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Truly, thou art a God who hidest thyself.
__________________—Isaiah 45:15

________________Abundant hazards,
being and nonbeing, every fleck through which
________________this time affords
unobliterate certainties | hidden in light:
__________________—Geoffrey Hill, “Offertorium: Suffolk, July 2003”

The “meters,” chandas, are the robes that the gods “wrapped around themselves,” acchadayan, so that they might come near to the fire without being disfigured as though by the blade of a razor.
__________________—Robert Calasso, Literature and the Gods, commenting on the Satapatha Brahmana

Frieda Pushnik

“Little Frieda Pushnik, the Armless, Legless Girl Wonder,” who spent years as a touring attraction for Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Ringling Brothers and Barnum and Bailey….
__________________—from the Los Angeles Times Obituaries

I love their stunned, naked faces. Adrift with wonder,
big-eyed as infants and famished for that strangeness
in the world they haven’t known since early childhood,
they are monsters of innocence who gladly shoulder
the burden of the blessed, the unbroken, the beautiful,
the lost. They should be walking on their lovely knees
like pilgrims to that shrine in Guadalupe, where
I failed to draw a crowd. I might even be their weird
little saint, though God knows I’ve wanted everything
they’ve wanted, and more, of course. When we toured Texas, west
from San Antonio, those tiny cow towns flung
like pearls from the broken necklace of the Rio Grande,
I looked out on a near infinity of rangeland
and far blue mountains, avatars of emptiness,
minor gods of that vast and impossibly pure nothing
to whom I spoke my little still-born, ritual prayer.

I’m not on those posters they paste all over town,
those silent orgies of secondary colors—blood red,
burnt orange, purple—each one a shrieking anthem
to the exotic: Bengal tigers, ubiquitous
as alley cats, raw with not inhuman but
superhuman beauty, demonic spider monkeys,
absurdly buxom dancers clad in gossamer,
and spiritual gray elephants, trunks raised like arms
to Allah. Franciscan murals of plenitude,
brute vitality ripe with the fruit of eros,
the faint blush of sin, and I am not there. Rather,
my role is the unadvertised, secret, wholly
unexpected thrill you find within. A discovery.
Irresistible, like sex.
_____________So here I am. The crowd
leaks in—halting, unsure, a bit like mourners
at a funeral but without the grief. And there is
always something damp, interior, and, well,
sticky about them, cotton-candy souls that smear
the bad air, funky, bleak. All quite forgettable,
except for three. A woman, middle-aged, plain
and unwrinkled as her Salvation Army uniform,
bland as oatmeal but with this heavy, leaden sorrow
pulling at her eyelids and the corners of her mouth.
Front row four times, weeping, weeping constantly,
then looking up, lips moving in a silent prayer,
I think, and blotting tears with a kind of practiced,
automatic movement somehow suggesting that
the sorrow is her own and I’m her mirror now,
the little well of suffering from which she drinks.
A minister once told me to embrace my sorrow.
To hell with that, I said, embrace your own. And then
there was that nice young woman, Arbus, who came and talked,
talked brilliantly, took hours setting up the shot,
then said, I’m very sorry, and just walked away.
The way the sunlight plunges through the opening
at the top around the center tent pole like a spotlight
cutting through the smutty air, and it fell on him,
the third, a boy of maybe sixteen, hardly grown,
sitting in the fourth row, not too far but not too close,
red hair flaring numinous, ears big as hands,
gray eyes that nailed themselves to mine. My mother,
I remember, looked at me that way. And a smile
not quite a smile. He came twice. And that second time,
just before I thanked the crowd, I’m so glad you could
drop by, please tell your friends, his hand rose—floated,
really—to his chest. It was a wave. The slightest,
shyest wave good-bye, hello (and what’s the difference,
anyway) as if he knew me, truly knew me, as if,
someday, he might return. His eyes. His hair, as vivid
as the howdahs on those elephants. In the posters
where I’m not. That day the crowd seemed to slither out,
to ooze, I thought, like reptiles—sluggish, sleek, gut-hungry
for the pleasures of the world, the prize, the magic number,
the winning shot, the doll from the rifle booth, the girl
he gives it to, the snow cone dripping, the popcorn dyed
with all the colors of the rainbow, the rainbow, the sky
it crowns, and whatever lies beyond, the One, perhaps,
we’re told, enthroned there who in love or rage or spasm
of inscrutable desire made that teeming, oozing,
devouring throng borne now into the midway’s sunlight,
that vanished God of the unborn to whom I say
again my little prayer: let me be one of them.

