Miyerkules, Pebrero 29, 2012

Honey

Honey

My father died at the age of eighty. One of the last things he did in his life was to call his fifty-eight-year-old son-in-law "honey." One afternoon in the early 1930's, when I bloodied my head by pitching over a wall at the bottom of a hill and believed that the mere sight of my own blood was the tragic meaning of life, I heard my father offer to murder his future son-in-law. His son-in-law is my brother-in-law, whose name is Paul. These two grown men rose above me and knew that a human life is murder. They weren't fighting about Paul's love for my sister. They were fighting with each other because one strong man, a factory worker, was laid off from his work, and the other strong man, the driver of a coal truck, was laid off from his work. They were both determined to live their lives, and so they glared at each other and said they were going to live, come hell or high water. High water is not trite in southern Ohio. Nothing is trite along a river. My father died a good death. To die a good death means to live one's life. I don't say a good life.

I say a life.


by James Wright

On Having My Pocket Picked in Rome

    On Having My Pocket Picked in Rome

    These hands are desperate for me to stay alive. They do not want to lose me to the crowd. They know the slightest nudge on the wrong bone will cause me to look around and cry aloud. Therefore the hands grow cool and touch me lightly, lightly and accurately as a gypsy moth laying her larvae down in that foregone place where the tree is naked. It is only when the hands are gone, I will step out of this crowd and walk down the street, dimly aware of the dark infant strangers I carry in my own body. They spin their nests and live on me in their sleep.

by James Wright

The Dachau Shoe

The Dachau Shoe

My cousin Gene (he's really only a second cousin) has a shoe he picked up at Dachau. It's a pretty worn-out shoe. It wasn't top quality in the first place, he explained. The sole is cracked clear across and has pulled loose from the upper on both sides, and the upper is split at the ball of the foot. There's no lace and there's no heel.

He explained he didn't steal it because it must have belonged to a Jew who was dead. He explained that he wanted some little thing. He explained that the Russians looted everything. They just took anything. He explained that it wasn't top quality to begin with. He explained that the guards or the kapos would have taken it if it had been any good. He explained that he was lucky to have got anything. He explained that it wasn't wrong because the Germans were defeated. He explained that everybody was picking up something. A lot of guys wanted flags or daggers or medals or things like that, but that kind of thing didn't appeal to him so much. He kept it on the mantelpiece for a while but he explained that it wasn't a trophy.

He explained that it's no use being vindictive. He explained that he wasn't. Nobody's perfect. Actually we share a German grandfather. But he explained that this was the reason why we had to fight that war. What happened at Dachau was a crime that could not be allowed to pass. But he explained that we could not really do anything to stop it while the war was going on because we had to win the war first. He explained that we couldn't always do just what we would have liked to do. He explained that the Russians killed a lot of Jews too. After a
couple of years he put the shoe away in a drawer. He explained that the dust collected in it.
Now he has it down in the cellar in a box. He explains that the central heating makes it crack worse. He'll show it to you, though, any time you ask. He explains how it looks. He explains how it's hard to take it in, even for him. He explains how it was raining, and there weren't many things left when he got there. He explains how there wasn't anything of value and you didn't want to get caught taking anything of that kind, even if there had been. He explains how everything inside smelled. He explains how it was just lying out in the mud, probably right where it had come off. He explains that he ought to keep it. A thing like that.

You really ought to go and see it. He'll show it to you. All you have to do is ask. It's not that it's really a very interesting shoe when you come right down to it but you learn a lot from his explanations.

by W.S. Merwin

Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland

Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland

I was an hour ago. I walked upstairs to Dreamland. Took a cab and
got out and somebody else backed in. Now we weren't actually on
the Dreamland floor. That would be for later. Look, these are the
proper plans, plants. They used to have a Chautauqua here, far out
into the lake. Now it's peeled. No one actually comes here. Yet
there are people. You just hardly ever see them. No I wasn't being
modest. Some get out on the floor, several a year, whose purple
glass sheds an eldritch glow on the trottoirs, as Whitman called
them. Or spittoons. Look, we are almost a half a mile later, it must
link up. The Tennessee drifter smiled sharkly. Then it was on to
native board games.

Je bois trop.

In one of these, called "Skunk," you are a weasel chasing a leveret
back to its hole when Bop! the mother weasel, about ten stories
tall, traps you with her apron string, patterned with poppies and
rotted docks. You see, you thought every noun had to have an
adjective, even "sperm," and that's where you made your first big
mistake. Later it's raining and we have to take a car. But the game
isn't over--there are sixteen thousand marble steps coming up,
down which you glide as effortlessly as you please, as though on a
bicycle, weasel in tow. It's an exercise bike. What a time to tell me,
the solar wind has sandpapered everything as smooth as quartz.
Now it's back to the finish line with you.

You're not quite out of the woods yet. Dreamland has other
pastures, other melodies to chew on. Hummingbirds mate with
dragonflies beneath the broken dome of the air, and it's three
o'clock, the sun is raining mineral-colored candy. It'd like one of
these. It's yours. Now I'm glad we came. I hate drafts though and
the sun is slowly moving away. I'm standing on the poopdeck
wiggling colored pennants at the coal-colored iceberg that seeems
to be curious about us, is sliding this way and that, then turns
abruptly back into the moors with their correct hills in the
distance. If it was me I'd take a trip like this every day of my life.


by John Ashbery

Martes, Pebrero 28, 2012

Meditations in an Emergency

Meditations in an Emergency

Am I to become profligate as if I were a blonde? Or religious
as if I were French?

Each time my heart is broken it makes me feel more adventurous
(and how the same names keep recurring on that interminable
list!), but one of these days there'll be nothing left with
which to venture forth.

Why should I share you? Why don't you get rid of someone else
for a change?

I am the least difficult of men.  All I want is boundless love.

Even trees understand me! Good heavens, I lie under them, too,
don't I? I'm just like a pile of leaves.

However, I have never clogged myself with the praises of
pastoral life, nor with nostalgia for an innocent past of
perverted acts in pastures.  No.  One need never leave the
confines of New York to get all the greenery one wishes--I can't
even enjoy a blade of grass unless i know there's a subway
handy, or a record store or some other sign that people do not
totally _regret_ life.  It is more important to affirm the
least sincere; the clouds get enough attention as it is and
even they continue to pass.  Do they know what they're missing?
Uh huh.

My eyes are vague blue, like the sky, and change all the time;
they are indiscriminate but fleeting, entirely specific and
disloyal, so that no one trusts me.  I am always looking away.
Or again at something after it has given me up.  It makes me
restless and that makes me unhappy, but I cannot keep them
still.  If only i had grey, green, black, brown, yellow eyes; I
would stay at home and do something.  It's not that I'm
curious.  On the contrary, I am bored but it's my duty to be
attentive, I am needed by things as the sky must be above the
earth.  And lately, so great has their anxiety become, I can
spare myself little sleep.

Now there is only one man I like to kiss when he is unshaven.
Heterosexuality! you are inexorably approaching.  (How best
discourage her?)

St. Serapion, I wrap myself in the robes of your whiteness
which is like midnight in Dostoevsky.  How I am to become a
legend, my dear?  I've tried love, but that holds you in the
bosom of another and I'm always springing forth from it like
the lotus--the ecstasy of always bursting forth!  (but one must
not be distracted by it!) or like a hyacinth, "to keep the
filth of life away," yes, even in the heart, where the filth is
pumped in and slanders and pollutes and determines.  I will my
will, though I may become famous for a mysterious vacancy in
that department, that greenhouse.

Destroy yourself, if you don't know!

It is easy to be beautiful; it is difficult to appear so.  I
admire you, beloved, for the trap you've set.  It's like a
final chapter no one reads because the plot is over.

"Fanny Brown is run away--scampered off with a Cornet of Horse;
I do love that little Minx, & hope She may be happy, tho' She
has vexed me by this exploit a little too.--Poor silly
Cecchina! or F:B: as we used to call her.--I wish She had a
good Whipping and 10,000 pounds."--Mrs. Thrale

I've got to get out of here.  I choose a piece of shawl and my
dirtiest suntans.  I'll be back, I'll re-emerge, defeated, from
the valley; you don't want me to go where you go, so I go where
you don't want me to.  It's only afternoon, there's a lot
ahead.  There won't be any mail downstairs.  Turning, I spit in
the lock and the knob turns.


by Frank O'Hara

A Supermarket in California

A Supermarket in California

    What thoughts I have of you tonight, Walt Whitman, for I walked down the
streets under the trees with a headache self-conscious looking at the full moon.
    In my hungry fatigue, and shopping for images, I went into the neon fruit
supermarket, dreaming of your enumerations!
    What peaches and what penumbras! Whole families shopping at night! Aisles
full of husbands! Wives in the avocados, babies in the tomatoes! --- and you,
Garcia Lorca, what were you doing down by the watermelons?

    I saw you, Walt Whitman, childless, lonely old grubber, poking among the
meats in the refrigerator and eyeing the grocery boys.
    I heard you asking questions of each: Who killed the pork chops? What price
bananas? Are you my Angel?
    I wandered in and out of the brilliant stacks of cans following you, and
followed in my imagination by the store detective.
    We strode down the open corridors together in our solitary fancy tasting
artichokes, possessing every frozen delicacy, and never passing the cashier.

    Where are we going, Walt Whitman? The doors close in an hour. Which way does
your beard point tonight?
    (I touch your book and dream of our odyssey in the supermarket and feel
absurd.)
    Will we walk all night through solitary streets? The trees add shade to
shade, lights out in the houses, we'll both be lonely.

    Will we stroll dreaming of the lost America of love past blue automobiles in
driveways, home to our silent cottage?
    Ah, dear father, graybeard, lonely old courage-teacher, what America did you
have when Charon quit poling his ferry and you got out on a smoking bank and
stood watching the boat disappear on the black waters of Lethe?

by Allen Ginsberg

The Dead Seal

  The Dead Seal

              1
          Walking north along the point, I find a dead seal. From a few feet away, he looks like a brown log. The body is on its back, dead only a few hours. I stand and look at him. There’s a quiver in the dead flesh: My God, he’s still alive. And a shock goes through me, as if a wall of my room had fallen away.
           
          His head is arched back, the small eyes closed; the whiskers sometimes rise and fall. He is dying. This is oil. Here on its back is the oil that heats our houses so efficiently. Wind blows fine sand back toward the ocean. The flipper near me lies folded over the stomach, looking like an unfinished arm, lightly glazed with sand at its edges. The other flipper lies half underneath. And the seal’s skin looks like an old over coat, scratched here and there — by sharp mussel shells maybe.
     
          I reach out and touch him. Suddenly, he rears up, turns over. He gives three cries: Awaark! Awaark! Awaark! — like the cries from Christmas toys. He lunges toward me, I am terrified and leap back, though I know there can be no teeth in that jaw. He starts flopping toward the sea. But he falls over, on his face. He does not want to go back to the sea. He looks up at the sky, and he looks like and old lady who has lost her hair. He puts his chin back down on the sand, rearranges his flippers, and waits for me to go. I go.

       

               2
          The next day I go back to say goodbye. He’s dead now. But he’s not.  He’s a quarter mile farther up the shore. Today he is thinner, squatting on his stomach, head out. The ribs show more: each vertebra on the back under the coat is visible, shiny. He breathes in and out.
       
          A wave comes in, touches his nose. He turns and looks at me — the eyes slanted; the crown of his head looks like a boy’s leather jacket bending over some bicycycle bars. He is taking a long time to die. The whiskers white as porcupine quills, the forehead slopes.
   
          Goodbye, brother, die in the sound of the waves. Forgive us if we have killed you. Long live your  race, your inner-tube race, so uncomfortable on the land, so comfortable in the ocean. Be comfortable in death, then, when the sand will be out of your nostrils, and you can swim in long loops through the pure death, ducking under as assassinations break above you. You don’t want to be touched by me. I climb the cliff and go home the other way.


by Robert Bly  

Warning to the Reader

Warning to the Reader

     Sometimes farm granaries become especially beautiful when all the oats or wheat are gone, and wind has swept the rough floor clean. Standing inside, we see around us, coming in through the cracks between shrunken wall boards, bands or strips of sunlight. So in a poem about imprisonment, one sees a little light.

     But how many birds have died trapped in these granaries. The bird, seeing freedom in the light, flutters up the walls and falls back again and again. The way out is where the rats enter and leave; but the rat's hole is low to the floor. Writers, be careful then by showing the sunlight on the walls not to promise the anxious and panicky blackbirds a way out!

     I say to the reader, beware. Readers who love poems of light may sit hunched in the corner with nothing in their gizzards for four days, light failing, the eyes glazed . . .

     They may end as a mound of feathers and a skull on the open boardwood floor . . .


by Robert Bly

The Hockey Poem

The Hockey Poem


Duluth, Minnesota

For Bill Duffy

1. The Goalie
The Boston College team has gold helmets, under which the long black hair of the Roman centurion curls out.... And they begin. How weird the goalies look with their African masks! The goalie is so lonely anyway, guarding a basket with nothing in it, his wide lower legs wide as ducks'.... No matter what gift he is given, he always rejects it.... He has a number like 1, a name like Mrazek, sometimes wobbling on his legs waiting for the puck, or curling up like a baby in the womb to hold it, staying a second too long on the ice.

The goalie has gone out to mid-ice, and now he sails sadly back to his own box, slowly; he looks prehistoric with his rhinoceros legs; he looks as if he's going to become extinct, and he's just taking his time....

When the players are at the other end, he begins sadly sweeping the ice in front of his house; he is the old witch in the woods, waiting for the children to come home.

2. The Attack
They all come hurrying back toward us, suddenly, knees dipping like oil wells; they rush toward us wildly, fins waving, they are pike swimming toward us, their gill fins expanding like the breasts of opera singers; no, they are twelve hands practicing penmanship on the same piece of paper.... They flee down the court toward us like birds, swirling two and two, hawks hurrying for the mouse, hurrying down wind valleys, swirling back and forth like amoebae on the pale slide, as they sail in the absolute freedom of water and the body, untroubled by the troubled mind, only the body, with wings as if there were no grave, no gravity, only the birds sailing over the cottage far in the deep woods....

Now the goalie is desperate ... he looks wildly over his left shoulder, rushing toward the other side of his cave, like a mother hawk whose chicks are being taken by two snakes.... Suddenly he flops on the ice like a man trying to cover a whole double bed. He has the puck. He stands up, turns to his right, and drops it on the ice at the right moment; he saves it for one of his children, a mother hen picking up a seed and then dropping it....

But the men are all too clumsy, they can't keep track of the puck ... no, it is the puck, the puck is too fast, too fast for human beings, it humiliates them constantly. The players are like country boys at the fair watching the con man— The puck always turns up under the wrong walnut shell....

They come down the ice again, one man guiding the puck this time . . . and Ledingham comes down beautifully, like the canoe through white water or the lover going upstream, every stroke right, like the stallion galloping up the valley surrounded by his mares and colts, how beautiful, like the body and soul crossing in a poem....

3. The Fight
The player in position pauses, aims, pauses, crack his stick on the ice, and a cry as the puck goes in! The goalie stands up disgusted, and throws the puck out....

The player with a broken stick hovers near the cage. When the play shifts, he skates over to his locked-in teammates, who look like a nest of bristling owls, owl babies, and they hold out a stick to him....

Then the players crash together, their hockey sticks raised like lobster claws. They fight with slow motions, as if undersea . . . they are fighting over some woman back in the motel, but like lobsters they forget what they're battling for; the clack of the armor plate distracts them, and they feel a pure rage.

Or a fighter sails over to the penalty box, where ten-year-old boys wait to sit with the criminal, who is their hero.... They know society is wrong, the wardens are wrong, the judges hate individuality....

4. The Goalie
And this man with his peaked mask, with slits, how fantastic he is, like a white insect who has given up on evolution in this life; his family hopes to evolve after death, in the grave. He is ominous as a Dark Ages knight ... the Black Prince. His enemies defeated him in the day, but every one of them died in their beds that night.... At his father's funeral, he carried his own head under his arm.

He is the old woman in the shoe, whose house is never clean, no matter what she does. Perhaps this goalie is not a man at all, but a woman, all women; in her cage everything disappears in the end; we all long for it. All these movements on the ice will end, the seats will come down, the stadium walls bare.... This goalie with his mask is a woman weeping over the children of men, that are cut down like grass, gulls that stand with cold feet on the ice.... And at the end, she is still waiting, brushing away the leaves, waiting for the new children developed by speed, by war....

by Robert Bly

The Allegory of Spring

The Allegory of Spring

The blossoming cherry trees were quarreling. She thought this when she was fifty yards away and when she was closer, right in amongst them, she imagined she heard them. One tree said to another: I am prettier than you. And the other said: it is impossible for you to see yourself. But I see you. And I tell you you're wrong. The first tree disputed the illogic of this remark. And so on. She went on walking, and when she came out of the cherry grove, she had been through a lot. She hated quarreling. Dietrich was standing by his boat. Come, can you go out with me? he said. I don't want to quarrel, she said. He didn't understand. Well, will you or not? he said. Yes, she said. Then she said, No.


by Kenneth Koch

The Bluet

The Bluet

And is it stamina
that unseasonably freaks
forth a bluet, a
Quaker lady, by
the lake? So small,
a drop of sky that
splashed and held,
four-petaled, creamy
in its throat. The woods
around were brown,
the air crisp as a
Carr's table water
biscuit and smelt of
cider. There were frost
apples on the trees in
the field below the house.
The pond was still, then
broke into a ripple.
The hills, the leaves that
have not yet fallen
are deep and oriental
rug colors. Brown leaves
in the woods set off
gray trunks of trees.
But that bluet was
the focus of it all: last
spring, next spring, what
does it matter? Unexpected
as a tear when someone
reads a poem you wrote
for him: "It's this line
here." That bluet breaks
me up, tiny spring flower
late, late in dour October.


