This Is All One Colon
It is that clarity of mystery, that precision of blank—gesturing to certain immensities—that astounds me about James Agee’s peculiar use of colons. The epigraph to that American modernist’s “Description of Elysium” captured my attention as the sun went down on this past National Punctuation Day:
There: far, friends: ours: dear dominion:
I dutifully turn to Strunk and White’s Elements of Style: “Use a colon after an independent clause to introduce a list of particulars, an appositive, an amplification, or an illustrative quotation.” Of these choices, Agee’s epigraph seems to fit only amplification, the addition of detail for emphasis. According to Robert A. Harris’ Handbook of Rhetorical Devices, “amplification allows you to call attention to, emphasize, and expand a word or idea.” Agee’s epigraph is dually expansive, in both distance and intimacy: There becomes far, peopled by friends, a place that is ours, an address to dear dominion. The colons, like the epigraph, serve to prepare you for what is to come. In a more aural sense of amplification, the poem unfolds in Agee’s lyrical way of accumulating discrete sounds and then hushing them, one at a time. True to the musicality of Agee’s lyric, there is a rising and falling movement he achieves—a diminishing amplification—largely by way of colons.
Agee’s Elysian colons are about heaven. But he doesn’t end There: His intimations of life after death do not come full stop. They’re punctuated not by periods, but by colons. And the colons keep you going, breath by breath, echoing quietly ever after Elysium. Nearly three months since my first reading, I’m still marveling at all the pairs of stacked dots breaking lines and stanzas, like peep-hole skylights to worlds to come.
For Agee’s centenary—his would-be one hundredth birthday—and for clues to his heretical punctuation, I turn to “Colon,” a section of Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, his documentary collaboration with photographer Walker Evans on Alabama tenant farmers during the Depression. “This is all one colon:” Agee declares in a one-clause paragraph, ending with a colon, that could be the key to the whole book and to Agee’s deeply sensory sense of the sacred. Let Us Now Praise Famous Men: “of all these each is a life, a full universe: what are their clothes: what food is theirs to eat … what is the living and manner of their day, of a season, of a year:” A litany of curiosities, “individual mote[s]” of life whirling in shafts of light, a sprawl of a book whose center “we shall be unable to keep steadily before your eyes.” And yet
This is all one colon:
Here at the center is a creature: it would be our business to show how through every instant of every day of every year of his existence alive he is from all sides streamed inward upon … by that enormous sleeting of all objects forms and ghosts how great how small no matter, which surround and whom his senses take: in as great and perfect and exact particularity as we can name them:
How to read such dense prose? How to get your bearings? Pause at a colon. Take a deep breath. Pivot, so you can strive to see what precedes, amplified in light of what follows. Take that next-to-last colon, the one that seems to break an otherwise continuous phrase: “whom his senses take: in.” Read back, and forth—“it would be our business to show … in as great and perfect and exact particularity as we can”—Agee strains towards something immense. That ambiguous colon is straddling two universes of meaning: what all our senses take in and what all Agee is endeavoring to show. It functions like an unpredictable line break that tells you precise ways the words before and after relate to each other—an enjambment, of sorts. One phrase carries over into another, not coming full stop at the usual syntactic places. Enjambment emphasizes the stride of a line. Its root is jambe, French for leg. It is how a poet “legs” a line, I was told in a workshop by J.D. McClatchy, a way to choreograph a reader’s attention. And poetry, McClatchy said, should help you live.
How do Agee’s colons help you live? They help you see, and they help you hear. They help you perceive. They help you breathe—literally. You need to take deep breaths to stride with Agee, to sustain the intensity of his attention to human life. It is beyond his power to do, he tells us:
it is this which so paralyzes me: yet one can write only one word at a time … let this be born in mind, in order that, when we descend … into examination of slender particulars, this its wholeness and simultaneous living map may not be neglected, however lost the breadth of the country may be in the winding walk of each sentence.
Take Agee word by word; rest your feet in his colons.
[B]ear in mind at least [his] wish, and perceive in them and restore them what strength you can of yourself: … this is not a work of art or of entertainment … but is a human effort which must require human co-operation.
Why rise to the co-operation Agee is calling for? I believe he offers not a way of being, but a way of striving, a practice of relentless, tender attention. Each of his colons says, “Behold, look back in light of this: something sacred, set apart and part of you, in particular.”
Parents on porches: rock and rock: From damp strings morning glories: hang their ancient faces.
This small image from “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” Agee’s prose poem on his childhood in Tennessee, recalls the fierce delicacy he admired in Evans’ photographs.
In a memoir on his friendship with Agee, Robert Fitzgerald writes of his “sharp-eyed pity” for poverty and misery. And I see this exacting eye of Agee looking up—not in redemptive sentimentality, but in glaring honesty, a reverence rare and precise as it is radiant. I don’t think Agee would want us to connect the dots of his colons. Better to lavish attention on what is at hand. Agee’s colons are sharp-eyed openings, apertures of awe.
