Ene 1, 2015

Notes on Richard Howard's "Infirmities"

No use having an executor, Horace Traubel,
                literary or the other kind
        unless I can show you what to execute.
Losing every damn thing all over again, Horace.
                I need you: this floor's become a flood
        dive in! See if you can't come up with something
letters—tied in green ribbon—from an "Abraham Stoker."
                Wrote me from Dublin, years ago . . .
        Now he's coming to see me, or to let me
have a look at him. Either way, I must lay hands on
                those letters . . . I know they're here somewhere.
        Mary Davis is no help at all. Once a week
she comes to clean house, that's what she calls it, forages
                through my mail as if it was haystacks—
        only thing she could find down there's a needle!
No, in that pile, Horace . . . Letters from the Seventies:
                I recall the first one as if
        for my birthday—fifty . . . long past now. Some things
you don't forget. Keep looking, Horace: a young man's hand,
                twenty, he said . . . Middle-aged by now
         (I thought so at forty, know better today.)
That's it! the green ribbon—green never fades. I chose it
                for Ireland. Just read out the top one,
        then you'll understand why I kept the others.

        Put this letter in the fire, if you like,
        but so you do, you'll miss the pleasure of
        this next sentence, which ought to be that you
        have defeated an unworthy impulse:
        You are a true man, Walt, as I would be
        myself, & therefore I would be to you
        as an apprentice is to his master.
        You have shaken off the shackles, therefore
        your wings are free. I wear the shackles still
        on my shoulders, tight—hence I have no wings.
        I write to you today because you are
        different from other men. If you were
        the same as they, I would not dare to write.
        As it is, I must either call you Walt
        or not name you at all—I have chosen
        the better course. I thank you for the love
        & sympathy you've given in common
        with my kind . . . I have read your poems, Walt,
        aloud to myself with my door locked
        late at night, & read them on the seashore
        where I could look around me & see no more
        sign of human life than ships out at sea,
        & there I often found myself waking
        from a dream with the book lying open
        beside me . . .

". . . on the grass . . ." Stop, Horace. I remember what comes next,
                and I need to hear it, too. But first
        what you need: this Stoker fellow's here! Coming
today to Mickle Street. Now when he rings, you let him
                in, Horace, then leave us two alone.
        Stoker thought he was writing to me, of course,
but it was really to himself. I answered—warmly,
                I always do, to the personal.
        I wrote with my whole heart. Now read me some more.

        . . . If I lie out on the grass,
        those days come back to me with undying
        freshness. I look among the stalks or blades
        & wonder where the energy comes from—
        that fond hum of Nature, never ceasing,
        for ears that can hear. I guess at what is
        below the brown uneven earth that seems
        so level at a distance, so rugged
        in reality. At such moments comes
        the wisdom of those half-forgotten thoughts,
        the rudiments of all philosophy . . .

That boy was my reader, no doubt about it. We need
                our readers, every one. Now we'll see
        what this man's done with that boy. Today's letter—
oh, I can manage to find a letter that comes today,
                Horace: today is easy to find;
        it's yesterday I tend to lose . . . Stoker writes
different from the way he used to. Guess we all do that.
                Sorry to have lost what was in his
        early messages. Lord, what I've lost in mine!
He sounds polite enough now, of course, but determined
                to settle the business of the day.
        Explains he's come over here with Sir Henry
Irving, Irving the actor—they knight them over there—
                manages the Lyceum theater
        for him in London, brings the whole troupe
here on tour. Says "Sir Henry" has contracted to play
                New York, Philadelphia, Washington . . .
        I played Washington, in a manner of speaking,
before Washington played me—played me out! . . . Stoker has
                his reasons for coming today, he says
        he needs me—needs me again is what he says.
Maybe so. You let him in, Horace, send him up here
                to me, and if he don't come back down
        in half an hour, you collect him. Half an hour's
all I can stand of any man's "needing"—even mine!
                Now read some more young Stoker, till
        the old one gets here.

        I know about the grass because for years
        I could not walk, though no one ever put
        defining names to the disease I had.
        Certainly till I was about seven
        I never knew what it was to stand upright.
        But I was naturally thoughtful, &
        the leisure of long illness gave the chance
        for fruitful thoughts later on: healthy ones.
        All my early recollections are of
        being carried about in people's arms
        & of being set somewhere or other—
        on a bed or sofa, if in the house,
        or if the weather was fine, on a rug
        outdoors, or even right out on the grass . . .

