Tuesday, April 7, 2015

The complete text of posts relating to H. R. Hays' theater work, along with citations not included in this blog, may now be found in Talisman: A Journal of Contemporary Poetry and Poetichere.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

from Alien Tongue: Six Lessons in Italian

Vittore's cousin Costanzia was a beautiful young woman with bright dark eyes, silken skin, and a small waist. I was in love.

"Do you want to worship at her feet? Vittore asked me, snickering. "Watch out! We call her the Blessed Virgin."

"Yes," I confessed. "I want to die in her arms."

"You should be very careful. She's not sophisticated. Very prudish, like all Fèltre girls. You could try talking to her, though. She speaks no English.  You'll have to use your Italian. It will be good for you both. Try."

I said in Italian: "Costanzia, I'm very sorry that my Italian is no good, but I only took lessons for a few weeks."

She asked where I'd studied. That was easy; I told her. She asked where I lived and what was it like? 

That was more difficult since my Italian consisted of only about sixty or eighty words, and I had to stitch them together the best I could, as well as bring in the Latin I'd learned in high school. It was vigorous mental exercise, but ultimately frustrating.

Even so, she shouted happily to Vittore, who had gone to another room, "I can understand him!"

But I was running out of Italian words. "You don't speak any English?" I asked, hoping she had at least a few.

She shook her head sadly.

Then I had an idea. She spoke no English. I'd use that to my advantage. I'd say in English what I truly felt about her without having to worry about any negative consequences. "You are the most beautiful woman I've ever seen." I told her. "I would love to put my arms around you and kiss you with all my soul and take you down on these pillows and make love to you on this floor right now!"

She looked at me; her eyes on my eyes, then smiled, stepped closer and kissed my face emphatically. Smiling, she turned and left the room.

Monday, August 18, 2014

Flying in Fèltre

Fèltre is a mountain town in the Dolomite hills near Belluno in northern Italy.  When I visited there, it's streets were populated with eighteen bars that served coffee during the day and liquor in the evenings, although you could order a caffè corretto--corrected coffee--at any time.

One night, Chiara Matz took me to visit every bar in the town to drink grappa, which is a powerful liquor made from the detritus of the grape harvest: no grapes; only leaves, roots, stems and seeds.

Some of the eighteen bars were smallish. Some were older, relaxed, with gleaming coffee urns next to elaborate shelves of pastry and sandwiches. Some were newer but plain, with nervous owners selling cigarettes and anxious for you to pay and free up your table.

Some bars were visited by diverse language speakers. This was due to Fèltre's location near the Swiss and Austrian borders, as well as to the polyglot international skiing center at Cortina d'Ampezzo. In one bar I heard French spoken quietly, and in another, a few Germans speaking loudly. Chiara called my attention to people speaking veneto, the Venetian dialect,  as well as the local feltrini. In one bar Chiara nudged me to look at a family sitting uncomfortably at a central table. "Can you understand what they're saying?" She asked, disgusted.

"No," I told her.

"Naturally," she replied. "They're from the South. They speak some dialect nobody understands. (The Northern Italians'  disdain for the Southern was one of the first things I learned from my Italian friends in Fèltre.)

We worked our way through the streets until I stopped counting the number of bars we'd visited. When we reached the last we had just time for one quick drink before closing. "This won't do," said Chiara. "We're on a roll. We must go on."

She used the bar owner's telephone. "I've called Diego. He'll take us to the Birreria Pedavena at the top of the mountain."

Diego arrived with two friends in an old car. Something that looked like a tent with metal claws was strapped to the top. I asked Chiara and she told me it was Diego's hang glider. "They paraglide from the mountain tops. Can you believe it?"

Diego and his friends did not speak Italian, only feltrini and German. But he seemed overjoyed to learn from Chiara that I spoke German. In fact, I had taken fourteen years of it, from first grade through college, but had had only one spontaneous conversation outside the classroom--with a Dutch girl I'd met on a cruise ship when I was eight or nine years old.

Diego, in German, asked how I was enjoying Fèltre, and had I enjoyed the grappa? I tried to form an answer, but got stuck. Aside from answering, "Ja," I wanted to tell him about my adventures since arriving and ask him questions about his life in the mountains.
But the construction of the first German sentence was excruciating. Unlike Italian, the little of which I knew I'd learned in a Berlitz conversational program, I'd studied German by memorizing lists of nouns, verbs, adjective, adverbs, and so on. Constructing a reply to Diego's question required me to inventory my vocabulary lists, choosing one from Column A, one from B, etc. I managed to say a few things, but the effort left both of us exhausted. Diego decided our best course of action was non-verbal. We got in his car and ascended the mountain to the bieraria.

It was a massively arched building, with long picnic tables in rows throughout. I saw a window, the kind you see in banks or racetracks, in the center of the wall, with an opening wide enough to negotiate passing money through from one direction and retrieving pitchers of beer from the other.

The first round, I learned from Chiara, was on Diego. We drank that. The second one, Diego announced, would be on me. I stood up but sat down immediately without any strength in my legs. "I've had too much to drink," I told Chiara. "I've got to stop."

She reported this to Diego, who reacted by signaling one of his friends to lift my left side while he lifted my right. They dragged me to the window where another pitcher of beer slid towards us, and I saw Diego with my wallet carefully removing currency (which he lifted so that I could confirm the amount) and sliding it to the barman on the inside.

Later, I recall leaning against Diego's car, while Diego, Chiara and their friends chortled. I got the sense that they were planning something, but didn't know that I was to be the center of it until Chiara announced that Diego was going to teach me how to paraglide, right there, from the top of the mountain.

I protested, of course, but two of them kept me standing while Diego unpacked the glider and strapped me in.

"Diego says that you will have a beautiful ride. You can see your way by the moonlight." She gave me further instructions--something about a lovely inn at the foot of the mountain. They'd be along for me in the morning.

They walked me to what looked like the edge of the cliff. I looked at the moon, which was indeed beautiful, and that is the last I remember.

Monday, July 22, 2013

Arguing With Trees

Introducing David Ignatow

When he came to teach my creative writing class at Southampton College in the late 1960s, David Ignatow had already won national praise for his books. But a tight budget brought him to the Springs, where he lived in the woods in the only house then on 17th Street. He'd grown up in the City, and the trees surrounding his house made him uneasy. "They're like prison bars."

