Arts & Culture · Poetry

Poetry Sunday: Maudelle Driskell, “The Propaganda of Memory”

Maudelle Driskell was a few classes ahead of me at Warren Wilson, but I really got to know her and her work last summer at the Frost Place, where she is the Director and I was the Poet in Residence. The Frost Place sponsors three wonderful poetry conferences each summer that feature readings and other activities at the Frost Homestead in Franconia, New Hampshire, which you can read about at Driskell introduced my readings in the barn behind Robert Frost’s house, and we read together at the library in Franconia and again at the Sugar Hill Town Hall.

A note from the poet tells me that she wrote this poem after studying photographs of both of her grandfathers, taken when they were young men in the Second World War. That piqued my interest, because my grandfather fought in World War I, my father in World War II, and two cousins in Vietnam. Last year, a nephew finished his fifth tour in the Middle East. And my family has constructed myths around them all.

Propaganda is disinformation or outright lies presented as truth, and often disseminated in order to achieve some partisan goal. The relationship between war and propaganda is well documented in poetry, perhaps most notably in Wilfred Owen’s “Dulce et Decorum Est.” In Owen’s poem, the disinformation about war is generated by history, culture, and imperialist governments. In Driskell’s poem, it is generated by the speaker’s own memory, aided and abetted by examination of an old family photograph. It seems to me that Driskell wants readers to think about the fallibility of human memory, and how it can be a source of untruth that—because it comes from within and is less obvious than, say, swastika’d banners or red-white-and-blue bunting—is more insidious and dangerous than propaganda generated from without.

In a technique called ekphrasis, Driskell uses a piece of art—the photograph—to inspire her into poetic reflection. Because the photo is of a family member, the statement about war becomes an intimate one. Vivid, active imagery (“you grinning / around the stump of a cigar”) brings the photograph to life, even as the word “stump” foreshadows the war atrocities the poem will later allude to, then gloss over and gild via the “inevitable will of forgetfulness.” We tend not just to forget such horror, this poem tells us, but also to reimagine and remember it as glory. It is an act of romantic self-delusion reinforced by the “khaki and gleam” surface beauty of the staged subjects of photographs.

I love the image that fuses the darkroom development process with the way memory works, “drawn together by light, silver / particles suspended in emulsion,” and I especially love the way this poem ends, comparing the way we remember to the way “glass remembers sand.” That is to say, not at all. Or at least not in a way that can ever be objective or wholly accurate, because it is always filtered through the lens of who or what is doing the remembering. One reason Richard Drew’s 9/11 photo (“Falling Man”)  is so disturbing is the exquisite framing of the shot; cameras sometimes “remember” things as more beautiful than they actually were. And so, this poem tells us, do we.

—Rebecca Foust, Poetry Editor


The Propaganda of Memory

You stand in the picture, all khaki and gleam,
where the sun found you grinning
around the stump of a cigar, holding
a wooden friar ransacked
from a French churchyard.
In the field of smoke-banked light behind you,
in the rubble of gas masks, and shell casings,
helmets sparkle, and the leftovers of battle
bend to inevitable will of forgetfulness.
The breeze lifting your hair has lost
the stale smell stolen from the mouths
of dead men, and this you,
drawn together by light, silver
particles suspended in emulsion,
is freed from the thickness of the scene, frozen
in the twitch of a photographer’s finger,
leaving you remembering this moment
the same way that glass remembers sand.


From Talismans, The Hobblebush Granite State Poetry Series (Hobblebush Books 2015) and reprinted by permission of the press. First published in Poetry.

Driskell_1600_4-14-15Maudelle Driskell holds an M.F.A. in poetry from Warren Wilson College. Her poetry collection, Talismans, was published by Hobblebush Books in 2014. Her work has appeared in many literary reviews and anthologies, including Poetry magazine, The Kenyon Review, The Cortland Review, The Made Thing, and All Shook Up. She is the recipient of various awards, including the Ruth Lilly Fellowship, awarded by Poetry magazine and the Modern Language Association. Driskell was a founding editor of The Atlanta Review.


[Editor’s Note: For further reading on the ethics of art that makes use of human suffering, see “Perilous Aesthetics,” by Barrett Swanson, published in The Point,]

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  • Marian Dornell June 8, 2015 at 3:01 pm

    Rebecca, this poem of memory is so rewarding to read and reread. It is deeply satisfying because of its potent images and the feelings that arise in me when I read it. Your comments deepen the reader’s appreciation and encourages us to look for things that perhaps we’d miss without your encouragement. Thank you.

  • Patricia Yarberry Allen, M.D. June 7, 2015 at 8:24 pm

    We are so fortunate to have a master class with you each Sunday where you teach us how each Sunday’s poem was created, introduce many of us to new concepts, ekphrasis, this week and how “Vinculum” offers an opportunity to talk about the uses of allusion in poetry last week. We are so grateful for the introductions to the new poets and their poems and to those whom we may know but would like to sit with again reading their latest chapbook. I use my Amazon button at the top of this page to order the books written by each poet every Sunday to keep the memories of each Poetry Sunday with me.