Michael Collier

A Familiar Gratuity

At the end of the months Hart Crane spent on Isle of Pines, May-October 1926, a hurricane passed over the island and all but destroyed Villa Casas, the desuetude plantation his maternal grandfather had built. One of the reasons Crane had gone to the Caribbean was to undertake repairs on the house and grounds that his grandmother and mother had long neglected. The storm more or less settled the fate of the family estate as well as put an end to the most productive period of writing Crane would ever experience. During his time on the island he made substantial progress on "The Bridge" and he started a number of descriptive lyrics, "Island Quarry," "The Air Plant," "O Carib Isle!," "The Air Plant," and "Royal Palm," as well as "Eternity." Compared to the visionary expansiveness of "The Bridge," these are poems written in a minor key—touristic, direct, and accessible. They also lack the ambitious self-consciousness of Crane's longer masterpieces. Paul Mariani in his biography of Crane reports that the poet thought of these poems as "anthology pieces" and described them to Ivor Winters as "considerably clipped." Crane's affection for these poems was muted because his aspiration for Parnassian fame lay with the unfinished epic, "The Bridge."

Nevetheless this group of pleine air poems, written directly from his experiences on Isle of Pines, his visits to Havana, and Grand Cayman, are some of the most finished and powerful poems Crane wrote. "Eternity" is the least finished of these, though it is the most direct and most faithful and consistent in its use of colloquial diction. In it Crane looks past his near contemporary Marianne Moore and ahead to the prosaic artfulness of Elizabeth Bishop. Especially when compared with Crane's "The Hurricane," which begins "Lo, Lord, Thou ridest! / Lord, Lord, Thy swifting heart // Nought stayeth, nought now bideth / But's smithereened apart!", "Eternity" feels spontaneous, talky, unstudied. We know that "The Hurricane" was written before Crane had experience of a serious tropical storm. It is less about an external climatic event than it is about an internal, spiritual typhoon. It is about the internal chaos that was Crane's habitual condition and in this way it partakes in the metaphysical tumble and boil of so much of Crane's work and which causes it to be something of Modernism's own antidote to the objective correlative. This is why I find myself kneeling at the edifice of his rococo confections without deeply believing.

"Eternity" and the other descriptive lyrics he wrote about the Caribbean as well as a few early poems such as "My Grandmother's Love Letters," Repose of Rivers," and Passage," among others are, are to my temperament, more satisfying and convincing, if less provocative. It may be that I am drawn to them because of the dramatic contrast they create with the rest of Crane's work but I'm certain, too, that I admire them because of the way Williams and his particular strain of American idiom bleeds through. At such an intersection I find the visionary wrestling with the merchant, straw and mud tramped into the vestibule of the church. In other words I hear the human voice that can't help itself from speaking as a poet rather than the poet who tries to speak like a god or angel.

In it's own way "Eternity" is quite lavish. Its exaggerations, "Parts of the roof reached Yucatan, I suppose," serve as comic relief, a buffer from the horrific destruction that was nearly fatal to Crane. The effect of the reportorial style of "Eternity" creates a strange and confounding world out of the destroyed literal world: "But was there a boat? By the wharf's old site you saw / Two decks unsandwiched, split sixty feet apart/ And a funnel high and dry up near the park/ Where a frantic peacock rummaged amid a heap of cans." Tragedy is inherent in such a scene, as is melodrama, but Crane avoids it, giving us instead a rueful, dark humor, "Back at the erstwhile house / We shoveled and sweated; watched the ogre sun / blister the mountain, stripped now, bare of palm / Everything-and lick the grass, as black as patent / Leather, which the rimed white wind had glazed."