At first he'd tried to understand them, without success. He wrote poems. One began, "About my being a poet, the trees certainly haven’t expressed an interest, standing at a distance. I’d expect that at least they’d try to learn something new besides growing their leaves...."


Sitting in the woods across the picnic table from him I said: "My last year in boarding school, I hid in my dorm room and read more than 1,000 books!”

"What?” He winced, putting down his forkful of tinned salmon.  "You actually read 1,000 books in one year?”

"Well, perhaps, not a thousand….” In fact, I’d meant, I’d read maybe fifty or sixty books. 

"Fifty, sixty or 1,000?” he demanded. "Which is it?”

Why should he care?  I’d said "1,000” for effect, the way medieval historians reported the casualties on the battlefield. If I didn’t care about the exact number, why should he? 

But he frowned as if I’d hurt him.  "How can you use language so irresponsibly?” he wanted to know.

"Well," I retorted, "you write in your poem, 'This tree has two million and seventy-five thousand leaves. Perhaps I missed a leaf or two...' You're not going to tell me you actually did the counting. Maybe my books are like your trees."

"Impossible. You want me to believe that you read a specific number of books in a year. My exaggeration is a higher truth; yours is just a lie. Anyway, a writer uses language at all times forcefully, saying exactly what is intended, nothing more. Why don’t you understand that?”


I stopped off at his house with a new poem I wanted him to see.

“He’s teaching at the college today,” said his wife. “But come sit at the typewriter and wait for him.

In the next room I could hear a radio announcing the death of General Eisenhower. She was surprised. “I thought he’d been dead for years.”

We listened together as the announcer read off a list of complex funerary events. She remarked on how chilling it all was. “They couldn’t wait for him to drop dead.”

That gave me an idea. She encouraged me to use her typewriter. “Go ahead,” she said. “Type all you want.”

My father had admired Eisenhower and always voted Republican. At his death I’d been fascinated with the preparations for the funeral, especially the process of embalming the corpse.  I was thinking as much of my own father’s funeral as of Eisenhower’s while I worked at the typewriter.

Ignatow returned from teaching in an acrimonious mood. After supper (canned salmon on dry lettuce; water), he motioned me to hand him the poem.

I gave him the one I’d arrived with, something I’d worked on for weeks. This, I wanted him to know, was finally the real thing.

He made chomping sounds, cleaning his teeth with his tongue as he read. When he looked up it was with a sour expression. “This is crap,” he pronounced. “Why are you wasting your time with this garbage? You can write better than that.”

I was devastated. I couldn’t breathe. I felt as if he’d shoved me backwards through the wall; that I was being pinned to the menacing trees in his angry forest.

“Come on,” he chided. “You can talk. You’re not going to die.”

But I couldn’t talk, his condemnation so forceful, unexpected. To play for time, I opened my notebook and offered up the new poem I’d written about Eisenhower.  It wasn’t much. I’d just been having fun with it. But that’s all I had.

He grabbed it. His expression softened and he looked up from the typewritten sheet. “Now, this is something,” he said. “This should be published. Why didn’t you show me this the first time?”


He asked me to help with a poetry magazine he was editing. The manuscript pile was daunting. We waded through it for many hours. Later, at dinner, I suggested we go to a poetry reading at Guild Hall.

“Aw, come on,” he sighed. “Do you really want to go to some reading after all the crap I’ve made you look at today? Okay. We’ll go. But if I don’t like it, I’ll give you a signal and we’ll leave.”

I was surprised at his attitude. Having arrived at our destination, he led me to the back of the gallery, to seats nearest the exit. “The best seats in the house,” he confided, eying the exit door.

He held court until the first reader reached the podium. Several young poets came up to him for autographs and blessings. The lights went down and he tugged at my sleeve. “I’ve had enough,” he whispered. “Let’s go,”.

“But no one’s read yet.”

“All right. You stay. I’ll meet you back at the house.”

He glided to the door; a silent, practiced exit.

When I returned he was sitting outdoors on the patio with a pile of manuscripts. “You know,” he observed, dumping the pile into the trashcan. “There are more people in the world writing poems than there are who’ve ever read one.”


I was on the way back from an appointment and decided to drop in for a visit. Without knowing it, I had barged into a fight. “Never mind how many girlfriends I have,” he was assailing his wife, who was red from crying. “I’ve worked hard and I deserve as many as I want.”

Some years later, his last mistress told me, “Say what you want. Sometimes he was a bastard. But he was never, never untrue to me.”


“I regard this poet as if he were my own son,” he once wrote recommending me for a teaching job.

Then once, at three in the morning, when I found I had no place to sleep, I inched my car down his rocky drive, being as quiet as I could, intending to sleep in the trees, but the tires on gravel made a racket.

“What do you think you’re doing?” he hissed, holding a flashlight to the car window. “You’ve scared us half to death. Get the hell out of here and don’t come back until you’re sober!”


Allen Ginsberg was reading at the library in Southampton. but in his old age even a modest staircase was impossible for Ignatow. I'd driven him to the library, but we'd need someone to help get him up and through the door. Happily, Ginsberg was in the street and recognized Ignatow. Between us we hoisted him over the steps, our arms interlaced in a fireman’s carry.

Ignatow's health continued to decline. Yet one day I saw him walking down Main Street, smiling and waving at people in the shops. “What’s happened to you?” I asked.

“The doctors,” he told me. “It’s a new medication. I feel great!”

Indeed, the next time I saw him, he was driving his car, running a traffic light.

One afternoon I brought him the news: Allen Ginsberg had died.

“Ah,” he answered. “That’s too bad. But then he was quite elderly, wasn’t he?”


Ignatow was dying, laid out in a rented hospital bed in his writing room. He turned to me and declared, "I’m here to die.”

I didn't know what to say, so I looked out the window, at the trees, in silence.

"I'm enjoying the view," he said. "I finally understand the trees. They're like the crib I slept in as a child. They won't let me fall to the ground."

Finally I asked if there was anything I could do for him. 

He thought for a bit. "Yes,” he answered with his sly smile.  "Trade places with me.”

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Flight in a Rickety Airplane, part II

Hays by Rose Graubart

Back in East Hampton, Hays and Julie had come up with a new but expensive plan to continue the translation of the Boas letters. They hired Boas' elder daughter, Franzeska, to travel to Philadelphia. Since Hays couldn't be there to help her choose the relevant letters, she was to continue the translations from where we'd let off, one after the other. We were soon receiving boxes of her work.

