Looking for The Real Carl Rakosi: Collecteds and Selecteds

Carl Rakosi, Poems 1923-1941.  Edited by Andrew Crozier.  Sun & Moon 1995.  208 pp.  $12.95 (paper)
Carl Rakosi, The Collected Poems of Carl Rakosi.  National Poetry Foundation 1987.  498 pp.  $35.00.  $18.95 (paper).
Michael Heller (ed.), Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet.  National Poetry Foundation 1993.  511pp.

Marjorie Perloff

Journal of American Studies, 30 (1996): 2, 271-283.


From the time when his poems were appearing in Louis Zukofsky’s “Objectivist” number of Poetry (February 1931), in the “Objectivists” Anthology of 1932, and then in Pagany, Contact, and Hound & Horn, Carl Rakosi (aka Callman Rawley, the professional name he adopted in 1926 when he feared that a Jewish Hungarian name would prevent him from getting a job as an English instructor) wanted to get a volume of his poetry into print.  To, Publishers and The Objectivist Press (both of which had published William Carlos Williams) seemed likely prospects.  But the Depression intervened,  small presses were constantly going bankrupt, even as they are today, and the project never came to fruition.  Finally, in 1940 James Laughlin offered Rakosi a place in his new “Poet of the Month” series, and Selected Poems was published in December 1941.

The New Directions volume, not surprisingly, given Laughlin’s strong commitment, in these years, to Williams’s poetic, presents Rakosi at his most Williamsian.   Here is a poem originally published in The New Act (1933), under the title “Good Prose”:

A yellow feather

of a note

delighted bounding

canary birdcry

Up, my Norwich,

spit the bitter

gravel out,

throw out the little

ball in midair.

Unlike “stymphalian

birds that eat up

the fruit,” this male

surveys his cuttlebone

of Mediterranean

his biscuit and his seed

from a trapeze bar

with wetting waxy

claws.

Come,

my

Lancashire Coppy,

the sun lights up

the lettuce leaf

between the bars [1].

Twenty-six years were to intervene between the publication of Selected Poems and Rakosi’s reappearance on the poetry scene with Amulet (again from New Directions) in 1967.  Like his fellow Objectivist George Oppen, Rakosi stopped writing poetry altogether when he (briefly) joined the Communist Party in the mid-thirties, not so much because, as was the case for Oppen, he regarded the writing of poetry as irrelevant at a time of political action, but because he needed to earn a living.  Highschool English teacher, law student, medical student, and finally a successful and dedicated social worker,  Rakosi was working as Director of the Jewish Family and Children’s Service in Minneapolis and two years away from retirement, when, in 1965, he received a letter from a young British poet named Andrew Crozier, who was studying with Charles Olson at Buffalo.  Crozier’s interest in and knowledge of Rakosi’s early poetry, coming, as it did,  out of the blue,  seemed like an omen:  “Was it possible,” he recalls asking himself “I could write again?  This time it was possible.  I would be free in two years. and with great joy I started.  The first poem I wrote was ‘Lying in Bed On A Summer Morning.’  The old ticker was still there” (MH 81).

So began Rakosi’s second phase, the phase that culminates in the 1986 Collected Poems, which the poet himself prepared for the National Poetry Foundation at the University of Maine at Orono.  It sounds like the ultimate success story:  brilliant young poet, part of the avant-garde Objectivist movement of the early thirties, a movement that had the imprimatur of both Pound and Williams, goes underground for more than a quarter of a century, working out in the “real” world and ceasing to write (or even, by his own account, to read) poetry, returns at age sixty-three to his real vocation, and has been going strong ever since.  A batch of new Rakosi poems appeared in the Summer 1995 issue of American Poetry Review.

But as the volumes under review reveal, this isn’t quite the way it happened.  For one thing, Rakosi’s return to poetry was, more often than not, literally just that–a return to his early poetry.   Amulet consists largely of earlier poems, generally with only slight changes.  Thus “Good Prose” becomes “Good Morning” (see CP 251), and lines 10-12, with their Marianne Moore-like mock-pedantic reference to “‘stymphalian / birds that eat up / the fruit’,” are eliminated.  Line 9 (“ball in midair”) is now followed by “grasp the cuttlebone / with male claws”; “Come, my Lancashire Coppy” (lines 19-21) becomes “Come, my Coppy / eat your seed.”  And the last three lines are left intact.

