Guy Rotella reviews Kevin Gallagher’s book of poems Loom

  Guy Rotella

  reviews Loom
  by Kevin Gallagher

  2016. Mad-Hat Press (Asheville, N.C.). $21.95
  JPR 07

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Following precedents for documentary poetry laid down by William Carlos Williams, Muriel Rukeyser, Susan Howe, and others, Kevin Gallagher’s Loom recalls and re-collects a mid-nineteenth-century Boston and New England. The region was famous for abolitionism and infamous for complicity in what Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner called the ‘unholy alliance’ between Southern slave holders, the ‘lords of the lash,’ and the Northern owners of textile mills, the ‘lords of the loom’.


The latter were dependent for raw material on the cotton those slaves produced, just as the former were dependent on the mills as their market.


Rather than indulge in simplistic temptations to damn, praise, or exculpate the participants, Loom recreates, for examination and evaluation, the grappling of a place, a period, and a cross-section of Americans, citizens or not, with great national issues.
[image – book cover]


With the contradiction between the Declaration’s assertion that all men are created equal and the continued legality of slavery, for instance, or with the struggle between states’ rights and centralized federal power—especially as those grand theoretical issues were fought out (both metaphorically and literally) in terms of such practical matters as whether states newly admitted to the union should be free states or slave states, and whether resistance or obedience to the Fugitive Slave Act was more just, all of this entangled with capitalist economics and culminating in the Civil War over whether the Union should be whole or suffer secession and be severed.


As implied, Loom does this work by making a culture’s intricate interlacing of greed, collusion, principled resistance, and spirited conversion audible in the lived lives and words of particular and representative individuals chosen from diverse categories of race, gender, class, and economic circumstance. This is a procedure that, among other things, allows access to another resonant national issue, the competing claims of individuals and the collective ‘people’.


Loom, then, comprises a series of dramatic monologues. Archivally sourced and imaginatively curated and composed, these are voiced by persons ranging from the Lowell mill girl and poet Lucy Larcom, to Francis Cabot Lowell. Lowell pirated from England the designs for the power loom that made the New England textile industry possible.


The dramatic monologues also speak in the voices of Virginia Governor John Floyd and Boston businessman, mayor and U.S. senator Harrison Gray Otis, who both supported the alliance between southern cotton and northern mills; abolitionists William Lloyd Garrison and Wendell Phillips; fugitive slaves Thomas Sims and Anthony Burns; members of the Boston Anti-Man-Hunting League, formed to actively resist the Fugitive Slave Act with billy clubs but not knives or guns; Frederick Douglass; Thomas Jefferson; and several others, perhaps most centrally, Amos A. Lawrence, the mill owner turned abolitionist who supported John Brown’s anti-slave activities in Kansas and financed the Union’s first black regiment, the Massachusetts 54th.


Those monologues, as the title metaphor suggests, are supplemented and woven together with other materials: poems providing contextual information on mechanical inventions, the removal of Native Americans from their homelands to reservations to make room for the expansion of cotton plantations, details of slave and mill life. They are also surrounded by competing economic theories, religious justifications of slavery, the role of women in the mills and in anti-slave societies, pacific and more vigorous modes of protest and resistance. Along with those things, a dozen-and- a-half and more period illustrations, expansive explanatory notes, and an instructive list of sources create Loom’s warp and woof.


If, here and there, the poetic seems sacrificed to the imperatives of history and documentary, at its frequent best Loom fabricates voices that live on and lift off the page, both to instantiate an era and to prod and prompt not only retrospective but also contemporary judgment.


The issues of ante-bellum American still loom (what else?) in our own time, in the tension between the campaigns asserting that black or blue lives matter, and in debates about capitalism’s responsibility for economic disparity. They also live on in court cases adjudicating the competing claims of individuals and corporations.


Recalling us to where we come from, Kevin Gallagher has done us service.

Image of Kevin Gallagher’s book cover, “Loom”

Guy Rotella is Professor Emeritus of English at Northeastern University, and has edited the Morse Poetry Prize for twenty-six years. He has published widely on modern and postmodern poetry. This is his first appearance in JPR.


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