Paul Metcalf, 1917–1999
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)
(Photograph by Jonathan Williams)
Melville, in a letter to Hawthorne (1851): “. . . write the other way I cannot. So the product is a final hash, and all my books are botches. I’m rather sore, perhaps, in this letter; but see my hand!—four blisters on this palm, made by hoes & hammers within the last few days . . .”
Metcalf: “The pattern may be clear in its details—or nebulous, only vaguely intuited—but the pursuit, the delineation of its outlines dictates every step—or at least dictates what is point A and what is point B. Then—how to get from A to B—this is best done abruptly. I learned long ago . . . that ‘the only real work in creative endeavor is keeping things from falling together too soon.’ A corollary to that notion would be that, having held the structural elements apart as long as possible, when they do come together, let them really clang. And this is not work, it is only the courage to move abruptly.”
Guy Davenport (Au Tombeau de Charles Fourier): “They are masters of horns and flowers, of printing and dancing, of the cello and cartography, of crystals and snakes, of polyhedral tensegrities and cetacean speech, of history and embroidery. They are companions palatine of the Great Bear of the Dnieper.”
Metcalf: “I did not consciously seek out these echoes. I didn’t have to. They were all there. All I had to do was find them. And having found them, I then followed the dictum of Mr. Edgar Allan Poe: “There is no greater mistake than the supposition that a true originality is a mere matter of impulse or inspiration. To originate is carefully, patiently, and understandingly to combine.’”
(John Clare: “I found the poems in the fields / And only wrote them down.”)
Melville, to Hawthorne (1851): “. . . we pygmies must be content to have our paper allegories but ill comprehended . . .”
Metcalf: “I was brought up . . . in a literary household, and as my childhood turned into adolescence, our living room turned increasingly into a Melville salon. Eleanor Metcalf, who had floundered around with ‘self-expression’—she tried to paint, and to write poetry—finally found her niche as den mother to the incoming scholars. All this turned me off—knowing, as I did, that the Boston Red Sox were much more important than the fate of some dumb whale . . .
“I entered college, dropped out almost at once, went into theater, got interested in writing plays, studied poetry with Conrad Aiken, wrote a bad novel, and finally wrote what became my first published work, Will West, a short novel, with a stab at montage. So here I was, a published author, and I had not read Herman Melville. It occurred to me that I had been blocking him out, for reasons that became fairly obvious to me. My solution was to sit down and engorge Melville, and I made two decisions: I would read the books in chronological order (I have done this for just one other writer—Shakespeare); and I would carefully avoid reading any of the biographical or critical works, the exceptions being Call Me Ishmael and Leyda’s Log, which is statistical. The result of this engorgement was Genoa.”
Metcalf: “In so much of Emerson . . . there is nothing that one can argue with . . . and I guess that’s the substance of my quarrel with him: a man who can’t be argued with is operating on one plane alone, in Emerson’s case, a sunny plane—and who argues with the sun? I am reminded of Olson’s remark about the Mayans, the appeal to him of their culture, their ways of thinking and doing: ‘the ball still snarled’; and also of this thought from Poe (who hated the transcendentalists with a life-long passion): ‘It is the excess of the suggested meaning—it is the rendering this the upper instead of the under-current of the theme—which turns into prose (and that of the very flattest kind), the so-called poetry of the so-called transcendentalists.’”
Out of a review of Moby-Dick (United States Magazine and Democratic Review (1852): “. . . in sober truth, Mr. Melville’s vanity is immeasurable. He will either be first among the book-making tribe, or he will be nowhere. He will centre all attention upon himself, or he will abandon the field of literature at once. From this morbid self-esteem, coupled with a most unbounded love of notoriety, spring all Mr. Melville’s efforts, all his rhetorical contortions, all his declamatory abuse of society, all his inflated sentiment, and all his insinuating licentiousness.”
Metcalf, on Melville: “By making him into a monument they tame him . . .”
Out of Metcalf’s Genoa:
Melville, in a letter: “For my part, I love sleepy fellows, and the more ignorant the better. Damn your wide-awake and knowing chaps. As for sleepiness, it is one of the noblest qualities of humanity. There is something sociable about it, too. Think of those sensible and sociable millions of good fellows all taking a good long friendly snooze together, under the sod . . .”Metcalf: “Genoa is the only book I’ve written where I had to keep pencil and paper by my bed, to capture fleeting connections at 3. A.M.”
