Hosting the Stranger
Strange meeting. Strange meeting, indeed, in a cold trench indistinguishable from one of Dantes malebolges that line this district of hell, where one confronts the looming figure of the man you ran through with your bayonet only the night before. Wilfred Owen would have found the title for his poem in his copy of Shelley, there in that strange, neglected poem, The Revolt of Islam. The speaker, himself run through with a spear, looks up to find the other, the stranger, stricken with horror at what he has just done:
And one, whose spear had pierced me, leaned beside
With quivering lips and humid eyes; and all
Seemed like some brothers on a journey wide
Gone forth, whom now strange meeting did befall
In a strange land round one whom they might call
Their friend, their chief, their father .
Might have, in another time and another place. One encounters the other, the compound, familiar ghost, the one one fears, the enemy, met now in a nightmare, phosphorescent sleep in the rat-infested trenches of the Great War. The other, in this instance a man without a name whom he has killed in battle, in a place where ignorant armies clash by night. Perhaps the speaker is dead himself now, or drugged with exhaustion and the Dantesque landscape of two worldshell and Francehave become much like one another. Perhaps it is a nightmare only, from which he will awaken to find himself back in a living hell. In any event it is the time between, a time in which to let the Other finally have his say, as there was no time in the epic sweep of battle, when the man tried to parry the blow, or was too terrified to do so, or perhaps too tired, wanting it over, wanting the long sleep so long denied him.
Nothing has been lost, the speaker tries to assuage the stranger whom he recognizes as both stranger and as friend. Nothing lost except my life, that is, and what I might have done, and what I might have warned against, the Other says. And now we realize that the Other is the Self, speaking ones own deepest dreams deferred now forever. Like Owen, who would take a machinegun bullet to the forehead as he tried to get his men across a canal that November 1918, in the last days of the war, like a tired mother hovering over her little ones, the man he killed would likewise have gone
After the wildest beauty in the world,
Which lies not calm in eyes, or braided hair,
But mocks the steady running of the hour,
And if it grieves, grieves richlier than here.
For by my glee might many men have laughed,
And of my weeping something had been left,
Which must die now. I mean the truth untold,
The pity of war, the pity war distilled.
Now men will go content with what we spoiled,
Or, discontent, boil bloody, and be spilled .
I am the enemy you killed, my friend.
I knew you in this dark: for so you frowned
Yesterday through me as you jabbed and killed.
I parried; but my hands were loath and cold.
Let us sleep now . . .
John Berryman, AKA Henry House, likewise meeting the dead there in the night-reaches. For Berryman, the dead stranger is his friend and adversary, the poet-critic Randall Jarrell, dead at fifty-one, young even for that age of lost poets, though not as young as either Plath or Sexton. "There's a small chance that Randalls death was an accident, a chastened Robert Lowell wrote his friend, Elizabeth Bishop a week after Jarrell walked into a speeding car in an underpass weeks after cutting his wrists, but I think it was suicide, and so does everyone else, who knew him well. In the night-reaches dreamed he of better graces, Berryman writes, having in his minds eye entered the long tunnels now of death himself. The struggle at long last over, in death he can dream too of hosting the compound, familiar ghost of Randall and Yeats and Roethke and so many others who have preceded him down the familiar passageway into the unfamiliar world
of liberations, and beloved faces,
such as now ere dawn he sings.
It would not be easy, accustomed to these things,
to give up the old world, but he could try;
let it all rest, have a good cry.
Let Randall rest, whom your self-torturing
cannot restore one instant's good to, rest:
he's left us now.
The panic died and in the panic's dying
so did my old friend. I am headed west
also, also, somehow.
In the chambers of the end we'll meet again
I will say Randall, he'll say Pussycat
and all will be as before
whenas we sought, among the beloved faces,
eminence and were dissatisfied with that
and needed more.
Years earlier, where years are mere winks into eternity, as the prophet Hart Crane sang, Father Hopkins reflected there in his bleak, cell-like room on the third story of the makeshift school off St. Stephens Green, parrying with the Other, the Stranger, one who must have looked pretty much like Jacobs Angel, or something far more terrifying:
Not, I'll not, carrion comfort, Despair, not feast on thee;
Not untwist--slack they may be these last strands of man
In me ór, most weary, cry I can no more. I can;
Can something, hope, wish day come, not choose not to be.
