The rather derelict life of Delmore Schwartz (1913-1966) has proven more captivating than his work, his fame having been sealed by Humboldt’s Gift, Saul Bellow’s novel chronicling the poet’s early promise and late decline.
Unlike some other flamboyant and troubled poets, though, Schwartz did not indulge his demons in his poetry. His poems deal with classic themes yet he did not ignore the problem of enfleshment as was the habit of most male poets of his generation. To my mind, his best work makes for a skinny grouping but as Spencer Tracy characterized Katharine Hepburn in “Pat and Mike,” there may not be much of it but what’s there is “cherce.”
A Young Child and His Pregnant MotherAt four years Nature is mountainous,
Mysterious, and submarine. Even
A city child knows this, hearing the subway’s
Rumor underground. Between the grate,
Dropping his penny, he learned out all loss,
The irretrievable cent of fate,
And now this newest of the mysteries,
Confronts his honest and his studious eyes—
His mother much too fat and absentminded,
Gazing far past his face, careless of him,
His fume, his charm, his bedtime, and warm milk,
As soon the night will be too dark, the spring
Too late, desire strange, and time too fast,
This first estrangement is a gradual thing
(His mother once so svelte, so often sick!
Towering father did this: what a trick!)
Explained too cautiously, containing fear,
Another being’s being, becoming dear:
All men are enemies: thus even brothers
Can separate each other from their mothers!
No better example than this unborn brother
Shall teach him of his exile from his mother,
Measured by his distance from the sky,
Spoken in two vowels,
I am I.
The Heavy Bear Who Goes With Me “the withness of the body”The heavy bear who goes with me,
A manifold honey to smear his face,
Clumsy and lumbering here and there,
The central ton of every place,
The hungry beating brutish one
In love with candy, anger, and sleep,
Crazy factotum, dishevelling all,
Climbs the building, kicks the football,
Boxes his brother in the hate-ridden city.
Breathing at my side, that heavy animal,
That heavy bear who sleeps with me,
Howls in his sleep for a world of sugar,
A sweetness intimate as the water’s clasp,
Howls in his sleep because the tight-rope
Trembles and shows the darkness beneath.
—The strutting show-off is terrified,
Dressed in his dress-suit, bulging his pants,
Trembles to think that his quivering meat
Must finally wince to nothing at all.
That inescapable animal walks with me,
Has followed me since the black womb held,
Moves where I move, distorting my gesture,
A caricature, a swollen shadow,
A stupid clown of the spirit’s motive,
Perplexes and affronts with his own darkness,
The secret life of belly and bone,
Opaque, too near, my private, yet unknown,
Stretches to embrace the very dear
With whom I would walk without him near,
Touches her grossly, although a word
Would bare my heart and make me clear,
Stumbles, flounders, and strives to be fed
Dragging me with him in his mouthing care,
Amid the hundred million of his kind,
The scrimmage of appetite everywhere.
Darkling Summer, Ominous Dusk, Rumorous Rain1
A tattering of rain and then the reign
Of pour and pouring-down and down,
Where in the westward gathered the filming gown
Of grey and clouding weakness, and, in the mane
Of the light’s glory and the day’s splendor, gold and vain,
Vivid, more and more vivid, scarlet, lucid and more luminous,
then came a splatter, a prattle, a blowing rain!
And soon the hour was musical and rumorous:
A softness of a dripping lipped the isolated houses,
A gaunt grey somber softness licked the glass of hours.
Again, after a catbird squeaked in the special silence,
And clouding vagueness fogged the windowpane
And gathered blackness and overcast, the mane
Of light’s story and light’s glory surrendered and ended
—A pebble—a ring—a ringing on the pane,
A blowing and a blowing in: tides of the blue and cold
Moods of the great blue bay, and slates of grey
Came down upon the land’s great sea, the body of this day
—Hardly an atom of silence amid the roar
Allowed the voice to form appeal—to call:
By kindled light we thought we saw the bronze of fall.
The World Was Warm and White When I Was BornThe world was warm and white when I was born:
Beyond the windowpane the world was white,
A glaring whiteness in a leaded frame,
Yet warm as in the hearth and heart of light.
Although the whiteness was almond and was bone
In midnight’s still paralysis, nevertheless
The world was warm and hope was infinite
All things would come, fulfilled, all things would be known
All things would be enjoyed, fulfilled, and come to be my own.
How like a summer the years of youth have passed!
—How like the summer of 1914, in all truth!—
Patience, my soul, the truth is never known
Until the future has become the past
And then, only, when the love of truth at last
Becomes the truth of love, when both are one,
Then, then, then, Eden becomes Utopia and is surpassed:
For then the dream of knowledge and knowledge knows
Motive and joy at once wherever it goes.
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