A Sketch of the Artist as Ephebe

Lots of influence. Lots of anxiety. The graduation photo that once stood on the baby grand stuffed into the small living room on the sixth floor just beneath the ash-dropping chimney of the incinerator shows a 16-year old with clear eyes and the carved features of some unknown, handsome youth. Somehow it does not show the acne, although an-aged writer sees in his shaving mirror today its faint scarred pittings. Neither does that picture reveal the sturm und drang about to erupt from a nascent selfhood, or suggest that those eyes, distracted by glimpses of unexpected Beauty, are already beginning to burn with a desire to find and hold whatever appears to manifest it. What might suggest, perhaps reveal it in moments promising to be unendurable? Poetry.

Well, yes. But where was the idea of Beauty (again that majuscule “B”) to be found incarnate in the Bronx in the mid-Nineteen Forties? For me it was in Wallace Stevens. The somehow moral structure of the æsthetic: whatever was sensuous, sinuously ineffable, transitory as wind, the gaiety of grand speech, the colloquially sublime manifested in undulant sentences, wave after wave of free-floating clauses, passionate yet detached, buried or sublimed in the intellectual, the skeptical and ironic: là bas, là bas …. Such range of language, such nuance; such an elegant, elaborate, secure sensibility, in and through which reality itself was marvelous yet etherealized into the music of an utterance far removed from the grungy quotidian of the Bronx, the filth of roaring Manhattan’s million grimed windowpanes, its old soot-filmed black and brown stone.

Still, this ephebe was not that ephebe whom the Master’s verses conjured up suggestively, characterized as such sans the least solidity of form: this ephebe was an uncured, common clay jar, filled to overflowing with the riotous emotions of a New York-born child of working-class immigrants. So that the Master’s manner reconstituted in him was reborn every morning, driven by an adolescent’s spasmodic strivings, a blind, blinding Sehnsucht, despairings expressed in the fearful and fearsome cyclothymia that often erupts late into the second decade of life. And bulimia. And the terror of paranoia. Et cetera. Scarcely those mild, pastoral hootings attended to by some Sunday’s languid feminine soul at ease on a chaise in a comfortable bedroom, upstairs, overlooking her green and sweet-meadowed Connecticut countryside, faintly accompanied by the clashings of tiny ring cymbals, castanets or the maundering arpeggios of a viol or skilled fingers strumming a classical guitar. This ephebe’s French tradition came up confronted by inbred recollections of a slum beside the Marché aux Puces in Paris, of murdered maternal great-grandparents, shot unceremoniously to death in the ghetto of the Marais, their student assassin, for all one knew yet alive and rotting away on Devil’s Island: “A New Raskolnikov: Crime and Punishment in La Rue de Rosiers!” And on the father’s side, the remembered hammering hoofbeats of Cossack horses galloping to and fro along the right bank of the Dniester River in the tumultuous months of 1918 and 1919, the rattle of machine guns as Red and White cavalry overran that hapless hamlet called Izhvonits in Bessarabia. The effect was a symphonic cacophony when that nightmare of the remote past was mixed in a medley of bebop’s hyper-accelerated, driven counterpoint, those Prezzed, Dizzied, and Birded lightnings and thunder. Anxiety and influences imploding. Result: manic exhilaration:


As we took the bashed in temples
of the moon in tow through
the cataracts of time and rolled
them seaward down to sink
years of prince and princess crowded
cheering on the banks of childhood,
jubilleeing for night’s drowned dogs
as we farewelled for the dawn….
And we brained the catch of ages
in our hold, drifting down
history’s nightmare river,
and our eyes flashing from the mast
spotted old men hidden crouching
where reeds like blinded stalks
of telescopes pointed broken
at fate’s old fading stars…
Hands over hands ran up our flag,
the sun shone full
for victory: we sang, we slaves,
for the capstan’s heave and ho
as we trawled leaping on shoals
of salmon into the tossed
brackish gulf, running now before
the land wind and riptide,
and our prow dipped deep as it drank
the typhoon blue world

Not that Stevens, the man revealed decades later in biography would have gratulated such ephebic hubris. Although its contrary corollary, a hurrah product of pure imagination in six quiet tercets, is a fair imitation of Stevens’ mode of allegorized landscape, even the compassionate yet hardnosed titling of this poem, its Pacific Ocean setting not that of a peak in Darien, but some vacant stretch of sand in Baja California:


His western sun was a flaming firebird
trailing low over the warm gulf of desire,
an agèd phoenix flapping down to rest.

The light was going from him. Bats rose up;
flittering from their ambush they hunted
his fleeing ghosts of hopes. The world grew blear.

