blacktitle.jpg (12329 bytes)

A Libretto Colloquy

This dialogue took place online among the participants in Cary Nelson's fall 2001 graduate seminar in contemporary American poetry. Ed Brunner, compiler of the notes to Tolson's LIBRETTO, joined us from Southern Illinois University.

Entry 1: Ryan Cull
Tolson's "Libretto" and the Good Gray Bard

Though Tolson himself identified T. S. Eliot and Hart Crane as important, if problematic, predecessors, it is Walt Whitman whose presence is perhaps felt most in his "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" and, in particular, its second section "Re." By explicitly introducing Whitman and the mythology surrounding him as the "Good Gray Bard," Tolson pays homage to an innovative poetic predecessor, while also holding him accountable for the implications of his poetics of the open road.

Though Whitman does not expclicitly appear until "Re," the Libretto's first section "Do" already has a certain Whitmanian capaciousness in poetic stance and rhetoric. Tolson is very explicit that his audience is not limited to Liberians and/or African-Americans, for "Liberia. . . [is] a moment of the conscience of mankind" in general, including both the oppressor and the oppressed (a boundary made more hazy by the fact that Liberia has the strange distinction of being a colony established by oppressed people). The incessant cross-cultural analogizing (Magna Charta, Canaan, Orient, Downing Street, etc.), though complicated with irony and wit and those endless footnotes, nevertheless must be read as an attempt to make a broad, hortatory appeal. Just as Whitman found America as a kind of symbol for the whole of mankind's future in the mid-nineteenth century, Tolson sees in Liberia a vision for the twentieth century and beyond.

To reach this vision of the future (culminating in the second "Do" section), however, Tolson realizes that he must first tend to a past  that has been forgotten. Recovering this history that has been lost both materially and rhetorically is the project that he commences in the second section, "Re." His strategy here is intriguing, for he uses a Western poetic trope to help to recreate a non-Western civilization. Like many poets before him including Eliot (with his compound-ghost in Four Quartets) and going as far back as Dante (with Virgil), Tolson invokes the presence of a past bard. Perhaps following the example of Hart Crane, Tolson chooses "the Good Gray Bard," Walt Whitman. But it is a geographically and historically and (probably even) ethnically displaced Whitman that we meet, as he is chanting in the ancient Timbuktu of the Songhai civilization. If this dramatic displacement may seem rather jarring, it is probably because that's just Tolson's point. In a sense, he is putting Whitman to the test - Whitman the grand chanter who sought to transcend politics, gender, race, and - as perhaps his wildest poem, "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," makes clear - time and space and life itself. In bringing Whitman to ancient Timbuktu, Tolson thus is reversing the strategy of "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," where Whitman quite literally intends to brings his readers to him. Another poem by Whitman, however, may be hovering in the background as well. In "A Passage to India," the Good Gray Poet struggles with, yet comes close to praising, what might be considered colonialist impulses. Here, once again, Tolson is subtly reversing the strategy of the earlier poem, bringing Whitman to see that, despite his hopes, the Western world largely was to blame for the downfall of certain non-Western civilizations.

Thus, in a sense, Tolson simultaneously employs and defies the traditional "previous poet as guide" trope. Whitman, despite Tolson's presumed admiration for his innovations in verse, is really here to serve a kind of penance. His remarkably ironic role in the Libretto" is to chant back distinctly anti-Western refrains in support of Tolson's revisionist history. Indeed, we are told that before "the Genoese diced west" in the hopes of finding the passage to India, before "Europe bartered Africa crucifixes for red ivory," the Askia dynasty ruled with compassion by maintaining its "people's health," while also fostering "the Bengal light" of its "footloose professors." All this, however, is destroyed by colonialism. And Whitman every six lines or so dutifully roars his agreement. These roars, at the start, are even in the indigenous African languages. The first, "Brow tron lo - eta ne a new won oh gike!" (The world is too large - that 's why we do not hear everything!) could be read as a kind of parody of Whitman's own expansive, all-encompassing poetics. Later pronouncements become more embittered and accusatory: "Kazi yenuazungu!" (It's the work of you white men!). Even when Tolson permits him to speak English, the sentiments are hardly less forceful: "Europe is an empty python in hiding grass!"

Dramatically contrasting with Whitman's own long-line, rapturous free verse, these mini-Jeremiads work to redeem Whitman as a poetic predecessor by overcoming his blind spots: his unwillingness to consider the permanence of evil and loss, and his inability to see the paradox between his open-armed stance towards people/cultures different from himself and his near-support for Western colonialism. By turning Whitman into a post-colonial poet (who strangely enough is existing in a pre-colonial setting), Tolson revises the sometimes blithely innocent program of nation-building that informs the ideological undercurrent of a number of his works.

Entry 2: Meg Boerema

“All nationalisms are gendered” (89), Anne McClintock states at the onset of her essay “‘No Longer in a Future Heaven’: Gender, Race and Nationalism.” As McClintock argues, “Nationalism is... constituted from the very beginning as a gendered discourse and cannot be understood without a theory of gender power” (90). In this response, I want to read Tolson’s “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” through McClintock’s feminist theory of nationalism. How, I want to ask, is the poem’s representation of nationalism implicated in gender power?

First, “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” denies women any direct relation to national agency. In a 770 line poem, there are no female protagonists and only a few allusions to female figures. Whereas men function in the poem as metonyms of the nation (i.e., to tell the story of Elijah Johnson, Jehudi Ashmun, etal is to tell a part of the story of Liberia), women function in the poem as metaphors for the nation (i.e., “America is my mother” (line 252), “Liberia is my wife” (line 253), “weeping widow Europe” (line 266), “memorial to Matilda Newport” (line 605), and “tiering Nidaba” (line 627)). Made only symbolically present, then women in “Libretto” then are *like* Liberia, but not *part* of Liberia. Hence, Matilda Newport is present in the poem, not as
a participant in Liberian nationalism, but as a “memorial,” a symbol of Liberian nationalism. By granting women only such a metaphorical presence, “Libretto” disallows women’s contiguity with the national whole, erasing and foreclosing women’s agency.

Second, the representation of national power in “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” depends upon the prior construction of gender difference. “Libretto” repeatedly writes nationalism through familial iconography: “mother tongue” (line 176), “America is my mother/Liberia is my wife,/And Africa is my brother” (lines 252-4), “weeping widow Europe” (line 266), “O Africa, Mother of Science” (line 273), and “the Hohere of God’s stepchildren” (line 413). The poem’s elusions to genealogy--“The Hohere of X’s children/is beyond Herald’s College,” a genealogical institution (lines 424-5)--and its obstetrics imagery--“the case/Caesarean, Lethean brew/nor instruments of obstetrical at hand/the midwife of the old disenwombs the new” (lines 399-401)--further domesticate the poem’s nationalism.

The effects of this family iconography are multiple. First, the trope of “the nation as family” naturalizes a national history. As McClintock argues, “Because the subordination of woman to man and child to adult was deemed a natural fact, hierarchies within the nation could be depicted in familial terms to guarantee social difference as a category of nature” (91). Second, “the nation as family” trope’s ability to signify depends upon a prior naturalization of the social subordination of women and children within the domestic sphere. The metaphor “America is my mother/Liberia is my wife,/And Africa is my brother” (lines 252-4) signifies through its participation in patriarchal power structures. Consider, for instance, how the meaning of the verse would change if the comparisons were differently gendered (e.g., rewritten as “America is my father/Liberia is my husband/And Africa is my sister” the poem would allow America greater authority, Liberia greater security, and Africa less equality, etc...). Hence, “the nation as family” trope’s ability to signify depends upon patriarchal power structures.

The nationalism of “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” then is powerfully gendered. By making women present only metaphorically, “Libretto” effectively denies women any direct relation to national agency, and by engaging patriarchal tropes like “the nation as family,” “Libretto” naturalizes oppressive gender hierarchies. “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia”’s conception of nationalism then would seem to both depend upon and reinscribe gender difference.

McClintock, Anne. “No Longer in a Future Heaven: Gender, Race and Nationalism.” Dangerous Liasons: 89-112.

Entry 3: John Marsh

In one of the more famous lines from Heart of Darkness, Conrad has Marlowe say, "The conquest of the earth, which mostly means the taking it away from those who have a different complexion or slightly flatter noses than ourselves, is not a pretty thing when you look into it too much. What redeems it is the idea only. An idea at the back of it, not a sentimental pretence but an idea; and an unselfish belief in the idea-something you can set up, and bow down before, and offer sacrifice to...."

Given the poem's treatment of the oftentimes exploitative relation between the West and Africa, it perhaps comes as no surprise to start a response to Melvin Tolson's "Libretto for the Republic of Liberia" with a passage from that most troubling novels of European imperialism, Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Except that I want to ask a slightly less prosaic
question about the relation between these two works of literature: who plays the imperial role in the historical drama of Liberia and how does this imperialism trouble Tolson's poetic evocation of Liberia? The impetus for asking this question comes from the historical peculiarity that another homeland for a suffering people--Israel--is founded only a year after Liberia's centenary and its appointment of Tolson as poet laureate.

