The Weeping Time: Elegy in Three Voices by Christopher Conlon.
Washington, D.C.: Argonne House Press, 2004.
138 pp. $19.95 paper. ISBN 1-887641-18-1.
In March of 1859, Pierce Butler, a Philadelphian, wealthy by virtue of two plantations in Georgia, auctioned some 430 of his slaves in one of the largest such sales in American history. That auction became known as 'The Weeping Time'. The poet Christopher Conlon memorializes that day with a book of poems bearing the same name. Butler is of further historical interest by virtue of his rocky marriage to the famous English actress, Fanny Kemble, who seems only to have found out after their nuptials that her husband's wealth was founded upon slavery.
The Weeping Time: Elegy in Three Voices consists of above 100 individual poems which compose a single narrative. The three voices are Butler, Kemble and a slave, named Jack, who Butler appointed to accompany Kemble, on pleasure excursions, rowing along the river that skirted the main Butler plantation. Butler would rather have made his business trip to the Georgia plantation, in 1838, without Kemble (then Fanny Butler), who had already made her distress at being the wife of a slave-owner clear. She did not seem "beyond hope," however, and he felt that she would be comforted to see for herself how "well" Butler slaves lived.
The Weeping Time is the poet's second excursion into the book-length narrative, his first being Garbo in Love (Word Works, Inc., 2003). Garbo was a game attempt that succeeded at times beyond what might have been expected. The Weeping Time shows that lessons were learned. The subject is compelling for its deep humanity rather than its deeply neurotic originals. The text and characterization are more consistent throughout.
Conlon wisely opens with a brief proleptic section of three poems spoken one each by the three characters. These are among the better poems in the volume and give it a sense of direction from the first page. Butler is on his way to the great auction of his slaves that is about to take place at a Savannah, Georgia, racecourse. He carries a bag of silver dollars that he intends to distribute among them, one shiny coin apiece, after the sale. Next Fanny Kemble (she and Pierce had been divorced by that time and she had taken back her maiden name) reads about the slave auction in the newspapers. In the third poem, Jack, now in his forties, perhaps, reflects as he rides along in a boxcar toward his new master's plantation.
Conlon also wisely includes a disclaimer, in an afterward to the book, stating that he has "freely streamlined events and chronologies and invented motivations, psychologies and, when necessary, personal histories" for his characters. He cites five well-known titles on Butler and Kemble that are the source of his historical information but he chooses not to be restricted by them.
While Butler did, for example, give each of the slaves included in the sale one dollar, the money seems to have consisted of four considerably less dramatic quarters. There are a number of such small historical discrepancies throughout The Weeping Time. Margaret Neilson Armstrong's Fanny Kemble: A Passionate Victorian (1938) also presents a far more important discrepancy, however. Upon reading about the auction in the newspapers, according to Armstrong, Kemble found only one reason for comfort:
As for Jack -- Fanny's own servant with whom she had spent many pleasant hours rowing and fishing on the broad, sun-drenched Altahama -- Jack, Fanny remembered with thankfulness, was safely dead. His masters had brought the boy to the North after an illness, thinking the change might do him good. Unfortunately, they had forgotten that, in Philadelphia, he was free; so for fear the abolitionists would get hold of him he had to be kept locked up in an empty house, where Fanny had been allowed to visit him once, on condition that she made no attempt to set him free. But she could do nothing for him, and the "change" was so far from beneficial that he soon pined away and died. As she recalled the incident it seemed to her characteristic of the southern planter's mingling of kindness and cruelty.