        . . . There's the bell! Stop right there—
"on the grass", of course. I know the sound of my own bell:
                One thing I still recognize. All right,
        let that be your signal, Horace. Go downstairs,
let him in, send him up. We may have something to say
                to one another . . .
                                            Welcome, Stoker—
        welcome, Abraham! Let's greet one another
as old friends, as indeed we are . . .

        Sir, I cherish your friendship, but the name
        a friend must know me by is changed: it's Bram,
        Bram Stoker I call myself, sign myself
        now that I endeavor to write . . . fiction.

                                            I overlook the change
                of name—dislike it, actually.
        Stoker was born Abraham, and he should be
Abraham still—has the breath of humanity in it,
                and Lincoln too, Can't "Abraham" write
        fiction as well?

        Surely you'll sanction the change, Sir: you too
        must have known a like need for a new name.
        Were you not called "Walter" before the Leaves?

                You show an old man his place . . .
Glad to be there. The years might have blurred that need. The man
                Stoker repeats, no—fulfills the boy!
        You took a shine to me over in Ireland,
when you were at Trinity. I value your good will:
                maybe you've remained of the same mind,
        in substance, as at first . . . You see, I prepared
myself for your visit by reading those old letters
                of yours. Appears from what you wrote me,
        if I understood you rightly, that we share
infirmities. Most men do, of course. Sometimes I think
                it's all they share. All they can share. But
        our weaknesses, yours and mind, set in
at opposite ends of life: old age has withered me,
                nowadays they put me out to grass
        on a blanket, just as you lay there in your
own childhood. The grass is the same—for you in your first,
                for me in my second, most likely.
        Still and all, I get up, get dressed, get outside
most days. Live here lonesome enough, but in good spirits . . .
                You find me . . . Well, how do you find me?

        I'm honored, sir, by your welcome, and
        happy you still recall the impetuous
        and perhaps importunate outpourings
        of a faltering youth to Walt Whitman
        many years ago. That makes it easier
        to come to you with my questions again.
        I would not tax your strength for all the world,
        and my own duties—surely I explained
        that my obligations to Sir Henry
        will not permit me to trouble you long
        —there was, in fact, some difficulty
        finding my way to Camden and to you—
        but I'm gratified to be here at last.
        How do I find you, sir? I find you just
        as I hoped you would be: that wonderful
        mane of white hair over your collar, that
        munificent moustache over your mouth,
        to mingle with the mass of flowing beard—
        you know, you are rather like Tennyson.
        You quite remind me of him as he was
        at the Lyceum—you don't mind that, do you?

        Mind! I like it! Why, I'm proud to be told so.
I like being tickled! Irish flattery is best—
                found that out when Mr. Wilde was here,
        had all the sauce an old stomach could swallow.
Still, what a broth of a boy he was! Younger than you,
                I guess—you ever know him, back home?

        I knew his mother, Lady Wilde. She kept
        a sort of salon in the Merrion Square—
        in fact it was there I first met my wife,
        one of those Saturday at-homes. Florence
        —that's my wife—was a friend of Oscar's too . . .

        Hah! You're married, and respectable,
and an author of "fiction" into the bargain . . . not
                often such a man comes to me with
        questions. Young Wilde asked some—a salon, you say?
That explains a lot. all about art they were, art with
                a big A. I spell it small, myself . . .
        If you haven't much time, put your questions, son,
but let me get mine in first. What sort of fiction is it
                that you must "endeavor" to write?

        Well, usually I dash things off, not
        much more that typed-up drafts, to pay debts,
        you know, or to earn some extra cash. but
        lately I seem to have come once again
        under your spell, sir: I too have a sort
        of poem I must write—oh, it's in prose,
        of course, but you understand that—and
        there are characters to speak the lines, and
        in a sense they revolve around one man
        who rather resembles you, sir. He too
        has long white hair and a heavy moustache,
        powerful bearing, something . . . leonine.
        He too longs to pass through the crowded streets
        of mighty cities, to be in the rush
        of humanity, to share life, change, death—
        all that makes us what we are. Is this not
        Walt Whitman's "call in the midst of the crowd"?

