Book Review: HOLLER

by | Jan 16, 2024 | Book Reviews, The Attic

HOLLER

Holler: A Poet Among Patriots
Danielle Chapman
2023, Unbound Edition Press
190 pages
Reviewed by J.G.P. MacAdam

“I didn’t want to write a memoir,” writes Danielle Chapman in Holler: A Poet Among Patriots. Chapman, a poet and professor of poetry at Yale University, is, by her own disclosure, a “white woman from a red state teaching at an elite, liberal, Northern university,” and herein lies the rub and the irony, as well as much of the tension in Holler, the memoir she didn’t want to write.

The “origin of consciousness” for Chapman is the death of her father, a US Marine and Vietnam-veteran, who drowned while swimming at the beach with friends and family. Chapman recalls the event in all of its vivid, wrenching detail, down to the “novel scent of [her babysitter’s] shampooed hair” and the “porous, loofah-like moonscape” of the beach on Okinawa, though she “was too young to have even wondered what death was.” The tragedy, the searching grief, the mystery of this man, whose death came to define so many of the circumstances of her life—this is where we, the reader, are meant to begin, in “the scene scalded into the basin of my brain, which I was forever picking up and polishing, like an arcane jewel.”

Much of Chapman’s prose carries an ironic, antithetical quality to it, as though her own memory is composed of lockboxes unlatched, of family myths refuted before being reauthenticated, of seemingly incompatible elements yet sharing the same sentence, the same breath, the same identity.

Her reminiscences of the family farm in Fairfield, Tennessee, in particular, share this self-clashing quality, the by-now familiar Southern pastoral coupled with a legacy of cruelty:

 

One evening… we were sitting on the back porch after dinner when we heard a gunshot at the top of the hill, then a prolonged wail, and realized that Mr. Hatcher up the road had shot the Chow Chow we called Licorice. It was the hour when, as a child, I’d have been barefoot in my flannel nightgown catching fireflies; the hour after poker or mahjong on the long porch; the hour when we went out to feel nature sink back down into itself; the creek bed retaking the bulrushes that had been but wickedness for our croquet balls, the honeysuckle drinking back its sweetness. The sound of the gun, and the inevitable conclusion we drew from it, was worse because it happened at a time of the day that was supposed to be sacred and, like the land itself, within our own possession.

 

Chapman’s recollections of her grandmother and grandfather, her Nana and Papa, respectively, meet with a similar reckoning of conflicting viewpoints:

 

Their more dutiful children… have christened them [her grandparents] with the misty-eyed, untouchable title of The Greatest Generation, ignoring their blind spots and bigotries. Their great-grandchildren… are happy to lump them all together as racist warmongers of the evil American empire and topple their memories willy-nilly. My memories, meanwhile, are stuck in the ironical middle.

 

Though Nana and Chapman’s mother also find room for rumination within the pages of Holler, it’s Papa who looms largest. Papa, the (retired) 24th Commandant of the United States Marine Corps. Papa, the “simple country boy from Tennessee” though he was born in Florida, who “never used racial slurs” and loathed war stories. Papa, who became for Chapman a surrogate father.

“I grew guilty,” she writes, reflecting on her grandparents and all that they had fought for and sacrificed, “about my inability to muster sufficient reverence for the living history in my midst.”

National history, for Chapman, is bound up with the messiness of family history—with the, at times, incomprehensible death of her father, with the legacy of militarism, with white supremacy, with the export of America’s particular style of racism via the wars of the latter-half of the twentieth century, with the racism latent within the United States military itself, though Papa, as Commandant back in 1968, became well-known for implementing a set of Corps-wide diversity policies, earning him bushels of hate mail from thousands of infuriated Americans, the same sort of Americans, the reader imagines, who, today, decry the “wokeness” of the US military though evidence very well suggests otherwise. Chapman returns time and again to the issue of identity, her own and white America’s.

 

Maybe I, too, have merely been looking for someone to pin it on: my white shame, which always wants to root back further… past my father, back before I was born, past the ‘60’s, past 1619, and all the way to Adam, the original canker at the root, whose sin inspired Death. But it hasn’t worked. I haven’t found a scapegoat.

 

Chapman relates how, as an older child, she frequently challenged Papa, questioned him about his service, pushed his buttons till he finally said it, the “horrid word”—Japs, in reference to his service in The Pacific War and to those he served with. “In the moment,” she writes, “it seemed to me that Papa had proved his moral failings,” though she continues to explain how, with the benefit of years, she now looks back and wonders “over how much self-control it must have taken for my grandfather to sit there and listen to me, the unadmitted beneficiary of the war’s spoils, harping like a sheltered child who’s heard her daddy say a bad word.”

And it’s in this moment the reader comes to understand Chapman’s memoir as not only the telling of her own story—a story where, as the descendant of a white, Southern, military family, she can draw all sorts of connections between her family’s history and America’s—but the penning of a confession.

And per any confession follows the hope (perhaps expectation?) of forgiveness. Forgiveness for her sins, the sins of her identity, and, in part, for America’s sins as well, it seems. And who can provide this forgiveness but the very people who populate her memory-space—the members of her own family, her ancestors?

“If I could forgive them for what they were,” she writes, “I might be forgiven in return.”

Between every line, from the details of her doomed relationship with Daniel Thanh, to conversations with her burgeoning friend, Tamekia, to the snapshot of an eccentric Tennessee uncle who hoards guns and military memorabilia, to the myth of her own family—of how her ancestor, a Confederate, was saved by the very man he enslaved, George Singleton, and how George came back to Fairfield, after the end of the Civil War, to the family farm, and worked it and took care of the white family who would otherwise surely have starved, before purchasing his own land, becoming a patriarch in his own right, and whose many descendants now meet in regular reunions on the very land Chapman’s family had continued to own down the generations—Chapman wrestles with what it means to be an inheritor of less-than-honorable, if not downright hypocritical, heirlooms. To be the recipient of this memory, this history, which does in great part determine our identity, but whose identity need not determine our destiny.

About The Author

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J.G.P. MacAdam is an ably disabled combat vet and the first in his family to earn a college degree. You can find his fiction and nonfiction in The Colorado Review, The Line Literary, and forthcoming in Consequence, among others. You can find him at jgpmacadam.com