These things should be kept in history before the people”: On Daneen Wardrop’s Cyclorama

Caroline Hagood

New York, NY: Fordham University Press, 2015. 82 pages. $45.00.

A precursor to 3D film technology, a cyclorama is a large-scale image that encircles the spectator and often includes actual objects in its foreground. It’s a work of art that hinges on immersion and legerdemain. It is mimesis taken a step further than in your average painting, and a step further than is safe when it’s set against the atrocity of the Civil War.

In this sense, Daneen Wardrop’s poetry collection Cyclorama is, indeed, cycloramic in scope, expertly tackling, through searing dramatic monologues, both the traumas of the Civil War and the metaphysics of seeing. If the poem has traditionally been thought of as sister to the painting, Wardrop tries to expand these siblings’ domains by stretching them to cycloramic proportions that can contain the fraught narrative she chronicles. This is no small feat, and one she achieves with grace. This collection also comes to us at a time when we could all afford to take a multivalent look at the past and present of American violence. Wardrop’s statement in the poem “Cornelia Hancock,” “the idea of / making a business of maiming men is not one worthy of a civilized nation” (16) is of course as applicable now as ever.

To illustrate the horrors of combat in IMAX-worthy detail, Wardrop often plays the domestic sphere against the battleground with a keen eye to how it all looks. For example, in the poem “Off for the War,” she employs a household eating scene to give us a striking illustration of the death the man of the house will confront when he goes off to fight. In particular, she forces us to visualize the life before death contained in the body of the animal being consumed,

as we take fried chicken, our son pulling a wing
to break the connecting flap that held sky in its recess
when it pecked at meal in the sand. (16-18)

Thus, in another of the book’s breathtaking images, we are made to picture not some hazy general concept of death, but rather the very specific negative space of sky that defined the wing of this once-living, now-dead, once-eating, now-eaten chicken. Warped as it may strike us at first, in a matter of lines on consuming, Wardrop demonstrates something about life’s cruel reversals—war as a perverse form of food chain.

Yet Wardrop doesn’t merely command our gaze uncritically. The collection opens with the standout poem “Sarah Emma Edmonds,” and with the words “See me now.” This refrain is central to Cyclorama, both the book, which is at its most potent when dealing with questions of visuality, and the format. “Sarah Emma Edmonds” ends with, “I don’t seem to be what I am, and the seeming is your weight” (34-35). If ever there were a snappier summary of the trouble with perception than “seeming is your weight,” I haven’t heard it; and Wardrop opens this line of questioning onto history itself.

In the poem “Gettysburg Cyclorama, Southwest Panel,” for instance, she shows us just what’s at stake in the act of witnessing war, even secondhand. She writes:

On a platform in the middle a girl stands,
lips slack and eyes intent. Not
to cry. To try to take it in
and still be herself,
which of course she can’t. (18-21)

Here, Wardrop paints a little picture of how the act of viewing inevitably transforms the viewer. In this same poem, she reminds us that the view is unavoidable, that the ravages of war must be seen, that, “no matter where you look the eye / cannot but be filled with this” (29-30).

In “Sarah Emma Edmonds,” Wardrop turns the earlier refrain “See me now” into, “See me now, but really you don’t” (28). Edmonds was a woman who disguised herself as a man to fight for the Union army, and, as the latter lines demonstrate, Wardrop, too, is an expert at disguises, assuming different voices from the past throughout the book. She’s preoccupied with the deeper nature of the mask: how things look versus how they are. But why does she select the cyclorama, a work of art that foregrounds a sort of visual trickery, as a symbol when discussing the Civil War in particular? It seems she does so to emphasize the philosophical problem at the core of her book: Wardrop knows the appearance of a fixed historical record, like the cyclorama, is but sleight of hand.

Along these lines, one of Wardrop’s central themes is the uncontainable nature of war. In the poem “Colonel Ely S. Parker,” she refers to a photograph of Colonel Parker facing General Ulysses S. Grant. In Parker’s voice, she muses, “It’s hard to imagine the outlines of the picture will ever cut across tree branches and tent flaps. / We’re in the outdoors, no frame. But in a week someone will be able to hold us. / No one will be able to hold the war. When they declare it finished, it will still hang from the bushes” (3-7).  She suggests you can hold war in vision but not in mind or hand. She juxtaposes the contained and finite quality of a photograph with an infinity of landscape, upon which the war will hang long after it’s over.

Likewise, in the poem “Gettysburg Cyclorama, Northwest Panel”—yet another act of poetic ventriloquism—Wardrop channels the actual artist of this particular cyclorama, Paul Philippoteaux, to further reflect on the artistic conundrum she explores in “Colonel Ely S. Parker.” It’s with Philippoteaux’s voice that she articulates part of the metaphysical challenge she confronts, and even possibly what led her to undertake a poetry collection on this troubling and important material in the first place. You can’t control the terrible things that have already happened, but you can control the art that portrays them. This creative loophole can almost give the artist the illusion of being able to go back in time and rewrite history. In this vein, speaking as Philippoteaux, and perhaps also as Wardrop, she writes:

I can rub sienna into the rim-rutted road, can slip
magenta into the banner’s mad slapping,
can do it with the finesse of a child
who controls his breathing perfectly
as he pretends to sleep . . . (26-31)

In these lines, Wardrop and Philippoteaux are united in the role of grand communicator of the grand event, as the one with all the power on page or canvas, but who remains just as helpless as we all are in the face of a war that has already happened.

Then, in a move that telegraphs much of what Wardrop’s been up to in the collection all along, in a poem that enters the consciousness of the first black army nurse as she hangs laundry, “Susie King Taylor,” Wardrop writes: These things should be kept in history before the people. / Our troops went inland, found deserted town, and at its furthest edge were greeted by slaves, who turned / out to be not slaves but rebs in black face. Opened fire. It’s hard to tell what a thing is, until it fires. (28-31) Here, many of the pieces of the picture Wardrop has been creating come together. The world of the domestic, of Susie hanging her laundry, is contrasted with the larger world of war and trauma, and all of this is played out in a visual register. In particular, the poem tells us the only thing that determines identity in a time of war is the moment of violence, the moment of opening fire, and that this instant should be held in front of the eyes of the public. And of course, what do Philippoteaux’s and Wardrop’s cycloramas do but keep this collective American nightmare where everyone can see it? These things should be kept in history before the people.

Back to top ↑

Sign up for Our Email Newsletter