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On "A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich"

Stephen Yenser

For the "Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich," love has dwindled or hardened into sex alone. . . .

[T]he black soldier is the man fallen victim to the disordered and disordering world. His alienation is witnessed not only by his confinement following World War II, and not only by his color, but also and most poignantly by the drubbing given to him by two other black American inmates. That insanity is the nature of his environment as well as the state of his mind is indicated by his claim that he receives attention only from those with whom he was supposed to be at war, "'a Kraut DP'" and a "'Fraulein.'" In his isolation, madness, and tendency to violence, he foreshadows the poet-speaker in later poems in Life Studies; and in some respects he is a forerunner of the persona of For the Union Dead. At the same time, he is less a model for Lowell's later speakers than a spectre of what they might conceivably become, an image of the threat with which they are faced.

From Circle to Circle: The Poetry of Robert Lowell. Copyright © 1975 by the Regents of the University of California.

Charles Altieri

"A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich" carries the volume's levelling to a sensitive individual. In many respects it is as important structurally as "Beyond the Alps," for it introduces a figure who anticipates Lowell's handling of his own breakdown while its opening line, "We are all Americans," connects the breakdown to the preceding poem and its imaginative models.

As a precursor of Lowell's condition, "A Mad Negro Soldier Confined at Munich" adds to the pattern of animal imagery several motifs to be developed later in the volume and resolved eventually in "Skunk Hour"—the secular ritual of eating and the problem of passive surrender to one's plight. The soldier is completely mired in the prose world, incapable of asserting his human dignity. His speech treats human actions constantly in animal terms ("cat-houses," "cold-turkey," "chickens"), and at the poem's conclusion he equates his madness both with the subhuman animal condition and with his own blackness, a color that recalls the contrasts of "Beyond the Alps": "It's time for feeding. Each subnormal boot— / black heart is pulsing to its ant-egg dole." The figure finds no ritual significance in a meal. In fact, the meal is a "feeding," an animal activity. Because of this sense of subnormality, the speaker takes no responsibility for his situation. He submits passively to receiving "doles." In addition, the poem's opening line mention of America prefigures the explicit emphases on the problems of being an American in "Words for Hart Crane" and "Memories of West Street and Lepke," the two other poems presenting extreme examples of people in a world of "lost connections" (LS, 85).

from "Poetry in a Prose World: Robert Lowell's 'Life Studies.'" Modern Poetry Studies, Vol. 1

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