Read an Excerpt
Collected Poems 1919-1976
By Allen Tate
Farrar, Straus and GirouxCopyright © 2007 Christopher Benfey
All rights reserved.
Death of Little Boys
When little boys grown patient at last, weary,
Surrender their eyes immeasurably to the night,
The event will rage terrific as the sea;
Their bodies fill a crumbling room with light.
Then you will touch at the bedside, torn in two,
Gold curls now deftly intricate with gray
As the windowpane extends a fear to you
From one peeled aster drenched with the wind all day.
And over his chest the covers in the ultimate dream
Will mount to the teeth, ascend the eyes, press back
The locks—while round his sturdy belly gleam
Suspended breaths, white spars above the wreck:
Till all the guests, come in to look, turn down
Their palms, and delirium assails the cliff
Of Norway where you ponder, and your little town
Reels like a sailor drunk in a rotten skiff.
The bleak sunshine shrieks its chipped music then
Out to the milkweed amid the fields of wheat.
There is a calm for you where men and women
Unroll the chill precision of moving feet.
If thine eye offend thee, pluck it out.
If your tired unspeaking head
Rivet the dark with linear sight,
Crazed by a warlock with his curse
Dreamed up in some loquacious bed,
And if the stage-dark head rehearse
The fifth act of the closing night,
Why, cut it off, piece after piece,
And throw the tough cortex away,
And when you've marvelled on the wars
That wove their interior smoke its way,
Tear out the close vermiculate crease
Where death crawled angrily at bay.
The wardrobe towers above the table lamp,
The harpsichord stands sentinel between;
The clock's tin argument whines out its damp
Terror, like an eyelid winking through a screen.
Young bats around the hills like sands are whirring
Past clouds of roosting vultures sick with flight,
Till the rag carpet on the hardwood stirring
Wrinkles to winds which are a swift delight.
Impanelled walls, raging with gloom, abound
In commonplaces to moralize the eye—
Which are white cats whose slick metallic sound
Cuts to the heart with a half-completed lie.
And ladies with their nails prepared for tea
And sunken barques that coast the shores of hell
And old men vacant of propriety
Have faintly rung a next-door neighbor's bell.
On the iron cot the coverlets are neat
With the bold care of an ecstatic trull
Who rearranges with impartial feet
The silence in the caverns of a skull.
When Alexander Pope strolled in the city
Strict was the glint of pearl and gold sedans.
Ladies leaned out more out of fear than pity
For Pope's tight back was rather a goat's than man's.
Often one thinks the urn should have more bones
Than skeletons provide for speedy dust,
The urn gets hollow, cobwebs brittle as stones
Weave to the funeral shell a frivolous rust.
And he who dribbled couplets like a snake
Coiled to a lithe precision in the sun
Is missing. The jar is empty; you may break
It only to find that Mr. Pope is gone.
What requisitions of a verity
Prompted the wit and rage between his teeth
One cannot say. Around a crooked tree
A moral climbs whose name should be a wreath.
To a Romantic
To Robert Penn Warren
You hold your eager head
Too high in the air, you walk
As if the sleepy dead
Had never fallen to drowse
From the sublimest talk
Of many a vehement house.
Your head so turned turns eyes
Into the vagrant West;
Fixing an iron mood
In an Ozymandias' breast
And because your clamorous blood
Beats an impermanent rest
You think the dead arise
Westward and fabulous:
The dead are those whose lies
Were doors to a narrow house.
To a Romantic Novelist
Now that you've written it
In novels and a few verses,
Will the pimps and harlots say
That Destiny's a wit?
Will the coarse kitchen-wench
Think she's Desiree
For the policeman's visit?
She's hardly such a coward.
For when it comes to that
You seem to be looking toward
A meagre public fate
—Swelling damnedly fat—
With a rhetorical hate.
I think Petronius
Would not have let you in
(With Mencken and Hergesheimer)
In that smugly cankerous
Incertitude of taste.
Scan the popular stench
With wit: the actor rehearses
To the flattered arbiter.
And what's the bother about sin?
It doesn't matter so
Whether a woman's unchaste.
Talk to Trimalchio.
The moon will run all consciences to cover,
Night is now the easy peer of day;
Little boys no longer sight the plover
Streaked in the sky, and cattle go
Warily out in search of misty hay.
Look at the blackbird, the pretty eager swallow,
The buzzard, and all the birds that sail
With the smooth essential flow
Of time through men, who fail.
For now the moon with friendless light carouses
On hill and housetop, street and marketplace,
Men will plunge, mile after mile of men,
To crush this lucent madness of the face,
Go home and put their heads upon the pillow,
Turn with whatever shift the darkness cleaves,
Tuck in their eyes, and cover
The flying dark with sleep like falling leaves.
In a valley late bees with whining gold
Thread summer to the loose ends of sleep;
A harvester pauses, surprised, in dreams of sheep,
Across his back the ravellings of the sun.
No risk of incandescence begs his eyes
To the stubble horizon, nor ceremony
Of season slipping absently to fall;
Only the endless water in the run.