To what period does this poem belong?  Douglas Messerli reprints it in his anthology From The Other Side of the Century: A New American Poetry 1960-1990, dating it 1967 (from Amulet).  But despite the excision of the bird book references, “Good Morning” (“Good Prose”) has much more in common with such Williams poems of the early thirties as “Nantucket” or “The Red Lily” than it does with the various American poetries of the sixties–whether Beat, Black Mountain, San Francisco, New York, or confessional–among which it has been placed by Messerli and other anthologists.   The poet’s eye is kept squarely on the object–the canary in his cage–and the short chiselled couplets derive their momentum from the tension between

the forward movement of the syntax–“Up my Norwich, /spit the

bitter / gravel out”–and the stasis of the individual line, locked firmly in place by alliteration and assonance, as in “spit the bitter” or “with wetting waxy.”  Each word is weighted–“gravel out,” “ball in midair”–and yet the poem has a humility by no means characteristic of the sixties, its spareness, patient observation, and commitment to phenomenology refusing all larger claims.

A number of Rakosi’s best-known poems–poems appearing in Amulet and then in the Collected Poems– are written in the Objectivist mode of “Good Morning,” it being a nice irony that the poet’s later reputation should be largely based on poems he had published, with only minor variants, by 1933.  And the irony is compounded by the fact that by 1967 when Amulet was published, Williams had become a famous, indeed an almost canonical poet so that the “sons” (and daughters like Denise Levertov) of Bill could count on a captive audience–an audience that would respond to the image that opens “The Classics”:

The girls

wear ear rings

on the water

silver beaten

with a punch

the carved end

striking out

two flowers.     (CP 253)

Here the the concrete images of ordinary life, the open couplets, whose lineation is in tension with their syntax,  echo such Williams poems as “Young Woman at a Window.”  And in “Woman” (originally called “Sappho”), the title becomes the poem’s opening line, a device Williams used in such poems as “This Florida: 1924” (where the title is followed by the line “of which I am the sand–”):

WOMAN

steps out

from a lily

into the clear,

bearing a quince. . .  (CP 252)

Here nature is gradually eroticized, the poem moving toward climax with the lines “The ships / are radiant/  Man rises / from the kiss / and answers Yes.”

Rakosi’s Collected Poems is as large a volume as Wallace Stevens’s.  Organized thematically rather than chronologically under such headings as  “Adventures of the Head,” “Droles de Journal,” and “The History of Man,” with many of the early poems confusingly placed at the back of the book, the Collected Poems could have used pruning and editing.  The poems are neither dated nor annotated so that it is impossible to trace their evolution.  But the staple of the later years seems to be the “mobile” or “two-step” poem (again modelled on Williams’s late lyric  in triadic feet), which typically looks like this:

Up stand

six

yellow

jonquils

in a

glass/

the stems

dark green,

paling

as they descend

into the water/

seen through

a thicket

of baby’s breath, “a tall herb

bearing numerous small,

fragrant white flowers.”

I have seen

snow-drops larger.  (“The Menage,” CP 109)

Contemplating the erotically charged jonquils, the poet goes into a Zenlike trance, broken only by the “familiar voice” of his wife, cajoling him to make love to her.  A “mock chase and capture” “Commit her / into jonquil’s custody,” and the poet tells himself that “She’ll see a phallus /in the pistil.  Let her work it off there.”  The “pastoral” ends “as real pastorals in time must, / in bed with the great / eye of man, rolling.”

This and related pastorals in Rakosi’s later collections have been praised by various critics in Michael Heller’s excellent collection of essays, for their “fusion of eye, sexuality and meditation on nature” (Eric  Mottram) and for their “sophisticated wit” and erudition, for example, as Linda Barnes notes, the references in “The Menage” to Chaucer (“What makes you so fresh / my Wife of Bath?”) nursery rhyme (“That’s for you to find out, / old shoe, old shoe”)  and the dictionary (the definition of the flower called “baby’s breath”).  But “lovely” as such poems are (and there are many!), they rarely have the edge, the compression and tightness, that make Williams’s Objectivist lyric so satisfying.  “Copulate / <copulare,” opens “The Indomitable” (CP 55), and eight tiny step lines follow:

to join,

to couple.

Says nothing

of lust,

the iron master,

sweaty

breathless,

fierce.