 

Usher

1954, Nathan Gold, a student at Union Theological Seminary, working
part-time at the Loews Eighty-third Street Theater, Manhattan

Dear Sollie,
________Master of Kabala, each cryptic point
of David’s star, now casting I-Ching hexagrams
in hipster Berkeley. So this one’s in hexameters,
an undercurrent, six feet under—no, not death,
not yet, but bad news, fear and failure, everywhere:
fucking Moses, goddamned Cross-Bronx Expressway,
the parting of the Red Sea is what that fascist bastard
thinks, I’m betting, though the Golds were never Reds
except for Uncle Mike, and now where do they go,
exiled from their homeland and beloved Yankees.
And Sivan in her condition. And their turncoat son
leading goyim and Manhattan’s great unwashed
down dark aisles to pray before the gleaming gods
of Hollywood, returning each day to the classrooms
of German theologians for whom God is a puzzle,
a conundrum made darker yet by that Danish rabbi,
Kierkegaard. So here I wait, lean on gilded,
faux-Moroccan walls, and stare worshipfully
at plaster masks of tragedy and big-mouthed
comedy hung overhead, blue-green bulbs
for eyes that blindly gaze not at but over us,
lost in their abstractions and detached as always
from the laity, their stench and squalor, floors pocked
with Double Bubble and the stale, mingled smells
of soda, buttered popcorn, licorice, and ammonia.
Mr. Hinkle, our gin-head manager, has passed out
in the upstairs office once again, and Brownie,
the homunculus projectionist, is no doubt reading
fuck books and sucking Jujubes and Milk Duds
while I wait, armed with flashlight and Kierkegaard,
that monster, Either/Or, because my paper’s overdue
(though useless, really, after yesterday’s debacle).
Are those made happy by A Star is Born, warmed
by love’s ruin and resurrection in The Country Girl
really in despair? Churchyard, that joy killer,
thinks so. I say, let them wallow in the shallows
of the silver screen, the smart-assed repartee of Tracy
and brainy Hepburn, the lurid Technicolor charms
of VistaVision, Gene Kelly dancing in the rain,
Gary Cooper’s quick-draw Jesus in High Noon.
Tillich just won’t stop with his ultimate concern,
ground of being, courage of despair, his God
above God, and in between, illusions: movies, yes,
but more, the life that copies them. Crossing Eighth,
I saw a woman, hair swept across one eye
like Rita Hayworth, walk into a bus-stop bench.
Blind humanity. Niebuhr would have loved it,
Tillich too, the grandeur and the misery, New York,
the world, everything’s a metaphor to them.
But misery like Sivan’s, glioblastoma multiforme,
do they know that, those Greco-Latin syllables
baroque, swollen as the thing itself, fat tumor
feeding on the brain, burning from the center
out, and those prick doctors without the balls to give
one cc more Dilaudid than the law allows.
So there I am, just another addict trafficking
in horse among the freaks of Hubert’s Dime Museum
and scoring D from the trembling future surgeon
who uses it to pay tuition. God, the crap
we do to make a life. Sin? The world is sin.
We go down, oh, I mean down, into that basement:
Jesus, those little stages dim with burnt-out bulbs,
the curtains jerk back, lo, and there is lovely Olga
and her beard, Sealo the Seal Boy, the Armless Wonder,
Albert/Alberta in his/her hermaphroditic glory.
Baudelaire’s “floating lives,” or as Sivan said,
“Disneyland in hell.” But, of course, they’re us,
we’re them, and we pay the price, cheap as it is, to see
ourselves.
________Ah, New York when she was well: Al Flosso’s
magic shop on Thirty-fourth, my God, late Saturday
one afternoon strolling down from Central Park,
bronze leaves spilled like coins along Eighth Avenue,
and there’s Al himself pulling quarters from the ears
of little kids who spend them all on props, Zombies,
Imp Bottles, Crazy Cubes, tricks for turning water
into wine, if happiness is wine made holy,
and I think it is, or was. Later, fine dining
at the Automat to save a buck, Eucharist
at Smokey Mary’s, then all those jazz clubs lining
Fifty-second Street, and that’s the night at BIRDLAND
the great Eddie “Lockjaw” Davis went toe-to-toe
with Sonny Stitt. Pure heaven. JIMMY RYAN’S, FIVE SPOT,
THE FAMOUS DOOR, THREE DEUCES, Sivan’s long auburn
hair now gone but brilliant then, bathed in neon,
big riffs streaming out of every door, a kind
of aural exegesis of forbidden texts:
“Love for Sale,” “Strange Fruit,” “Ornithology.”

