long Island Sound... (Coasts 20)

  • 10  Quoted by Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present. Revised and Update (...)
  • 11  See for example: the National Park Service Site: http://www.nps.gov/sahi/

In this poem, summer is defined by those two great American holidays, originating at the end of the 19th century and which became pleasant long weekends of leisure in the 20th century: Memorial Day and Labor Day. Memorial Day, initially begun for decorating the graves of the Civil War dead with flowers, was, by the end of the 19th Century, celebrated on May 30th. It was voted into a rolling last-Monday-in-May holiday in 1971. It has become vaguely linked to a jumble of wars when a large number of Americans currently tend to practice the art of forgetting by going shopping. Labor Day, commemorating a September 5, 1882 march of 20,000 people in New York City demanding an eight hour work day might more appropriately—have we forgotten why?—fall on May 1, as it does in other countries. But the first Monday in September became the Federal holiday in 1894 when President Cleveland kept his campaign promise. Herbert’s “bully President” of the beginning of the century is Theodore Roosevelt, who wrote to a friend in 1897: “In strict confidence […] I should welcome almost any war, for I think this country needs one”10. Though not named in the poem, his identity is clear from Sagamore Hill, his birthplace and home from 1885 to his death in 1919, which was established as a National Historic Site in 1963 and now features a park and a museum11.

17The poem highlights the censorship imposed by the President of American Expansionism, “the press followed the rules”. In this at least, it would seem that the past and the present are one. While the president’s boys, “could run barefoot once again down the lawns / and back again in time for lunch and lemonade” (Coasts 20), somewhere else, one feels, far from this genteel environment of “straw hats”, “jacket and tie”, other boys are fighting those expansionist wars.

  • 12  “Wartime years in St. Louis” is more European in focus, however. See Kultura I Historia (http://ww (...)

18Herbert’s references to the Second World War hardly mention Europe, and speak mostly of the Pacific12. Is that because her cousin was in the Pacific? Should it be linked to the guilt many Americans feel over Hiroshima and Nagasaki? Is it because American political discourse never alludes to anything but saving Europe when World War II is mentioned? Herbert finds links between war, material gain, and consumerism in a poem from Succulent Confessions, “Variety Store Going Out of Business” (Succulent 40). The reason for the store’s closing could perhaps be traced to the moment when those “objects MADE IN / OCCUPIED JAPAN, mysterious” are no longer available. Without them, the store can no longer make a profit, and goes out of business.

  • 13  This is discussed by Herbert N. Schneidau, Waking Giants: The Presence of the Past in Modernism. N (...)

19In other poems about the war period, the personal past takes on a universal character. How does this work? I think Herbert is drawing on some of the tools used by the modernists. One of the defining characteristics of literary modernism is its atavistic use of the past, that is to say, the resuscitation of the past within the present, throwbacks to the past, suggesting that the past is not over13. For poets like Ezra Pound and T.S. Eliot, that meant reviving authors, words, and events from the distant past. But this can also work for a personal past, revived in memory. The poem “Skinned Knees, 1945” is an interesting example:

Skinned Knees, 1945
Not all of us made it to Olympic fame or motorcades.
I never learned to skate very well, whether on rollers or blades.

Careering downhill in a St Louis alley,
I fell to my knees and bloodied them impressively.

Age seven, determined to master the art of the wheel,
but lacking wings on my heals, I stained my city well.

I scraped my way across rough cement sidewalks,
and returned home with blood leaking from both legs.

What folly it is to seek such glory in an act of will.
A girl child on the home front, offering zeal, but no skill.

Ah, but she deserves a pat of recognition, smiles some GI.
Her right to skate, her taste of freedom! That’s why I’m game to die.

What did she know of heroism? She wanted to be
competent. She knew nothing of Guadalcanal. (Succulent 33)

20The last couplet is disturbing, because it brings the past into the present, where young women in America, then as now, strive for competency, knowing little of the history of American wars or of the West Pacific island Guadalcanal, the scene of one the first American offensives in the Pacific, November 1942. The historical reference to Guadalcanal and the war in the Pacific may also point backward (to other wars in the Pacific, the bloody massacres of the Philippines, for example), but it certainly, if only subtly, points forward to 1945 in the Pacific and the bombing in August of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. In this poem, the girl “stained” her city with “blood leaking from both legs”. The images here are images of war, transposed into the innocence of roller-skating wounds.

