On Loaded Guns 2: Emily Dickinson, Black Civil War soldiers, and Shane McCrae's Blood

by on Nov.16, 2012

I often make a plea here and in my classes for ‘occult reading practices’—reading practices that search out occult influences moving among texts, influences that work anachronistically or telepathically or across a medium of diabolical ‘sympathy’, influence itself as a kind of ectoplasm, an uncanny, distorting, magnetic and often duplicitous material. While I was reading Shane McCrae’s Blood (due out this Spring from Noemi Press; a sequence from this book is also available as “In Canaan”, a chapbook from Rescue Press), a second poem kept arising like a haint in my mind, so that I felt that Shane’s book and this phantom poem were tugging each other into spectral presence like linked emanations. That second poem was Emily Dickinson’s 754,  “My Life had stood–a Loaded gun–”. Dickinson’s poem lit up McCrae’s work with klieg lights, and McCrae’s poems reanimated Dickinson’s poem with an anachronistic power which, ironically, flooded the earlier poem both with the historical context of its composition during the Civil War and with the violence which preceded and followed it, all the violence of mankind spasming along axes of ferocious power.

“The history of blackness is testament to the fact that objects can and do resist,” writes Fred Moten in the introduction to his world-splitting work, In the Break.

Blackness, the extended movement of a specific upheaval, on ongoing irruption that anarranges every line—is a strain that pressures the assumption of the equivalence of personhood and subjectivity. While subjectivity is defined by the subject’s possession of itself and its objects, it is troubled by a dispossessive force objects exert such that the subject seems to be possessed—infused, deformed—by the object it possesses. […..] [Saidiya] Hartman shows how narrative always echoes and redoubles the dramatic interenactment of ‘contentment and abjection,’ and she explores the massive discours of the cut, of rememberment, and redress, that we always here in narratives where blackness marks simultaneously both the performance of object and performance of humanity.

As Moten’s introduction continues, he examines the “Aunt Hester” episode from Frederick Douglass’s Autobiography as a place in which the ‘shrieks’ of the slave’s body under torture stand in for the natal scene which would typically anchor an autobiography; under the derangement of history-as-violence, blackness comes into being as “an ongoing irruption that anarranges every line”—as violence converted into long, continuous, confounding, immortal shriek which passes from body to body.

Shane McCrae’s book begins in ambiguity and vertigo; its title ‘Blood’ could refer to the sureties of the bloodline which secures inheritence and generations, but in the context of this book, which records so intensely the repetitive violence by which black voices and bodies are stitched into historical time, recasts that blood as violence’s red body which pushes itself into the space of black bodies.  The book carries the dedication, “For my father, for his parents, for their parents,” a reverse-lineage which claims a multitude of referents working backwards in time, but its parallelism also has a kind of repetitiveness to it, as if the parents and fathers were repeating across time, coming back into present and future time.

In fact this is the thrust of McCrae’s book, providing lyric testimonies to the constitutive violence of periods of history which we must all too ruefully own as “American”—testimonies of rape, murder, kidnapping and imprisonment pre-Civil War, testimonies of Black soldiers made to fight during the Civil War, testimonies of lynchings and separations, and finally an intertemporal elegy that seems to yoke together and bring into immanence figures from no-one-specific-or-else-every time. In all these testimonies, McCrae’s use of short phrase and fragment, repetition of names, and plaintive shifts of address underscore the sameness and repetition of the dispossessions suffered by the speakers, the “strain”, “trouble”, deformation and damage undergone by these people forced to simultaneously undertake “the performance of object and the performance of humanity.”

The result of this unbearable doubleness (which adds up, simultaneously to more than two and less than zero) is that the black body becomes a medium into which violence can spasm and through which it can move. One poem, at the beginning of the book, voices a female slave’s desperation:


How to Recognize It



Master I learned from     more than anybody him


what love is how / To recognize it love


That’s how I knew I was right to cut Mary’s throat




Thinking of what he     did to me my


body what I knew he would


Do to Mary     to Priscilla cut     / Didn’t just cut




and leave her body move


On to her sister     made     sure she was dead


I loved her     wanted her / Head to come off in my hands



In another poem, towards the middle of the book, voices a slave forced to fight for the South and concludes

Way up the other     side of Tennessee


One day we stopped a train took     Yankee / Money


I held my rifle on a Yankee soldier he


just looked at me so scared


Like he never knew / What a rifle was




until he saw one in my hands


Such spasms of agency and dispossession, radical whirling violence which can turn itself against Black bodies as quickly as it can fly from a rifle to terrify a Yankee soldier, recall to me well Dickinsons “Loaded Gun”, and also recalls to me that this poem was written in about 1862, the year her interlocuter Higginson became the colonel of the First South Carolina Volunteers, “the first federally authorized regiment of freed slaves.” (see Brenda Wineapples’s White Heat, pp. 123). Although his men were fighting on the Union side, the depredations they faced among their so-called liberators were intense; they wore separate uniforms, were tortured and lynched if captured by Confederates rather than exchanged in prisoner exchanges (leading the Union army to put a stop to all prisoner exchanges), and were cheated or denied their wages. In this sense their spasming and incomplete ‘agency’ as soldiers reflects the spasming experience of power and empowerment endured by the speaker of McCrae’s poem, which the rifle and the slave’s ‘hands’ form is at simultaneously subject and object, an intense instability, a hybrid hyperbody of violence.

It is just such a body, “simultaneously both the performance of object and performance of humanity”, that we may see in Dickinson’s 754, if we reread it by the spectral light of Shane McCrae’s Blood. In this poem the “Owner” can only take up the “loaded gun” of the speaker once he has “indentified” her as his chattel. Taking possession is thus made possible by the impossible identity of this part-object, part-human.  However the spasming non-identity of double-identity also makes it a medium—if not an agent– of limitless violence.  It is with this violence that the master—through the medium of the gun—“identifies” all of nature in his own humanized (read: violent) image:

And every time I speak for Him –
The Mountains straight reply –

And do I smile, such cordial light
Upon the Valley glow –
It is as a Vesuvian face
Had let its pleasure through –

The Owner’s voice and manners is relayed through the gun,and all ‘nature’ must participate in this atrocity of manners and “cordiality”. The final stanza makes a kind of terrible sense in this reading; deprived of personhood, the object-human is thus deprived of even the luxury of death, but must go on functioning, as a commodity should:

Though I than He – may longer live
He longer must – than I –
For I have but the power to kill,
Without–the power to die—

I am very grateful to Shane McCrae for blowing up Dickinson’s poem for me, for alerting me to both its historical and transhistorical violence which comes into the object-human of the poem and makes of it a speaking, luminous blackness. Similarly, I am grateful to him for his own book of poems which shows us one refracting moment in an ever-reverberating tide of violences, finding and rending voices, building and ripping apart narratives and temporalities, and keeping the wound of Art, Time, History and Love as raw as it must be.










1 comment for this entry:
  1. Lois Kackley

    Extremely interesting! Thanks to you for this unique reading of “Loaded Gun.”