Well, yes, the Latin verb form copulare doesn’t tell us much about the mysteries of the sexual coupling it so flatly denotes.   Lust, here personified as Vulcan (“the iron master”) is quite other: “sweaty,” “breathless,”  “fierce.”  But the comparison hardly constitutes a staggering insight, and one longs for a turn– a word or phrase– that might, in Zen parlance, thicken the plot.

This is why the publication of Poems 1923-1941 is an important event.  For however  important it is to have a Collected Poems by this, the  most neglected of the Objectivist poets, the Orono edition, in which Rakosi was given a free rein to present himself as he pleased, remains unsatisfactory.   “This is not,” as Andrew Crozier puts it in “Remembering Carl Rakosi,” “a collected edition in the usual sense, the gathered evidence by which a career presents itself to be weighed and judged.  It is, rather, a culminating act, representing for us a career at the moment that it gathers into itself a lifetime of experience and acquired wisdom” (MH 215).   And that “culminating act” is problematic, given its heavy reliance, in the final analysis, on the early lyric to bolster the late.  How Rakosi’s poetry actually evolved, how (and even whether) it recaptured the potential of the early years after the hiatus of a quarter century, remains obscure.  To put it another way, the Collected Poems puts a good face on what is the black hole of non-writing at its center, masking the repetition that too often replaces the difficult evolution, the trial and error, one finds in, say, Stevens’s move from Harmonium to Parts of a World to The Auroras of Autumn.

What, to begin with, was the Objectivist Rakosi of the thirties, the poet published by Pound and Zukofsky,  Morton Dauwen Zabel and James Laughlin, really like?  How might he have evolved had he had the wherewithal to  keep on writing in the forties, fifties, and early sixties–decades that were, after all, the years of his maturity?   And where does his work fit into the Objectivist canon?  Overshadowed for decades by Zukofsky and Oppen, even by Lorine Niedecker and Charles Reznikoff who have been rediscovered by feminist and Jewish critics respectively,  will he now assume a central position in the history of twentieth-century poetry?

Crozier himself is convinced of Rakosi’s greatness; it doesn’t help matters that his Introduction to Poems 1923-1941 is so excessively reverential.  He characterizes the early poems reprinted here “as a substantial body of fully achieved writing which has its own clear figuration . . . . There is little journeyman work or routine engine maintance, no poem that the reader will be tempted to skip” (AC 24).  Rakosi himself is more modest: in the “Cautionary Note to the Reader from the Author” that precedes Crozier’s Introduction, he expresses discomfort about the awkwardnesses and Christological references in his early poetry.  “It is not until page 56 [with “Hokku,” of which more below] that, from where I stand now, I recognize myself and it’s clear sailing” (AC 8). That makes sixteen out of ninety poems (and some of these are variants of the same poem!) or roughly one fifth that are written off by their own author!   Here are two of Rakosi’s earliest published poems:

THE OLD MEN

I saw the knotted old men gaze

Into the snowing waters;

I saw them dream like bamboo stalks

Hung on the falling waters,

Falling like beauty forever.

No sun or moon will ever

Look in their hearts again;

No eyes or hearts of men.

But bees will suck an hour

In the cup of a new gold flower.    (AC 34)

GIGANTIC WALKER

God, if I were up so high,

Where you wade across the sky,

I’d scoop into your pool of blue,

And let the clear light trickle through.

Stoop, and lift me to your knees,

Gigantic Walker of the Skies;

Lend me your sun and all your eyes,

And I will make a poem of these.                          (AC 35)

These little poems provide a fascinating index to what the dominant poetic discourse was in the U.S. of the early twenties, as it was understood by a young would-be poet, from a working-class Jewish immigrant family, who was attending a midwestern state university (Wisconsin).  On the one hand (“The Old Men”), imagism, John Gould Fletcher or Amy Lowell-style, then the staple of Poetry and The Little Review; on the other hand (“Gigantic Walker”), genteel verse written in tetrameter couplets, its diction the more traditional magazine fare of the period.  The Rakosi who wrote these lyrics, like his poet-friends Margery Latimer, Kenneth Fearing, and Leon Serabian Herald, had evidently not yet read Ezra Pound or T. S. Eliot (whose Waste Land had been published the year before “Gigantic Walker”); and he certainly hadn’t yet read Williams.   All of these poets had been publishing for a decade, but it took time to absorb what was still a minuscule and larely invisible avant-garde.   Indeed, a prominent figure in Rakosi’s earliest work is Yeats, who certainly was well known.   “Six Essays in Sentiment,” for example, has lines like “You are far more beautiful / Than a crescent branch of light; / I will capture one as scull / For you to sail the seas of my sight,” and the stanza ends with the couplet:

I saw God’s agate fingers place

Your light in chapelries of space.  (AC 41).

