The current poet laureate’s poem, “Incident,” takes the reader into an eerie memory. The title calls to mind Countee Cullen’s equally eerie memory, dramatized by the speaker of a poem by the same title, in which the speaker reports an “incident” in his childhood that tainted his opinion of the city of Baltimore, after a boy about his own age called him “ni**er” and poked out his tongue at the eight-year-old.
Trethewey’s “Incident” recalls an incident of racism as well.
First Stanza: “We tell the story every year”
The speaker of Trethewey’s “Incident” is unidentifiable by gender or age but is undoubtedly an African American adult looking back reporting the event from an earlier time, perhaps like Cullen’s speaker from the time of the speaker’s childhood.
From the next three lines, the story begins to unfold. Although “nothing really happened,” the reader knows that something alarming happened that caused the people in their house to draw the shades and “peer from the windows.”
The fourth and final line in the first stanza reveals what happened. There had been a fire out on the lawn, but now “the charred grass is green again.”
Second Stanza: “We peered from the windows, shades drawn”
The second stanza adds two new details to the story: they were peeking out of the windows at a “at the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,” and while keeping the house as dark as possible only “lit the hurricane lamps.”
Third Stanza: “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree”
The repetition of the line, “At the cross trussed like a Christmas tree,” emphasizes the gravity of the event, along with the additional detail that they were seeing men who looked like “angels in the gowns.”
The other details of the darkened house are again mentioned, along with the telling symbolic behavior of the hurricane lamps with their “wicks trembling in their fonts of oil.”
Fourth Stanza: “It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns”
The force of irony that is merely hinted at the third stanza’s line, “a few men gathered, white as angels in their gowns,” is levied with a bang in the first line of this stanza: “It seemed the angels had gathered, white men in their gowns.” With the qualification of “it seemed” and “white men,” everything changes. The reader then knows that the speaker is not deluded, thinking those men were like angels.
Hardly angels, those men are members of the Ku Klux Klan, the terror organization, which brutalized the black population after the Emancipation Proclamation, Civil War, and concomitant constitutional amendments had ended slavery. The people of the house watching as the KKK burns a cross on their lawn would have been terrified at such an appalling spectacle.
This stanza repeats the telling image of the “wicks tremb[ling] all night” and then when morning comes, “the flames were all dimmed”—both the hurricane wicks and flames of the burning cross. The people could breathe a sigh of relief that the flames had all died.
Fifth Stanza: “When they were done, the men left quietly. No one came”
The final stanza delivers relief yet retains the eeriness of whole poem. The speaker reports that the men departed “quietly.” No one else appeared. The claim that “nothing really happened” holds a spectrum of feelings, a veritable cache of fear of what was actually happening to elation that nothing more happened.
Again, the speaker emphasizes that “all the flames had dimmed”—the flames of the cross, the flames of the hurricane wicks, and the flames of unmitigated terror that the incident struck in the hearts and minds of that black family.
Of course, one last repetition reports that the family tells that story every year. It is a perennial reminder of not only the terror but more especially of the faith and hope that they continue to pursue. When nothing happens, that can be a very good thing.