I particularly like "Eternity" for the clarity of its post apocalyptic "vision." "Eternity" anticipates the genre of nuclear and human holocaust poems that is one of the twentieth century's difficult legacies, and those horses of the apocalypse that appear in Edwin Muir's "The Horses" and Philip Levine's "Horse," or in Basil Bunting's "Chomei at Toyama," which among other events recounts the destruction by earthquake of 12th century Kyoto. Perhaps the strangest moment in "Eternity" is when the horses appear in their "strange gratuity." "Gratuity" is a word that Crane had employed in other poems and is meant to indicate the inexplicable and mysterious nature of experience. The brilliance of this passage is that Crane manages to authenticate by means of "Don," the identifiable horse, the assessable and literal destructive effects of the storm, while the other horse, the "white" one authenticates the lasting and unknown effects of the storm; it is a "phantom maned by all that memoried night of screaming rain—Eternity!" This is about as much lyric uplift as the otherwise plain-spoken poem can handle without becoming melodramatic. Or maybe it is slightly melodramatic but we are forgiving of its excess. Regardless, the magnitude of excess in "Eternity" is considerably less than the excess of the unironic poeticisms of "The Hurricane," its weird counterpart.

If I'm not mistaken the historical information that shows up in the last stanza of Crane's poem is also found in a Van Dyke Parks song or maybe Van Dyke Parks sang about a different tropical storm but described the same kind of American imperial rescue as Crane: "The president sent down a battleship that baked/ Something like two thousand loaves on the way./ Doctors shot ahead from the deck in planes." Although some might feel "Eternity" resolves itself too easily ("The fever was checked."), I like the way the quotidian returns to shore up the world. After all Crane has been telling a story, "I stood a long time in Mack's talking/ New York with the gobs, Guantanamo, Norfolk—,/ Drinking Bacardi and talking U.S.A.", and the point of the story for him was precarious survival, which he had learned to celebrate over the years with drink and sailors—his familiar gratuity.


     October—all over
       Barbarian Adage

     After it was over, though still gusting balefully,
     The old woman and I foraged some drier clothes
     And left the house, or what was left of it;
     Parts of the roof reached Yucatan, I suppose.
     She almost—even then—got blown across lots
     At the base of the mountain. But the town, the town!

     Wires in the streets and Chinamen up and down
     With arms in slings, plaster strewn dense with tiles,
     And Cuban doctors, troopers, trucks, loose hens...
     The only building not sagging on its knees,
     Fernandez' Hotel, was requisitioned into pens
     For cotted Negroes, bandaged to be taken
     To Havana on the first boat through. They groaned.

     But was there a boat? By the wharf's old site you saw
     Two decks unsandwiched, split sixty feet apart
     And a funnel high and dry up near the park
     Where a frantic peacock rummaged amid heaped cans.
     No one seemed to be able to get a spark
     From the world outside, but some rumor blew
     That Havana, not to mention poor Batabanó,
     Was halfway under water with fires
     For some hours since—all wireless down
     Of course, there too.

                                      Back at the erstwhile house
     We shoveled and sweated; watched the ogre sun
     Blister the mountain, stripped now, bare of palm,
     Everything—and like the grass as black as patent
     Leather, which the rimed white wind had glazed.
     Everything gone—or strewn in riddled grace—
     Long tropic roots high in the air, like lace.
     And somebody's mule steamed, swaying right by the pump,
     Good God! as though his sinking carcass there
     Were death predestined! You held your nose already
     along the roads, begging for buzzards, vultures...
     The mule stumbled, staggered. I somehow couldn't budge
     To lift a stick for pity of his stupor.

                                                           For I
     Remember still that strange gratuity of horses
     —One ours, and one a stranger, creeping up with dawn
     Out of the bamboo brake through howling sheeted light
     When the storm was dying. And Sarah saw them, too—
     Sobbed. Yes, now—it's almost over. For they know;
     The weather's in their noses. There's Don—but that one, white
     —I can't account for him! And true, he stood
     Like a vast phantom maned by all that memoried night
     Of screaming rain—Eternity!

                                                  Yet water, water!
     I beat the dazed mule toward the road. He got that far
     And fell dead or dying, but it didn't so much matter.

     The morrow's dawn was dense with carrion hazes
     Sliding everywhere. Bodies were rushed into graves
     Without ceremony, while hammers pattered in town.
     The roads were being cleared, injured brought in
     And treated, it seemed. In due time
     The President sent down a battleship that baked
     Something like two thousand loaves on the way.
     Doctors shot ahead from the deck of planes.
     The fever was checked. I stood a long time in Mack's talking
     New York with the gobs, Guantanamo, Norfolk,—
     Drinking Bacardi and talking U.S.A.

                                                             —Hart Crane (1927)



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