It is interesting how, as a student of poetry – and therefore operating with an acute awareness of one’s infantile blindness when the universe is flashing full of brilliant stars – one can develop, without even realizing it, an insensitivity to the discomfort of encountering the unknown. “Assault to Abjury” is a poem I have loved for years, copying it carefully down into many notebooks, and yet it wasn’t until I began to methodically consider the workings of this poem that I realized I didn’t know what the word “abjury” meant. I had always been reading the poem by diving headfirst into it and accepting that the title, like the classical allusions of Robert Lowell or Sylvia Plath’s references to the Holocaust, was just not something that I was going to understand.
Why that title? First, “abjury” is not an existing word, or wasn’t prior to McDaniel’s conception of it on the page. It’s a question that could be written about at much more length, whether a poet should choose to jury-rig or create a new word for a place in the poem where the construction of the word is arguably not the point and can pull focus. The meaning of the word McDaniel wants to convey here (because I am of the school of thought that it does matter what the poet intended) is the point, and luckily the word “abjury” is graceful enough to the ear and eye that it doesn’t bring a reductive awkwardness to the poem’s title. Essentially, it works. The poem works too, is whole independent of its title, and so is thereby lent an extra dimension, another beautiful facet. Here is this distressing scene, and the humans placed within it who don’t know whether to be distressed or numbed, and by the experience of their witness are brought closer to faith, or perhaps a kind of survival, rather than cleaved from it. The poem says this all on its own. But from the title we know the poet endorses this perseverance of the soul in a place where so much is being snuffed out: there is so much intention implicit in the word “assault.” An assault on abjury is a reaffirmation, in this case not of a particular credo but of the idea that there is value in living with a credo at all.
To return to an earlier idea, the poem works and is imbued with power on two levels. In the ancient tradition, it depicts a scene that both stands literally and serves as metaphor. Diction is critical to the function of each level, and McDaniel is masterful here, building layer upon layer of detail so visually evocative that it is not until late in the poem that the reader even begins to realize she has been charmed by what is more than a moving image. The storm “commence[s],” recalling the grand drama of an opera or battle. The beach is “shocked with jellyfish;” “weirdly neatened” by the storm (one of those incredible phrases that begets the question, ‘isn’t that how it happens exactly?’ Doesn’t chaos in its aftermath strangely reorder what was there?) The beach becomes a “debris field” full of “castaway trash” (“treasure”), and we see it – there is the “jewel box,” the “spoon ring,” the “sack of rock candy.” McDaniel also accomplishes the feat that is drawing the beautiful in the grotesque, as with the “bicycle exoskeleton” we remember that these are all objects that have been battered, flung from their homes onto a sudden graveyard. The witnesses are bruised and blistered.
There is little hope. McDaniel came onto the poetic scene with his Saltwater Empire, in which “Assault to Abjury” is included, which is a collection deeply inspired by Hurricane Katrina’s ravaging of the South while it was being written. The scene was then, and is still in many ways, very grim. Another poet may have drawn the perfectly reasonable conclusion that such epic devastation was the proof of God’s absence in the world, or at least proof that God was sending Biblical plague to destroy life on this planet. McDaniel however shifts the last third of his poem from the literal scene to a hazier, more removed second place that testifies to the opposite, refuses the temptation to allow apathy into the cracks of a broken landscape:
God help us we tried to stay shattered but we just got better.
We grew adept, we caught the fish as they fled.
We skinned the fish, our knife clicked like an edict.
We were harmed, and then we healed.
Helping to make this transition – besides its placement late in the poem, so that the reader is almost tricked into accepting this introduction of a conclusion about the human race entire and perhaps even life on Earth – is McDaniel’s line, “is it true is it true.” The witnesses on the beach, who a student of poetry knows are inspired by cleanup crews after Katrina but could be any people at the meeting of civilization and the will of the planet, are cowed by the death they see, almost crazed by it, chanting their disbelief. Or, they are being pulled at by despair and beg for reassurance that God (goodness, purpose) is still present in these details. Both are true. The plea is its own affirmation, as a call into space affirms the belief that there is someone to hear that call. There is harm and then there is healing.
“Assault to Abjury” can be found in Raymond McDaniels’ poetry collection Saltwater Empire.
Molly Mellinger is an intern at Woodhall Press and a current student in the Fairfield University Master of Fine Arts program, where her area of concentration is poetry. She grew up in Fairfield and graduated with a Bachelor’s in English, summa cum laude, from Ottawa University. Beyond the arts, Molly is particularly interested in animal rescue and cross-species ethics.