This was published in 1923.  By 1925,  Rakosi had fallen under the spell of Wallace Stevens.  He later made no bones about this debt: in the Collected Poems, there is a poetic sequence called “Domination of Wallace Stevens,” which incorporates six early poems like “African Theme, Needlework, etc.,” originally published in Contact in 1932.  In that version, we read:

One must have sullen wits to foot the jungle

like another darkness because of heimweh

and an air spiced with big fruit.

The bamboos shiver and the tattooed bird

caws to the rose-chafer in the moon.

Its mumbo-jumbo banging a tom-tom, his black

feet straggling in the thrum of oil palms.

Ivory hunters with a tree mask

come up the river.  Apes, apes.

In the tiger country beyond the grain

the black one rolls her pubes.

The continent is waterbound and one

outside the singer in the shack,

`                       and Sambo, fat cigar in heaven, chucks

the white dice gravely with a black crow.   (AC 107)

Surely this is a pastiche of the Harmonium poems, the opening line burlesquing “The Snow Man” (“One must have a mind of winter”), and paving the way for echoes of “The Emperor of Ice Cream” (“fat cigar in heaven”), “Sunday Morning” (“The bamboos shiver and the tattooed bird”), and such other early lyrics as “The Bird with the Coppery, Keen Claws,” “The Ordinary Women,” and “The Load of Sugar-Cane.”  But–and this is what makes “African Theme” so odd is that there is no indication here or in the revised version, in which the blank verse lines are broken up:

In the tiger country

beyond the grain

the black one

rolls her pubes    (CP 474)

that  Rakosi is in fact consciously spoofing his master.  On the contrary, he later recalls having  been, as a young man, “seduced by the elegance of [Stevens’s] language, the imaginative association of words,” the “beauties” that are so enticing even though they have  “killed all subject matter” (MH 463).  But if anyone has killed subject matter here or in “Paraguay,” “Shadows for Florida,” and “Sitting Room by Patinka,” it is Rakosi, who, in his own poem, seems curiously absent from the landscape of bamboos, tattooed birds, and oil palms he proffers us.

But the poem has one curious clinamen: the German word heimweh (homesickness), which exposes the Austro-Hungarian immigrant poet as having no real place in the Florida tropics of the Stevensian imagination.  And it is that heimweh for a more consonant mode of writing that begins to manifest itself, after the Stevens influence (with a little Hart Crane mixed in, as in “Impressions,” which would seem to be modelled on “Praise for an Urn”), finally dissipates itself in the late twenties.   I say finally, because, counter to Crozier’s claims that none of these early poems can be considered juvenilia, half-way through Poems 1923-1941, we are still finding poetic excercises like “Fluteplayers from Finmarken,” which begins:

How keen the nights were,

Svensen                                                        (AC 79)

or “Salons,” which contains the tercet:

The grave salons with lines of peridot

in the interior and cairngorm pomp,

attest refinements of the clavichord.   (AC 87)

The former of these lyrics was published in the Objectivist number of Poetry (February 1931), the latter in Pagany the same year.   As for “Hokku” (AC 56),  the first poem in which Rakosi claims to “recognize” himself, this picture of “Old men” as “bamboo stalks,” unable to respond to “The women of lust . . . broidered with sun-nerves,”  is more or less an exercise in recreating the mood of “Le Monocle de Mon Oncle.”

Indeed, the first poem that has anything like Rakosi’s own signature may be found more than thirty pages further along in Crozier’s volume.  I refer to “The Athletes” (originally published in Pagany in November 1931) and later absorbed into “The City”).   It is remarkable that “The Athletes” too begins in Stevens country (“A technical display. / You bought a perfume bottle / and a Chinese shawl. / Susannah set a headstone in St. Paul”), but then shifts gears:

I’m inside waiting for a surprise

I’m in love with the girl on the Wabash

I’m alone with a hand in my hand

and a pair of wonderful eyes.

But you’re blue

you have to speak

you want to do

you want to see

the sights obscure you

the facts secure you.

The Maine sails out to sea.

The undertaker drives to Hartford.

