January 24, 2018

Windows on the Great War: Susan Stewart and E.E. Cummings

By Stuart Mitchner 

According to Susan Cheever’s biography of E.E. Cummings (1894-1962), his working title for The Enormous Room (Liveright 1922) was The Great War Seen from the Windows of Nowhere. Planning to write about World War I on the 100th anniversary of the Armistice year, I’ve been reading both book and biography along with Princeton University faculty member Susan Stewart’s Cinder: New and Collected Poems (Graywolf, paper, $18). Although a collection of contemporary poetry may seem an unlikely match, I found a window to the Great War in Stewart’s “Kingfisher Carol,” which comes with a prefatory note explaining that “the seven days following the shortest day of the year” is when “the halcyon, or kingfisher, builds her nest on the water and that in spite of the violent weather prevalent at this time, the gods grant a respite from all storms while she hatches and rears her young.”

The poem, which I first read in the halcyon days of late December, begins “Star for the shepherds,/Star for the kings,” echoing the Christmas story with its “Jars of myrrh” and “eastern starlight/trailing eastward,/the manger/piled with sheaves” and its image of “kingfishers/perched on the waves” of “the halcyon sea,” where “they nest their nests/from twigs/and briars and hay.”

The “Silent Night” aura of “Kingfisher Carol” led to thoughts of Christmas 1914 when French, English, Belgian, and German soldiers celebrated a brief, impromptu truce that began with the singing of carols on either side of no-man’s land. As a private in the Second Queens Regiment recalled, “First the Germans would sing one of their carols and then we would sing one of ours, until when we started up ‘O Come, All Ye Faithful’ the Germans immediately joined in singing the same hymn to the Latin words Adeste Fideles. And I thought, well, this is really a most extraordinary thing — two nations both singing the same carol in the middle of a war.”

The fact that the soldiers who sang and drank together and exchanged gifts soon returned to the business of slaughter gives a grim resonance to the lines that begin the penultimate stanza of “Kingfisher Carol”

The light shines

there in the desert dark

and the darkness

knows it not.

The Right Wrong Answer

The comradely truce of 1914 also reflects the sentiment that landed E.E. Cummings in prison three years later when he was in France serving with the NortonHarjes Ambulance Corps. Since the French authorities deemed treasonous any attempt to fraternize or even speak well of the enemy, Cummings apparently could have escaped incarceration simply by telling the panel interrogating him that he hated the enemy. According to Cheever’s biography, when he said he did not hate the Germans, he doomed himself to three and a half months in “the enormous room” of the Dépôt de Triage at La Ferté-Macé. As Cheever points out, “being in jail may well have saved Cummings’s life” since the sector where he had been stationed “was later the scene of the war’s most dreadful battles,” with 49,000 American soldiers killed, 230,000 wounded, and 57,000 “dead from disease.”

In his introduction to the British edition of The Enormous Room, Robert Graves notes how Cummings uses “new alloys of words” and “rare passages as iridescent as decay in meat” to convey war’s horror without actually describing it. Scott Fitzgerald and Ernest Hemingway also praised the book, although Hemingway told Horace Liveright, Cummings’s publisher, the reason it “did not sell” was that “it was written in a style that no one who had not read a good deal of ‘modern’ writing could read.”

The Zulu Is an IS

One example of what Hemingway may have meant by Cummings’s “modern” style is his description of an “indescribable” inmate he calls Zulu or Zoo-Loo:

“His angular anatomy expended and collected itself with an effortless spontaneity which is the prerogative of fairies perhaps, or at any rate of those things in which we no longer believe. But he was more. There are certain things in which one is unable to believe for the simple reason that he never ceases to feel them. Things of this sort — things which are always inside of us and, in fact, are us and which consequently will not be pushed off or away where we can begin thinking about them — are no longer things; they, and the us which they are, equals A Verb; an IS. The Zulu, then, I must perforce call an IS.”

