Historic Diary by Tony Trigilio, BlazeVOX Books, 2011. $16
Reviewed by Margaret Rozga
Each November 22nd, the nation still pauses, remembers, and listens again to facts about the 1963 assassination in Dallas, Texas, of President John F. Kennedy. Each November, someone will recall where she was—in a school cafeteria, a grocery store, or at a neighbor’s—when she heard the news that so shocked the nation. This event and Jack Ruby’s subsequent shooting of presumed assassin Lee Harvey Oswald right in front of news cameras have thus become woven into the fabric of our collective experience. Multiple versions of the story have already been offered, digested, and accepted or discarded. Why then, one might ask, write poems about these assassinations?
Columbia College Chicago Professor Tony Trigilio in Historic Diary, his impressive second collection of poems, takes us back to this nation-numbing tragedy. In the book’s first poem, Trigilio raises exactly this question of why write about this topic. He notes that his Uncle Richard is “just baffled [that] I’m writing about Lee Harvey Oswald” (13).
Uncle Richard wonders about a key question. So much about President Kennedy’s assassination is common knowledge that for some people the topic prompts a ho-hum, “been there, done that” sort of response. Secondly, while numerous questions persist about the official Warren Commission findings, those who harbor doubts have been pigeon-holed and dismissed as “conspiracy theorists.” Finally, focusing on Oswald is another reason to be uneasy; thus centered, will the book work to make a hero of Oswald?
In four main sections, an introductory poem “Dallas,” and an afterward of notes, the book tells a multi-layered story of Oswald’s life of frustration in Russia, New Orleans and Texas and the ways it crisscrosses with the lives of others: his wife Marina, FBI, CIA, KGB, and other law enforcement officials, bystanders pulled into the saga by chance, and Trigilio himself.
Though he never explicitly answers his uncle’s concern, Trigilio suggests answers through his focus on little-known facts and lingering questions of the case. He also explores in the second section of the book the dramatic impact of these events on many lives, though that human impact has received scant attention. Oswald’s co-worker, Buell Wesley Frazier, for example, is the speaker in one of these poems. In consecutive lines he juxtaposes his sense of Oswald’s ordinariness against Oswald’s extraordinary action: “I think people would really be amazed at how bland he actually was. / He shot the President on his lunch hour” (66).
Among the most poignant of these persona poems is “Kiss Junie and Rachel for me. I love you. Be sure to buy shoes for June.” Despite the very long title in Oswald’s voice, the speaker in this poem is Oswald’s older daughter June. She tells of how the annual remembrance of the Kennedy assassination affected her and her sister.
Reporters in our living room every November,
mother lashing like trees in a storm. She’d send us
to our rooms. We grew up dreading Thanksgiving.
She dressed us in church clothes for the supermarket
so we wouldn’t look like white trash when
people stared at us. After awhile, you realize
that you have to wear the right things
if you want to stay invisiible (68)
The couplet form of this poem seems to impose order on a story full of apparent contradictions, but the frequent enjambment of lines helps to underscore how unsettled all is beneath the surface. This poem ends with June expressing her and her sister’s plaintive wish that Lee, as she called him, would have had “his day in court” (70).
Poetry, Trigilio seems to believe, may delve deeply into a mountain of fact and find a volcanic core so unlike the surface, yet inextricable from it. Or poetry may dive deeply into the water it explores, and as it does so, reveal the existence of some strange fish.
The poems in this volume do exactly that. Though the triple underpass in Dallas is likened to the three intersecting roads where Oedipus meets and kills his father, the mythic analogy is noted only briefly in the concluding notes and not developed in the body of the book. Oswald does not emerge as a tragic hero.
The poems work through a variety of forms. Long-lined prose poems present many of the bizarre and anguishing facts. Repetitive forms such as the pantoum reflect the way these facts and the unanswered questions about them recur. "The Manchurian Candidate," for example, is composed entirely of questions: “Do you know what we’re telling you?” begins and ends the poem. In the middle are such insistent questions as these: “What are you doing? What the hell are you doing? What’s the matter with you?” Even commands are expressed in question form, “why don’t you pass the time by playing a little solitaire?” (28).
