Holding up the Mirror and No More:
Louis Zukofsky’s ‘1892-1941’

Bradford Haas

    As it describes a site not fifteen minutes from where I was born, ‘1892-1941’ has always been ‘my’ Zukofsky lyric.  The only poem by LZ set in Washington, D.C., its subject is a monument, and therefore seems appropriate material out of which to create another monument - not of bronze, but words.  As if to validate this choice, turning to the poem in ALL: THE COLLECTED SHORT POEMS OF LOUIS ZUKOFSKY, one finds ‘1892-1941’ on page 100...
     The shape of what follows may not seem conventional for a ‘critical essay’, but it is sympathetic to Zukofsky’s own methods as given in his early essays and as shown in the poem itself.  In 1931 Zuk wrote this definition of his ‘Objectivist’ poetics:

An Objective: (Optics) - The lens bringing the rays from an object to a focus.  That which is aimed at.  (Use extended to poetry) - Desire for what is objectively perfect, inextricably the direction of historic and contemporary particulars.

‘1892-1941’ is a poem which acts as such a lens, in that it focuses various facts of observation, of history and contemporary particulars, onto an object.  And in turn,  because of its sincere desire to approach the subject on its own terms, the poem itself becomes an object which mirrors the function of what it investigates.  This tribute explores the poem in the same manner, approaching the poem on its own terms, as an object, and bringing to bear on it all of the surrounding ‘historical and contemporary particulars’.  My own experience, what makes this poem speak to me, seems to have a bearing on important issues surrounding the text, which would not have manifested themselves to me without the special personal experience I bring to this poem.  We will start, therefore, in ignorance (mine) and hopefully move towards an understanding, and from that understanding build a monument to LZ.

    I. The Search for Death

In 1990 I began my freshman year at Columbia Union College in Takoma Park, Maryland.  I was a local, having been born a stone’s throw away at the adjacent hospital, and since birth had lived within a half hour of that epicenter aside from four years spent at a boarding academy in Virginia.  My sister, four years ahead of me, had recently graduated from the same school, and was working in a congressman’s office on Capital Hill.
     My sister arrived home one friday afternoon after having lunch with a friend named Tim.  When discussing weekend plans, Tim had told my sister that he and his girlfriend - a Washington tour guide - were spending their Saturday visiting cemeteries to look for a statue called ‘Death’.  By all accounts it was extremely moving to those who viewed it, since it depicted Death in  an unconventional way.  Upon seeing it, people were said to laugh, cry, or be struck with ‘profound awe’.  This I had to see! ‘Where is it?’ I asked her.  ‘Some big cemetery in Washington.’  Big help, Sis.  When pressed, she couldn’t supply me with any concrete details, but it was enough to make me want to see ‘Death’.
     Over the next several months, whenever I had a free afternoon I would drive to Washington and search through the major cemeteries in hope of finding the statue.  With little to go on, and - typical male - unwilling to ask for directions, I was caught up in the search for its own sake.  Along the way I learned much about funerary art in Washington, at the very least...
     By 1992 I had not found ‘Death’.  Yet the idea of the statue, and the fact of the search itself, inspired me to write a short fictional piece titled ‘Searching for Death’:


     ‘It affects each person differently,’ the man said.  ‘Some people laugh, some cry, but it is so profound and unexpected that anyone who sees it is moved.’
     ‘Where can I find it?’ I asked.
     ‘Couldn’t tell you,’ replied the man.
     I was searching for Death.

