Don’t Call Me Comrade

It’s obvious that MacLeish’s poetry between 1936 and 1939 was heavily influenced by the Great Depression. Though he seemed to embrace the worker’s movement, his poetry rejected the kind of brotherhood being promoted by the Communist Party as shown in “Speech to Those who Say Comrade:”


The brotherhood is not by the blood certainly,
But neither are men brothers by speech – by saying so:
Men are brothers by life lived and are hurt for it.

Hunger and hurt are the great begetters of brotherhood:
Humiliation has gotten much love:
Danger I say is the nobler father and mother.

Those are as brothers whose bodies have shared fear
Or shared harm or shared hurt or indignity.
Why are the old soldiers brothers and nearest?

For this: with their minds they go over the sea a little
And find themselves in their youth again as they were in
Soissons and Meaux and at Ypres and those cities:

A French loaf and the girls with their eyelids painted
Bring back to aging and lonely men
Their twentieth year and the metal odor of danger.

It is this in life which of all things is tenderest –
To remember together with unknown men the days
Common also to them and perils ended:

It is this which makes of many a generation –
A wave of men who having the same years
Have in common the same dead and the changes.

The solitary and unshared experience
Dies of itself like the violations of love
Or lives on as the dead live eerily:

The unshared and single man must cover his
Loneliness as a girl her shame for the way of
Life is neither by one man nor by suffering.

Who are the born brothers in truth? The puddlers
Scorched by the same flame in the same foundries,
Those who have spit on the same boards with the blood in it.’

Ridden the same rivers with green logs,
Fought the police in the parks of the same cities,
Grinned for the same blows, the same flogging,

Veterans out of the same ships, factories,
Expeditions for fame: the founders of continents:
Those that hid in Geneva a time back,

Those that have hidden and hunted and all such –
Fought together, labored together: they carry the
Common look like a card and they pass touching.

Brotherhood! No word said can make you brothers!
Brotherhood only the brave earn and by danger or
Harm or by bearing hurt and by no other.

Brotherhood here in the strange world is the rich and
Rarest giving of life and the most valued,
Not to be had for a word or a week’s wishing.

Perhaps it is, indeed, hardships, “hunger and hurt,” that bring men together for people seem more likely to have empathy for each other precisely when times are most difficult. People in the 30’s certainly seemed to have more of a sense of community than people do today. Perhaps it’s not entirely irrelevant that when I was a paperboy I was always surprised that I got the biggest tips from my poorest, least demanding customers while wealthy customers seemed to content to demand the most service.

Judging from some of the greatest literary works of the Depression, MacLeish is correct when he suggests that “Hunger and hurt are great begetters of brotherhood.” Perhaps, this explains why my Mother’s parents always left food on the back porch during the Depression. Since her father had a steady job as a postman, he felt he had to share with those who could not find work.

Being a soldier in Vietnam made me closer to my men than I have ever been to anyone except my children or my wife. I would have died for any one of them, and I suspect that they would have done the same for me. Nearly forty years later, I still long to see those in my platoon again. MacLeish seems correct that it was precisely this war and all the dissension that it brought that tied my generation together, just as World War II brought together an earlier generation.

Those who work in dangerous, tough industries, like the steel “puddlers” scorched by the flames of the kilns, the loggers, the workers beaten by the police during strikes are truly brothers of shared hardship.

But “no word said can make you brothers.” Calling someone comrade does not make them your brother. You have to earn that privilege.

MacLeish in the 30’s

It cannot be purely accidental that the celebration of the common man became a focus of the arts during The Great Depression. American artists, perhaps in an attempt to discover what had gone worng, began to look back to discover what had made America great. Or, perhaps in their own poverty they began to identify with those that had come here with nothing and had made America great.

Painters like Thomas Hart Benton celebrated the common man, and particularly laborers, in his paintings. Carl Sandburg, long known for his Whitmanesque celebration of the common man, continued his celebration of the common man with The People, Yes. Poem “Number 99”, which begins “The man in the street is fed/ with lies in peace, gas in war,/and he may live now/just around the corner from you/ trying to sell/the only thing he has to sell,/the power of his hand and brain/ to labor for wages, for pay,/ for cash of the realm/ And there are no takers, he can’t connect,” reminds me alot of many of the poems Archibald MacLeish was writing during the 30’s.