But ah, but O thou terrible, why wouldst thou rude on me
Thy wring-world right foot rock? lay a lionlimb against me? scan
With darksome devouring eyes my bruisèd bones? and fan,
O in turns of tempest, me heaped there; me frantic to avoid thee and flee?
Why? That my chaff might fly; my grain lie, sheer and clear.
Nay in all that toil, that coil, since (seems) I kissed the rod,
Hand rather, my heart lo! lapped strength, stole joy, would laugh, chéer.
Cheer whom though? The hero whose heaven-handling flung me, fóot tród
Me? or me that fought him? O which one? is it each one? That night, that year
Of now done darkness I wretch lay wrestling with (my God!) my God.
What happens in these lines? A cat and mouse game? The priest rebelling with that rebel will of his against whom? The enemy, the stranger? The friend? His own dark doppelganger? The crucified Christ, hanging by his mangled hands from the rugged crossbeam? Coming out of the darkness of the long night to catch himself likewise nailed and broken, uttering the opening line of the 42nd Psalm, the Eli, eli lema sabachtani, My God, My God, why have you forsaken me, uttered now first as a swearing cry of pain, and then as a sign of utter amazement, the words chiming perfectly with his Masters in this re-enactment of the crucified Self.
Why must the poet face the stranger, face the dead? Fast forward seventy years, and imagine this:
Seamus Heaneys pilgrim on Station Island, after the long fast and the prayers, suddenly coming across his dead friend, one more victim of the old wars between Protestant and Catholic in Northern Ireland back thirty years ago. In lines of exquisite terza rima, Heaney evokes the shock and horror of seeing his dead friend standing there at the edge of the water, between two worlds. Easy now, the presence reassures him, still carrying the open wound to his head. Its only me. Youve seen men as raw/ after a football match. So with Homer, so with Vergil and Propertius and Seneca down the ages, so with Dante, as the familiar dead across the waters comfort even as they terrify in the strange, narcotic plush of the poems hypnotic music.
Oron the lighter side--this riff on the landscapes of the afterlife by old friend Henry, sharing a martini with St. Peter at the pearly gates before the verdict is read aloud and the landscape undergoes a radical shift:
Peter's not friendly. He gives me sideways looks.
The architecture is far from reassuring.
I feel uneasy.
A pity,the interview began so well:
I mentioned fiendish things, he waved them away
and sloshed out a martini
strangely needed. We spoke of indifferent matters
God's health, the vague hell of the Congo,
anti-matter matter. I felt fine.
Then a change came backward. A chill fell.
died, and he began to give me sideways looks.
'Christ,' I thought 'what now?' and would have askt for another
but didn't dare.
I feel my application failing. It's growing dark,
some other sound is overcoming. His last words are:
'We betrayed me.'
Whoever the we is here, whoever the me, as pronominal references themselves undergo a terrifying metamorphosis into deaths dissolution.
For three months now, I have been coming back to several recent poems of my own, thinking of these lectures, of this theme of Hosting the Stranger, until I have oddly become a stranger even to myself. I mean a stranger in the sense that my own poems insist in moving in a direction other than what I would have supposed. At sixty-nine, I would have thought I would be reaching something like the penumbra of some Paradiso, the palm at the end of the mind, a kind of contentment such as I feel in my life each day. But the poems I have been writing seem in fact stranger and stranger to their own creator.
Of course there is precedence for this among my rabbis: Yeats finding himself in death as the Irish hero surrounded by strangers knitting shrouds, cowards all of them, as I suspect Yeats feared at heart he might be after all, after the trials of the Easter 1916 uprising for instance, which saw the leaders lined up against a wall in Dublin Castle and shot . Or Hart Crane in the bell tower that spring of 1932, pulling lustily at the rope, and wondering who at the last he might summon to his orphic songs. Or Eliot, as late as Little Gidding, being advised by the compound, familiar ghost on the streets of wartime London, after the screaming German Stukasthose bat-like dark doveshad fired their Pentecostal machine gun rounds into the heart of London, advised him of what the dreadful options for his futureand oursmight look like.
