Making History Bearable: Lynda Hull and Reading Newark

of sausages, fat hams. This isn’t a lullaby a parent
might croon to children before sleep, but all of it
belongs: in the station torn advertisements whisper
easy credit, old me wait for any train out of town

The authoritative speaker of the poem returns: “This isn’t a lullaby…but all of it belongs” and announces that the details presented are part of a pastiche of degradation. Like Whitman’s “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry,” Hull’s poem opens the reader to the possibility of textured, overlapping classes of people in a single space. Thus, the imaginative leap between sleeping children (a quiet, domestic scene), and a train station affected by economics, is made sensible to the reader. Whitman believed in an intimate connection between the reader using her breath and voice to give physical form to a poet from the past, a connection not unlike time travel.

…Hull’s poem opens the reader to the possibility of textured, overlapping classes of people in a single space.

The colon between “belongs” and the prepositional phrase “in the station” leads to a political statement. Newark’s subway is whispered to by “torn advertisements for easy credit.” Mumford’s Newark gives an historical context for this phenomenon. With the increase in credit cards and purchasing accounts for shoppers, African American women in cities across the nation protested discrimination in lending, inflated interest and terms, price gouging in the poor neighborhoods, and inferior merchandise.[25] Thomas Bender likewise addresses the angst related to racial fear and racial guilt that many experienced at the time, but frames it in a common context of commentators who transformed the shame of cities into a human frailty: “Rather than the deterioration of the environment as represented by slums and blight, urban decline became equated with obstacles to the common concerns of the people who choose to live in large central cities…. — looking at the buildings and other artifacts of an urban culture.”[26]

Hull equates the urban crisis with these same bodies and their urban environment:

and these lovers mingling, commingling their bodies,
this slippage, a haul and wail of freight trains

The old men fleeing on outbound trains and lovers “mingling and commingling their bodies” are victimized by “this slippage.” Additionally, the slant rhyme of “haul” and “wail,” like those of “shadow” and “window” in the first stanza, indicate a minor chord. Ending this stanza with “bodies” and “freight trains” suggests more insidious, Holocaust-era implications for the economic and racial permanent underclass brought to bear in the summer of 1967 across America’s inner cities.

The freight trains carried into the Newark the goods that were purchased with “easy credit,” and left during the Second World War with bodies. This explains the unusual choice of the term “this slippage,” a multifaceted accounting or economic term that connect lovers and trains; it has connotations of not only “slide,” but “decline,” “loss of power,” and the “difference in real and estimated cost.” That it appears as a parenthetical line break in this stanza is an interruption of form, as well as an interruption of content. Here, the poem’s speaker becomes part of the subject, rather than serving as an omniscient and distant voice apart from the subject:

pulling away from the yards. With this girl
I’ll recall black boys by the soda shop, other times
with conked pompadours and scalloped afterburns
stenciled across fenders. Through the radio

The first person singular statement looks back to a more peaceful, though still inequitable moment in Newark’s past, the late 1950s of Hull’s girlhood. The foreign haircuts of the black boys and the broad fenders of the era’s cars uses the words “scalloped afterburns” as a way to link the bodies of Newark’s population and the industry, the machines of the cars across which the lye-burned hair is “stenciled.” Here, the radio returns, but in the present moment of 1967 Newark. In Saigon and in Newark, Hendrix plays. Hendrix joined the 101st Airborne Division as an alternative to a prison sentence for riding in stolen cars. Hull’s choice to include Hendrix (instead of any other music of the era) is a way for the allusions, metaphors, and content to merge within the tapestry of the poem. The blues appeared in Mississippi at the inception the 20th Century, a crossroads with other revolutions of human invention: Einstein, Freud, and the Wright Brothers, for example. The word “discord” is musical, but has the extra-musical meaning of strife between people or situations.

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References

  1. Mumford, Kevin. Newark: A History of Race, Rights, and Riots in America. New York: New York University Press, 2007. 160.
  1. Bender, Thomas. The Unfinished City: New York and the Metropolitan Idea. New York: New Press, 2002. 175.

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