[Transference as Distance; Distance as Defense] [9.17.07]

The poems collected in Hart Crane’s White Buildings[1] are difficult and not given over to paraphrasing, and so about them there is a defense of direct criticism of its content. Crane offers no shortness of beautiful imagery, and bittersweet tendernesses and heartaches thread together his work like fine, strong cables – but what exactly a narrative reconstruction might look like is sometimes impossible to grasp. “There is a displacement, in Crane’s poetry, of the language of the body to the language of the landscape.” So writes John Logan in his foreword to Hart Crane’s first collection, originally published in 1926; indeed, the transference to inanimate objects of human feeling or sensual physicality is a common use in poetry of metaphor or personification, and its prevalence in White Buildings offers clues to the mind of the poet behind them.

Logan points to a dichotomy between what he sees as feminine and masculine tendencies, citing Crane’s bisexuality as a likely source for the split in his work. In an era of relative ignorance of the presence or the nuances of such sexual alignment there must have been great struggle and conflict, a pull at both ends of the gender spectrum within Crane. Even today, there exists for some a mistrust of a perceived inability or even unwillingness to settle simply in one category of either hetero- or homosexual. There is a liberating aspect to this indecision, allowing a wideness of experience closed to the strictly defined, but in that wideness might also arise a sense of remove from the fellowship of common experience. This confused distance might result in a loss of that liberation and end in a solitude too lonely to bear, as it seemed to have become in Hart Crane’s case.

“Garden Abstract” entertains notions of just such an inarticulate lust as that which I have spoken. The protagonist of the poem, a woman, desires “the apple on its bough” (1), a combination of both the generative, feminine aspect, as well as the sturdy, masculine aspect of the tree. In grasping after these,

[H]er voice,
Dumbly articulate in the slant and rise
Of branch on branch above her, blurs her eyes. (3-5)

It is not the cross-hatching of the branches that fuzzes her vision, but her own voice. In the same way Crane’s poetic voice, in grasping simultaneously after counter-valences, muddles the vision of his images. So, when the woman “comes to dream herself the tree” (7), she has in effect removed herself from the human world:

She has no memory, nor fear, nor hope
Beyond the grass and shadows at her feet. (11-12)

“Recitative,” too, reveals a pre-occupation with a duality that serves as a twinned confinement. In the first lines, the speaker invokes a two-headed god:

Regard the capture here, O Janus-faced,
As double as the hands that twist this glass. (1-2)

Here, he says, you will clearly see, as one looking through a telescope, the arrest of two opposing impulses. He continues, saying,

Look steadily – how the wind feasts and spins
The brain’s disk shivered against lust. Then watch
While darkness, like an ape’s face, falls away,
And gradually white buildings answer day. (13-16)

The mind, spun and devoured by a shifting wind, breaks into shards when thrust against its own desires. This tragedy, this destruction, delivers also in its annihilation a resolution: the darkness of night, imagined as a pre-cursor to the phase of evolution humanity represents, fades away, and in the light of the new morning one can see the modern, the new, the white buildings that shimmer in the sun’s rays.

These poems offer beautiful and representative samples of the kinds of transference and dichotomy to which Logan points in his foreword. If, in the end, the dualities of his nature caused him more strife than he could endure, there was, in part, a defiance in Crane of the demands that he succumb to the clear lines of a rigid construction. As he says in “Legend,” in which he owns his varying proclivities – his “cleaving” – but in which he also points to a natural and unavoidable inclination – his “burning”:

I am not ready for repentance;
Nor to match regrets. For the moth
Bends no more than the still
Imploring flame. (3-6)

[1] Crane, Hart. White Buildings. 1926. New York: Liveright, 1972.


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