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On "Proem: To Brooklyn Bridge"

excerpt from Sherwood Anderson, "Out of Nowhere into Nothing"

The walls of the room enclosed her. "What makes me so happy here?" she asked herself. As for her employer – she felt she scarcely knew him. He was a shy man, rather small –

She went to a window and stood looking out. Near the factory a bridge crossed the river and over it went a stream of heavily loaded wagon and motor trucks. The sky was grey with smoke. … The tall chimneys detached themselves from the buildings and sprang into the air. The factory in which Rosalind stood had such a chimney. It also was leaping upward. She felt herself being lifted, an odd floating sensation was achieved. With what a stately tread the day went away, over the city! The city, like the factory chimneys yearned after it, hungered for it.

In the morning gulls came in from Lake Michigan to feed on the sewage floating in the river below. The river was the color of chrysoprase. The gulls floated above it as sometimes in the evening the whole city seemed to float before her eyes. They were graceful, living, free things. They were triumphant. The getting of food, even the eating of sewage was done thus gracefully, beautifully. The gulls turned and twisted in the air. They wheeled and floated and fell downward to the river in a long curve, just touching, caressing the surface of the water and then rising again.

Rosalind raised herself on her toes. At her back beyond the two glass partitions were other men and women, but there, in that room, she was alone. She belonged there. What an odd feeling she had. She also belonged to her employer, Walter Sayers. She scarcely knew the man and yet she belonged to him. She threw her arms above her head, trying awkwardly to imitate some movement of the birds.

Her awkwardness shamed her a little and she turned and walked about the room. "I’m twenty-five years old, and it’s a little late to begin trying to be a bird, to be graceful," she thought. She resented the slow stupid heavy movements of her mother and father, the movements she had imitated as a child. "Why was I not taught to be graceful and beautiful in mind and body, why in the place I came from did no one think it worth while to try to be graceful and beautiful?" she whispered to herself.

How conscious of her own body Rosalind was becoming! She walked across the room, trying to go lightly and gracefully. In the office beyond the glass partitions someone spoke suddenly and she was startled. She laughed foolishly. For a long time after she went to work in the office of Walter Sayers she thought the desire in herself to be physically more graceful and beautiful and to rise also out of the mental stupidity and sloth of her young womanhood was due to the fact that the factory windows faced the river and the western sky, and that in the morning she saw the gulls feeding and in the afternoon the sun going down through the smoke clouds in a riot of colors.

From Sherwood Anderson, "Out of Nowhere into Nothing," in The Triumph of the Egg: A Book of Impressions from American Life (New York, 1921), 216-219.

Paul Giles

… The symbolic grandeur of the first four lines is counterbalanced by the world of work depicted in the second stanza, whose literal meaning is that the seagull fades out of sight as quickly as boats pass the harbor, and that the imaginative reveries inspired by the bird must be checked ("filed away") in order to allow the business world to function. But this opposition between a romantic desire to sail to far-off lands and an acquiescence in humdrum clerical duties is also revealed by the tilting between opposites inherent in the stanza’s puns. The clue is sails, for, given the context of figures and files and elevators, it would be more predictable to find commercial "sales" rather than sailing-ships here. Therefore we may see the "inviolate curve" of the Bridge as a merging into the "inviolate curve" of a sales graph, for Bridge and sales graph become equivalent mythic forces which allow a renunciation of the Romantic ego ("forsake our eyes," with a pun turning on "eye" and "I") and which transmute the citizen into an item within the profit-and-loss columns tossed off by this office-clerk, the "page of figures" (page: "a man of humble birth or status"). Similarly, in the fourth line Till puns on "money drawer in a shop or store," which presents us with a Surrealistic image of the New York office-workers being carried up and down the city’s skyscrapers as if on the levers of some gigantic cash-register. Crane’s intricacies extend even further, for drop is "to part with or lose (money)," and "our day" puns on "oday," American slang for "money." Thus one cryptic version of this line would be: "Cash-registers part us from our money." This testifies to the ceaseless orbit of commercialism upon which New York revolves: the workers’ wages are exchanged for goods in shops, the sales of commodities enables businesses to employ clerical workers – pages of figures – who in turn spend their earnings to keep the cycle in motion.

From Paul Giles, Hart Crane: The Contexts of "The Bridge" (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1986), 33.

Paul Giles

We can also select a stanza from "Proem" which contains a more obvious ambiguity:

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometimes sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

The immediate connotations are of Brooklyn Bridge as a "vault," "an arched structure of masonry," which leaps over the water in a literal sense, and by extension provides a mythical object for the entire United States, even the personified prairies of the Midwest which the Bridge vaults over in a symbolic way. This is to read "the prairies’ dreaming sod" as the object of Vaulting. But as well as denoting the soil, sod can also be "sodomite," suggesting that "the prairies’ dreaming sod" may be none other than Hart Crane himself, the imaginative homosexual from Ohio. If this is the case, it may be simply the "dreaming sod" who is "Vaulting the sea," which could make the phrase psychoanalytically reductive, implying this "myth to God" might be brought down to mere autobiography and wish-fulfillment. Robert K. Martin [in The Homosexual Tradition in Modern Poetry {Austin: U Texas P, 1979), 33-47] has recently discussed the desire of some homosexual poets, notably Whitman, to conjoin themselves with an objective world which is the same as their subjective beings, in the same way as homosexuals choose lovers of the same sex; and so Crane, always guilty about what he thought of as the failure of his sexuality, is secretly admitting here that this vision of Brooklyn Bridge vaulting over the prairies’ dreaming sod may be the product simply of a dreaming sod’s desire to annex the world as an extension of his own ego. Does The Bridge stem from Crane’s inability to acknowledge the differences involved in heterosexual love and heterogeneous worlds? Vaulting itself has erotic connotations: Webster says "vaulting house" is an obsolete term from "brothel"; and the first two lines of this stanza seem to be a covert description of homosexual love-making, with the river being the active partner, one who "rives" ("to rend asunder, to split") the other’s flesh, and "reaming," enclosed in dreaming, being American slang for anal intercourse. (Crane knew the word reamed for he uses it openly in "After Jonah," a poem published posthumously: "O sweet deep whale as ever reamed the sky.") This would suggest The Bridge is secretly a homosexual idyll; and sweep has an obsolescent meaning of "whip" or "scourge" which would support this, inserting the homosexuality into a specifically sado-masochistic encounter."