A homeland--like Liberia--with its own mixed history of an oppressed people oppressing others. I don't mean to take up this (especially now) sore political point--for the record I support dual statehood--but only as an approximate starting point for approaching the potential political and poetic burrs attached to Tolson's "Libretto." In other words, to return to Conrad, the history of Liberia's treatment of its indigenous population is not a pretty thing when you look into it. Is Tolson's "Libretto," then, to follow Marlowe's formulation, the "idea" that redeems it? How does Tolson finesse this vexed history, the push and pull between an at times ugly history of oppression and the celebration of a Futurafrique that will redeem the world of that oppression?

As "About Liberia" points out, "the Americo-Liberian communities eked out a precarious existence during the 19th Century" and "claims over interior territory were the indigenous Mandinka...." The passive construction "were disputed" conceals the colonial violence perpetrated by Elijah Johnson and Jehudi Ashmun against local tribes and natives that made possible the existence of Liberia at all. Nor are the issues Tolson must confront purely a matter of history. "In 1931 the League of Nations confirmed that Americo-Liberians were using many native Africans for forced labor, tantamount to slavery. The ensuing scandal implicated the highest government officials...." And until quite recently, "the indigenous population...was still treated as second-class citizens, without voting rights." William V.S. Tubman in 1951 allowed women and indigenous property owners to vote, but his government nevertheless carried out political repression of opposition political parties. The point is that when Liberia appoints Tolson its poet laureate in 1947, the stench of an un-democratic colony of freed slaves using slave labor is not quite off of the country yet. Such, anyway, is the historical context of Tolson's production of Libretto, and, thus, part of the burden of Tolson's project will be to poeticize and to come to terms with this unpleasant (recent) history.

Tolson treats the origins of Liberia's settlement in "Sol," the fifth poem of Tolson's Libretto. "Sol" begins with a meditation on homelands and the brig Elizabeth. Tolson's Elizabeth, the ship that leaves Philadelphia in 1820 with 86 freed slaves and the license to purchase Sherbo Island and start a colony for African Americans. In addition to providing a homeland, the expedition, for Tolson will essentially reverse the Middle Passage, redeem the injustice of slavery, solve the "horned American dilemma"--that is, the race problem itself. Libretto then names its founding father:

Elijah Johnson, his Tygers heart
In the whale's belly, flenses midnight:
"How long? How long? How long?"

Johnson's refrain "How long?" echoes African American spirituals--themselves based on Old Testament appeals to the land God promises the Israelites--and their coded appeals to abolition and the promised land of the North. The whole of the first stanza uses biblical celebration and the language of spiritual/racial legitimacy to characterize Johnson and Liberia's expedition, and only rarely, if at all, do we see the project from the perspective of the indigenous groups who suffer as a result of this expedition. That is, except for one brief, troubling moment, when Tolson introduces the Griots:

Elijah feels the Forty Nights'
Octupus reach up to drag his mind
Into man's genesis.

He hears the skulls plowed under cry....

That Johnson hears the skulls plowed under suggests Tolson's consciousness of the violence "settlement" enacts; further, the cries are those of the Griots-tribal scholars-whose wisdom and existence the settlers of Liberia threaten to "plow under." Except from this limited acknowledgment of the threat and the anthropological attempt to preserve the dying wisdom of the Griots, "Sol" and the poem that follows, "La," end with straightforward embraces of the Liberian colonial project:

Elijah broods: 'The fever hoed
Us under at Sherbro, Leopard saints
Puked us from Bushrod Beach.

'To Providence Island, where John Mill,
The mulatto trader, fended off
The odds that bait the hook.

'The foxes have holes, the birds have nests,
And I have found a place to lay
My head, Lord of Farewells!"

And every ark awaits its raven,
Its vesper dove with an olive-leaf,
Its rainbow over Arawat.

The final two stanzas endow the colonization of Liberia with a biblical--Old and New Testament--and naturalized legitimacy. "La," too, ends with an equally biblical and familial attempt at establishing legitimacy. The Prophet Jehudi Ashmun declaims:

...'My Negro kinsmen,
America is my mother,
Liberia is my wife,
And Africa my brother.'

Except that no one appears to bother to ask the indigenous Liberians or Africans if they want to join this family. Indeed, all appearances--their resistance and refusal to sell their land-appear to be to the contrary. Tolson's belief in futurafrique and the redeeming Liberian idea suggest that Liberia's violent and colonialist origins do not corrupt its role as the salvation of Africa and Western Civilization more generally. The idea(l) may in fact win out over the not very pretty "conquest," thus, in the end, morally and intellectually justifying that conquest. An intellectual and historical "punt" that, at least for this reader, makes
the final "Do" poem and its transcendent vision markedly less triumphant and transcendent. The rubber on the tires of the futurafrique model car may have been made, after all, by slaves.

Entry 4: Ed Brunner

There's probably more intellect focused on Tolson's LIBRETTO in this class than there has been to date in all classes held since its publication.

John E. Marsh raises haunting questions. My sense is that MBT, when asked by Liberia to be its Poet Laureate, hardly knew much about that land. He read this book by Charles Morrow Wilson, LIBERIA (1947), an upbeat informational volume that reads like a complex travelogue, and (I believe) then took off from that, supplementing parts with Dubois' THE WORLD AND AFRICA. Wilson, as I recall, deals somewhat forthrightly with the violence of repatriating African Americans to a coastal land that may not be in any sense their home. When footnoting "Mi" and "Sol" I was half-watching for ways in which this harsh history might be acknowledged, and I never thought I found any -- understandable, in one sense: why take even a small swipe at those African Americans who have been brutalized enough by history? For me, as I recall, Elijah Johnson was the test case, for Johnson was the one who opted to stay and fight the tribes that resisted the newcomers (rather than relocate to Sierra Leone as others pressed Johnson to do). So Tolson's lines 155-163 would have been the place to register the injustice of displacing these natives. If a gesture was there I never could strongly identify it, and indeed, "tomtoms gibber / in cosmic deepi-talki" seems the only moment where these natives are represented, and not represented nobly. Here's a huge complication, though (and my confession of failure): at line 167, Elijah "hears the skulls plowed under cry" and at that line, Tolson has a footnote -- a footnote with a reference, alas, I never could find: "cf. Sharp, THE LAST ABORIGINAL." Nothing by such a title could I uncover. (I shouldn't have spent all that time looking for Tolson's Emerson reference. ...) Tolson's practice as a footnote writer, as you may recall, was to list all titles in italics, even titles of poems, so this could be a reference to a poem in some otherwise-titled collection. Or a book. Or an article. Or a short story. Well, the end result of my failure here is that whatever spin Tolson wanted to put on those skulls plowed under is lost until someone uncovers who Sharp is and reads THE LAST ABORIGINAL -- a title intriguingly close to some of the issues that Marsh raises. 

Of course this also acknowledges that such issues as Marsh raises aren't in the forefront of MBT's thinking. And yet the numerous indigenous revolutions in other countries that he goes out of his way to articulate to his text in his footnote references also suggests that he would not have been unsympathetic to some of these ideas (had he any room to squeeze them in).

Dubois' view of Africa (in THE WORLD AND AFRICA) is parallel to Tolson's in the last section: that Africa is equal in every respect to any large civilized continent. Of course that immediately raises questions about its overall morality that perhaps Dubois and Tolson aren't ready to take up. I do think Tolson wants to insist upon an Africa that thinks of itself as enlightened and scientific and generous toward the working class in the monuments that Tolson posits in this future, in the names that are honored in streets and in locations, as if we can discover the deepest truth of a territory by looking at those to whom it provides a shelter through institutional memory. (Reading Germany in such a way, as Tolson seems to do in some footnotes, leads to quite disturbing insights that are not at all surprising in 1948-49.)

The idea that Ryan Cull has of transplanting an actual Whitman to Africa to chant livens "Re" considerably, and it is more enterprising than just assuming that Whitman is the descendant of African bards (which is what I think MBT intended). An argument for MBT thinking of Whitman is the tendency to break into lists (89-91, 93-95-97). What I don't have a sense of Whitman doing is investing a large amount of time in ancient and time-honored genealogies, maybe because his America was too new to have or need or want much of a list. MBT's point here is that Africa had colleges to which students came from hundreds of miles in the years when Britains were walking around in animal skins and shivering -- line 86: Europe as an empty python. Still, the concept of Whitman as present and cross-culturally active sets the work in motion; and Whitman himself writes many lines in a similarly loose blank verse.

