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Friday 4 September 2009

For Delmore Schwartz


File:Washington Barracks 24 inch searchlights, 1918 HD-SN-99-02235.JPEG

The night they caught you, I dreamt you sank

Through oozy blooms to lean against a coral tree
Cornered by nebulous cop-fates escaped from ghost tv
On the dime of moonlight where they spidered down
A ladder from the hovering chopper to net you, wan
Beams lighting up a chalky face devoid of color
As some old clown's beginning to make up before a show,
Bright bars playing variations about the bone
Mimicking out-of-focus body scans that give
Too little definition between the known shadow
And the shadow of the actual unknown
From which you always stole away like a fugitive.

File:Heterocentrotus trigonarius in Kona.jpg

Night view of illumination from 24" mobile anti-aircraft searchlights, used by US Engineer Corps, Washington Barracks, D.C., 1918: photo by Lt. William Fox, US Army
Delmore Schwartz: photo via Charlie Parker Was a Gunslinger, 2006
Coral reefs, with sea urchin Heterocentrotus trigonarius, Kona, Hawaii: photo by Mila Zinkova, 2008


u.v.ray. said...

I wonder why so often madness goes hand in hand with genius.

I think I need to read more Delmore Schwartz.

This poem, to me, seems to be a simile that touches upon the fact that they could never put their finger on the exact nature of the man. They couldn't pigeon hole his writing. He stole away. They never did really "catch" him.

Did they?

I love the intricacies in this.

TC said...


Maybe like you, I'm always rooting for the fugitive to get away. And then he does. Yet doesn't. But perhaps ...

Yes, they are always trying to put the finger on poets, sort them into categories, but like those undersea creatures, Schwartz was, as you say, difficult to get a handle on.

Phanero Noemikon said...

Makes me think of those old german woodcuts of nemo and the bees. in a world where laws and abstractions are as real as ghosts, the crook's world is a sea world and a dream world where elegant physicality becomes the secret answer, or reason, and the cat burglar, a shaman.. or a poet.. commenting on

'what it is I gots'

Delia Psyche said...

The repeated "oos"s, the "cor" in "coral" and "cornered": I love that kind of Elizabethan nervousness in language!

Were you thinking of Lowell here, Tom? The poem puts me in mind of "To Delmore Schwartz"--and "Randall Jarrell," which recounts Lowell's dream about his other old friend. "Spidered," the manic tempo of the enjambed lines (which undertow me to the moon- and chopper-lit depths of the dream--a metaphor of Schwartz's descent into alcohol, isolation, and madness), the pile-up of the phantasmagoric images, the approximation of a sonnet: all Lowellian... Did you know Schwartz, Tom? Or did he begin withdrawing from the world before you could have met him? Was "The night they caught [Schwartz]" the night his body was discovered in the hotel? (I hope that's not insensitive.)

TC said...


The same or at least a similar neurotic anxiety appears to bring energy to the work of both Lowell and Schwartz, though I find that Schwartz's susceptibility to the infinitely repeatable pattern aspect of return-line structures adds a further obsessive element which provides iterative pattern recognition (consolation, relief) amid the jagged energies of the propulsive and compulsive lines. At any rate, yes, the presence of the subject in the poem is not biographical but mimetic/stylistic. One did not wish to presume to pry.

Lanny, you've had me chasing down German Reformation woodcuts all night in search of the bees of Nemo the Nobody until my eyeballs are hanging out like rotten strawberries on strings tugged through the air by drunk Fifteenth Century bees...

(Little Nemo in Slumberland, modern reincarnation of the Reformation jester-Nobody, trawls these same spongy dream-reefs.)

Most interesting document discovered in search was pointed out by Erik Victor McCrea: Gerta Calman's monograph on the iconographic history or Ne-homo, hombre sin sombre, Nadie the Nowhere Cowboy, homo nihilissimus -- the fugitive who whatever the offense will always get away because Nobody Did It.

“‘Nobody is my name, I bear everybody’s blame.’ With these words Joerg Schan, a barber of Strassburg, introduced his hero in a broadsheet published about 1507, and went on to show how Nobody, eternally innocent yet eternally guilty, patiently bears the blame for the misdeeds of the whole household, particularly the servants. Schan was merely giving a new twist to an ancient jest, but in placing his Nobody among the pots and pans he created a literary and pictorial type which
... persisted through more than a century. The jest itself is almost inherent in the structure of language, and depends upon the impossibility of defining or depicting a negative except paradoxically. In some languages the negative seems to invite this kind of ambiguous usage, while for instance in French personne…ne virtually precludes it. The first recorded person to employ it to advantage appears to have been Odysseus, as Homer tells us in the ninth book of the Odyssey...

“The particular use Schan made of the negation was a brilliant invention entirely his own. His jest had great success amongst both learned and unlearned in his time and has been repeated continually ever since..."

In the poem, the excuses employed by the maids, butlers, and men-servants in a household of the time are the same for every single transgression: Nobody did it…it is Nobody’s fault…Nobody is the culprit. Nobody is always the fugitive, the choppers hover, the searchlights scan the night, Nobody always gets away.

It seems then that Nemo has performed as a useful displacement mechanism e'er since the early Reformation, when the need to fob off questionable doings onto a nonexistent and thus beautifully elusive usual suspect created what would be the role of his Symbolic Life.

sardinasinsodio said...

Ya que vos también sos un melómano, pasáte por el charco y decime qué te parece esto, que de difícil de manejar también tiene lo suyo...

TC said...


Ay, manifestaciones de los demonios!

Seguiremos investigando...

(Actually I've been checking out your blog for a while now, especially enjoyed your post of 7 August... see you again.)

Ben said...

found your brave work accidentally, thanks for your songs....

TC said...

Thank you Ben, happy accident for me.

Zephirine said...

I really, really like the last three lines of this poem. (I like the rest of it too)

TC said...


Many thanks, the praise of the astute reader: one prays (excuse the pun) for such gifts.

Those eerie final lines... they do give pause, when one steps back a bit. Perhaps it's the feeling the searchlight is hunting for each one of us.

evm111 said...

Hi Tom! I stumbled upon this page almost accidentally. Such a fascinating series of exchanges on account of your poem. Like Zephirine, I also loved the last 3 lines. You and the others have inspired me to begin a new poem, based on the very flow of these messages. I am very thankful, because inspiration has lately been a little difficult for me to find. Gratefully Yours, Erik Victor McCrea