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4 July 2009: a “lived” hieroglyph?

I’d forgotten what a blessed thing Saturday mornings in the Radcliffe Camera are. In Oxford I am always possible–grateful and humbled to have been in some small part at home in this great tradition of knowledge. I’d come into town with the intention of attending the History of Childhood conference at Magdalen, but rail disruptions deposited me in Oxford an hour after registration ended, and I could not summon the courage to disrupt a lecture on baptism in medieval England; I’ve given up the headscarves, and as a result am not exactly inconspicuous.

The sky has clouded over, making the stone saints above Brasenose seem ominous. I’ve spent an hour jotting notes for an essay on my disease, yet am so tired of my disease that I feel sick to think of it. Or maybe it’s feeling sick to write something trite. I never do finish what I begin. Not even my twenties, perhaps. Oh God, I have grown so morbid.

These girls with long hair and nice legs and summer skirts and smiles–how envious I am.

Usually I am half in love with the English weather but right now I would hate it to rain; for some reason the thought strikes fear into my heart.

What I hate most about the thought of dying is not to have written, and to have K. forget me, and love someone else. Not to have his children. To think of anyone else as their mother kills me.

What is it about the Bodleian that breeds such morbidity? Maybe imagining myself here at twenty, writing poems on a Saturday morning while everybody else slept off their hangovers. Sitting with the Narnia series in a stack, unable to concentrate on otherworlds, being too grounded in my body, imagining making love to the beautiful blonde man I’d met. Frenziedly typing up an essay on the “Whitmanian strain” in American elegy, thinking I was really quite something, when in actuality it was the worst mark of my master’s–told off for misquoting Crane (“a livid hieroglyph” as “a lived hieroglyph,” when the whole essay was in fact about misquotation and re-interpretation, and couldn’t they appreciate the splendour of that? Because a “lived” hieroglyph suits, doesn’t it?)

A moment of panic yesterday when I was taken by the Thames’ current. But then acceptance: drowning would, after all, be my preferred method of death. Another grand tradition. Michael Llewelyn Davies & his tied hands. And of course Crane: “Goodbye, everybody!”

***

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men’s bones he saw bequeath
An embassy. Their numbers as he watched,
Beat on the dusty shore and were obscured.

And wrecks passed without sound of bells,
The calyx of death’s bounty giving back
A scattered chapter, livid hieroglyph,
The portent wound in corridors of shells.

Then in the circuit calm of one vast coil,
Its lashings charmed and malice reconciled,
Frosted eyes there were that lifted altars;
And silent answers crept across the stars.

Compass, quadrant and sextant contrive
No farther tides . . . High in the azure steeps
Monody shall not wake the mariner.
This fabulous shadow only the sea keeps.

-Hart Crane, “At Melville’s Tomb”

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this living hand

 

This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou wouldst wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calmed—see here it is

I hold it towards you.

John Keats

***

In Italy (or What I Did on my Cancer Vacation), I found I agreed heartily with Percy Shelley; the non-Catholic cemetery is indeed the “holiest place in Rome.” This, though the previous night, I’d had mass with the Pope.

I’d bought a nice little hardback volume of poems in the Keats house; I sat by his grave in a sweltering silent heat and read this poem. How chilling it is, the physical presence of death–and comforting too. The pervasiveness of poets who thrust their tubucular bodies into their verse, and the image of that outstretched hand–as in Whitman:

Mon enfant! I give you my hand!
I give you my love, more precious than money,
I give you myself, before preaching or law;
Will you give me yourself? Will you come travel with me?
Shall we stick by each other as long as we live?

and in Crane’s reply:

My hand / in yours, / Walt Whitman — / so–

***

I am enamored of cemeteries, and I guess a little of death. And of the irony of Keats’ poem: the “icy silence”  interruped by the near violence in the image of his outthrust hand. And of the omnipresence of Whitman beneath our boot-soles and Plath’s Lazarus unwrapped “hand and foot.” I’m considering the continual trope of the post-mortem voice–

as in Hardy:

Ah, are you digging on my grave,
My loved one? — planting rue?

and Dickinson:

Until the moss had reached our lips,
And covered up our names.

I developed a new respect for Keats’ lyric sufferings after understanding the science of his disease, the awful physical progression of tuberculosis. In the abstract, in an anthology, it is all nightengales and whining. But then the reality of blood and ugliness underscores so strongly this search for beauty. Ie, how can anything as ethereal as the pursuit of art persist against something as demanding and decisive (derisive?) as corporeal decay?

Still, despite the chill of Keats’ hand stuck up out of his grave like a flag or a flower, despite Tennyson’s elegaic temper and Milton’s pastoral mourning, I prefer death in American verse (& perhaps as a newly-inducted 19th-century Americanist, I am obligated to say this).

I cannot imagine two views of death as disparate yet individually visionary as Dickinson’s and Whitman’s; in each, there is a distinct kind of kinship. For Dickinson, a kinship with Death:

We slowly drove, he knew no haste,
And I had put away
My labor, and my leisure too,
For his civility.

–and for Whitman, a kinship with audience which transcends it:

What do you think has become of the young and old men?
And what do you think has become of the women and children?

They are alive and well somewhere,
The smallest sprout shows there is really no death,
And if ever there was it led forward life, and does not wait at the end to arrest it,
And ceas’d the moment life appear’d.

All goes onward and outward, nothing collapses,
And to die is different from what any one supposed, and luckier.

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