Some thirty years ago, knocking about for the stranger in myself, I tried on an experiment. I followed the advice of a friend: Go down into yourself, he had advised, down and down in your electric Kool-Aid acid art deco elevator, down to Gamma Levelwherever Gamma wasand see who might be waiting at the door to greet you. So he put me under a light hypnotic trance and I proceeded down the tunnel. A short time lateras short times go-- the elevator door opened and I saw someone standing there, someone whom at first I did not recognize. Actually, I had half-expected one of my old friends I had written of: Father Hopkins or Bill Williams or Robert Lowell or John Berryman or Hart Crane. Or, if not them, Stevens or Frost oras on an earlier tripmy father driving his pay loader across some old cemetery.
Instead, there was a tallish man standing there in clothes dating back to the 1850s. He had a five oclock shadow, it seemed, and his eyes glowed amber. He seemed to be in his mid-forties. Who was it?, my friend asked. Baudelaire, I said. Charles Baudelaire, the French poet. And the shits on, because I dont know French. Is he speaking?, my hypnotist friend asked. He was Baudelaire was , but his lips werent moving, which made it all the stranger. What was he saying?
Later I wrote down what he said, or what I thought he said, and netted the strangest poem I have ever been offered. Looking back now, I wish I might have cut the excess verbiage. Still, what I heard him say holds true. Clear your head, he advised,
and pay attention to these presences
who throng about you. They are friends,
strange friends, true, whom One has directed
here to you. Let the hyenas bear their fangs,
snapping at what they do not understand. They have
their appointed time, mon frère, as you have yours.
Then ceased, and faded back, was gone.
The music of the dead, let us call it, in the land of the poem, where each step out into the white space of the paper remains uncertain and desired, an attempt to host the strangeness of language, and the even deeper strangeness of what lies beyond the sound of words themselves. Keatss unheard melody revisited. William Carlos Williamss Jersey words floating down the Passaic towards the falls, a boy in the back seat of a 1937 Ford, trying to make sense of what Paul and Louis, father and uncle, whose names are etched on him, and by which he has been summoned for the past seven decades, a nameless woman begging for consolation after visiting Hardys doomed Titanic in a classroom on East 67th Street forty years ago. Andfinallya fish ladder at Damariscotta, visited last August, in the town where Robert Lowell and Jean Stafford lived back in 1946, and the little church of St. Patricks, the oldest of its name in the United States, founded by the Irish two hundred years ago, signifying everything for Lowell, then less and less as he turned from his beloved Hopkins to his other more familiar doppelgangers, Jonathan Edwards, then Hawthorne, and, finally, Baudelaire. Five poems, then, all of them haunted by the discourses stirred up by the strange meetings held by Richard Kearney in Devlin Hall.
1. Epitaph for the Journey
Miles Davis cradling his gleaming
trumpet, three black jazzmen slouched
like hipster guardian angels just
behind him. Searing coals those eyes,
as they stare out from the photo at you.
The jagged blue-black mosaic shards
of Justinians eyes under the golden
dome of San Appollinare, unblinking there
these fifteen hundred years. Listen long
enough, and you will hear the arpeggios
those eyes attend to. Hart Crane, doomed
pilgrim that he was, surely must have heard
them. At least his songs report back
that he did, descending from the giant harp
he called the Bridge. Lorca heard it too,
his dear dark lady, moonbright pupils facing
that blind unblinking firing squad. Father
Hopkins refused our four-bar player piano
measures, listening hard instead for the strain
of plainchant groaning off the stones
of Delphi, an ancient music flaking down
the Dead Sea cells of Qumran monks, or Monte
Cassinos choir stalls, before it disappeared
into the vast insolid Void. Others too,
they say, have heard it in the timeless
vortices of time. And now, if they have
anything at all to tell me, it is this:
my time, like yours, friend, is drawing
to a close, my one ear dead since birth,
the other closing down that much more
each month. Most go about their business
day by day. They keep their heads down
or learn to simply wait. Here and there
someone points or gestures here or there.
Unheard melodies, Keats called them, eyes
ablaze, then dimming as his body fell apart.
Once my own eyes blazed, but that was then.
Too late, someone else is singing. Too late.
But the high flung bellsif anyone can or cares
to hear themkeep choiring in the haunted risen wind.