. . .

There is in The Bridge, then, a series of concealed sexual puns which may serve to transfigure the world from the banality of logic into the brilliant liquid motion of verbal and sexual play; or alternatively may be no more than a perpetual rebellion from final assertion and resolution. … [J]esting wordplay was Crane’s specialty, and his friend Samuel Loveman was another who remembered Hart introducing this wordplay into daily life: "riding on the subway was just one holocaust of laughter because he saw double meanings in all the ads and usually obscene meanings. He claimed that most of them had some sexual or phallic undercurrent of meaning. I doubted that, although very frequently he was right or seemed to be right." Crane exploits these sexual double meanings in The Bridge, but is always striving to make them more than simply a form of confession. I noted how Emerson’s famous essay on "the Poet" talked of the need to apprehend analogies between past and present as such bridging would boost America’s cultural self-esteem by its recognition that "Methodism and Unitarianism … rest on the same foundations of wonder as the town of Troy and the temple of Delphi"; and this same Emerson essay ,ay have been one of the inspirations behind Crane’s attempt to metamorphose his own private history into the public history of America: "Time and nature yield us many gift, but not yet the timely man, the new religion, the reconciler, whom all things await. Dante’s praise is that he dared to write his autobiography in colossal cipher, or into universality."

From Paul Giles, "Psychoanalysis and Homosexuality," Chapter 13 in Hart Crane: The Contexts of "The Bridge" (Cambridge: Cambridge U P, 1986) pp. 178-179, 181-182

Thomas A. Yingling

The problem of the modern, as it is figured at the outset of The Bridge, is the problem of motion, the problem for the homosexual who understands himself as displaced, the fact that nothing "stays" him. The epigraph to the epic is Satan’s statement of his dislocation from Job—"From going to and fro in the earth, and from walking up and down in it"—and the poem presents the ultimate effect of this dip and pivot, this rootlessness and movement (here a "speechless caravan"), as suicide:

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

In this figure of the bedlamite, we see one person crushed by the anonymity, the speechlessness, of what Waldo Frank called the impersonal, busy machine of New York: "The average New Yorker is caught in a Machine. He whirls along, he is dizzy, he is helpless. If he resists, the Machine will mangle him. If he does not resist, it will dazzle him first with its glittering reiteration, so that when the mangling comes he is past knowing. He says he is too busy, and wonders why. He means, that all preference to act is gone from him" [qtd. in (Frank, Our America, Boni & Liveright, 1919, p. 172]. We see the problem of movement without meaning in acts of business as well ("As apparitional as sails [sales] that cross / Some page of figures to be filed away") and even in the realm of mass-marketed pleasures that manipulate aesthetics in isolated and ultimately valueless scenes of fantasy:

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen.

The modern world is, in the first half of this poem, an altogether alienating prospect.

But the second half of the poem finds "Vibrant reprieve and pardon" from this alienation in the presence and meaning of the bridge as a symbolic object. If we are rather strongly invited to see the bridge as a sign of the possibility of reunion even in such an alienating and fragmented landscape as the opening of the poem depicts, we are also invited to see the value of the bridge as its potential to absolve the citizens of the modern city from the burden of their anonymity, that which "time cannot raise." In exceeding its own functionality, in being an object of beauty and contemplative richness as well as a means to ‘shorter hours," the bridge transcends the strictly utilitarian and suggests that the subject under its sway might also transcend his mere utility in culture. It becomes a figure in which the whole is more than the sum of its parts, in which one may read the "Unfractioned idiom" (my italics) of a non-alienated existence. …

In naming the bridge a "harp and altar," and in declaring the desire that it "descend / And of the curveship lend a myth to God," the text celebrates not some mystical Ouspenskian other world but the energy of human manufacture. If the bridge is likened here to God, we are invited to read in it a structure that centers all subjectivity: as Althusser claims, God is the Subject of subjects, and in the more positive movement of the poem’s second half, the bridge becomes the means to a very different form exchange:

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited:
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year. …

This is an echo of the darkness that is Whitman’s figure for difficulty in "Crossing Brooklyn Ferry," a text that "To Brooklyn Bridge" strongly evokes. … In Crane’s opening poem to The Bridge, the homosexual is presented as marginal, as implicitly at odds with that daylight world where bridges represent primarily the means to quicker lunches, behaviorism, and toothpicks. But through his refusal of the realm of business as somehow the "real" locus of meaning for the bridge and for those written under its sign, the text undoes the city’s ability to "parcel," to fragment. For its homosexual subject, the bridge becomes a powerful scene of possibility and love (not only in providing a literal cruising place, "Under thy shadow by the piers I waited," but by offering itself as a symbol for the transformative structure of homoerotic experience as well): it becomes "Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge / Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry."

From Thomas A. Yingling, "The Unmarried Epic," Chapter 6 in Hart Crane and the Homosexual Text: New Thresholds, New Anatomies (Chicago: U Chicago P, 1991), 191-194

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