Long time passing. Then yesterday in systematics
Tillich demolishing Parmenides by way
of Plato’s Sophist: Any image is a blending:
Nonbeing closed in Being (my loose translation).
And so the movies, the technology of film:
the image held before our flawed, half-blind gaze,
black ribs separating every frame, that darkness
never seen but always there: in On the Waterfront,
Saint and Brando in the fulcrum of their fates,
Manhattan floating in the thinning, pearl-gray light
behind them, and that cinematic night surrounding
every second of their ticking lives, unseen,
ubiquitous: Nonbeing, nothingness, the ontic
absence at the center, or between the frames,
of the waking life. “I could have been a contender
…instead of who I am,” pleads Brando to his brother:
who he’s not held forever in the embrace of who he is.
“Persistence of vision,” I tell Tillich, that’s what it’s called,
the fantasy of life in motion while in fact
a little death, NONBEING, separates each frame,
each moment in the shadow-play of happiness,
and God in all his wisdom is the projectionist!
THAT’S OUR METAPHOR! Wrong God, he says. The God
that can be known cannot be God. Well, that finished it.
I swear, the man’s a neo-Gnostic, a magician.
Imagine, the greatest theologian in America,
a Bronx Jew shouting at him: THEN WHO THE FUCK
IS GOD? So, the end. Alpha and Omega. Sivan
said from the beginning it would end this way.

I’m an usher, Sol. That’s all. Light in hand, I take
them down, or up, the Heraclitean way, into
that little night, into—no, not Plato’s cave, Lascaux
or Rheims—but the purest form of K’s aesthetic life,
and there they sit with the passivity of angels,
God’s children in their ontic moment, looking on,
amused, uplifted, frightened, haunted, grieved, lost
in the deceptions of the beautiful, the real unreal,
and they are for those ninety stolen minutes saved:
Pavlic, from the corner newsstand, shutting down
for matinees—war films, westerns; Mrs. Kriegan,
who cleans bathrooms at Saint Bart’s and weeps through all
the love scenes; Sivan, too—turbaned, thin—at every
bargain twilight show for Singing in the Rain,
she knew all the tunes and sang them sotto voce
on the subway home; that sad, small man who wore
Hawaiian ties, a Dodgers cap, and tennis shoes,
saying, every time, the rosary on his way out.
All of them, the drunks, bums, lovers, priests, housewives,
cops, street punks shooting up, whores giving blowjobs
in the balcony. I usher. I take them there.