("Footnote")
by James Schuyler

Wonderful World

Wonderful World
for Anne Waldman
July 23, 1969

“I,” I mused, “yes, I,” and turned to the fenestrations of the night beyond one of Ada and Alex Katz’s windows. Deep in Prince Street lurked thin sullen fumes of Paris green; some great spotty Danes moved from room to room, their tails went whack whack in a kindly way and their mouths were full of ruses (roses). Flames in red glass pots, unlikely flowers, a spot of light that jumped (“Don’t fret”) back and forth over a strip of moulding, the kind of moulding that spells low class dwelling—I, I mused, take no interest in the distinction between amateur and pro, and despise the latter a little less each year. The spot of light, reflected off a cup of strong blue coffee, wasn’t getting anywhere but it wasn’t standing still. They say a lot of gangsters’ mothers live around here, so the streets are safe. A vast and distant school building made chewing noises in its sleep. Our Lady of someplace stood up in a wood niche with lots and lots of dollar bills pinned around her. The night was hot, everybody went out in the street and sold each other hot sausages and puffy sugared farinaceous products fried in deep fat (“Don’t put your fingers in that, dear”) while the band played and the lady in the silver fox scarf with the beautiful big crack in her voice sang about the young man and how he ran out in front of the stock exchange and drank a bottle of household ammonia: “Ungrateful Heart.” Big rolls of paper were delivered, tall spools of thread spun and spelled Jacquard, Jacquard. Collecting the night in her hand, rolling its filaments in a soft ball, Anne said, “I grew up around here,” where, looking uptown on summer evenings, the Empire State Building rears its pearly height.


by James Schuyler

Color



by Barbara Guest

I sink back upon the ground

I sink back upon the ground, expecting to die. A voice speaks out of my ear, You are not
going to die, you are being changed into a zebra. You will have black and white stripes
up and down your back and you will love people as you do not now. That is why you
will be changed into a zebra that people will tame and exhibit in a zoo. You will be a
favorite among children and you will love the children in return whom you do not love
now. Zoo keepers will make a pet of you because of your round, sad eyes and musical
bray, and you will love your keeper as you do not now. All is well, then, I tell myself
silently, listening to the voice in my ear speak to me of my future. And what will happen
to you, voice in my ear, I ask silently, and the answer comes at once: I will be your
gentle, musical bray that will help you as a zebra all your days. I will mediate between
the world and you, and I will learn to love you as a zebra whom I did not love as a
human being.

by David Ignatow

Sabado, Pebrero 25, 2012

Delighted with Bluepink

Delighted with Bluepink

Flowers! My friend, be delighted with what you like; but with something.

Be delighted with something. Yesterday for me it was watching sun on stones; wet stones.

I spent the morning lost in the wonder of that. A delight of god's size.

The gods never saw anything more enchanting than that. Gorgeous! the sun on wet stones.

But today what delights me is thinking of the bluepink flowers! Not that I've seen any....

Actually there isn't a flower of any kind in the house—except in my head.

But, my friend, o my friend! what wonderful bluepink flowers! Delight in my bluepink flowers!


by Kenneth Patchen

In Order To

In Order To

Apply for the position (I've forgotten now for what) I had  
to marry the Second Mayor's daughter by twelve noon. The  
order arrived three minutes of.

I already had a wife; the Second Mayor was childless: but I  
did it.

Next they told me to shave off my father's beard. All right.  
No matter that he'd been a eunuch, and had succumbed in  
early childhood: I did it, I shaved him.

Then they told me to burn a village; next, a fair-sized town;  
then, a city; a bigger city; a small, down-at-heels country;  
then one of "the great powers"; then another (another, an-
other)—In fact, they went right on until they'd told me to  
burn up every man-made thing on the face of the earth! And  
I did it, I burned away every last trace, I left nothing, nothing  
of any kind whatever.

Then they told me to blow it all to hell and gone! And I blew  
it all to hell and gone (oh, didn't I). . .

Now, they said, put it back together again; put it all back the  
way it was when you started.

Well. . . it was my turn then to tell them something! Shucks,  
I didn't want any job that bad.


by Kenneth Patchen

Be Like Others

Be Like Others

Wherever you lived- in the city of Pergamum at the time of the Emperor Hadrian, in Marseilles under Louis XV, or in the New Amsterdam of the colonists- be aware that you should consider yourself lucky if your life followed the pattern of life of your neighbors. If you moved, thought, felt, just as they did; and, just as they, you did what was prescribed for a given moment. If, year after year, duties and rituals became part of you, and you took a wife, brought up children, and could meet peacefully the darkening days of old age.

Think of those who were refused a blessed resemblance to their fellow men. Of those who tried hard to act correctly, so that they would be spoken no worse of than their kin, but who did not succeed in anything, for whom everything would go wrong because of some invisible flaw. And who at last for that undeserved affliction would receive the punishment of loneliness, and who did not even try then to hide their fate.

On a bench in a public park, with a paper bag from which the neck of a bottle protrudes, under the bridges of big cities, on sidewalks where the homeless keep their bundles, in a slum street with neon, waiting in front of a bar for the hour of opening, they, a nation of the excluded, whose day begins and ends with the awareness of failure. Think, how great is your luck. You did not even have to notice such as they, even though there were many nearby. Praise mediocrity and rejoice that you did not have to associate yourself with rebels. For, after all, the rebels also were bearers of disagreement with the laws of life, and of exaggerated hope, just like those who were marked in advance to fail.


by Czeslaw Milosz

Esse

Esse

I looked at that face, dumbfounded. The lights of m├ętro stations flew by; I didn't notice them. What can be done, if our sight lacks absolute power to devour objects ecstatically, in an instant, leaving nothing more than the void of an ideal form, a sign like a hieroglyph simplified from the drawing of an animal or bird? A slightly snub nose, a high brow with sleekly brushed-back hair, the line of the chin - but why isn't the power of sight absolute? - and in a whiteness tinged with pink two sculpted holes, containing a dark, lustrous lava. To absorb that face but to have it simultaneously against the background of all spring boughs, walls, waves, in its weeping, its laughter, moving it back fifteen years, or ahead thirty. To have. It is not even a desire. Like a butterfly, a fish, the stem of a plant, only more mysterious. And so it befell me that after so many attempts at naming the world, I am able only to repeat, harping on one string, the highest, the unique avowal beyond which no power can attain: I am, she is. Shout, blow the trumpets, make thousands-strong marches, leap, rend your clothing, repeating only: is!

She got out at Raspail. I was left behind with the immensity of existing things. A sponge, suffering because it cannot saturate itself; a river, suffering because reflections of clouds and trees are not clouds and trees.


by Czeslaw Milosz

12 O'Clock News

12 O'Clock News

gooseneck lamp
As you all know, tonight is the night of the full
moon, half the world over. But here the moon
seems to hang motionless in the sky. It gives very
little light; it could be dead. Visibility is poor.
Nevertheless, we shall try to give you some idea of
the lay of the land and the present situation.
typewriter
The escapement that rises abruptly from the central
plain is in heavy shadow, but the elaborate terrac-
ing of its southern glacis gleams faintly in the dim
light, like fish scales. What endless labor those
small, peculiarly shaped terraces represent! And
yet, on them the welfare of this tiny principality
depends.
pile of mss.
A slight landslide occurred in the northwest about
an hour ago. The exposed soil appears to be of poor
quality: almost white, calcareous, and shaly. There
are believed to have been no casualties.
typed sheet
Almost due north, our aerial reconnaissance reports
the discovery of a large rectangular ‘field’, hitherto
unknown to us, obviously man-made. It is dark-
speckled. An airstrip? A cemetery?
envelopes
In this small, backward country, one of the most
backward left in the world today, communications
are crude and “industrialization” and its products
almost nonexistent. Strange to say, however, sign-
boards are on a truly gigantic scale.
ink-bottle
We have also received reports of a mysterious, oddly
shaped, black structure, at an undisclosed distance
to the east. Its presence was revealed only because
its highly polished surface catches such feeble
moonlight as prevails. The natural resources of the
country being far from completely known to us,
there is the possibility that this may be, or may
contain, some powerful and terrifying “secret
weapon”. On the other hand, given what we do
know, or have learned from our anthropologists
and sociologists about this people, it may well be
nothing more than a numen, or a great altar
recently erected to one of their gods, to which, in
their present historical state of superstition and
helplessness, they attribute magical power, and
may even regard as a “savior,” one last hope of
rescue from their grave difficulties.
typewriter
eraser
At last! One of the elusive natives has been spotted!
He appears to be—rather, to have been—a
unicyclist-courier, who may have met his end by
falling from the height of the escarpment because
of the deceptive illumination. Alive, he would have
been small, but undoubtedly proud and erect, with
the thick, bristling black hair typical of the
indigenes.
ashtray
From our superior vantage point, we can clearly see
into a sort of dugout, possibly a shell crater, a “nest”
of soldiers. They lie heaped together, wearing the
camouflage “battle dress” intended for “winter war-
fare”. They are in hideously contorted position, all
dead. We can make out at least eight bodies. These
uniforms were designed to be used in guerilla
warfare on the country's one snow-covered moun-
tain peak. The fact that these poor soldiers are
wearing them here, on the plain, gives further
proof, if proof were necessary, either of the childish-
ness and hopeless impracticality of this inscrutable
people, our opponents, or of the sad corruption of their
leaders.

by Elizabeth Bishop

Montparnasse

Montparnasse

There are never any suicides in the quarter among people one knows
No successful suicides.
A Chinese boy kills himself and is dead.
(they continue to place his mail in the letter rack at the Dome)
A Norwegian boy kills himself and is dead.
(no one knows where the other Norwegian boy has gone)
They find a model dead
alone in bed and very dead.
(it made almost unbearable trouble for the concierge)
Sweet oil, the white of eggs, mustard and water, soap suds
and stomach pumps rescue the people one knows.
Every afternoon the people one knows can be found at the cafe.


by Ernest Hemingway

Havana Rose

Sentences

Sentences

In the Italian quarter of London I found a group of clerks, waiters and idealistic barbers calling itself The Rosicrucian Mysteries, Soho Chapter, that met to read papers on the fabrication of gold and its metaphysical implications, to elect from its number certain Arch-adepts and magistri hieraticorum, to correspond with the last of the magi, Orzinda-Mazda, on Mr Sinai, and to retell, wide-eyed, their stories of how some workmen near Rome, breaking by chance into the tomb of Cicero’s daughter, Tulliola, discovered an everburning lamp suspended in mid-air, its wick feeding on Perpetual Principle; of how Cleopatra’s son Caesarion was preserved in a translucent liquid, “oil of gold,” and could be still seen in an underground shrine at Vienna; and of how Virgil never died, but was alive still on the island of Patmos, eating the leaves of a peculiar tree.

Thornton Wilder

I was sitting in mcsorley's. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing

I was sitting in mcsorley's. outside it was New York and beautifully snowing.

Inside snug and evil. the slobbering walls filthily push witless creases of screaming warmth chuck pillows are noise funnily swallows swallowing revolvingly pompous a the swallowed mottle with smooth or a but of rapidly goes gobs the and of flecks of and a chatter sobbings intersect with which distinct disks of graceful oath, upsoarings the break on ceiling-flatness

the Bar.tinking luscious jigs dint of ripe silver with warmlyish wetflat splurging smells waltz the glush of squirting taps plus slush of foam knocked off and a faint piddleof- drops she says I ploc spittle what the lands thaz me kid in no sir hopping sawdust you kiddo he's a palping wreaths of badly Yep cigars who jim him why gluey grins topple together eyes pout gestures stickily point made glints squinting who's a wink bum-nothing and money fuzzily mouths take big wobbly footsteps

every goggle cent of it get out ears dribbles soft right old feller belch the chap hic summore eh chuckles skulch. . . .

and I was sitting in the din thinking drinking the ale, which never lets you grow old blinking at the low ceiling my being pleasantly was punctuated by the always retchings of a worthless lamp.

when With a minute terrif iceffort one dirty squeal of soiling light yanKing from bushy obscurity a bald greenish foetal head established It suddenly upon the huge neck around whose unwashed sonorous muscle the filth of a collar hung gently.

(spattered)by this instant of semiluminous nausea A vast wordless nondescript genie of trunk trickled firmly in to one exactly-mutilated ghost of a chair,

a;domeshaped interval of complete plasticity,shoulders, sprouted the extraordinary arms through an angle of ridiculous velocity commenting upon an unclean table.and, whose distended immense Both paws slowly loved a dinted mug

gone Darkness it was so near to me,i ask of shadow won't you have a drink?

(the eternal perpetual question)

Inside snugandevil. i was sitting in mcsorley's

It,did not answer.

outside.(it was New York and beautifully, snowing. . . .



by e.e. cummings

Hysteria

Hysteria

As she laughed I was aware of becoming involved in her laughter and being part of it, until her teeth were only accidental stars with a talent for squad-drill. I was drawn in by short gasps, inhaled at each momentary recovery, lost finally in the dark caverns of her throat, bruised by the ripple of unseen muscles. An elderly waiter with trembling hands was hurriedly spreading a pink and white checked cloth over the rusty green iron table, saying: “If the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden, if the lady and gentleman wish to take their tea in the garden…” I decided that if the shaking of her breasts could be stopped, some of the fragments of the afternoon might be collected, and I concentrated my attention with careful subtlety to this end.


by T.S. Eliot

KORA IN HELL: IMPROVISATIONS

KORA IN HELL: IMPROVISATIONS




PROLOGUE



THE RETURN OF THE SUN

Her voice was like rose-fragrance

waltzing in the wind.
She seemed a shadow, stained with

shadow colors,
Swimming through waves of sunlight . . .

The sole precedent I can find for the broken style of my
prologue is Longinus on the Sublime and that one far-fetched.

When my mother was in Rome on that rare journey forever
to be remembered, she lived in a small pension near the Pincio
gardens. The place had been chosen by my brother as one
notably easy of access, being in a quarter free from confusion
of traffic, on a street close to the park and furthermore the tram
to the American Academy passed at the corner. Yet never did
my mother go out but she was in fear of being lost. By turning
to the left when she should have turned right, actually she did
once manage to go so far astray that it was nearly an hour before
she extricated herself from the strangeness of every new vista
and found a landmark.

There has always been a disreputable man of picturesque
personality associated with this lady. Their relations have been
marked by the most rollicking spirit of comradeship. Now it has
been William, former sailor in Admiral Dewey s fleet at Manila,
then Tom O Rourck who has come to her to do odd jobs and to
be cared for more or less when drunk or ill, their Penelope.
William would fall from the grapearbor much to my mother s
amusement and delight and to his blustering discomfiture or he
would stagger to the back door nearly unconscious from bad
whiskey. There she would serve him with very hot and very
strong coffee, then put him to scrubbing the kitchen floor into
his suddy-pail pouring half a bottle of ammonia which would

[9]



io PROLOGUE



make the man gasp and water at the eyes as he worked and
became sober.

She has always been incapable of learning from benefit or
disaster. If a man cheat her she will remember that man with a
violence that I have seldom seen equaled but so far as that could
have an influence on her judgment of the next man or woman,
she might be living in Eden. And indeed she is, an impoverished,
ravished Eden but one indestructible as the imagination itself.
Whatever is before her is sufficient to itself and so to be valued.
Her meat though more delicate in fiber is of a kind with that of
Villon and La Grosse Margot:

Vente, gresle, gelle, j ai mon pain cuit!

Carl Sandburg sings a negro cotton picker s song of the bol
weevil. Verse after verse tells what they would do to the insect.
They propose to place it in the sand, in hot ashes, in the river, and
other unlikely places but the bol weevil s refrain is always:
"That ll be ma HOME ! That ll be ma HOOME !"

My mother is given over to frequent periods of great depres
sion being as I believe by nature the most light-hearted thing in
the world. But there comes a grotesque turn to her talk, a
macabre anecdote concerning some dream, a passionate statement
about death, which elevates her mood without marring it, some
times in a most startling way.

Looking out at our parlor window one day I said to her:
"We see all the shows from here, don t we, all the weddings and
funerals?" (They had been preparing a funeral across the street,
the undertaker was just putting on his overcoat.) She replied:
"Funny profession that, burying the dead people. I should think
they wouldn t have any delusions of life left." W. Oh yes, it s
merely a profession. M. Hm. And how they study it! They
say sometimes people look terrible and they come and make them
look fine. They push things into their mouths ! (Realistic ges
ture) W. Mama! M. Yes, when they haven t any teeth.

By some such dark turn at the end she raises her story out
of the commonplace: "Look at that chair, look at it! (The
plasterers had just left) If Mrs. J. or Mrs. D. saw that they
would have a fit." W. Call them in, maybe it will kill them.
M. But they re not near as bad as that woman, you know, her
husband was in the chorus, has a little daughter Helen. Mrs.



PROLOGUE ii



B. yes. She once wanted to take rooms here. I didn t want her.
They told me : Mrs. Williams, I heard you re going to have Mrs.
B. She is particular. She said so herself. Oh no ! Once she
burnt all her face painting under the sink.