Meg Boerema raises all the hard questions that Anne McClintock pioneered in IMPERIAL LEATHER, suggesting that the work of building (or rebuilding) a vision of the nation-state is going to be enabled through power-networks that set aside women or at best use them casually. There are some other women who appear in the poem, but the instances I spot support Meg's view: the extraordinarily cryptic reference to "Ppt. knows" (in line 574) links with Swift's Stella but in a way that withholds her name and reduces her to a code in a personal diary (and at that point in the diary, Swift even counterposes her to an all-male political gathering). In line 500, Aucassin and Nicolette are noted by Tolson but with not a blink toward their gendered differences. In Tolson's allusion to Parsifal (line 577), it's Parsifal and his nemesis Feirefiz who hold MBT's attention. I guess what I'm saying is that there are other chances where the female might have a voice but quite pointedly just plain doesn't. Exactly what to do with this I don't know, aside from acknowledging that nation-building may be a male sport. It would be telling to see how other epics handled this, of course. I know Pound wouldn't have much room for a non-male voice, while of course in THE BRIDGE there are women at key moments, The Wop Washerwoman in THE TUNNEL, Madre Maria in AVE MARIA, Pocahontas in THE DANCE and as "the body of America" in THE RIVER, the forlorn mom in INDIANA, the shopgirl in VIRGINIA and the striptease artiste in NAT'L WINTER GARDEN. But then feminine and masculine are encoded in deeply complex ways all through that epic -- in a sense it's one of the things that epic wants to bring about, as Thomas Yingling most intricately suggests.

Well, when I start spouting allusions to Crane, it's probably time to close up shop.

Entry 5: Heather Zadra

The expression of triumph in the retraced Middle Passage of “Sol” simultaneously calls into question a Western notion of history long accepted as some indelible version of “truth.” It does so largely in its appeal to a readership challenged not only to grasp a difficult metaphorical representation of Johnson as new hero of a new history, but also to comprehend a series of traditional proverbs in untraditional ways—ways that blend and fuse with the poem’s surrounding modernist lines.

Paczolay (1998) provides several definitions of proverbs in sources dating from the 1930s to the present; for instance, Voo (1989) identifies the phrases’ twofold purpose: “On the linguistic level it is an artistic picture, on the level of ideas a judgment….It is a communication system with a double code, a carrier of information at the level of language, but at the same
time…an instrument of poetic expression.” Other meanings explain the proverb’s role as affirming “rule[s] of conduct,” “truth,” “morals,” and “traditional views in a metaphorical, fixed and memorizable form” (Mieder, Rohrich-Mieder, and Nagy, qtd. in Paczolay). To some extent, Tolson does give readers an “artistic picture” with a “judgment” layering its subtext; but the proverbs accomplish much more than that. The extended interruption of Elijah Johnson’s story may seem jarring at first, but maintains a distinct objective in that “traditional views” are re-articulated for a new purpose. That Tolson appears to have derived most of the proverbs from Champion’s Racial Proverbs immediately politicizes the proverbs’ meanings; their placement in the context of a radical call for recognizing a continent’s omission from Western history makes them vehicles for urging political action. Thus Tolson, to some degree, explodes the basic nature of the former interpretations, both in his
compression of the proverbs into three line stanzas and in his choice of phrases that literally and metaphorically denounce racial injustice and foresee victory for an oppressed nation:

…The saw
that severs the topmost limb

“comes from the ground. God saves the black
man’s soul but not his buttocks from
the white man’s lash. The mouse

“as artist paints a mouse that chases
a cat. The diplomat’s lie is fat
at home and lean abroad. (198-205)

Interestingly, Tolson footnotes the proverbs as having “no basic change in idea and image.” And yet their complexity when viewed as a whole belie the poet’s own perception of the Griots’ oral representation. Stacked upon one another in over thirty five lines that flow on and on, seemingly unceasingly, the phrases move beyond simple moral significance and unified image to a
driving, pulsing demand for readers’ active engagement in Tolson’s political project.

Nielson and Woodson suggest that, ideally, the poet and reader coalesce in bringing significance to the poem, the poet-visionary blending re-visionings of a new history with traditional elements and forms, the reader comprehending this aim as he or she works to “become as well versed as Prospero” (Woodson) in dealing with rigorous modernist precepts. Though Tolson may not have expected most readers to fully comprehend the complex historical and cultural knowledge layered into the notes of the diatonic scale, the proverbs act as a stepping stone representative of many central themes of the entire text. Through the critical voices of the wise bards Tolson revives, readers are asked to confront and challenge one race’s assumed control over another, and to participate in the remaking of a history that has allowed for such domination. The proverbs’ use of metaphor mark victories to come, providing a mythical grounding for historical change: “Fear makes a gnarl a cobra’s head”
(179), “The tide that ebbs will flow again” (195), and, again, the “saw / that severs the topmost limb / comes from the ground.” Liberia may be, in Neilson’s words, “the fecund soil upon which African and American histories rendezvous,” but such a union will not be achieved, the proverbs indicate, without some struggle for and reassertion of usurped rights. Readers gather from the conglomerate of historical, technical, and cultural cross-references the reasons for rewriting the past and the future; the proverbs add a direct, politically potent edge to that knowledge.

To return to Voo, the simple conveyance of “information” and “poetic expression” is too light an assignment for Tolson’s aims. The poet, even as he “continues the richness of verbal signifying practice among the people” (Nielson) through the roots of African proverb, evokes “vertical” history—the wisdom carried on through undelineated time—in conjunction with modernist conventions. The use of proverb is thus not a simplified break through which the common reader can gain a sliver of comprehension in an otherwise complex, inaccessible text; rather, he or she is urged to participate in the enormity of remaking history through varying approaches to poetic representation.

Work Cited

Paczolay, Gyula. “Some Notes on Theory of Proverbs.” Europhras 97: Phraseology and Paremiology. Ed. Peter Durco. Bratislava: Akadémia PZ, 1998. 261-266.

Andrew Moss

The ironic tone and the fiercely tangled lines of colonial politics, myth and   history of “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” might be the elemental stance and themes of Melvin B. Tolson’s commemorative series of poems. Tolson’s libretto works in a dialectical for/against mode in which Liberia as the poem’s object is described by negation. This dialectic, begun in simple
fashion in “Do,” continues through the first movement of six poems, “Do,” “Re,” “Mi,” Fa,” “Sol” and “La,” that concludes with the first and second waves of settlement of Liberia. I’d like to trace the cumulative effects of the libretto’s uses of irony, its configuration of Liberia’s enmeshed lines of power and culture, and its refusal to synthesize the positions, images, and
moments that fail to define Liberia, effects which refuse Liberia as stable, knowable, signifiable.

The first poem, “Do,” announces Liberia under interrogation. In a series of stanzas that follow the sweep of negation and affirmation, this poem undermines its synthetic step by layering that step with contradiction. It concludes with an assessment of the moral weight borne by the world’s history, a weight that seems, paradoxically, measured by Liberia’s negation: “You are/
The iron nerve of lame and halt and blind, Liberia and not Liberia, A moment of the conscience of mankind!” What seems like a synthesis of Liberia’s self-sameness and self-othering, “Liberia and not Liberia,” cannot be read outside the context of refrains that mark “Do” with contradiction. Consider its fifth and sixth stanzas, which posit a Liberia which “is” paradox:

No pimple on the chin of Africa,
No brass-lipped cicerone of Big Top democracy,
No lamb to tame a lion with a baa:
You are
Black Lazarus risen from the White Man’s grave,
Without a road to Downing Street,
Without a hemidemisemiquaver in an Oxford stave!

No cobra Pirate of the Question Mark,
No caricature with mimic flag
And golden joys to fat the shark:
You are
American genius uncrowned in Europe’s charnel-house.
Leave fleshpots for the dogs and apes; for Man
The books whose head is golden espouse!

Liberia is not, on the one hand, the series of slights, epithets, caricatures, and diminishments that cartography, European colonialism, Christian historiography, and American popular mythology might impress upon it. Liberia is, on the other hand, in a state of lack and incompletion that depends upon an “American” type and “Europe’s” locale : “Without a road to Downing Street,” “Without a hemidemisemiquaver in an Oxford stave,” Liberia ‘is’ “American genius uncrowned in Europe’s charnel-house.” These images which allude to the hybrid politics of a Liberian republic recolonized by colonization’s
emigrating prisoners, define an unfixed, contingent Liberia.

Stanzas five and six disrupt a simple appositional form of comparison in “Do,” undermining its otherwise synthetic conclusion, which posits the reconciliation of “Liberia and not Liberia” as an historical and political lesson, “A moment of the conscience of all mankind!” I think it also worth considering that the false third term in the final two lines of “Do” suggests a particular deconstructionist ethics, in which “conscience” is that which refuses to accept the terms that define and reconcile binary oppositions: a “revelatory power of true literary language as poetry” which gives “access to free speech, speech unburdened of its signalizing functions by the word “Being.” (Cf. Jacques Derrida, “Force and Signification” in Writing and Difference (Chicago, 1978) p. 12.)

“Re,” “Mi,” “Sol,” and “La” continue to consider Liberia as an object of ironic description. These – the second, third, and fifth – poems narrate the history of Liberia by association with its distant neighbors Songhai and the United States, and during its first contacts with Liberians, the sailors on the ship Elizabeth, and their followers. This history’s narrative arc charts,
in “Mi,” “Sol,” and “La,” the untidy sums of the violence of U. S. slavery and regionalism and sectarianism of U. S. politics and the unpaid “debits of pounds of flesh” that remain. In “Re” the libretto records the idyllic past of Songhai, whose Askia rulers enacted the poetic and prophetic ethos of “hospitality” to “a diversity of physical and spiritual experiences”:

Black Askia’s fetish was his people’s health:
The world his world, he gave the Bengal light
Of Books the Inn of Court in Songhai. Beba mzigo!
The law of empathy set the market price,
Scaled the word and deed: the gravel-blind saw
Deserts give up the ghost to green pastures!