Slowing Down the Clown 

The title figure in Susan Stewart’s “A Clown” is as antic as any of the inmates in The Enormous Room. The poem begins with the poet crossing Piazza Navona in Rome, “hurrying with [her] head down,” her coat on her arm, when “suddenly” she’s “yanked back,/the coat ripped away” by the Clown, who uses it as a prop, “composing his version” of her “look of annoyance.” After escaping with her coat, she gives some Italian friends a rushed but vivid account of the performance in which she reimagines the moment and takes control of the tempo; he’s hers now, “A sterile clown in a rented room.” She’s slowed everything down, the “slow revelation/of a revelation made slower/by surprise.” Now there was “plenty of time.”

“A Clown” puts in play a goal of Stewart’s expressed during a 2004 reading, which is “to get people to read more slowly,” an idea she comes back to in March 2017, telling an interviewer: “Poetry is a slow art form.”

Following the Title

What slowed me down in Stewart’s “Piano Music for a Silent Movie” was the title and the opening stanza: “The gossips whisper their reproaches —/Was it my fault I was too young for the war?” Having just seen a silent movie that pivots on a scene from the Great War, I briefly amused myself by finding points in common between the poem and the film, Frank Borzage’s Lazybones (1925). For instance, “I crossed the weedy river/and floated along to her door” could serve as the epigraph for a film with a river at its metaphorical center. Probably the most striking example — “I saw her face in the water./I saw his face in the glass” — reflects the imagery of Borzage’s luminous romances, some of which can be seen now on FlimStruck.

The more I read of the poem, the less  I cared about identifying a specific film. Lines like “The oars dripped blue across our shoes” and “The crazy maid shattered the porch roof/while the merry-go-round never stopped” needed no cinematic equivalent. Even so, I did some searching online, and found an MP3 PennSound broadcast from June 7, 2015, where prior to reading “Piano Music for a Silent Movie,” Stewart explains that it was written after rereading Raymond Radiguet’s novel, Devil in the Flesh (Le Diable au Corps).

Pleased that the “silent movie” turned out to be a novel I’ve always wanted to read, I pulled down a small white paperback that had been shunted practically out of sight on the top shelf of the living room bookcase. Translated by Kay Boyle and published in 1948 by The Black Sun Press in Washington D.C., it was short enough to read in a day, and right away, like a series of glowing lights, the points in common appeared: the 16-year-old lover “too young for the war,” the mad girl on the rooftop, the merry-go-round, the lovers in the row boat. Like The Enormous Room, like Stewart’s poem, Devil in the Flesh takes place outside the Great War. In the novel, “We could hear the firing of the cannon”; in the poem “Cannon pounded in the distance/(or was it thunder?) — every ear felt the pop.”

I made a point of marking passages in Radiguet I could imagine Stewart responding to, among them “she was like those poets who know that true poetry is a thing accursed” and the “angelic intonation of women — born actresses they seem to return every morning from the beyond.” So the poet pianist plays on, the word-movie flows, and the novel brings everything together: “In all of us there are germs of resemblance, which develop with love.”

The Last Carol

The day E.E. Cummings died I was with some friends in a rented house in San Francisco. It was the halcyon time when people sang and played acoustic guitars and quoted poetry. The girl who gave us the news went on to recite from memory, with unaffected feeling, the poem that begins, “somewhere i have never traveled” and ends “nothing which we are to perceive in this world equals/the power of your intense fragility: whose texture/compels me with the colour of its countries,/rendering death and forever with each breathing.”

Susan Cheever’s biography closes with Cummings at his New Hampshire farm, where “birds became his pride and joy.” Poring over bird books, he studied recordings of bird songs and put out tiny tubes of sugar water for the hummingbirds who came up to the porch in the morning. “Sometimes the birds seemed to be singing to him,” Cheever writes, before quoting a poem where Cummings asks a purple finch to tell him why “this summer world (and you and i/who love so much to live)/must die.” That “eagerly sweet carolling self” answers him: “if i/should tell you anything … i could not sing.”