By this time, Hays was only occasionally able to get out of bed. He had a full-time nurse who changed his bed pans. He'd sit up with his typewriter on a small table and type his Boas notes. "I've begun a new novel," he told me one day, after his nurse had changed his soiled bedding. "I'm calling it 'Castle of Shit'."

To some of his poet friends, his death seemed imminent. They decided to plan ahead and secure one of Guild Hall's difficult-to-book galleries for a Hays' memorial. They set the date six months away, to be on the safe side. Surely Hays would have passed by then.

The memorial date arrived and Hays had not passed. His friends decided to go ahead anyway, inviting Hays to be guest of honor.

Poets read his work and reminisced about their times with him. It lasted almost two hours. Refreshments were on the table, and we were looking forward to them, but Hays spoke up: "You all talk about me as if I were dead. Well, I’m not. And I'm going to say a few words.”
With his nurse's assistance, Hays made his way to the rostrum. "Let me show you the way to read these poems." And he read the same poems we'd read for at least forty-five minutes more, while we selfishly eyed the wine and cheese.

From his bed, Hays asked me to begin drafting chapters from his notes, but the notes weren't enough to make chapters. I decided to do what his literary agent had said was the publisher's minimum expectation under the contract: a chapter-by-chapter outline.

Boas returned to Germany after his year with the Inuit. In 1885 he emigrated to the United States and became an editor with the journal Science, hoping to use it as a stepping-stone to an academic appointment. In 1886, he left for a second field excursion into what would become his most famous ethnographic project, working among the Kwakiutl Indians of the Northwest Coast. After that, he began his first academic position in 1889, at Clark University in Worcester, Mass. After three years at Clark and a failed appointment at the Field Museum in Chicago in 1892 (during which he played a part in organizing the anthropological exhibits for the Columbian World's Fair), Boas moved to New York City.

The restless activity of Boas's early years slowed in New York. Hired by the American Museum of Natural History (1895-1905), which became the recipient of the rich anthropological collections he accumulated on the Northwest Coast, Boas began to teach classes at Columbia University in 1896, where three years later he was appointed Professor of Anthropology. From this point on his professional accomplishments and his influence shaped American anthropology's formative years.

The details of Boas' story were emerging. Boas was the kind of person who'd get up at 5:00 am, write eight or ten lengthy letters, draft a lecture or two, then have a cup of tea and begin to plan his day. I had no idea how we'd deal with that kind of output. We might follow him through his early Columbia University years, but documenting his professional life after that would require trips to a remote library which housed those papers. (In all, I learned, Boas' private and professional documents numbered more than 500,000.)

Doing the research, I began to be troubled by doubts about Boas' own enterprise. I loved his honesty after his stay on Baffin Island, when he admitted the sophistication and complexity of "primitive" cultures, and that people were to be judged only by their actions and the warmth of their hearts. I loved that he wanted to preserve rapidly disappearing native cultures under the heels of technologically advanced ones. But I found his belief that he could preserve those cultures hard to credit.

"The specific aim of ethnography," writes Boas' editor Helen Codere (Kwakiutl Ethnography, 1966), was to be a written record of an alien way of life that was true to that way of life and that omitted no essential. The test of authenticity and completeness was that the record disclose on analysis the 'innermost thoughts', the 'mental life' of the people, that is to say, the meaning of the culture in its various aspects to the individual members of the culture."
Boas was not a cultural speculator. Spinning theories would have been easier than achieving the goals he'd set for himself and for anthropology, which were based on objective scientific data. I was finding it hard to believe that in his 500,000 letters and documents he had come close to meeting his goal of preserving even one culture. But perhaps I didn't understand.
I was also wondering why Hays had taken on this enormous project. During his five or so decades as a professional writer, he had produced critically respected histories of religion, sociology, and anthropology, in addition to his novels, plays and poetry. He certainly knew the publishing business as well as his personal limits, I thought. But the Boas project seemed vaster than any of his previous books. Mentally, as far as I knew, he was fine. But his illness had boxed him in and forced him to rely on others for his information, including me. And I knew I wasn't worth all that much to the project.

One afternoon, Julie called to say that Hays wanted me. I stood by his bedside while he dozed. He woke, smiled, and, as usual, we waited in silence for some moments before he decided to speak. "I don't think," he said, "that I will be able to finish our project." More silence. Then: "I would like you to accept the authorship in your name."

To be placed at the front of this impossible enterprise, rather than to be invisible behind the scenes, was frightening. But I smiled and promised I would complete the book, even though I was secretly doubting that I could keep this promise.

Later, I met with Hays' agent, a kindly man in a tiny office in Manhattan. He had made a trophy wall of framed book covers of books he had sold. None seemed to have been published later than fifteen or twenty years before. I told him about the difficulties with the Boas book that I--or anyone else attempting to write it--would have to solve. I proposed to complete the book from Boas' birth through his hiring at Columbia University.

The agent promised he'd pitch the idea to the publisher. Later, after their meeting, he called to say that the publisher wanted either the whole life or nothing. We let it go at that.

Hays died. Julie and the mourners returned to her house. Entering the living room, she stopped abruptly. I turned to follow her glance. She was staring at the table next to Hays' favorite chair. "Look at that," she pointed. Hays' black horn-rimmed glasses with their bulbous lenses were on the table staring back at us. "I forgot to bury them with him. What am I going to do with them now?"

To calm her, I folded the glasses and slipped them into my pocket. But there had been something alarming about those glasses, as if Hays' quiet but intense eyes were still opened. I thought of the acting police chief's reaction to the portrait of Old Jacob Hays, back in the 19th century:

The eyes ... are so painted that they have full sweep of the entire room. Go where one will one cannot miss their steady calm scrutiny: they seem to search one and await a reply to a question.

The last time I saw Hays alive, he asked me a question. "Will you promise me something?" he asked playfully. "Promise me you won't grow old."

"Of course," I answered solemnly. "I'll never grow old."

"Well, I'll be watching," I imagined he said.

Friday, April 26, 2013

Flight in a Rickety Airplane, part I

With Julie Hays on one side and me on the other--and with much protest from Hays in the middle--we helped him up the aluminum steps of the little Cessna at East Hampton airport,. "This will be so much quicker than the train and you'll be able to get right to work," Julie assured us.

