for Hart Crane
Crane’s Canary Cottage. I have turned four,
and the tablecloth between my mother and me
(my father opposite, of course) invites
pollution of its pure canary note
by a nest of shiny knives and glasses--”not
for fingering.” This is my first meal out
and I must behave, on my father’s sharp orders
and yours--your father’s: it is their bill of fare
we pay for, and who knew how much it cost,
that April evening as we ate? My mother
ate my father, her leftovers mine till now:
I failed like yours--your father--to defend
myself against the opposite sex, my own,
that night the news came, Mother's Day for sure,
that April something, nineteen thirty-two,
when Wheelwright said you turned to Fish Food (he
turned it to advantage in the very first
of all your elegies, asking final questions:
what did you see as you fell, what did you hear
as you sank?). I fed to find the answers, for
that was a sacramental feast. Dear Hart,
our mothers ate our fathers, what do we
eat but each other? All the things we take
into our heads to do! and let strange creatures
make our mouths their home. Our problem is not
to find who remembers our parents--our problem is
to find who remembers ourselves. I love our problem,
it becomes our solution: unbecoming, it dissolves.
I was four, you drowned. Now you remember me.
Laukhuff’s Bookstore. I am fourteen, I live
on the Diet of Words, shoving a ladder around
high shelves while the German ex-organ-maker
smokes with a distant nightmare in his eyes
(“You have heard of Essen,” he murmurs, “you never
will again”: it is nineteen forty-three),
his body on hinges, his elbows hovering wide
over the Jugendstil bindings (Werfel, Kraus…)
like a not-quite-open penknife. “Hart Crane?
He came here to marry the world… You understand?
Maritare mundum: it is the work of magic,
Mirandola says it somewhere, to marry the world…
And not much time do it in, he had
to read all the books, to marry, then to burn…
It is one kind of greatness to grow old--
to be able to grow old, like Goethe;
it was Hart’s kind to refuse. You understand?”
Laukhuff is asking me, laughing through smoke
his postponing, renouncing laugh. No, I don’t--
that much I do. I climb down, clutching The Bridge
and hand it over. “Will I understand this,
Mr Laukhuff? Should I buy it?” “Cross it first.
You won’t, but there is a certain value, there is
poetic justice in the sense of having missed
the full meaning of things. Sure, buy it. Spend
all you have, your mother will give you more.”
The German penknife closes with a click.
Marriage, Hart. The endless war. The words.
Cleveland was our mother-in-lieu. We left.
Les Deux Magots. I am 24 and free,
now, to finger knives and glasses–no cloth
to be stained, nothing but cold zinc dividing
me from your old friend opposite, your coeval
the Fugitive convert who cases the loud cafe
evasively while I lay my cards on the table:
I tell him of myself, which is as much
as to have asked him pardon–Shakespeare, no less!–
but he winces at what he hears, and what he sees:
your Montparnasse is dead, my Saint-Germain
dead-set against the capital of gayety
you shared in the Twenties. Gay it is, though,
and so am I, to his disparagement
expressed, dear Hart, in terms of our decadence
as the flaming creatures pass. “Such men,” he says,
“fare best, as we Southerners say of foxes, when
most opposed--none so spited by their own,
and yet I see how proud these sick cubs grow!”
There is a silence, colder than the zinc
between us. Hopeless. I have lost heart,
as I always do when I rejoin the Fathers,
lost the pride of my “proclivity,”
and the penalty and disgrace of losing is
to become part of your enemy. Have I lost you,
Hart? I need you here, quarrelsome, drunk
on your permanent shore-leave from the opposite sex,
opposing shore, the loss, the losses, the gain…
There is always a chance of charity when we are dead.
Only the living cannot be forgiven.
Sands Street Bar & Grille. At thirty-four
I am older than your ghost I follow in
under the Bridge that hisses overhead.
Dark enough here to make ghosts of us all,
and only a great layer of ghosts knows how
to be democratic in the dark: no wonder
you gave your hand to Walt, always on edge,
on the beach of embarking, the brink where they fall
into the sea, these castles of our misconduct…
Your ghost, anonymous, cruises among ghosts,
our neighborly disgrace. Was it from this
you made your Bridge, reaching up to Walt
and down to me--out of this River, this Harbor,
this Island and these, these sexual shadows, made
an enviable failure, your dread success?
I do not believe in exceptions - if you did it
then it can be done; show me your toys, ghost,
show me your torments out of which you rise,
dripping in your bones, from death to be
a trophy of disaster. What did you learn,
steeped in the great green teacher of the gradual,
when all you knew was sudden, a genius in need
of a little more talent, a poet not by grace
but the violence of good works? I still do not
understand you, but I stand under you here,
marvelling at the shadows where apprenticeship
is not vocation, of course, only voyeurism.
Albatross, siren, you haunt me far from home.
It is dark. Here not seeing is half-believing.
Garrettsville. By forty-four I know
your beginning lost at land, your end at sea:
sometimes beginnings can be more desperate
than ends, patrimony more than matrimony,
and middle age the worst despair of all.
I do not find you here, or in the bars,
or Laukhuff’s, or that yellow restaurant –
not even on the beach you walked with Walt,
hand in hand, you told him: never to let go.
But that is where you find me. Take my hand
as you gave yours to him. We suffer from
the same fabled disease, and only the hope
of dying of it keeps a man alive. Keeps!
I pressed your poems as if they were Wild Flowers
for a sidelong grammar of paternity.
We joined the father's after all, Hart, rejoin
not to repel or repeal or destroy, but to fuse,
as Walt declared it: wisdom of the shores,
easy to conceive of, hard to come by, to choose
our fathers and to make our history.
What takes us has us, that is what I know.
We lose, being born, all we lose by dying:
all. I have seen the Birthplace--a strange door
closes on a stranger, and I walk away.
Soon the shadows will come out of their corners and spin
a slow web across the wallpaper. Here
is where you met the enemy and were theirs.
Hart, the world you drowned for, is your wife:
a farewell to mortality, not my life.
Richard Howard is a poet, translator, critic, and essayist. A recipient of many awards and author of many books, he is 91. His latest collection of poetry, RH ❤️ HJ, was just published by New York Review Books.