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Poetry after the storm

At the end of the six months Hart Crane spent on Isle of Pines, off the coast of Cuba, from May to October of 1926, a hurricane passed over the island and all but destroyed Villa Casas, the defunct 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. But 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.

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During his time on the island he made substantial progress on "The Bridge," one of the greatest, if not least perfect, 20th century American poems, and he started a number of descriptive lyric poems, "Island Quarry," "The Air Plant," "O Carib Isle!," and "Royal Palm," as well as "Eternity," written directly from his experiences on Isle of Pines, his visits to Havana, and Grand Cayman. Compared to the visionary expansiveness of "The Bridge," these are poems written in a minor key - touristic, direct and accessible.

"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, 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 more ambitious work. But I'm certain, too, that I admire them because of the way a particular strain of plain-spoken American idiom championed by William Carlos Williams bleeds through.

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Nevertheless, in its 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 sentimentality, 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 like 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" and the way it anticipates the genre of nuclear and human holocaust poems that is one of the 20th century's difficult legacies.

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.

Although some might feel "Eternity" resolves itself too easily ("The fever was checked"), I like the way the quotidian returns to shore up and heal 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 but tragic gratuity.

Michael Collier is poet laureate of Maryland. Poet's Corner appears monthly in Arts & Society.

ETERNITY

By Hart Crane (1927)

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September - remember!

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;

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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...

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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

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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 Batabano,

Was halfway under water with fires

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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

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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.

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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.

From The Complete Poems and Selected Letters and Prose of Hart Crane by Hart Crane, edited with an introduction and notes by Brom Weber. Used with the permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation. Copyright M-) 1933, 1958, 1966 by Liveright Publishing Corporation.


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