Thursday, June 4, 2020

Harry Crosby Day!

Yes, today’s the anniversary of Harry Crosby’s birth (June 4, 1898).  He’d be 122.  He died in 1929, age 31, alas (and alas) by his own hand in a double-suicide or murder/suicide (the other person was his  lover).  And a further alas can be voiced as well, I think, in that these deaths were consistent with Crosby’s deadly serious desire to die on his own terms, an impulse (read: obsession) that surely stemmed in part from (alas yet again) a near-death experience while driving an ambulance on a World War I battlefield.  

Nevertheless, despite the shocking and grievous circumstances of his death, much of what Crosby did while alive can deeply inspire.  He was, to use Philip Lamantia’s riveting assessment, “a true dandy of explosively Promethean desire,” who “left in Mad Queen [1928] and elsewhere, signs of a ‘Sadean’ magnanimity in the realms of mad love . . . .”   In addition to his poetry – more on that below –  there’s his remarkable diary of the 1920s, Shadows of the Sun.  He also had world-class reading habits, a high-motor autodidact drive, independent and often enduringly correct critical judgments, a top-flight work hard / party hard ethos, an adventurous spirit, and the desire and ability, greatly helped by his wife Caresse, to publish beautiful books by stellar writers at the Black Sun Press.

And oh yes there’s above all his hyper-focus on and worship of the Sun.  I’ve put up a commemorative post on Crosby’s birthday the last few years, and the tradition now continues for (natch) another slightly oval trip ‘round our nearest Star. 

Without a doubt, the big Big BIG Harry Crosby news in the last year was the September 2019 Quale Press publication of Seeing With Eyes Closed, which collects all of Crosby’s previously published prose poems.  Per Quale, Crosby was “the first poet writing in English to produce a significant body of work in prose poetry” and the first poet to strongly show the surrealist influence on American poetry.  I think those things are true, and that this collection is a great grand opportunity for adventure.

It’s also a great grand opportunity to get the poetry for relatively little cost.  While some have been re-printed over the years in anthologies or two collections of Crosby’s work (one published almost four decades ago and now scarce, the other, more recent, poorly done), much of the poetry in Seeing With Eyes Closed has been available only as originally published in the late 1920s and early 1930s, either in a few issues of transition magazine, or in several of the Black Sun Press collections of his work: Chariot of the Sun, Mad Queen, Sleeping Together, Aphrodite in Flight, and Torchbearer.  Those fine well-made limited editions are highly valued by collectors.  It would likely cost upwards of $5,000 to get them.  Gulp.

Not only that, one of the books – Aphrodite in Flight, a collection of 75 very short comparisons of   romance and airplane flying (“observations on the aerodynamics of love” is how the sub-title neatly puts it) – is essentially unobtainable.  Black Sun Press published only 27 copies of the book, all hors commerceAt least 13 of those are in libraries (and rare book rooms at that).  The nearest of those to me in San Francisco is almost 1,000 miles away, in the McDermott Library at the (yes, believe it) U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado.

As such, the 200 plus pages of poetry in Seeing With Eyes Closed – which retails for $19 – seems an extraordinary poetry-bonanza bargain, even in our current exceedingly difficult times.

The book includes the Crosby prose-poems that adoring moi has previously highlighted here in the glade (click poem titles and scroll down to see): “Stud-Book,” “Sun Testament” and “Telephone Directory,” all from Mad Queen, as well as  the marvelous declaration of lexical adventure “The New Word” and “Empty Bed Blues,” no doubt inspired by the great Bessie Smith song of the same name, plus of course indeed most certainly yes the wonderful “Madman” aka “The Sun,” modeled after the equally wondrous answer to the question “What in water did Bloom, waterlover, drawer of water, watercarrier returning to the range, admire?” in Episode 17 of  James Joyce’s Ulysses.

Seeing With Eyes Closed is also neatly designed.  The typeface looks very much like that used in the Black Sun Press original publications, and it’s a very cool look, sharp and alluring, redolent of the roaring ex-pat Paris of almost a century ago.  Combine that with generous margins – no text falling into or crawling out of the gutters here – and starting each poem on its own page and voila! it’s a remarkably elegant and strong publication, showing what print-on-demand can do when done right.   The only mis-step is the printing of “The New Word” without an extra space between the paragraphs, as originally published.  The editors acknowledge the emendation, and it appears to have been done so the poem could fit on a single page.  If so, I’d have voted for using a larger page size, since . . . well, just look how gorgeous  and powerful the poem’s prose-stanzas are when each has a bit of space to shine (this from transition, June 1929):

How about two more poems, to entice you to buy and read the others in Seeing With Eyes Closed, and to allow me to write a bit about Crosby’s craft?  I love “Seesaw,” one of about five dozen dream poems from the endearingly titled Sleeping Together (and yes, my slightly angled photo here is purposeful!):

What do I love in “Seesaw”?  The primacy of child-play, that font of fecund creative energy: plus, to borrow from J. Huizinga’s Homo Ludens (English translation, 1950), the charm of its temporary abolition of the ordinary world’s laws and customs.  The fantastic enlargement of the play, scaled such that the participants reach the cosmos.  The Winsor McCay Slumberland-like interrupting of the dream by the ringing of the phone.  And the convincing pulled-from-the-hypnopompic logic with which the poem ends.  A dream true indeed.

Completely different is “Collision,” from Torchbearer:

This is no dream.  It’s a 37-word maxim-poem, I do believe, one in which Crosby declares, teaches and ultimately challenges the reader.  He uses analogy to illustrate the anagogic: Dust in the Sun = Thoughts in the Mind.  I love the focus on the noetic and the possibility of marvelous chance encounters, the latter expressed via an allusion – “orchestral magnificence” that directly suggests the complex musical splendor of poetry.  Then there’s the last phrase, a challenge that brings the poem to life.  That phrase – “he who has ears to hear let him hear” – also corresponds with Andre Breton’s often made point, perhaps most directly stated in the 1946 essay Golden Silence, that “Great poets have been ‘auditories’ not ‘visionaries’.”

Seeing With Eyes Closed also includes fantastically assiduous notes on a number of the poems and three essays – a foreword and two afterwords – that discuss or explicate various matter related to Crosby and his work.  The essays are fine, with the exception of the foreword’s baffling naming of someone other than Philip Lamantia as the “best practitioner” of American Surrealist poetry.  But that’s a minor quibble, and ultimately the editorial material, even when excellent, is beside the point. Crosby’s poetry is the (Sun is a) Star here.

So, yes, and especially today, the anniversary of his birth, Bravo Harry Crosby!  And Bravo Quale Press, for Seeing With Eyes Closed.