21Let us also consider the allusions in the first line: “Olympic fame” implies something visual, and one might think of the 1936 Berlin games. “Motorcades”, also visual, could be those of the 1945 victory parades, but perhaps also allude to the motorcade in Dallas, November 1963, so indelibly carved into the visual memory of every American. In that case, the second line can be read as a rather humorous self-reflexive apology for the historical anachronism, slip-sliding with a single word from a victory to a tragedy: “I never learned to skate very well, whether on rollers or blades”. American history has taken a fall along with this girl on roller skates.

22Now, speaking of motorcades, notice the childhood experience of transportation in “A Matched Team of Two Good Ole Mules” (Inventory 14), where the last line of the first stanza reads: “the automobile era of our sorties”. For the young girl narrator, the sorties were to raid the general store, for a “soda” with her cousin Gene (line 30), and see “Uncovered booty” (line 34). But the word sortie also means a plane attack on the enemy. The juxtaposition is all the more striking as it announces an opposition between the mechanical and the organic, to use Bergsonian terms. This continues to be expressed with war vocabulary, where the automobiles in stanza two “had conquered all”. The natural ways, the love of nature itself, will inevitably be sacrificed to the car, suggests the poet of the present, who resists the temptation to fall into a nostalgia of a past she “cannot trust” (line 36).

23“August on the Home Front”14 represents another childhood memory. Whether or not you postulate it as a narrative of 1945, the month August links it implicitly to the Atom Bomb. As usual, the reader is made to see things with the narrator, especially in the first eight stanzas of the poem, through the use of words like “watch”, “looking”, “front row view of American life”, “pictures”. The poem is rather rich in objects that fly: “planes overhead” (line 30), “lightning bugs and thunderheads” (line 39), “an owl” (line 43ff), “bomber’s target” (line 46).

24As far as I can tell, the turning point of the poem comes in line 43, “Then, one dusk when almost dark an owl came to rest / from his predations on Japs”. The choice of the word “predation” is extremely interesting here. First used in 1942, it means “the act of preying or plundering” according to Webster’s. Owls, normally nightly hunters, are thought to modify the populations of their prey, such was the theory initially presented in 1942 by Charles Elton in a book entitled Voles, Mice and Lemmings, Problems in Population Dynamics (Oxford University Press, 1942). Elton’s notion of predation as a factor in shaping population dynamics did not catch on in the forties, and was not re-evaluated until the seventies. Since then, the thesis has grown in popularity, demonstrating for example, that population cycles of small mammals in Northern hemispheres can be linked to the effects of density dependent predation and food shortage. What I find particularly striking here, within the context of the poem and within the context of the war as it was experienced in August, is the rather subversive notion that war theory goes unrecognized as a form of predation [...] I am also grateful for a poet who makes a link between the environment and the damage caused by war. If the adage “Truth is the first casualty of war” holds true, wouldn’t the second casualty be the environment?   

25But is there more? “he loomed/all too symbolically” strikes me as an indicator. Is the owl also symbolic of something else? Wisdom? A creature with feathers as scapegoat? A figure in Tar and Feathers? The owl is lynched, no question about it. And that recalls other lynchings. Just how active was the Ku Klux Klan in St. Louis during the war? The bloodlust of the hunters in the poem is brought out with sounds of doom: “loomed” at the end of line 46 is taken up in reverse with the assonance “Boone” at the beginning of line 49, its /b/ recalling the “bomber” and “boys” of the previous stanza. But the wise guys that shoot the owl give out “hoots of joy” (line 54), and the little girl’s question of “why” brings no satisfactory answer.

26When thinking about Mary Kennan Herbert’s contribution to poetry now, I could not agree more with Paul Volsik’s comment concerning Irish poetry: “one feels strongly that from the point of view of literary history in the traditional sense, the rise of women poets [...] is indeed one of the major defining characteristics of the recent past” (Volsik, 161). This remark can easily be applied to contemporary poetry in general, and more particularly to poetry dealing with war and violence, especially since one characteristic of most feminisms is a fairly solid opposition to war. Herbert brings to these topics an interaction between the personal and the political, the subjective and the universal, that seems appropriate. In this sense, like the modernists, her presentation of the past revives lost memory. And, her interaction with the historical has a passionate side to it.

  • 15  I am not so sure that one could say the same of the novel by Frederic Beigbeder, Windows on the Wo (...)

