Gai voyage, Hart Crane

Orizaba aiJ

The literary history of this poster will call special attention to the Orizaba, from whose stern Hart Crane leaped to his death on April 27, 1932. The night before, he had followed a sailor into the crew’s quarters, attempted to seduce him, and been beaten and robbed.

The language history will call attention to that incident in the hors-texte and then, in the text, to the phrases “congenial companions,” “cruise,” and “a gay foreign capitol.” It might also take one more moment to call attention to the apostrophe in the word “’phone.” Always silent, never spoken in its entire history, that almost entirely useless little punctuation mark has been ruthlessly fitted now with an apparatus of connotations and made to signify quaint anachronism. Just as much as the big change in the meaning of “gay,” that little change in editorial convention is the sign of a supervention of historical irony, the little did they know effect.

So we probably ought to try to hear it, for to feel the new silence of the prefix tele- as a phantom limb of the stumpy new twentieth-century word ’phone will be to come as close as we ever can to sensing the arrival of a death. In the instant of its coming there will be a local little tumult where, as Yeats says in the immer schon of the historical present tense, the ceremony of innocence is drowned.

Chronology: I have found this poster in two locations online, but it isn’t dated in either one. Its termini, however, would be 1925, when the newer of the two ships, Robert E. Lee, entered service, and the end of 1930, when New York’s telephone numbers were changed from word plus four digits, as in the poster, to word plus five digits (advertisement, New York Telephone Company, Daily News, 16 Dec. 1930, p. 19).

I have photoshopped the poster to correct for browning and fading.

Symbolist art: the material and its ideal realization

Here in what I hope is a clickable link is Loie Fuller in 1905, when she was smiting the sensibilities of such as Auguste Rodin and William Butler Yeats.

Loie Fuller (1905) [silent short film]

And here she is on her return tour in 2016. Marmoreal now as an image by Rodin, she has gone static at last, and her beauty no longer needs to scowl with the effort of becoming.

Source of the Lumière Brothers video clip: YouTube,

The express from Byzantium

In the Library of Congress at, this photograph has gone white with lost detail. We pretty much have to take the librarians’ word that it depicts a famous American train from the turn of the twentieth century, the New York Central Railroad’s Empire State Express, on its way though Syracuse. For their own part, the librarians can only approximate the date of the passage. The faded image and its owners’ records tell them only that this photograph of the Express’s transit was taken some time between 1900 and 1915.

But parts of the transit can be retraced by post-processing, and I suppose that may aid in fine-focusing its history. Clicking away from this image to the next one, for instance, a railroad historian might be able to do something with the more legible number on the Express’s locomotive, and a fashion historian might be able to make something chronological of the dress worn by the one woman I can now see again. For historians of Syracuse, too, Photoshop has put the century-old signs back up on Syracuse’s businesses. See how that has put the big building on the left back into communication with time. Carved deep into its rock there on an upper-story frieze, the two monosyllables The Yates look once more the way they did on the date of the transit: as if they’d traveled to The Yates by express from Mount Sinai. The history of The Yates, says reread stone, hasn’t had to die after all. The lost, says Photoshop, may be restorable.

But to read the history of the image as a whole we’d need to know the history of the light that filled a camera in Syracuse for a sunny moment some time between 1900 and 1915, and the lighting script for that moment has been rewritten. Syracuse’s light isn’t now what it was during the century and a half of the steam era. Seen through smoky light as it was seen then, the Express under its moving cloud has passed through Syracuse forever, and it won’t be back. Light no longer works the way it did when locomotive no. 3897 offered up its smoke to the air. On the building to the left, the frieze that the sun lighted in those years was lighted for those years only. Then its inscription, “The Yates,” was to be read only by day, under layers of soot; now it’s to be read by day or night, carbonless by day and with its night colors changed by sodium vapor.

Because the way we read is always changing in this way and others, a poet once dreamed of a writing as resistant to change as metal. He was old, he cried, and about the light and shadow of the changing earth on which his body lay he cried, “That is no country for old men.” Funnily, he had a name homophonic with “Yates,” and in his hard Yates poem he sang,

Once out of nature I shall never take
My bodily form from any natural thing,
But such a form as Grecian goldsmiths make
Of hammered gold.

And yes: framed here on your monitor, The Yates does look lapidary, hammered into a permanent place in a permanent image. But compare the original image with my photoshopped version and you’ll understand that the lapidary look is only an effect of artifice and temporal confusion. Next to an image of a vanishing cloud of smoke, an image of a stone building looks immortal by comparison. The symbolism of this particular building’s Renaissance architecture, too, is an evocation in stone of ideas like traditional. But a tradition expressed within an image must have originated outside the image, before the image existed, while on the other hand the image’s work of evocation can begin only within the image. First an artist envisions an empty frame, and only then does it begin to fill itself with picture. Look up, for instance, to the dappling light near the top of The Yates where smoke seems to touch and fill and then withdraw from shadowed stone. It’s the pictured dapple, only, that hurts your heart. And as to you with the hurting heart who take your picture from an upper-story window, you have set up your camera on the Express’s side of the street, where nothing is still.

Leave the camera there and descend. Cross from the single hard-edged shadow of your building into the unclear polyshadow of the smoke. Approach the still glass front of The Yates along the roadway where Syracuse’s slow light is moving a horse and a tall-helmeted policeman into position. Step between the horse and the policeman. The light reflected from their bodies will help you when you begin looking into the window. For now, the window in the image lets you see only two glittering words, The Yates, and a tall-helmeted reflection. While the shadow of the smoke lasts, there will be nothing else. But when the shadow moves off and the Express is gone and the dark glass is restored to full reflectivity, the Syracuse light may unseal its record. And then, under glass in the smoky light that once illuminated the dead, you may see that you too have been changed by passages over you of cloud and light.