Somebody has to drive the spikes

pitch the gears

oil the cams

somebody has to kill the whiskey

somebody has to speak.

Yesterday the ducks flew in a mackerel sky.

You had the allotropes of vision.

something historical at the controls of North

America, heavyweight and metaphorical.

What are the facts?

They swept the city hall today.

They set the lathe dogs

trimmped the tool posts

scraped the bearings

shellacked the knots.

They set the capital

upon the shaft.

What are the facts?       (AC 88-89)

No more tattooed birds cawing to the moon, no palm trees and Sambos with big cigars!  The lush imagery of early Stevens gives way to what Rakosi calls “the allotropes of vision,” which are, in turn, “Something historical at the controls of North / America, heavyweight and metaphorical.”  The scientific term allotropic means “having different physical properties though unchanged in substance”(OED).   “You had the allotropes of vision” (in “The City,” Rakosi changes the pronoun to “I”) thus suggests that the poet wants to renounce what Stevens called the “Metaphors of a Magnifico” in favor of the recognition that a change in outer appearance is not necessarily indicative of a change in substance. The move, we might say, is from Stevens to Williams: “No ideas but in things.”  But even this account is inadequate for in Rakosi, “things” quickly give way to “facts.”

In an interesting essay on Rakosi’s “allotropes of vision,” Jeffrey Peterson relates “The Athletes” to Rakosi’s account, in a 1969 interview with L. S. Dembo, of his first visit to New York in the mid-twenties:

I’m a young man of twenty-two, timid and lonely, and I come to New York from a             small town [Kenosha, WI] and it’s overwhelming–the immensity, the profusion,             the infinite variety, the people.  [“The City”] is an effort to come to terms with this       overwhelming impression.  Since this is my first exposure, there are all kinds of         objects to be described–objects which have no connection with each other.  The       connection is through my perception, through my receiving them in their             tremendous multiplicity.  (cited in MH 169)

“The connection is through my perception”  sounds like something Williams might have said, but what is odd about “The Athletes,” is that Rakosi does not connect the things he perceives. Alone with his “girl on the Wabash,”  “with a hand in my hand / and a pair of wonderful eyes,” the poet notes that “the sights obscure you / the facts secure you.”  (Again, in “The City” “you” is changed to “me”).  Obscure / secure: what a difference those small first syllables make.  Sight obscures; even the “wonderful eyes” of his girl cannot alter what fact “secures”–the facts, that is, of working-class life which now come to the fore.  “Somebody,” the poet ruminates,  “has to drive the spikes / pitch the gears / oil the cams.”   And in charting these “allotropes of vision,” difference is all.   “They swept the city hall today”; “They set the capital / upon the shaft”:  the forms change even as the substance remains intact.

“The Athletes” is thus arresting in its refusal to connect, to unify the picture, to create the sort of harmonies Imagism and Symbolism demanded.  How do the “perfume bottle” and the Chinese shawl of the opening stanza  relate to the “scrap[ing] of the bearings” in the last?  The answer is that they don’t.   Nor does “The undertaker drives to Hartford” follow from the syntactically equivalent “The Maine sails out to sea.”  Both are synecdoches for the ordinary work day, but at the level of image they cannot cohere.  And such disjunction distinguishes Rakosi (as it distinguishes Oppen and Zukofsky) from the Williams of the thirties.  Rakosi seems to have recognized this and hence in “The City (1925),” first published in Amulet, he embedded “The Athletes” in the more Williamsian “The Wedding”:

Under this Luxemburg of heaven

“upright capstan

small eagles–

port of N.Y.”

gilders, stampers, pen makers, goldbeaters   (AC 120, CP 273)

A more phenomenal cityscape, this, one that neutralizes the disjunctions of “The Athletes,” now lines 25-58 of the poetic sequence.  In going back to Rakosi’s original versions, Crozier is able to show us how fully the poet rewrote so-to-speak against the grain, dismantling longer poems of great originality and power to produce what were acceptable short objectivist lyrics in the Williams tradition.  The most striking example of such dismantling is that of “The Beasts” whose first version Crozier has reconstructed in a painstaking labor of love.