Ms. Armstrong had access to all of the available source materials including Kemble's letters to which this passage seems to refer. Before belatedly publishing her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation, in 1863, in an attempt to rouse the British public from a pronounced apathy that threatened to allow their government to support the Southern states in the Civil War, in favor of cotton concessions, Kemble attached an afterward concerning Jack's fate:
...I never returned there, nor ever saw again any of the poor people among whom I lived during this winter but Jack, once, under sad circumstances. The poor lad's, to try what benefit he might derive from the change; but this was before the passing of the Fugitive Slave Bill, when, touching the soil of the Northern states, a slave became free; and such was the apprehension felt lest Jack should be enlightened as to this fact by some philanthropic abolitionist, that he was kept shut up in a high upper room of a large empty house, where even I was not allowed to visit him. I heard at length of his being in Philadelphia; and upon my distinct statement that I considered freeing of their slaves the business of Messrs. B. themselves, and not mine, I was at length permitted to see him. Poor fellow! coming to the North did not prove to him the delight his eager desire had so often anticipated from it; nor, under such circumstances, is it perhaps much to be wondered at that he benefited but little by the change -- he died not long after.
It is probable that neither Armstrong nor Kemble accurately makes the point. A southern slave did not become free upon entering Pennsylvania (or, for that matter, any "free" state). Federal law was clear on the matter. An attempt of the Pennsylvania Supreme Court to make a way around the original Fugitive Slave Law, of 1793, by finding a private agent guilty of kidnapping for having remanded a slave from Pennsylvania to Maryland was forcefully overturned by the U. S. Supreme Court in Prigg v. United States (1842). The Butlers would have been well aware of the fact when they brought Jack to Philadelphia.
It is almost certainly the case, then, that they brought their dying slave into the state with every confidence in their "rights of property" and something occurred to shake that confidence. Kemble's mention of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 comes near to the point. The Act was considered essential by the South because the Pennsylvania legislature, refusing to concede, tried yet another tack with an 1847 statute amending the state's kidnapping laws. The new statute made it illegal to use any state funds, personnel or other resources to enforce the reigning Fugitive Slave Act. Between 1847 and 1850, then, the 1793 act could only be enforced by the use of federal officers, clerks, jails, etc. It was a situation the South found intolerable. If the legislation spread to other states (many of which found their own "Personal Liberty Laws" overturned by Prigg), its representatives averred, the section would secede, hence the new act.
Jack could not have been sold at the auction. He could not have taken the train ride "in wooden boxcars / like big coffins.../ as they head to Savannah / and sale" described in the poem, in his voice, in the opening section of The Weeping Time, or have had the feelings ascribed to him in the later poems about the auction itself. Jack was already long dead, probably having arrived in Philadelphia in the spring of 1847, upon the Butler's return that year from his winter residence at the plantation, and died there, later that year or during the next, hidden in an attic in order to protect him from the newly emboldened abolitionists.
While this may leave The Weeping Time flawed as history it does no harm to the book as narrative poem. Advertently or otherwise, extending Jack's life avoids the need to flesh out a second slave character to provide perspective upon the great slave auction. There is little biographical information available about Jack apart from the few details recorded during the brief time he was Fanny Kemble's personal servant, and, therefore, the subject of her pen. All appear in her remarkable Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation in 1838-1839. Fewer find a place in Christopher Conlon's volume. The character built around these hints of biography is meant to be representative. He portrays an ironic dignity that did not die in Philadelphia.
It is, perhaps, this greater freedom from biographical detail that allowed Conlon to create his strongest character to date in Jack. The single fact that Pierce Butler has chosen the young slave to serve his wife, Fanny, is all that is essential:
He needs a slave to attend to his wife,
accompany her on her trips on the island,
a manservant, an errand-runner, and he thinks
of Jack, even tempered and easy, the former
little black songbird before he grew
The rest is slavery imagined from the inside. Jack remembers the fields. He recalls a flogging. He reflects upon God:
...God Himself white, with a
white, white beard, all blindingly white,
and the niggers, maybe, down the hill a ways,
in their dark cabins, allowed, if they're
very good, a blanket and shoes, all the
cornmeal they can eat, granted them by
a benevolent white God...
Beside her constantly, he comes to be torn by love and hate of Fanny Butler with her freedom, perfumes and proximity.
