by Jeremy Paden, Poetry Translation Faculty
Nine years ago at a reading with the Affrilachian Poets at Kentucky’s Governor’s School for the Arts, I read early drafts of poems that became the Captain poems that form a central thread in my forthcoming collection World as Sacred Burning Heart.
They were poems about Columbus. At the end of the event, a young woman came up to me ask why Columbus; after all, he was anything but a hero. My only response at the time was that these poems were not encomiums, but essays on the nature of being a captain. That answer, I am sure, was almost as disappointing as my having read them.
However undeveloped my response, I meant something specific. To quote Aimé Césaire’s Discourse on Colonialism, I was writing poems that proposed to “study how colonization works to decivilize the colonizer, to brutalize him in the true sense of the word, to degrade him, to awaken him to buried instincts, to covetousness, violence, race hatred, and moral relativism . . . .” These Captain poems were meant to be an inventory of the blind passions that characterize captaincy, of the sins that the lionization of founding fathers tries to forget and bury. It is easy enough to turn captains into monsters. Hitler, as Césaire notes, is easily vilified. Much more difficult is for “the very distinguished, very humanistic, very Christian bourgeois [to recognize that they] without being aware of it, have a Hitler (or Columbus, or Cortez) inside them.”
Over the last forty years, there has been a significant change in how the U.S. public thinks about Columbus. He is, as my daughter tells me, one of the truly monstrous people in the history of the world. At the same time, seven states have counties named after him; 16 states have cities named in honor of him, among these, the state capitals of Ohio and South Carolina; and the nation’s own capital is the District of Columbia. Until the 1920s, the female figure of Columbia was the allegorical personification for the nation; she had been this since the 18th century.
This form of naming is not simply one of honoring a so-called hero, but one of claiming an inheritance. It says the United States of America is descended from Europe. Columbus is, as Washington Irving’s 1828 fictional biography made known, a visionary, a romantic hero who knew a truth others ignored and sailed against all odds to prove his hypothesis—the roundness of the world. Never mind that 1,700 years before, the Greeks had accurately calculated the circumference of the globe. Never mind that the scientific objection to the Columbian project was that his numbers were terribly off. Irving’s story of a flat earth was much more compelling. This nation of European immigrants claimed to be the inheritors of his daring spirit and named themselves after him in multiple ways.
William Faulkner’s oft-cited passage on Pickett’s Charge at the battle of Gettysburg from Intruder in the Dust picks up the romance of this feat and, whether unwittingly or not, binds it to a truer story of captaincy. Faulkner writes:
It’s all now you see. Yesterday won’t be over until tomorrow and tomorrow began
ten thousand years ago. For every Southern boy fourteen years old, not once but
whenever he wants it, there is the instant when it’s still not yet two o’clock on that
July afternoon in 1863 . . . [it goes on in flowing, purple, Faulknerian prose and ends]
to anyone who ever sailed a skiff under a quilt sail, the moment in 1492 when
somebody thought This is it: the absolute edge of no return, to turn back now and
make home or sail irrevocably on and either find land or plunge over the world’s
Our national story is one of discovery and exploration, one that celebrates the individual genius that defies odds, to sail oceans and to cross mountains and prairies in order to claim and take land. As Faulkner’s quote makes manifest, the celebration of this spirit of derring-do, of courage in the face of stark odds, is a romanticization that glosses over the violence of colonial oppression, a fantasy that willfully ignores the history of slavery, of genocide, of exploitation, and that celebrates a lost cause by turning it into an adventure that brings civilization to parts of the globe considered to be uncivilized.
Pablo Neruda’s Canto General, Ernesto Cardenal’s historical poetry from the '60s, '70s, and '80s, Robin Coste Lewis’s Voyage of the Sable Venus, Natasha Trethewey’s Thrall, Kei Miller’s The Cartographer Tries to Map a Way to Zion, and the work of J. Michael Martinez, among that of others, gave me the permission to ask the questions and find the forms I wanted and needed.
In a recent post on documentary poetry, Lynnell Edwards has written an engaging mini-review essay that examines various strategies poets employ as they tell their stories using documentary sources. These include the use of the persona poem, the insertion of archival documents and extra-poetic material, and the use of collage and erasure as a means of manipulating these documents.
Chimalli (shield) (detail) (Aztec, early 16th century), feathers, gold leaf, cotton fibers, leather, and reed (Weltmuseum Wien, Vienna, all images courtesy Hirmer Verlag unless indicated)
The poems of World as Sacred Burning Heart fall into this category of historical, documentary poetry. Among the central threads are prose poems that tell the story of various captains (Columbus, Cortez, Pigafetta, Las Casas, and others). These attempt something like an inventory of the blind passions that characterize captaincy, an uncovering of the sins that the lionization of founding fathers attempts to forget and bury. Rather than use erasure, as Tracy K. Smith’s stunning poem Declaration does, these employ language and rhetorical inspired by the letters, chronicles, and histories written by various conquistadors. Interwoven with these are ekphrastic poems on 16th-century maps and other cultural objects, like Aztec feather-work mosaics. One of these maps is the Fool Cap’s map of the world: a jester whose face is a heart-shaped map. The text and imagery associated with the map is a critique of power. We are fools, it says. And rulers, perhaps, are the greatest fools of all.
Jeremy Paden is the author of three chapbooks of poems and one chapbook of translated poems. In 2019, Valparaíso USA published his full-length translation of Carlos Aldazábal's A Stone to the Chest. His most recent book is Under the Ocelot Sun/Bajo el sol del ocelote (Shadelandhouse Modern Press, 2020), a bilingual, illustrated poem about the Central American migrant caravans.