From this tan Pacific strand hungrily
he’d scanned the waters; empty, all empty
save gulls who screamed and fretted over scraps.

Yet this was sacred world: here were no temples,
no constructs to cajole the mind, only
the naked embrace of primal sky, earth, sea.

Here this meditative youth had squatted
fasting, seeking, and found in the sea,
that mother of movings, mere sea, no source,

when the wretchedest hint from destiny
was all he asked. And he sat down and wept
as the seawind fought the dusk overhead.

And perhaps Stevens might have approved of a painting poem from that same sad suite of Schwärmerei, a vision from Dürer, the poet’s imagined self entering the nightly, lost, dark wood of a desolating urban landscape, only now in hendecasyllabics, and rhymed too, a self-assertive touch to disguise their provenance a little, the 18-year old collecting some non-taxable interest from his bond to the Master:


Sooty hoarse siren, cry from the dark, mauls the night,
Hustles him from sleep. Somewhere from far, far it calls.
He goes. No sounds other than that horn, no light
Other. An insinuation of dawn, blue and chilled;
Sifted crystal powder hoars the town. Though it
Rimes on this gray world like faint music, he still
Stumbles into a mesh of silence; visions accost
Him with things like trees, gnarled, jib jabbering old
Laughter. He creeps on, mumbling St. George, hero’s name, lost
Once in this maze as he. On his phantom horse he meets
The phantom dragon. He fights; he dies. And resumes
His way, emerging in the morning on the streets.
Still dazed, hears through the day that forsaken shriek
Of his midnight express, a thousand expresses, each
Perhaps the signal. To errantry or error they call. If he break
His mission, what will his Lady say? His Lord, his God?
Forfeits then his liege; wanders, lazar begging with bell….
His bones will rot, swine root among them in the sod.

Not only is the debt plain, but so is the effort at self-liberation through rich language and an estheticized projection of a psychological crisis, with at the same time a terrible doubt about the curative efficacy of the dreams of words. The skepticism of Stevens is preserved, and clearly marked, his commitment to language too, and his way of intensifying variations on a theme. By such echoing a young poet made explorations into himself, something his model never did, never propounding dramas of the inner, unconscious life directly, not even in his plain-spoken last years. A good example is a fantasia of a poem the title of which is irrecoverable to me now:

…Nights he’d traveled, skulking along the reeds by day.
Downwind now he heard baying hounds, white beasts

swift as the river, coursing him, heard the long drums
of angry blacks thrumming behind him in the brakes.

His prize, pilfered from their temples of the moon,
the sacred offerings of Hamites, Tibuu, Fulah.

Tuareg, stank fierce in his pouch, already stinking
like his own living flesh that crawled in mud, dying in

the Sudan sun. As he, alas, these votive meats
will rot, these newcut foreskins, birth thongs like shriveled

sinews, bones’ ash of wizards mixed with a pocketful
of gnomic beads: red cords, glass bits — profound formula!

articles compact with juvescence, glory come again,
and he, the courier of gladdest tidings, Elixir

Vitae! his cry, he, night’s nuncio clean escaped
out of sleep’s darkest continent, his contraband

concocted of currents of pure mind: primitives
of mind’s most ancient crevasse, from far beneath all

animal concurrences or surgings, from the
scrapings of a last, a deepest floor of history,

where brine washes over periwinkles scattered
on a strand, that lone shore where beyond memory

once trysted moon, and stars, and simple sun,
that first cohabitation of innocent elements.

Ah, but his hopes are slaughtered now. The dogs of dawn
leap upon him, rend the dream. Tall spearmen jabbing

his corpse dismember a hero, spoil their despoiler,
toss his offal to the Nile, and return towards dark.

Crocodiles push off from flats, gobble his remains.
What vain hope of succor had he then from day, when

nothing attests his deed to the stranger who wakes
and tastes the rancid garbage of a mere dream?

Or, what man of day, which rules a hemisphere away,
can succor take from sleep, when jealous tribesmen catch

each day’s emissary sent to plunder night,
kill each knight of promise, who dies to reach his day?