The character of Fanny is also generally well conceived but suffers comparison to her biography. The Fanny Kemble who described the ordeal of her trip to Butler Island in exacting detail, as well as the construction of her family's tiny unpainted and un-papered abode on the plantation, the construction and operation of the rice mill, the exotic flora and fauna that brought her such pleasure during her daily excursions, and much more, is, at best, a distant presence in The Weeping Time. The close reasoner who loved to read the Romantics, and their philosopher-muse Godwin, as well as her dear Shakespeare, and became just a bit (and only a bit) more deeply imbued with their fierce dedication to liberty, fraternity and equality than most swooning young Englishwomen, bringing it over into her Unitarianism and great respect for William Ellery Channing, is not present at all.
The Butler's spent part of each year, during their early married life, as guests of Boston cousins who attended Channing's church and Fanny was much impressed, both socially and intellectually, by the dapper Transcendentalist minister. His moderate abolitionist tract on slavery was the inspiration for one of her own that was to be published shortly after her marriage, together with her first published journal, but that she agreed, for the sake of her husband and his family, to withdraw and to destroy.
On the other hand, the Fanny Kemble who finds herself subliminally attracted to well proportioned black men, in The Weeping Time, is nowhere at all in evidence in her own writings. The woman, who feels strangely attracted to Jack, at one point in this volume, and who does penance by acquiescing to have dutiful sex with her husband, wrote the following in her Journal of a Residence on a Georgia Plantation:
I had a conversation that interested me a good deal, during my walk today, with my peculiar slave, Jack. ...[H]is questions, like those of an intelligent child, are absolutely inexhaustible; his curiosity about all things beyond this island, the prison house of his existence, is perfectly intense; his countenance is very pleasant, mild, and not otherwise than thoughtful; he is, in common with the rest of them, a stupendous flatterer, and, like the rest of them, also seems devoid of physical and moral courage. Today, in the midst of a torrent of inquiries about places and things, I suddenly asked him if he would like to be free. A gleam of light absolutely shot over his whole countenance, like the vivid and instantaneous lightning; he stammered, hesitated, became excessively confused, and at length replied: "Free, missis! what for me wish to be free? Oh no, missis, me no wish to be free, if massa only let we keep pig!" ...[I]t was a sad spectacle, and I repented my question.
Jack is described on more than one occasion, in the Journal, with implications that would seem to belie any possibility of romantic attraction:
...as long as I am here, he will certainly be nothing but "my boy Jack," and I should think, after my departure, will never be degraded to the rank of a field hand or common laborer. Indeed, the delicacy of his health, to which his slight, slender figure and languid face bear witness, and which was one reason of his appointment to the eminence of being "my slave," would, I should think, prevent the poor fellow's ever being a very robust or useful working animal.
While it is not reasonable to expect that a writer's text will establish beyond all doubt, on all occasions, the possibilities of his or her sexual fantasies, even a cursory reading of the Journal suggests that Conlon's choice, in this particular, is gratuitous.
While this cliche, that has been grafted to Kemble's life, might seem an empowering one, upon reflection there are many reasons to question the wisdom of it. It is highly unlikely that Jack would have proven attractive to Fanny Butler because slavery is an ugly and demeaning -- a deeply unattractive -- condition, not in the least a romantic Rousseau-ian (or, for that matter, lurid) state. It might have been far stronger, in The Weeping Time, to let Fanny's repugnance at Negroid facial features and slave hygiene mingle, as it did historically, with her growing sense of the individual humanity of the slaves of the Butler plantation. The realism that she herself demanded was far stronger than any romantic idea:
I am strongly inclined to believe that peculiar ignorance of the laws of health and the habits of decent cleanliness are the real and only causes of this disagreeable characteristic of the race, thorough ablutions and change of linen, when tried, having been perfectly successful in removing all such objections; and if ever you have come into anything like neighborly proximity with a low Irishman or woman, I think you will allow that the same causes produce very nearly the same effects. The stench in an Irish, Scotch, Italian, or French hovel is quite as intolerable as any I ever found in our Negro houses, and the filth and vermin which abound about the clothes and persons of the lower peasantry of any of those countries as abominable as the same conditions in the black population of the United States. A total absence of self-respect begets these hateful physical results, and in proportion as moral influences are remote, physical evils will abound. Well-being, freedom, and industry induce self-respect, self-respect induces cleanliness and personal attention, so that slavery is answerable for all the evils that exhibit themselves where it exists -- from lying, thieving, and adultery, to dirty houses, ragged clothes, and foul smells.