Thus seeing the thing itself without forethought or after
thought but with great intensity of perception my mother loses
her bearings or associates with some disreputable person or trans
lates a dark mood. She is a creature of great imagination. I
might say this is her sole remaining quality. She is a despoiled,
moulted castaway but by this power she still breaks life between
her fingers.

Once when I was taking lunch with Walter Arensberg at a
small place on 63rd St. I asked him if he could state what the
more modern painters were about, those roughly classed at that
time as "cubists" : Gleisze, Man Ray, Demuth, Du Champs all of
whom were then in the city. He replied by saying that the only
way man differed from every other creature was in his ability to
improvise novelty and, since the pictorial artist was under dis
cussion, anything in paint that is truly new, truly a fresh creation
is good art. Thus according to Du Champs, who was Arensberg s
champion at the time, a stained glass window that had fallen out
and lay more or less together on the ground was of far greater
interest than the thing conventionally composed in situ.

We returned to Arensberg s sumptuous studio where he gave
further point to his remarks by showing me what appeared to be
the original of Du Champs famous, Nude Descending a Staircase.
But this, he went on to say, is a full-sized photographic print of
the first picture with many new touches by Du Champs himself
and so by the technique of its manufacture as by other means it
is a novelty!

Led on by these enthusiasms Arensberg has been an inde
fatigable worker for the yearly salon of the Society of Independ
ent Artists, Inc. I remember the warmth of his description of a
pilgrimage to the home of that old Boston hermit who watched
over by a forbidding landlady (evidently in his pay) paints the
cigar-box-cover-like nudes upon whose fingers he presses actual
rings with glass jewels from the five and ten cent store.

I wish Arensberg had my opportunity for prying into jaded
households where the paintings of Mama s and Papa s flowertime
still hang on the walls. I propose that Arensberg be commis-



12 PROLOGUE



sioned by the Independent Artists to scour the country for the
abortive paintings of those men and women who without master
or method have evolved perhaps two or three unusual creations
in their early years. I would start the collection with a painting
I have by a little English woman, A. E. Kerr, 1906, that in its
unearthly gaiety of flowers and sobriety of design possesses ex
actly that strange freshness a spring day approaches without
attaining, an expansion of April, a thing this poor woman found
too costly for her possession she could not swallow it as the
niggers do diamonds in the mines. Carefully selected these queer
products might be housed to good effect in some unpretentious
exhibition chamber across the city from the Metropolitan Museum
of Art. In the anteroom could be hung perhaps photographs of
prehistoric rock-paintings and etchings on horn : galloping bisons
and stags, the hind feet of which have been caught by the artist
in such a position that from that time until the invention of the
camera obscura, a matter of 6000 years or more, no one on earth
had again depicted that most delicate and expressive posture of
running.

The amusing controversy between Arensberg and Du Champs
on one side, and the rest of the hanging committee on the other as
to whether the porcelain urinal was to be admitted to the Palace
Exhibition of 1917 as a representative piece of American Sculp
ture should not be allowed to slide into oblivion.

One day Du Champs decided that his composition for that
day would be the first thing that struck his eye in the first
hardware store he should enter. It turned out to be a pickaxe
which he bought and set up in his studio. This was his composi
tion. Together with Mina Loy and a few others Du Champs and
Arensberg brought out the paper, The Blind Man, to which Rob
ert Carlton Brown with his vision of suicide by diving from a high
window of the Singer Building contributed a few poems.

In contradistinction to their south, Marianne Moore s state
ment to me at the Chatham parsonage one afternoon my wife
and I were just on the point of leaving sets up a north: My
work has come to have just one quality of value in it : I will not
touch or have to do with those things which I detest. In this
austerity of mood she finds sufficient" freedom for the play she
chooses.

Of all those writing poetry in America at the time she was
here Marianne Moore was the only one Mina Loy feared. By



PROLOGUE 13



divergent virtues these two women have achieved freshness of
presentation, novelty, freedom, break with banality.

When Margaret Anderson published my first improvisations
Ezra Pound wrote me one of his hurried letters in which he urged
me to give some hint by which the reader of good will might come
at my intention.

Before Ezra s permanent residence in London, on one of his
trips to America brought on I think by an attack of jaundice
he was glancing through some book of my father s. "It is not
necessary," he said, "to read everything in a book in order to speak
intelligently of it. Don t tell everybody I said so," he added.

During this same visit my father and he had been reading
arid discussing poetry together. Pound has always liked my fath
er. "I of course like your Old Man and I have drunk his Gold-
wasser." They were hot for an argument that day. My parent
had been holding forth in downright sentences upon my own
"idle nonsense" when he turned and became equally vehement
concerning something Ezra had written: what in heaven s name
Ezra meant by "jewels" in a verse that had come between them.
These jewels, rubies, sapphires, amethysts and what not, Pound
went on to explain with great determination and care, were the
backs of books as they stood on a man s shelf. "But why in
heaven s name don t you say so then?" was my father s triumph
ant and crushing rejoinder.

The letter: . . . God knows I have to work hard
enough to escape, not propagande, but getting centered
in propagande. And America? What the h 1 do you
a blooming foreigner know about the place. Your pere
only penetrated the edge, and you ve never been west
of Upper Darby, or the Maunchunk switchback.

Would H., with the swirl of the prairie wind in her
underwear, or the Virile Sandburg recognize you, an
effete easterner as a REAL American? INCON
CEIVABLE ! ! ! ! !

My dear boy you have never felt the woop of the
PEEraries. You have never seen the projecting and
protuberant Mts. of the Sierra Nevada. WOT can
you know of the country?

You have the naive credulity of a Co. Claire emi-



I 4 PROLOGUE



grant. But I (der grosse Ich) have the virus, the
bacillus of the land in my blood, for nearly three bleat
ing centuries.

(Bloody snob, eave a brick at im!!!) . . .

I was very glad to see your wholly incoherent
unamerican poems in the L. R.

Of course Sandburg will tell you that you miss the
"big drifts," and Bodenheim will object to your not
being sufficiently decadent.

You thank your bloomin gawd you ve got enough
Spanish blood to muddy up your mind, and prevent the
current American ideation from going through it like a
blighted collander.

The thing that saves your work is opacity, and don t
forget it. Opacity is NOT an American quality.
Fizz, swish, gabble, and verbiage, these are echt Amer-
icanisch.

And alas, alas, poor old Masters. Look at Oct.
Poetry.

Let me indulge the American habit of quotation:

"Si le cosmopolitisme litteraire gagnait encore et
qu il reussit a etaindre ce que les difference de race ont
allume de haine de sang parmi les hommes, j y verrais
un gain pour la civilization et pour 1 humanite tout
entiere" ....

"L amour excessif d une patrie a pour immediat
corollair 1 horreur des patries etrangeres. Non seul-
ment on craint de quitter la jupe de sa maman, d aller
voir comment vivent les autres hommes, de se meler a
leur luttes, de partager leur travaux, non seulment on
reste chez soi, mais on finit par fermer sa porte."

"Cette folie gagne certains litterateurs et le meme
professeur, en sortant d expliquer le Cid ou Don Juan,
redige de gracieuses injures centre Ibsen et I mfluence,
helas, trop illusoire, de son oevre, pourtant toute de
lumiere et de beaute." et cetera. Lie down and com
pose yourself.

I like to think of the Greeks as setting out for the colonies in
Sicily and the Italian Peninsula. The Greek temperament lent



PROLOGUE 15



itself to a certain symmetrical sculptural phase and to a fat
poetical balance of line that produced important work but I like
better the Greeks setting their backs to Athens. The ferment
was always richer in Rome, the dispersive explosion was always
nearer, the influence carried further and remained hot longer.
Hellenism, especially the modern sort, is too staid, too chilly, too
little fecundative to impregnate my world.

Hilda Doolittle before she began to write poetry or at least
before she began to show it to anyone would say: "You re not
satisfied with me, are you Billy? There s something lacking,
isn t there ?" When I was with her my feet always seemed to be
sticking to the ground while she would be walking on the tips of
the grass stems.

Ten years later as assistant editor of the Egoist she refers to
my long poem, March, which thanks to her own and her husband s
friendly attentions finally appeared there in a purified form :

14 Aug. 1916
Dear Bill :

I trust you will not hate me for wanting to delete
from your poem all the flippancies. The reason I want
to do this is that the beautiful lines are so very beautiful
so in the tone and spirit of your Postlude (which to
me stands, a Nike, supreme among your poems). I
think there is real beauty and real beauty is a rare and
sacred thing in this generation in all the pyramid,
Ashur-ban-i-pal bits and in the Fiesole and in the wind
at the very last.

I don t know what you think but I consider this
business of writing a very sacred thing! I think you
have the "spark" am sure of it, and when you speak
direct are a poet. I feel in the hey-ding-ding touch
running through your poem a derivitive tendency which,
to me, is not you not your very self. It is as if you
were ashamed of your Spirit, ashamed of your inspir
ation! as if you mocked at your own song. It s very
well to mock at yourself it is a spiritual sin to mock at
your inspiration

Hilda.

Oh well, all this might be very disquieting were it not that
"sacred" has lately been discovered to apply to a point of arrest



16 PROLOGUE



where stabilization has gone on past the time. There is nothing
sacred about literature, it is damned from one end to the other.
There is nothing in literature but change and change is mockery.
I ll write whatever I damn please,whenever I damn please and as
I damn please and it ll be good if the authentic spirit of change is
on it.

But in any case H. D. misses the entire intent of what I am
doing no matter how just her remarks concerning that particular
poem happen to have been. The hey-ding-ding touch was derivi-
tive but it filled a gap that I did not know how better to fill at the
time. It might be said that that touch is the prototype of the.
improvisations.

It is to the inventive imagination we look for deliverance
from every other misfortune as from the desolation of a flat
Hellenic perfection of style. What good then to turn to art from
the atavistic religionists, from a science doing slavey service upon
gas engines, from a philosophy tangled in a miserable sort of
dialect that means nothing if the full power of initiative be denied
at the beginning by a lot of baying and snapping scholiasts?
If the inventive imagination must look, as I think, to the field of
art for its richest discoveries today it will best make its way by
compass and follow no path.

But before any material progress can be accomplished there
must be someone to draw a discriminating line between true and
false values.

The true value is that peculiarity which gives an object a
character by itself. The associational or sentimental value is the
false. Its imposition is due to lack of imagination, to an easy
lateral sliding. The attention has been held too rigid on the one
plane instead of following a more flexible, jagged resort. It is
to loosen the attention, my attention since I occupy part of the
field, that I write these improvisations. Here I clash with Wal
lace Stevens.

The imagination goes from one thing to another. Given
many things of nearly totally divergent natures but possessing
one- thousandth part of a quality in common, provided that be
new, distinguished, these things belong in an imaginative category
and not in a gross natural array. To me this is the gist of the
whole matter. It is easy to fall under the spell of a certain mode,
especially if it be remote of origin, leaving thus certain of its
members essential to a reconstruction of its significance perma-



PROLOGUE 17



nently lost in an impenetrable mist of time. But the thing that
stands eternally in the way of really good writing is always one:
the virtual impossibility of lifting to the imagination those things
which lie under the direct scrutiny of the senses, close to the nose.
It is this difficulty that sets a value upon all works of art and
makes them a necessity. The senses witnessing what is imme
diately before them in detail see a finality which they cling to in
despair, not knowing which way to turn. Thus the so-called
natural or scientific array becomes fixed, the walking devil of
modern life. He who even nicks the solidity of this apparition
does a piece of work superior to that of Hercules when he cleaned
the Augean stables.

Stevens letter applies really to my book of poems, "Al Que
Quiere" (which means, by the way, To Him Who Wants It) but
the criticism he makes of that holds good for each of the impro
visations if not for the oevre as a whole.

It begins with a postscript in the upper left hand corner:
"I think, after all, I should rather send this than not, although it is
quarrelsomely full of my own ideas of discipline.

April 9
My dear Williams:



What strikes me most about the poems themselves
is their casual character . . . Personally I have a
distaste for miscellany. It is one of the reasons I do
not bother about a book myself.

(Wallace Stevens is a fine gentleman whom Cannell
likened to a Pennsylvania Dutchman who has suddenly
become aware of his habits and taken to "society" in
self defence. He is always immaculately dressed. I
don t know why I should always associate him in my
mind with an imaginary image I have of Ford Madox
Hueffer.)

. . . My idea is that in order to carry a thing to the
extreme necessity to convey it one has to stick to it ; . .
Given a fixed point of view, realistic, imagistic or what
you will, everything adjusts itself to that point of view;
and the process of adjustment is a world in flux, as it
should be for a poet. But to fidget with points of view



18 PROLOGUE



leads always to new beginnings and incessant new be
ginnings lead to sterility.

(This sounds like Sir Roger de Coverly)

A single manner

or mood thoroughly matured and exploited is that fresh
thing . . etc.

One has to keep looking for poetry as Renoir
looked for colors in old walls, wood-work and so on.
Your place is

among children ?

Leaping around a dead dog.

A book of that would feed the hungry . . .

Well a book of poems is a damned serious affair.
I am only objecting that a book that contains your
particular quality should contain anything else and sug
gesting that if the quality were carried to a commun
icable extreme, in intensity and volume, etc. ... I see
it all over the book, in your landscapes and portraits,
but dissipated and obscured. Bouquets for brides and
Spencerian compliments for poets . . . There are a
very few men who have anything native in them or for
whose work I d give a Bolshevic ruble . . . But I
think your tantrums not half mad enough.

(I am not quite clear about the last sentence but I
presume he means that I do not push my advantage
through to an overwhelming decision. What would
you have me do with my Circe, Stevens, now that I have
doublecrossed her game, marry her? It is not what
Odysseus did).

I return Pound s letter . . observe how in every
thing he does he proceeds with the greatest positiveness
etc.

Wallace Stevens.

I wish that I might here set down my "Vortex" after the
fashion of London, 1913, stating how little it means to me whether
I live here, there or elsewhere or succeed in this, that or the other
so long as I can keep my mind free from the trammels of
literature, beating down every attack of its retiarii with my
mirmillones. But the time is past.



PROLOGUE 19



I thought at first to adjoin to each improvisation a more or
less opaque commentary. But the mechanical interference that
would result makes this inadvisable. Instead I have placed some
of them in the preface where without losing their original inten
tion (see reference numerals at the beginning of each) they
relieve the later text and also add their weight to my present
fragmentary argument.

V. No. 2. By the brokeness of his composition the poet
makes himself master of a certain weapon which he could possess
himself of in no other way. The speed of the emotions is
sometimes such that thrashing about in a thin exaltation or
despair many matters are touched but not held, more often brok
en by the contact.

II. No. 3. The instability of these improvisations would
seem such that they must inevitably crumble under the attention
and become particles of a wind that falters. It would appear to
the unready that the fiber of the thing is a thin jelly. It would be
these same fools who would deny touch cords to the wind because
they cannot split a storm endwise and wrap it upon spools. The
virtue of strength lies not in the grossness of the fiber but in the
fiber itself. Thus a poem is tough by no quality it borrows from
a logical recital of events nor from the events themselves but
solely from that attenuated power which draws perhaps many
broken things into a dance giving them thus a full being.

* * It is seldom that anything but the most elementary com
munications can be exchanged one with another. There are in
reality only two or three reasons generally accepted as the causes
of action. No matter what the motive it will seldom happen that
true knowledge of it will be anything more than vaguely divined
by some one person, some half a person whose intimacy has
perhaps been cultivated over the whole of a lifetime. We live in
bags. This is due to the gross fiber of all action. By action
itself almost nothing can be imparted. The world of action is a
world of stones.

XV. No. i. Bla! Bla! Bla! Heavy talk is talk that waits
upon a deed. Talk is servile that is set to inform. Words with
the bloom on them run before the imagination like the saeter girls



20 PROLOGUE



before Peer Gynt. It is talk with the patina of whim upon it
makes action a boot-licker. So nowadays poets spit upon rhyme
and rhetoric.

* * The stream of things having composed itself into wiry-
strands that move in one fixed direction, the poet in desperation
turns at right angles and cuts across current with startling results
to his hangdog mood.

XI. No. 2. In France, the country of Rabelais, they know
that the world is not made up entirely of virgins. They do not
deny virtue to the rest because of that. Each age has its perfec
tions but the praise differs. It is only stupid when the praise of
the gross and the transformed would be minted in unfit terms
such as suit nothing but youth s sweetness and frailty. It is ne
cessary to know that laughter is the reverse of aspiration. So
they laugh well in France, at Coquelin and the Petoman. Their
girls, also, thrive upon the love-making they get, so much so that
the world runs to Paris for that reason.

XII. No. 2 B. It is chuckleheaded to desire a way through
every difficulty. Surely one might even communicate with the
dead and lose his taste for trufHes. Because snails are slimy
when alive and because slime is associated (erroneously) with
filth the fool is convinced that snails are detestable when, as it is
proven every day, fried in butter with chopped parsely upon them,
they are delicious. This is both sides of the question: the slave
and the despoiled of his senses are one. But to weigh a difficulty
and to turn it aside without being wrecked upon a destructive
solution bespeaks an imagination of force sufficient to transcend
action. The difficulty has thus been solved by ascent to a higher
plane. It is energy of the imagination alone that cannot be laid
aside.

* * Rich as are the gifts of the imagination bitterness of
world s loss is not replaced thereby. On the contrary it is inten
sified, resembling thus possession itself. But he who has no
power of the imagination cannot even know the full of his injury.