Remember Colmar, the Isenheim, when we were high
on weed, big brass gong of the risen sun, His hands
pushing outward from within, and you, my brother,
in your reefer madness, cactus, and who knows what
shouting “Fire” till I could bring you down? Today
in Country Girl, Grace Kelly at the ironing board,
and Brownie upstairs falls asleep at the projector, film
sticking, flap, flap, then stuck, no one to turn the lamp off,
small ghosts of smoke, a black hole starting in the center
of the frame, (the Big Bang must have looked like that),
flame eating outward at the curling edges, spreading,
Grace swallowed slowly by the widening fire, then gone,
the film snaps, bringing down an avalanche of light,
the sun’s flood a billion years from now, earth sucked
into the flames, lurid, omnivorous, the whole room
stunned and silvered with it, shadows peeled away,
each gray scarf, each shawl of darkness lifted, the audience
revealed in all their nakedness, their uncoveredness
and soiled humanity, among the candy wrappers,
condoms, butts, crushed Dixie cups, as we wait for Grace
to reappear, the iron to move, the mouth to speak,
for love, Sol, the movie of our lives, and for Sivan.

Note for “Usher”

Moses: Known as “the master builder,” Robert Moses, arterial coordinator of New York City, enjoyed unprecedented power as an urban designer, radically altering the landscape and sociology of the city through his mammoth freeway projects, including the Cross-Bronx Expressway, the construction of which (from 1948 to 1963) destroyed hundreds of blue-collar and middle-class neighborhoods, many of them predominantly Jewish.

 

Hart Crane in Havana

April 26, 1932: They breakfasted on board before making their way into Havana, and after Hart had pointed out the cafe where they were to meet,…he slipped down a street in the white, gold, and azure Cuban capital and for one of the few times in his life disappeared entirely. He wrote postcards….
_____________________—Clive Fisher, Hart Crane: A Life

And saw thee dive to kiss that destiny
Like one white meteor, sacrosanct and blent
At last with all that’s consummate and free
There, where the first and last gods keep thy tent.
_____________________—The Bridge

Dear Wilbur,
_________In Havana, Hotel Ambos Mundos,
Orizaba docked six hours, and I’m drinking
Sazeracs (absinthe and bourbon), sans ami
though recall Ramón Novarro in LA? Second
only to the Hoover in the cupola Grace
caught me with. No adventures here, home soon
if I can face it—empty-handed, Guggenheim
exhausted. View from absinthe-land: blue and gold
like the Maxfield Parrish prints my father used
to decorate his candy boxes.
_______________As ever, Hart
Dear Sambo,
________Je ne suis pas Rimbaud! though once I was.
Her undinal vast belly moonward bends. Such lines
extinct now. Prescription: iodine followed by
a bottle of mercurochrome, slashing Siquieros’
portrait with a razor blade. When Lawrence talks of
“going down to the dark gods,” he means sex of course
rather than its sister, death. Remember Hartley’s tale
of Albert Ryder, standing just outside his hostess’
window watching Christmas dinner? Thank you so much
for inviting me. A freak, Sam, is what I am. So praise
to you and Otto Kahn,
_____________the uninvited heart
Dear Bill,
______Hotel Ambos Mundos (Both Worlds): Art
and Life? Hemingway, room 511, just checked out
(of which, art or life?) My third Sazerac, memories
of Minsky’s, while legs awaken salads in the brain,
and mine’s a Waldorf now, Ouspensky’s New Model
where time’s a motion on some higher spatial plane,
(cinema, still photos moving in a dream of time)
and time’s running out, compañero, a broken motion,
Icarus in flight. Love to Susan and bambino,
________________________Hart
Dear Lotte,
________Holed up in a hotel bar, I think
Cleveland Charlotte knows me well as anyone,
and when I wrote to you, “The true idea of God
is the only road to happiness,” or something close
to that, please tell me what I meant. One morning,
drunk, Cathedral Santa Prisca, I climbed the tower,
rang the bell-rope that gathers God at dawn, though
no God, no waking pilgrims, just the local law
and, I confess, a music, triple-tongued, vowels
inside of vowels, a kind of happiness. Love. Hart.
Dear Allen,
________Le Bateau Ivre’s prophetic, so now
why not The Bridge? Sometimes I fear it’s just some sort
of spiritual boosterism for empire America.
And then there’s Winters with his aesthetique morale:
form, meter as the reins to hold in check the wild horse
of the poem. But damn it, METER IS THE HORSE,
the very heartbeat of the horse, so drop the reins—
Okay, I’m drunk, but word is more than word in that
or any poem, Jesus, I stood there, 3 am,
on Roebling’s cabled god, its welded, sculpted iron
embrace, staring at Manhattan, tears runneling
my face, the magnitude, the awful holiness
and pride of it, waves beating on the piers below,
Dear Grace,
________borne back ceaselessly into the past,
childhood poems you read to me each night and it
was language, diving down into the language, fall
through consonant and vowel, wash and wave of it,
etymology’s dense, green growth, labyrinthine
mouths of history, one arc synoptic of all tides
below, O what lies deepest, meter of the sea,
surge and buffet of what’s always underneath
and untranslatable, crucial, crux of everything,
unresurrected Christ, word, in the beginning
now endeth