This stanza, which celebrates the wisdom and learning of Songhai’s last dynasty, juxtaposes its final image — fertility replacing arid desert — with the instrument of knowledge most closely associated with metrocolonial London: “Solomon in all his glory had no Oxford.” In a line then, that emphatically announces generation (although, without Oxford’s encroachment, what sort of
inherent value is there in a trade of desert for pasture, anyway?), via replacement, the emphasis shifts from the opposed deserts/pastures, to the moment of exchange between them, “giv[ing] up the ghost.”

This stanza, which narrates the accumulation of power, wealth, and benevolence in Songhai, trades on the Portuguese “fetish,” and the English system of law, marking the idea of an idyllic or “pure” past on which Liberia might model itself unavailable. “Before Liberia” and Columbus were, “Songhai was.” But Songhai was not before Portugal, whose imperial clothes Songhai put on, “an imperial quilt of tribes.” The poetic irony is hardly thin: Liberia’s idyllic neighbor never was idyllic. Songhai never was not an empire in its own right; Songhai always was a site of military and cultural conquest. So although the poem’s syntax grows less complex in its final two stanzas before the concluding refrain, a simplicity that conveys with directness the violence of Portuguese, Spanish, and Saracen conquest of Songhai, Songhai’s status as an ideal past is mediated less simply, only accessible as an idea of empire in the first place.

The poem that sits inside the four histories, “Fa,” replicates the disruption encoded in the libretto’s first stanza. Its “interlude of peace” is a three-part nature poem that separates the political and social history pre-Liberia from the settlement of Liberia itself. The three animal images, “Bola boa,” “pouched assassin,” and “tawny typhoon,” echo and complete the consuming triad of “locust Portuguese,” “Leopard Saracen,” and “sirocco Spaniard” from the previous poem “Re,” describing three predators (and naturalized destructive force) in moments of repose or calm:

A fabulous mosaic log,
the Bola boa lies
gorged to the hinges of his jaws,
eyeless, yet with eyes. . .

in the interlude of peace

The beaked and pouched assassin sags
on to his corsair rock,
and from his talons swim the blood-
red feathers of a cock. . .

in the interlude of peace

The tawny typhoon striped with black
torpors in grasses tan:
a doomsday cross, his paws uprear
the leveled skull of a man. . .

in the interlude of peace

The syntax of natural and martial language in this poem maintains, in the time and space of rest, and fulfilled appetite, the evidence of a predatory cycle in the bodies of nature’s victims and in the constant vigilance of nature’s hunters. The poem’s interlude promises a chiasmatic inversion of violence and peace, but fails to deliver on the promise of reversing its terms. Here
nature’s violence (a nature which imports, via metaphor and allusion, a specific history of empire and colonialism in Africa) doesn’t recede to allow space and time to accommodate the Liberian founding which follows in the narrative time of the libretto. Instead, it insists that the crossing from the United States to Africa will be less than an erasure or rewriting or
reversal of history. It will be as “a doomsday cross,” a rather pessimistic rehearsal.

Ultimately, the libretto suggests that an attempt to signify must attempt to undermine the process of signification, a suggestion that resonates historically and politically. It celebrates, in ironic fashion, the success of Liberia either as a mediated success, burdened with history’s baggage, or simply constituted by it.

Copyright 2001 by Andrew Moss

Entry 7: Michael Callon

The opening section of Tolson's "Libretto" ("DO") employs a rhetoric that works against essentializing Liberia even while it seeks to articulate its meaning through multifaceted allusions. Tolson traverses this rhetorical tightrope effectively. For, although the speaker is simultaneously engaged with articulating Liberia's presence and shattering stereotypical/racist/simplistic renderings of it, his Liberia is rife with expansive symbolic and historical significance. Each of the stanzas begins with a simple question: "Liberia?" and their movement revolves around the polarized constructions of what Liberia is and isn't:

NO micro-footnote in a bunioned book
Homed by a pedant
With a gelded look:
You are
The ladder of survival dawn men saw
In the quicksilver sparrow that slips
The eagle's claw!

This opening stanza celebrates Liberia through its symbolic alignment with the victorious resilience of Dryden's sparrow. There is a sense of inevitable triumph here in these lines, a sense that Liberia has transcended, just as Dryden's sparrow rose above the favored Eagle. The image of the "ladder of survival" also evokes a sense of upward movement, an ascension that testifies to Liberia's historical significance as a space that gave slaves the opportunity to move beyond (or above) oppressive servitude. Now, the "eagle's claw" image is not only representative of a geopolitical power like America but also the tyrannical grip of an institution like slavery and its power to both oppress and potentially destroy those in its maw. We know that part of what gave slavery its destructive power was its tendency to deny the identities, cultures, histories, and even humanity of slaves. Throughout the poem, Tolson consistently works against constructing Liberia and Africa in a way that invites a categorical or simplistic rendering of their past, present, and future. It is through his roving and mosaic allusive symbolism that Tolson relays the richness and prominence of these entities and guards against further loss and denial.

It's clear from the beginning that Tolson wants to make a distinction between Africa and Liberia, an effort that is both a part of his celebratory program but also a sign of his uneasiness with essentialist constructions. For example, stanza five opens with "Liberia? / No pimple on the chin of Africa," and this points us to Africa's diversity that is subsumed by essentialist constructions like "The Dark Continent." Stanza five's opening also serves to carve out Liberia's significance in relation to Africa's. We get a hint of this earlier when Tolson envisions Liberia as the "Mehr licht for the Africa-To-Be!" He also declares, a few lines before, that it will be "The rope across the abyss," and this places Liberia in a crucially important position as the source of the speaker's hope for a new order, one that recognizes and realizes Liberia's transformative potential. Of course, this position carries with it a great responsibility, one that is rooted in the fundamental desire for Freedom and Liberty that Liberia symbolizes. Perhaps we can feel this sense of responsibility when we finish the final line of the first section, where Tolson exclaims that Liberia is "A moment of the conscience of mankind!"

The next mention of Africa's character is in the "Sol" section:

Africa is a rubber ball;
the harder you dash it to the ground,
the higher it will rise.

This image of resilience fits in smoothly with the myriad images of strength and weakness that Tolson conjures in this section, but we should remember that this declaration is made by "the skulls plowed under," so even though parts of Tolson's "Libretto" are lit by celebratory optimism, he does key into a past that is marked by death and bloodshed. Those lost during the Middle Passage, those lost in battles with native tribes of Western Africa, and those ultimately destroyed in the maw of slavery, all serve to bear witness to a past that weighs down on African-Americans seeking freedom, seeking a homeland from which they are estranged by time and culture. It is here that Tolson allows Elijah Johnson's achingly painful question to haunt the reader: "How Long? How long? How long?"

In "LA," Tolson relays an interesting relationship between African Americans, Africa, and Liberia. "My Negro kinsmen, / America is my mother, Liberia is my wife, / And Africa my brother." The speaker feels a maternal link to America, a link that is arguably the most powerful in this triangle of relationships. (We might also note here that there is no father figure mentioned, and this leaves us to wonder what place the paternal or patriarchal order has in the universe of the "Libretto.") The link between Africa and America has been considered by other prominent Black poets like Countee Cullen, but, unlike Cullen, Tolson is arguing for a more significant connection. Specifically, one that is analogous to the relationship between siblings and, since America is the mother figure here, we wonder just how easy this connection will be to live with. A question that arises here is: How can African-Americans ever disentangle themselves from their connection to America? Is this even desirable? When the speaker declares that Liberia is his wife, Tolson effectively relays the idea that one can be married to the politics of one geopolitical entity, while recognizing one's, sometimes problematic, ties to another. Several legacies emerge here that are not easily resolved, legacies that arise from finding oneself in the unique position of returning to a place that one has never been. Among others, legacies of racism, denial, cultural loss, and powerful potential hallmark the troubled history of America, Africa, and Liberia in a way that illuminates as well as complicates Tolson's politics in the "Libretto."

© Michael Callon, 2001.