VIII. No. 3. Those who permit their senses to be despoiled
of the things under their noses by stories of all manner of things



PROLOGUE 21



removed and unattainable are of frail imagination. Idiots, it is
true nothing is possessed save by dint of that vigorous conception
of its perfections which is the imagination s special province but
neither is anything possessed which is not extant. A frail
imagination, unequal to the tasks before it, is easily led astray.

IV. No. 2. Although it is a quality of the imagination that it
seeks to place together those things which have a common rela
tionship, yet the coining of similies is a pastime of very low order,
depending as it does upon a nearly vegetable coincidence. Much
more keen is that power which discovers in things those inimitable
particles of dissimilarity to all other things which are the peculiar
perfections of the thing in question.

But this loose linking of one thing with another has effects
of a destructive power little to be guessed at: all manner of things
are thrown out of key so that it approaches the impossible to
arrive at an understanding of anything. All is confusion, yet, it
comes from a hidden desire for the dance, a lust of the imagin
ation, a will to accord two instruments in a duet.

But one does not attempt by the ingenuity of the joiner to
blend the tones of the oboe with the violin. On the contrary the
perfections of the two instruments are emphasized by the joiner;
no means is neglected to give to each the full color of its perfec
tions. It is only the music of the instruments which is joined and
that not by the woodworker but by the composer, by virtue of the
imagination.

On this level of the imagination all things and ages meet in
fellowship. Thus only can they, peculiar and perfect, find their
release. This is the beneficent power of the imagination.

* * Age and youth are great flatterers. Brooding on each
other s obvious psychology neither dares tell the other outright
what manifestly is the truth: your world is poison. Each is
secure in his own perfections. Monsieur Eichorn used to
have a most atrocious body odor while the odor of some
girls is a pleasure to the nostril. Each quality in each person
or age, rightly valued, would mean the freeing of that age
to its own delights of action or repose. Now an evil odor can be
pursued with praise-worthy ardor leading to great natural activity
whereas a flowery skinned virgin may and no doubt often does
allow herself to fall into destructive habits of neglect.



22 PROLOGUE



XIII. No. 3. A poet witnessing the chicory flower and
realizing its virtues of form and color so constructs his praise of
it as to borrow no particle from right or left. He gives his
poem over to the flower and its plant themselves that they may
benefit by those cooling winds of the imagination which thus
returned upon them will refresh them at their task of saving
the world. But what does it mean, remarked his friends ?

VII. Coda. It would be better than depriving birds of their
song to call them all nightingales. So it would be better than to
have a world stript of poetry to provide men with some sort of*
eyeglasses by which they should be unable to read any verse but
sonnets. But fortunately although there are many sorts of
fools, just as there are many birds which sing and many sorts of
poems, there is no need to please them.

* * All schoolmasters are fools. Thinking to build in the
young the foundations of knowledge they let slip their minds that
the blocks are of grey mist bedded upon the wind. Those who
will taste of the wind himself have a mark in their eyes by virtue
of which they bring their masters to nothing.

* * All things brought under the hand of the possessor
crumble to nothingness. Not only that : He who possesses a child
if he cling to it inordinately becomes childlike, whereas, with a
twist of the imagination, himself may rise into comradeship with
the grave and beautiful presences of antiquity. But some have
the power to free, say a young matron pursuing her infant, from
her own possessions, making her kin to Yang Kuei-fei because of
a haunting loveliness that clings about her knees, impeding her
progress as she takes up her matronly pursuit.

* * As to the sun what is he, save for his light, more than the
earth is: the same mass of metals, a mere shadow? But the
winged dawn is the very essence of the sun s self, a thing cold,
vitreous, a virtue that precedes the body which it drags after it.

1 The features of a landscape take their position in the
imagination and are related more to their own kind there than to
the country and season which has held them hitherto as a basket
holds vegetables mixed with fruit.



PROLOGUE 23



VI. No. i. A fish swimming in a pond, were his back white
and his belly green, would be easily perceived from above by
hawks against the dark depths of water and from below by larger
fish against the penetrant light of the sky. But since his belly is
white and his back green he swims about in safety. Observing
this barren truth and discerning at once its slavish application to
the exercises of the mind, a young man, who has been sitting for
some time in contemplation at the edge of a lake, rejects with
scorn the parochial deductions of history and as scornfully as
serts his defiance.

XIV. No. 3. The barriers which keep the feet from the
dance are the same which in a dream paralyze the effort to escape
and hold us powerless in the track of some murderous pursuer.
Pant and struggle but you cannot move. The birth of the imag
ination is like waking from a nightmare. Never does the night
seem so beneficent.

* * The raw beauty of ignorance that lies like an opal mist
over the west coast of the Atlantic, beginning at the Grand Banks
and extending into the recesses of our brains the children, the
married, the unmarried clings especially about the eyes and the
throats of our girls and boys. Of a Sunday afternoon a girl sits
before a mechanical piano and, working it with her hands and
feet, opens her mouth and sings to the music a popular tune,
ragtime. It is a serenade. I have seen a young Frenchman lean
above the piano and looking down speak gently and wonder-
ingly to one of our girls singing such a serenade. She did not
seem aware of what she was singing and he smiled an occult but
thoroughly bewildered smile as of a man waiting for a fog to
lift, meanwhile lost in admiration of its enveloping beauty frag
ments of architecture, a street opening and closing, a mysterious
glow of sunshine.

VIII. No. i. A man of note upon examining the poems of
his friend and finding there nothing related to his immediate un
derstanding laughingly remarked: After all, literature is com
munication while you, my friend, I am afraid, in attempting to do
something striking, are in danger of achieving mere presciosity.
But inasmuch as the fields of the mind are vast and little ex
plored, the poet was inclined only to smile and to take note of that



24 PROLOGUE



hardening infirmity of the imagination which seems to endow its
victim with great solidity and rapidity of judgment. But he
thought to himself : And yet of what other thing is greatness com
posed than a power to annihilate half-truths for a thousandth part
of accurate understanding. Later life has its perfections as well
as that bough-bending time of the mind s florescence with which I
am so discursively taken.

I have discovered that the thrill of first love passes ! It even
becomes the backbone of a sordid sort of religion if not assisted
in passing. I knew a man who kept a candle burning before a
girl s portrait day and night for a year then jilted her,
pawned her off on a friend. I have been reasonably frank about
my erotics with my wife. I have never or seldom said, my dear
I love you, when I would rather say: My dear, I wish you
were in Tierra del Fuego. I have discovered by scrupulous
attention to this detail and by certain allied experiments that we
can continue from time to time to elaborate relationships quite
equal in quality, if not greatly superior, to that surrounding our
wedding. In fact, the best we have enjoyed of love together has
come after the most thorough destruction or harvesting of that
which has gone before. Periods of barrenness have intervened,
periods comparable to the prison music in Fidelio or to any of
Beethoven s pianissimo transition passages. It is at these times
our formal relations have teetered on the edge of a debacle to be
followed, as our imaginations have permitted, by a new growth
of passionate attachment dissimilar in every member to that which
has gone before.

It is in the continual and violent refreshing of the idea that
love and good writing have their security.

Alfred Kreymborg is primarily a musician, at best an inno
vator of musical phrase:

We have no dishes
to eat our meals from.
We have no dishes
to eat our meals from
because we have no dishes
to eat our meals from



PROLOGUE 25



We need no dishes
to eat our meals from,
we have fingers
to eat our meals from.

Kreymborg s idea of poetry is a transforming music that has
much to do with tawdry things.

Few people know how to read Kreymborg. There is no
modern poet who suffers more from a bastard sentimental appre
ciation. It is hard to get his things from the page. I have heard
him say he has often thought in despair of marking his verse
into measures as music is marked. Oh, well

The man has a bare irony, the gift of rhythm and Others. I
smile to think of Alfred stealing the stamps from the envelopes
sent for return of MSS. to the Others office ! The best thing that
could happen for the good of poetry in the United States today
would be for someone to give Alfred Kreymborg a hundred
thousand dollars. In his mind there is the determination for
freedom brought into relief by a crabbedness of temper that
makes him peculiarly able to value what is being done here.
Whether he is bull enough for the work I am not certain, but that
he can find his way that I know.

A somewhat petulant English college friend of my brother s
once remarked that Britons make the best policemen the world
has ever witnessed. I agree with him. It is silly to go into a
puckersnatch because some brass-button-minded nincompoop in
Kensington flies off the handle and speaks openly about our
United States prize poems. This Mr. Jepson "Anyone who has
heard Mr. J. read Homer and discourse on Catullus would
recognize his fitness as a judge and respecter of poetry" this
is Ezra ! this champion of the right is not half a fool. His
epithets and phrases slip-shod, rank bad workmanship of a man
who has shirked his job, lumbering fakement, cumbrous arti
ficiality, maundering dribble, rancid as Ben Hur are in the main
well-merited. And besides, he comes out with one fairly lipped
cornet blast: the only distinctive U. S. contributions to the arts
have been ragtime and buck-dancing.

Nothing is good save the new. If a thing have novelty it
stands intrinsically beside every other work of artistic excellence.
If it have not that, no loveliness or heroic proportion or grand



26 PROLOGUE



manner will save it. It will not be saved above all by an attenu
ated intellectuality.

But all U. S. verse is not bad according to Mr. J., there is
T. S. Eliot and his, Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.

But our prize poems are especially to be damned not because
of superficial bad workmanship, but because they are rehash,
repetition just as Eliot s more exquisite work is rehash,
repetition in another way of Verlaine, Beaudelaire, Maeter
linck, conscious or unconscious, just as there were Pound s
early paraphrases from Yeats and his constant later cribbing
from the renaissance, Provence and the modern French: Men
content with the connotations of their masters.

It is convenient to have fixed standards of comparison: All
antiquity! And there is always some everlasting Polonius of
Kensington forever to rate highly his eternal Eliot. It is because
Eliot is a subtle conformist. It tickles the palate of this arch
bishop of procurers to a lecherous antiquity to hold up Prufrock
as a New World type. Prufrock, the nibbler at sophistication,
endemic in every capital, the not quite (because he refuses to
turn his back), is "the soul of that modern land," the United
States !

Blue undershirts,

Upon a line,

It is not secessary to say to you

Anything about it

I cannot question Eliot s observation. Prufrock is a masterly
portrait of the man just below the summit, but the type is univer
sal ; the model in his case might be Mr. J.

No. The New World is Montezuma or since he was stoned
to death in a parley, Guatemozin who had the city of Mexico
levelled over him before he was taken.

For the rest, there is no man even though he dare who can
make beauty his own and "so at last live," at least there is no
man better situated for that achievement than another. As Pru
frock longed for his silly lady so Kensington longs for its Har-
danger dairymaid. By a mere twist of the imagination, if Pru
frock only knew it, the whole world can be inverted (why else are
there wars?) and the mermaids be set warbling to whoever will
listen to them. Seesaw and blind-man s-buff converted into a
sort of football.



PROLOGUE 27



But the summit of United States achievement, according to
Mr. J. who can discourse on Catullus is that very beautiful
poem of Eliot s, La Figlia Que Piange : just the right amount of
everything drained through, etc., etc., etc., etc., the rhythm
delicately studied and IT CONFORMS ! ergo here we have
"the very fine flower of the finest spirit of the United States."

Examined closely this poem reveals a highly refined distilla
tion. Added to the already "faithless" formula of yesterday we
have a conscious simplicity:

Simple and faithless as a smile and shake of the hand.

The perfection of that line is beyond cavil. Yet, in the last
stanza, this paradigm, this very fine flower of U. S. art is warped
out of alignment, obscured in meaning even to the point of an
absolute unintelligibility by the inevitable straining after a rhyme,
the very cleverness with which this straining is covered being a
sinister token in itself.

And I wonder how they should have been together !

So we have no choice but to accept the work of this fumbling
conjurer.

Upon the Jepson filet Eliot balances his mushroom. It is the
latest touch from the literary cuisine, it adds to the pleasant out
look from the club window. If to do this, if to be a Whistler at
best, in the art of poetry, is to reach the height of poetic expres
sion then Ezra and Eliot have approached it and tant pis for the
rest of us.

The Adobe Indian hag sings her lullaby :

The beetle is blind
The beetle is blind
The beetle is blind
The beetle is blind, etc., etc.

and Kandinsky in his, Ueber das Geistige in der Kitnst, sets down
the following axioms for the artist : .

Every artist has to express himself
Every artist has to express his epoch.
Every artist has to express the pure and eternal
qualities of the art of al l men.



28 PROLOGUE

So we have the fish and the bait, but the last rule holds three hooks
at once not for the fish, however.

I do not overlook De Gourmont s plea for a meeting of the
nations, but I do believe that when they meet Paris will be more
than slightly abashed to find parodies of the middle ages, Dante
and Langue D Oc foisted upon it as the best in United States
poetry. Even Eliot, who is too fine an artist to allow himself
to be exploited by a blockheaded grammaticaster, turns recently
toward "one definite false note" in his quatrains, which more
nearly approach America than ever La Figlia Que Piange did.
Ezra Pound is a Boscan who has met his Navagiero.

One day Ezra and I were walking down a back lane in
Wyncote. I contended for bread, he for caviar. I become hot.
He, with fine discretion, exclaimed: "Let us drop it. We will
never agree, or come to an agreement." He spoke then like a
Frenchman, which is one who discerns.

Imagine an international congress of poets at Paris or Ver
sailles, Remy de Gourmont (now dead) presiding, poets all
speaking five languages fluently. Ezra stands up to represent
U. S. verse and De Gourmont sits down smiling. Ezra begins by
reading, La Figlia Que Piange. It would be a pretty pastime to
gather into a mental basket the fruits of that reading from the
minds of the ten Frenchmen present; their impressions of the
sort of United States that very fine flower was picked from.
After this Kreymborg might push his way to the front and read
Jack s House.

E. P. is the best enemy United States verse has. He is
interested, passionately interested even if he doesn t know what
he is talking about. But of course he does know what he is talking
about. He does not, however, know everything, not by more
than half. The accordances of which Americans have the parts
and the colors but not the completions before them pass beyond
the attempts of his thought. It is a middle aging blight of the
imagination.

I praise those who have the wit and courage, and the con
ventionality, to go direct toward their vision of perfection in an
objective world where the sign-posts are clearly marked, viz., to
London. But confine them in hell for their paretic assumption
that there is no alternative but their own groove.

Dear fat Stevens, thawing out so beautifully at forty! I
was one day irately damning those who run to London when



PROLOGUE 29



Stevens caught me up with his mild: "But where in the world
will you have them run to?"

Nothing that I should write touching poetry would be com
plete without Maxwell Bodenheim in it, even had he not said
that the Improvisations were "perfect," the best thngs I had ever
done ; for that I place him, Janus, first and last.

Bodenheim pretends to hate most people, including Pound
and Kreymborg, but that he really goes to this trouble I cannot
imagine. He seems rather to me to have the virtue of self ab-
sorbtion so fully developed that hate is made impossible. Due to
this, also, he is an unbelievable physical stoic. I know of no one
who lives so completely in his pretences as Bogie does. - Having
formulated his world neither toothache nor the misery to which
his indolence reduces him can make head against the force of his
imagination. Because of this he remains for me a heroic figure,
which, after all, is quite apart from the stuff he writes and which
only concerns him. He is an Isaiah of the butterflies.

Bogie was the young and fairly well acclaimed genius when
he came to New York four years ago. He pretended to have
fallen in Chicago and to have sprained his shoulder. The joint
was done up in a proper Sayre s dressing and there really looked
to be a bona fide injury. Of course he couldn t find any work to
do with one hand so we all chipped in. It lasted a month!
During that time Bogie spent a week at my house at no small
inconvenience to Florence, who had two babies on her hands
just then. When he left I expressed my pleasure at having had
his company. "Yes," he replied, "I think you have profited by
my visit." The statement impressed me by its simple accuracy as
well as by the evidence it bore of that fullness of the imagina
tion which had held the man in its tide while we had been
together.

Charlie Demuth once told me that he did not like the taste of
liquor, for which he was thankful, but that he found the effect it
had on his mind to be delightful. Of course Li Po is reported to
have written his best verse supported in the arms of the Emper
or s attendants and with a dancing-girl to hold his tablet. He
was also a great poet. Wine is merely the latchstring.

The virtue of it all is in an opening of the doors, though
some rooms of course will be empty, a break with banality, the
continual hardening which habit enforces. There is nothing left



30 PROLOGUE



in me but the virtue of curiosity, Demuth puts in. The poet
should be forever at the ship s prow.

An acrobat seldom learns really a new trick, but he must
exercise continually to keep his joints free. When I made this
discovery it started rings in my memory that keep following one
after the other to this day.

I have placed the following Improvisations in groups, some
what after the A. B. A. formula, that one may support the other,
clarifying or enforcing perhaps the other s intention.

The arrangement of the notes, each following its poem and
separated from it by a ruled line, is borrowed from a small volume
of Metastasio, Vane Poesie Dell Abate Pietro Metastasio,
Venice, 1795.

September i, 1918



IMPROVISATIONS



IMPROVISATIONS



Fools have big wombs. For the rest? here is pennyroyal
if one knows to use it. But time is only another liar, so go along
the wall a little further: if blackberries prove bitter there ll be
mushrooms, fairy- ring mushrooms, in the grass, sweetest of all
fungi.

