In a letter written in July, 1951, to Albert Maltz, one of the Hollywood Ten (a group of screenwriters ostracized by the Communist scare of the Cold War 1950’s, which culminated in the HUAC hearings), Edwin Rolfe expressed his eagerness to publish First Love, and Other Poems: “I’d hate to let 1951 pass without a small stab in the direction of a soul-satisfying project.” His “soul-satisfying project” underlines his expectations for himself as a poet of the American Left. Rolfe’s poetry addresses the definitive historical moments of the Great Depression of the 1930’s, the Spanish Civil War (1936-1939), and the postwar inquisition of the 1950’s known as McCarthyism. Still, as Gary Nelson suggests in his biographical essay of the poet, Rolfe’s poems are “not merely a response to history or a record of one’s passage through history but also a rhetorical intervention in history.” In his poetic writing, Rolfe positions himself as both an eyewitness and a commentator on history—history as the lived experiences of human suffering and aspirations, and as a process of engagement and transformation.
To My Contemporaries
In Rolfe’s first collection, dedicated to documentary filmmaker Leo Hurwitz, Rolfe declares his leftist poetics. The opening poem, “Credo,” stands as his mission statement: He aims to “pierce” the “dreamplate” of empty political rhetoric that recurs every day in the speeches of professors and politicians and to seek “the wisdom and the strength and the togetherness/ of bodies phalanxed in a common cause.” The task is a collective one, and in the title poem, he urges his fellow poets of the Left to join him:
You, Funaroff, and Hayes, and the others:enter with me the farthest regionsof space and time, the body movingacross huge continents, the brain surveyingthe contours of the land, destroyingthe cancerous trees and men, restoringthe spark to bodies overwhelmedby drudgery and dross and dust.
While poems like “Unit Meeting,” “Homage to Karl Marx,” and “These Men Are Revolution” define his political commitment with the images of group involvement—“These the world resolves/ into men moving, becoming revolution/ surely as blown seed takes root, flowers in sun”—Rolfe sees the compelling reason for such commitment, the misery of the Great Depression, in the images of individuals exploited and starving.
In “Asbestos,” for example, the body of John the working-class Everyman who builds “the granite tower” becomes its own deathbed.
John’s deathbed is a curious affair:the posts are made of bone, the spring of nerves,the mattress bleeding flesh. Infinite air,compressed from dizzy altitudes, now serves his skullface as a pillow. Overheada vulture leers in solemn mockery,knowing that what John had never known: that deadworkers are dead before they cease to...
(The entire section is 1407 words.)