As published in Poetry (November 1933), “The Beasts” had 120 lines;  Rakosi had pruned some twenty-five lines from the original in response to what was evidently a request from Morton Dauwen Zabel, then Associate Editor, to shorten the sequence.   And then, in the Selected Poems (1941) and all subsequent versions, “The Beasts” was broken up into separate short lyrics, among them ”The Status Quo,” “The Creator,” “The Night Watch,” “Lamp,” and “The Classes” (See AC 169-74).  These lyrics, in turn, find their way into the Collected Poems, sometimes under still other titles and with fairly extensive changes.   Take, for example, the reconstructed opening of “The Beasts”:

Fresh mollusk morning puts a foot

out from its bivalve

Behind us skeleton of sea

cucumber, microscopic

buttons, tables, plates, wheels

and anchors in its skin.

A hydroid, wrasse in hundreds,

the anchovy, the horse mussel,

blue sturgeon, spiny cockle,

underwater fairy palm expanding. [2]

These lines are written in what Jeffrey Peterson has dubbed Rakosi’s Scientific American style; even when we look up the arcane references (hydroid  pertains to “that form of hydrozoan which is asexual and grows into branching colonies by budding”;  wrasse is a “marine fish having thick, fleshy lips, powerful teeth, and usually a brilliant color”), it’s hard to tell why the morning is compared to a mollusk, putting “a foot / out from it bivalve,” or why the ocean life “Behind us,” is described in such intricate detail.  Interestingly, the revision (“The Creator”) makes sense of these references:

Fresh mollusk morning

puts a foot out

from its bivalve

on the sea

and in a moment

the underwater

fairy palm blooms

and all the trout

and mussel

come to life

and wrasse and sturgeon

dart through the water

with their hungry heads.

What have I brought home

in the skin of the sea cucumber

that look like wheels and anchors

under the microscope?   (CP 83)

Here in the gray morning light, the poet studies marine flora and minerals under his microscope–a situation never made clear in the first version in which locations, both the poet’s and that of the fish and flora to be examined, are left unspecified.  In “The Creator,” the analogy is between the natural and the technological: the particles on the skin of the sea cucumber “look like wheels and anchors” when seen microscopically.   The lineation of “The Creator,” moreover, follows the natural speech pauses:  “Fresh mollusk morning / puts a foot out / from its bivalve,” rather than “Fresh mollusk morning puts a foot / out from its bivalve.”

So why Crozier’s zeal to restore the original?  Perhaps because the knotted syntax of lines like “cucumber, microscopic / buttons, tables, plates, wheels” provides a more compelling sense of the difficulty with which nature and “science” can be related. If the “underwater fairy palm expanding” that is viewed under the microscope provides the poet with a visionary gleam, he is also aware that “Before us land, / the goat in open field. / The milk is marketed. / Attend our table.”  The same thing happens in the next section.  “For the evening is the city’s / like a shell forced open / and the foreign matter / shining sea forced pearl,” is equivocal.  Is it a good thing for the city’s evening to be “like a shell forced open”?   In the revised version, “The Status Quo,” we read:

It is good to be here.

The city is a shell forced open

and the foreign matter

shining sea-forced pearl.  (CP 279)

Now the reader is being guided, told what to make of the image.  In the same vein, the ambiguous lines “for this city / that as you enter, Weep / it says at either panel”  becomes “the people who made this city / out of sand and petroleum oil . . . . the people who made it all, weep.”   In “The Beasts,” the instruction to weep may be a ploy used by the financiers who put up the bank;  in “The Status Quo,” it is, much more logically and expectedly, the oppressed who weep.

Such emendations in the interests of clarity are found throughout the truncated lyrics salvaged from “The Beasts.”  But the most curious change is the omission, in the Poetry version of 1933 and thereafter, of what was Part 3 of the sequence, the passage that begins  “After the bath she touched her hair. . . “ (AC 156).   Rakosi’s original impulse, evidently, was to conclude his version of the modern “city under cellophane,” the American city with its oppressed workers, its cold stone structures, its “Creditors dining at the Cliquot Club” and “Old Country watchmakers,” with a flashback to the more Romantic, less urbanized landscape of his “Mittel-Europa” childhood, specifically to an imaginary scene in which his mother is having some kind of tryst with her lover.   Such autobiographical motifs are rare in Rakosi, whose mother and father, married in Berlin, separated when he was a year old.  His father emigrated to the U.S., remarried, and sent for Carl only six years later; his mother seems to have vanished, leaving Carl and his brother in the care of his maternal grandmother in Baja, Hungary.   In one of Rakosi’s rare memoirs of his early childhood we read:

I am in a very long room, so long that I can not see its end.  There is very little       furniture.  The ceiling is very high and vast.  There are shadows.  The further away           they are, the longer and heavier.  There is no one there.  I lie in my crib.  All I’m           aware is that I am.  And the silence.  The silence is loud.  No one comes.  The silence is             all there is.  The nothing is oppressive.  Hours go by and it becomes harder and       harder to bear.  There is no end.  There is only the silence.  And nothing.  But beyond          what I can see is Something ominous looming.

