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On "Up Rising"

Ian W. Reid

It is only one of several "Passages: which explore the meanings of evil and of war. "Passages" 22 to 27 were indeed first printed separately under the title Of the War, while the same preoccupations extend into almost all those written subsequently and into some that happened to precede. "The Multiversity," for instance, is dominated by huge shapes of evil: "hydra," "dragon"--and "worm," which brings to mind not only the sinister image of dark corruption in Blake's "Sick Rose" but also the monstrous fiends of Anglo-Saxon and Norse myth, the wyrm and the mišgaršsormr. ("Mid-earth," incidentally, in the first of the "Passages," is mišgaršr; the second mentions a "worm," obviously no diminutive creature of the soil; the thirteenth imagines a fire-ravaged countryside like that caused by the dragon in Beowulf; and there are other references which similarly prepare us for this mythological view of warfare.) It is in "The Mulitversity" that the etymological significance of "evil" is elicited, "referrd to the root of up, ever." Though it may come near to moralistic diatribe, this poem is not inveighing against individuals; the sources of disorder are

not men but heads of the hydra
        . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .
                over us

--over us: that attempt to superimpose, to regulate from above, is the root of all evil.

What needs to be emphasized, then, in a proper reading of those "Passages" that follow on from "The Multiversity" is that while they do give vent to a vehement sense of outrage at American belligerence in Asia they are not ultimately "about" that topical situation. To see them in a contemporary context alone is to misread radically. It is unsurprising that James F. Mersmann finds difficulty in coming to terms with Duncan's poetry of the ‘60's in his book Out of the Vietnam Vortex: A Study of Poets and Poetry against the War, since he makes the initial mistake of supposing that Duncan's work is or ought to be "protest poetry." True, Mersmann does recognize (despite his book's subtitle) that Duncan is neither "merely against this war in particular" nor "indiscriminately against all war in general"; but he cannot fully accept Duncan's position, and his uneasiness at the mythologizing impulse of "Passages" leads to some misinterpretation. The fact is that these are not anti-war poems but war poems, studies in struggle. While the Vietnam conflict is of course substantially present there, a ganglion of pain, it becomes simply the most salient manifestation in our day of an abiding social and spiritual reality which brings to poetry a mythic dimension. War, Duncan writes, is like love and poetry in that it expresses "the deepest forces and cleavings (adherences and divisions) of Man’s hidden nature"; and this conviction was operative in his work many years before Vietnam gave it a new focus. The fine long 1951 poem "An Essay at War," taking the Korean struggle as its immediate point of reference, is a set of variations on the same central motifs that move through the later "Passages." Even before then the preoccupation with war is discernible. Looking back on his earliest writings from the vantage-point of the mid- '60's, Duncan remarks in the preface to The Years as Catches:

The War itself and the power of the State I dimly percieived [i.e., already by the ‘forties] were not only a power over me by alos a power related to my own creative power but turnd to purposes of domination, exploitation and destruction.

It is in this light that we should read "Up Rising" and "The Soldiers": not as wishing simply to repudiate other men’s combative attitudes but as wishing to recreate, or discover the creative essence of, the antagonism that Duncan finds endemic in man and the universe. A poem of the '50's, probably his best-known work, had spoken of a decline in the life of the American polis, depicting modern presidents as rancorous, but adding:

                                            I too
that am a nation sustain the damage
    where smokes of continual ravage
obscure the flame.

The same willingness to acknowledge in his own pulses and in the poem's impulses something of what he finds monstrous in the abuse of political power gives to these "Passages" a referential range beyond mere invective. Only a superficial look at "Up Rising" could lead one to regard it as no more than a tirade against the Johnson administration, though it does incorporate that. What is it that "rises up" in the poem? Not only the overweening arrogance of a president whose "name stinks with burning meat and heapt honors" but also the fear of "good people in the suburbs" as they pile food on their barbecue plates; not only the waves of bombers but also the "deep hatred" of the new world for the old, or for any alien culture; not only the zeal of the "professional military" for victory but also the surge of infantile fantasies of destruction; not only America’s present passion for dominance but the half-buried guilts of its past, summed up by the historian Comager (in a phrase Duncan cites) as "Americans unacknowledged, unrepented crimes." "The Soldiers" took more than a year to compose, and during that lapse of time (reflected in the arrangement of poems in Bending the Bow, where thirty pages of other matter intervene between 25 and 26) some of the imagery enunciated in "The Multiversity" and "Up Rising" shifted again into a slightly different key. A contrast develops between the "first Evil," "that which has power over you," and its positive counterpart, the spirit which can

                fight underground
                                the body's inward sum,
        the blood’s natural
uprising         against tyranny

The first Evil, the primeval power over us, the embodiment of the blind coercive force "spreading his 'goods' over Asia," is Ahriman, the god of darkness who in Zoroastrian mythology contends with Ormuzd, god of light, for possession of the Mundane Egg. The "blood’s natural/uprising" is in part Duncan’s own heightened blood pressure, a condition for which he was receiving medical treatment at that time, just as the image of America tossing and turning in "fevers and panics" recalls the earlier poem "Shadows", in which the poet lies febrile like the ailing king of Grail legends, emblem of a waste land. That identification recurs in "Stage Directions":

And from the dying body of America I see,
or from my dying body . . .