One doubted, not merely because the Master also doubted in his endless self-communings, but for other reasons, perhaps much more potent, reasons compounded by the times. What youthful imagination could have absorbed the explosions at Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the terror of the immanent destruction of the world presaged from now until the end of human time? What hopes could have remained green with the opening of the concentration, rather the extermination, camps? I was scarcely sixteen when those events stunned me. Theodor Adorno declared at that time all possibility of poetry was extinguished forever in Auschwitz. Celan adumbrated it and perished; after him the Hungarian poet János Pilinzsky also attempted the approach to absolute zero. Two years later, taking Stevens in, I made his work a vehicle for my own engine. But that engine was ticking over so fast, it never could have occurred to me that Stevens, long gone into middle age by then, had himself been unable to take in the decades of the great dictators and the convulsion of the World War; neither by means of his manner of speech nor in his imagination did he confront our post-war Western world’s lost civilization and its aftermath, nor even attempt to account for it. Where was this world revealed by the poets? Its new, powerful dreams and thoughts were to be found now in science, in psychology, technology, in anything but the poets, who as always looked at the present by looking at the past. We had no Gottfried Benn to say to us, as he had said to writers after World War I:

My generation still had certain literary residues from earlier ones to latch onto: father son problems, Antiquity, adventure, travel, social issues, fin de siècle melancholia, marital questions, themes of love. Today’s generation has nothing in hand anymore, no substance and no style, no education and no knowledge, no emotions and no formal tendencies, no basis whatever — it will be a long time until something is found again.

Addendum: confusion and bad writing alone does not make one a surrealist.

We found about us in the 1950s what was familiar enough: a sentimentalized consumerist culture that had no sense of the tragic, that had never known the tragic and did not understand it. We were yet to encounter the macabre farce of the debacle in Vietnam.

Yet one does not easily renounce a sight of one of the gates to the heaven of poetry. Yes, Walt Whitman was also there for me, and adored, but it was foolhardy to put on his singing robes: it would only come out Sandburg; or Norman Corwin; or Allen Ginsberg. (Although turning him over one could find satire or humor: Kenneth Fearing and Ogden Nash; or the endless Poundian prophetic of Kenneth Patchen. He had fared better in our century in French and in Spanish: to return him to America after 1945, when our Democratic vistas were obscured by the ineluctable subterranean undermining of totalitarian evil was no longer possible.)

At that time, Ginsberg was renouncing his youthful college years’ allegiance to the Elizabethans and Van Doren, and setting out his charming and zany adaptation of Whitman’s rodomontade, after having passed his qualifying exam with W.C. Williams. I couldn’t take that seductive and too-easy road, since I was attempting prose as well, Joyce having been the exemplary figure before my eyes from my fourteenth year. (What Ginsberg’s way amounted to in the end was put wittily by my friend the late Henri Coulette, whose couplet, “The Collected Poems of What’s His Face,” was published posthumously in 1990:

Sixteen thousand lines, give or take sixteen —
And no two lines that you can read between.

Oh, like Allen, one hankered after Blake and Whitman, and one took from Dylan Thomas: I alternated the prosody of my stories between the mean scrupulosities of DUBLINERS and the dithyrambics of Thomas (as in a story of my 22nd year, “Eat Aaron and the Night Rider,” published, incidentally, in the same number of ACCENT as Wallace Stevens’ “The Planet on the Table,” in 1953, which was admired by a graduate student editor named Stanley Elkin, who adapted that style and never left off, whereas, having done it for a few luminous pages I was through with all that.) Still, it had to be acknowledged that exactly fifty years stretched between Stevens and myself as ephebe, a whole half century, and those several different worlds of the world’s experience had intervened as well — his influence naturally was the cause of great anxiety. The struggle with and against and through Stevens, if indeed it was a struggle, is observable not only in the suppressed poems of my late teen years, but as it was to be repeated during the next decade, with my fealty given most of all to TRANSPORT TO SUMMER, the book that had hit me so very hard as an 18-year old, a sophomore, your true ephebe. Out of the 35 poems in my first published book (WHATEVER LOVE DECLARES, Plantin Press,1969), I would trace one, “Laboratory,” formally, to HARMONIUM.


In this bottle you see morning
on this shelf is grass
here are specimens of turning,
nights which you must pass

love distilled from antique mirrors
tinctures made of breath
pills of joy and powdered terrors
things to ease your death

the formulas of secret fears
catalogues of dreams
the bones of hope, the flesh of tears
what is, and what seems

all, all has been found out, tested,
certified as true;
time alone must be invested:
we depend on you.