2

For what it s worth : Jacob Louslinger, white haired, stinking,
dirty bearded, cross eyed, stammer tongued, broken voiced, bent
backed, ball kneed, cave bellied, mucous faced deathling,
found lying in the weeds "up there by the cemetery". "Looks
to me as if he d been bumming around the meadows for a couple
of weeks". Shoes twisted into incredible lilies: out at the toes,
heels, tops, sides, soles. Meadow flower! ha, mallow! at last I
have you. (Rot dead marigolds an acre at a time! Gold, are
you?) Ha, clouds will touch world s edge and the great pink
mallow stand singly in the wet, topping reeds and a closet full of
clothes and good shoes and my-thirty-year s-master s-daughter s
two cows for me to care for and a winter room With a fire in it .
I would rather feed pigs in Moonachie and chew calamus root
and break crab s claws at an open fire: age s lust loose!

3

Talk as you will, say: "No woman wants to bother with
children in this country"; speak of your Amsterdam and the
whitest aprons and brightest doorknobs in Christendom. And I ll
answer you: "Gleaming doorknobs and scrubbed entries have
heard the songs of the housemaids at sun-up and housemaids
are wishes. Whose? Ha! the dark canals are whistling,

[33]



34 IMPROVISATIONS

whistling for who will cross to the other side. If I remain with
hands in pocket leaning upon my lamppost why I bring curses
to a hag s lips and her daughter on her arm knows better than I
can tell you best to blush and out with it than back beaten after.



In Holland at daybreak, of a fine spring morning, one sees the
housemaids beating rugs before the small houses of such a city as
Amsterdam, sweeping, scrubbing the low entry steps and polishing
doorbells and doorknobs. By night perhaps there will be an old
woman with a girl on her arm, histing and whistling across a
deserted canal to some late loiterer trudging aimlessly on beneath
the gas lamps.



IMPROVISATIONS 35



II.



i



Why go further? One might conceivably rectify the rhythm,
study all out and arrive at the perfection of a tiger lily or a china
doorknob. One might lift all out of the ruck, be a worthy
successor to the man in the moon. Instead of breaking the
back of a willing phrase why not try to follow the wheel
through approach death at a walk, take in all the scenery.
There s as much reason one way as the other and then one
never knows perhaps we ll bring back Euridice this time!



Between two contending forces there may at all times arrive
that moment when the stress is equal on both sides so that with a
great pushing a great stability results giving a picture of perfect
rest. And so it may be that once upon the way the end drives
back upon the beginning and a stoppage will occur. At such a
time the poet shrinks from the doom that is calling him forgetting
the delicate rhythms of perfect beauty, preferring in his mind the
gross buffetings of good and evil fortune.

2

Ay dio! I could say so much were it not for the tunes
changing, changing, darting so many ways. One step and the
cart s left you sprawling. Here s the way ! and you re hip bog
ged. And there s blame of the light too : when eyes are humming
birds who ll tie them with a lead string? But it s the tunes they
want most, send them skipping out at the tree tops. Whistle
then! who ld stop the leaves swarming; curving down the east
in their braided jackets? Well enough but there s small
comfort in naked branches when the heart s not set that way.



A man s desire is to win his way to some hilltop. But against
him seem to swarm a hundred jumping devils. These are his
constant companions, these are the friendly images which he has
invented out of his mind and which are inviting him to rest and
to disport himself according to hidden reasons. The man being



36 IMPROVISATIONS

half a poet is cast down and longs to rid himself of his torment
and his tormentors.

3

When you hang your clothes on the line you do not expect to
see the line broken and them trailing in the mud. Nor would
you expect to keep your hands clean by putting them in a dirty
pocket. However and of course if you are a market man, fish,
cheeses and the like going under your fingers every minute in the
hour you would not leave off the business and expect to handle
a basket of fine laces without at least mopping yourself on a
towel, soiled as it may be. Then how will you expect a fine
trickle of words to follow you through the intimacies of this
dance without oh, come let us walk together into the air awhile
first. One must be watchman to much secret arrogance before
his ways are tuned to these measures. You see there is a dip of
the ground between us. You think you can leap up from your
gross caresses of these creatures and at a gesture fling it all off
and step out in silver to my finger tips. Ah, it is not that I do
not wait for you, always ! But my sweet fellow you have brok
en yourself without purpose, you are Hark! it is the music!
Whence does it come? What! Out of the ground? Is it this
that you have been preparing for me? Ha, goodbye, I have a
rendez vous in the tips of three birch sisters. Encourage vos
musiciensl Ask them to play faster. I will return later. Ah
you are kind. and I ? must dance with the wind, make my own
snow flakes, whistle a contrapuntal melody to my own fuge!
Huzza then, this is the dance of the blue moss bank! Huzza
then, this is the mazurka of the hollow log! Huzza then, this
is the dance of rain in the cold trees.



IMPROVISATIONS 37



III.



So far away August green as it yet is. They say the sun
still comes up o mornings and it s harvest moon now. Always
one leaf at the peak twig swirling, swirling and apples rotting in
the ditch.

2

My wife s uncle went to school with Amundsen. After he,
Amundsen, returned from the south pole there was a Scandinav
ian dinner, which bored Amundsen like a boyhood friend. There
was a young woman at his table, silent and aloof from the rest.
She left early and he restless at some impalpable delay apolo
gized suddenly and went off with two friends, his great, lean bulk
twitching agilely. One knew why the poles attracted him.
Then my wife s mother told me the same old thing, how a girl in
their village jilted him years back^ But the girl at the supper!
Ah that comes later when we are wiser and older.

3

What can it mean to you that a child wears pretty clothes
and speaks three languages or that its mother goes to the best
shops? It means: July has good need of his blazing sun. But
if you pick one berry from the ash tree I d not know it again for
the same no matter how the rain washed. Make my bed of
witchhazel twigs, said the old man, since they bloom on the brink
of winter.



There is neither beginning nor end to the imagination but it
delights in its own seasons reversing the usual order at will.
Of the air of the coldest room it will seem to build the hottest
passions. Mozart would dance with his wife, whistling his own
tune to keep the cold away and Villon ceased to write upon his
Petit Testament only when the ink was frozen. But men in the
direst poverty of the imagination buy finery and indulge in
extravagant moods in order to piece out their lack with other
matter.



38 IMPROVISATIONS



IV.



Mamselle Day, Mamselle Day, come back again ! Slip your
clothes off! the jingling of those little shell ornaments so
deftly fastened ! The streets are turning in their covers.
They smile with shut eyes. I have been twice to the moon since
supper but she has nothing to tell me. Mamselle come back!
I will be wiser this time.



That which is past is past forever and no power of the
imagination can bring it back again. Yet inasmuch as there
are many lives being lived in the world, by virtue of sadness and
regret we are enabled to partake to some small degree of those
pleasures we have missed or lost but which others more fortunate
than we are in the act of enjoying.

If one should catch me in this state! wings would go at
a bargain. Ah but to hold the world in the hand then Here s
a brutal jumble. And if you move the stones, see the ants scurry.
But it s queen s eggs they take first, tax their jaws most. Burrow,
burrow, burrow! there s sky that way too if the pit s deep
enough so the stars tell us.



It is an obsession of the gifted that by direct onslaught or
by some back road of the intention they will win the recognition
of the world. Cezanne. And inasmuch as some men have had a
bare recognition in their lives the fiction is continued. But the
sad truth is that since the imagination is nothing, nothing will
come of it. Thus those necessary readjustments of sense which
are the everyday affair of the mind are distorted and intensified in
these individuals so that they frequently believe themselves to be
the very helots of fortune, whereas nothing could be more ridicu
lous than to suppose this. However their strength will revive if
it may be and finding a sweetness on the tongue of which they had
no foreknowledge they set to work again with renewed vigor.



IMPROVISATIONS 39



How smoothly the car runs. And these rows of celery, how
they bitter the air winter s authentic foretaste. Here among
these farms how the year has aged, yet here s last year and the
year before and all years. One might rest here time without end,
watch out his stretch and see no other bending than spring to
autumn, winter to summer and earth turning into leaves and
leaves into earth and how restful these long beet rows- the
caress of the low clouds the river lapping at the reeds. Was it
ever so high as this, so full? How quickly we ve come this far.
Which way is north now? North now? why that way I think.
Ah there s the house at last, here s April, but the blinds are
down ! It s all dark here. Scratch a hurried note. Slip it over
the sill. Well, some other time.



How smoothly the car runs. This must be the road. Queer
how a road juts in. How the dark catches among those trees!
How the light clings to the canal ! Yes there s one table taken,
we ll not be alone This place has possibilities. Will you bring
her here? Perhaps and when we meet on the stair, shall we
speak, say it is some acquaintance or pass silent? Well, a jest s
a jest but how poor this tea is. Think of a life in this place,
here in these hills by these truck farms. Whose life? Why
there, back of you. If a woman laughs a little loudly one always
thinks that way of her. But how she bedizens the country-side.
Quite an old world glamour. If it were not for but one cannot
have everything. What poor tea it was. How cold it s grown.
Cheering, a light is that way among the trees. That heavy
laugh ! How it will rattle these branches in six week s time.



The frontispiece is her portrait and further on the obituary
sermon: she held the school upon her shoulders. Did she.
Well turn in here then : we found money in the blood and some
in the room and on the stairs. My God I never knew a man had
so much blood in his head! and thirteen empty whisky
bottles. I am sorry but those who come this way meet strange
company. This is you see death s canticle.



40 IMPROVISATIONS

A young woman who had excelled at intellectual pursuits,
a person of great power in her sphere, died on the same night
that a man was murdered in the next street, a fellow of very
gross behavior. The poet takes advantage of this to send them
on their way side by side without making the usual unhappy
moral distinctions.



IMPROVISATIONS 41



V.



Beautiful white corpse of night actually! So the north-west
winds ox death are mountain sweet after all! All the troubled
stars are put to bed now: three bullets from wife s hand none
kindlier : in the crown, in the nape and one lower : three starlike
holes among a million pocky pores and the moon of your mouth :
Venus, Jupiter, Mars, and all stars melted forthwith into this
one good white light over the inquest table, the traditional moth
beating its wings against it except there are two here. But
sweetest are the caresses of the county physician, a little clumsy
perhaps mais ! and the Prosecuting Attorney, Peter Valuzzi
and the others, waving green arms of maples to the tinkling of
the earliest ragpicker s bells. Otherwise : kindly stupid hands,
kindly coarse voices, infinitely soothing, infinitely detached,
infinitely beside the question, restfully babbling of how, v/here,
why and night is done and the green edge of yesterday has
said all it could.



Remorse is a virtue in that it is a stirrer up of the emotions
but it is a folly to accept it as a criticism of conduct. So to
accept it is to attempt to fit the emotions of a certain state to a
preceding state to which they are in no way related. Imagina
tion though it cannot wipe out the sting of remorse can instruct
the mind in its proper uses.

2

It is the water we drink. It bubbles under every hill. How ?
Agh, you stop short of the root. Why, caught and the town goes
mad. The haggard husband pirouettes in tights. The wolf-lean
wife is rolling butter pats : it s a clock striking the hour. Pshaw,
they do things better in Bangkok, here too, if there s heads
together. But up and leap at her throat! Bed s at fault!
Yet I ve seen three women prostrate, hands twisted in each
other s hair, teeth buried where the hold offered, not a move
ment, not a cry more than a low meowling. Oh call me a lady
and think you ve caged me. Hell s loose every minute, you hear?
And the truth is there s not an eye clapped to either way but
someone comes off the dirtier for it. Who am I to wash hands



42 IMPROVISATIONS

and stand near the wall? I confess freely there s not a bitch
littered in the pound but my skin grows ruddier. Ask me and
I ll say: curfew for the ladies. Bah, two in the grass is the
answer to that gesture. Here s a text for you : Many daughters
have done virtuously but thou excellest them all! And so you
do, if the manner of a walk means anything. You walk in a
different nir from the others, though your husband s the better
man and the charm wont last a fortnight : the street s kiss par
ried again. But give thought to your daughters food at mating
time, you good men. Send them to hunt spring beauties beneath
the sod this winter, otherwise: hats off to the lady! One can
afford to smile.



Marry in middle life and take the young thing home. Later
in the year let the worst out. It s odd how little the tune changes.
Do worse till your mind s turning, then rush into repentence
and the lady grown a hero while the clock strikes.

Here the harps have a short cadenza. It s sunset back of
the new cathedral and the purple river scum has set seaward.
The car s at the door. I d not like to go alone tonight. I ll pay
you well. It s the kings-evil. Speed! Speed! The sun s
self s a chancre low in the west Ha, how the great houses shine
for old time s sake! For sale! For sale! The town s gone
another way. But I m not fooled that easily. Fort sale! Fort
sale! if you read it aright. And Beauty s own head on the
pillow, a la Muja Desnuda! O Contessa de Alba! Contessa de
Alba! Never was there such a lewd wonder in the streets of
Newark! Open the windows but all s boarded up here. Out
with you, you sleepy doctors and lawyers you, the sky s afire
and Calvary Church with its snail s horns up, sniffing the dawn
o the wrong side ! Let the trumpets blare ! Tutti i instrument^!
The world s bound homeward.



A man whose brain is slowly curdling due to a syphilitic
infection acquired in early life calls on a friend to go with him on
a journey to the city. The friend out of compassion goes, and,
thinking of the condition of his unhappy companion, falls to
pondering on the sights he sees as he is driven up one street and



_____ IMPROVISATIONS 43

down another. It being evening he witnesses a dawn of great
beauty striking backward upon the world in a reverse direction
to the sun s course and not knowing of what else to think discov
ers it to be the same power which has led his companion to
destruction. At this he is inclined to scoff derisively at the city s
prone stupidity and to make light indeed of his friend s misfor
tune.



44 IMPROVISATIONS



VI.



Of course history is an attempt to make the past seem stable
and of course it s all a lie. Nero must mean Nero or the game s
up. But though killies have green backs and white bellies, zut !
for the bass and hawks ! When we ve tired of swimming we ll
go climb in the ledgy forest. Confute the sages.



Quarrel with a purple hanging because it s no column from
the Parthenon. Here s splotchy velvet set to hide a door in the
wall and there there s the man himself praying! Oh quarrel
whether twas Pope Clement raped Persephone or did the devil
wear a mitre in that year? Come, there s much use in being thin
on a windy day if the cloth s cut well. And oak leaves will not
come on maples, nor birch trees either that is provided , but
pass it over, pass it over.



A woman of good figure, if she be young and gay, welcomes
the wind that presses tight upon her from forehead to ankles
revealing the impatient mountains and valleys of her secret
desire. The wind brings release to her. But the wind is no
blessing to all women. At the same time it is idle to quarrel
over the relative merits of one thing and another, oak leaves
will not come on maples. But there is a deeper folly yet in such
quarreling: the perfections revealed by a Rembrandt are equal
whether it be question of a laughing Saskia or an old woman
cleaning her nails.

3

Think of some lady better than Rackham draws them : mere
fairy stuff some face that would be your face, were you of the
right sex, some twenty years back of a still morning, some
Lucretia out of the Vatican turned Carmelite, some double image
cast over a Titian Venus by two eyes quicker than Titian s hands
were, some strange daughter of an inn-keeper, some . . . Call
it a net to catch love s twin doves and I ll say to you: Look!



IMPROVISATIONS 45

and there ll be the sky there and you ll say the sky s blue.
Whisk the thing away now? What s the sky now?



By virtue of works of art the beauty of woman is released
to flow whither it will up and down the years. The imagination
transcends the thing itself. Kaffirs admire what they term
beauty in their women but which is in official parlance a deform
ity. A Kaffir poet to be a good poet would praise that which is
to him praiseworthy and we should be scandalized.



46 IMPROVISATIONS



VII.



It is still warm enough to slip from the weeds into the lake s
edge, your clothes blushing in the grass and three small boys
grinning behind the derelict hearth s side. But summer is up
among the huckleberries near the path s end and snakes eggs lie
curling in the sun on the lonely summit. But well let s wish
it were higher after all these years staring at it deplore the
paunched clouds glimpse the sky s thin counter-crest and plunge
into the gulch. Sticky cobwebs tell of feverish midnights.
Crack a rock (what s a thousand years!) and send it crashing
among the oaks! Wind a pine tree in a grey-worm s net and
play it for a trout ; oh but it s the moon does that ! No, summer
has gone down the other side of the mountain. Carry home what
we can. What have you brought off? Ah here are thimble-
berries.



In middle life the mind passes to a variegated October.
This is the time youth in its faulty aspirations has set for the
achievement of great summits. But having attained the mount
ain top one is not snatched into a cloud but the descent proffers
its blandishments quite as a matter of course. At this the fellow
is cast into a great confusion and rather plaintively looks about
to see if any has fared better than he.



The little Polish Father of Kingsland does not understand,
he cannot understand. These are exquisite differences never to
be resolved. He comes at midnight through mid-winter slush
to baptise a dying newborn; he smiles suavely and shruggs his
shoulders : a clear middle A touched by a master but he cannot
understand. And Benny, Sharon, Henrietta, and Josephine, what
is it to them? Yet jointly they come more into the way of the
music. And white haired Miss Ball! The empty school is
humming to her little melody played with one finger at the noon
hour but it is beyond them all. There is much heavy breathing,
many tight shut lips, a smothered laugh whiles, two laughs crack-



IMPROVISATIONS 47

ing together, three together sometimes and then a burst of wind
lifting the dust again.



Living with and upon and among the poor, those that gather
in a few rooms, sometimes very clean, sometimes full of vermine,
there are certain pestilential individuals, priests, school teachers,
doctors, commercial agents of one sort or another who though
they themselves are full of graceful perfections nevertheless con
trive to be so complacent of their lot, floating as they are with the
depth of a sea beneath them, as to be worthy only of amused
contempt. Yet even to these sometimes there rises that which they
think in their ignorance is a confused babble of aspiring voices not
knowing what ancient harmonies these are to which they are so
faultily listening.



