Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 885
The forty-four poems in After the Lost War by Andrew Hudgins are all spoken in the voice of the historical Georgia-born poet and musician Sidney Lanier. They are divided into four sections, ranging from chronicles of Lanier’s Civil War experience to the personal aftermath of the war; from Lanier’s state of mind during a time when his consumption threatened his life to the charting of the last days and thoughts of a man slowly dying of pulmonary tuberculosis. The poems follow a rough chronological order, and thematic leitmotifs unify the sections of the book.
Each section is introduced by a short biographical paragraph, and in the preface Hudgins informs the reader that the voice of the poems will not be familiar to those who know the poetry and prose of the historical Lanier. Thus, the poems are unified by an empathetic, artistic impulse rather than a historical one. Poetically, Hudgins explores narrative, dramatic monologue, and voice, but thematically he is interested in questions of how a man of talent and sensitivity confronts a life of brutality.
The brutal life of war is explored in “Burial Detail,” in which Hudgins’s Lanier tells of the grisly assignment of burying dead soldiers in a mass grave and scattering lime between layers of human flesh. At one point during the long night of burial detail, the soldier-poet faints and falls into the mass grave of rotting flesh. Ironically, the poet finds comfort in the acknowledgment that he too will rot, comfort because he sees the laws of nature redeeming man’s inhumanity to man. This theme of nature’s redemptive power is communicated in the climax of the poem when Lanier sees what he calls “the most beautiful thing I’ve ever seen:/ dawn on the field after the Wilderness. . . ./ In short, it looked like nothing human.” Without saying so directly, the persona communicates his disgust with human endeavor and yearns for something more—the immutable laws and cycles of nature.
The book confronts readers with questions of human violence and invites them to ponder what they will do to compensate for the blood and sins of this generation. One of the answers arrived at by Lanier is that minor redemption can be found in human empathy and personal expiation. In “Post Cards of a Hanging,” Hudgins’s Lanier sends nine numbered postcards to his brother Clifford, who served with him in the war. He reports seeing a black man lynched by a mob for insulting a white woman. Deeply troubled by this cruelty, Lanier describes the scene through the image pattern of shoes, feet, and boots. A passer-by asks if he might have the dead man’s boots. Lanier goes home and blacks all his own boots and then walks five miles into the woods, sits down, and sobs “until my stomach hurt.” He then shoulders his boots and walks barefoot back home. “When I got there/ my feet were sticking to the ground with blood./ It helped a bit.” The poet is deeply troubled by this socially sanctioned murder and, not being able to intervene, wishes to make some kind of personal expiation. There is no talk of vicarious bearing of burdens, but the persona attempts, in a not wholly logical way, to right the wrongs of the world with the offering of his own personal suffering.
Hudgins’s Lanier is very much interested in the nature of the soul and the proof from everyday experience that the soul exists. For example, in “The Yellow Steeple,” Lanier describes a day when, walking home, he cuts across a cemetery. A worker, painting the church’s steeple yellow, drops the can of paint, raining the persona with coat-ruining drops. The poet then looks up to the sky and sees an unmoving hawk, a point of “predatory grace.” He then “barks [his] shins on a marble angel” and falls into a creek. The poem concludes, “It was one of those sustaining days/ when you’re absolutely sure you have a soul.” The poem’s religious allusions to death, manifestations of Holy Spirit and grace, angelic influence, and baptism are all ironic, and yet lead the speaker to profess belief in the soul. Whether the confession is straight or ironic, for the speaker, grace is predatory but remains an insistent reality.
At the thematic center of the book lies the theme of death—how it is to be met and what happens afterward. The dying Sidney Lanier lies in a tent in the woods in the poem “The House of the Lord Forever.” A preacher starts quizzing the man on his deathbed with questions such as “Where will you spend eternity?” and “Where is God?” The poem describes their conversation/debate. The persona says, “I won’t/ debate my soul with strangers—not/ when I have family who pray/ for me so urgently.” The poem ends, “How can they be so sure? They are so sure.” The “they,” no doubt, refers both to the sympathetic, desperate family members who yearn for their husband/father’s survival and to the preacher who offers facile, clichéd sentiments. The persona is not unconcerned with matters of the soul and eternal habitation, but he is put off by surety, by blind faith. He favors imagination as prompted by observation of nature.
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