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  • Lyric Politics:The Poetry of Edwin Rolfe
  • Cary Nelson (bio)


Sometimes I wake at nightout of completest sleepand see their remembered facesluminous in the dark.Ghostly as tracer-bulletstheir smiles, their hesitant speech,their eloquent hands in gestureand their smiles belying fear:Antonio, Catalan,eighteen years old . . . Hilario . . .1

If there's any place in the world where I could be dropped from an airplane, alone, blind-folded, in pitch darkness, and yet know from the very smell and feel and slope of the earth exactly where I was—that would be the hills and valley just east of the Ebro, in Spain.

These two fragments come from notebooks that Edwin Rolfe (1909-1954)—poet, journalist, and veteran of the Spanish Civil War—-kept [End Page 733] during the late 1940s and early 1950s.2 The first recalls some of the young Spanish soldiers who filled out the depleted ranks of a group of mostly American volunteers—the Lincoln Battalion—in the Spring of 1938; the second recalls the last great campaign that Rolfe and the other Lincolns fought when they crossed the Ebro river that summer. Although he completed a number of poems about Spain both while he was there from 1937 to 1938 and in the decade that followed his return in 1939, Rolfe's archives include as well a continuing (and significantly less finished) dialogue with himself and his culture about the meaning of this most passionate of all 1930s commitments.

Spain was the focus of the second of the three books of poems Rolfe gathered for publication, First Love and Other Poems (1951), so it is thus literally at the center of his career.3 But it was also for him, as for so many of those who fought in Spain, an experience that became in some ways the fulcrum of his life. The experience in Spain provided him with a way of thinking about much that was admirable in the revolutionary Left of the 20s and 30s as well as providing a contrast to the dark decade and more of national repression that followed the Second World War.

If I begin with Spain, then, it is, first, to acknowledge what was for Rolfe the most fulfilling political moment of his life; but it is also to give readers of the 1990s the point of entrance that is most likely now to win sympathetic attention. That is likely to be true for two reasons: first, because First Love is Rolfe's most overtly lyrical book. It is there that readers who feel hailed by Rolfe's language and his passion can discover part of what is most distinctive about his poetry—that in Rolfe's work the lyrical voice becomes a politically positioned subject. Second, of all Rolfe's political engagements, Spain is the one contemporary readers can most readily honor. That was not the case in the twenty years following Franco's victory, a period when the Americans who aided the Spanish Republic were regularly demonized by more reactionary politicians. Now it is possible once again to recognize that, at the largest narrative level, the Spanish Civil War was the historical event that set the tone for the [End Page 734] whole subsequent struggle between democracy and fascism. It was also a unique moment when men and women across the world came together to give their lives for a cause in which they believed.

To read Rolfe's first and last books, To My Contemporaries (1936) and Permit Me Refuge (1955), on the other hand, is for many Americans to take up periods of our history—the Great Depression and the long postwar inquisition that culminated in the McCarthy era—whose social and political realities we would now rather forget or disguise. It is not, to be specific, the Depression itself that Americans would as well forget but rather the critiques of capitalism and racism it occasioned and the broad and sometimes revolutionary Left alliances that accompanied those critiques. What we would like to forget about the anticommunist hysteria of the 1940s and 1950s is how long it lasted, how many people lost their jobs, how many institutions were...


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