Edwin Rolfe: Collected Poems
edited by Cary Nelson, edited by Jefferson Hendricks, introduction and notes by Cary Nelson
University of Illinois Press, 337 pp., $34.95
Edwin Rolfe: A Biographical Essay and Guide to the Rolfe Archive at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
by Cary Nelson, by Jefferson Hendricks
University of Illinois Library/University of Illinois Press, 118 pp., 11.95 (paper)
A Moment of War: A Memoir of the Spanish Civil War
by Laurie Lee
New Press, 178 pp., $9.95 (paper)
The University of Illinois Press, which published Milton Wolff’s Spanish Civil War novel Another Hill, reviewed in the last issue, has also launched a project entitled The American Poetry Recovery Series, which “will consist of collections and anthologies by poets whose work has not been made part of the traditional literary canon, including labor poets, feminist and minority poets, and socialist and anarchist poets.” The first volume in the series collects the poems of Edwin Rolfe, who fought in the Lincoln Battalion in Spain. It is a reprint of the three collections of his poetry printed in 1936, 1951, and (posthumously) 1955, together with a great many uncollected and unpublished poems, but excluding, except for a small selection, poems written “before Rolfe matured as a writer.” It is an impressive body of work, set in its historical, literary, and biographical context by Cary Nelson’s masterly introduction.
Born Solomon Fishman to Russian immigrant parents in 1909, he began writing when very young. By the age of fifteen he had published cartoons in the Daily Worker as well as stories, poems, and reviews in the Comet, the literary magazine of the New Utrecht High School in Brooklyn. In 1926 he “ran into difficulty in a trigonometry class” and was prohibited from publishing in the magazine until his grades improved. He began submitting contributions nevertheless, under “a series of playful pseudonyms” such as W. Tell and R. Hood, and in 1927 signed a review in the Daily Worker with the name Edwin Rolfe, which became his name in print and in real life from then on.
His life was a hard one. Writing could not earn him a living and he moved through a succession of temporary jobs—dishwasher in a restaurant, helper in a fruit store, punch press operator, laborer digging the subway, printing signs (at five to seven dollars a week)—interrupted by a year at the University of Wisconsin. Back in New York he lived from hand to mouth, publishing poems and reviews until in 1933 he was given the job of feature editor on the Daily Worker—four hours a day at $10 a week. In 1936 his first poetry collection, To My Contemporaries, was published by the Dynamo Press.
The poems, though often technically interesting, are thematically fairly predictable Communist poems of the Depression era; typical titles are “Georgia Nightmare,” “Homage to Karl Marx.” “Witness at Leipzig,” “Unit Meeting,” and “These Men Are Revolution.” Yet sometimes they create, with intense feeling and exact detail the misery of those Depression winters, the days when “the breath of homeless men/freezes on restaurant window panes—men seeking/the sight of rare food/before the head is lowered into the upturned collar/and the shoulders hunched and the shuffling feet/move away slowly, slowly disappear/into a darkened street.” Spain transformed his poetry. The fervent advocacy is, if anything, heightened, but the lines now have a plangent, sometimes heart-breaking, lyricism.
He left for Spain in June 1937 and …