“Nat Bacon’s Bones” is a near-revolutionary poem that celebrates the rebellion of the downtrodden in America:

Nat Bacon’s Bones

Nat Bacon’s Bones
They never found,
Nat Bacon’s grave
Is wilderground:
Nat Bacon’s tongue
Doth sound! Doth sound!

The rich and proud
Deny his name,
The rich and proud
Defile his fame:
The proud and free
Cry shame! Cry shame!

The planter’s wife
She boasts so grand
Sir William’s blood
Makes white her hand:
Nat Bacon’s blood
Makes sweet this land.

For those of you who, like myself, have forgotten, or never been taught who Nat Bacon was, in “1676 a group of free blacks, slaves, indentured servants and poor white farmers, led by Nat Bacon, rebelled and burned down the property of the wealthiest white farmers.” MacLeish’s celebration of this act in many ways seems reminiscent of John Steinbeck’s implied warning to society conveyed by The Grapes of Wrath. In a world where the rich get richer and the poor get poorer, such revolution seems inevitable. In America we like to feel that “democracy,” because it gives everyone an “equal opportunity,” is immune to such revolutions, but I suspect that a closer reading of the history or the 20’s and 30’s would suggest otherwise and that our entry into World War II was fortuitous in more ways than one for those who owned American industry.

I’m particularly fond of the last stanza as it reminds me of the current fad among many to trace their heritage back to “God knows where,” almost inevitably ending with the person discovering they’re related to “Good King Wenceslas,” in turn, allowing them to take great pride in their noble heritage. Like MacLeish, though, I think it’s our attempts, failed or not, to bring freedom and equality to the land that are important, not suspect connections to a failed nobility.

“Burying Ground By The Ties” is not exactly a revolutionary poem, but it does pay tribute to those looked down upon and taken advantage of who constructed the railroad that has since served as the spine of the national economy. In particular, he pays homage to those who died and were buried beside the track, the track itself serving as their memorial:

Burying Ground By The Ties

Ayee! Ai! This is heavy earth on our shoulders:
There were none of us born to be buried in this earth:
Niggers we were, Portuguese, Magyars, Polacks:

We were born to another look of the sky certainly.
Now we lie here in the river pastures:
We lie in the mowings under the thick turf:

We hear the earth and the all-day rasp of the grasshoppers.
It was we laid the steel to this land from ocean to ocean:
It was we (if you know) put the U. P. through the passes

Bringing her down into Laramie full load,
Eighteen mile on the granite anticlinal,
Forty-three foot to the mile and the grade holding:

It was we did it: hunkies of our kind.
It was we dug the caved-in holes for the cold water:
It was we built the gully spurs and the freight sidings:

Who would do it but we and the Irishmen bossing us?
It was all foreign-born men there were in this country:
It was Scotsmen, Englishmen, Chinese, Squareheads, Austrians

Ayee! but there’s weight to the earth under it.
Not for this did we come out – to be lying here
Nameless under the ties in the clay cuts:

There’s nothing good in the world but the rich will buy it:
Everything sticks to the grease of a gold note-
Even a continent – even a new sky!

Do not pity us much for the strange grass over us:
We laid the steel to the stone stock of these mountains:
The place of our graves is marked by the telegraph poles!

It was not to lie in the bottoms we came out
And the trains going over us here in the dry hollows .

Although the use of racially-charged names like “niggers” and “Polacks” seems shocking at first, by beginning here MacLeish provides a startling contrast between the way this workers were regarded and treated and the service they rendered our nation. Of course, it’s only when we realize most of these people were born in another land that we can truly understand how they were both taken advantage of and what sacrifices they made in an attempt to find a new life in this “land of opportunity.”

