Monday, April 16, 2007

Poem of the Week 4/16/2007: The Broken Tower

The Broken Tower

The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn*
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day - to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.

Have you not heard, have you not seen that corps
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons** launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun's ray?

The bells, I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where. Their tongues engrave
Membrane through marrow, my long-scattered score
Of broken intervals… And I, their sexton slave!

Oval encyclicals*** in canyons heaping
The impasse high with choir. Banked voices slain!
Pagodas campaniles* with reveilles out leaping-
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…

And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love,** its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.

My world I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thighs embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word***
In wounds pledges once to hope - cleft to despair?

The steep encroachments of my blood left me
No answer (could blood hold such a lofty tower
As flings the question true?) -or is it she
Whose sweet mortality stirs latent power?-

And through whose pulse I hear, counting the strokes
My veins recall and add, revived and sure
The angelus of wars my chest evokes:
What I hold healed, original now, and pure…

And builds, within, a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven) - but slip
Of pebbles, - visible wings of silence sown
In azure circles, widening as they dip

The matrix of the heart, lift down the eyes
That shrines the quiet lake and swells a tower…
The commodious, tall decorum of that sky
Unseals her earth, and lifts love in its shower.

Hart Crane 1933

*The angelus bell commemorates the Incarnation of Christ
** Alternating and overlapping melodies played on the bells.
*** Papal documents; here, divinely inspired messages.
*Also campaniles; bell-towers attached to Italian cathedrals.
** In the bells' attempt to transfigure life and to incarnate God, Crane sees an analouge of his own poetic mission.
*** Divine revelation, with which the poet hopes his word is cognate.

I choose Hart Crane for today partially as a response to Eliot. As most did in the 1920s, Crane respected and admired Eliot's poetry, save for its pessimistic message. He thought that some ecstatic experience was still possible, that, "After this [modern] perfection of death--nothing is possible in motion but a resurrection of some kind." This poem, the final one he published, treats the death and rebirth of love, as manifested in Crane's poetry.

Opening with an image (a clanging?) of angelus bells, the first four stanzas treat Crane's resurrection. What was he resurrected from? Well, we get images of Hell, of a stone tower falling, so it seems that he comes from somewhere stony and hellish. And since Crane was dealing with the death caused by modernity (this was ostensibly what he liked and found too pessimistic about Eliot's ultimate conclusion that modernity is nearly inescapable), we may guess that these towers etc were those of the modern world. Therefore, the first four stanzas open with the bells of resurrection breaking bonds and bringing the poet back into a broken world.

As the poem moves forward, we see that these bells are a metaphor for poetry. Inscribed in his veins, the bells begin to move in his blood, their song akin to that of a poem. Indeed, just as the bells announce the coming of the Word of God, divine revelation, his poetry, he hopes, will bring the revelation of love. For Crane's poetic project is one of love, of the breaking of external towers of love and building inner ones.

Poetry builds within him "a tower that is not stone" (for stone can't hold heaven in its vastness), but "visible wings of silence." What are these wings? Perhaps the same feeling of vertigo discussed in the beginning, now greater, more profound, more quietly and privately felt. So perhaps the ripples of images in this poem are like the resonance of bells--they appear in the beginning, and are echoed in the end... is the real resurrection in the final line, with the sky unsealing the earth and letting love out into the open? Beyond the rebirth of the poet, is the reemergence of love the real point of the poem?

Whether Crane's optimism about the possibility of a glorious rebirth from the deathlike world of modernity has come to pass, whether it is coming, or whether he is wrong is, well, a question. What do we pay attention to, the Waste Land of today, or the fact that this kind of end should herald so much more? Perhaps there will be more coming.

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