An invented psychology, in these particulars, does The Weeping Time no favors. Unappealingly foreign though their features seemed to her, Fanny Butler was strong enough to put superficial matters aside and to advocate, in such rigorous terms as these, for the race as fellow and equal human beings. Her insights easily outdo the character Conlon has created.
Kemble's dream, in the poem "Old Nat," of being stabbed/penetrated by a ten foot tall Nat Turner, while no more likely, is interesting for a fascinating question that it raises. In the poem, Turner approaches:
...raising a gigantic
broadsword above her, and she raises her head
slowly, exposes her pulsing throat, crying,
Here, yes, open me here, let my blood's passion
wash over you here, her need wild on her lips
as in her dream the blade comes hacking down
and she bursts into a thousand red stars, a riptide
slashing across space, her well-earned consummation,...
The Freudian implications make something of the scene and a contemporary drama needs its sex and violence if it is to keep the reader's attention. This is probably all of the explanation necessary, should a reader feel the need for explanations, but the following lines from Kemble's favorite abolitionist tract suggest there might be more to the scene than meets the eye. Addressing the radical abolitionists who reputedly suggested violence (largely a myth spread by slaveholders), Channing includes the following lines in his pamphlet "Slavery":
The word Massacre has resounded through the land, striking terror into strong as well as tender hearts, and awakening indignation against whatever may seem to threaten such a consummation.... Better were it for us to bare our own breasts to the knife of the slave, than to arm him with it against his master.
It is staggering to think that the poet may have been familiar on some level, conscious or otherwise, with these lines from an 1830s tract. The coincidence it suggests in Kemble's mind gives the poem an impressive sense of emotional collision.
As for her frequent outbursts of tears, Conlon stands on unassailable ground. Kemble was every bit as emotional as she was rational. But the one trait without the other gives a stilted impression and a less variegated character. Fanny Kemble grew up at a time, in England, in which upper class and financially independent women suddenly found the conditions favorable to throw off many of the restrictions under which they had previously labored. The picture of her, borrowed from an acquaintance, Sidney George Fisher, in the poem "Extraterrestrial", gives a sense of this:
...on horseback and
alone, scandalously enough, wearing a green cloth
riding habit, a man's waistcoat and hat, a black
silk cravat, and a veil. Despite her bizarre costume,
or because of it, he'd later say he'd never seen her
looking so well, and accompanying her home, he thought
he even loved her a little,...
It is unfortunate that there isn't more of this in the Kemble of The Weeping Time. There was certainly more of it in Kemble herself, and, during the years she was married to Pierce Butler, her frequent external and internal conflicts often came down to her being a Regency woman trying to manage the much more staid role of an upper class American housewife. From the perspective of the time, it was Pierce who was generally understood to be the long-suffering husband with an impossible wife, however much she was attractive to men who did not have to "put up with her," and, in the subsequent divorce, initiated by Butler, she was required to surrender her daughters to their father's care. From our perspective today, the tears that resulted, first to last, are not difficult to understand and were by no means limited to her frustrations regarding the matter of slavery.
If Jack, then, suggests a clear advance in Conlon's ability to write depth into a character (and he does), and Kemble is well-enough drawn to be an effective character (and she is), the problems of The Weeping Time begin and end with the character of Pierce Butler. While his ability to play the flute receives passing mention, Fanny's husband is otherwise a compendium of all 19th century white male failings. There is not the least empathy for him, much less sympathy.