     This search was more like a quest, and could have been more applicably called an obsession.  It had begun several months before on a dreary holiday, when in my boredom I drove down town to the Washington, D.C. Tour Guide Association.  Being a native of the Washington area, I had seen all of the famous attractions at tedium: the Capitol, the Smithsonian, the Washington Monument, etc, etc...  I had been told by a friend that at the Tour Guide Association I could find a wealth of obscure knowledge about our nation’s capital.  But as I talked to each tour guide, only one predominant site escaped their lips: Death.  Supposedly, in one of the old cemeteries inside the city limits, there was a statue entitled ‘Death’.  There are many sculptural tributes to the Grim Reaper, but this one was allegedly different.
     ‘When you are looking for it, you must have an open mind, because it is nothing as you would expect death to be like.’
     ‘What does it look like?’  I asked.
     ‘I don’t know,’ replied the man.  ‘I’ve never actually seen it.’
     In fact none of the tour guides had ever seen ‘Death’, but no doubt they had all heard of it.  So that one afternoon changed my life’s itinerary .  I traveled to all of the cemeteries that I knew of, and then bought maps of the city to find the locations of others in which Death might be hiding.  Over a period of three months I had traversed through, trampled over, and read and unthinkable number of tomb markers, and I still had not found ‘Death’.  There was one place left to look.
     Driving south on North Capitol street one can see, on the right, the oldest church in Washington, along with the oldest cemetery.  I had purposely avoided it with the hope that I would never have to search through its endless expanse of morbidity (on reflection it seems contradictory, my loathing of morbidity when I was, in fact, looking for ‘Death’ itself).  But even with my apprehensions, I entered the graveyard and started, one by one, to look at the tombstones.
     It took me several trips to cover the entire place, five trips in four days, to be precise.  But eventually I found ‘Death’.  It was so profound that it didmove me.  I laughed at first, then cried a bit, then I just stood there for a silent moment, taking in the significance of the sight before me.
     There was a large marble pedestal with a greenish bronze plaque which read ‘DEATH’.  Nothing was on the pedestal, but under the bronze plaque was a sign hanging by a string on a nail which read:


This piece of juvenilia may not hold up as a story (I shudder to read parts of it - oh, the leaps in logic!), but it must be remembered that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, Washington earned the infamous moniker of ‘Murder Capital of the United States’.  For several years running, the murder rate exceeded 500 per year.  In this light, ‘Searching for Death’ makes a point for its place and time.  But for us, the interest is in the knowledge - or more properly LACK of knowledge - I had in 1992: I had never seen the statue, and only knew of it through second hand knowledge verging on urban legend.  In the void created by the missing ‘facts’, I created an alternative based on the mere notion of the statue and its properties.  Oddly enough, at the point in the story where ‘Death’ is encountered, there is no physical statue to be found.  The potential was greater than the limits of my imagination, tho at least my imagination knew its limits!  Whatever else this scant knowledge caused, it at least surrounded the idea of the statue with Mystery; and the search attained the  status of a quest for a potentially numinous object.
     In 1992 I began attending college in England, and the search was left behind with Washington.  The following summer of 1993, however, brought new developments.  It just happened that one of my friends from the UK, an Australian named Jamie Allen, also lived near Washington.  Since our term had let out so late in the summer, neither of us found work, and so spent our days roaming Washington ‘looking for work’, and more often finding air conditioned havens to while away the hot afternoons.  During one of our outings I took him to Rock Creek Cemetery.  We were driving through slowly, listening to Fripp and Eno’s ‘Heavenly Music Corporation’, and I was telling Jamie about my search for this statue, and how I had not found it yet, but that I thought it was possibly in this very cemetery.  Just at that moment - I kid you not - Jamie in his casual way looked out the window, pointed, and said, ‘Isn’t that it over there?’  The car screeched to a halt (as much as it could screech doing 15 MPH), and I jumped out of the car, the door left open letting the ‘Heavenly Music Corporation’ waft through the graveyard.   Jamie followed as I skirted several plots to the place he had pointed to:  an area that looked like shrubs in the middle of tomb markers.  What Jamie had glimpsed in that efficacious second was the view available for only that short window of time - the break in the shrubs that allowed one to see what was inside, a dark statue in front of a plinth of rose marble.  From a car, only a passenger - looking back - could have seen it.  From the driver’s seat it had always appeared a bush.  Jamie had found ‘Death’ for me.
     Proud of this new discovery, I took friends to the site and told them of my sister, and how she had told me of her friend Tim, who had told her of his girlfriend, and the strange statue called ‘Death’ that caused some people to laugh, and some to cry, and others to ponder profoundly, the one that Jamie had found for me by glancing backwards.  While re-telling this story one day in the presence of the statue, two women who were nearby approached.  ‘Excuse me’, said the one, ‘I could not help overhearing what you were saying.  The statue is not called ‘Death’; it is ‘Grief’, and it is by a very famous sculptor named St. Gaudens’.  Ah, new information, and possible leads!  But now ‘Grief’, not ‘Death’ as I had first been told (but of course, I had not considered my sister a possibly unreliable narrator...).  About this time I wrote a poem, related to a snapshot of a girlfriend beside the statue:


Stand next to Grief
      and I will take your picture,
even tho Grief is black
     and your face soft white.

