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 keytouristic, 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 rainEternity!"
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
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 sailorshis
After it was over, though still
The old woman and I foraged some
And left the house, or what was
left of it;
Parts of the roof reached Yucatan,
She almosteven thengot
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
For cotted Negroes, bandaged
to be taken
To Havana on the first boat through.
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
From the world outside, but some
That Havana, not to mention poor
Was halfway under water with
For some hours sinceall
Of course, there too.
at the erstwhile house
We shoveled and sweated; watched
the ogre sun
Blister the mountain, stripped
now, bare of palm,
Everythingand like the
grass as black as patent
Leather, which the rimed white
wind had glazed.
Everything goneor 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
Were death predestined! You held
your nose already
along the roads, begging for
The mule stumbled, staggered.
I somehow couldn't budge
To lift a stick for pity of his
Remember still that strange gratuity
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, nowit's almost
over. For they know;
The weather's in their noses.
There's Donbut 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 rainEternity!
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
The President sent down a battleship
Something like two thousand loaves
on the way.
Doctors shot ahead from the deck
The fever was checked. I stood
a long time in Mack's talking
New York with the gobs, Guantanamo,
Drinking Bacardi and talking