There is a difficulty inherent in the rhetorical language of these war poems. Duncan himself is aware of it. Remarking that in them he seems unable "to move outside the almost hypnagogic high tone."

From Robert Duncan: Scales of the Marvelous. Ed. Robert J. Berthoff and Ian W. Reid. Copyright © 1979 by New Directions.

T.J. Boynton

Robert Duncan's "Up Rising," excised from the larger work "Passages," understands the Vietnam War as a natural manifestation of what mainstream politicians call "The American Spirit." This spirit appears under various names in the poem, such as "mania," "hatred" and "vanity," and in all of its guises emanates from the "swollen head" of Johnson, the image with which the poem concludes. Superintending the war in the late 60s, Johnson takes his historical place among the twentieth century's other great "simulacra of men" (1), Hitler and Stalin, and duplicates their efforts in human extermination with napalm, setting the North (and South) Vietnamese communists' "hair a- fire" in gruesome parody of a "Texas barbeque." For Duncan, however, it is not so much Johnson that is to blame for roasting the Vietnamese as it is nationalist Americanism itself, the megalomaniacal "will" that runs through U.S. history from the time of its conception and that has crystallized since World War II in machinations of the military-industrial complex.

In prosecuting the war Johnson calls on the United States' natural human resources, "drawing from the underbelly of the nation/ such blood and dreams as swell the idiot psyche/ out of its courses into an elemental thing" (6- 8). Johnson orchestrates the conglomeration of these "blood and dreams" in part at the behest of "the professional military behind him" (13), the men at the "back of the scene" carrying out the "business of war" (15). It would seem momentarily that Johnson is merely a puppet of these men, and that the cause of the war is limited to the enclave of the Joint Chiefs. But in the third stanza Duncan links these mens' militarism with "the all-American boy in the cockpit" of "the ravening eagle of America," "loosing his flow of napalm" in a creative burst, "drawing now/ not with crayons in his secret room/ the burning of homes and the torture of mothers and fathers and/ children" (20-25). The "all-American boy" burns Vietnamese peasants with a facility equal to that with which he drew pictures as a child, and it is precisely his heedless, unconcerned pursuit of his aims that makes him all-American.

When Duncan connects this boy with "the private rooms of small-town bosses and businessmen," the council chambers of the gangs that run the great cities" and "the fearful hearts of good people in the suburbs turning the/ savory meat over the charcoal burners" (34-39), he shifts his emphasis somewhat from the people to those in power, although it is still the people's fear that allows the military nationalist status quo to reproduce itself. It is in the "private rooms" of the nation's capitalist controllers more than in the all-American's "secret room" that the plans of war are drawn up. It is in the "back of the scene" that "the atomic stockpile; the vials of synthesized/ diseases . . . [and] the gasses of despair" get concocted, and those who concoct them appear in public as normal as average citizens: "chemists we have met at cocktail parties, passt daily and with a/ happy 'Good Day' on the way to classes or work, have workt to/ make war too terrible for men to wage" (49-51), but their efforts have yielded napalm, and with Johnson at the nation's helm incinerating the innocent is not "too terrible" a prospect for war to be waged.

The mistake has been to give scientists, capitalists, generals and presidents the privacy and insulation needed to breed nightmares, and the blame for their activities resides partly with the American citizenry. America's "deep hatred . . . for the alien world" drives its war machine, just as its deep hatred for "the new world that might have/ been Paradise" inspired "a holocaust of burning/ Indians, trees and grasslands," all of which in the eyes of American power appear as "real estate" and "profitable wastes" (52- 61). "All our sense of our common humanity," the affection for "communal things" and for "communion," which the barbequing "good people" in the U.S. share with the agents of North Vietnamese "communism," gets devoured by Johnson's military industrial complex, and "the very glint of Satan's eyes from the pit of hell . . ./ now shines from the eyes of the President in the swollen head of the nation" (55-70). In the year following the composition of "Up Rising," Nixon took power and installed Henry Kissinger as his national security adviser. In an uncanny and dismaying irony, the poem's hyperbolic encapsulation of 1968 U.S. military policy, to fire on "any life at all or any sign of life" (24), in fact became U.S. policy under these two mens' reign. Noam Chomsky quotes Kissinger as saying, in an exchange with Nixon reprinted earlier this year in the May 27th New York Times, that the strategy of the Cambodian bombing campaign should be "anything that flies on anything that moves" (International Socialist Review, Sep.-Oct. 16 2004). The worst Duncan could imagine only equaled subsequent military policy under Nixon. More ironic, perhaps, and certainly more dismaying, is that to this day the public perspective on the war and its consequences for the Vietnamese has changed very little. Chomsky describes the response to the article in the times: "Was there any reaction to the Nixon-Kissinger transcript? Did anybody notice it? Did anybody comment on it? Actually, I've brought it up in talks a number of times, and I've noticed that people don't understand it. They understand it the minute I say it, but not five minutes later, because it's just too unacceptable. We cannot be people who openly and publicly call for genocide and then carry it out. That can't be. So therefore, it didn't happen. And therefore, it doesn't have to be wiped out of history, because it will never enter history." So it is that Duncan's "good people" refuse to come to grips with the actions of people who have run their country. And so it is that irreversible crimes such as the extermination of Native Americans, the incineration of the Vietnamese, and the cluster-bombing of Iraqi insurgents in Fallujah are allowed to proceed.

Copyright © 2004 by T.J. Boynton


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