Stand next to Grief and
     I will take a shot;
It should turn out all right
     as long as you don’t smile;
Doesn’t look right to smile with Grief.
     Ain’t proper neither.

For the next couple of years the statue was ‘Grief’ to me.
     Forward to 1996, when I was living in Stratford-on-Avon while attending the University of Warwick.  I would often haunt the local used bookshops in the afternoons, looking for bargains and books useful to my studies.  Browsing through the Art section of the Stratford Bookshop, I spied a monograph on Augustus St. Gaudens.  By that time I knew a bit more about St. Gaudens, as his fame extended far beyond the figure in Rock Creek Cemetery.  Flipping through the pages of much grander commissions - the Shaw memorial in Boston, the gilded Sherman statue in New York, etc - I saw ‘Grief’ fly by.  I turned back a few pages, and there it  was, the statue from Rock Creek.  But in the accompanying note it was called ‘The Adams Memorial’.  The Adams Memorial.  ‘Who is Adams?’  I thought, as I returned the book to the shelf, and moved on.
     At the start of 1997 I moved home to Maryland, and began teaching college courses part-time while I worked on my doctoral thesis.  By then my interest in modernist poetry had reached fever pitch.  I was searching out and devouring every poet I could find in the Pound/Eliot tradition.  During the previous year I had come across mentions of ‘The Objectivists’, and so began purchasing any texts by Zukofsky, Oppen, Reznikoff and Rakosi that I could find.  As I had copies of ‘A’, and ALL, Zukofsky was slated the first to be read.  I began - I thought reasonably - with the short lyrics.  I must confess, however, that through the majority of 55 POEMS, I had little success figuring what, exactly, Zukofsky was doing.  I could divine no entry point, and received little from the shorter poems using the conventional methods I had been taught to use when reading poetry.  By the time I read ‘Mantis’, and ‘Mantis: an Interpretation’, however, I began to see what was happening - Zukofsky had given the reader some assistance, and wisely so.  The ‘Mantis’ poems, of course, were at the end of his first book.  Several poems into the following volume, ANEW, I came across ‘1892-1941’.   A few lines in, I read, ‘...Cast, the statue rests, stopped: / a bronze - not “Grief”...’  After having nearly nothing to cling to in Zukofsky’s lyrics, there was something I recognized - I knew a bronze statue which was ‘not “Grief”, with a visitor’s bench, and shrubs surrounding it; and it was ‘but a cab’s jaunt’ from the  U.S. Capitol.  And by the end, the confirmation: ‘in “the cemetery known as Rock Creek”’.
     I had my ‘in’.  Zukofsky, by writing a poem on this particular sculpture, had allowed me to link into his poetry.  While I did not understand the title, or know who was buried in the plot (there is no name dropping, after all, in the poem), I did have a firm grip on what he was describing, and where it was located.  It came to me that Zukofsky and I had shared experience, if not in time - an impossibility - in a certain physical space.  I still did not know who ‘Adams’ was, tho I had seen the figure labeled ‘The Adams Memorial’ in the St. Gaudens book.  The oddity of the poem, as I saw it, was how concretely descriptive it was, while being simultaneously obscurantist.  Shortly afterwards I found Zukofsky’s 1924 MA thesis on Henry Adams in PREPOSITIONS: THE COLLECTED CRITICAL ESSAYS.  The connections between Adams and Zukofsky, the statue and the poem, began to clarify themselves.