Writing notes for Let Us Now Praise Famous Men, Agee recognized the music and motions of Anglican liturgy in light of a morning far afield from the Eucharist he witnessed as a child: the way a widow and an epileptic took strength into their mouths with communion— “and that was the peace of a day: and it is in no beauty less that the gestures of a day here begin.” Here is a sharecropper’s home in Alabama, and Agee likens the morning ritual of his childhood to the routines of making breakfast he witnessed in the family’s kitchen: the flour sifted, mixed with lard and water; the biscuits poured; the coffee put on the stove.
Don’t mistake Agee’s sacramental imagination for piety. He was an altar boy who quit church when he grew up. His adult worship was acute perception, thick description and lyrical interlude. Fitzgerald attributes to Agee “a sense of the breathing community immersed in mystery, most intelligent in awe and most needful of mercy.” Though Agee abandoned his Episcopal background during his college years at Harvard, he never said goodbye to the High Church. He kept writing letters to Father Flye, a priest who had a hand in his spiritual and literary development at the St. Andrew’s Monastery School in Tennessee. He quit church, but he carried its cadences with him. He does, with colons, what litanies do. He amplifies with resonant invocations. He makes a perennial “Dedication”
to all these who live and who must die and those whom they breed to follow them in the earth to live and endure and breed and die: to the earth itself in its loveliness, and in all this race has done to it: and to its substance, and to its children every one, quick or quiet:
Here, is a transfiguration of a fragment of the Apostles’ Creed, from the Book of Common Prayer, in which Agee was steeped: the quick and the dead becomes the quick and the quiet: “Dedication” is among the “strenuous prayers” Fitzgerald discerns in Permit Me Voyage, the collection of poems Agee prepared for publication during his time at Harvard, “the work of a desperate Christian.”
Desperate for what? A palpable silence, perhaps, as Agee addresses the neverendings of life. An amplifying attention choreographed by colons that transfix “so that the aspect of a street in sunlight can roar in the heart of itself as a symphony, perhaps as no symphony can: and all of consciousness is shifted from the imagined, the revisive, to the effort to perceive simply the cruel radiance of what is.” A vision of eternal life among “the whole enchanted swarm of the living, into a region prior to the youngest quaverings of creation.”
Heaven is a heaving rest, the air we breathe to sleep. In “A Country Letter” Agee wonders how any creature bears to exist “and not break utterly to fragments of nothing: these are matters too dreadful and fortitudes too gigantic to meditate long and not forever worship:”
Agee breaks the paragraph with a colon that precedes a description of what he hardly hears of “three harmed boys” sleeping in the next room: “Not even straining, can I hear their breathing: rather, I have not quite sensuous knowledge of a sort of suspiration, less breathing than that indiscernible drawing-in of heaven by which plants live.”
W.H. Auden tells us that poetry is “a way of happening, a mouth.” I say Agee’s poetry is a way of apprehending, an eye; a way of listening, an ear; a way of quieting, a bell.
Agee uses the bell as a metaphor for the sound of an auto in “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” a colon-rich prose poem with an afterlife. Though not part of the manuscript Agee was working on up until he died of a heart attack in 1955, his lyric remembrance of childhood evenings on Tennessee lawns was published posthumously as the prologue to A Death in the Family, his autobiographical novel on the death of his father. The prose poem is a quiet aural memory that unfolds, colon by colon, each offering a space of breath to receive another register of sound.
A street car raising its iron moan; stopping, belling and starting; stertorous; rousing and raising again its iron increasing moan and swimming its gold windows and straw seats on past and past and past.
This palpable past attests to Agee’s “stethoscopic sense of feeling,” as Fitzgerald articulates the acute intimacy of his friend’s perception, “a raging awareness of the sensory field in depth and in detail.” Agee holds his stethoscope to the hearts of individual lives, sighing to iron sounds whose pulse he perceives with fierce sympathy. It is this raging awareness that can tell
the iron whine rises on rising speed; still risen, faints; halts; the faint stinging bell; rises again, still fainter; fainting, lifting, lifts, faints foregone: forgotten.
The sound and image of a bell recurs in a lyrical interlude that returns to the child voice of “Knoxville: Summer, 1915”: “All the air vibrated like a fading bell with the latest exhausted screaming of locusts.” The child amplifies the voices of his family with the colon-and-conjunction tic I’ve learned to be typical of Agee.
They groaned, rewarded; lifted, and spilled out: and watching the windows, listening at the heart of the proud bell of darkness, he lay in perfect peace.
Here, the colon is a pivot from external sound to sensory imagination, a turn from the groans spilled out to their reverberation in the stethoscopic feeling of the child.
