Friday, November 11, 2016

`No Holiday is Holy Without Ghosts'

“Why do the dead insist on bringing gifts
We can’t reciprocate?”

Dana Gioia’s “Tinsel, Frankincense, and Fir” hints at autobiography and its tone skirts nostalgia. To write of what is precious and personal is always to risk sentimentality. In the hands of a lesser writer, a lazy sentimentalist, the poem’s  preceding line -- “Nothing was too little to be loved” – might be laughable. With Gioia, the words are touched with fondness and devotion. The poem has nothing to do with the Civil War or Herman Melville, but it touches on death and memory, chief among Melville’s themes in Battle-Pieces and Aspects of the War (1866), the book I have been rereading. Melville works to remember and honor the recently dead, many of whom remain anonymous in unmarked graves. He titles the book’s second section “Verses Inscriptive and Memorial.” Here is “An Epitaph”:

“When Sunday tidings from the front
  Made pale the priest and people,
And heavily the blessing went,
  And bells were dumb in the steeple;
The Soldier’s widow (summering sweetly here,
  In shade by waving beeches lent)
  Felt deep at heart her faith content,
And priest and people borrowed of her cheer.”

The widow’s forbearance and dignity in grief inspire other mourners, family and neighbors, even the priest. The next poem is “Inscription for Marye’s Heights, Fredericksburg,” set in the city in Virginia I visited again last week. On Dec. 13, 1862, Marye’s Heights was a heavily defended Confederate position. Under orders from Gen. Ambrose E. Burnside, Union forces staged fourteen assaults and suffered between 6,000 and 8,000 casualties, with no tactical gain. Here is Melville’s poem:   

“To them who crossed the flood
And climbed the hill, with eyes
  Upon the heavenly flag intent,
  And through the deathful tumult went
Even unto death: to them this Stone—
Erect, where they were overthrown—
  Of more than victory the monument.”

As an epitaph, Melville’s poem is detached and anonymous. Fifteen years before the publication of Battle-Pieces, in “The Lee Shore,” Chap. 23 of Moby-Dick, Ishmael remembers Bulkington, who appears fleetingly twenty chapters earlier and disappears abruptly, having fallen overboard during a storm. His chapter is the second-shortest in the book, a remembrance of a character hardly more than a phantom. In a Sterne-like aside, Ishmael says: “Wonderfullest things are ever the unmentionable; deep memories yield no epitaphs; this six-inch chapter is the stoneless grave of Bulkington.”

Gioia’s poem, not formally an epitaph but a remembrance of the honored dead who are reanimated in memory, concludes: “No holiday is holy without ghosts.”

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