Literary movements often proceed by dialectic: A new mode of expression emerges in rebellion against the dominant and shopworn convention of the day; the new form is explored, refined, popularized and reproduced, until it too becomes exhausted and trite, necessitating a swing back to the form against which it originally sprang in opposition. Yet this harking back is never a simple return to the previous form, but a new creation representing a new synthesis. Thus, literary expression is constantly renewing itself. In the twentieth century, the dominant mode of poetic expression has been the lyric, wherein the poet subjectively sings of his own feelings and imaginative longings. As the century approaches its close, many poets have reacted against the lyric impulse and returned to the more objective narrative form, using plot, characterization, and setting to tell the stories of lives other than their own. Andrew Hudgins—whose first book, Saints and Strangers (1985), includes a striking narrative sequence as well as a number of short lyrics—is among the poets who have returned to the narrative and are rewriting its rules (hence, they are often called “neonarrative poets”). It is interesting that one of Hudgins’ greatest contributions to the narrative tradition with After the Lost War: A Narrative is his success in blending narrative force with the beauty and grace of lyric expression.
After the Lost War is the story in verse of the Georgia-born poet and musician Sidney Lanier. The book is divided into four chronologically arranged sections, beginning with the years after the Civil War, when Lanier, a Confederate soldier, returns home. The story continues with Lanier’s marriage to Mary Day and the years spent rearing a family, trying to earn a meager income as a musician and poet while struggling with ill health from injuries sustained in the war. The book concludes with Lanier’s early death from tuberculosis in 1881. Each section is introduced with a few prose paragraphs that outline the major events of Lanier’s life during the period. The poems within each section (from nine to fourteen in number) are not arranged chronologically, but proceed according to a more intuitive logic, by a plot of emotion and theme rather than dramatically linked events. With the compressed language of poetry, the poems succeed, often by focusing on small events and feelings, putting flesh and blood on the bare prose skeleton of events in Lanier’s life, seemingly evoking more of the sweep of Lanier’s life than a three-hundred-page biography might have done.
The poems are all in the first-person voice of the central character, Lanier himself; in form, they are very much like poems one would call lyrics, each capable of standing on its own without necessarily being linked to the larger movements of the story. In fact, the traditional distinction between lyric and narrative—the one a personal expression of the poet and the other a story about characters—is blurred here. In the book’s preface Hudgins writes, “I’d like to thank Lanier for allowing me to use the facts of his life . . . to see how I might have lived it if it had been mine.” Hudgins cautions the reader not to confuse his Lanier with the historical one; his work is not a biography, or if it is, it is a highly subjective biography, with the writer allowing himself to merge somewhat with his subject.
If the book does not really concern the historical Sidney Lanier, then what is its true subject? The answer is in the book’s title. “After the lost war” describes both a time and a place—the South in the years following its defeat. Lanier’s story tells many stories, showing how a number of Southerners might have felt as they worked to reconstruct their lives on new terms. Lanier’s health was never quite the same after the war, and his struggle with death becomes emblematic of the South itself. In fact “with the younger generation of the South/ after the lost war, pretty much/ the whole of life has been not dying.” Further levels of meaning turn on the two most significant words in the title, “lost” and “war.” The narrative explores various nuances of the word “lost”—beyond merely not having been on the winning side—as in losing possessions or intangibles such as ideals, or losing direction and being confused. These themes extend the subject of Hudgins’ narrative to more universal dimensions, beyond the particular time and place of its setting. The narrative also explores the larger implications of the word “war,” as meaning not only soldiers locked in combat but also any two opposing sides that will not be reconciled. This is a book about struggles—between right and wrong, between nature and man, between life and death. Like a good novel, After the Lost War is a multilayered story with universal themes; it concerns both one man and every man.
Though a Confederate soldier, Hudgins’ Lanier admits to caring little for the cause he was supposedly defending. In “The Cult of the Lost Cause,” a poem addressed to his brother, he says “Forgive me, I am glad we lost.” This statement is not political but moral, for he believes that it was not only the South that lost the war; rather, everyone lost. Images of war, its death and destruction, run like a stain throughout the book. In the poem titled “After the Lost War,” even after the truce has been declared the stench and howl of battle still bleed into the landscape: “[E]ven in...
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