        I don't know that it is. Tell me some more, "Bram",
let me hear what you want to do with me . . . Leonine?

        Yes, masterful. You know: the king of beasts.
        I've written quite a lot about the man
        modeled on you. In my narrative,
        all others serve him, or come to do so . . .
        I can even recite for you the way
        Count Dracula (that is my hero's name)
        is addressed by one of his followers
        when the count is introduced: "I am here
        to do your bidding, Master, I am yours,
        and you will reward me, for I shall be
        faithful. I have worshipped you long and far.
        Now that you are near, I await commands,
        and you will not pass over me, will you,
        dear Master, in your distribution of
        all the good things that are within your gift? . . ."

                I don't much like this talk of Masters
        and Counts. What is it he's done, this Dracula,
that everyone is so eager to serve him? Does he serve
                others in return?

        It was you, sir, who gave me the clue, you
        who spoke of adhesiveness, that union
        beyond any binding together of bodies,
        a universal solvent in the blood . . .
        I found it in Leaves of Grass long ago,
        and to what I found have tried to be true.
        It was your own poem, your own words
        which guided me, and which will guide me still.
        Surely you will remember "Trickle Drops" . . . ?

                Make it a rule
        that if I wrote it, I don't remember it.
The Leaves is not a sacred book, but a growing thing.
                The text is in a state of constant
        transformation. To see what I've changed from what
to what, Horace keeps the old book here—you find the poem,
                Abraham, read it to me yourself,
        then maybe I can link my lines to your Count . . .

        The privilege of reading Whitman's words
        to Whitman's ears is beyond presumption . . .
        Here it is, in "Calamus", the teaching
        I have tried to make into a tale . . .

Oh, in "Calamus" is it? Then I don't wonder. That
                was what they wanted me to cut out.
        all the English critics urged me to it: "Your book",
they said, "will go into every house in America.
                Surely that is worth the sacrifice"?
        It would not be any sacrifice. So far
as I care, they might cut a thousand. It is not that—
                it is quite another matter. When
        I wrote as I did, I thought I was doing
right, and right makes for good. I think that all God made is for
                good, that the work of His Hands is clean
        in all ways, as if used as He intended. No,
I shall never cut a line so long as I live. Read
                me the news from naught "Calamus".

        "Trickle drops! my blue veins leaving!
        O drops of me! trickle, slow drops,
        Candid from me falling, drip, bleeding drops,
        From my face, from my forehead and lips,
        From my breast, from within where I was conceal'd
        press forth, red drops, confession drops,
        Stain every page, stain every song I sing, every word
        I say, bloody drops,
        Let them know your scarlet heat, let them glisten,
        Saturate them with yourself all ashamed and wet,
        Glow upon all I have written or shall write, bleeding drops,
        Let it all be seen in your light, blushing drops".

        Yes, that's right: we put that in ahead of
"City of Orgies". I mind that well—the same fool English
                said it was "a pity not to cut
        certain passages", and I knew just the ones:
"Trickle Drops", then the lines that come at the end of
                "City of Orgies": ". . . These repay me,
        lovers, continual lovers, only repay me".

        Then follow me, sir, as I do you . . .
        to the point where the Count dismisses
        the Vampire Women to claim the bleeding
        youth for his own: "This man belongs to me".
                "Vampire Women"? No such thing.
        And is your Count a vampire too? Inspired
by Walt Whitman and a bloodsucker?

        I want to make the voluptuousness
        of death equal to the deathlike nature
        of love. Like you, sir, I dare my readers
        to acknowledge that the mystery of
        sexual love is worth dying for . . .

                                            . . . Not "like me", Stoker!
        Only worth living for, that's my mystery,
if you can call it such. Take your Count back home with you,
                let Sir Henry have him. I've heard of
        his ways. Heard how they're going to settle
the Bacon-Shakespeare dispute . . . Going to dig up
                Shakespeare and dig up Bacon, then let
        Sir Henry recite Hamlet to them. And the one
who turns over in his grave will be the author! Heard
                that one, have you, Abraham Stoker?

        Frequently, sir. And many others too,
        in all the years of my service. You see,
        I am indentured to Henry Irving
        in the same way I once tethered myself
        to you. By doing so, perhaps in both
        servitudes, I've learned that close relations
        between two people, any two, always
        afford vampiric exploitation. Sir,
        I fear you find my expressions . . . misplaced:
        no one, I now perceive, may pluck the heart
        out of Walt Whitman's mystery, who lives
        according to the Eleventh Commandment
        of Modern Times . . .