I was uneasy about flying in the tiny plane and also uneasy about our mission, which was to get Hays to the American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia. In 1979, on the strength of Hays' name, we had had our book proposal, a life of the anthropologist Franz Boas, accepted by the publisher Prentice Hall. The Philosophical Society library kept the largest collection of Boas' personal and professional letters--about 250,000 of them, about half or three-quarters written in his crowded, 19th century German script. It would be my job to help with the translation.

My German was spotty, learned haphazardly in school while distracted by the alluring German instructor. I understood the syntax of the language but had little knowledge of 19th and early 20th century German idioms that I'd be working with. At least I'd brought a good German dictionary. I thought I'd be some help with Boas' childhood letters, at least. Hays was unconcerned. "Just get yourself a German grammar and go through it. You'll be speaking the language in no time."

That was not a surprise coming from him. He'd told me that, as a student about to study in Holland, he'd done a quick read through a Dutch grammar on the ship crossing the ocean, and on arrival he had the language. Hays could read and speak German, Spanish, and French. For a recent book he'd learned some Kwakiutl, the language of one of the American Northwest Coast's native peoples.

Flying the plane was one of Julie's Hays' wealthy East Hampton friends. She seemed to know what she was doing as she held her own in a curt technical argument with Kennedy air traffic control.  We landed at North Philadelphia without disaster.

I had no one to blame for this trip but myself. I'd been the first to suggest that Hays should think about a Boas biography. I had little interest in anthropology. What interested me was that Boas, who believed that the industrial world was wiping out native cultures everywhere, and that it was his job to gather and preserve as much of their ethnography as he could, made a collection of his translations of Inuit and Northwest Coast Indian songs. Hays had introduced me to them and I was fascinated by their strangeness and ritual power, so different than the soft spoken poems of William Carlos Williams, Wallace Stevens, T.S. Eliot and other intellectual westerners I'd been reading.

Here's his translation of a song of a woman's lover against her husband:

ye ya haa ya ya ya
I wish your husband's legs were broken, my love, so that he may not be able to follow you, my love!
I wish your husband were blind, my love, so that he may not be able to watch you, my love.
Don't slap the rascal's face, chieftainess, my love!
This Copper-Maker-Woman, this chieftainess, my love!
This Copper-made-to-come-up-to-the-house-Woman, the chieftainess, my love!
This Snare-Making Woman, the chieftainess, my love!

It reminded me of Armand Schwerner's Tablets, which he was writing at the same time I was reading Boas. Armand's Tablets is a series of poems which claim to be reconstructions of ancient Sumero-Akkadian inscriptions, complete with lacunae and "untranslatable" words. I had always thought of them as humor--some were certainly hilarious--but I realized after reading Boas the power potential in Armand's project.
Here is an excerpt from Tablet 8:

I'm getting stiff, this curse
better work:

If you step on me
may your leg become green and gangrenous
and may its heavy flow of filth
stop up your eyes forever, may your face
go to crystal, may your meat be glass
in your throat and your fucking
fail. If you lift your arms in grief
may they never come down and you be known
as Idiot Tree and may you never die.

Hays had arranged an appointment for us at the library. After checking into our hotel, we were off.

The American Philosophical Society Library in Philadelphia is a major national center for research in the history of the sciences, medicine, and technology. The Society was founded in 1743. Its brochure states that It houses over 350,000 volumes and bound periodicals, eleven million manuscripts, 250,000 images, and thousands of hours of audio tape--apparently not all of them by Boas.

We arrived with our letter of appointment and were given a table in a reading room. Hays had asked to see the first several boxes of letters and we divided them up. I took Boas' early letters, written in a neat hand when he was only six or seven. He wrote about his family, about Minden, the Bavarian town in which they lived, and, in one letter, about a trip to the beach. He was wondering about the color of the sea water, he said, because in some places it was blue, in others green and in others dark. Why was this if it was all the same sea?

Over the next week at the library I held my own getting through the boxes and reaching my limit when Boas was about ages eleven or twelve. After that, his vocabulary expanded as did his abstract reasoning. The complexity of his language baffled me.

Meanwhile, Hays was reading Boas' later letters.  Boas was studying physics and geography a the universities of Heidelberg and Bonn. He had joined a dueling society and received the mark of honor, a slash on his cheek through an opening in the semi-protective face mask. He moved on to the University of Keil and completed a doctorate in physical geography in 1881. He had a girlfriend, Marie. As a trained scientist, he was again studying the color of sea water, this time through the lens of Psychophysics, a nascent discipline, developed by Gustave Fechner, who believed that science and technology had made man materialistic and indifferent to spiritual matters. He postulated the conceptual notion that science could measure states of mind.

Boas was interested in perception as a state of mind but had doubts about proving his ideas in late 19th century Germany. At the end of that century it was the consensus of German intellectuals that Europe had reached the apogee of intellectual accomplishment, and that Germans, of course, stood at the apex. Contemplating the complexity of life in Europe at the time, Boas reasoned that it was virtually impossible to investigate the mechanisms of perception amidst the sophistication of Europe. What he needed was a journey to a simpler environment, a natural one, with simple people who lived off the land or sea, a people who had never invented the electric toaster or much else and had done little else for millennia.

Heroic voyages to places like the North Pole were popular at the time, and Boas thought by making such a voyage he could accomplish his scientific goals and also establish himself in the public eye. In 1883 he decided to study the Inuit living on Baffin Island on Canada's northeast coast.
He lived with the Inuit for a year, eating and sleeping where they ate and slept. He learned their language and recorded their customs. But by the end of the year, he had not gotten answers to his scientific questions. It turned out that the Inuit culture was as complex as the European. He wrote to Marie:

I often ask myself what advantages our 'good society possesses over that of the 'savages' and find, the more I see of their customs, that we have no right to look down upon them. . . We have no right to blame them for their forms and superstitions which may seem ridiculous to us. We 'highly educated people' are much worse, relatively speaking. . .

Boas concluded that he had failed in his mission. He'd discovered that, even though the Eskimo had not invented electric toasters, their emotional, intellectual and cultural development were as sophisticated as the Europeans—only different--and that the only way for him to evaluate them as individuals was to judge them by their actions and by the warmth of their hearts. Technological development as the measure of a society’s value was only relevant when estimating how soon a technological people could supplant or destroy a non-technological one.