 

Notes for “Hart Crane in Havana”

I, too, dislike notes to poems, but in the case of a realistic imagining of Hart Crane’s postcards, written the day before he leaped from the Orizaba to his death, they are unavoidable. In his letters it was natural for him, as for anyone writing to friends and relatives, to refer to shared knowledge, names, experiences that would be unknown to most outsiders. Therefore, for those who haven’t read Paul Mariani’s or Clive Fisher’s very fine biographies of Crane, his correspondents as well as some of his allusions need to be identified. All the quoted lines in my poem are from Crane’s poems, except for “borne back ceaselessly….” which is taken from the famous final sentence of The Great Gatsby.

 

Wilbur: Wilbur Underwood, poet and government clerk in Washington, DC. He was an older, longtime friend and gay mentor to Crane.

 

Orizaba: The ship on which Crane and Peggy Cowley were returning to the United States.

 

Ramón Novarro, Hoover: Fisher reveals in his biography that while living in Pasadena, Crane received the sexual services of the film star Ramón Novarro, as he had as an adolescent from the Hoover vacuum cleaner his mother, Grace, discovered him with.

 

Sambo: Sam Loveman, poet and publisher whom Crane met in his early twenties. Loveman was Crane’s literary executor and published Brom Weber’s Hart Crane: A Biographical and Critical Study.

 

iodine, mercurochrome, Siquieros: During his last days in Mexico, Crane made at least two suicide attempts and slashed his portrait by David Siqueiros with a razor blade.

 

Lawrence: D.H. Lawrence.

 

Hartley’s tale, Albert Ryder: Crane’s friend, the artist and poet, Marsden Hartley, tells this story of the painter Albert Pinkham Ryder. Ryder’s hostess asked him why he hadn’t come to her Christmas dinner as he had promised, and he explained that he had indeed been there but had been standing outside the window, observing it.

 

Otto Kahn: Financier who generously underwrote Crane’s expenses during the composition of The Bridge.

 

Bill: William Slater Brown. Novelist and translator, he and his wife were old friends of Crane, who had been a guest at their farmhouse in Dutchess County, New York, on several occasions.

 

Minsky’s: The famous Manhattan burlesque theater that Crane and William Slater Brown frequented together and which was probably an influence on Crane’s “National Winter Garden.”

 

Ouspensky: Colleague of Gurdjieff and author of Tertium Organum, much read and discussed by Crane and his circle.

 

Lotte: Charlotte Rychtarik, a musician and painter whom Crane had known since his early twenties in Cleveland.

 

Allen: Allen Tate, American literary critic and poet and a central member of the Fugitive group of southern poets. He was an early admirer of Crane’s work.

 

Le Bateau Ivre: Rimbaud’s famous poem is sometimes interpreted as prophesying the later events of his life.

 

Winters: Yvor Winters. Prominent literary critic who taught at Stanford University and like Allen Tate was an enthusiastic admirer and advocate of Crane’s poetry.

 

Roebling: Both John Augustus Roebling, architect and builder of the Brooklyn Bridge, and his son, Washington Roebling, who continued his father’s work and lived in the same apartment where Crane later wrote The Bridge.

 

Grace: Grace Hart Crane, the poet’s mother, divorced from his father in 1917.

 

 

 

“Frieda Pushnik” won a 2010 Pushcart Prize.


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