If always the torture of stillness suddenly
Argued so brisk and vain an agony,
One hid in winter could look back and say:
"Summer, you are the eucharist of death;
Partake of you and never again
Will midnight foot it steeply into dawn,
Dawn veer into day,
Nor the praised schism be of year split off year.
All time would be some tatters
On a figure, and the arrested sun—
Which are one."
Retroduction to American History
Cats walk the floor at midnight; that enemy of fog,
The moon, wraps the bedpost in receding stillness; sleep
Collects all weary nothings and lugs away the towers,
The pinnacles of dust that feed the subway.
What stiff unhappy silence waits on sleep
Struts like an officer; tongues next-door bewitch
Themselves with divination; I like a melancholy oaf
Beg the nightly pillow with impossible loves.
And abnegation folds hands, crossed like the knees
Of the complacent tailor, stitches cloaks of mercy
To the backs of obsessions.
Winter like spring no less
Tolerates the air; the wild pheasant meets innocently
The gun; night flouts illumination with meagre impudence.
In such serenity of equal fates, why has Narcissus
Urged the brook with questions? Merged with the element
Speculation suffuses the meadow with drops to tickle
The cow's gullet; grasshoppers drink the rain.
Antiquity breached mortality with myths.
Narcissus is vocabulary. Hermes decorates
A cornice on the Third National Bank. Vocabulary
Becomes confusion, decoration a blight; the Parthenon
In Tennessee stucco, art for the sake of death. Now
(The bedpost receding in stillness) you brush your teeth
'Hitting on all thirty-two'; scholarship pares
The nails of Catullus, sniffs his sheets, restores
His 'passionate underwear'; morality disciplines the other
Person; every son-of-a-bitch is Christ, at least Rousseau;
Prospero serves humanity in steam-heated universities, three
Thousand dollars a year. Simplicity, Flamineo, is obscene;
Sunlight topples indignant from the hill.
In every railroad station everywhere every lover
Waits for his train. He cannot hear. The smoke
Thickens. Ticket in hand, he pumps his body
Toward lower six, for one more terse ineffable trip,
His very eyeballs fixed in disarticulation. The berth
Is clean; no elephants, vultures, mice or spiders
Distract him from nonentity: his metaphors are dead.
More sanitation is enough, enough remains: dreams
Do not end—lucidities beyond the stint of thought.
For intellect is a mansion where waste is without drain;
A corpse is your bedfellow, your great-grandfather dines
With you this evening on a cavalry horse. Intellect
Connives with heredity, creates fate as Euclid geometry
The sunlit bones in your house
Are immortal in the titmouse,
They trip the feet of grandma
Like an afterthought each day.
These unseen sunlit bones,
They may be in the cat
That startles them in grandma
But look at this or that
They meet you every way.
For Pelops' and Tantalus' successions were at once simpler,
If perplexed, and less subtle than you think. Heredity
Proposes love, love exacts language, and we lack
Language. When shall we speak again? When shall
The sparrow dusting the gutter sing? When shall
This drift with silence meet the sun? When shall I wake?
... party on the stage of the Earl Carroll Theatre on Feb. 23. At this party
Joyce Hawley, a chorus-girl, bathed in the nude in a bathtub filled with alleged
wine.—The New York Times
What are the springs of sleep? What is the motion
Of dust in the lane that has an end in falling?
Heroes, heroes, you auguries of passion,
Where are the heroes with sloops and telescopes
Who got out of bed at four to vex the dawn?
Men for their last quietus scanned the earth,
Alert on the utmost foothill of the mountains;
They were the men who climbed the topmost screen
Of the world, if sleep but lay beyond it,
Sworn to the portage of our confirmed sensations,
Seeking our image in the farthest hills.
Now bearing a useless testimony of strife
Gathered in a rumor of light, we know our end
A packet of worm-seed, a garden of spent tissues.
I've done no rape, arson, incest, no murder,
Yet cannot sleep. The petty crimes of silence
(Wary pander to whom the truth's chief whore)
I have omitted; no fool can say my tongue
Reversed its fetish and made a cult of conscience.
This innermost disturbance is a babble,
It is a sign moved to my face as well
Where every tide of heart surges to speech
Until in that loquacity of visage
One speaks a countenance fitter for death than hell.
Always your features lean to one direction
And by that charted distance know your doom.
For death is 'morality touched with emotion,'
The syllable and full measure of affirmation;
Give life the innocent crutch of quiet fools.
Where is your house, in which room stands your bed?
What window discovers these insupportable dreams?
In a lean house spawned on baked limestone
Blood history is the murmur of grasshoppers
Eastward of the dawn. Have you a daughter,
Daughters are the seed of occupations,
Of asperities, such as wills, deeds, mortgages,
Duels, estates, statesmen, pioneers, embezzlers,
'Eminent Virginians,' reminiscences, bastards,
The bar-sinister hushed, effaced by the porcelain tub.
A daughter is the fruit of occupations;
Let her not read history lest knowledge
Of her fathers instruct her to be a petty bawd.
Vittoria was herself, the contemporary strumpet
A plain bitch.
Excerpted from Collected Poems 1919-1976 by Allen Tate. Copyright © 2007 Christopher Benfey. Excerpted by permission of Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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