II.  a lady of Nineteen Forty One met by
chance, asked where you could be found, took us three here...
     In a letter dated ‘Aug 25/41’ Zukofsky told William Carlos Williams, ‘P.S. We’ll probably be away from home and looking for jobs in Washington Aug 30 to Sept 7 ...’ (Ahearn 2003 284).  Not long thereafter, on October 25, 1941, LZ sent a letter thanking Williams for his review of 55 POEMS (Decker 1941).  He also enclosed a copy of the poem ‘1892-1941’ (ibid. 297).  (Both the review and ‘1892-1941’ appeared almost a year later in the September, 1942 issue of POETRY (Chicago).)  From this we can assume that Zukofsky visited Rock Creek Cemetery during his trip to Washington, sometime between August 30 and September 7, 1941.  We can also know, then, that the composition of the poem ‘1892-1941’ began with that visit, and that the poem was finished sometime prior to October 25 of the same year.
     Aside from accuracy, we might glean other insights from this timeline.  Despite Zukofsky’s intimacy with Adams and his work from his 1924 MA thesis, he had not visited the grave site before 1941.  Also, Zukofsky’s visit to Rock Creek may have been in homage, but it was not a pilgrimage.  At least, Zukofsky did not seem in a rush to visit Washington, as it had been seventeen years since he had completed his thesis.  It was the prospect of job hunting that took him there, not Adams.  But saying this, since he was in Washington, he certainly took the opportunity to visit the grave and to see the famous statue that sat upon it.  If Zukofsky had wanted to make the experience have symmetry, he would have made a special trip in 1942 - fifty years after Adams had recorded seeing the memorial for the first time.  But it was not a contrived event; rather, the visit was conditioned by the flow of everyday concerns and commonplaces.  Zukofsky viewed the statue as any other visitor on any other chance day, tho his was no common understanding, but a sincere and intimate knowledge - albeit secondary - of the circumstances of the memorial’s inception, and the personage who had mandated its creation.
 So what uncommon knowledge and understanding did Zukofsky bring to the statue?  For that we must have a look at Zukofsky’s MA thesis.
     Zukofsky wrote his MA thesis only six years after Adams’ death and the posthumous publication of THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.  As such, his thesis is an early example of Adams criticism, one that did not have the benefit of the numerous scholarly works that followed: volumes of letters, biographies, and critical works.  For ‘Henry Adams: A Criticism in Autobiography’, Zukofsky utilized an unusual form for the first time.  The majority of the essay is an arrangement of quotations from the writings of Adams, with a slender amount of comment linking these parts together into a whole.  It allows Adams to give the particulars, allows the work to show the way.  The subtle ‘argument’ is more in the arrangement.
     From the outset Zukofsky shows an affinity with his subject:

These chapters on the writings of Henry Adams illustrate two actuating forces of his nature: poetic intellect is its continual undertow, and detached mind the strong surface current in the contrary direction. (Prepostions 86)

Zukofsky, working closely with Adams’ writings, read himself into the material.  The description of Adams, with a ‘strong surface current of detached mind’ and an ‘undertow’ of ‘poetic intellect’ is in many ways the true mirror (an image exact but inverted in the glass) of Zukofsky, of whom it could be said, ‘had two actuating forces of his nature: detached mind is its continual undertow, and poetic intellect the strong surface current in the contrary direction’(!).  Such was his sympathy for his material that it extended to the type of information Zukofsky allowed in the thesis about the statue.
     There are three main sections of the thesis which pertain to the St. Gaudens figure.  Looking at these, the reader is able to receive an overview  of the statue’s history,  simultaneously learning the extent of Zukofsky’s knowledge of the subject.  The first reference is in a section simply dated December 6, 1885. Here we learn that Adams’ ‘wife had died’.  No hint of how or why she died; all that is given is aftermath:

Adams lived it all through, but ever so silently.  He might imply that his life had been a broken arch, but he felt repose and self-restraint as nothing else.  Leaving art to make the best of death in a monument at Rock Creek, Adams went on submissive.  To the heart, at least, infinite peace meant something.
     Adams’ world lay all before him.  His best works were yet to be written.  Still, to the sensitive with whom great contacts were few, and these a very quiet matter, the greatest was never to be recorded.  (Prepositions 108)

This ‘greatest matter’, not recorded by Adams, is recorded with the most extreme economy by Zukofksy: a mere 153 words in a forty-five page essay -  Zukofsky is nearly as quiet as Adams himself about this monumental event.  There is no more about the death of Mrs. Adams in the thesis, but there is, as there is in THE EDUCATION, a bit more about the St. Gaudens figure.  This famous excerpt describes the first time Adams viewed the memorial in 1892, which had been built during a period of wandering and world travels in the years after his wife’s death:

His first step, on returning to Washington, took him out to the cemetery known as Rock Creek, to see the bronze figure which St. Gaudens had made for him in his absence ... He supposed its meaning to be the one commonplace about it - the oldest idea known to human thought ... The interest of the figure was not in its meaning, but in the response of the observer.  As Adams sat there, numbers of people came, for the figure seemed to have become a tourist fashion, and all wanted to know its meaning.  Most took it for a portrait-statue, and the remnant were vacant-minded in the absence of a personal guide.  None felt what would have been nursury-instinct to a Hindu baby or a Japanese jinricksha-runner.  The only exceptions were the clergy, who taught a lesson even deeper.  One after another brought companions there, and, apparently fascinated by their own reflection, broke out passionately against the expression they felt in the figure of despair, of atheism, of denial.  Like the others, the priest saw only what he brought.  Like all great artists, St Gaudens held up the mirror and no more.  The American layman had lost sight of ideals; the American priest had lost sight of faith.  Both were more American than the old, half-witted soldiers who denounced the wasting, on a mere grave, of money which should have been given for drink. (Prepositions 109)

Zukofsky included this excerpt from the single page of THE EDUCATION that refers to the statue, and by obscure association, to Mrs. Adams.  In it, Adams switches attention away from the ‘why’ of the statue, which he writes is ‘not the interest’, and focuses instead on ‘the response of the viewer’, stating that ‘like all great artists, St Gaudens held up the mirror and no more’.  Through his seeming delight in anonymously overhearing the reactions of the curious visitors to the site, Adams suggests that most people view the statue as presenting a riddle and look to it for an answer, not realizing that all they receive back is their own reflection.
     In the final section of Zukofsky’s thesis, he includes this detailed account of the memorial:

Henry Adams lies buried in Rock Creek Cemetery, in Washington.  The casual visitor might perhaps notice, on a slight elevation, a group of shrubs and small trees making a circular enclosure.  If he should step up into this concealed spot, he would see on the opposite side a polished marble seat; and placing himself there he would find himself facing a seated figure, done in bronze, loosely wrapped in a mantle, which, covering the body and the head, throws into strong relief a face of singular fascination.  Whether man or woman, it would puzzle the observer to say.  The eyes are half closed, in reverie rather than in sleep.  The figure seems not to convey the sense either of life or death, of joy or sorrow, of hope or despair.  It has lived but life is done; it has experienced all things, but is now oblivious to all; it has questioned, but questions no more.  The casual visitor will perhaps approach the figure, looking for a symbol, a name, a date - some revelation.  There is none.  The level ground, carpeted with dead leaves, gives no indication of a grave beneath.  It may be that the puzzled visitor will step outside, walk around the enclosure, examine the marble shaft against which the figure is placed; and, finding nothing there, return to the seat and look long at the strange face.  What does he make of it - this level spot, these shrubs, this figure that speaks and yet is silent?  Nothing - or what he will.  Such was life to Henry Adams, who lived long, and questioned seriously, and would not be content with the dishonest or the facile answer. -Carl Becker. (Prepositions 129-30)

It should be noted immediately that this description is from a secondary source, as Zukofsky would not, as noted above, visit the site until 1941.  Secondly, Becker’s description includes much of the physical detail found in the poem ‘1892-1941’.  Notice, as well, Becker’s statement on what the viewer will find: ‘Nothing - or what he will’.  Yet while Becker states that reactions will be subjective, he perhaps takes a swipe at popular misconceptions by adding, ‘Adams ... would not be content with the dishonest or the facile answer’.  This accurate description gave Zukofsky foreknowledge of what he would see, and no doubt informed (and blunted?) his initial reactions.
     By focusing primarily on Adams’ writings, Zukofsky’s thesis gives us a version of Adams’ life as can be divined through his own published and therefore sanctioned words.  While at times it goes beyond what Adams himself recorded, for the most part it allows mysteries to stay mysteries, and does not allow the thesis to become a speculative analysis of Adams and his suppression of certain facts about his life.  Where the average critic or historian would find a gold mine of intrigue and scandal to unravel, Zukofsky stays true to the temper and intent of the writings, which are the ‘objects’ on which his thesis focuses. We will reference this strategy again shortly when we discuss the poem itself, but before we do that it might be useful to discuss Adams, his works, and how these effect his ‘reading’ of the statue.