For Hays, walking from hotel to cab, from cab to library, and then back to the hotel in the afternoon was painful. We had not made the progress we had intended to make, and Hays was too ill to persist. So we'd have to change our research strategy and head home.

That night I decided to see something of the city. Although there had been racial rioting recently, there was supposed to be a street fair somewhere. On the ride down in the elevator a pretty girl asked me if I "needed a friend." I was delighted thinking we could see the street fair together. But then she asked how much money I had, and I realized this had been a business proposal.

I couldn't find the street fair but did walk up to a multiplex movie theater  Several films were playing including the porn film, Behind the Green Door. An ex-girlfriend who had left New York to be a Hollywood actress had called to let me know that she had had a featured part in it. I'd hesitated seeing it, but that night decided why not? I took a seat inside the dark theater and waited. A film came on the screen. It seemed to be a detective movie starring a macho black actor as a cop. Each time he'd shoot a white man, the audience would whop loudly. Considering the recent riots, I took the first opportunity to sneak out of the theater  I didn't have the courage to locate the theater that was actually playing the porn film.

Thursday, March 28, 2013


Continuing the life of H. R. Hays

After W. J. Hays' death, his widow, Helen, needed to take care of her family, but in a most respectable, understated way. She wrote children's books--juveniles-- including Princess Idleways, Prince Lazybones, Country Cousins, Castle Comfort, A Domestic Heroine and Aspirations--dedicated to the proposition that virtue is always rewarded.

Prince Lazybones learns technology
From the elves;
Princess Idleways is taught by Motherkin
That plain fare and hard work
Chasten the spirit.

The children ride high-wheeled bicycles
In Washington Square.
Pigeons inspect horse-droppings
And decorate the arch
While Boss Tweed crouches
Like a whiskered toad
Over City Hall.
In summer, a hotel in the mountains
The porch undulating with rockers,
And it is to be hoped no one
Smokes cigars in the parlor
Or uses indelicate expressions.

Her son, W. J. jr. grew up in New York City, but preferred the country, surrounded by animals. Like his father, he was a painter, but without the sense of adventure and curiosity for travel.

During the Spanish-American War he served with the cavalry, wishing to ride with the Rough Riders and Theodore Roosevelt, but did not have the chance.

He married a young woman with operatic ambitions, but decided to move out of the City before she could realize them. With the help of his aunts, he bought a large property in Millbrook, New York, in Westchester County, where he assumed the position of Master of the Hounds at the Millbrook Hunt. (When not hunting, Dan Hays reports, the dogs lay around the house farting all the time.)  In these circumstances, W. J. Jr. was able to live the life of a 'gentleman' painter. 

When his son, Hoffman Reynolds Hays rode to the local Millbrook grammar school each morning on a pony, his classmates, local farm children, made fun of him for being poor so poor his parents couldn't afford to take him to school in an automobile, which their parents were able to afford. Considering that the Hays' lived in a white columned mansion on 250 acres, this was ironic.

My father lived with horses,
He was embarrassed by words
And wanted to
Paint himself into a world
That didn’t exist.

Unlike his father and grandfather, W. J. Jr. lived an introverted life.

Perhaps sometimes
At dawn
On a blue and green hilltop,
When the hounds gave tongue
In the underbrush,
The sky came up to meet him,
A hundred years of England
Sang in his pocket.

But this was America...
Where the hounds are nourished on Standard Oil
The horse has wheels on its feet
And love is excluded from cold Puritan beds
A man can commit suicide
With a brush.

There could not have been much intimacy between Hoffman and his father, although it seems that they both yearned for it:

When I passed him,
When he moved toward death
And I was older than he,
From far off
We learned to make signals
Of anxiety and grief.

W. J. Jr. died cleaning out his stables. Writing about his father's burial, Hoffman documents his sadness, even bitterness:

There are not enough vases
For all these flowers.
The house is gay with
Stiff, bright petals
… And the closed doors behind which
No comfort lies.

Believed in
A United States
That passed away
With Teddy Roosevelt.

We shall no longer hoist the flag
On holidays.
The shutters
Will be closed for a long time.

Authority to open
Grave No. 4, lot No. 6078,
Section 61, Lake Plot
For burial
Of the remains of …
And loved the honesty
Of animals.

“I am the resurrection and the life…”
In which no one

Myths of our fathers,
What is reborn,

This sharp sunlight
Gilds our faces
With a new color
And the green grass.

Monday, March 25, 2013

On the lost prairies of America

W. J. Hays, Artist

Continuing the life of H. R. Hays

H. R. Hays wrote:

In 1861 my grandfather
Dipped his brushes in the frontier,
Sat by the stockades

On the Missouri River
Sketching Indians.

One of Old Hays' ten children, Aaron Burr Hays, so-named as a thank you to George Washington for his help in securing the Chief Constable's position for Old Hays, became a banker. One of his children was William Jacob Hays who, in a short life, became a widely recognized painter of the Old West.

In the summer of 1860, with a Civil War threatening, W.J. and another artist, W.E. Terry traveled to St. Louis with plans for a trip up the Missouri river.
On May 9 W. J. wrote to his father:
On board Steamer "Spread Eagle" May 9th, 1860

We are now about 350 miles on our way. The thermometer has fallen from 90 to 50. Stoves and over coats comfortable, the wind is blowing a gale and it looks like a sand storm on shore... It is not likely that we will reach Fort Randall in less than a fortnight. There is some chance of trouble with the Sioux as they are dissatisfied with last year's pay, but as our party numbers about 600 men I think they will find it dangerous to molest it; however I hope they will try it.

W.J. was anxious to paint the wildlife along the river, especially the bison, for which he had a fascination. Finally sighting some, he expressed his excitement:

...The day before we reached Fort Union we saw the first buffalo, the same afternoon we met two buffaloes swimming in the river and soon killed them. There was a perfect volley of balls poured into them. They were taken on board. The meat was very good.

...and thus, perhaps, furthering the tradition of John James Audubon, who insisted on eating at least one of every creature that he painted.

In his field notebooks W. J. sketched forts, such as Fort Union in the upper Missouri, Fort Clark and Fort Primeau, which were not only military basis but the source of staples, culture and, quite often, physical safety for the white settlers. He sketched fawn elk, and other animals:

His accurate pencil
Traced the ivory curve of the pronghorn skull
(Antilocapra Americana).
The lens of his eyes
Snapped a prairie dog,
“The singular, almost comic
Expression of the marmots
Has been caught with great felicity….”
And bison thunder over
His painted plains.

