NATIONAL WINTER GARDEN
by Hart Crane
Outspoken buttocks in pink beads
Invite the necessary cloudy clinch
Of bandy eyes. . . . No extra muffling here:
The world’s one flagrant, sweating cinch.
And while legs waken salads in the brain
You pick your blonde out neatly through the smoke.
Always you wait for someone else though, always–
(Then rush the nearest exit through the smoke).
Always and last, before the final ring
When all the fireworks blare, begins
A tom-tom scrimmage with a somewhere violin,
Some cheapest echo of them all–begins.
And shall we call her whiter than the snow?
Sprayed first with ruby, then with emerald sheen–
Least tearful and least glad (who knew her smile?)
A caught slide shows her sandstone grey between.
Her eyes exist in swivellings of her teats,
Pearls whip her hips, a drench of whirling strands.
Her silly snake rings begin to mount, surmount
Each other–turquoise fakes on tinselled hands.
We wait that writhing pool, her pearls collapsed,
–All but her belly buried in the floor;
And the lewd trounce of a final muted beat!
We flee her spasm through a fleshless door. . . .
Yet, to the empty trapeze of your flesh,
O Magdalene, each comes back to die alone.
Then you, the burlesque of our lust–and faith,
Lug us back lifeward–bone by infant bone.
© Hart Crane. From Complete Poems of Hart Crane, Liveright, New York/London: 1993.
Hart Crane (1899-1932) was an American poet. Finding both inspiration and provocation in the poetry of T. S. Eliot (Crane’s The Bridge was allegedly written directly in response to Eliot’s The Wasteland), Crane wrote poetry that was traditional in form, difficult and often archaic in language, and which sought to express something more than the ironic despair that Crane found in Eliot’s poetry. Though frequently condemned as being difficult beyond comprehension, Crane has proved in the long run to be one of the most influential poets of his generation.
Crane was gay, and, much like his contemporaries (and a significant number of poets and artists throughout the ages), suffered from depression and a drinking problem. Although he experienced some success as a writer in the early and mid 1920’s, his depression and drinking won out, as did his belief that one could not be happy as a homosexual, and in 1932 he committed suicide by jumping off a steamship into the Gulf of Mexico. (Annotated biography of Hart Crane courtesy of Wikipedia.org, with edits.)
Editor’s Note: What I love about this poem is that it invites the reader to inhabit the world from which the poem comes in order to fully appreciate the poem itself. First, it is helpful to know that the National Winter Garden was a famous New York burlesque club in the 1910’s through the 1930’s. Thus, on its face this poem appears to be a fairly straightforward poem about a burlesque show. Then re-read it knowing about the conflicted sexual existence of the poet and you’ll start to see the layers underneath – the poet’s conflicted relationship with the club, with the dancers, and with the sexuality of the experience. Try a further reading and you may find that the poem is actually an exploration of the poet’s views on heterosexual intercourse itself, with lines like “We flee her spasm through a fleshless door.” For me, the more I learn about the world from which the poem was created, the richer and deeper the poem becomes.