Entry 8: Allan G. Borst
A Thousand Entrances: Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia

One of the most obvious conundrums in dealing with Melvin B. Tolson's Libretto for the Republic of Liberia is finding an entrance. How might one read for meaning and understanding without first getting into the text? The challenge of reading Libretto, either for some personal understanding of the text or a means of critical analysis, is certainly reminiscent of reading Eliot and Pound. As with the pedants of high-modernism, Tolson seems to say 'comeback when you've read an almost interminable list of texts that always already ends with the familiar 'etc.'' The added challenge of reading Libretto, however, is that it lacks the poetic acculturation of something like The Waste Land; this poem has not been 'read' for us already. The limited critical attention and absence of cultural knowledge of and about Libretto causes some panic when trying to get into the text. The search for an entrance is not simply a linear movement or process moving from the status of the uninformed reader to the informed, and on to that of the epiphanic or enlightened reader. Reading Tolson's assemblage, as it appears in Cary Nelson's Anthology of Modern American Poetry, with Edward Brunner's extensive and meticulous lesson on the "micro-footnote", quickly complicates the ideas and methods of reading for engagement with, or entrance into, an understanding of the text. What might seem like a viable entrance and an opportunity to become situated within the text is quickly disrupted. By way of abstracting historical references and literary allusions, Tolson is continually in the process of showing the reader the way out. The emphatic reader becomes disenchanted, perhaps, left to window-shop without any real chance of purchase.

Consider the following schematic as a hypothetical method for reading Libretto that might offer a way into the text and what it means. If the reader takes advantage of the resources available in the Anthology, the text ends up being read three times. First, the reader reads the verse until interrupted by the footnote; second, the reader attends to the footnote, cursing or applauding oneself with regards to their knowledge of the allusion or reference; third, the reader attempts to conflate the verse with the text of the footnote in the hope of eliciting some meaning. (Keep in mind that the order of these steps may vary from reader to
reader, along with the degree of personal reprimand. Moreover, one should recognize this process happening on average of about 7-9 times per 15 lines of verse).

In a sense, this reading process as it applies to Tolson's Libretto attends to a version of Baudrillard's "Precession of Simulacra," whereby the "real" is dissolved by repetition. The original is defunct. Take, for instance, the allusion at the end of the very first stanza: "You are / The ladder of survival dawn men saw / In the quicksilver sparrow that slips / The eagle's claw!°" The function of the footnote doubles; it suggest that the reader stop to read the annotation, while also letting reader know that "The eagle's claw!" has meaning beyond the current level of visibility. Upon entertaining the annotation, the reader finds that this is a reference to John Dryden's rewrite of Shakespeare's Antony and Cleopatra, which refers to a Brothers Grimm fable. Thus, the simple line "The eagle's claw!" implies three other texts, (four if you want to count the synopsis of the fable within the footnote itself). If one were pursuant of the original (the fable), it cannot be found within Libretto. Thus, the semblance of actual meaning is possible only by its dissolution of original meaning through repetition and simulation.

Despite this critical apparatus offering some valuable arguments, this version of the reading does not seem reach a fair conclusion. Libretto is not simply a hostile takeover of the original. Despite Tolson's reconfigurations of Western meaning, the text is not simply a colonization of Western language and thought. Perhaps the lack of critical attention is due, in part, to similarly cynical understandings of the text. Or maybe the relative disinterest in Libretto comes from the flawed reading schema potential critics would employ. Consider Deleuze and Guattari's formulations of the rhizome and its partner, the plateau. Two key parts of their work argue this: "A plateau is always in the middle, not at the beginning or the end," and "Each plateau can be read starting anywhere and can be related to any other plateau." A reading of Libretto that attends to these terms and constructs can offer a much more profitable and ethical conception of the text. Envisioning Libretto as a rhizomatic force, along with Deleuze and Guattari's "logic of the AND" that makes such a multiplicity possible, the reading of the text ceases to be a venture of teleological understanding. Reading Libretto is not to be a quest for the elusive way into meaning, but recognition of the innumerable entrances, by which the reader can move towards better questions.

Copyright © 2001 by Allan G. Borst

Entry 9: Jim Beatty

In considering Melvin Tolson’s Libretto for the Republic of Liberia, I’d like to take up the question of pre-colonial African history contained in the "RE" section/poem, re-contextualizing the discussion in a genealogy of revolutionary (Pan) African historiography largely initiated in Tolson’s primary source in this respect, DuBois, and continuing through Libretto up until the more recent controversies surrounding Afrocentric scholarship such as Martin Bernal’s Black Athena. This context suggests that far from "a lamentation . . . for the lost glory of the golden empire of Africa" that Rita Dove ascribes to this section of Tolson’s modernist epic, "RE" self-consciously undercuts a primary foundation of white supremacy.

Andrew Moss generally follows Dove’s suggestion in characterizing Tolson’s articulation of a pre-colonial African civilization as a construction of an "idyllic past." While Moss’s conclusion that "Songhai’’s status as an ideal past is mediated less simply, only accessible as an idea of empire in the first place" is certainly plausible, I don’t think that the culture’s status as just another empire is entirely accurate. In foregrounding the differences between African and European history, Tolson highlights the differences between African and European practices that go by the same name. Imperialism means something fundamentally different in an African context, where its manifestation in "Portugal" is "tore" into bits and re-articulated ("sewed") into a different configuration. This difference allows for the possibility that a repressive European structure can be re-articulated into a revolutionary movement (cf. the strategic use of national identity introduced by Europeans in anti-colonial struggles). Far from being derivative, the Songhai "empire" emerges as a visionary moment of insight in pre-colonial Africa–an insight that the supposed progenitor of civilization would take hundreds of years to realize.

Despite Allen Tate’s pathetically racist attempt to value Tolson’s epic as transcending "the tragic aggressiveness of the modern Negro poet" which precludes most African American poetry from counting as "literature" in his mind, it is precisely a revolutionary aggressiveness in recovering Africa as the true cradle of civilization that is "RE"’s greatest achievement. Tolson’s son provides an important corrective to Tate’s myopic view when he discusses how his father "felt the artist as artist made the greatest contribution to his people by creating the finest art object to express their liberation." In 1953, the revolutionary possibility that Tolson opens up with his text lies not so much in the troubled symbolic status of Liberia, which John Marsh astutely highlights, as in a Diasporic/Pan Africanist vision of the place people of African descent hold in history conceived in broader terms that a European colonial vision tries to foreclose. As Jon Woodson points out, Tolson "casts before the reader the historical reality of Africa in the face of its obliteration by Hegel and Spengler." Firmly in Du Bois’s tradition of "Black historiography," Tolson alludes to the intellectual as well as material ways in which the modern world is in fact derived from Africa. Beyond the archeological fact that the earliest homo sapiens sapiens fossils were found in Africa, Tolson alludes to the fact that so-called "modern" medical practices such as immunization are derived from African traditions, figured as "liquors [mixed] with hyperbole." Tolson also offers a pre-colonial economy based on "The law of empathy" rather than the capitalist law of exploitation, once again locating a desired future for the world in Africa’s "ancient" past. The complex relationship between Africa’s past and a necessary future for the ‘West’ is perhaps most clear in the paradoxical lines asserting that "Solomon in all his glory had no Oxford, / Alfred the Great no University of Sankoré." While an ancient leader (famous for courting an African ruler) for all his wisdom lacked the knowledge of Europe, that very advanced knowledge existed in Africa when Europeans "were walking around in animal skins and shivering" (as Edward Brunner aptly puts it). Rather than an "idyllic past," pre-colonial Africa holds the key for a revolutionary future.

The question then is "for whom?" this future is offered as a possibility. I think the answer lies in Aldon Lynn Nielsen’s modification of Michael Berube’s perspective: "The poet did see his work as a guerilla strategy, but he did not see conservative Whites as his only, or even his primary, audience." Much like Du Bois, Tolson is offering African American readers the tools to overturn a panoptic structure of their own oppression. (This notion could also help explain the ways in which Tolson tries to re-write a Modernist primitivism seen in many Harlem Renaissance texts). Tolson’s lament ("Lia! Lia") for the Songhai culture is an implicit valuation of not only pre-colonial Africa but also the possibilities a more historically accurate vision of the continent can offer its Diasporic descendants. In overturning an ingrained, panoptic sense that, whatever else it may have done, slavery did in fact usher Africans in civilization, Tolson validates people of African descent as the more legitimate legislators of civil society.

Copyright © 2001 by Jim Beatty

Entry 10: Keguro Macharia

The title “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” is one that sounds and resounds, exploring sound as meaning, sound as possibility, meaning as sound, and meaning as echo, in which what is meaningful is the possibility of sound. We have repeated in the three key words in the poem the letters “lib,” albeit in a modified, transposed form in the word “Republic,” where we have bli as opposed to lib. In none of these three repetitions are the soundings the same, and we are forced to consider the relationship between text and context, particularly as we move from the “lib” in “Libretto” to the “lib” in “Liberia.” The relationship between text and context, specifically within the realm of sound, is one that Tolson will deploy to great effect in the poem, most often upsetting expectations that he has created, and building up a sense of tension throughout the poem. Moving us in and out of a visual and aural textual architectonics, Tolson enacts a corporeal poetics, establishing himself through what Houston Baker has usefully termed the “mastery of form” and the “deformation of mastery.”