Burrowing owls, rattlesnakes,
“Brilliant mass of
Wild prairie flowers….”

On July 26, 1860, on board the steamer Key West Missouri River, he wrote to his mother about an important discovery:

I left Fort Stewart on the 9th of July and arrived at Fort Randall on the 19th.... On my way down the river I saw thousands of buffalo. They covered the bluff and prairie as far as we could see.

Upon his return to New York in the fall of 1860, W.J. set about painting the herds he'd seen. A reporter with the New York Tribune visited him in his studio in the Tenth Street Studio building, and saw the large canvas. "Mr. Hays is engaged on a very spirited picture, the result of his recent trip to the Rocky Mountains, representing a herd of buffaloes scampering wildly over the prairies."

W.J.'s representations of vast buffalo herds intrigued the public, but there were some doubters. A critic, who modestly signed himself "Rembrandt," wrote an extended criticism of the painting. "Rembrandt," who boasted that he himself had been on the plains, criticized the painting on the grounds that the habitat of the buffalo was incorrectly depicted, that the depiction of the animal himself was incorrect from an anatomical standpoint, and that in the real buffalo country "The monotony of the color of the grass is varied by multitudinous patches of `buffalo chips,' from two to three feet in diameter, which appear like white spots all over the ground."
W. J. responded immediately, arguing each of the points. He disdained from painting the "buffalo chips," he wrote, since they might tend to lower the viewer's pleasure. Later, in an exhibition catalog, he explained:

As far as the eye can reach, wild herds are discernible; and yet, farther behind these bluffs, over which they pour, the throng begins, covering sometimes the distance of an hundred miles. The bison collect in these immense herds during the Autumn and Winter, migrating South in Winter and North in Summer, and so vast is their number that travelers on the plains are sometimes a week passing through a herd. They form a solid column, led by the strongest and most courageous bulls, and nothing in the form of natural obstructions seems ever to deter their onward march.

W.J. died young, at the age of 45. For the last several years of his life, he was in ill-health and lived quietly. His pallbearers included artists notable in their day: W. H. Beard, S. R. Gifford, W. Whittredge, William Hart and others.

He liked space, room
For the leather-stockinged heart
And the passenger pigeon.

“The feeling of expanse
Is rendered with very happy effect…”
Elk grazing into a pink sunset
On the lost prairies of America.

Following the Hays' tradition of outwardly representing themselves  as Christians, W. J.'s funeral was held at the Church of the Ascension in New York City.

Tuesday, March 19, 2013

"Perpetually Suspicious Surveillance"

 Continuing the Life of H. R. Hays

"My great-great grandfather, Jacob," Hays told me, "was the first High Constable of New York City. He was a colorful character."

I imagine my great great-grandfather

Stumping down Broadway,

His eye cocked,

His beaver hat on his head

Invisible skyscrapers loom behind the henhouses;

Pigs roll in the gutter.

In the seventeenth century, when New York City was New Amsterdam, a company town, twenty-five percent of businesses sold liquor, and there was great drunkenness in the streets. In 1658, the Rattle Watch was established to maintain order. It consisted of eight men who carried rattles that served as loud alarms when shaken. In addition to policing they also put out fires and cried out the hours during the night.

Jacob Hays was born in 1772, in Bedford, New York.  He received a common school education, and soon afterward came to New York City, where he became a policeman. His father was a prominent Whig, a friend of George Washington, and used his influence with Washington and New York City mayor, Edward Livingston, to have Jacob commissioned High Constable in 1802. He held that office for forty-nine years, until his death in 1850.

Old Hays was a ferocious man. Joel Rose describes him in a recent novel, which relies on historical accounts:

As a young man of the Watch, Jacob Hays had made his reputation at the bull-baiting ring atop Bayard’s Mount, where he garnered renown for wading into the midst of throngs of warring, drunken brawlers. Equipped solely with his long ash constable’s staff, he would proceed from one to another, knocking the hat off the most vituperative, then, when said individual went to retrieve his aggrieved topper, sending him flying with a swift kick to the rump, effectively rendering his participation harmless. In this way, proceeding from cove to sport to magsman and back again, he had put an end to many a free-for-all, many a melee.

He began with a six man force, which became known as the Leather Heads because of the varnished pointed cap leather hats they wore. His growing reputation for quick, decisive action instilled fear in criminals, and parents would threaten errant children by telling them that they'd better behave or "we'll put Old Hays at you."

 He was also the first real detective in the City.

His clients leer at him

From grogshops

And moldy alleys,

From the wharves of West Street,

Theirs is only a retail business.

Botanist of crime,

Nothing could shake the poise

Of a small man with a big head.

He knew every specimen personally.

His famous cases, both minor and serious crimes, were reported in the popular press, the New York Evening Herald, the Sun, the Tribune, The Mercury. In 1833 The New York Mirror ran a series, "Crayon Sketches" by William Cox, which satirized the literary infirmities of the time, as well as the colorful figures of New York life. An especially popular one of these was a burlesque biography of Old Hays.

Even fairly trivial cases solved by Old Hays were of interest to readers. For instance, there was the "Case of the Stolen Suit," a simple crime with a straightforward solution: A man sneaks into a boardinghouse room and steals the new suit of the occupant while he is away. When the occupant returns, he finds that his suit has been stolen and calls for Old Hays. Old Hays arrives and notices that the thief, in his haste, had left behind his own suit. Because of his close study of the criminal element, Old Hays knows instantly the name of the man who stole the suit. He brings the victim to the thief's boarding house, the victim identifies his new suit, which the thief is wearing, and the thief is immediately put in irons.

In 1839, the City honored Old Hays with a portrait of himself painted by James Hamilton Shegogue, well-known for his portraits, landscapes, historical and genre paintings. His work hung at the New York Historical Society, the Brooklyn Museum, and other collections of the City of New York. The catalogue describes the painting:

Dressed in black, with roll-collar dress-coat, the three-quarters length figure of a dignified gentleman stands facing the spectator, with his body turned to the right. His left hand lies on a balustrade, above which is looped a red curtain, and his right rests against  his hip. Two arched openings are seen in the left background.