27This passionate interaction with events is evident in the way Herbert treats one recent tragedy in the poem entitled “Twin Towers Tango”. Freud’s discussion of traumatic experiences in Beyond the Pleasure Principle  (1920), suggested that what returns to haunt the victim of trauma (that is, the person who sees it but suffers no physical injury) “is not only the reality of the violent event but also the reality of the way that its violence has not yet been fully known” (Caruth, 6). Narratives of trauma present a double telling, they oscillate between a crisis of death and a crisis of life suggests Cathy Caruth in Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (1996). Historical witness is based on this double telling of “the inextricability of the story of one’s life from the story of a death” (Caruth, 7-8). So that trauma can lead “to the encounter with another, through the very possibility and surprise of listening to another’s wound” (Caruth, 8). The listening to the other seems to be what is operative in this poem. It is worth keeping in mind that Herbert is a resident of New York. The other is imagined here, perhaps to help Herbert get on with the business of living15.

  • 16  “Twin Towers Tango”was first published February 2002 and reprinted again in the fall of 2002 in De (...)

TWIN TOWERS TANGO

Your ashes, your ashes, your ashes, your ashes,
your ashes times thousands cover my words
with a fine coating that I am afraid to wipe away.

I am afraid.
I might erase you.
I apologise for these words like rashes,
burns, lesions.

Yes, I am alive and you are not. Planes still fly.
Dust and words are mundane.
Less than 5,000 fans at the game today, folks,
yet that is the number of deaths, jokes, and death jokes.

The death of jokes. All a matter of perspective.
Some of the rescue dogs died from fumes.
I am comparing dogs with humans?
Have I no shame?

Cynics chortle. Hearts still beat strongly.
Perhaps thousands of dog lovers died too,
in those tombs.
Read again Thomas’s poem. Rages, rages.

Smoke is coming through the walls, Mum,
I can’t talk now. I can’t breathe.
Hell is mundane with its cliches of burning hands
and calm farewells.

Ashes cover neat stacks of button-down shirts,
WSJ computers, a statue of a rearing, defiant horse
in a hotel lobby near Ground Zero.
Firefighters’ bodies are underneath, of course.

Fire fighters, a frightened girl, all part of the Pile.
Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck in Wall Street garb
are still grinning through the dust,
smiling while a watch thief is still sinning. Life goes on.

Dig we must for a Greater New York.
How can this poem get written? A cartoon character
is smitten, grinning at ghosts. Bugs
is still wearing his trench coat.

Seven jumped together, clasping hands.
Burned birds were found on suddenly sacred ground.
A guy is hosing down the sidewalk.
Talk, talk, talk, it’s good for you.

In the name of,
in the name of, in the name of,
snapshots made by a commuter show the horror
again and again.

But why me, asked #2,345.
We only wanted to party, to marry, to feel next summer’s sun
at the Jersey Shore. What can I say
that has not been said. Tide is in, tide is out.

Here are my words.
I know you want to give them back.
Sorry, I hear him or her say, I know you mean well,
but I miss my mum, my dad, my husband,

my wife, my lover, my children, my pals at Chumley’s,
my boys of October,
my nightmares,
my misery and dreams of happiness. (Travelling, 68-70)16

  • 17  Consumerism, a term coined in 1944, refers to the theory that an increasing consumption of goods i (...)
  • 18  The verb “infantilize” was first used in 1943, to make or keep infantile or to treat as infantile.

28This poem, without belittling the tragedy of lost lives in any way, also lets in some critical distance. The Disney characters hint at what is wrong within American society. The effects of the exacerbated consumerist17 culture that infantalizes18its members are not neglected. Nor is the fact that the towers housed the Wall Street Journal. Once again, the distancing to think about the event keeps Herbert from unleashed, uncritical American patriotism as well as its opposite, a lack of sympathy for the victims. The question asked by #2,345 is the question anyone might ask, and it can be shared with the unjustly held prisoner of Guantánamo, a civilian victim of the 1991 bombing of Bagdad, or by the American foot soldier who dies in Iraq.

29What the narrative of trauma can accomplish, suggests Caruth, is a path to “an ethical relation to the real” (Caruth, 102), and this is the path that Mary Kennan Herbert’s poetry seems to be taking.

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Bibliographie

Works cited

Caruth, Cathy, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History. Baltimore: John Hopkins, 1996.

Herbert, Mary Kennan, An Inventory of Fragile Knowledge, Charnwood, Australia: Ginninderra Press, 1997.

Herbert, Mary Kennan, “August on the Home Front”, Gangway #12: www.gangway.net/12/gangway12.1.html.

Herbert, Mary Kennan, Coasts, A Collection of Poems Bound By the Sea, Marshfield Hills, Massachusetts: Meadow Geese Press, 2000.