Tolson’s mastery of form is clearly established in the first stanza of the poem, in which he produces a tension between the aural and the visual, easily displaying a familiarity with Western aesthetic traditions, even as he disrupts them. The first four lines in the poem will be my point of departure:

No micro-footnote in a bunioned book
Homed be a pedant
With a gelded look;

If in the title, we had “lib” repeated in different ways, here the play, both visual and aural, is with the “o.” We move from the short “o” or “No,” further amplified by the word “micro,” a word that plays on the length of the “o,” even as it moves us into a different context, the relationship between parts of a text, specifically between a “footnote,” which is itself “micro,” and a “book.” The pattern of “o” in this line seems rather obvious when one pays attention to it: we have two short “o”s in “No” and “micro” followed by a long “o” in “foot”; the text picks up again with a short “o” in “note” and “bunioned” followed by a long “o” in “book.” Both visually and aurally, we have entered a text that echoes in itself, performing its terms even as it states them. Formally, lines 2-4 form a decasyllabic rhymed couplet, if rearranged: “No micro-footnote in a bunioned book / Homed by a pedant with a gelded look.” Tolson, whose footnotes indicate a wide knowledge of Western aesthetics and thought, here demonstrates not just his knowledge, but his mastery and simultaneous ability to deform that mastery.

Yet, one would be mistaken if one thought that Tolson’s text is simply a master’s improvisation, a cadenza; while moving through a wide range of forms and sounds, Tolson is continuously aware of the power of language to shape, to guide, to create expectations, and to defer those expectations; he inhabits a language in which identities are made and nations are created, all the while acknowledging that this space of language is both profoundly ambivalent and, in many cases, distinctly anxiety-provoking. By focusing on the “FA” section of the poem, arguably the most euphonic, I want to suggest the interplay between Tolson’s textual archictetonics and the thematics of such strategies.

I begin by quoting the whole section:

A fabulous mosaic log.
the Bola boa lies
gorged to the hinges of his jaws
                        eyeless, yet with eyes . . .

                        in the interlude of peace

The beaked and pouched assassin sags
                        on to his corsair’s rock,
                        and from his talons swim the blood-
                        red feathers of a cock . . .

                        in the interlude of peace

The tawny typhoon striped with black
                        torpors in grasses tan:
                        a doomsday cross, his paws uprear
                        the leveled skull of a man

                        in the interlude of peace

In the first stanza of this section, we have an elaborate play with verbal and verbal repetition: the “o” of “fabulous” returns in “mosaic,” “log,” Bola,” boa", ”to,” and “of.” Reading the poem aloud, one is apt to stumble over the “o” sounds, seeking to replace the “o” sound in “log,” for example,” with that of “to.” The proximity of sounds to one another both suggests and, seductively demands, a repetition of sounding, one which the reader tries, sometimes in vain to resist: unlike Narcissus, we are seduced by Echo into a space of error. And yet, we are warned throughout this section what the consequences of such error might be: there is a waiting assassin. So we look ahead to catch ourselves, just in case, only to discover that even such awareness might not help. The “o” sound in the first three lines in the stanza is not found in the last line, “eyeless, yet with eyes . . ..” Ominously, this last line both enacts this loss of an “o,” an “eye,” all the while suggesting the presence of “eyes,” those of the reader searching for an “eye,” an “o,” and not finding it, and those of the waiting predator who, fancifully, might have consumed the “eye.”

If the title of the poem, as I have suggested, moves us through sound into context, back through sound into decontextualization, leaving us restless and unsettled, perhaps more than a trifle anxious, the section “FA” moves us in a slightly different way; while anxiety is not dispelled by the elaborately sounded structure, in this section we are confronted with the causes of our anxiety: no longer is the anxiety caused only by a sounding and resounding chamber, a vast montage of echoes that server to displace and unsettle, rather we are put face to face with a corporealized view of anxiety. We are presented with a boa, a snake that kills by squeezing its victim, leaving its victim breathless, disoriented, displaced and unsettled. The three refrains of this section “in the interlude of peace” serve as a disturbing mark of presence and absence. One pictures the boa awaiting its victim, “eyeless, yet with eyes . . . ." The peaceful serenity of the scene is rendered all the more obscene by the presence of its last meal, “the blood- / red feathers of a cock”; if there is peace in this scene, it is a peace that has happened through a certain violence; it is an imposed rather than a negotiated peace. In the last image of the poem, supposedly one that is still describing the boa, we are presented with a morphed image:

The tawny typhoon striped with black
torpors in grasses tan:
a doomsday cross, his paws uprear
the leveled skull of a man

One could read this as a description of a different predator, perhaps a tiger as the notes suggest. One could also read it more ominously as the way in which one threat in the jungle is akin to all threats; predators morph one into the other in terms of their relationship to prey. The choice is not whether one wants to be eaten by a lion or a tiger, but rather whether one is to be eaten or not.

Skillfully combining the visual and the aural, Tolson’s work suggests a poetics that is skillfully wrought and artfully rendered. His close attention to the visual and aural qualities of his work, coupled with his ability to meld these textual architectonics with thematic concerns, suggests a poet of extraordinary ability and amazing craft. Indeed, though I come to him as a resisting reading, kicking and screaming, I must admit that I am more than seduced by his tantalizing poetics, gripped in the jaw of his mastery. Perhaps not a bad place to be, after all.

Entry 11: Jeff Sychterz

Melvin B. Tolson Jr. remarks that his father "was instantly attracted by the new techniques, though not by the ethos" of Modernists such as Eliot and Pound (Tolson Jr. 398). One of those techniques—and perhaps the most characteristic one—was fragmentation. Fragmentation was notable in that it operated not just as a technique, but also as a thematic obsession. In some ways the technique was the theme, in that the fragmented form of much of Eliot and Pound’s poetry instantiated, what they felt was, the uniquely fragmented Modern consciousness. In his Libretto for the Republic of Liberia Tolson uses fragmentation both as a literary technique and as theme; however his work seems to posit fragmentation, not as a marker of Modernity, but as an aspect of the human condition, which we inherited from our prehistoric ancestors.

According to Pound, Western history and culture—especially the Renaissance and the Victorian era—was responsible for fragmenting and dissipating the vital energies of primitive humanity. Pound imagines a time, prior to the Renaissance, when humanity’s experience of itself and its world was vital and true. He seems to locate this vital unified culture in the early Greek period of Homer (fellow Vorticist Gaudier-Brezska felt that we would have to go all the way back to pre-historic humanity to find a fully energized, non-fragmented, non-dissipated identity and history—see his manifesto in BLAST). In Canto I, Odysseus operates as an archetype of unified vital energy. All history after Homer fragments and dissipates the vital energy of this archetypal figure.

Tolson goes even further back in history than Gaudier-Brezska to locate a unified consciousness. In "TI" he writes,

O Africa, Mother of Science
. . . lachen mit yastchekes . . .
What dread hand,
to make tripartite one august event,
sundered Gondwanaland? (ll. 273-77)

Here the world is fragmented prior to human experience and culture, and therefore human beings come to consciousness in an already fragmented world. In this way Tolson undoes some of the arrogance of Pound—inherent in his Eurocentric view of culture—by suggesting that human beings are not the cause of their own fragmented consciousness but instead the inheritors of it. The passage, in alluding to Blake's "The Tyger," makes God the author of the unity and the subsequent destroyer of that unity. It indicates that perhaps this fragmentation is part of a greater, but not necessarily benevolent, plan.

However, following this passage the poem does not detail the isolation of human cultures from one another as one might expect, but instead describes the imbrication of these cultures:

Rome casketed herself in Homeric hymns.
Man’s culture in barb and Arab lies:
The Jordan flows into the Tiber,
The Yangtze into the Thames,
The Ganges into the Mississippi, the Niger
Into the Seine.
(ll. 285-90)

This flow of cultures, one into the other, somewhat mirrors Gaudier-Brezska’s dialectical theory of forms, but the term "casketed" seems to suggest something destructive in this flow. The flow presented here is not so much a natural progression of rivers, but instead a history of violent cooptation of world cultures by Western nations. Furthermore, "TI" presents the reader with a series of violent images that occur as result of national and colonial ambitions. Each nation seems bent on achieving a lost unity, but can only imagine such a unity through the lens of cultural superiority:

lincoln walks the midnight epoch of the ant-hill
and barbaric yawps shatter the shoulder-knots of white peace
   jai hind (dawn comes up like thunder pakistan zindabad
   britannia rules the waves my pokazhem meeru
   the world is my parish muhammad rasulu 'llah
    hara ga hette iru
oh yeah higashi no kazeame (ll. 513-18).

Here Tolson juxtaposes a series of jingoistic phrases from several different nations and cultures (including India, Pakistan, Britain, Russia, Arabia, and the U.S.A.) to indicate that nations tend to view their own cultures as naturally superior; each nation mirrors the other in their colonial or nationalist ambitions. Coming as they do after the initial fragmentation of Gondwanaland, these lines suggest that nationalist ambitions are a response to the sense of fragmentation that all cultures feel. Each nation desires unity, but the only way they now how to achieve it is through global conquest and cultural domination. These megalomaniacal attempts, however, only serve to further disrupt unity and bring about greater fragmentation:

naïfs pray for a guido’s scale of good and evil to match
worldmusic’s sol-fa syllables (o do de do de do de)
    worldmathematics’ arabic and roman figures
    worldscience’s greek and latin symbols
    the letter killeth five hundred global tongues
    before esperanto garrotes voläpuk vanitas vanitatum
    (ll. 519-24).

