Erica Kaufman Responds to Ronaldo V. Wilson’s “Remembering the Dead”


When Chris Martin asked me to respond to a single poem in Ronaldo V. Wilson’s Poems of the Black Object, my first thought was, how can I ever decide? The book as a whole is overwhelming—in a good way. Wilson raises crucial (and often jarring) questions about race and sexuality, form and formalism (many of the pieces in this book are stunning “lyric essays” to borrow a phrase from Wayne Koestenbaum), and asks his readers to really join him on a journey—often kinky, often violent, often sad. As Wilson writes, “art is equal to blood is equal to the savage that you aren’t” (“The Lesson”).

So, in picking a poem, I decided to step out of character and choose one that makes me feel a bit off kilter, delightfully uncomfortable, not a poem that I could easily gush over.

The fourth section of the book, “Chronophotographe,” introduces us to “Herman the German.” Herman stars in the last five poems of this section and is attributed to “Herman the German, Porn Star.” As someone who grew up on WWF and Monday Night Wrestling, when I see “Herman the German,” I think of pro-wrestler Ulf Herman. My other association is of one of those big crane things nicknamed “Herman the German” that was mostly used to move bridges (post-WW2). Anyway, the point of these anecdotes is that neither of my “Herman the German” associations particularly ring porn star.

REMEMBERING THE DEAD

Thinking of Herman’s death is not a lament
but an act of obsession,

akin to a set of prepositions: in, or on, or at.
Locating the death

outside of a stupid question,

I ask BigChet: Was it AIDS?
No, it was age.

In the middle of a memory, I am

keen,

know, that to want anything in excess is
part of a map I set

myself against (Herman’s big white body, silver
hair, his face):

If my body is brown and muscular, my face
heavy, jaw boned, dimpled and full

of perfect teeth.

My eyes, vacant.

If I am well veined and long fingered,
fast and agile,

he is dead.

It begins, “thinking of Herman’s death is not a lament/but an act of obsession”. We learn a lot of things here—that Herman has passed, that there is a difference between elegy and obsession. After someone dies, part of the mourning process is to remember, often times over and over. But the word “obsession” here has different connotations.  Obsession differs from repetition, feels loaded with guilt.

The second couplet reads, “akin to a set of prepositions: in, or on, or at./Locating the death”. Prepositions are little words that do a ton of work—they provide connection, indicate time and space (among other things). But, why would an “act of obsession” be “akin to a set of prepositions”? Is obsession another form of bridging the gap that death leaves, an attempt to forge connection, relationship with something or someone that no longer exists? Already only four lines into the poem, it is clear that enjambment is key, as the line break after “locating the death” leaves the reader literally suspended, forced to attempt to “locate.”

This “locating” evolves into a “stupid question” which is revealed as “Was it AIDS?” For me, this is a particularly moving moment in the poem—one that really reveals the genuineness and honesty of the speaker—the asking of a real question. The poem then evolves into “in the middle of memory, I am/keen.” Herman died of age, and suddenly we find ourselves inside a portrait, with the line break after “I am” inviting us to linger in this memory, to see “Herman’s big white body, silver/hair, his face.” We also see the speaker’s hypothetical body in contrast, “brown and muscular.”

But, framing this picture, Wilson places lines like “to want anything in excess is/part of a map I set/myself against” and “my eyes, vacant.” How can wanting in excess be part of a map? Is the speaker in love with Herman? If someone is wanting in excess, why would the eyes be vacant? But, as I ask these questions, they feel cliché…is the speaker simply describing the kind of desire one feels amidst mourning? I’m imagining a person in a labyrinth, suddenly, eyes “vacant” with thought, but also with disbelief. The poem concludes, “If I am well veined and long-fingered,/fast and agile,/ he is dead.”

When the speaker describes himself, he uses “if,” the conditional, the doubtful, the uncertain, the vulnerable. The poem ends with a sense of who this speaker might be now, lamenting the loss of Herman, a former lover. And, “he is dead” on its own—both line and stanza—represents the clearest phrase in the entire poem. We’ve come on a journey of “remembering the dead,” and now that we’ve exited the memory, nothing has changed. But, in some ways, isn’t that why memories are important?

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One Response to Erica Kaufman Responds to Ronaldo V. Wilson’s “Remembering the Dead”

  1. Robert Mueller says:

    I like this analysis, and I think that “map” is a right way to think of the book as a whole, as a sequence, and that the “Chronotographie” poems offer a major affirmative point in the seqence. In other words, reference such as are questioned also make sense in the context of the whole sequence. Think of persistent themes summarized by key words and then supply the words as appropriate, so that “vacant – wanting -map” are part of this “whole.”

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