They were so “disposable” to those in charge that they were buried in nameless graves beside, or even under, the track. Ironically, they are the “good” in the line, “There’s nothing good in the world but the rich will buy it,” bought and paid for in miserly wages often sent back to the old country to support a family or saved in an attempt to bring them here. The wheels of progress are “greased” by the gold notes of the rich.

Those who really conquered the West, the immigrants who built the railroad, are often forgotten while Stanford became famous and lives on in history as the founder of a wonderous institution. In some ways the poem, particularly since it appears right after “Conquistador,” suggests some strong parallels to the nameless Spanish Conquistadors who died to make Cortés famous. Ironically, perhaps, the nameless graves of the many workers who died conquerng the continent are marked by the tallest crosses of all, the telephone poles that follow the railroad right away.

The Inevitable Fall from Grace

For me, the heart of MacLeish’s “Conquistador” lies not in the story of the Spanish Conquest of Mexico but in Díaz’s inevitable fall from glory. In the end, what, if anything, has he really conquered? What did it gain him to help conquer one the richest nations in his world? Were the seeds of his fall in his very victory?

Ironically, from the very beginning of the poem Díaz seems anything but happy because Díaz is retelling his story. Not only does he lack the fame he feels he rightly deserved, but his very life seems miserable:

What is my fame or the fame of these my companions?
Their tombs are the bellies of Indians: theirs are the shameful

Graves in the wild earth: in the Godless sand:
None know the place of their bones: as for mine
Strangers will dig my grave in a stony land:

Even my sons have the strangeness of dark kind in them:
Indian dogs will bark at dusk by my sepulchre:
What is my fame!

He senses that he, like most of those who accompanied Cortés in the conquest, appears to be headed to a nameless grave in a “Godless” country. Even his reference to his heirs, his sons with “the strangeness of dark kind in them” seems a racial slur, a reference to their half-Indian heritage. Worse than that, instead of honoring their father they spend their days in the whore houses.

According to the New Advent Encyclopedia, Díaz wrote his history to “to vindicate the valour of himself and others who had been completely overshadowed by the exaggerated reputation of Cortés.” In other words, even during his lifetime he had faded into “ancient history,” with little recognition or honor. Díaz clearly blames some of this lack of fame on the fact that he was a “commoner,” that only the rich, those who had little to do with the actual conquering of Mexico, gained fame from the conquest:

Where have they written our names? What have they said of us?

They call the towns for the kings that bear no scars:
They keep the names of the great for time to stare at –
The bishops rich-men generals cocks-at-arms:

Those with the glaze in their eyes and the fine bearing:
The born leaders of men: the resonant voices:

They give them the lands for their tombs: they call it America!

(And who has heard of Vespucci in this soil
Or down by the lee of the coast or toward the Havana?)
And we that fought here: that with heavy toil

Earthed up the powerful cities of this land –
What are we? When will our fame come?

The very land that Cortés and many of his compatriots died conquering is instead named after kings, bishops, and rich-men generals who stayed safely at home. These lands serve as eternal tombs for the rich, while those who sacrificed their lives are forgotten. Diáz specifically names Diégo Velásquez and his niece:

“Pledged to the said Diégo Velásquez his (say)
“Niece and the deal was for loot in the new countries:
“And we that should win them to walk the ruts for our pay!

“And rot in the bleeding fields and die with our guts out!
“The old inherit the earth and the young fatten it!
“After the wounds: after the war’s done

“The old ones sit with the itch of their stones and the rattle of
“Age in the rake of their throats like the sleet in the stubble
“Bounding the new-won lands by the bones of the battle fields.!

It’s hard to miss his disdain for those who safely sit at home but claim the rewards paid for with the lives of men who sought adventure.

At first, Díaz seems to blame his failure just on the rich old men who stayed in Spain but financed the voyages. Later, though, it becomes clear that he realizes that there is an element of Fate at work here:

And none of us all but had his heart foreknown the
Evil to come would have turned from the land then:
But the lives of men are covered and not shown –

It’s almost as if the evil lay waiting for the Conquistadors, knowing that they would come and set these forces into motion. But the men had no way of knowing this, for their Fate is hidden, “covered and not known,” just as it is for all men.

