Book Review

Colin Rafferty’s debut book of essays, Hallow This Ground, maps his pilgrimages to monuments and memorials—places people marked with the words “on this site” in order to remember. These places are as varied as the Great Lakes Shipwreck Museum, Pearl Harbor, the door to Foster Auditorium where Alabama Governor George C. Wallace refused to let black students enroll in the University of Alabama, and others. But Rafferty is no mere tour guide pointing out established stories; instead, he sifts the evidence to interrogate the site and the practice of marking history. Along the way, we learn of his upbringing in the Kansas City area, his Catholic faith, and the intertwining joy and sorrow of getting married within days of losing his beloved grandmother. Rafferty is good company as he examines his own motives for these preoccupations, for the human need to fix memory in place, and for the ongoing significance of those memorials.

Rafferty does a fine job outlining the events of a place and pacing the unfolding information so that each essay is engaging. Some places are so complex and multifaceted, like Nazi-era sites, that he dedicates more than one essay to them. But others are more straightforward, like his search for a plaque indicating where the Kansas City Massacre took place in 1933. In “The Path,” Rafferty claims his need for proof comes from his middle-namesake, Thomas, Jesus’ doubting disciple who wanted to put his finger in Jesus’ wounds, rather than rely on faith. “The Path” relates two events that have no marker, no evidence for public ceremony, alongside Rafferty’s own narrative. At Union Station, gangsters ambushed FBI agents transporting fellow outlaw Frank Nash, killing four officers as well as Nash. Because there is no memorial, Rafferty’s physical search allows him to relate the rise and fall of Union Station as the nation’s reliance on rail travel shifted to automobiles. In only lightly parallel ways, his own story includes some of the same difficulties of memory. Rafferty confronts how growing up in the region and then returning only occasionally puts him in a “palimpsest, a city I navigate by remembering where everything once was.” The overlay of the actual and contemporary on the past creates tensions that he is not afraid to examine. Because Union Station now is partly an event center and partly a tourist destination, housing a science museum and a giant-screen theater, Rafferty notes that “I’m in a recreated Kansas City…. It seems ―it is?―a simulacrum of history more than history itself, something like Colonial Williamsburg, both history and not history.”

Such paradoxes are endemic to the whole enterprise of marking history. Whether it’s done in mourning (e.g. creating a memorial) or in praise (e.g. erecting a monument), the effort to mark history has limits. Rafferty observes that the process is always a matter of selection. And so memory is a contemporary enterprise. Though Rafferty doesn’t mention it, recent challenges to buildings and roads named after confederates reflect this.

But even when a place is valued enough to mark, “many of the iconic monuments and memorials―the Washington Monument, the Arc de Triomphe, the Taj Mahal, to name just a few―operate independent of their text, their historical information.” Rafferty posits that this disconnect is not only inherent to the limits of memory but also to the desires of those who came later.

For example, when Rafferty visited the field near Shanksville, Pennsylvania, where United Airlines Flight 93 went down on September 11, 2001, a temporary memorial somewhat removed from the crash site emerged where people had left mementos along the fencing. Because the permanent memorial wasn’t yet established, Rafferty could speculate on the benefits and drawbacks of a lifelike or abstract approach, the location, and what the memorial could/should contain.

Even when an event is more firmly in the past, its significance is still being negotiated, and so the event can be difficult to memorialize. Certainly, the Holocaust is that way. Any interpretative text streamlines the complex dynamics of the story, but such brief texts almost always omit the debate about the event’s meaning. As a result, beginning with Maya Lin’s Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, designers have often employed a minimalist approach. In “Perpetrators: Undrawn Lines” Rafferty describes Berlin’s Memorial to the Murdered Jews of Europe, for which Peter Eisenman designed a field of stelae. These concrete blocks resemble headstones but they are irregularly spaced and sized. Any design that would have tried to delineate the dead, as Lin does for the Vietnam Memorial, “assumes that the list can be completed at some point in the future. It assumes that the Holocaust can be known, understood.” When the scale of the event is so large, the methods so horrible, and the motives so cold, how can a memorial capture “history”? Rafferty says Eisenman’s approach “admits the fundamental incomprehension of the Holocaust.”

In a sense, memory itself is unfinished. The story goes on because meaning-making goes on. Future events cast new light on history, causing understandings of the past to evolve. This may be a truism, but Rafferty adds another layer to this simplification. “The trouble with a monument is that it finalizes memory,” he writes. “It literally makes concrete what we remember, and we are fated―cursed?―to remember that event or person through its conduit of memory.” The construction not only looks backward, but also looks ahead as subsequent generations begin to understand history through the memorials themselves. And the desires of the viewers become part of the story.

In “The Definite Article,” Rafferty makes a bold comparison which some readers may find too strong. He juxtaposes his trip to Illinois to visit the humble dwelling of the Great Emancipator with his visit to a strip club where Honey, the exotic dancer, gives him a kiss on the cheek. He learned that the “original” cabin, which had been taken apart, sent on tour across the country, and reassembled multiple times, had been carbon-dated by the National Park Service. The trees were cut in the 1820s, so they could not have been logs from Lincoln’s cabin. Rafferty concludes, “I know that the monument creates a reality the same way that Honey’s kiss created a relationship that never existed, and I ultimately don’t care.” Why? Because we want our stories simple. He says, “I believe [the kiss], despite everything, despite all the unreliability,” and our desire for credibility is fueled by clinging to our version of the encounter. He draws the parallel more starkly when he says, “I want my Lincoln, my Honey. I avoid the definite article. I use the possessive.” Coming after the Holocaust essays, the stripper metaphor undercuts Rafferty’s more incisive reflections. In addition, he also misses some opportunities: Why not include Kansas City’s Liberty Memorial, a landmark that contrasts the anonymity of the Union Station discussion. Fundraising for this massive World War I Museum and Memorial started just a year after the Armistice, and in 2014 new legislation recognized it as a national memorial. Likewise, the book begs for the story of the Flight 93 National Memorial to be rounded out, especially since Rafferty does address the final 9/11 Memorial in New York City. Of course, all readers with a connection to various sites might quibble about why this or that marker is omitted, but these are ones Rafferty introduces but doesn’t complete.

Despite the serious off-note of the stripper/Lincoln parallel and these omissions, the essays in Hallow This Ground are rewarding precisely because they are thought provoking. They encourage readers to examine the way our contemporary landscape is layered with history. Hallow This Ground fosters discussion of these places and ways of remembering. Memory’s work is continual, and “we are always writing America into existence,” as Rafferty notes. These essays may lead readers to discover memorials and monuments in their own areas―even roadside markers― and in so doing come to terms with the complicated and progressive work of history-making.

About the Reviewer

Edward A. Dougherty is the author of four books of poetry, most recently Grace Street (2016, Cayuga Lake Books), and six chapbooks, including House of Green Water (2015, FootHills Publishing). His poems formed the basis of "Where Sacred Waters Divide," a choral creation by Will Wickham, a version of which is available on YouTube, and his emblems have been displayed at the Atrium Gallery and Word & Image Gallery. His is a professor of English at Corning Community College.