Some have reported a disquieting visceral affect when viewing the portrait. For a time it hung in the Superintendant's room at police headquarters. "Chief Inspector Byrnes during Superintendent Murray's illness had to use his room," reports The New York Times. Inspector Byrnes became fascinated by "the gallant old fellow's" portrait, and especially by his eyes. Each day he used the office he felt less comfortable about those eyes. It was as if he were under Jacob Hays' perpetually suspicious surveillance.

The eyes of the portrait are so painted that they have full sweep of the entire room. Go where one will one cannot miss their steady calm scrutiny: they seem to search one and await a reply to a question.

"The only way," said Mr. Byrnes, in talking of the portrait, "to get out of the old man's range was to get behind the door, and even there I felt that it was all too thin and that he was looking through it. If there had been a mirror on the mantelpiece, he'd have had me all the same."

Old Hays had a flare for pageantry. On holidays such as the Fourth of July he headed the procession of city officials, shouldering a drawn sword, his hat decked with a flaming cockade, and his person decorated with the glittering insignia of his office. Hays was a small, thin, comic-looking old gentleman, with a well-marked Jewish visage, set off by an amusing strut.

Office and oratory sustained him—

To march at the head of a procession

Carrying a gold-headed staff,

To ride a white horse.

Wednesday, March 13, 2013

"The closed doors behind which no comfort lies"

Continuing the life of H. R. Hays

H.R. Hays, was never anything but kind to me. Yet, I was uneasy with him. Over the years, when I’d bring my poems, we’d exchange desultory words, but then lapse into painful silence.  I never knew whether to address him as “Professor” or “Mr. Hays” or “Hoffman” when he’d answer my phone calls. So, I’d just say my name without saying his. I don’t know if this made him uneasy, thinking me so self-involved I couldn’t even acknowledge him.

It certainly made me uneasy.

Years after his death his daughter surprised me when she said,  “I don’t know if you knew it, but my father considered you his closest friend.”

Now, decades following his death, I'm left with questions. Am I correct in registering the sadness of his reticence, his long silences?  Am I correct in believing that he was hurt by injustices, from everyday personal affronts to great impersonal social tragedies that he couldn't do anything to right? He was certainly willing to fight back, with quick jabs, like the proficient fencer he was in college. But these parries and thrusts ended quickly, usually with his helpless shrug. What does that say about him?

He'd collaborated with artists such as Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill, yet how successful was he?

His Broadway plays opened to good reviews but usually lasted only a modest number of performances.  “History is not on my side,” Hays told me dryly. Yet, as a television writer, as a non-fiction writer, and as a novelist he had unquestioned successes. It seems now that he will continue to be remembered as a pioneering translator of Brecht and Latin American poetry. And, in my time with him, his own poetry unfurled into wonderful scope and dimension.

To the extent that we shared a good amount of time together, and that he taught me not only through his critiques of my writing but through example in his personal life and professional career, what do these questions ask about the both of us?


Lying in Its Gold Case, My Father’s Watch Is Weeping Quietly

“Your family came from England?” I asked Hays. He’d been reading me poems about his relatives.


“Where did your family come from?”

“The question would be ‘When’. Before New York they’d lived in Holland.”
“They were Dutch?”


“Then, before Holland?”


“They were Spanish?”

“More or less.”

Clearly, this wasn’t a subject he cared to tell me about. His family, I’d learned, had been in America from before the Revolution. Perhaps he thought of himself as simply an American, and let it go at that. Certainly, from what I’d seen of his artistic sensibilities, his poetry reflected the modern American verse practiced by Whitman and William Carlos Williams. His interest in the poetry and poetic doings of Ezra Pound and T. S. Eliot was mainly as a reference to the American writing he was more concerned with.  So I didn’t press my interest in his genealogy until sometime later, during a game of Scrabble.

Hoffman and Julie liked Scrabble and invited me to play. I was hopeless before their prowess. That night, Julie laid down tiles that spelled:”Converso.” I jumped on what I thought was an obvious misspelling. “I think you meant “converse,” I pointed out.

“No. I meant ‘Converso.’ Hoffman will tell you. He knows all about it.”

I reached for the Scrabble dictionary. “Don’t bother,” said Hoffman. “It’s a word, all right, but not in English. It doesn’t count.”

“What does it mean?” I asked him.

“You can look it up in the encyclopedia, after we finish.”

A few days later, in the library I looked it up in the encyclopedia. What I found led me to the Jewish Encyclopedia. “Conversos” or “Marranos” were Spanish Jews who had been forced to convert—or forced to pretend to convert—to Christianity in order to escape persecution and death by the Spanish Catholic Church spearheading attempts at ethnic cleansing.

“When the Church finally got around to throwing the Jews out entirely, only the wealthiest families could afford the stiff bribes demanded by Church officials. Those who couldn’t afford them were killed or exiled to Eastern Europe. Those who could, often opted to immigrate to Holland, where they were welcomed and treated as equals. My family was one of the lucky ones.”

Everything I knew about Hays told me he was a WASP—not that it mattered. But his looks, his aloof manner reminded me of the Episcopalian side of my family. “So, you’re Jewish?”
“I am an atheist,” he answered, and ended the conversation.

In 1654 the first Jewish immigrants arrived in New Amsterdam, and the colony’s Dutch governor, Peter Stuyvesant, did his best to push them back out. However, these Sephardic Jews had connections in Holland and prevailed on their contacts within the Dutch West India Company to override Stuyvesant, which was done.

Some years later, in the first quarter of the 18th century, six brothers with the surname Hays landed in New Amsterdam: Jacob, Judah, Isaac, Solomon, Abraham, and David. They, and later their children, bought property in Westchester County, upstate New York, which they mostly farmed.

Jacob Hays was among those active in erecting the first building for the Congregation Shearith Israel, New York City, in 1730. His sons became active in the Revolution. Benjamin was a member of the Westchester County Militia. The house in Bedford that he shared with David Hays, who helped smuggle supplies to George Washington’s troops, was burned during a Royalist raid upon the town in July, 1779.

They practiced Judaism privately while attending Christian churches. They made no secret of their religion, nor did they assert it. Even so, they were accepted among the Christians. Benjamin Etting Hays, though he strictly observed the tenets of Judaism, was known by his neighbors as "Uncle Ben, the best Christian in Westchester County."

Within twenty years of their arrival, the Hays’ had established themselves as landowners and patriots, as well as Sephardic grandees, acknowledged as members of the first families of New York City.

“So, your family was walking a tightrope between being either Jewish or Christian?” I asked Hays.

