‘Untitled’ by Ishmael Reed is a seventeen line poem that is written in free verse. The poet successfully utilizes a number of techniques including enjambment, in which lines are broke before their natural stopping point. One prime example of this technique comes in line fourteen when the speaker stops after the words, “old furniture,” to give the reader time to take in what they have just read. Additionally, the first line also makes use of enjambment. It forces the reader onward towards the climax and conclusion as well as shocking them into continuing.
The poem is short in length, as well as in each individual line. The shortest is three syllables and the longest, nine.
The poem begins with a shocking first line that forces the reader to continue on, if only to find out what context in which the narrator is speaking. He describes how Alaska was taken apart piece by piece and shipped south to the rest of the forty-eight states. There, the natural resources were utilized and taken advantage of. They enriched the population, allowing the richest to buy huge “Cadillacs” and “lear / jets.” These luxury items were their reward for the plundering of land and resources.
The second half of the poem connects the “rape” of Alaska to the pillaging of Jamaica by the British. The British colonies in Jamaica were witness to the forced enslavement of African peoples on sugar plantations. This brought in massive amounts of wealth to country aristocrats who, like the characters of Jane Austen’s, Mansfield Park, were then allowed to luxuriate in their mansions.
The poem concludes with the speaker calling Jamaica and Alaska “sisters” who together were violated and then “abandoned.”
You can read the full poem here.
Analysis of Untitled
jets which cost Alaska an
arm and a leg just like
This poem begins with a startling opening line, “Alaska’s rape.” These first words are meant to draw the reader in and through their surprise, encourage them to keep reading. The surprising and somewhat shocking word choice does not subside. The next lines speak of “Alaska” being “dismember[ed]” and “disassembled” by the United States.
The speaker of the poem is concerned with the utilization of lands, peoples, and natural resources, without concern for those who may already be living there. He is speaking of the purchase of the Alaskan territory by the United States from Russia in March of 1867.
The speaker does not depict the purchase and utilization of Alaskan resources as a fair and legal transaction. Instead, he sees it as a “rape,” a violent intrusion into a land that the United States had no right to be in. He describes Alaska as being taken apart, “disassembled” and “shipped” down to the continental United States, the “lower / forty-eight.”
This was not done for any noble reason but instead so that “people / in Dallas” could make money. So that they could own enormous, “whale- / sized Cadillacs” and fancy “lear / jets.” All of these purchases and the influx of wealth into the US did not come without sacrifice. It cost Alaska “an / arm and a leg.” While this expression is normally used as a metaphor, and is here as well, it has a different resonance as the territory was actually being taken apart.
ravished Jamaica whose
stolen sugar built Mansfield
dragged into an alley
used and abandoned
In the second half of this poem, the poet relates the acquisition of Alaska to the “ravish[ing]” of Jamaica. The two places are similar in the fact that a group of people, in this case, the British, came into an area that did not belong to them, and took and took, more than was necessary and in Jamaica’s case, more than was excusably moral.
The speaker describes the “ravished Jamaica” and the “sugar” plantations that funded and “built Mansfield / Park.” Mansfield Park refers to the title of the novel, Mansfield Park by Jane Austen. In this book, there is a brief but revelatory passage regarding the income that Fanny’s uncle was gaining from a plantation in Jamaica. More than just a book, the phrase “Mansfield Park” represents the British country aristocrats as a whole. The group of wealthy, country dwelling, ladies, and gentlemen who gained their wealth off the back of slaves.
The speaker calls these wealthy aristocrats “gang rapers.” They came in hoards, inflicting violence, and violating land they did not own and people who they claimed to have a right to control.
These thoughtless, cruel people gather together in their expensive drawing rooms and “discuss flower beds and / old furniture.” These are their greatest concerns. Their wealth has enabled them to spend their time frivolously while others suffer.
The final lines of this poem connect Jamaica and Alaska once more. They are, as the speaker states, like “sisters.” Together, in spirit, they are connected through their common violation. They were both “dragged into an alley” and used for the benefit of others. Afterward, both were tossed away and forgotten.
About Ishmael Reed
Ishmael Reed was born in Chattanooga, Tennessee in February of 1938 and grew up in Buffalo, New York. While there he attended the University of New York-Buffalo. Although he did not graduate, due to money problems, but would eventually be awarded an honorary doctorate from the universities of New York-Buffalo and Johnson C. Smith in North Carolina.
In 1962, Reed moved to New York and worked as an editor. He later helped found the East Village Other, an underground newspaper. Reed’s first novel, The Freelance Pallbearers, was published in 1967, the same year in which he moved to Berkeley and then later Oakland, California.
Reed has retained a teaching position at the University of California at Berkeley since the 1960s and has traveled to other universities as a visiting professor. He has once been nominated for the Pulitzer Prize as well as twice for the National Book Award.
Since the mid-90s Reed has published nine novels, five books of poetry as well as plays and essays. His interests are greater than the traditional literary though, he has also authored three productions for television and written two librettos.