III.  The man who answers will be doomed to eternity like the men who answered the sphinx
    The major works of Henry Adams, MONT ST. MICHEL AND CHARTRES and THE EDUCATION, are works of indeterminate genre.  The CHARTRES is a ‘travel guide’, and a book of French mediaeval culture and architecture, while THE EDUCATION is an autobiography which gives great insight into American culture of the 19th century.  Taken together, the two volumes create a philosophy of history comparable in its geometries to Spengler and Yeats.  In other words, neither are what they first seem; they offer some things on the surface and others by insinuation or gradual revelation.
     This same distinction can be said of the St. Gaudens figure.  At once it is self-evident: a great piece of bronze and marble sitting in the open for any person to visit and ponder.  Yet, by comparison to the standard monuments in Rock Creek, it obscures ‘meaning’ by its lack of names, dates, and symbols of a religious or civic nature.  We know from Zukofsky’s thesis that ‘Adams lived it all through, but ever so silently’, and the general retreat from the public eye that was both in his nature and his upbringing as a member of a famous family (avoiding the paparazzi of his day); but of this Adams created an intellectual game that both allowed and justified his obscurity.  And there can be no doubt that he reveled in it.  As with the philosophy expounded by the CHARTRES and THE EDUCATION, Adams allowed the meaning to build after the fact, and did not, perhaps, intend it to begin with.  It was only when so many questions and multiple interpretations surfaced, and the statue became the fodder for public contemplation, that Adams mandated that no one interpretation be allowed to formulate the figure.  According to Adams’ biographer Ernest Samuels, the multiplicity of meaning was encouraged in that “Adams himself helped to throw about the figure veil after veil of significance, making it the mirror for his changing moods.” (Samuels 1954 57)  Even after the death of St. Gaudens, when the newspapers and gossip magazines continued to offer specious interpretations of the memorial, Adams wrote to the sculptor’s son:

Do not allow the world to tag my figure with a name!  Every magazine writer wants to label it as some American patent medicine for popular consumption - Grief, Despair, Pear’s Soap, or Macy’s Suits Made to Measure.  Your father meant it to ask a question, not to give an answer; and the man who answers will be damned to eternity like the men who answered the Sphinx. (Samuels 1954 89)

It was the FIXING of a meaning, more than hatred of any individual’s interpretation, that bothered Adams.  If, for example, one view asserted itself so strongly as to be taken for the absolute ‘truth’, it would have destroyed the interactive qualities caused when the viewer, confronted by the mystery, was forced to create a ‘meaning’.  As Adams wrote to a person inquiring about the figure, “All considerable artists make it a point of compelling the public to think for itself ... Every man his own artist before a work of art.” (Samuels 1954 88)  St. Gaudens was a ‘great artist’ by this definition, and as long as the mystery of the memorial remained, the public was forced to ‘think for itself’, and to become part of the creative act.