These lines recast the discourse of unity and fragmentation in terms of harmony and cacophony, which matches the poem’s overall musical scale structure. They also image a particular violent version of the Tower of Babel, where different languages actually wage war against and kill one another, similar to the nations and cultures that spawn them. Even languages meant to unify the world—Esperanto and Voläpuk—engage in bloody conquest with one another. The initial break-up of the one unified continent has had a profound effect on all aspects of the human experience.

Not only does Tolson locate the source of fragmentation earlier than Pound, he also proposes a different solution to its problem. Pound believed that the artist could re-energize the dissipated fragments by taking up the fragmented pieces without attempting to reunify them into a mimetic whole. He felt (as expressed in his tracts on Imagism) that the mere juxtaposition of different images and cultural references could energize those fragments. Juxtaposition allowed the poet to (in his particularly gendered discourse) inseminate those fragments with his vital energies. The artist, therefore, would give birth to the new man.

Lines 519-24 may indicate that Tolson sees such attempts as only worsening the problem of fragmentation; any culturally centric solution will fail because it leads to national and colonial ambitions (certainly it lead Pound and other Modern artists to side with the fascists). However, like Pound, Tolson sees the way for revitalizing history as existing outside or above the fragments; only where Pound proposes an aggressive cultural-artistic solution, Tolson forwards a utopian cultural-political solution. For Tolson, pan-Africanism, a wholly unified continent that transcends nations and cultures, offers a road to utopian visions of unity and harmony, as well as a new humanity: "Parliament of African Peoples pinnacles Novus / Homo" (ll. 698-99). His cultural-political solution does involve a revival of past cultures—like Pound’s revival of Homer’s Odysseus—but unlike Pound's insistence on vital Greek energy, Tolson looks to pre-colonialist Africa and an enlightened Islam for ethical pre-capitalist values. Where the nationalist and colonialist ambitions of the European continent threaten to drag the world into a chasm, pan-Africa offers a bridge over that chasm (ll. 717-18), by working together to transcend notions of cultural-superiority and nationhood.

Work cited

Melvin B. Tolson Jr., "The Poetry of Melvin B. Tolson (1898-1966)," World Literature Today 64:3 (Summer 1990), 398.

Copyright 2001 by Jeff Sychterz

Entry 12: Ellen McWhorter

For those of us inclined to enjoy an argument over the differences (and/or lack of differences) between modern and postmodern texts, Tolson’s “Libretto for the Republic of Liberia” (1953) can serve as an amazingly controversial starting point for a heated debate. At the most superficial level, we might want to say that the poem participates in a formal montage schema typically aligned with post-modernity; yet, we might also notice the poem’s seeming investment in finding (or creating) a reintegrated center for social and cultural identities (and especially African and Liberian identities). This search for a new center, or common, underlying “truth,” is a modern gesture, and one that becomes for post-modernity inherently suspicious. While the critics on MAPS do approach “Libretto” from both perspectives, I find that none lay out an easily digestible discussion of the poem’s simultaneously modern and postmodern literary status. And ultimately, I believe that “Libretto” presents a real challenge to any argument that would minimize the difficulty of drawing a firm distinction between modern and post-modern texts for the sake of periodization. Neither the theories of Lyotard, Derrida, nor Baudrillard—all of which traffic famously and extensively in the battle to determine which textual and cultural characteristics come to define “modernity” and which bleed into post-modernity—can really account for what goes on in Tolson’s 1953 “Libretto.”

The “modern” period is usually thought of as the first half of the 20th c. In recent years, books like Cary Nelson’s Repression and Recovery trace the legions of texts that have been excluded from academic circulation, and have therefore also gone largely unconsidered as characteristic of modernity. Many early 20th c. Communist-friendly poems, for example, had to be tucked away in attics during the McCarthy era, only to be re-discovered fifty years later, after many, many literary critics had already constructed their theories of what it means to be a “modern” text. As we would expect, “has Communist-sympathies” hasn’t been listed very often as a prominent characterisic. Personally, I like Michael Bell’s assertion that the X-ray serves as an exemplary image of this time, because it captures the movement inward—toward an identifiable center—, alongside a doubleness that we find in ideas ranging from Freud’s notion of an unconscious, to Wittgenstein’s distinction between saying and showing, to Forster’s veiling of Maurice’s nonetheless palpable homosexuality in Maurice, to Cary Nelson’s recovery of the “truths” of “lost” texts. In my mind, it’s only a small leap to the (arguably) post-modern condition of chaotic multiplicity.

Chaotic multiplicity is, however, different from nothingness, and a state of nothingness is considered to be a central preoccupation of many modern writers. As the world wars destroyed a global sense of security in the notions of God, reason, and industrial progress, many people found themselves incapacitated by a sense of helplessness and of a void. (“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” garners much examination in high school English classes along this line.) For many Modernists, art, it seems, came to the rescue; because it could represent this modern condition of nothingness, art became the good in itself, and self-reflection the only livable coping mechanism. Eventually, literary modernism split into a hierarchy of high and low, with “high” modernism coming to mean “complex and inaccessible.” Which brings us to the characteristics typically aligned with post-modernity.

Where we might sense a sort of frenzied attempt to suture the conceptual wounds of WWI and WWII in “modern” texts, we would probably find a foregrounding of the ever-changing performative in “postmodern” texts. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard draws a distinction between scientific and narrative discourse, both of which are performative, but only the latter of which legitimizes itself and is truly inescapable (because scientific discourse necessarily relies on narrative discourse). Derrida makes a similar case for the crucial positioning of language in determining who and what people are, see, and say—and language is always in flux. For this reason among others, post-modern literature is often characterized by a lack of center, and a willingness to give itself over to the flux, that is, the play, or images and language.

In the pieces by Melvin Tolson Jr., Allen Tate, and Marian Russell on MAPS, we find discussions of “Libretto” that emphasize Tolson’s participation in the high modernist tradition. Russell succinctly writes: “In the poem packed with Eliotic notes, we have Tolson’s venture in a style aimed at the literary caviar.” If limited accessibility is the criterion for this assessment, then I wouldn’t think of disagreeing. Tate concurs with Russell when he writes (in 1953): “A small African republic founded by liberated slaves celebrates its centenary by getting an American Negro poet to write what, in the end, is an English Pindaric ode in a style derived from—but by no means merely imitative of—one of the most difficult modern poets.” Beyond all of this, however, we find Tolson’s concern with a reintegrated Liberian (and African) identity that hinges on his sense that many of the prevalent conceptions of modernity and nationhood that are attributed to writers from England and the U.S. actually share in an African ancestry. I will return to this point in a moment. In footnote 147 (in “Libretto” as it appears in Anthology of Modern Poetry), Tolson is quoted as footnoting: “‘And the Negroes have been in this country longer, on the average, than their white neighbors; they find they first came to this country on a ship called the “Jesus” one year before the “Mayflower”’.” Combined with the poem’s comprehensive understanding that Liberia alone represents hope in damaged world, this footnote urges us toward—in “modern” terms—Tolson’s perception of a new conceptual center. As we have seen, the literary act of filling the void of nothingness brought on by global historical trauma (for our purposes here, a trauma such as the slave trade) is typically thought to be a modernist move.

Yet, Aldon Lynn Nielsen makes an interesting addition to this reading of “Libretto” when he writes: “he [Tolson] came to see modernist poetics as having been already arrived at by African aesthetics, thus rendering the African-American tradition primary rather than imitative...Tolson’s turning to the heritage of African proverb and the traditions of pulpit performance is part of an aesthetic that celebrates and continues the richness of verbal signifying practice among the people.” Again broadly generalizing, we have probably all seen that contemporary philosophies of language (put forth by linguists, literary theorists, psychoanalysts, or philosophers) focus on the performative qualities of any language (within the context of Wittgenstein’s “language game”). That is, language for us—in an arguably postmodern world—always functions somewhat like a call and response, so words mean variously and shift unpredictably depending on personal conceptual filters, the way bodies speak beyond words, and so on. In “TI,” Tolson writes of: “absurd life shaking its ass’s ears among/ the colors of vowels” (lns 421-2). Perhaps then, as Nielsen suggests, we can usefully read Tolson’s rendering of so many voices, perspectives, and histories—from Gaellic ballads to Alfred Jarry—as a celebration of verbal signifying in the postmodern vein. The juxtaposition of Tate, Russell, and Nielsen’s remarks is only one example of the debate between the modern and postmodern in the poem.

Copyright 2001 by Ellen McWhorter

Entry 13: Ed Brunner

I was surprised and am still suprised at how diverse the poem appears to be in these handlings of it. It's the diversity of these responses to the LIBRETTO that makes me think that Cary's comparison with THE WASTE LAND--in an email to me--is not at all excessive. I continue to be struck by how much smart readers find to say about aspects of the poem that stand up under close and even harsh scrutiny.