The Pierce Butler who successfully competed for Fanny's affections with a member of the American blueblood Biddle family, and the dashing, romantic figure Edward Trelawny, among many others, is nowhere in evidence. Butler first met the world's most famous Shakespearean actress after having been recommended to her circle by a mutual friend. Shortly after she arrived to perform in the U. S., he traveled from Philadelphia to New York to join her entourage. The group made their way to Niagra Falls where she found the falls magnificent and his company most satisfactory. With the exception of a brief return to Philadelphia, on business, he accompanied the Kemble family, on their American tour, for over a year.
In The Weeping Time, it is not an anxious Pierce who pursues a Fanny who is disconcertingly in control. Instead, Fanny is coldly perceived as another furnishing to be acquired for his finely appointed home. As for her private attractions, he imagines her a whore or a lusty black wench, the type of woman he has come to prefer. The poems relating to their courtship being necessarily few, in order for the story to get on, Conlon has settled for (for the most part invented) whatever details will show Pierce in the worst possible light.
As for Pierce Butler's actual personal vices, they belonged to his place and time. The spirited young Philadelphia gentleman of the 1830s sought to emulate the behavior of the English nobility much as teenagers emulate hip-hop artists today. Napoleon had been defeated. English stock had risen considerably as the result. The Prince of Wales, frivolous during the Regency period, had become the frivolous King George IV and his influence was supreme until the ascension of Victoria. The Regency gentleman's fondness for gambling, drinking and womanizing was the model for many a Philadelphia gentleman, during his younger years, and for a few for all of their lives. Pierce was one such gentleman. It was a phase he never quite grew out of. In his favor, he seems to have been more moderate in his vices than most.
In the poem "Happiness" Pierce begins to dismantle Fanny's independence and she is vaguely portrayed as a victim of her husband and circumstance:
Of course she must retire from the stage,
Pierce tells her, as no respectable Southern man
would be married to a woman who works,
who earns money, certainly not one who puts on
It is one small item on his docket but it is indicative of the latitude the poet has allowed himself even in small matters.
First, Pierce was not a Southern gentleman. He grew up in Philadelphia. The Butler plantation was left to him and his brother, John, by his maternal grandfather. His grandfather, Major Pierce Butler, was the third son of Sir Richard Butler, an Irish Baronet of Cloughgrenan, descended from the Earls of Ormond, and, after resigning his commission in the British army, married into a slave-holding family from South Carolina. After the Revolution, he represented that state as a member of the Constitutional Convention and of the U.S. Senate. By the time young Pierce was born, the old man had moved to Philadelphia to be near his daughter, the wife of the eminent physician and scholar Dr. James Mease. He had moved his slaves from Carolina to Georgia and left them in the care of Roswell King and his son Roswell Jr.
Pierce and his brother, John, inherited their maternal grandfather's various properties, at first in trust, upon the condition that they change their last names from Mease to Butler. Pierce alone seems to have inherited the bulk and to have signed over half interest in the plantations to John as a gift, an act much admired by his acquaintances. Each year, throughout most of their adult lives, the brothers discussed which of the two would have to make the trip south to attend to the unpleasant business of the plantation where Pierce, at least, lived in near isolation from neighbors with whom he had little in common. These are the facts that compose Pierce Butler's southern-ness.
Second, no gentleman on either side of the Atlantic, at that time, would have permitted his wife to work much less perform professionally on stage. Fanny was well aware of this as she sought a husband who could maintain her in society. She had already long expressed a desire to leave the stage.
In the next poem, "Fiance", Pierce receives his most sympathetic treatment: a blankly stated catalogue of his aristocratic qualities:
He knows how to walk, to dress, to speak,
how to say charming things to the ladies:
he can ride, he can shoot, he can swim
excellently well; he can write a graceful
sentence or verse, has read Milton
and Shakespeare, is well-informed in politics,
and can play the flute.