IV.  To be moved comes of want, tho want be complete
as understanding
     In his well known poem ‘Mantis’, Zukofsky carefully records all the ‘historical particulars’ surrounding the event of seeing a mantis on the subway.  The poem records the multiple events and associations that occurred during the few seconds of the event, the “thoughts’ torsion” swirling in the form of the sestina.  ‘Mantis’ shows his sincerity in recording all the aspects of the event, and achieves ‘Objectification’ when these elements find suitable concrete form - the sestina itself.  In comparison, ‘1892-1941’ achieves the same level of ‘Objectification’ as it, too, approaches its subject with ‘sincerity’, and carefully records all the various ‘historical and contemporary particulars’ surrounding the central object - in this case not an insect but a statue.  But it all the same achieves, as much as Mantis, a ‘rested totality’ (with two bodies in a grave, quite literally!).
     The poem, then, utilizing ‘Sincerity’ and ‘Objectification’ is written from a vantage point of knowledge.  Just as in his MA thesis, Zukofsky approaches the ‘object’ on its own terms, records its physical details and the context of its historical moment in the duration of Zukofsky’s own visit.  THE EDUCATION provided a model, recording not only what Adams saw in the statue, but what the tourists and curious gawkers said as well.
 But unlike the tourists, who saw what they brought reflected in the statue (‘Grief’, ‘Despair’, ‘Atheism’, ‘Silence’, ‘Pear’s Soap’...), Zukofsky, in writing the poem, caused an effect unlike any other viewer: he held up a mirror to a mirror.  ‘1892-1941’ in one sense gives no more than the memorial itself: neither Adams or his wife are mentioned by name; the dates given, tho appearing as years of ‘birth’ and ‘death’, we now apprehend as the year Adams first viewed the statue (1892) and the year Zukofsky did the same (1941).  Beyond this, we know ‘two of them lie there’ - it is a grave holding two people.  In short, the reader unfamiliar with Adams or the memorial is given a certain set of information: ambiguous dates, a location (Rock Creek Cemetery, not far from down town Washington, D.C.), specific details of the figure and its surroundings (very accurate, as confirmed when comparing it to Becker), and that the narrator of the poem is visiting the site and seeing these things on a particular day in 1941.
     These elements, added together, do not provide much insight beyond what any visitor would see at Rock Creek.  As Barry Ahearn has noted, ‘The poem tests, in a small way, any American reader’s familiarity with the story of Henry Adams’ (Terrell 1979 126).  This is true, as the poem includes quotations from THE EDUCATION which any reader familiar with Adams’ work would most likely recognize: ‘the cemetery known as Rock Creek’ and ‘One’s instinct abhors time’ have an instant resonance to the initiated ear.
     But here’s the crux: what about the un-initiated?  Many readers might come to the poem ignorant of Adams and the memorial.  How would they read it?  Would these readers take anything away?  If a poem is meant to communicate, to add the particular insights of the poet in aid of understanding, then wouldn’t ‘1892-1941’ be a failure to the vast majority of readers?
     Perhaps we can look at it another way.  Whether familiar with the exact statement or not, it seems Zukofsky was aware that ‘the man who answers will be damned to eternity like the men who answered the Sphinx’.  With our knowledge of the ‘historical particulars’ surrounding the writing of the poem, we can see that Zukofsky approaches the memorial with ‘sincerity’, that in writing his poem he strives - just as in ‘Mantis’ -  to ‘live with objects as they exist’.  The statue, as Zukofsky knew, purportedly reflected whatever the viewer brought.  Zukofsky, like Perseus approaching Medusa, used his perceptions as a mirror, and in creating his poem captured the blank reflective qualities of the statue itself: any obscurity of the poem is due to an accurate and sympathetic rendering of what the statue itself emanates.
     Yet while allowing the mystery to stand, Zukofsky gives enough hints that show he knows more than he would divulge openly: the dates of the poem’s title; the quotations from THE EDUCATION; the location and description.   These elements are possible to decipher under the right circumstances and coincidences.
     This brings us back to my own experience with the memorial and Zukofsky’s poem.  Far from being ‘trivial’, my history is a concrete example of how both the memorial and Zukofsky’s poem function.  The ‘meaning’ of the memorial changed, in a very literal way, depending on the knowledge (or lack of) that I brought to it at any one point.  From the abstract ‘Death’, to the concrete ‘Grief’, to the historical ‘Adams Memorial’, the figure held significance and inspired creation on my part.  In a sense, fruitfulness was due to mis-information; but like Sir Thomas Browne’s URNE BURIAL, the error in historical fact (mistaking Anglo-Saxon burial urns for Roman ones) seems less important than the creative act that resulted in the process of meditation on the urns, whatever their origin.
     Just as the meaning of the memorial depends on what is brought to it, the same can be said of the poem.  ‘1892-1941’, in full sympathy with the memorial it records, will reflect what is brought to it.  If the reader is not familiar with Adams or the memorial, or of Zukofsky’s own work that connects him to Adams, then the poem will be as the statue to the average visitor: an object without apparent meaning, and in this case the reader must create meaning, even if it is to say ‘I get nothing’ (as Becker said of the St. Gaudens figure, the viewer can make of it ‘Nothing - or what he will’).  I think back to the happenstance of my encounter with the poem, and how differently my reaction would have been if I had not by coincidence been familiar with the statue; ‘1892-1941’ would simply have been another of those Zukofsky poems that did not resonate for me, and I expect this is the reaction of many readers.   For those in the know, however, the poem is amazingly accurate in its detail and sentiments.
     The poem begins, ‘To be moved comes of want, tho want be complete / as understanding’.  What at first seems to be a confession - that the speaker cannot be moved, since his lack of understanding makes his want insufficient - may be more a statement of fact.  If a viewer’s understanding IS lacking, then the want will not be sufficient to be moved by the statue.  But we know Zukofsky DOES have complete understanding, therefore his ‘want’ must also be complete, and ‘to be moved’ comes from that complete want. If we can say the same as we approach his poem, then we are moved dependent on our level of understanding of its impetus and circumstances.
     Having explored the ‘historical particulars’ surrounding both the Adams memorial and Zukofsky’s poem, we may see a chain of occurrences:

ADAMS seeing the figure in 1892, with the full knowledge that the figure sat upon the grave of his wife, who killed herself.  Yet he records only the mystery of the figure, and the popular speculations surrounding it.  He states, for the record, ‘St. Gaudens held up the mirror and no more’.  The viewer, according to Adams, merely saw him or herself reflected.  ZUKOFSKY in 1941, knowing all of the circumstances of the death of 'Clover' Adams, and of the controversy over the meaning of the statue.  In full sympathy with Adams, he writes a poem around the object of the statue, and does not ‘interpret’, but merely reflects back, detailing the particulars of his visit.  As Barry Ahearn has written:

The title, brief as a riddle, suggests a particular balance. It puts Zukofsky and Adams in close alliance, denoting as it does a shared point in physical and mental space, yet there is a gap of fifty-nine years [sic - actually 49].  Two generations cannot be so easily dismissed.  This tension between alliance and division is the friction that generates the poem (ibid.).

Zukofsky and Adams are met in the ‘shared point in physical and mental space’.  The relative stasis of the statue - in bronze, as lasting as any of our human monuments - becomes something unchanging, something outside the boundaries in time.  The actual point in time may not be co-habitated, but the sharing of a first impression is possible.  One may think of the last section of Basil Bunting’s BRIGGFLATTS (1966) - another poem intended as monument -  which successfully illustrates ‘Then is Now’ in a literal sense: the light from a certain star travels 50 years before it is seen in the present, and by looking at its light, the present is melded with the past into one .  In that brief epiphany, time is nullified.  It seems appropriate that Bunting, Zukofsky’s good friend, should express this concept so eloquently twenty-five years after Zukofsky’s poem was written.

V.  A ‘Monumental Mirror’
     This essay (and the reader) takes part in the chain as well.  Tho no piece of art, it records the complex and varied ‘historical and contemporary particulars’ surrounding both the Adams memorial and ‘1892-1941’ - including my own history, which has a bearing on the individual approach and understanding of the poem.  In following Adams’ pronouncement of St. Gaudens, Zukofsky holds up the mirror, and no more.  And in doing so reflects a bronze monument, while making of the poem a monument in its own right.  This essay has tried to hold up another mirror, and in reflecting the poem and the particulars that surround it, is a sincere monument to its maker inscribed:




Adams, Henry.  THE EDUCATION OF HENRY ADAMS.  Boston: Houghton Mifflin, 1961.


POETRY: A MAGAZINE OF VERSE.  Vol. LX, No. VI.  September, 1942.  Zukofsky’s ‘1892-1941’ appears on pp. 315-315; William Carlos Williams review of Zukofsky’s book 55 POEMS appears on pp. 338-340 with the title, ‘An Extraordinary Sensitivity’.

Samuels, Ernest.  HENRY ADAMS: THE MAJOR PHASE.  Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 1954.

Terrell, Carroll F., ed.  LOUIS ZUKOFSKY: MAN & POET.   Orono, ME: National Poetry Foundation, [1979].  Ahearn, Barry.  ‘The Adams Connection’. pp. 113-128.

Zukofsky, Louis.  ALL: THE COLLECTED SHORT POEMS.  New York: W.W. Norton, 1965.  p. 100.

---.  PREPOSITIONS: THE COLLECTED CRITICAL ESSAYS OF LOUIS ZUKOFSKY.  Expanded Edition.  Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 1981.