I’d acknowledge others as being indebted to Stevens’ succeeding books: such poems as a set of three savage things made up of tercets, called, “The Technique of Love,” “The Technique of Power,” “The Technique of Laughter.” Two others, “Philosophical Transactions at Montauk,” and “Katabolism, or, The Natural History of Love,” are made from what I acquired from the Stevens of TRANSPORT TO SUMMER, though, again, he might not have granted his seal to this epigone. Not because of what they look and sound like: 100-syllable stanzas, more or less, loose pentameters in 10-line stanzas that I thought I had found in TRANSPORT TO SUMMER. Such poems as the two I have just mentioned speak, it is true, in tones of lofty and tenderly ironic disinterest. But Stevens might have been irked because they are redolent of the flesh, soaked in its fevers, desperate for extrication, and helpless to achieve it – Well, I was in my early 20’s after all, and Stevens was a year or two from his end, and really had no strong desire for Woman, except as a distant form, perhaps. Possibly I was conflating “The Comedian as the Letter C” with parts of AURORAS OF AUTUMN. Still, though not the first attempt to say goodbye to the engorgements of sexuality, “Katabolism, or, The Natural History of Love” succeeds in its genially heroic accommodation of the overwhelmingly sensual and erotic to a view that is also, I think, Stevensesque by virtue of its remoteness, a somewhat cruelly tender yet achieved distancing of the knower from what he knows — the result being the sort of tension that I then thought made for the poetry in Stevens. As for instance:

The giant blooms amidst green damnation,
swollen ecstasies of this timeless realm,
elegant, unblessed. Old hothouse roaches
trot along lianas on their roach affairs.
Hot, hot beneath glass, the dour pineapple
and the sweetish lemon, greengold and thinskinned,
ripening sans honor: athletes and esthetes.
Fat frogs squat steaming in bowers of blood
and tumorous copper carp fin idly
at the conduit. There is nothing but life.
There is nothing but life but love. The pyre…

Or perhaps it was in the very fact of such tension that the poetry resided for me? Leaving youth’s youthfulness behind, no longer subjected helplessly to the imperious blows of the sensual fist, one learned how words both mitigated its hammering, yet somehow preserved its effects and its affect. By the time another 25 years had passed, one began to see that Stevens’ way with language was also Stevens’ way with the world and the flesh. And one saw too, something of his reticent, not to say bleak, heart, as cold as his imagination was hot. But, as an ephebe of 18, 19, 20, one adored those twinned devils, world and flesh, as one adores the inside of the pulpy fruit’s firm, ripened meat; one risked the gaudy, the sensational, the sentimental, the extravagant, and the obscene of passion. And much later too, one still does, decade after decade. Perhaps it is just a matter of temperament after all.

So that if one reached for the palpable, moving, odoriferous, bleeding yet resilient breathing body, if one loved the very life of the things of this world, one had to bid adieu to Stevens…at least until it was time to bid adieu to the inter-fleshings of the phenomenal world that were not merely language, and figurative, not merely the phantasmal Stevensesque “mind.” Or, if one had somehow come to suppress it, one learned the repressed always returns, as it did for me in my 40’s, in this elegy, a sort of paean and elegiac ode to Aphrodite. (Actually much of Stevens’ poetry, even that of his ephebe, was elegiac in nature, and is therefore something rooted in Classical poetry, as in the late Latin “Pervigilium Veneris.”) Where else, among one’s contemporaries of the 20th Century, would one have learned the lushness of metaphor, and learned to dare to use it sans embarrassment, but from Stevens? An homage to Stevens then, this poem from my third book, IN MEMORY OF THE FUTURE:


Asleep, curled in your pocket,
he waits, his wings quivering,
and with his two old friends dreams
of those moist, those blue mornings
before these shrinking, white days
that crack our chilled hearts like glass
came to tell us of winter

Do you remember those breasts?
How straight she walked, eyes opened,
her long arms held out, her hands
strong and tapered, cupped flowers,
offering you her friendship,
like the touch of love’s kindness
her smiling lips showed she knew?

Out of an early hour,
with a flecking of salt spume
you could taste on her shoulders
and her hair heavy with youth,
faint stars caught in its coiled ropes,
she had come to greet you, yes,
so that you would see, and know

And you woke, as though the sun
were waking too, round and warm,
and growing from her belly
as she stood there in silence,
waiting till you rose, and stood,
till you let your locked thoughts go
and welcomed her against you

Again! Again and again!
Don’t you remember her breasts?
that bright sky that shone on you
as the garden turned drifting
amongst those mountain orchards
and the sun pressed sweating down
on their swollen, dripping fruit?

And then she laughed, how she laughed!
her smooth limbs flung blazing wide
then wound round you tightening
as you thrashed in terror, trapped —
all that day long you struggled,
a beast, child, man — a young god
crying and singing and wild

as the hot red dusk crumbled
and fell in ashes on you
where you sprawled between wrecked walls
your bones burning themselves out
your mind staring at that sky,
cold, blind, black and high, so high….
Don’t you remember her, now?

Jascha Kessler has published seven books of poetry and fiction, as well as six volumes of translations of poetry and fiction from Hungarian, Persian, Serbian and Bulgarian, several of which have been awarded major prizes.