This is not a dream; it’s a memory, and I am bonded to it.  It’s a memory of no one           being there and no one coming.  A mother was not there.  I’m sure.  (MH 457)

Part 3 of “The Beasts” presents this absence obliquely.  The “She” who emerges from the bath and puts Orange Leaf in her hair is imagined in a setting of “Fumous ashwood stationary violins,” “breakfasts on the ocean,” and “taxis through the Brandenburger Tor.”  This setting is then juxtaposed to the less elegant world of provincial Hungary: “Along the Danube / onion stew and cart hack, / sheep under the Carpathians, / the cheese upon the rack,” and then to the U.S. of the “Boston limited / commercial service,” and a room in an unspecified boarding house.  The final line reads, “The men fled military service in the Empire,” a reference to the universal conscription of World War I.

No doubt Morton Dauwen Zabel found this section of “The Beasts” extraneous and the ending a letdown.  What does it all have to do with the meditation on nature and technology in the preceding sections?  In the Collected Poems, the sequence in question becomes a separate poem called “The Heifer”:  the nameless man (“Henry is gone.  Who are you?”) now becomes the “son / of a Hungarian peasant/ who fled military service / where the sheep graze / under the Carpathians / and the cheese hangs on the rack.”  This “son” is of course none other than the poet’s father, who “came to America / to a steel mill / and a single room / in a boarding house.”   The poet pictures him as having “lost / his own father’s simple power / to touch and smell . . . the unexpungable / integrity of a heifer / licking its nose . . . . / forever lost    forever lost” (CP 452).

Again, the revision produces clarity and explanation at the expense of the mystery of the original:

The table in the boarding house

was cleared, the cloth folded.

The rooms contained a few flowers,

chocolate boxes, women,

a laundry bag,

the lipstick on the dresser.   (CP 157)

This is Rakosi at his “allotropic” best, placing “chocolate boxes” and “women” in apposition, and adding a laundry bag and a lipstick for good measure.   Surely, although the narrative is never made overt, the meditation on “sea / cucumber, microscopic” of the first section is a reaction to that boarding house, and to the stifling sense of being descended from “men who fled military service in the Empire.”  Gone are the Stevensian locutions, but the accent that takes their place is hardly that of Williams.   For in “The Beasts,” the items collaged remain stubbornly resistant to collocation, even as the emblematic lamp of Part 1 “hold[s] / twin fish, / ivory carved Japanese lady, / hands crossed over breast, / holding on her head / the electric bulbs / and batik lamp shade” (AC 153).  There is a Dadaesque cast to such contradictory images.

“The Beasts” is, in any case, the antithesis of the sort of well-made poem Zabel would have been looking for.   And Rakosi, who shrewdly sensed the difficulty, proceeded to work hard to cover his poetic tracks.  To be published, he knew, he must brings his lyric into line with the Williams mode, as it manifested itself in Pagany and in the Objectivist publications.  To be published, in the sixties and seventies, it was Williams’s prosody that provided an entrée.  But the cost, many of us will feel, was perhaps too high:  the ongoing revisionist project that softened the hard edge of a sardonic, Middle European-cum-Midwest American Dada lyric.  It is good that Andrew Crozier has published these early versions–versions in which the “correct” props aren’t yet in place.  His claims for Rakosi’s poetry are too large; many of the poems in the book are just plain inferior.  But Poems 1923-1941 allows us to see, perhaps for the first time, what was unique about the Carl Rakosi who wanted, more than anything, to make himself an authentic American poet.


[1] See Poems 1923-1941, pp. 113-14.  This volume is subsequently cited in the text as AC, the Collected Poems as CP, and Carl Rakosi: Man and Poet as MH.

[2]AC 151.  For a full account of the reconstruction, the reader should consult Crozier’s “Remembering Carl Rakosi: A Conjectural Reconstruction of ‘The Beasts’,” in MH 213-30.