What I like best s the long unbroken line of the hills there.
Yes, it s a good view. Come, let s visit the orchard. Here s
peaches twenty years on the branch. Not ripe yet!? Why !
Those hills! Those hills! But you ld be young again! Well,
f ourteen s a hard year for boy or girl, let alone one older driving
the pricks in, but though there s more in a song than the notes of
it and a smile s a pretty baby when you ve none other let s not
turn backward. Mumble the words, you understand, call them
four brothers, strain to catch the sense but have to admit it s in a
language they ve not taught you, a flaw somewhere, and for
answer : well, that long unbroken line of the hills there.



Two people, an old man and a woman in early middle life, are
talking together upon a small farm at which the woman has just
arrived on a visit. They have walked to an orchard on the slope
of a hill from which a distant range of mountains can be clearly
made out. A third man, piecing together certain knowledge he
has of the woman with what is being said before him is prompted
to give rein to his imagination. This he does and hears many
oblique sentences which escape the others.



48 IMPROVISATIONS



Coda.

Squalor and filth with a sweet cur nestling in the grimy
blankets of your bed and on better roads striplings dreaming of
wealth and happiness. Country life in America! The cackling
grackle that dartled at the hill s bottom have joined their flock
and swing with the rest over a broken roof toward Dixie.



IMPROVISATIONS 49



VIII.



Some fifteen years we ll say I served this friend, was his
valet, nurse, physician, fool and master: nothing too menial, to
say the least. Enough of that: so.

Stand aside while they pass. This is what they found in the
rock when it was cracked open: this fingernail. Hide your face
among the lower leaves, here s a meeting should have led to better
things but it is only one branch out of the forest and night
pressing you for an answer! Velvet night weighing upon your
eye-balls with gentle insistence ; calling you away : Come with me,
now, tonight ! Come with me ! now tonight . .



In great dudgeon over the small profit that has come to him
through a certain companionship a poet addresses himself and the
loved one as if it were two strangers, thus advancing himself to
the brink of that discovery which will reward all his labors but
which he as yet only discerns as a night, a dark void coaxing him
whither he has no knowledge.

2

You speak of the enormity of her disease, of her poverty.
Bah, these are the fiddle she makes tunes on and it s tunes bring
the world dancing to your house-door, even on this swamp side.
You speak of the helpless waiting, waiting till the thing squeeze
her windpipe shut. Oh, that s best of all, that s romance with
the devil himself a hero. No my boy. You speak of her man s
callous stinginess. Yes, my God, how can he refuse to buy milk
when it s alone milk that she can swallow now ? But how is it she
picks market beans for him day in, day out, in the sun, in the
frost? You understand? You speak of so many things, you
blame me for my indifference. Well, this is you see my sister
and death, great death is robbing her of life. It dwarfs most
things.



Filth and vermine though they shock the over-nice are imper
fections of the flesh closely related in the just imagination of the



50 IMPROVISATIONS

poet to excessive cleanliness. After some years of varied exper
ience with the bodies of the rich and the poor a man finds little to
distinguish between them, bulks them as one and bases his work
ing judgements on other matters.

3

Hercules is in Hacketstown doing farm labor. Look at his
hands if you ll not believe me. And what do I care if yellow and
red are Spain s riches and Spain s good blood. Here yellow and
red mean simply autumn! The odor of the poor farmer s fried
supper is mixing with the smell of the hemlocks, mist is in the
valley hugging the ground and over Parsippany where an oldish
man leans talking to a young woman the moon is swinging from
its star.



IMPROVISATIONS 51



IX.



Throw that flower in the waste basket, it s faded. And keep
an eye to your shoes and fingernails. The fool you once laughed
at has made a fortune ! There s small help in a clutter of leaves
either, no matter how they gleam. Punctillio s the thing. A
nobby vest. Spats. Lamps carry far, believe me, in lieu of
sunshine !



Despite vastness of frontiers, which are as it were the fringes
of a flower full of honey, it is the little things that count!
Neglect them and bitterness drowns the imagination.



The time never was when he could play more than mattrass to
the pretty feet of this woman who had been twice a mother with
out touching the meager pollen of their marriage intimacy. What
more for him than to be a dandelion that could chirp with crickets
or do a onestep with snow flakes? The tune is difficult but not
impossible to the middle aged whose knees are tethered faster to
the mind than they are at eighteen when any wind sets them
clacking. What a rhythm s here! One would say the body lay
asleep and the dance escaped from the hair tips, the bleached fuzz
that covers back and belly, shoulders, neck and forehead. The
dance is diamantine over the sleeper who seems not to breathe!
One would say heat over the end of a roadway that turns down
hill. Cesa!



One may write music and music but who will dance to it?
The dance escapes but the music, the music projects a dance
over itself which the feet follow lazily if at all. So a dance is a
thing in itself. It is the music that dances but if there are words
then there are two dancers, the words pirouetting with the music.

3

One has emotions about the strangest things: men women
himself the most contemptible. But to struggle with ants for a



52 IMPROVISATIONS

piece of meat, a mangy cur to swallow beetles and all better go
slaughter one s own kind in the name of peace except when the
body s not there maggots swarm in the corruption. Oh let him
have it. Find a cleaner fare for wife and child. To the sick
their sick. For us heads bowed over the green-flowered aspho
del. Lean on my shoulder little one, you too. I will lead you to
fields you know nothing of. There s small dancing left for us
any way you look at it.



A man who enjoyed his food, the company of his children
and especially his wife s alternate caresses and tongue lashings
felt his position in the town growing insecure due to a successful
business competitor. Being thus stung to the quick he thinks
magnanimously of his own methods of dealing with his customers
and likens his competitor to a dog that swallows his meat with
beetles or maggots upon it, that is, any way so he gets it.

Being thus roused the man does not seek to outdo his rival
but grows heavily sad and thinks of death and his lost pleasures
thus showing himself to be a person of discernment. For by so
doing he gives evidence of a bastard sort of knowledge of that
diversity of context in things and situations which the great
masters of antiquity looked to for the inspiration and distinction
of their compositions.



IMPROVISATIONS 53



X.



If I could clap this in a cage and let that out we d see colored
wings then to blind the sun but the good ships are anchored
up-stream and the gorged seagulls flap heavily. At sea! At
sea! That s where the waves beat kindliest. But no, singers
are beggars or worse cannot man a ship songs are their trade.
Ku-whee ! Ku-whee ! It s a wind in the lookout s nest talking
of Columbus, whom no sea daunted, Columbus, chained below
decks, bound homeward.



They built a replica of Columbus flagship the Santa Maria
and took it from harbor to harbor along the North Atlantic sea
board. The insignificance of that shell could hardly be exagger
ated when comparison was made with even the very least of our
present day sea-going vessels. Thus was the magnificence of
enterprise and the hardihood of one Christopher Columbus cele
brated at this late date.



You would learn if you knew even one city where people
are a little gathered together and where one sees it s our fron
tier you know the common changes of the human spirit: our
husbands tire of us and we let us not say we go hungry for their
caresses but for caresses of a kind. Oh I am no prophet. I
have no theory to advance, except that it s well nigh impossible
to know the wish till after. Cross the room to him if the whim
leads that way. Here s drink of an eye that calls you. No need
to take the thing too seriously. It s something of a will-o-the-
whisp I acknowledge. All in the pressure of an arm through a
fur coat often. Something of a dancing light with the rain
beating on a cab window. Here s nothing to lead you astray.
What? Why you re young still. Your children? Yes, there
they are. Desire skates like a Hollander as well as runs picka
ninny fashion. Really, there s little more to say than : flowers in
a glass basket under the electric glare ; the carpet is red, mostly, a
hodge-podge of zig-zags that pass for Persian fancies. Risk a
double entendre. But of a sudden the room s not the same!
It s a strange blood sings under some skin. Who will have the



54 IMPROVISATIONS

sense for it? The men sniff suspiciously; you at least my dear
had your head about you. It was a tender nibble but it really did
you credit. But think of what might be! It s all in the imag
ination. I give you no more credit than you deserve, you will
never rise to it, never be more than a rose dropped in the river
but acknowledge that there is, ah there is a You are such
a clever knitter. Your hands please. Ah, if I had your hands.



A woman of marked discernment finding herself among
strange companions wishes for the hands of one of them and
inasmuch as she feels herself refreshed by the sight of these
perfections she offers in return those perfections of her own
which appear to her to be most appropriate to the occasion.



Truth s a wonder. What difference is it how the best head
we have greets his first born these days ? What weight has it that
the bravest hair of all s gone waiting on cheap tables or the most
garrulous lives lonely by a bad neighbor and has her south
windows pestered with caterpillars ? The nights are long for lice
combing or moon dodging and the net comes in empty again.
Or there s been no fish in this fiord since Christian was a baby.
Yet up surges the good zest and the game s on. Follow at my
heels, there s little to tell you you ld think a stoopsworth. You ld
pick the same faces in a crowd no matter what I d say. And
you ld be right too. The path s not yours till you ve gone it alone
a time. But here s another handful of west wind. White of
the night ! White of the night. Turn back till I tell you a puz
zle: What is it in the stilled face of an old mender-man and
winter not far off and a darky parts his wool, and wenches wear
of a Sunday? It s a sparrow with a crumb in his beak dodging
wheels and clouds crossing two ways.



Virtue is not to be packed in a bag and carried off to the rag
mill. Perversions are righted and the upright are reversed, then
the stream takes a bend upon itself and the meaning turns a livid
purple and drops down in a whirlpool without so much as fraying
a single fibre.



IMPROVISATIONS 55



XL



Why pretend to remember the weather two years back?
Why not? Listen close then repeat after others what they have
just said and win a reputation for vivacity. Oh feed upon petals
of aedelweis ! one dew drop, if it be from the right flower, is five
year s drink!



Having once taken the plunge the situation that preceded
it becomes obsolete which a moment before was alive with
malignant rigidities.

2

When beldams dig clams their fat hams (it s always bel
dams) balanced near Tellus hide, this rhinoceros pelt, these
lumped stones buffoonery of midges on a bull s thigh invoke,
what you will : birth s glut, awe at God s craft, youth s poverty,
evolution of a child s caper, man s poor inconsequence. Eclipse
of all things ; sun s self turned hen s rump.

3

Cross a knife and fork and listen to the church bells ! It is
the harvest moon s made wine of our blood. Up over the dark
factory into the blue glare start the young poplars. They whis
per : It is Sunday ! It is Sunday ! But the laws of the county
have been stripped bare of leaves. Out over the marshes flickers
our laughter. A lewd anecdote s the chase. On through the
vapory heather ! And there at banter s edge the city looks at us
sidelong with great eyes, lifts to its lips heavenly milk ! Lucina,
O Lucina! beneficent cow, how have we offended thee?



Hilariously happy because of some obscure wine of the fancy
which they have drunk four rollicking companions take delight in
the thought that they have thus evaded the stringent laws of the
county. Seeing the distant city bathed in moonlight and staring
seriously at them they liken the moon to a cow and its light to
milk.



5 6 IMPROVISATIONS



XII.



The browned trees are singing for my thirty- fourth birthday.
Leaves are beginning to fall upon the long grass. Their cold
perfume raises the anticipation of sensational revolutions in my
unsettled life. Violence has begotten peace, peace has fluttered
away in agitation. A bewildered change has turned among the
roots and the Prince s kiss as far at sea as ever.



To each age as to each person its perfections. But in these
things there is a kind of revolutionary sequence. So that a man
having lain at ease here and advanced there as time progresses
the order of these things becomes inverted. Thinking to have
brought all to one level the man finds his foot striking through
where he had thought rock to be and stands firm where he had
experienced only a bog hitherto. At a loss to free himself from
bewilderment at this discovery he puts off the caress of the
imagination.

2

The trick is never to touch the world anywhere. Leave
yourself at the door, walk in, admire the pictures, talk a few
words with the master of the house, question his wife a little,
rejoin yourself at the door and go off arm in arm listening to
last week s symphony played by angel hornsmen from the benches
of a turned cloud. Or if dogs rub too close and the poor are too
much out let your friend answer them.



The poet being sad at the misery he has beheld that morning
and seeing several laughing fellows approaching puts himself in
their way in order to hear what they are saying. Gathering from
their remarks that it is of some sharp business by which they have
all made an inordinate profit, he allows his thoughts to play back
upon the current of his own life. And imagining himself to be two
persons he eases his mind by putting his burdens upon one while
the other takes what pleasure there is before him.



IMPROVISATIONS 57

Something to grow used to ; a stone too big for ox haul, too
near for blasting. Take the road round it or scrape away,
scrape away : a mountain s buried in the dirt ! Marry a gopher
to help you! Drive her in! Go yourself down along the lit
pastures. Down, down. The whole family take shovels, babies
and all! Down, down! Here s Tenochtitlan ! here s a strange
Darien where worms are princes.

3

But for broken feet beating, beating on worn flagstones I
would have danced to my knees at the fiddle s first run. But
here s evening and there they scamper back of the world chasing
the sun round! And it s daybreak in Calcutta! So lay aside,
let s draw off from the town and look back awhile. See, there it
rises out of the swamp and the mists already blowing their sleepy
bagpipes.



Often a poem will have merit because of some one line or
even one meritorious word. So it hangs heavily on its stem but
still secure, the tree unwilling to release it.



5 8 IMPROVISATIONS



XIII.



Their half sophisticated faces gripe me in the belly. There s
no business to be done with them either way. They re neither
virtuous nor the other thing, between which exist no perfections.
Oh, the mothers will explain that they are good girls. But these
never guess that there s more sense in a sentence heard backward
than forward most times. A country whose flowers are without
perfume and whose girls lack modesty the saying goes . Dig
deeper mon ami, the rock maidens are running naked in the
dark cellars.



In disgust at the spectacle of an excess of ripe flesh that, in
accordance with the local custom of the place he is in, will be
left to wither without ever achieving its full enjoyment, a young
man of the place consoles himself with a vision of perfect beauty.



I ll not get it no matter how I try. Say it was a girl in black
I held open a street door for. Let it go at that. I saw a man an
hour earlier I liked better much better. But it s not so easy
to pass over. Perfection s not a thing you ll let slip so easily.
What a body! The little flattened buttocks; the quiver of the
flesh under the smooth fabric ! Agh, it isn t that I want to go
to bed with you. In fact what is there to say? except the
mind s a queer nereid sometimes and flesh is at least as good a
gauze as words are: something of that. Something of mine
yours hearts on sleaves? Ah zut what s the use? It s not
that I ve lost her again either. It s hard to tell loss from gain
anyway.

3

The words of the thing twang and twitter to the gentle rock
ing of a high-laced boot and the silk above that. The trick of
the dance is in following now the words, allegro, now the con
trary beat of the glossy leg: Reaching far over as if But al
ways she draws back and comes down upon the word flat footed.



IMPROVISATIONS 59

For a moment we but the boot s costly and the play s not mine.
The pace leads off anew. Again the words break it and we both
comes down flatfooted. Then near the knee, jumps to the eyes,
catching in the hair s shadow. But the lips take the rhythm again
and again we come down flatfooted. By this time boredom takes
a hand and the play s ended.



60 IMPROVISATIONS



XIV.



The brutal Lord of All will rip us from each other leave the
one to suffer here alone. No need belief in god or hell to postu
late that much. The dance: hands touching, leaves touching
eyes looking, clouds rising- lips touching, cheeks touching,
arms about . . . Sleep. Heavy head, heavy arm, heavy
dream : Of Ymir s flesh the earth was made and of his
thoughts were all the gloomy clouds created. Oya !



Out of bitterness itself the clear wine of the imagination
will be pressed and the dance prosper thereby.



To you ! whoever you are, wherever you are ! (But I know
where you are!) There s Durer s "Nemesis" naked on her
sphere over the little town by the river except she s too old.
There s a dancing burgess by Tenier and Villon s maitress after
he d gone bald and was shin pocked and toothless : she that had
him ducked in the sewage drain. Then there s that miller s
daughter of "buttocks broad and breastes high". Something of
Nietzsche, something of the good Samaritan, something of the
devil himself, can cut a caper of a fashion, my fashion ! Hey
you, the dance! Squat. Leap. Hips to the left. Chin ha!
sideways! Stand up, stand up ma bonne! you ll break my back
bone. So again! and so forth till we re sweat soaked.



Some fools once were listening to a poet reading his poem.
It so happened that the words of the thing spoke of gross matters
of the everyday world such as are never much hidden from a
quick eye. Out of these semblances, and borrowing certain
members from fitting masterpieces of antiquity, the poet began
piping up his music, simple fellow, thinking to please his listeners.
But they getting the whole matter sadly muddled in their minds



IMPROVISATIONS 61

made such a confused business of listening that not only were
they not pleased at the poet s exertions but no sooner had he done
than they burst out against him with violent imprecations.