        As if ten weren't enough. I don't hold much with
commandments, Abraham. What in Hell's the eleventh?

                "Thou Shalt Not Be Found Out".

                That's one I'll obey . . . Abraham, here's
        Horace, he'll take you to the Mickle Street car:
you're sure to find your way with him . . .
Goodbye, son, there's no
                bad blood between us now, am I right?
        Please to give my best regards to Mr. Wilde,
when you see him next . . . Another fine Irish (whisper this)
                man of art. Endeavor to write your
own fiction, young fellow. Good fortune with it.
Nothing to do with me . . .
                                    Good-night, Horace. Leave a lamp.


D— I began looking for this poem after T— showed us a link to some correspondence between Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker. Among many wonderful things, this poem recasts a meeting that courses along the grooves set by each man's poetics regarding time and relations.

I loved how the poem so easily reminded me of certain lines from Leaves. For example, Stoker puts Whitman's "what I assume you shall assume" to the test. It seems that what Stoker assumes, Whitman will not assume. And there's a line in "Infirmities" where Whitman asks Stoker, "You find me . . . Well, how do you find me?" which takes us back to "Song of Myself, LII" where Whitman tells the reader to look for him "under your boot-soles."


D—Okay! First stanza then.

letters—tied in green ribbon—from an "Abraham Stoker."

I see how that ribbon could very well be a blade of grass. "letters—tied in green" immediately takes us to Whitman's poetic project and maybe also how it flowered, over time, into a relationship with Stoker. A visual contrast is being set here, Whitman's green "flooding" us before the "trickle-drops" of Stoker's red, Whitman's "life" against Stoker's "death".

We could also follow what you said about green as youth and passion, because that makes for a telling image, a man in search not only of a certain youth but also of his own youth, that young man's letters, yes, but also his own work, the Leaves of a younger man.

have a look at him. Either way, I must lay hands on

The progression of seeing to touching here reminds me of something Whitman says about his Leaves: "This is no book; Who touches this, touches a man". There's a spiritual mystery at work: as Christ is bread, so is Whitman book. Howard echoes this in how "I must lay hands on" is cut, as if Whitman was a baptist in search of a disciple, a spiritual heir.


D— I agree to all three. I had been concentrating on the first that I have only obliquely sensed the second and I think I completely neglected the third. But now that you mentioned it, yes, there's that and it's there, and all three really pour into each other.

Likewise, the Leaves take into account the paths of influence. The "I" there so self-assuredly contradicts itself and assumes that we assume what it will assume, the Whitman "I" that posits his "myself" as cosmos does so at times by figuring itself as "atom", and during those times, I think Whitman unravels for us the mysteries of solitude, much like the infinity in Blake's grain of sand and Emily's narrow hands.

Perhaps Howard's poem is most strong whenever it dwells in what you call "easily missed opportunities for communication" because that's what's his and not Whitman's, cannot be Whitman's as the premise of Leaves would not allow it, for there absorption is instantaneous, expression generous. But those aborted "opportunities"—misreadings?—indeed remain, and that's why Stoker missed Whitman's point (at least in Whitman's eyes) so completely when he summoned a Dracula from the poet's open, fertile ground.


D Happy new year! You said that Dickinson "seems more modern than Whitman (in her best poems, anyway)." I've been thinking about that point. For some reason, "My Life had stood - a Loaded Gun" comes to mind. Though if I keep reading the Beats and the Goldsmiths, it'll be difficult to place Dickinson as "more modern". But I suppose I'd think so given other sensibilities: Armantrout, Stevens.

Thanks for pointing out "A Noiseless Patient Spider" because it's true that solitude was entirely within Whitman's sense of "Self".

"Growing among black folks as among white, Kanuck, Tuckahoe, Congressman, Cuff, I give them the same, I receive them the same" says Whitman, but within one man he found both an Abraham and a Bram and did not (could not?) "receive them the same." Maybe this was also an infirmity he perceived, how a Walter could not possibly live up to the poetic inclusiveness of the "uniform hieroglyphic" that is the Leaves of Grass.


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