Conlon admits that these are the traits that attracted Fanny but has her wonder, in the final lines, whether he won't prove to be a hollow man. As for Conlon's own opinion, this is clearly not a list of the kind of qualities that impress him on the whole.
These poems, together, contain nearly all that The Weeping Time has to say about Pierce Butler that is less than devastating. (A reviewer may blush to mention that the Fanny of The Weeping Time is absolutely joyful upon discovering that her husband is well hung, an observation which may be considered to sort in his favor or to be a mere accident of nature as the reader will prefer.) At twelve, Pierce travels to the plantation with a grandfather who finds him a repulsive weakling. At the plantation, the young man glories in being God to the slaves he already expects to rule with absolute authority. By Conlon's estimation, the twelve year old has neither the least strength of character nor a moment's hesitation or confusion about arrangements on the island.
A few years later, the elder Pierce Butler has died and the younger is back at the plantation participating in the gang-rape of a young black girl "overwhelmed by a feeling of slick sliding joy". Back in Philadelphia he is an insatiable spendthrift and a glorious drunkard who frequents the whorehouses of Philly. As for women, the Major has already taught him:
...that a woman is constitutionally
weak, prone to hysteria, and should be kept
at all costs far from intellectual discourse,
overstimulation, guided instead to her
natural pastimes of music, sewing, kitchen
supervision and light conversation, treated much
as an invalid, which in many ways she is.
The poem in which these lines appear -- "Apt Pupil" -- is actually quite realistic and well written, and, again, it might have been better if the poet had developed such themes as this rather than invent such lurid details as a gang-rape.
The Pierce Butler who courted Fanny Kemp, though inculcated with the ideas about women and African-Americans that are found in "Apt Pupil", as he undoubtedly was, by his peers, knew full well that she was independent, headstrong and loved intellectual conversation. Like any romantic youth, he found these qualities tremendously attractive and he undoubtedly imagined the most impossible possibilities for their married life. When he brought her home to live in Philadelphia, however, his family found those qualities difficult to bear.
Just prior to marrying, Fanny had contracted to have her diary of her American tour published (to which she would, later, attempt to add the aforementioned anti-slavery tract) in order to set aside a fund to provide her dear Aunt Dall a humble retirement. The tract was an attack against the couple's most considerable source of wealth. That wealth had ranged the entire Butler/Mease family on the side of the slaveholders and publication of a direct attack upon it could only have the worst results. As for the diary, it was indiscreet by the mores of the time and place. Pierce managed to convince his wife to censor some of the most inconsiderate passages at the cost of damaging the marriage. When inflammatory excerpts were leaked to the press the public was incensed. The book was a scandalous best seller and an embarrassment to the society in which the family moved. Fanny's relations with the family grew contentious as the result.
Pierce had promised to provide his prospective bride with a country house. To that end he hired workman to expand a farm property included in his trust. By American standards it was a grand affair. But in English parlance a country house is quite a different thing. Fanny found it a grave disappointment, and, as was her habit, she did not scruple about letting her husband know as much on a continuing basis. Even after she superintended still further changes designed to bring it closer to her expectations she felt that it, and virtually everything else about American country life, was unbearable.
Surely, all this time, the Pierce Butler who had flaunted the lessons of "Apt Pupil" was hearing little from his family but "We told you so." No longer under any misconceptions about the possibilities of a romantic marriage, he eventually began to stay away from the house as much as possible. At the same time he retrenched somewhat behind the lessons he'd been taught in a desperate attempt to salvage his marriage and his reputation.
Fanny began to press for a divorce. Pierce refused. A visit to England, for which she had been lobbying almost from the first, was decided upon instead. For business reasons, she went alone and he followed later for a brief stay.