It s all one. Richard worked years to conquer the descend
ing cadence, idiotic sentimentalist. Ha, for happiness! This
tore the dress in ribbons from her maid s back and not spared the
nails either ; wild anger spit from her pinched eyes ! This is the
better part. Or a child under a table to be dragged out coughing
and biting, eyes glittering evilly. I ll have it my way! Nothing
is any pleasure but misery and brokeness. THIS is the only up-
cadence. This is where the secret rolls over and opens its eyes.
Bitter words spoken to a child ripple in morning light ! Boredom
from a bedroom doorway thrills with anticipation! The com
plaints of an old man dying piecemeal are starling chirrups.
Coughs go singing on springtime paths across a field; corruption
picks strawberries and slow warping of the mind, blacking the
deadly walls counted and recounted rolls in the grass and
shouts ecstatically. All is solved! The moaning and dull sob
bing of infants sets blood tingling and eyes ablaze to listen.
Speed sings in the heels at long nights tossing on coarse sheets
with burning sockets staring into the black. Dance! Sing!
Coil and uncoil! Whip yourselves about! Shout the deliver-
ence ! An old woman has infected her blossomy grand-daughter
with a blood illness that every two weeks drives the mother into
hidden songs of agony, the pad-footed mirage of creeping death
for music. The face muscles keep pace. Then a darting about
the compass in a tarantelle that wears flesh from bones. Here is
dancing ! The mind in tatters. And so the music wistfully takes
the lead. Aye de mi, Juana la Loca, reina de Espagna, esa esta
tu canto, reina mia!



62 IMPROVISATIONS



XV.



N! cha! cha! cha! destiny needs men, so make up
your mind. Here s an oak filling the wind s space. Out with
him!

By carefully prepared stages come down through the
vulgarities of a cupiscent girlhood to the barren distinction of
this cold six A. M. Her pretty, pinched face is a very simple
tune but it carries now a certain quasi-maidenly distinction. It s
not at least what you d have heard six years back when she was
really virgin.



Often when the descent seems well marked there will be a
subtle ascent over-ruling it so that in the end when the degrada
tion is fully anticipated the person will be found to have emerged
upon a hilltop.

2

Such an old sinner knows the lit-edged clouds. No spring
days like those that come in October. Strindberg had the eyes
for Swan White ! So make my bed with yours, tomorrow . . . ?
Tomorrow . . . the hospital.



Seeing his life at an end a miserable fellow f much accus
tomed to evil, wishes for the companionship of youth and beauty
before he dies and in exchange thinks to proffer that praise which
due to the kind of life he has led he is most able to give.

3

Here s a new sort of April clouds: whiffs of dry snow on
the polished roadway that, curled by the wind, lie in feathery
figures. Oh but April s not to be hedged that simply. She was
a Scotch lady and made her own butter and they grew their own
rye. It was the finest bread I ever tasted. And how we used to
jump in the hay! When he lost his money she kept a boarding



IMPROVISATIONS 63

house . . But this is nothing to the story that should have been
written could he have had time to jot it all down : of how Bertha s
lips are turned and her calf also and how she weighs 118 pounds.
Do I think that is much? Hagh! And her other perfections.
Ruin the girl? Oh there are fifty niceties that being virtuous,
oh glacially virtuous one might consider, i.e. whose touch is the
less venomous and by virtue of what sanction? Love, my good
friends has never held sway in more than a heart or two here and
there since ? All beauty stands upon the edge of the deflower
ing. I confess I wish my wife younger. This is the lewdest
thought possible: it makes mockery of the spirit, say you?
Solitary poet who speaks his mind and has not one fellow in a
virtuous world! I wish for youth! I wish for love ! I see
well what passes in the street and much that passes in the mind.
You ll say this has nothing in it of chastity. Ah well, chastity
is a lily of the valley that only a fool would mock. There is no
whiter nor no sweeter flower but once past, the rankest stink
comes from the soothest petals. Heigh-ya! A crib from our
mediaeval friend Shakespeare.



That which is heard from the lips of those to whom we are
talking in our day s-aff airs mingles with what we see in the streets
and everywhere about us as it mingles also with our imaginations.
By this chemistry is fabricated a language of the day which shifts
and reveals its meaning as clouds shift and turn in the sky and
sometimes send down rain or snow or hail. This is the language
to which few ears are tuned so that it is said by poets that few
men are ever in their full senses since they have no way to use
their imaginations. Thus to say that a man has no imagination
is to say nearly that he is blind or deaf. But of old poets would
translate this hidden language into a kind of replica of the speech
of the world with certain distinctions of rhyme and meter to show
that it was not really that speech. Nowadays the elements of
that language are set down as heard and the imagination of the
listener and of the poet are left free to mingle in the dance.



64 IMPROVISATIONS



XVI.



Per le pillole d Ercole! I should write a happy poem tonight.
It would have to do with a bare, upstanding fellow whose thighs
bulge with a zest for say, a zest! He tries his arm. Flings a
stone over the river. Scratches his bare back. Twirls his beard,
laughs softly and stretches up his arms in a yawn. stops in
the midst looking ! A white flash over against the oak stems !
Draws in his belly. Looks again. In three motions is near the
stream s middle, swinging forward, hugh, hugh, hugh, hugh,
blinking his eyes against the lapping wavelets ! Out ! and the
sting of the thicket !



The poet transforms himself into a satyr and goes in pursuit
of a white skinned dryad. The gaiety of his mood full of lusti-
hood, even so, turns back with a mocking jibe.



Giants in the dirt. The gods, the Greek gods, smothered
in filth and ignorance. The race is scattered over the world.
Where is its home? Find it if you ve the genius. Here Hebe
with a sick jaw and a cruel husband, her mother left no place
for a brain to grow. Herakles rowing boats on Berry s Creek!
Zeus is a country doctor without a taste for coin jingling. Sup
per is of a bastard nectar on rare nights for they will come
the rare nights! The ground lifts and out sally the heroes of
Sophocles, of JEschylus. They go seeping down into our hearts,
they rain upon us and in the bog they sink again down through
the white roots, down to a saloon back of the rail-road switch
where they have that girl, you know, the one that should have
been Venus by the lust that s in her. They ve got her down there
among the railroad men. A crusade couldn t rescue her. Up to
jail or call it down to Limbo the Chief of Police our Pluto.
It s all of the gods, there s nothing else worth writing of. They
are the same men they always were but fallen. Do they dance
now, they that danced beside Helicon ? They dance much as they
did then, only, few have an eye for it, through the dirt and
fumes.



IMPROVISATIONS 65

When they came to question the girl before the local judge
it was discovered that there were seventeen men more or less
involved so that there was nothing to do but to declare the child
a common bastard and send the girl about her business. Her
mother took her in and after the brat died of pneumonia a year
later she called in the police one day. An officer opened the
bedroom door. The girl was in bed with an eighteenth fellow,
a young roaming loafer with a silly grin to his face. They forced
a marriage which relieved the mother of her burden. The girl
was weak minded so that it was only with the greatest difficulty
that she could cover her moves, in fact she never could do so with
success.

3

Homer sat in a butcher s shop one rainy night and smelt
fresh meat near him so he moved to the open window. It is
infinitely important that I do what I well please in the world.
What you please is that I please what you please but what I please
is well rid of you before I turn off from the path into the field.
What I am, why that they made me. What I do, why that I
choose for myself. Reading shows, you say. Yes, reading
shows reading. What you read is what they think and what they
think is twenty years old or twenty thousand and it s all one to
the little girl in the pissoir. Likewise to me. But the butcher
was a friendly fellow so he took the carcass outside thinking
Homer to be no more than any other beggar.



A man s carcass has no more distinction than the carcass
of an ox.



66 IMPROVISATIONS



XVII.



Little round moon up there wait awhile do not walk so
quickly. I could sing you a song : Wine clear the sky is and
the stars no bigger than sparks! Wait for me and next winter
we ll build a fire and shake up twists of sparks out of it and you
shall see yourself in the ashes, young as you were one time.



// has always been the fashion to talk about the moon.



This that I have struggled against is the very thing I should
have chosen but all s right now. They said I could not put the
flower back into the stem nor win roses upon dead briars and I
like a fool believed them. But all s right now. Weave away,
dead fingers, the darkies are dancing in Mayaguez all but one
with the sore heel and sugar cane will soon be high enough to
romp through. Haia! leading over the ditches, with your skirts
flying and the devil in the wind back of you no one else.
Weave away and the bitter tongue of an old woman is eating,
eating, eating venomous words with thirty years mould on them
and all shall be eaten back to honeymoon s end. Weave and
pangs of agony and pangs of loneliness are beaten backward into
the love kiss, weave and kiss recedes into kiss and kisses into
looks and looks into the heart s dark and over again and over
again and time s pushed ahead in spite of all that. The petals
that fell bearing me under are lifted one by one. That which
kissed my flesh for priest s lace so that I could not touch it
weave and you have lifted it and I am glimpsing light chinks
among the notes ! Backward, and my hair is crisp with purple
sap and the last crust s broken.



A woman on the verge of growing old kindles in the mind of
her son a certain curiosity which spinning upon itself catches the



IMPROVISATIONS 67

woman herself in Us wheel, stripping from her the accumulations
of many harsh years and shows her at last full of an old time
suppleness hardly to have been guessed by the stiffened exterior
which had held her fast till that time.



Once again the moon in a glassy twilight. The gas jet in
the third floor window is turned low, they have not drawn the
shade, sends down a flat glare upon the lounge s cotton-Persian
cover where the time passes with clumsy caresses. Never in
this millieu has one stirred himself to turn up the light. It is
costly to leave a jet burning at all. Feel your way to the bed.
Drop your clothes on the floor and creep in. Flesh becomes so
accustomed to the touch she will not even waken. And so
hours pass and not a move. The room too falls asleep and the
street outside falls mumbling into a heap of black rags morn
ing s at seven



Seeing a light in an upper window the poet by means of the
power he has enters the room and of what he sees there brews
himself a sleep potion.



68 IMPROVISATIONS



XVIII.



How deftly we keep love from each other. It is no trick at
all: the movement of a cat that leaps a low barrier. You have
if the truth be known loved only one man and that was before
my time. Past him you have never thought nor desired to think.
In his perfections you are perfect. You are likewise perfect in
other things. You present to me the surface of a marble. And
I, we will say, loved also before your time. Put it quite
obscenely. And I have my perfections. So here we present
ourselves to each other naked. What have we effected ? Say
we have aged a little together and you have borne children. We
have in short thriven as the world goes. We have proved fertile.
The children are apparently healthy. One of them is even
whimsical and one has an unusual memory and a keen eye.
But It is not that we have not felt a certain rumbling, a certain
stirring of the earth but what has it amounted to? Your first
love and mine were of different species. There is only one way
out. It is for me to take up my basket of words and for you to
sit at your piano, each his own way, until I have, if it so be that
good fortune smile my way, made a shrewd bargain at some fair
and so by dint of heavy straining supplanted in your memory the
brilliance of the old nrmhold. Which is impossible. Ergo: I
am a blackguard.



The act is disclosed by the imagination of it. But of first
importance is to realize that the imagination leads and the deed
comes behind. First Don Quixote then Sancho Panza. So that
the act, to win its praise, will win it in diverse fashions according
to the^ way the imagination has taken. Thus a harsh deed will
sometimes win its praise through laughter and sometimes through
savage mockery, and a deed of simple kindness will come to its
reward through sarcastic comment. Each thing is secure in its
own perfections.

2

After thirty years staring at one true phrase he discovered
that its opposite was true also. For weeks he laughed in the grip
of a fierce self derision. Having lost the falsehood to which he d



IMPROVISATIONS 69

fixed his hawser he rolled drunkenly about the field of his
environment before the new direction began to dawn upon his
cracked mind. What a fool ever to be tricked into seriousness.
Soft hearted, hard hearted. Thick crystals began to shoot
through the liquid of his spirit. Black, they were: branches that
have lain in a fog which now a wind is blowing away. Things
move. Fatigued as you are watch how the mirror sieves out the
extraneous : in sleep as in waking. Summoned to his door by a
tinkling bell he looked into a white face, the face of a man
convulsed with dread, saw the laughter back of its drawn alert
ness. Out in the air: the sidesplitting burlesque of a sparkling
midnight stooping over a little house on a sandbank. The city at
the horizon blowing a lurid red against the flat cloud. The moon
masquerading for a tower clock over the factory, its hands in a
gesture that, were time real, would have settled all. But the
delusion convulses the leafless trees with the deepest appreciation
of the mummery : insolent poking of a face upon the half-lit win
dow from which the screams burst. So the man alighted in the
great silence, with a myopic star blinking to clear its eye over his
hat top. He comes to do good. Fatigue tickles his calves and
the lower part of his back with solicitous fingers, strokes his feet
and his knees with appreciative charity. He plunges up the dark
steps on his grotesque deed of mercy. In his warped brain an
owl of irony fixes on the immediate object of his care as if it
were the thing to be destroyed, guffaws at the impossibility of
putting any kind of value on the object inside or of even reversing
or making less by any other means than induced sleep which is
no solution the methodical gripe of the sufferer. Stupidity
couched in a dingy room beside the kitchen. One room stove-
hot, the next the dead cold of a butcher s ice box. The man
leaned and cut the baby from its stem. Slop in disinfectant, roar
with derision at the insipid blood stench: hallucination comes to
the rescue on the brink of seriousness: the gas-stove flame is
starblue, violets back of L Orloge at Lancy. The smile of a
spring morning trickles into the back of his head and blinds the
eyes to the irritation of the poppy red flux. A cracked window
blind lets in Venus. Stars. The hand-lamp is too feeble to have
its own way. The vanity of their neck stretching, trying to be
large as a street-lamp sets him roaring to himself anew. And
rubber gloves, the color of moist dates, the identical glisten and
texture : means a ballon trip to Fez. So one is a ridiculous savior



TO IMPROVISATIONS

of the poor, with fatigue always at his elbow with a new jest,
the newest smutty story, the prettiest defiance of insipid pretences
that cannot again assert divine right nonsensical gods that are
fit to lick shoes clean : and the great round face of Sister Palagia
straining to keep composure against the jaws of a body louse.
In at the back door. We have been a benefactor. The cross
laughter has been denied us but one cannot have more than the
appetite sanctions.

3

Awake early to the white blare of a sun flooding in sidewise.
Strip and bathe in it. Ha, but an ache tearing at your throat and
a vague cinema lifting its black moon blot all out. There s no
walking barefoot in the crisp leaves nowadays. There s no
dancing save in the head s dark. Go draped in soot; call on
modern medicine to help you: the coal man s blowing his thin
dust up through the house ! Why then, a new step lady ! I ll
meet you you know where o the dark side! Let the wheel
click. "



In the mind there is a continual play of obscure images which
coming between the eyes and their prey seem pictures on the
screen at the movies. Somewhere there appears to be a mal
adjustment. The wish would be to see not floating visions of
unknown purport but the imaginative qualities of the actual
things being perceived accompany their gross vision in a slow
dance, interpreting as they go. But inasmuch as this will not
always be the case one must dance nevertheless as he can.



IMPROVISATIONS 71



XIX.



Carry clapping bundles of lath-strips, adjust, dig, saw on a
diagonal, hammer a thousand ends fast and discover afterward
the lattice-arbor top s two clean lines in a dust of dew. There are
days when leaves have knife s edges and one sees only eye-pupils,
fixes every catchpenny in a shop window and every wire against
the sky but goes puzzled from vista to vista in his own house
staring under beds for God knows what all.



A lattice screen say fifty feet long by seven high, such a
thing as is built to cut off some certain part of a yard from
public mew, is surprisingly expensive to put up. The wooden
strips alone, if they are placed at all close together must be
figured solid, as if it were a board fence. Then there are the
posts, the frames, the trimming, the labor and last of all the two
coats of paint. Is it a wonder the artisan cannot afford more
than the luxury of these calculations.



Imperceptibly your self shakes free in all its brutal signifi
cance, feels its subtle power renewed and abashed at its covered
lustihood breaks to the windows and draws back before the
sunshine it sees there as before some imagined figure that would
be there if ah if But for a moment your hand rests upon the
palace window sill, only for a moment.

3

It is not fair to be old, to put on a brown sweater. It is not
just to walk out of a November evening bare headed and with
white hair in the wind. Oh the cheeks are ruddy enough and the
grin broad enough, it s not that. Worse is to ride a wheel, a
glittering machine that runs without knowing to move. It is no
part of the eternal truth to wear white canvas shoes and a pink
coat. It is a damnable lie to be fourteen. The curse of God is
on her head! Who can speak of justice when young men wear



72 IMPROVISATIONS

round hats and carry bundles wrapped in paper. It is a case for
the supreme court to button a coat in the wind, no matter how
icy. Lewd to touch an arm at a crossing; the shame of it
screams to the man in a window. The horrible misery brought on
by the use of black shoes is more than the wind will ever swallow.
To move at all is worse than murder, worse than Jack the Ripper.
It s lies, walking, spitting, breathing, coughing lies that bloom,
shine sun, shine moon. Unfair to see or be seen, snatch-purses
work. Eat hands full of ashes, angels have lived on it time with
out end. Are you better than an angel? Let judges giggle to
each other over their benches and use dirty towels in the ante
room. Gnaw, gnaw, gnaw ! at the heads of felons . . . There
was a baroness lived in Hungary bathed twice monthly in virgin s
blood.



A mother will love her children most grotesquely. I do not
mean by that more than the term "perversely" perhaps more
accurately describes. Oh I mean the most commonplace of
mothers. She will be most willing toward that daughter who
thwarts her most and not toward the little kitchen helper. So
where one is mother to any great number of people he will love
best perhaps some child whose black and peculiar hair is an exact
replica of that of the figure in Velasques , Infanta Maria Theresa
or some Italian matron whose largeness of manner takes in the
whole street. These things relate to inner perfections which it
would be profitless to explain.



IMPROVISATIONS 73



XX.



