American Poetry in the Age of Whitman and Dickinson

falling into a lump, or flowing in waves

with 4 comments

It is time, indeed, that men and women should both cease to grow old in any other way than as the tree does, full of grace and honor.
— Margaret Fuller, Woman in the Nineteenth Century

But men and women aren’t trees, and Margaret Fuller wasn’t fated to enjoy a graceful old age.

In July of 1850, when she was 40 years old, Fuller’s ship from Europe, the Elizabeth, struck a sandbar within sight of Fire Island. The sudden jolt loosened Hiram Powers’ statue of John C. Calhoun, which was lashed in the hold, and the marble tore a hole through the hull. With the tide rising and a heavy storm coming down, the ship began to take on water at an alarming rate.

Fuller might have saved herself by swimming to shore with the aid of a sailor, but she refused to leave her husband — who couldn’t swim — and she refused to be separated from her two-year-old son, who couldn’t be carried in the rough sea.

When Emerson heard the news of Fuller’s drowning, he sent Thoreau to search for her body and effects. Some of Fuller’s manuscript material was recovered, but her book on the Italian revolution — she and her husband had been participants — was lost forever in the waves. Years later, in Cape Cod, Thoreau wrote:

Once … it was my business to go in search of the relics of a human body, mangled by sharks, which had just been cast up, a week after a wreck. …

Close at hand they were simply some bones with a little flesh adhering to them. … There was nothing at all remarkable about them, and they were singularly inoffensive both to the senses and the imagination. But as I stood there they grew more and more imposing. They were alone with the beach and the sea, whose hollow roar seemed addressed to them, and I was impressed as if there was an understanding between them and the ocean which necessarily left me out, with my snivelling sympathies. That dead body had taken possession of the shore and reigned over it as no living one could, in the name of a certain majesty which belonged to it.

Thoreau also died young. Emerson, the oldest, lived longest, to the very edge of his 79th year, though he suffered from dementia in his last decade, forgetting words and friends and then himself. After 1872, he wrote little, and then nothing, rereading his old journals while evincing a great contentment, sinking slowly into oblivion. In his last series of lectures, The Natural History of the Intellect, he wrote of memory:

Without it all life and thought were an unrelated succession. As gravity holds matter from flying off into space, so memory gives stability to knowledge; it is the cohesion which keeps things from falling into a lump, or flowing in waves.

I like to think of my scholarship and poetry as autonomous activities, with occasional points of crossing. Most of those points are marked in pencil in my books. Sometimes, I try to gather them up, to make a line, to make a text. The text above was written for a poetry reading in New York, with Fanny Howe. I’m not sure why I thought it was necessary, or even a good idea, but I wanted to set the three quotes alongside my own work, much of which recently loops tangentially from hospital and nursing home. Fuller’s dream, Thoreau’s appraisal, Emerson’s accedence: three incommensurate stances I’d like, somehow, to reconcile.


Written by Ben Friedlander

April 6, 2010 at 8:42 am

4 Responses

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  1. This is beautiful, Ben. I’ve always been haunted by that image of Margaret Fuller and others drowning in sight of the shore–and of people coming out to pick through the belongings of the drowned.

    An arborist in NY said that trees can’t be measured in human terms because they are at once young and old, alive and dead. Maybe that’s part of the incommensurability.

    allison cobb

    April 6, 2010 at 11:32 am

  2. Allison is right, Ben: it’s beautiful. Here’s my own watery take on memory, with a Rankean generalization at the end which I bet Fuller would have liked.

    Jonathan Morse

    April 6, 2010 at 4:44 pm

  3. Thanks, Allison! I was thinking of you at the reading, actually, wondering what you would have made of it: the last time I read at the Bowery Poetry Club, you were there, and I was sharing my flarf at its most abrasive (though being abrasive wasn’t the goal — but that’s another story). I still think about that conversation we had, and the email you sent. Anyway, this time I read flarf from the past year, dealing principally with my father’s condition: stroke flarf, nursing home flarf … like that. The effect was a little different.

    I have this thought that flarf technique and flarf attitude have purposes we’ve not yet comprehended. The old bread mold as penicillin thing.

    Speaking of which … the arborist you cite makes the tree sound like a zombie! Feeding on the sun. Which makes me realize how strange it is that one word, “alive,” applies to both plants and animals. An analogy, perhaps, that language treats as literal.

    Ben Friedlander

    April 7, 2010 at 8:30 am

  4. Whoa, Jonathan, that’s fabulous. All the facts knotted on a string, rubbing against our fingertips like letters on a plaque as you pull the string away.

    And I agree: Fuller would have been intrigued by the Ranke proverb. My first thought: it’s saying that human history makes no progress. My second: that every era is called upon to meet the challenge of eternity. I guess she would have accepted it as the second or rejected it as the first.

    From Margaret Fuller, Wandering Pilgrim I learn that Fuller had premonitions. A ship carrying Powers’ statue of Eve had wrecked the same year as her voyage, and since Fuller’s ship was named Elizabeth, she took it, says the biographer, as an “ill omen”: “it did seem as if God as father meant, again, to curse mankind through woman.”

    Sometimes the Bible does seem to be an evil book, for what it puts in our heads.

    Ben Friedlander

    April 7, 2010 at 8:46 am

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