“I have the means to make myself deadly”

Demonstrably, one thing about the life of the electrical engineer Mark Anthony remains in historical memory. His dates of birth and death don’t seem to be accessible online, but during the years of his floruit, 1909-1911, he is known to history to have been experimenting in New York with what we would now call a radio-controlled drone bomber. About that the online record yields two reprinted newspaper articles. Says Anthony in one of them, from 1909,

This airship of mine
(“Airship to Cross Ocean”)

There are also two 1909 portraits in the Library of Congress’s George Grantham Bain Collection, an archive of news agency photographs. One is captioned “Anthony at transformer,” and it shows a standing man, presumably Anthony, looking down at a table upon which rests a transformer. By analogy with “at bat” or “at the wheel,” the phrase “at transformer” is a dramatis persona in a scene of power and mastery.

The other portrait . . .

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Dark but with a rubbery sheen, the rope-bound object in the background may be what the newspaper article calls “a balloon 22 feet long, with a capacity of 600 cubic feet of gas.” Anthony’s right hand rests on what looks like a compressed-gas cylinder’s hose connection, and it seems to be holding the inflation tube of another balloon, tied off with string. The system looks ready for arming and flight, and the artist who memorialized the event for history bent his name to the masterful arc of the inventor’s shoulder.

A later article about radio control extinguishes the expectation. From Germany in 1911, it reports: “A somewhat similar invention was recently reported from New York, where Mark Anthony, a well-known electrical engineer, offered his device to the United States Government for $125,000. The offer was declined. . . ” But in what Cavafy might have called the days of 1909, an image inflated itself with curves bulging into more curves and then went tense and still, in a waiting phase, at the brink of a moment when the curves might merge, then soar free enclosed in straining rubber, then explode and cause to explode. The balloon, the hat, the nose, and the double beacon of the eyes behind their collimators: all these awaited the unbuttoning of what a poem written in 1911 was to call “My morning coat, my collar mounting firmly to the chin, / My necktie rich and modest, but asserted by a simple pin.”

The unbuttoning didn’t take place in 1909, but the readiness was all. In 1912 Vaslav Nijinsky would fuck the nymph’s veil. Two years after that, the term “blow sky-high” would explode into aeronautical meaning.


Sources:

Title: Joseph Conrad, The Secret Agent, chapter 4: “I have the means to make myself deadly, but that by itself, you understand, is absolutely nothing in the way of protection. What is effective is the belief those people have in my will to use the means. That’s their impression. It is absolute. Therefore I am deadly.” “Those people” are the police; “the means” is a bomb in the speaker’s breast pocket, with its detonator button in his hand. I visualize a hand looking like Mark Anthony’s.

The photographs: http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683108/
and http://www.loc.gov/pictures/item/2014683107/. Detail restored with Photoshop, using the Topaz AI Clear plug-in.

The newspaper articles:

Cincinnati Enquirer 4 January 1909, page 6:

The_Cincinnati_Enquirer_Mon__Jan_4__1909 cut 2_

 

Literary Digest, vol. 43 (26 August 1911), pages 313-14:

Literary Digest combined

“Gorgeous Nothings”: the colors of crumbling

Dilapidation’s processes
Are organized Decays –

— Fr1010, “Crumbling is not an instant’s act”

For the visual study of poetry in English,  the most important manuscript publication of the last half-century must certainly be Valerie Eliot’s 1971 facsimile of the manuscripts of The Waste Land, with their annotations by Vivien Eliot and Ezra Pound. By clearing and opening the trace of Eliot’s inspiration, Mrs. Eliot institutionalized a permanent corpus of theses about the modernist canon. In that canon, the proper interpretive questions now come to us as mere obvious corollaries, not followed but preceded by their crushingly definitive textual answers. Question: what did Eliot mean when he called Ezra Pound il miglior fabbro? Answer: you’ve already passed through the life-originating darkness of Pound’s thick pencil strokes. Question: what did Eliot mean when he wrote, “Only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things”? Answer: you’ve already overheard, as from behind a hastily closed door,  the muffled quaverings of Vivien Eliot’s marginalia to “A Game of Chess.”

Because those answers come to us fully saturated with immer schon, they don’t need the confirmation of beautiful detail. The facsimile publication comes to us as a set of low-resolution black-and-white photographs facing pages of diplomatic transcript in conventional letterpress, and for reading The Waste Land in a room furnished with a black- or whiteboard, the letterpress is to be preferred. Running in parallel but a  few steps off the trail to institutional certainty, the facsimile pages represent a distraction, even a threat. We would rather consult them only as it may be necessary to verify Mrs. Eliot’s editorial accuracy. Canonical fences, the confinements of diplomatic transcript render the poem of the twentieth century safe for readers to look at.

But the wing-shaped, brilliantly colored creatures of Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings slip through the bars. These tiny manuscripts, each written on a scrap of an envelope, pre-fragmented yet complete, represent a lexicon arising out of antonyms to The Waste Land. They are not fragments shored against ruins; they are assemblages and rebuildings. In her introductory essay to the volume, “Studies in Scale,” Jen Bervin quotes the principle from a book that Dickinson’s mother owned, Lydia Maria Child’s The Frugal Housewife: “The true economy of housekeeping is simply the art of gathering up all the fragments, so that nothing is lost” (9). As Mrs. Dickinson and her daughter would have understood, Mrs. Child was alluding to the nourishing miracle of the loaves and the fishes: John 6.12, “When they were filled, he said unto his disciples, Gather up the fragments that remain, that nothing be lost.” She added, “Preserve the backs of old letters to write upon.”

But The Gorgeous Nothings comes to us pleading the inadequacy of preservation. Of the two envelope manuscripts on the cover, one may be a display of prosodic purpose across the centuries: a found name in bold black ink, Mi∫s Emily Dickinson, past which flutter two tiny orthogonal lines in delicate pencil

to light, and
then              return

with the last two letters of “Dickinson” thrusting upward to force a pause after “then.” The other communication is visually bolder still: the entire inner front of an envelope covered with the pencil trace, and a brown chevron at the left margin. But of course this second boldness shows no trace of human agency. It’s only the mark left by the passage of entropy through the system marked down by the poet on her bit of paper — specifically, the oxidation of the glue on the envelope flap. Having failed of the touch of a tongue,  the glue now darkens its way through a poet’s web of words.

The Gorgeous Nothings, then, arrives in read life to mark a brief pause in the poetics of browning and crumbling. Its date of publication was a memento mori of impending escape from the uniqueness of a manuscript touched by a poet’s hand to the impersonal memorandum of letterpress. As long as I can remember a poem and say it back without a piece of paper in my hand, I won’t regret the loss of the part of it that I once might have seen. But during this moment I am grateful, while I can be, for the visual testament of The Gorgeous Nothings.

Sources

T. S. Eliot, The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts, Including the Annotations of Ezra PoundEd. Valerie Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971.

Marta Werner and Jen Bervin, Emily Dickinson: The Gorgeous Nothings. New York: New Directions, 2013.

The Eliot quotation is from “Tradition and the Individual Talent.”

Photographs by Jonathan Morse, October 26, 2013.