Where does this downhill turn up again? Driven to the
wall you d put claws to your toes and make a ladder of smooth
bricks. But this, this scene shifting that has clipped the clouds
stems and left them to flutter down; heaped them at the feet, so
much hay, so much bull s fodder. (Au moins, you cannot deny
you have the clouds to grasp now, mon ami !) Climb now ? The
wall s clipped off too, only its roots are left. Come, here s an
iron hoop from a barrel once held nectar to gnaw spurs out of.



You cannot hold spirit round the arms but it takes lies for
wings, turns poplar leaf and flutters off leaving the old stalk
desolate. There s much pious pointing at the sky but on the
other side few know how youth s won again, the pesty spirit shed
each ten years for more skin room. And who ll say what s pious
or not pious or how I ll sing praise to God? Many a morning,
were t not for a cup of coffee, a man would be lonesome enough
no matter how his child gambols. And for the boy? There s no
craft in him; it s this or that, the thing s done and tomorrow s
another day. But if you push him too close, try for the
butterflies, you ll have a devil at the table.

3

One need not be hopelessly cast down because he cannot cut
onyx into a ring to fit a lady s finger. You hang your head.
There is neither onyx nor porphyry on these roads only brown
dirt. For all that, one may see his face in a flower along it
even in this light. Eyes only and for a flash only. Oh, keep the
neck bent, plod with the back to the split dark! Walk in the
curled mudcrusts to one side, hands hanging. Ah well . .
Thoughts are trees ! Ha, ha, ha, ha ! Leaves load the branches
and upon them white night sits kicking her heels against the stars.



A poem can be made of anything. This is a portrait of a
disreputable farm hand made out of the stuff of his environment.



74 IMPROVISATIONS



XXI.



There s the bathtub. Look at it, caustically rejecting its
smug proposal. Ponder removedly the herculean task of a bath.
There s much cameraderie in filth but it s no that. And change
is lightsome but it s not that either. Fresh linen with a dab here,
there of the wet paw serves me better. Take a stripling stroking
chin-fuzz, match his heart against that of grandpa watching his
silver wane. When these two are compatible I ll plunge in.
But where s the edge lifted between sunlight and moonlight.
Where does lamplight cease to nick it? Here s hot water.



It is the mark of our civilization that all houses today include
a room for the relief and washing of the body, a room ingeniously
appointed with water-vessels of many and curious sorts. There
is nothing in antiquity to equal this.



Neatness and finish; the dust out of every corner! You
swish from room to room and find all perfect. The house may
now be carefully wrapped in brown paper and sent to a publisher.
It is a work of art. You look rather askance at me. Do not
believe I cannot guess your mind, yet I have my studies. You
see, when the wheel s just at the up turn it glimpses horizon,
zenith, all in a burst, the pull of the earth shaken off, a scatter
of fragments, significance in a burst of water striking up from
the base of a fountain. Then at the sickening turn toward death
the pieces are joined into a pretty thing, a bouquet frozen in an
ice-cake. This is art, mon cher, a thing to carry up with you
on the next turn; a very small thing, inconceivably feathery.



Live as they will together a husband and wife give each
other many a sidelong glance at unlikely moments. Each
watches the other out of the tail of his eye. Always it seems



IMPROVISATIONS 75

some drunkeness is waiting to unite them. First one then the
other empties some carafe of spirits forgetting that two lumps of
earth are neither wiser nor sadder .... A man watches his
wife clean house. He is filled with knowledge by his wife s
exertions. This is incomprehensible to her. Knowing she will
never understand his excitement he consoles himself with the
thought of art.

3

The pretension of these doors to broach or to conclude our
pursuits, our meetings, of these papered walls to separate our
thoughts of impossible tomorrows and these ceilings that are a
jest at shelter . . It is laughter gone mad of a holiday that
has frozen into this what shall I say? Call it, this house of
ours, the crystal itself of laughter, thus peaked and faceted.



// is a popular superstition that a house is somehow the
possession of the man who lives in it. But a house has no relation
whatever to anything but itself. The architect feels the rhythm
of the house drawing his mind into opaque partitions in which
doors appear, then windows and so on until out of the vague or
clearcut mind of the architect the ill-built or deftly-built house
has been empowered to draw stone and timbers into a foreap-
pointed focus. If one shut the door of a house he is to that
extent a carpenter.

Coda

Outside, the north wind, coming and passing, swelling and
dying, lifts the frozen sand drives it arattle against the lidless
windows and we my dear sit stroking the cat stroking the
cat and smiling sleepily, prrrrr.



A house is sometimes wine. It is more than a skin. The
young pair listen attentively to the roar of the weather. The
blustering cold takes on the shape of a destructive presence.
They loosen their imaginations. The house seems protecting
them. They relax gradually as though in the keep of a bene
volent protector. Thus the house becomes a wine which has
drugged them out of their senses.



76 IMPROVISATIONS



XXII.



This is a slight stiff dance to a waking baby whose arms
have been lying curled back above his head upon the pillow,
making a flower the eyes closed. Dead to the world ! Waking
is a little hand brushing away dreams. Eyes open. Here s a
new world.



There is nothing the sky-serpent will not eat. Sometimes it
stoops to gnaw Fujiyama, sometimes to slip its long and softly
clasping tongue about the body of a sleeping child who smiles
thinking its mother is lifting it.



Security, solidity we laugh at them in our clique. It is
tobacco to us, this side of her leg. We put it in our samovar and
make tea of it. You see the stuff has possibilities. You think
you are opposing the rich but the truth is you* re turning toward
authority yourself, to say nothing of religion. No, I do not say
it means nothing. Why everything is nicely adjusted to our
moods. But I would rather describe to you what I saw in the
kitchen last night overlook the girl a moment: there over the
sink (i) this saucepan holds all, (2) this colander holds most,
(3) this wire sieve lets most go and (4) this funnel holds
nothing. You appreciate the progression. What need then to
be always laughing? Quit phrase making that is, not of course
but you will understand me or if not why come to break
fast sometime around evening on the fourth of January any year
you please ; always be punctual where eating is concerned.



My little son s improvisations exceed mine: a round stone
to him s a loaf of bread or (< this hen could lay a dozen golden
eggs". Birds fly about his bedstead; giants lean over him with
hungry jaws; bears roam the farm by summer and are killed and
quartered at a thought. There are interminable stories at eating



IMPROVISATIONS 77

time full of bizarre imagery, true grotesques, pigs that change to
dogs in the telling, cows that sing, roosters that become mountains
and oceans that fill a soup plate. There are groans and growls,
dun clouds and sunshine mixed in a huge phantasmagoria that
never rests, never ceases to unfold into the days poor little
happenings. Not that alone. He has music which I have not.
His tunes follow no scale, no rhythm alone the mood in odd
ramblings up and down, over and over with a rigor of invention
that rises beyond the power to follow except in some more
obvious flight. Never have I heard so crushing a critique as
those desolate inventions, involved half-hymns, after his first
visit to a Christian Sunday school.

3

This song is to Phyllis! By this deep snow I know it s
springtime, not ring time ! Good God no ! The screaming brat s
a sheep bleating, the rattling crib-side sheep shaking a bush. We
are young! We are happy! says Colin. What s an icy room
and the sun not up? This song is to Phyllis. Reproduction let s
death in, says Joyce. Rot, say I. To Phyllis this song is !



That which is known has value only by virtue of the dark.
This cannot be otherwise. A thing known passes out of the mind
into the muscles, the will is quit of it, save only when set into
vibration by the forces of darkness opposed to it.



7 8 IMPROVISATIONS



XXIII.



Baaaa! Ba-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha ! Bebe esa purga. It is
the goats of Santo Domingo talking. Bebe esa purga!
Bebeesapurga ! And the answer is : Yo no lo quiero beber!
Yonoloquierobeber !



It is nearly pure luck that gets the mind turned inside out
in a work of art. There is nothing more difficult than to write
a poem. It is something of a matter of slight of hand. The
poets of the T ang dynasty or of the golden age in Greece or even
the Elizabethans: it s a kind of alchemy of form, a deft bottling
of a fermenting language. Take Dante and his Tuscan dialect
It s a matter of position. The empty form drops from a cloud,
like a gourd from a vine; into it the poet packs his phallus-like
argument.



The red huckleberry bushes running miraculously along the
ground among the trees everywhere, except where the land s
tilled, these keep her from that tiredness the earth s touch lays up
under the soles of feet. She runs beyond the wood follows the
swiftest along the roads laughing among the birch clusters her
face in the yellow leaves the curls before her eyes her mouth
half open. This is a person in particular there where they have
her and I have only a wraith in the birch trees.



It is not the lusty bodies of the nearly naked girls in the
shows about town, nor the blare of the popular tunes that make
money for the manager. The girls can be procured rather more
easily in other ways and the music is dirt cheap. It is that this
meat is savored with a strangeness which never looses its fresh
taste to generation after generation, either of dancers or those
who watch. It is beauty escaping, spinning up over the heads,
blown out at the overtaxed vents by the electric fans.



IMPROVISATIONS 79



In many poor and sentimental households it is a custom to
have cheap prints in glass frames upon the walls. These are of
all sorts and many sizes and may be found in any room from the
kitchen to the toilet. The drawing is always of the worst and the
colors, not gaudy but almost always of faint indeterminate tints,
are infirm. Yet a delicate accuracy exists between these prints
and the environment which breeds them. But as if to intensify
this relationship words are added. There will be a sentiment"
as it is called, a rhyme, which the picture illuminates. Many of
these pertain to love. This is well enough when the bed is new
and the young couple spend the long winter nights there in
delightful seclusion. But childbirth follows in its time and a
motto still hangs above the bed. It is only then that the full
ironical meaning of these prints leaves the paper and the frame
and starting through the glass takes undisputed sway over the
household.



8o IMPROVISATIONS



XXIV.



I like the boy. It s years back I began to draw him to me
or he was pushed my way by the others. And what if there s
no sleep because the bed s burning ; is that a reason to send a chap
to Grey stone ! Greystone ! There s a name if you ve any tatter
of mind left in you. It s the long back, narrowing that way at
the waist perhaps whets the chisel in me. How the flanks flutter
and the heart races. Imagination! That s the worm in the
apple. What if it run to paralyses and blind fires, here s sense
loose in a world set on foundations. Blame buzzards for the eyes
they have.



Buzzards, granted their disgusting habit in regard to meat,
have eyes of a power equal to that of the eagles .



Five miscarriages since January is a considerable record
Emily dear but hearken to me : The Pleiades that small cluster
of lights in the sky there . You d better go on in the house
before you catch cold. Go on now !



Carelessness of heart is a virtue akin to the small lights of
the stars. But it is sad to see virtues in those who have not the
gift of the imagination to value them.

Damn me I feel sorry for them. Yet syphilis is no more
than a wild pink in the rock s cleft. I know that. Radicals and
capitalists doing a can-can tread the ground clean. Luck to the
feet then. Bring a Russian to put a fringe to the rhythm. What s
the odds? Commiseration cannot solve calculus. Calculus is a
stone. Frost ll crack it. Till then, there s many a good back-
road among the clean raked fields of hell where autumn flowers
are blossoming.



IMPROVISATIONS 81

Pathology literally speaking is a flower garden. Syphilis
covers the body with salmon-red petals. The study of medicine
is an inverted sort of horticulture. Over and above all this floats
the philosophy of disease which is a stern dance. One of its
most delightful gestures is bringing flowers to the sick.

3

For a choice? Go to bed at three in the afternoon with
your clothes on: dreams for you! Here s an old bonnefemme
in a pokebonnet staring into the rear of a locomotive. Or if
this prove too difficult take a horse-drag made of green limbs, a
kind of leaf cloth. Up the street with it! Ha, how the tar
clings. Here s glee for the children. All s smeared. Green s
black. Leap like a devil, clap hands and cast around for more.
Here s a pine wood driven head down into a mud-flat to build a
school on. Oh la, la! sand pipers made mathematicians at the
state s cost.



82 IMPROVISATIONS



XXV.



There s force to this cold sun, makes beard stubble stand
shinily. We look, we pretend great things to our glass rubbing
our chin: This is a profound comedian who grimaces deeds into
slothful breasts. This is a sleepy president, without followers
save oak leaves but their coats are of the wrong color. This
is a farmer plowed a field in his dreams and since that time-
goes stroking the weeds that choke his furrows. This is a poet
left his own country



The simple expedient of a mirror has practical use for
arranging the hair, for observation of the set of a coat, etc. But
as an exercise for the mind the use of a mirror cannot be too
highly recommended. Nothing of a mechanical nature could be
more conducive to that elasticity of the attention which frees
the mind for the enjoyment of its special prerogatives.



A man can shoot his spirit up out of a wooden house, that
is, through the roof the roof s slate but how far? It is of
final importance to know that. To say the world turns under my
feet and that I watch it passing with a smile is neither the truth
nor my desire. But I would wish to stand you ve seen the
kingfisher do it where the largest town might be taken in my
two hands, as high let us say as a man s head some one man
not too far above the clouds. What would I do then? Oh I d
hold my sleeve over the sun awhile to make church bells ring.



It is obvious that if in flying an airplane one reached such
an altitude that all sense of direction and every intelligible percep
tion of the world were lost there would be nothing left to do but
to come down to that point at which eyes regained their power.

Towels will stay in a heap if the window s shut and oil
in a bottle if the cork s there. But if the meat s not cut to suit



IMPROVISATIONS 83

it s no use rising before sun up, you ll never sweep the dust from
these floors. Hide smiles among the tall glasses in the cupboard,
come back when you think the trick s done and you ll find only
dead flies there. It s beyond hope. You were not born of a
Monday.



There are divergences of humor that cannot be reconciled.
A young woman of much natural grace of manner and very apt at
a certain color of lie is desirous of winning the good graces of one
only slightly her elder but nothing comes of her exertions.
Instead of yielding to a superficial advantage she finally gives up
the task and continues In her own delicate bias of peculiar and
beautiful design much to the secret delight of the onlooker who
Is thus regaled by the spectacle* of two exquisite and divergent
natures playing one against the other.

3

Hark ! There s laughter ! These fight and draw nearer,
we fight and draw apart. They know the things they say are
true bothways, we miss the joke try to Oh, try to. Let it go
at that. There again! Real laughter. At least we have each
other in the ring of that music. "He saved a little then had to go
and die". But isn t it the same with all of us? Not at all.
Some laugh and laugh, with little grey eyes looking out through
the chinks but not brown eyes rolled up in a full roar. One
can t have everything.



Going along an lllworn dirt road on the outskirts of a mill
town one Sunday afternoon two lovers who have quarreled hear
the loud cursing and shouts of drunken laborers and their women,
followed by loud laughter and wish that their bodies were two
fluids In the same vessel. Then they fall to twitting each other
on the many ways of laughing.



IMPROVISATIONS



XXVI.



Doors have a back side also. And grass blades are double-
edged. It s no use trying to deceive me, leaves fall more by the
buds that push them off than by lack of greenness. Or throw
two shoes on the floor and see how they ll lie if you think it s
all one way.

2

There is no truth sh ! but the honest truth and that is that
touch-me-nots mean nothing, that daisies at a distance seem
mushrooms and that your Japanese silk today was not the sky s
blue but your pajamas now as you lean over the crib s edge
are and day s in! Grassgreen the mosquito net caught over
your head s butt for foliage. What else? except odors an old
hallway. Moresco. Salvage. and a game of socker. I was
too nervous and young to win that day.

3

All that seem solid: melancholias, idees fixes, eight years
at the academy, Mr. Locke, this year and the next and the next
one like another wheel they are April zephyrs, were one
a Botticelli, between their chinks, pink anemones.



Often it happens that in a community of no great distinction
some fellow of superficial learning but great stupidity will seem
to be rooted in the earth of the place the most solid figure
imaginable impossible to remove him.



IMPROVISATIONS 85



XXVII.



The particular thing, whether it be four pinches of four
divers white powders cleverly compounded to cure surely, safely,
pleasantly a painful twitching of the eyelids or say a pencil
sharpened at one end, dwarfs the imagination, makes logic a
butterfly, offers a finality that sends us spinning through space, a
fixity the mind could climb forever, a revolving mountain, a com
plexity with a surface of glass : the gist of poetry. D. C. al fin.



There is no thing that with a twist of the imagination cannot
be something else. Porpoises risen in a green sea, the wind at
nightfall bending the rose-red grasses and you in your apron
running to catch say it seems to you to be your son. How
ridiculous ! You will pass up into a cloud and look back at me,
not count the scribbling foolish that put wings to your heels, at
your knees.

3

Sooner or later as with the leaves forgotten the swinging
branch long since and summer : they scurry before a wind on the
frost-baked ground have no place to rest somehow invoke a
burst of warm days not of the past nothing decayed: crisp
summer! neither a copse for resurrected frost eaters but a
summer removed undestroyed a summer of dried leaves
scurrying with a screech, to and fro in the half dark twittering,
chattering, scraping. Hagh !



Seeing the leaves dropping from the high and low branches
the thought rises: this day of all others is the one chosen, all
other days fall away from it on either side and only itself remains
in perfect fulness. It is its own summer, of its leaves as they
scrape on the smooth ground it must build its perfection. The
gross summer of the year is only a halting counterpart of those
fiery days of secret triumph which in reality themselves paint the






86 IMPROVISATIONS

year as if upon a parchment, giving each season a mockery of the
warmth or frozeness which is within ourselves. The true seasons
blossom or wilt not in fixed order but so that many of them may
pass in a few weeks or hours whereas sometimes a whole life
passes and the season remains of a piece from one end to the
other.



by William Carlos Williams