And, later, there is another indirect reference to Fate:

"Great fault of those wars!"
and so as he spoke the
Die fell: and we lost our lives: and we lost the
land for it after: and the town was sown as

Dry salt with the bitter seed: and with slaughters
And much death in that house: the thousands slain. .
Sleeping among those walls we heard the water

Treading behind us with its ceaseless waves.

In this case, Fate seems almost chance-like. Once Cortés made his decision, the future of their lives was cast. The Conquistadors “lost” their lives, and the slaughter and death forever despoiled that town. For a moment the men

… were the lords of it all. .

Now time has taught us:
Death has mastered us most: sorrow and pain
Sickness and evil days are our lives’ lot:

No matter how high a man reaches, “sickness and evil days” are still his lot. “Sorrow and pain” are as inevitable for those that attain the highest goals as they are for all of us.

If somehow we escape such sorrows when we are young, as we age:

… the life goes out of us leaving the chucked sherds!

Leaving an old man’s memories to leach
Like a cock’s jewels of gravel and worn thin
With the sleepless caul of the heart and hard and clean:

Leaving within the eyes behind the fingers
Back of the soft lid and the scarlet vein
The harsh flash of the steel where the light lingers!

There is no way to escape the inevitable onslaught of age, and memories of past glories are as apt to haunt us as they are to comfort us, especially when he has not gained the fame he feels he should have.

For Díaz, those that came after him despoiled the victories he had shared with Cortés:

And those that had jeered at our youth (but the fashion changes:)
They came like nettles in dry slash: like beetles:
They ran on the new land like lice staining it:

They raised the Spanish cities: the new hills
Showed as the old with the old walls and the tether of
Galled goats in the dung and the rock hidden. . .

Old . . . an old man sickened and near death:
And the west is gone now: the west is the ocean sky. . .
o day that brings the earth back bring again

That well-swept town those towers and that island. . .

The Edenic moment, those halcyon days Diaz spent inside the palace before the priests slew the boy and forever despoiled the dream, have been displaced by Spaniards who came “like lice” and set up new Spanish cities, forever displacing the beautiful city that was at the heart of Mexico, and, ironically, Díaz helped make it all possible.

If such a fate awaits those who accomplish impossible, heroic deeds, can we expect any other fate? Surely we commoners, like Díaz, cannot expect much better. Are those soldiers who take Iraq going to share in the wealth that will be gained from the new oil fields, or will the spoils of war once again, as always, fall to the wealthy, to the old men who stay home and count their wealth while the young men die?

A Very Short History of Mexico

After reading my recent entries on the Conquistadors, my mother-in-law, author of The Dog on the Roof: A Casa Colonial Mystery, sent me an interesting short history of Mexico, providing further background to the poem that I’ll finish up this weekend, after I finish fitting my thougts together.:

December 13, 2002

Dear Loren,

What the hell is a “just” war? In my book, there ain’t no such animal. But wow—what a rouser MacLeish is with that poem.

As a practical matter, which side was good guys or bad guys is hard to decide. The Aztecs had a cruel and savage religion that gave them license to kill horribly. They met their match in the Spaniards, but neither side was “the good guys” in my estimation—at least not in that initial altercation. Very shortly, however, the Spaniards became the bad guys to all the rest of Mexico. And to me. But then, you know how I feel about proselytizing in any form

I think you need a thumb-nail history of the peoples of Mexico, and I’m just the one to give it to you. I told this story to all my tour groups, and my version was accepted by an anthropologist from UC Berkeley who went to Oaxaca and stayed at Casa Colonial. I won’t be able to recall all the dates—I’ve been away from it far too long—but here are the bones of the thing.

The Olmecs were the earliest recorded people in the Oaxaca area. They went back to somewhere between 8,000 and 1,000 B.C. Not too much detail is known about them. However, there are “Olmecoid” figures carved in stone at Monte Albán, the massive ruins just outside the city of Oaxaca. After the Olmecs came the Toltecs, the Zapotecs, and the Mixtecs. The Aztecs were the johnnys-come-lately—didn’t even show up until the 1300’s.

