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Three Footnotes

By John Bradley

 

Footnote to a line by Fernando Pessoa: "I want to fly and fall from way up high!” (1)

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(1) In Charles Lindbergh’s diary, composed after his transatlantic flight, he said that to stay awake in the Spirit of St. Louis he recited “lines from that great Portuguese poet what’s-his-name.” No doubt he was referring to Fernando Pessoa’s Salutation to Walt Whitman, by Alvaro de Campos. Perhaps the very line above.

Some think, however, that this diary entry was meant as a challenge to those who later claimed that Lindbergh recited “99 Bottles of Beer on the Wall” during the flight. The implication being, of course, that the beer was German, a reference to Lindbergh’s admiration of Nazi beer.

Still other critics have argued that this entry was not written by Lindbergh, but inserted into Lindbergh’s diary by Brendan Gill, a friend of Lindbergh’s but also an admirer of Pessoa. If true, perhaps Gill meant it as a tribute to Walt Whitman, though friends of Gill insist that he thought Whitman’s poetry “made Longfellow look good.”

Still others think Lindbergh’s diary was ghostwritten by his wife, Anne Morrow, and she meant the entry to refer to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Sonnets from the Portuguese. But a disgruntled copy editor, who detested sonnets, changed the line so it alluded to the free verse of Pessoa.

The most intriguing account of the Lindbergh-Pessoa connection, however, comes from a member of Lindbergh’s ground crew, a certain L. Hampton Moon. In an interview given in a Long Island tavern, Moon disclosed that an unknown person appeared at the airstrip shortly before Lindbergh’s takeoff and paid Moon to place a book by Pessoa (though Moon used the name “Pizarro,” perhaps a combination of “Pessoa” and “Alvaro”?) in the cockpit of the Spirit of St. Louis. Moon, finding the request rather odd, didn’t ask any questions as he wanted the money to acquire a rare boomerang for his collection. Years later, when Moon questioned Lindbergh about the incident, Lindbergh would only say, “Let the winds do as they will.”

A further complication of the story takes us to the Toledo Museum of Modern Art. There in 1989 I came across a framed page, one having suffered intense salt water and sun damage. From Pessoa’s Salutation to Walt Whitman, it was identical to page 98 of Another Republic: 17 European & South American Writers, edited by Charles Simic and Mark Strand (which includes four Pessoa poems translated by Edwin Honig). The anonymous “artist” who framed the page added a footnote to the line, “I want to fly and fall from way up high!” That footnote read: “(1) Imagine falling from ‘way up high’ and not remember member embering.” When contacted recently, the museum staff could not find the Pessoa page, nor any record of it having ever appeared in the museum.

 

Footnote to a line by Thomas McGrath: “Living on catastrophe, eating the pure light.” (2)

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(2) This is the closing line of McGrath’s Epitaph: “Again, traveller, you have come a long way led by that star./But the kingdom of the wish is at the other end of the night./May you fare well, companero; let us journey together joyfully,/Living on catastrophe, eating the pure light.”

He must have been struck by that last line as he used it as the opening of another short poem entitled Route Song and Epitaph: “Living on catastrophe, eating the pure light/What have we come to but the mother dark?/Over our heads, obscurely, the stars work/Heedless. They did not invent the night.”

My memory of the line takes me back to a poetry workshop I had with McGrath at the University of Minnesota in 1977. I can still picture the boxy classroom, McGrath at the front desk, his broken leg resting on a wooden chair, smoking a cigarette underneath the “NO SMOKING” sign. He’d quietly voice his musings on a student poem, and then he did something I’ve never seen any creative writing teacher attempt, before or since. He said: “How many people like John’s poem? Raise your hand. How many don’t like John’s poem? Raise your hand.” Then on to the next poem, and the next plebiscite.

One night McGrath came to class with a ruddy face, making me think he’d had a few beers. He brought in a poem of his own, an early draft of Epitaph, which ended “breathing the dim light.” He asked us how many liked this line. Some hands went up. Then he read the line as “feeding the hungry light.” How many liked it? A few hands went up. This went on with a half a dozen other versions I can no longer recall. “Churning the long light”? He noticed that some of us were voting for more than one choice, and he got irritated. So he started over, reading all the versions and then having us write down our preference and passing the ballots to him. The winner? “Dining on the dank light.”

Looking back on the class now, I realize that McGrath taught us an important lesson that night, one I didn’t even know I learned. Democracy has its place, but not with the writing of poetry.

Many years later, while reviewing his Selected Poems 1938-1988 (Copper Canyon), I wrote him about that line. He sent back a strange note. He didn’t think that “eating the pure light” was his. He had read it somewhere—Lorca? Machado? Or had he unconsciously lifted it from a student poem? Would I mind explaining this in a footnote to my review, he asked, and I did, though when the review was published the footnote did not appear. I wonder if a student in that class scribbled at the bottom of his or her ballot: “How about ‘eating the pure light’”? Maybe I was the one who wrote that? At any rate, the authorship of one of the most striking lines of poetry remains to this day somewhat murky.

 

Footnote on the Opening Line of Gene Frumkin’s poem People: “People you bastards who can blame you on the times” (3)

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(3) “People, Clouds and Red Earth, Swallow Press, 1981, p. 42. This line was spoken in Sanskrit by J. Robert Oppenheimer on July 16, 1945, after the explosion of the first atomic bomb, though it has usually been mistranslated as “Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds.” No doubt living in New Mexico, breathing the Trinitarian radioactivity in the ambient dust, allowed Frumkin to restore the original utterance. Frumkin earlier wrote several poetic lines hinting at what was to come. From Iowa, Kansas, Nebraska: “Yet, somehow, the people grow.” From The Debt: “People, ploughed like the soil.” From Men Fail in Communion: “Only a man’s wrist contains the sea.”

Some may detect the influence here of one Thomas McGrath, who Frumkin informally studied with in the early 1950s as part of the group of poets who became known as the “Marsh Street Irregulars.” At one of their meetings McGrath allegedly instructed the poets that the word “people” should never be used in a poem—unless you were willing to donate a pint of blood at the blood bank. Naomi Replansky says she, Don Gordon, and Frumkin all went out and donated blood the very next day, although Frumkin cannot recall the incident.

Frumkin’s line from People continues to reverberate. Our poetry-loving President, at his May 31, 2005 press conference, stated, “People disassemble. That means not tell the truth.” Note the Frumkin-like play of “disassemble.” Immediately after the press conference, a pint of blood was delivered by the Sectet Service to a D.C. area blood bank.

 

John Bradley is the author of Love-In-Idleness: The Poetry of Roberto Zingarello, which won the Washington Prize. He teaches writing at Northern
Illinois University.


Photo courtesy of Freeimages.co.uk.

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