- What Harvest: Poems on the Siege & Battle of the Alamo
Alfred Lord Tennyson’s muse whispered of King Arthur and his knights in Idylls of the King and Stephen Vincent Benét’s of the American Civil War in John Brown’s Body. Now Clio and Calliope beckon readers toward Texas’s Thermopylae in a collection by Floyd Collins entitled What Harvest, not a history but a collection of blank verse where fact and fable mingle emotions, history, people, and weaponry: it is 1836 and the battle of the Alamo.
Throughout, it is apparent that Collins knows the era and its trappings. Aside from the familiar characters—Bowie, Crockett, Santa Anna, and Bonham—Collins has delved into those who answer the roll call less frequently, whose fates become vague parts of the legend: John McGregor, skirmishing from the high wall near the main gate; John Hays, reminiscing as night falls before the final assault; Daniel Bourne, cigar-punk in hand, igniting fuse-detonated grenades flung into the ranks of the oncoming cazadores. Santa Anna’s rarely mentioned Congreve rockets “hiss and explode/in the predawn haze” as the assault opens (48). From an anonymous American gunsmith emerges the Alamo defenders’ stereotyped weapon of choice, the Kentucky long rifle, in a rendition bolstered by Collins’s impressive familiarity with the forge. No Excalibur, no sinister knights, but Sheffield blades and Green River knives, Baker rifles, elite zapadores, Matamoros soldados—and Santa Anna’s spurs. Even notable artwork of the battle inspires twenty-nine lines but, rather than Henry McArdle’s 1905 romanticized Dawn At the Alamo, Collins draws from Eric Von Schmidt’s realistic 1986 image in which “the elite Zapadores climb up/The patched redoubt, its chinks and uneven/Beam ends, spilling over onto the parapet” (50).
What Harvest is not conventional history but a “well-versed” saga, an adornment enhancing the scholar’s account. Lon Tinkle’s 13 Days To Glory (1958) opens as Daniel Cloud, a sentry in the San Fernando church bell tower, yanks the bell rope in disbelief, startled by the appearance of Santa Anna’s lancers. By contrast, Collins’s defender, “A tatterdemalion/Sentry squints back from his post aloft/The San Fernando belfry” while “the motley garrison lies snoring/After last night’s fandango” (38). Sighting the advancing Mexican horsemen, “Temples pounding with his first hangover/Robert Brown seizes the bell rope/And pulls to rouse the slumbering men” (38). Hostile artillery “dug in across the river/Lob hissing grenades bursting orange/Against the west-wall footings; cannon/Hurling solid shot threaten to pulverize/A timber-shored section of the Alamo’s/North bastion” (39) Conventional history’s Crockett is a blustering adventurer and legend but Collins’s Crockett is less self-assured: “‘I’m good for a few years yet.’ Others roared/But he swallowed like it was a hard medicine” (27). People and places emerge through twenty-seven episodes, opening with Bowie’s last moments and Travis’s [End Page 224] demise. Suddenly Collins has us before the Alamo pyre where “the heretic’s fire steepled, forking/Here and there among the branches/Of hacked and splintered chaparral” (23). But this is a mosaic of Alamo lore and we drift forward and backward through a cavalcade of reflections, impressions, and descriptions, until the last poem, at the west façade of the Alamo chapel in 1756, eighty years before the fateful Sunday morning when a Texas legend was born.
So that his grandchildren might study poetry, John Adams once mused, Adams himself must study politics and war. If poetry were the prize for study, then What Harvest has been worth the odyssey through dispatches, newspapers, and books devoted to the last stand on that tragic Sunday morning. Enabled by scholarship, inspired by legend, Collins takes the Alamo story to the next point along John Adams’s progression from politics to poetry. What Harvest is compelling and has earned a place in the Alamo chronicles. [End Page 225]