In Agee’s way of fruitfully digressive amplification, I recall Diana Eck’s description of a liturgical ringing of bells at the death of late Russian Orthodox patriarch Alexei I. The funeral peal begins with the largest, loudest bell. Successively smaller bells ring, one by one, until the sound dies out. It concludes with the largest bell, ringing with only one note at a time until the sound diminishes, then amplifies, bell by bell, back up again. This swelling and quelling resonates with the dynamics of Agee’s description of fathers watering their Knoxville lawns with hosepipes:
a pitch as accurately tuned to the size and style of stream as any violin. So many qualities of sound out of one hose: so many choral differences out of those several hoses that were in earshot. Out of any one hose, the almost dead silence of the release, and the short still arch of the separate big drops, silent as a held breath.
From silence to silence, dust to dust, the clangs and pangs of life quieting, peal by peal, drop by drop. Then, any one hosepipe stops, bereft of water, “left empty, like God by the sparrow’s fall.”
Agee doesn’t stop at the sparrow’s fall. He sustains the moment of seemingly utter silence while piling up pulses of quiet human noise: mothers hushing their children; fathers withdrawing “snail-like” into what each is singly doing. Agee amplifies word by word, quiet by quiet. The words make a seemless approach to silence, a barely audible reverberation in the ear.
Though Agee never heard Father Alexi I’s funeral liturgy, the sound of those huge bells that sang the late patriarch’s repose must have crossed his ears. He arrived at Harvard in 1928, two years before a group of Russian bells, displaced from their home at the Danilov Monastery, were transported to the University’s Lowell House. In the life of the Russian Orthodox church, these bells are singing icons, with distinct voices, capable of suffering, according to Father Roman, the Monastery’s head bell ringer.
Agee would have heard those bells sounding supper and bedtime for Lowell residents as he was crossing the Yard towards the Harvard Advocate office, where Fitzgerald says he would hole up for days on end to write. I imagine a young, unkempt Agee pausing at the sound of the bells, looking up from his work on the long, late nights he spent on his prose. Perhaps he would open the window to hear more clearly, to feel the reverberations on his skin. I wonder how Agee’s college soundscape mingled with the native sounds of night he invokes in “Knoxville: Summer, 1915″—the “contemporaneous atmosphere” of fathers watering lawns “while the locusts carry on this noise of hoses on their much higher and sharper key. The noise of the locust is dry,” he tells us, “and it seems not to be rasped or vibrated but urged from him as if through a small orifice by a breath that can never give out.” Russian bells never quite seem to give out; their sounds only dissipate in resonance.
An iron moan foregone, a sparrow fallen, a bell broken, a fragment of embodied sound Agee brings home to his people.
By some chance, here they are, all on this earth; and who shall ever tell the sorrows of being on this earth, lying on quilts, in the grass … among the sounds of night. May god bless my people, my uncle, my aunt, my mother, my good father, oh, remember them kindly in their time of trouble; and in the hour of their taking away.
And yet: Agee doesn’t stop at benediction. His prayer for remembrance doesn’t quite put his people to rest, much less himself. Bereft and restless, he is put to childhood bed:
and those receive me, who quietly treat me, as one familiar and well beloved in that home: but will not, oh, will not, not now, not ever; but will not ever tell me who I am.
Here, Agee does what would never happen in a traditional church liturgy. He amplifies a benediction with a conjunction. A confessional voice breaks in to a liturgical turn of phrase. In the paragraph after “the hour of their taking away,” the colon between “home” and “but” emphasizes the misalignment Agee feels in “Knoxville: Summer, 1915,” a dislocated nostalgia that speaks to all that precedes. The bell voice selves its singular self.
After three months of reading “Knoxville: Summer, 1915” aloud, I believe Agee’s colons are about the breath of life, and death. Sighs of rest so deep they are barely audible, a soundscape of eternal repose, and a voice too vigilant, too true to itself, to stop at benediction. The curious ways Agee punctuates his elegy of childhood evenings in Tennessee makes you listen and look up, in awe of something: the stars “wide and alive” seeming “very near,” the sound of myriad locusts, “all around in every tree, so that the noise seems to come from nowhere and everywhere at once, from the whole shell heaven, shivering in your flesh and teasing your eardrums.” Agee likens the locust voices to “the noises of the sea and of the blood her precocious grandchild, which you realize you are hearing only when you catch yourself listening.” His art is thick sensory description—the world of sound and sight made strange and oddly intimate. The poem is a suscitating lullaby, notated by surprising colons that calibrate the movement and rest of amplifying astonishment, two little dots that let you catch your breath, catch yourself listening.
Ashley Makar works with refugees in Connecticut. She does community outreach for IRIS--Integrated Refugee & Immigrant Services, in New Haven. She has an e-book of essays, You Were Strangers: Dispatches from Exile. Ashley has published essays in Tablet, The Birmingham News, The Struggle Continues (the Birmingham Civil Rights Institute weblog), Religion Dispatches, and The New Haven Register.