2. Elegy for William Carlos Williams on the Eve of His 125th Birthday
A chic Italian restaurant here on Rutherfords
Park Avenue. On the corner across the street:
your home, sold to strangers. All those bright
flowers you & Flossie tended to in your back yard
gone. A piece of still-warm bread & a bottle of
Chianti I had to bring myself. Its a dry town still,
where the mythy gods of wine stay suspect, Bill.
A blue flame gutters my lonely table. I ask
the waitress, first name Cora, whos worked here
these past four years, if shes ever heard of you.
A poet. You know, one of those. Spent his whole life
here in this godforsaken Jersey suburb long before
the stadium came to nest in the purple cattailed
meadows. Coaxed three thousand kids into this new
world naked, making endless calls on these same
ramshackle four-square rooms, leaving poems
at every railroad crossing, as he netted isolate flecks
of images from the sick, majestic river that runs
through town, heading for the black Atlantic
to be lost. A poet, huh?, she says, in that
distinctive twang my poor mother had in life.
Right here in this ol town. Well, Ill be damned.
As we all are, dont you know, with our broken
cries and words. Again the dark descends
as she leaves me to myself. Except for the bells,
You were never one for Catholic rituals, old friend,
but let me ring one in tonight. A crust of bread
here in my left hand and a glass of dago red
here in my right, which now I lift to you,
listening as you taught me with the one good ear
Ive left for the rivers sad and distant music riffing
with those jagged Jersey sounds you loved so well.
3. Mairsy Doats
Rewind, Recording Angel, and play again the roll
and rise of Mairsy Doats, the lilt and lift
of those honied voices soothing to a small boy
in the back seat listening. The Andrews Sisters
and doesy doats, the whole harmonium of bird notes
floating from the radio of my fathers all-black
pre-War Ford those sixty years ago. They make
no sense, the syllables that sing liddle lambsey divey.
And yet, Angel, how they terrify and comfort.
Behind the wheel, my fathers laughing at something
his brother, riding shotgun, a cigarette clenched
between his gleaming teeth, has said. Theyre making jokes
of words, which I can no more understand than the song
the trinity of sisters sing. Down the wobbling vortex
of memory the wheels go round and round, bumping
over New Yorks ancient cobbled streets. From above:
the latticed gaps of the Third Avenue El as shuddered
sunlight flickers. Where weve gone or where were going
I cannot tell. Nor can I now recall a word of what
they said then, Angel, though you know that I was there.
Only splintered sound sloughing on the summer air
and laughter, like a shattered symphony forming
and reforming. Paul to the left and Louie to the right,
those two whose names I carry with me everywhere
I go, names by which the self is fated to be blessed
and cursed, recalled by flickers, if at all:
three bird notes by which the soul is summoned.
Mares eat oats and does eat oats and little lambs
eat ivy. The nursling music reconfigures to reveal
at last a meaning for the boy, which tells him only
this: that the animals were hungry and have been fed.
Up front, theres that mix of English and Italian
laced with French, the odd patois their parents
brought with them when they left Compiano.
And now, in memorys rearview mirror, after all
this time, I catch my fathers beseeching eyes dart
in my direction from deaths shadows, while Louis
sesanta anni fa turns towards me, as if
to let me in on something hes just said.
But theres too much clack and static, as now
his head falls back on his pillow in the casket. . . .
Thats it. Thats all I can recover: the flecked film
frozen in blacks and whites and sepias, like some
Roman ruin crumbling on a darkling plain, over
which the waves of time are lashing. Two
shadows only, caught on this cloudy moonlit
midnight here by the cold July Atlantic,
like the changing light of that overarching El,
and I alone left to tell this story in which
their names are entered, these two who follow me
everywhere I go, answering still, as mares and does
and lambs answer when theyre called, by force
of awe or fear or love or hunger, hoping
to be fed. Oh yes, Angel, hoping to be fed.
A winters tale. I was teaching up at Hunter,
a night class, nineteen sixty-six or seven.
Mostly stenographers and clerks, with nine-
to-five jobs somewhere in Manhattan
or the boroughs. Introduction to Poetry & Prose,
the one oh one variety.
That evening it was
Thomas Hardy. Hap, The Darkling Thrush,
The Convergence of the Twain, the appointed
iceberg peeling the skin off the Titanic
like some sardine can. Bleak and heady stuff
for a bleak and heady time. Nam, napalm,
race riots, Agent Orange, the whole shebang.