In “Marina and Lee,” the tensions in the Oswalds’ marriage are conveyed through a pair of villanelles, one from each point of view, both of them one stanza short of the pattern of the traditional villanelle. In the second stanza of her truncated villanelle, Marina charges, “You torture me. No time to make your precious cutlets” (48) and in his follow-up we get Lee’s question, “Why can’t you make cutlets or put water on for tea?” (49). More fundamental is the question of whether they will leave for the United States. Marina’s view is expressed in strong terms in the repeated lines. "I’m not leaving with you. Take the baby, go away" opens the poem, and the poem closes with “go to your America without me. I hope you die on the way” (48). Sounding against the obvious fact that they did move to the US, Marina’s voice takes on here a desperate and fatal tone.
Trigilio sees as too easy the dismissal of a host of larger questions about the assassination and labeling the questioners “conspiracy theorists.” Facing those larger questions, he sees disorder as pervasive in American society. In “Letter to Hilles from Lake Forest,” for example, he accentuates this sense of disorder by employing the frenetic pace and weaving in a phrase from William Carlos Williams’ poem “To Elsie”: “I know this is awful, Rick, the violence—pure products of America gone crazy” (52). Given his focus on Oswald, Trigilio seems to seek to understand the way violence in the cultural climate acts on individuals, especially those otherwise unlikely to be the movers and shakers of history.
Then even more interesting is how such a sad, confused, angry, violence-prone individual steps into the glare of the spotlight and affects the course of history. The Oswald of these poems is, as the title of the third section indicates, “Withdrawn in Almost Any Language” (55). Lonely in the Soviet Union, Oswald has “a warm feeling” when two women seem each to be jealous of the other’s relation to him. He basks in that warm feeling as says,
“I am waiting
for someone to
ride me, the
locomotive of history” (42)
Martha Collins, herself a poet whose work has dealt with historical subjects, writes that these poems "question history itself.” Her comment played in my mind while and after reading the book. Colllins’ analysis rings true, especially considering Trigilio’s emphasis in the penultimate section of the book. There he writes a series of poems that rehearse the chronology of the too-coincidental deaths of many associated with the assassination and its investigation, facts that mainstream history discards for their poor fit with the official version of the story. If history ignores inconvenient facts, then that history is suspect.
Trigilio includes material that raises a similar question about journalism, often the raw material of history. Reporters had advance copies of the speech President Kennedy was to deliver at the Trade Mart luncheon so they could write about it before the event. “It’s a common practice” to “write what you think will happen before it happens” (107). Reporting, then, anticipates as well as records facts, and if stories are written before they happen, those stories may channel events in the direction pre-written for them, at least in ordinary circumstances. The Kennedy assassination reveals the underside of the ordinary and thus makes the ordinary suspect.
Trigilio may be raising as well a parallel question about literature. To what extent do creative artists, including poets, also ignore facts, observations, and details, that don’t fit into their work and must be discarded? He is attracted to the Kennedy assassination story perhaps most of all for its unanswered questions and discarded facts. The first section of the book ends with “What I Missed,” a poem that lists Oswald sites in New Orleans that Trigilio never visited because he was a “few mouse clicks from buying plane tickets for the last weekend in August” (31), the same month and year Hurricane Katrina hit.
He also ends the book with a poem, or more precisely an “after-poem,” listing notes apparently taken in his research for the book. Some of the observations in those notes are not found in the main parts of the text. In the work of another poet, these observations then might simply be discarded.
Here, however, they are included. They help to highlight the underlying questions that Trigilio finds unsettling and that seem to drive him to this poetic work. How can we trust the voice of the newscaster if it is common practice to get the job done by composing a narrative before the fact? How can we trust the voice of history, which is assumed to be more reflective, if it is after all the composite voice of fallible humans wanting a coherent story? How can we trust the poetic voice, if it wants as much as anyone a story without loose ends?
Trigilio does not want to be in this suspect class. These poems insist that the unanswered questions of history haunt us long after the events are over. Historic Diary offers this more paradoxical definition of Trigilio’s art: “Poems are birds we loved who move on and remain” (32).
Margaret Rozga is a lifelong resident of Wisconsin. Her book Two Hundred Nights and One Day features poems about the 1967-68 open housing marches in Milwaukee and was named an outstanding achievement in poetry for 2009 by the Wisconsin Library Association. She blogs about social justice and poetry at benupress.com/For-Words.