Herbert, Mary Kennan, “Poet or Perish” on Freeindiamedia.com (2002): http://www.freeindiamedia.com/poetry/23_oct_poetry.htm (12/1/04).

Herbert, Mary Kennan, Succulent Confessions, Charnwood, Australia: Ginninderra Press, 2000.

Herbert, Mary Kennan, Travelling, Charnwood, Australia: Ginninderra Press, 2003.

Schneidau, Herbert N., Waking Giants: The Presence of the Past in Modernism. NY: Oxford UP, 1991.

Volsik, Paul, “Engendering the Feminine: Two Irish poets—Eavan Boland and Medbh McGuckian”, in Etudes Anglaises 56:2, April-June 2003, 148-161.

Zinn, Howard, A People’s History of the United States 1492-Present. Revised and Updated Edition, New York: Harper Perennial, 1995.

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Notes

1  Hébert recorded by Kelton W. Knight, Anne Hébert, In Search of the First Garden, New York: Peter Lang, 1998, 1.

2  Emily Dickinson, The Complete Poems, ed. Thomas H. Johnson, London: Faber and Faber, 1975, 554.

3  Mary Kennan Herbert, “Poet or Perish” on Freeindiamedia.com (2002): http://www.freeindiamedia.com/poetry/23_oct_poetry.htm page 4/18 (12/1/04).

4  This paper is a slightly revised version of a talk given January 16, 2004 at the University of Caen for a workshop entitled “Image, Écriture, Histoire” organized by Anca Cristofovici and Renée Dickason.

5  “One Princess, Four Knights” first appeared in Fan: A Baseball Literary Journal, winter 1997.

6  “The Education of Poets” first appeared in The Palo Alto Review published by Palo Alto College (Texas), spring 1998.

7  Mary Kennan Herbert, “Poet or Perish” on Freeindiamedia.com (2002): http://www.freeindiamedia.com/poetry/23_oct_poetry.htm page 5/18 (12/1/04).

8  “War Stories” first appeared in Phoebe: Journal of Feminist Scholarship,Theory, and Aesthetics published by the State University of New York at Oneonta, Spring 1997.

9 Top Gun was just re-released on DVD in 2002, aptly timed for the current war in Iraq.

10  Quoted by Howard Zinn in A People’s History of the United States, 1492-Present. Revised and Updated Edition. New York: Harper Perennial, 1995, 290.

11  See for example: the National Park Service Site: http://www.nps.gov/sahi/

12  “Wartime years in St. Louis” is more European in focus, however. See Kultura I Historia (http://www.kulturaihistoria.ucmcs.lublin.pl/nr5/artykuly/herbert_m_k_wartime.html)

13  This is discussed by Herbert N. Schneidau, Waking Giants: The Presence of the Past in Modernism. NY: Oxford UP, 1991.

14  See Gangway #12: www.gangway.net/12/gangway12.1.html.

15  I am not so sure that one could say the same of the novel by Frederic Beigbeder, Windows on the World (Grasset 2003). The other is imagined there also, but in a type of excess, leaving the reader with unsettling questions about credibility.

16  “Twin Towers Tango”was first published February 2002 and reprinted again in the fall of 2002 in Delirium, an e-journal published by Ohio Northern University.

17  Consumerism, a term coined in 1944, refers to the theory that an increasing consumption of goods is economically desirable.

18  The verb “infantilize” was first used in 1943, to make or keep infantile or to treat as infantile.

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Jennifer Kilgore, « Clio goes roller-skating: Images of Memory in some poems by Mary Kennan Herbert », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, 233-248.

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Jennifer Kilgore, « Clio goes roller-skating: Images of Memory in some poems by Mary Kennan Herbert », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. II - n°4 | 2004, mis en ligne le 03 novembre 2009, consulté le 04 juin 2020. URL : http://journals.openedition.org/lisa/2949 ; DOI : https://doi.org/10.4000/lisa.2949

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Auteur

Jennifer Kilgore

Dr. (Caen, France)
Jennifer Kilgore teaches English at the University of Caen. Her interests revolve around the issues of memory, identity, testimony, literature and belief. Topics explored in publications in 2003 include: Chicago and Langston Hughes, the English translations of Charles Péguy, Geoffrey Hill on Ezra Pound, and “Peace it Together: Collage in the Recent Work of Geoffrey Hill”.

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Les contenus de la Revue LISA / LISA e-journal sont mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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