Arendt: An Arguable Elegy

Richard Howard

 
 

The meaning of memory: effacement
     of matter by form. Only

now can I construct likely atmospheres—      
     now that I have disordered
all the facts—germane to the occasion.
     Thirty years after your death
the dates blur, what is remembered becomes
     mythology, mine to make …

i) 1955

Curtained off, the lamplight concentrated 
     on you—concentrated you,
enfolded in the appropriate fumes
     from a fane of nicotine,
into an affable growling augur
     whose voice (to my tense tenor)
constituted a figured bass on which
     to develop progressions.

Yet only your eyes moved, following smoke
          into darkness, composing
a study less domestic than occult,
          indistinct yet momentous,
until the room was like Rembrandt’s portraits:
          golden in the center and
either very deep or strangely empty
          in corners of the canvas.

Each cigarette conspired, and the plot dimmed
          to a consent of silence;
you smoked on, mildly curious if more,
          in certain verses, was meant
than met the ear. The evidently vain
          pleasures of literature
were not, between us, much help. I wondered
          why you had invited me …

The silence was not golden, just yellow
     under that lamp. “Your poems—
they take such pleasure, but they give none back.”
     “They take pains,” was my defense.
“I look forward to a time (it will come,
          I’m sure it will) when you can
afford to enjoy more than yourself. Real
          pleasure enjoys not itself

but something else. Pain enjoys itself.” More
          smoke, and the face behind it
a parody of pain to mock my own.
          Yes, Rembrandt strikes the right note:
even all that smoke could not obscure you,
          ever darkening counsel …
A speaking likeness is the painters’ myth,
          the organ of sentiment

an impenetrable mask. My version
          makes your commentary sound
more alien than it may have been. I had shared
          no sentiment of yours, no
season—nothing, say, of what might have been
          spring. Besides, it was autumn,
I guessed, autumn that was your incitement,
          and more formative than spring.

My time was up—you had stipulated
          a look at poems, longer
(however zealous any admirer)
          would be intrusive; I had
my leave to go: uncomfortable though
          kind and altogether sane.
Only madness can afford comfort. Oh,
          how the real world disappoints!

ii) 1971

As heroes in epic poems divined
          the presence of deity:
not directly, of course, but in dreams;
          in certain situations
where obedience seemed luminous;
          or when words of mere mortals
—uttered by a nurse, a boy, a dog!—
          intimated the goddess:

that sort of recognition. You crossed
               the State Theater lobby,
Auden ambling beside you, wherefore
               it was no surprise the crowd
parted for the Discourse of the Great;
               but then your eyes—gray
and grave as Athena’s—discovered
               me, and a grand smile summoned

your reluctant votary: “Wystan,
               have you met this poet friend
of mine?” He had. The poet friend
               stammered Balanchine’s praises,
and the shaming ordeal was over.
               Years later you confided
(I was now just a friend, no longer
               requiring introductions

advantageous to a “poet friend”)
               that later, after Agon,
Auden had proposed to you: “He wanted,
               you know, somebody to take
his clothes to the dry-cleaners.” “Needed
               somebody, for sure.” “Hardly
a firm foundation for a marriage”—
               which grounds you must have tested

for thirty years with Heinrich Blücher,
               and were they not firm beyond
domestic tasks? “If it were not for
               the possibility of truth,”
you had mused in your Thought Diaries,
               “then fidelity would be
synonymous with obstinacy.”
               All honor to the goddess.

iii) 1972

     Was it the consequence—I fear it was—
          of what a feminist would call
my “elementary” feminism of those days
     that when you asked me to arrange (“no fuss”)
          a meeting—an evening, in fact—
with Nathalie Sarraute (my old and ancient friend,
     in town for lectures), I seized upon
          your surprising request to ask
to dinner all the women writers whom I knew
     (all eight), not realizing this would be
               exactly what you meant by fuss!
Item: Parallel lionesses never meet.

     That dinner, at least for the chef (to grant
               myself the one honorific
I may have deserved) if not for the eight diners,
     was fraught: exchanges among these persons
               (variously testing untried
surfaces to see what pressure could be withstood)
     demonstrated that to enjoy something
               and at the same time despise it
is a literary faculty as well as
     a Jewish talent—all of us were Jews
               even the author of Tropismes
whom you managed, nonetheless, to have to yourself

     (who else’s French was that suasive?), till you
               and Sarraute swapped cards: a signal
for departure—would I show you to a likely
     taxi corner in the wilds of West Street?
               (Nathalie meanwhile seemed content
to exchange adversaria in their own language
     with the seven big cats still in the cage.)
               On the way to Abingdon Square,
I thought to please you by mentioning my attendance
     at “your” Heinrich’s old school New School lectures—
               for several terms. Apparently
the wrong ones. As I handed you into the cab

     gauchely gushing about his insight, his wisdom
               (surely you agreed: you were there
in the last row every Thursday, running the tape-recorder;
     you would even absently nod to me.
               Our first encounter had not yet
occurred, and what you were nodding at was the mere
     rightness of my—of anyone’s—being there),
               I raved on: how “the professor”
managed to meet each student’s eyes, binding the class
     into what he called an appropriate
               pedagogic stance, “erotic
attention”—and then, just as I was opening

     the cab door, you turned and gently rested
               your gloved hand on my shoulder,
and in that low, breathy voice I craved and cringed from
     whenever you addressed me, you implored:
               “Please, Richard, never speak of it –
don’t speak of it again.” The taxi pulled into
     the dark, and in a darkness of my own
               I returned to my dinner guests … .
This was no final instance, there were many more
     engagements, but that unaccountable
               interdict remains your last word
in my mind. The spirit that denies—denies what?

     Heinrich two years dead, and not to speak
               of gratitude for his sagesse?
A nerve that I had touched, a misery wakened?
          What you don’t know always hurts … someone else,
               that old, unavailing prudence.
Five years later, at your memorial service,
          Mary McCarthy described your last years
               of joyful discovery: “O
the beautiful, beautiful world”—it was New England—
          and how you wished Heinrich had been with you
               “to hear the frogs croaking in tune.”
You lie beside him in the Annandale graveyard.

There are your books, of course, even the books
     of your letters—look there for
answers. But truth is indivisible and
     cannot recognize itself.
What we know of others is the divided
     memory of our moments
with them. Anyone who would acknowledge
     truth must become a liar.

 

Originally published in the June 2008 edition of The Yale Review, vol. 92.2.

Image: William Warby, Smoke Plume, 2014. Licensed under CC BY 2.0.