On Carl Sandburg’s “Buttons”

“Are they assigned, or can the countries pick their colors?” wonders Elizabeth Bishop in her whimsical poem “The Map” (1946). It’s an odd sort of utopian fantasy, where the land and sea, once depicted by the map-maker, produce their own relations. This strangeness and the poem’s muted playfulness may conceal a sadness: at the conclusion of World War II, Bishop’s “more delicate,” more lovely planet conspicuously lacks a human presence.

No such tonal compensation is found in Carl Sandburg’s probing “Buttons,” written thirty years earlier at the height of the First World War. Where Bishop takes solace in a map’s abstraction, Sandburg finds cause for alarm. In “Buttons,” the gap between representation and reality, between the red and yellow and blue and black buttons on the war map and the national forces to which they correspond, compounds with the physical distance between an American town (probably Chicago) and Europe to produce enough psychic space for “a laughing young man” to tell jokes while unknown peers perish. The colors on the map tantalize Bishop with the possibility that countries might determine their own design, but such musing is inconceivable for Sandburg’s young man – imagining the buttons’ colors as anything but arbitrary would risk spoiling his good time.

The war map debases death, rendering it mere information, and further denigrates it by rendering it a commodity; the first thing the poet tells us is that the map has been “slammed up for advertising in front of the newspaper office.” Sandburg indicts this economic rationalization of death, posing a duplicitous rhetorical question: “Who would guess what it cost to move two buttons…”? Duplicitous, because the answer is given in advance: (“Ten thousand men and boys [who] twist their bodies in/ a red soak along a river edge,/ Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some rattling/death in their throats.)” That answer is given, however, only to the reader. The sunny youth continues to laugh as the meaning of the buttons eludes him and settles in the uninspected gap between representation and reality, figured as the space between parentheses.

I HAVE been watching the war map slammed up for
advertising in front of the newspaper office.
Buttons–red and yellow buttons–blue and black buttons–
are shoved back and forth across the map.

A laughing young man, sunny with freckles,
Climbs a ladder, yells a joke to somebody in the crowd,
And then fixes a yellow button one inch west
And follows the yellow button with a black button one
inch west.

(Ten thousand men and boys twist on their bodies in
a red soak along a river edge,
Gasping of wounds, calling for water, some rattling
death in their throats.)
Who would guess what it cost to move two buttons one
inch on the war map here in front of the newspaper
office where the freckle-faced young man is laughing
to us?


About wcd2

Professor of English and American Studies
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