During a second visit, several years later, Pierce was noticed to be heavy drinker, a habit he shared with many if not most of the men at the "evenings" the couple attended. He and Fanny spent over two years in England during which time he spent lavishly on hotels and entertaining. On at least one occasion he was caught in an adulterous dalliance. What rapprochement this extended visit to Fanny's beloved England might have affected between the two (Fanny having taken little notice of the "chambermaid affair") was soon offset by the need to live in a Philadelphia boarding house, upon their return, in order to rent out all available properties and recover the family finances. Shortly thereafter, Fanny went through her husband's private papers and found amorous letters to him from another woman. Husband and wife were soon separated. Fanny returned to England surely aware that the move invited divorce on grounds of abandonment.
From the point of the second trip to England, it seems clear that Pierce Butler had become a profligate in most ways. He felt free to seek respite from his marital problems by whatever means might present themselves. From the point at which Fanny found his secret cache of love letters, his behavior was coldly calculated to drive his wife toward missteps, or apparent missteps, that would allow him to play the victim of an "unmanageable" woman and to divorce or to separate from her. It was cruel and all too easy, given Fanny's personality, but it is arguable that his actions were the desperate result of having, however imperfectly, labored, without the least success, to find some way to come to terms with a wife who for ten years had stridently and ceaselessly complained about almost every detail of their lives together.
The enormously arrogant rapist, teenage drunkard and frequenter of brothels, and unremitting dominator of women and slaves, portrayed in Christopher Conlon's The Weeping Time is almost entirely a fabrication. While it may be Conlon's judgment that this is a proper interpretation of the historical record, it can only suggest more about the limitations of the author than of the slave owner. All disclaimers aside, it was unwise to ignore virtually every fact or trait that might make him a sympathetic character. Building a straw man in order to tear him down does neither the book nor the reader any good.
There was much more to be gained by avoiding such simplifications. Pierce Butler was possessed of a relatively normal combination of strengths and weaknesses. He believed in the institution of slavery not because he was a ghoul but because during the formative years of his life his society accepted it and he could not choose to surrender the wealth and standing it brought him. The standard rationalizations and dehumanization, which he shared, reflect the growing divisions over the institution and the fearful approach of societal and personal conscience. This lesson is vastly more to the point than to portray slave owners as bloodless, evil, chauvinists.
The seemingly inexplicable cycle of holocausts, wars, and institutions of oppression that somehow prove to be so inextricably a part of civilized human existence, regardless of all of our efforts to keep such trolls as Conlon has portrayed from power, are so mysterious because we refuse to credit the fact that they are generally not the product of individual aberations. They are brought about by normal human desires in combination with normal (often venial) human failings that collectively snowball out of control. It is the kind of dynamic that allows guy-next-door-types to reject slavery and ethnic cleansing, today, with genuine horror, while feeling entirely justified to maintain their wealth through economic policies that leave millions without health insurance and further erode the franchise of millions more through systematic indebtedness public and private. It is this that we dearly need our poets to show to us about the Pierce Butlers of the world.
Christopher Conlon has carved himself a niche with his narrative collections Garbo in Love and The Weeping Time. The task he has set himself is a daunting one and it is no surprise that he continues to struggle with it. What is a surprise is how well he has acquitted himself, especially in the latter volume. He begins to master the tools necessary to the extended narrative. The subject is well chosen. The pacing of the volume is excellent. The poems that serve primarily to provide necessary information begin to receive the full attention they deserve. The dramatic moments scattered throughout are more successful for these facts.
Gilbert Wesley Purdy has published poetry, prose and translation in many journals, paper and electronic, including: Jacket Magazine, Poetry International (San Diego State University), The Georgia Review (University of Georgia), Grand Street, SLANT (University of Central Arkansas), Consciousness Literature and the Arts (University of Wales, Aberystwyth), Orbis (UK), Eclectica, and Valparaiso Poetry Review. Links to his work online and to a selected bibliography of his work in paper venues appear at his Hyperlinked Online Bibliography.