One way to test some of the assertions that are being made is, of course, to dive into the footnotes and see what added evidence might occur there, assuming that Tolson was revisiting key points of his argument there (as well as extending that argument with parallel narratives). The very idea of that extension already underwrites what Jim Beatty calls the "Pan-African" element in Tolson's view. Beatty's claim that "Re" was conceived as doing powerful foundational work for Tolson and for Tolson's widest audience is demonstrated in numerous footnotes which continue to offer factual examples that insist that the Eurocentric vision is only one of many and in some cases, hopelessly erroneous. Once "Re"'s narrative is in place, once this "other" chronology for the establishment of civilizations is set forward (and buttressed by factual references) then Tolson has built opportunities to maneuver throughout all history, opening forgotten doors, suggesting new connections. And the connections are not always novel: one strain in the footnotes is to show that earlier literature recognized and quietly accepted an African presence. Racism is not a new problem, Tolson's sense of history attests, and it appears to have been at some times in the past less of a problem. I should add that in studying African American newspapers in 1935-1955 (as I'm doing for some other research) I can see that the idea for telling these other stories was modeled in these papers. Regularly these weeklies offered a kind of single-panel informational cartoon that offered similar kinds of historical reorientations -- pointing out that Cleopatra was black, for instance, or that the technology for golden jewelry emerged from Africa. I've forgotten many individual instances, but this sense of a counterweight to a Eurocentric way of seeing the world was very much part of the cultural work taken on by the black weeklies, and in some of them Tolson's column appeared.

That Africa has its own proverb tradition was a shrewd "populist" decision by Tolson. I have to confess how relieved I was to arrive at the proverbs because they seemed to be such an oasis in the midst of a complexity that was present at all times and sometimes made unbearable (deliberately, so) by MBT. Heather Zadra's piece shows not only the ease with which Tolson takes up a "form" that is in itself designedly diverse--a folk art that intersects with sophisticated ambitions--but also the way in which the proverbial addresses an audience of which Tolson was strikingly aware (as a weekly newspaper columnist, for one thing). An elegant way to introduce reluctant readers to the importance of the layering that Tolson insists upon for his unremittingly complex vision would be to begin to talk about such ostensibly simple forms as the proverb and unpack the layers within them. That Tolson doesn't just quote these verbatim in a Whitman-like list but strings them over line breaks for maximum dramatic effect--and even modifies a few, at least from the originals that could be traced to one compendium in a volume--also reveals how subtly but how firmly he remains a presence throughout a poem that often seems to be a presentation in which the poet seems to slip out of sight. (I still wonder if these proverbs were found in a single book or books; they don't have Tolson's tone to them, they are so stripped, so pointed.)

Allan Borst's nearly opposite approach turns openly toward the question of the value of so many rhetorical maneuvers in the poem that seem intended to distance the reader. If the proverbs offer wisdom to everyone and (in a sense) support for anyone who is willing to read, then the opening stanzas of the poem, as Borst effectively demonstrates, plunge us into a disorienting world that is light-years away from the compressed intensity of oral literature. "The eagle's claw," with its glaring little degree-sign that exists as a kind of single blind eye peering over the shoulder of the phrase, turns out to have invisible texts inhabiting several basements. Reading isn't just listening to words and extracting information; it turns out to be a trip through a labyrinth in which one even crosses and recrosses one's own old footsteps. "Hostile takeover" only begins to describe such a process. I suppose one or two things to say is that first, it is interesting to think that the poem in one sense is reproducing the very experience that those who aren't endowed with cultural capital experience as they read, an experience that most of us who read for a livelihood have totally forgotten. That's a simple and even romantic idea to describe confusion. A more interesting notion is that the tanglement that Tolson reproduces is a register of how frustrating history looks to whoever is in the minority, where some tales get told and others get suppressed, where there are hidden entrances and unsuspecting exits. This too is a romanticized version of what is tangled in the act of reading. But the idea of trying to describe what makes this particular act of reading so difficult, so unfriendly, so hostile seems to be a crucial part of the poem, though beginning with this as the central problem clearly has a chilling effect. (This is just saying that it's easier to start reading Pound's CANTOS with Canto XIII and with Canto XII than with Canto I, though.)

That it is the poet's utopian dream to render complexity accessible by making the very act of constructing meaning so ravishingly attractive and evocative and even beautiful is my first response to Keguro Macharia's delineation of the endless echoes that threaten to overwhelm intellectual control. To move to "Fa," which seems as if it is an ostensive moment of repose, a kind of clearing of the air, and a "centering" of the poem (we seem temporarily removed from the whirlwind of history, or as removed as we are ever likely to get in this poem), is a maneuver by Macharia that allows us to see that even here images are "morphed" (tiger becomes all predators) and that spectacular visual and verbal effects remain. At times, here, I myself feel I'm being addressed by Macharia in a semi-ventriloquization of Tolson. Tolson's presence looms in arcane asides in unfamiliar tongues (what is "ndovu wawili wakigomana, nyasi huumia"?) and in a barrage of OED listings that as they stack up seem to open up parallel narratives--the opening up of which is, of course, a very Tolson-like digression.

Like Macharia, A. P. Moss centers on "Fa" as that which seems to be an interlude but which, in a persuasive reading, actually "fails to deliver on the promise of reversing its terms." These observations make me think I was too busy admiring Tolson's ability to present in his poem, in "Do (I)," a vision of Liberia that is from one angle a portrait of an unfinished state--even a woefully unfinished one--while at another angle disguising his doubts from the audience of his Liberian official sponsors. Moss catches up some of the various crossings that leave their trace on the text. Tolson can evoke the idea of hierarchy in such lines as "Leave fleshpots for the dogs and apes; for Man / The books whose head is golden espouse!" and negate those racist categories without directly invoking them, as if we are already well beyond such categories. What I would be eager to see now would be an argument that explains how "Do (II)" operates in relation to the first six poems. Many of the lines in the first six poems might be found in similar language in Tolson's previous collections; what is new for Tolson in LIBERIA is the audacity of the final poem and the equally audacious micro-footnoting.

The evidence that Tolson did work hard to make a distinction between Liberia and Africa, as Michael Callon argues, is supported by the two volumes from which Tolson took broad background sketches, the Wilson book and the Dubois book, one on Liberia, the other on Africa. But Callon nicely positions Tolson as struggling to find a way to expand his focus on just Liberia to embrace all of Africa, a strategy Tolson may not have been able to solve until deep in his work and mostly then in "Do (II)" (as its length attests). More to the point, I think Callon suggestively positions a complicated relation between Liberia, Africa and America, notably in the mother/wife/brother relation that he cites.

Jeff Sychterz reveals how rich that last poem can be. Especially striking was his commentary on lines 513-518 and his observation that "Do (II)" asserts a disturbing comparability among different cultures, each bent on "achieving a lost unity." When I tried to peer within the heaped up phrases of the first parts of "Do (II)" to look for parallels and resemblances, to identify smaller relations that momentarily combined in their own short-term linkages, I was always put off by the evidence of clashing and jarring, but his gloss of the passages beginning "lincoln walks the midnight epoch of the ant-hill" was persuasive to me. The issue of the Poundian fragment: here's an argument that might be further sustained by considering the un-fragment like suturing of a poet like Crane whom Tolson really did admire.

I can certainly agree with Ellen McWhorter's observation that among the many other things that the LIBRETTO confounds may be counted any neat and easy relation of modern to postmodern. One way to think about the flotsam and jetsam of global cultures that floats through the first two-thirds of "Do (II)" is that it enacts a nightmare meltdown of what Joyce tentatively envisioned as interlinked and overlapping in FINNEGANS WAKE, a text that is postmodern before its time so to speak. Certainly Tolson positioned himself as a late modernist in the 1940s looking back to the modernist experiments of the 1920s in the long poem and deciding to embrace that experimentalism but with a difference, a difference mediated in part through his social conscience work of the 1930s and his position as a minority poet. In the passage quoted from lines 421-422 ("absurd life shaking its ass's ears among/ the colors of vowels") one could be ready to identify these voices here--the first half is a quote from Blaise Cendrars, the second half an allusion to Rimbaud--as a form of sampling that is markedly different from Eliot's citing, though how this use of other voices is presented distinctively would require rather careful explanation. And I don't know whether Acker or a language poet would be happy having lines 620-628 presented as like their work: they seem too full of phrases in apposition to each other, with too many lists, too close to a syntax of flow and not deeply enough participating in inquiry and rupture. Out of context, yes, they are perhaps so deeply enigmatic that they at once provoke thought and query, but in context, it seems that they are supposed to flow in a thick and heavy but unstoppable stream in contrast to the debris that sloshes across the stanza in the first two-thirds of "Do (II)."

These brief and fragmentary responses by me begin to resemble helpful waves from one island to another. I hope something gets communicated despite the blurb-like quality of the form. Maybe I should just blurt out "Two thumbs up!" But these are pieces that set in motion so many new ways to talk about the poem. It seems more than ever to be a central work whose way of presenting itself is open to debate on numerous levels. It will certainly complicate the class conversation on poets after Tolson. I look ahead to overhearing some of those commentaries as the semester goes on, and seeing some of them up on MAPS even.

Return to Melvin Tolson