The Toltec king was named Quétzalcoatl. He was a mortal man, but was also god-like—sort of like King Arthur. He offered a gentle religion and encouraged. the arts, metalurgy, engineering, farming and other benign and productive activities. He had a whole bunch of stringent rules for himself, one of which was sexual abstinence. One time during a religious fiesta, a minor goddess fed him mushrooms and seduced him. When he awoke in the morning, he was overcome with remorse and decided that he was no longer fit to rule, so he took some of his cohorts, got into a boat, and sailed away into the morning sun. But before he left, he told his people that he would return some day in a ship as big as a house, and he gave them a list of dates upon which he might be expected.

Much later, the Aztecs came across the bridge from Asia. They wandered down the west coast of North America for fifteen hundred years or so because their god told them they had to keep going until they found an eagle with a snake in its beak sitting on a cactus—and them eagles on cactuses is scarce! At one point, a bunch of Aztecs broke away from the main group, stayed behind, and became the Ute Indians in the area that is now Utah. Anthropologists say that the Ute language and the Aztec language are almost identical. The rest of the Aztecs kept on going, and after many more years they finally found their eagle sitting on a cactus with a snake in its beak. It was on a small island in the middle of a huge swamp, but that was where their god had told them to build a town, so they moved right in. They raised their first crops in dirt piled on rafts floating in the swamp—and that was the origin of the Floating Gardens of Xochimilco.

The Aztecs were crude nomads who didn’t know how to do anything except make war, so their king sent his armies to attack the peaceful Zapotecs to the south. The Zapotecs had a highly organized society and were the remarkable engineers who had built Monte Albán and various other cultural and religious centers throughout the Valley of Oaxaca. Instead of killing the Zapotecs, the Aztecs enslaved them, took them back to the island, and put them to work draining swamps and building a city. Only 250 years later, when Cortez arrived, he found an elaborate system of canals and causeways, and the marvelous shining city of Tenochtitlán.

The Aztecs probably could have overcome the Spaniards easily except for two things.
1. All the other peoples of Mexico hated the Aztecs with a passion. As is often the case, religion was at the bottom of it all, for the Aztec religion demanded human sacrifice and plenty of it! They had a belief that unless they tore the still-beating heart out of a human being and offered it to the sun god at least once a day, the sun might stop in it’s tracks and burn up the world. There was another charming custom where a priest would skin a living person, put the skin on his own body, over his own skin, and wear it until it rotted and fell off. Must have smelled just lovely! This was supposed to signify the emerging beauty of spring. Right? Anyway, sacrificial victims and various tributes were obtained from neighboring places, and this tended to make enemies, not friends.

2. Montezuma, the Aztec king, was a devotee of astrology and a student of Toltec history. When he heard that strangers had arrived on his shores, he went up to the roof of the palace to consult the stars and decide what to do. His decision was complicated by the fact that Cortez had arrived in “a ship as big as a house” on one of the dates given by Quétzalcoatl for his possible return. On top of that, Quétzalcoatl had had fair skin and a light brown beard—an oddity in Mexico. Cortez was also fair and had a light brown beard. So was Cortez an enemy, or was he Quétzalcoatl? While Montezuma paced the roof of the palace and shilly-shallied, Cortez picked up a passle of anti-Aztec allies and attacked. According to accounts I have read, in addition to MacLeish’s, it was a truly fearsome battle.

After that, there was a whole lot of deception and deceit on the part of Cortez. Both sides did horrible things, and the Spaniards, who had self-righteously subdued the “cruel and Godless pagans,” now commited atrocities in the name of God, king, and Catholicism. And there was gold involved. A lot of it. We can’t forget that.

I have often wondered what the peace-loving Zapotecs thought when they saw those fearsome Spanish priests stalk up and down, black robes flapping, while carrying on high an image of a man being tortured to death.

Humankind is amazing.

Hoping you are the same–Love, Mary