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DECADES

Richard Howard

for Hart Crane

 

I

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.

II

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. 

III

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. 

IV

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.

V

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.