“If they felt that way,” he answered. “I never heard anything about it. I suppose they did what they wanted to do. And some of them were real characters.”

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Tyranny of Memory III

A Lecture from the Bartender at Grand Hotel, Oslo

Translation is difficult. We don't expect our American tourists to speak Norwegian so we learn English. One language can do violence to the other. Pick its pocket, so to speak.

For instance, Oslo gets many meters of snowfall. Knut Hamsun, in Hunger, has his character sleeping in the snowed-in streets of Kristiania. (Oslo used to be Kristiania in 1899.) Hamsun knew those streets. But then your Robert Bly comes along with his egregious English translation and messes up the map so that it neither resembles Kristiania nor Oslo.  A tourist could get lost in the snow and die following Mr. Bly's map! Knut Hamsun was our breakthrough novelist and maybe deserves more respect, though he was often down and out.

Henrik Ibsen was our breakthrough dramatist--hardly down and out!--but you wouldn't know it from the English translations. 

For instance, in Ghosts, Mrs. Alving refers to her husband lying around reading "bank journals," which doesn't make any sense in English. But Norwegians know instantly that "bank journals" really means "pornography." 

Ibsen drank and dined at the Cafe every night. His dinner was always an open sandwich, beer and schnapps. And often a pjolter, which is our word for Whisky and Soda.

And he could get drunk!

Hamsun and Ibsen lived here in Kristiania at the same time, and I think they met only once, poverty and wealth being discrete languages.

One night Ibsen was too drunk to sit. He insulted the waiters and we had to translate him into the street.

Hamsun was down and out, living in a wooden crate outside the Cafe. Ibsen landed next to him and decided to take a little nap. Then you could see Hamsun's arm reach out of the box and pick Ibsen's pocket!

Then Hamsun translated himself into the Cafe and ordered a splendid supper!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

The Tyranny of Memory II

Goethe Writes Aus meinem Leben: Dichtung und Wahrheit (1811-1833)

Goethe's friends entreat him to write the autobiography. One friend: "We try to guess many a riddle, to solve many a problem." But they've reached an impasse. They beg him: "Yet a little assistance here and there would not be unacceptable." "This desire," writes Goethe, "so kindly expressed, immediately awakened within me an inclination to comply with it." But how? One cannot simply write everything that has happened. One needs method. "It must be a very agreeable and a re-animating task to treat former creations as new matter, and work them up into a kind of Last Part." He cannot include everything, so he selects incidents, compresses or expands others, eliminates many.

He feels the danger, diddling with history, but he has an honest end to achieve. He declares the title of his autobiography: Dichtung und Wahrheit, Poetry and Truth.

Immediately, it is misconstrued in the press. Dichtung is understood as meaning Fiction. "What has Goethe given us?" they ask. "Is it part fiction, part truth? And indeed, which part is which?"

"No, no, no!" Goethe screams. [I translate freely here.] "It was my endeavor to present and express to the best of my ability the actual basic truths that controlled my life as I understood them." The work is translated into English as Lies and Truth in My Life. "Scheiße Kopf!" shrieks Goethe [in my free translation]. "Lies? Are they all idiots? I wanted the word Dichtung understood not in the sense of fabrication but as the revelation of higher truths. Doesn't anyone see this?"

"They say your novel, The Sorrows of Young Werther is secretly autobiography," I tell him. "But that was a fiction!” he protests. “Certainly the structure contains autobiographical elements, but I made everything else up!" "Well," I say. "Maybe it was easier reading. I mean, after all, your autobiography is, what? Thirteen volumes?" He answers: "That's what you need to get to the truth." And I suggest: "Possibly Young Werther is what you need
to get to the poetry."

"Ach," he shakes his head. "Perhaps we shall never resolve this."

"Well then," I say, stretching after a long sit down. "Möchten Sie ein paar Bier trinken? Would you like to drink a few beers?"

"Ja. Natürlich. A brilliant idea! Wir zu den Biergarten gehen."

Arm in arm we stroll to the beer garden, and as we stroll we sing: Du, du liegst mir im Herzen, the song about the man whose heart breaks because his great love cannot take him seriously.

Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Tyranny of Memory I.

Before I began to write this memoir in the beginning of 2012 I did some reading. Boswell, Goethe, and two translations of the same novel by Knut Hamsun made me ponder the connectedness of biography and translation, that they are both dominated by the tyranny of memory.

James Boswell's Life of Samuel Johnson, LL.D. published in 1791

They meet at a bookstore, but it doesn't go well. Boswell: "I apologize for being a Scot. I cannot help it." Johnson: ''That, Sir, I find, is what a very great many of your countrymen cannot help.''

See "Bozzy" of a morning enjoying a public hanging, darting down an alley for quick sex, and later, a fervid night in public or private house playing the buffoon or worse, worse for drink. How could this besotted poltroon produce such a work of light and intelligence?

Well, Macaulay says in 1831, that dolt didn't exactly write the Life, he merely took it down: faithful, mindless stenographer. The Biography has merits, he concludes, but only a fool could have written it.

Later, though, attics and closets of Boswell descendants in Scotland and Ireland open. Manuscript caches take flight, caught up by the universities. Boswell is recognized an exigent writer, not at all vapid, prepared by life for the great work, the superb Biography.

Johnson, moral and intellectual touchstone, now slumps in a grubby corner, mistranslated into something else: Hapless literary marionette.
"Do us a little dance, will ye?" leers lubricious Bozzy.
Johnson arises, clears his throat--ever ready with a pithy quotation.

Sunday, December 30, 2012


Armand Schwerner, typically

On Being Together in The Springs

"To the rich vacationers," Harvey Shapiro writes:

our lives meant nothing.
We kept investing them with meaning
until the enterprise broke us.

I see these same sights,
bleared now. Words
broken into stony syllables,
blackened in remembrance.

I thought of Armand Schwerner, who died of cancer after losing his younger son, Ari, in a car accident. I thought of David Ignatow, also, more than a decade dead now. On any number of occasions back in the ‘seventies, Armand, David, Harvey, Allen Planz, and others of us gathered on someone's back porch in the woods at the end of December to celebrate some last event before bleak winter. A few times I remember Armand grunting a kind of benediction to end the season. "And now," he'd pronounce in his ominous tones, "for four months of shit."

We’d look up into the grey sky, and that would be it till we'd meet again in spring.