And I was on that night, my best imitation
orphic voice, rhapsodizing on Blind Necessity
and Fate, the marriage of a massive shipstate
of the artwith some far more massive iceberg.
Hardys Hope seemed a hollow thing in the face
of so much suffering, as I suppose he wanted it
to pale for the poem he was writing.
No one to blame:
no grand design, no God or gods, no anything
but a rolling of blind dice. I preened myself.
After all, I was twenty-six, and understood
the mossy myths, dark and cold, that have told us
since before the Greeks how the world really works.
And then the time was up and the students
gathered up their things and headed out.
I was packing my books and the papers
I would have to grade back in our small
apartment out in Flushing, where I lived
with my wife and two small sons, trying
to finish my degree against the odds.
It was late,
past ten, and the wind blowing down the cold
corridors of New York. I meant to head straight
for the subway round the corner to begin
the long ride home on the IRT which, along
with other huddled masses, would take me there.
I looked up to see a woman standing by my desk,
Neither young nor old, one of my students,
as nameless as the rest. She seemed shaken
and her face was pale. Youre a good man,
she was saying. Tell me you dont believe
the things you said tonight. Tell me you believe
there is a God.
Understand, this was outré and
unprofessional on her part, almost comic, except
she looked as if Id robbed her. And for what
it matters, I did subscribe to something like a creed.
Or thought I did. But we were talking Poetry here,
and this was New York City, not some Podunkville.
I assured her my own beliefs had nothing
to do with it. These were Hardys gifts to us,
the poems, written out of a world he had suffered.
True, he wasnt everyones cup of teaa brilliant
use of language, I warmed myself by thinking
and the skeptics view was something she might
sip on, a way of adding to the available stock
of reality we are heir to.
I turned towards the elevator
and bowed goodnight, then walked quickly down
the long cold corridors and past the guard out
on to Lexington, then down into the subway,
repeating Hardys lines about how the Immanent Will
that stirs and urges everything / Prepared a sinister mate /
For her. The place was almost empty at that hour,
and I already at the turnstile when I saw her
following at a distance, her lips moving
with the cold.
Im hard of hearing, and the train
was already entering the station, so I tried to read
her lips. Please, her eyes were saying above the racket
of the place, Youre a good man. Tell me you believe.
Eurydice, I thought, drowning in a hell of her own
making, pallid and accusing, and I some unwitting
Orpheus. For Christs sake (this to myself . . . and then
to her) I do believe. O.K? I do. I do, even if just then
I felt nothing but annoyance, and to tell
the truth, a touch of icy terror. Please, go home,
its late. Everythings O.K.
A gesture only,
comforting someone who needed to be comforted.
She smiled weakly, a nervous smile, as if shed
just avoided a collision with something
looming out there, immense and cold,
and backed upstairs to greet the vast and open
void as the doors closed after me.
What in hell
had I just done? I thought, hanging from a strap,
the weary, deadened faces all about me.
What was this, some operatic scene by Gluck?
How badly had I just compromised myself,
I wondered, then turned to catch two amber lights
and a skull dangling from a strap across the aisle,
as the train went hurling down the sullen rails, lugging
each of us, as it happens, to our appointed destination.
5. Fish Ladder, Damariscotta
Huge schools of them, home from the Atlantic: flakes
of iced mercurial steel, each body surging upstream
through the flint-flecked crevices as in a dream,
entering the crush of falls to reach the upper lakes.
Spent now by the journey, they have returned in a bright
kenotic ecstasy to spawn at last and die.
A salt-stung moiling everywhere, as each frenzied eye
diamonds the irised spindrift waters to fight
the killing currents to reach their final reckoning.
This is the way with those who sing the glitter
going of the final cry, the light looming in the bitter
coalescence up ahead, as if beckoning.
I too would follow if I could, but the bodys cold
from battling nightly with the tides. Blissbliss--
they sang, though I was likewise warned that this
would mean the final ringing of the ladders rung, the old
truth the shad and salmon sense: that we are bound
for home, whatever home means, waiting for us out there,
wherever there is: blue-black water or blue of air,
bright Abba or bleak abyss, the thing that will be found.
Call it what you will: you, the stranger who follows after, faring
forth to meet the Other. Call it the awful leap into the whirling
world of which we know so little, as self goes hurling
toward the light that waits just there, beyond the final, fated daring.