Metcalf: “Eleanor . . . was a mass of contradictions. When I grew up and started to read seriously, I couldn’t understand how she could worship both T. S. Eliot and Herman Melville. To me that was (and is) an absolute contradiction. She paid for the publication of Genoa, incidentally, and hated it when it came out. Typically, she didn’t express her opinion to me directly, but maneuvered poor, compliant Harry into writing me a letter: I had desecrated the memory of Melville by putting his words into the mouth of a Carl Mills, etc. (And the mother in the book, at one point, says “shit.”) And yet, when I wanted to go to South America, for my next book (Patagoni), she paid for the trip.”
Out of Genoa:
Whale, boobie, sandpiper, dove, crab, and boatswain bird—all were signs of land . . . for hitherto none had sailed far enough to see such things other than close to land . . .Metcalf: “My relation with Olson was complex, to put it mildly. We were sufficiently on the same track, in our writing efforts, to make our differences problematical. And his was a powerful and persuasive personality—one had to stand off a little bit, to avoid being swamped, (He once referred to Jonathan Williams, a man adequately arrogant himself, as ‘one of the good soldiers in my army.’)”
and there was sargasso weed, rumored to trap ships as in a web . . . detritus, perhaps, of Atlantis . . .
From the posterior, the vault of the vagina, the sperm’s journey measures, perhaps, five inches. The cilia in the oviduct have an outward stroke, against the motion of the sperm . . .(Columbus reported the usual course of the sargasso weed to be from west to east . . .In addition, there are the folds and ridges, like waves, of the mucous membrane, and the powerful leukocytes, white monsters that attack the sperm.“Forward progress of the human spermatozoon is at the rate of about 1.5 mm a minute which, in relation to their respective lengths, compares well with average swimming ability for man.”Driven by temperature and secretions, the sperm’s action is a fight against time; for“A spermatozoon is only fertile if it is capable of performing powerful movements.”Thus, the spermatozoon, like the salmon, swimming “a spiral course upstream.”
Olson, on Melville: “He only rode his own space once—Moby-Dick. He had to be wild or he was nothing in particular. He had to go fast, like an American . . .”
Melville, to Evert Duyckinck (1851): “I can not write the thing you want . . . As for the Daguerreotype (I spell the word right from your sheet) that’s what I can not send you, because I have none. And if I had, I would not send it for such a purpose, even to you.—Pshaw! you cry—& so cry I.—‘This is intensified vanity, not true modesty or anything of that sort!’—Again, I say so too. But if it be so, how can I help it. The fact is, almost everybody is having his ‘mug’ engraved nowadays; so that this test of distinction is getting to be reversed; and therefore, to see one’s ‘mug’ in a magazine, is presumptive evidence that he’s a nobody. So being as vain a man as ever lived; & believing that my illustrious name is famous throughout the world—I respectfully decline being oblivionated by a Daguerreotype (what a devil of an unspellable word!)”
Metcalf: “I was born November 7, 1917—the date, month, and year celebrated annually as the birthday of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. Make of that what you will.”
Out of Genoa:
Melville: “Let us speak, though we show all our faults and weaknesses,—for it is a sign of strength to be weak, to know it, and out with it . . .”Metcalf: “The most severe of my childhood operations took place when I was very young—maybe 6, 7, or 8—and it involved cutting in at the base of the spine, removing a piece of vertebra to correct a ‘misplaced nerve.’ I know no more about it than that, except that the surgeon was the man who pioneered this particular operation, and it was extremely risky. Paralysis or incontinence would result from a slip. In my case it was successful, although it has left me with a lifetime of backaches.
“I had all the usual childhood illnesses, plus removal of tonsils and adenoids, at what age I don’t remember. . . . At 17 there was an emergency appendectomy, and at 19 there was a three-way incision on an infected lymph gland in my leg. The convalescence was excruciating because those were the days before wonder drugs, and the incisions were left open, with cotton drains, to be changed daily.
“In my late twenties, still skinny and underweight, I came down with a mild case of tuberculosis: six months in bed, six months resting, lots of cod liver oil. Did mountains of reading and gained my full weight . . .”
Out of Genoa:
At one time, he developed an abdominal swelling, so marked and painful it could not be ignored. For this, he went to a hospital, and underwent surgery. The result was the removal of a teratoma, or dermoid cyst—containing bits of skin, hair, nails, teeth and tongue, fully developed. The only explanation was the predatory conquest by Carl, at some very early prenatal stage, of an unfortunate, competitive twin. The lesser organism, attacked and overcome, had nevertheless managed to place random cells within the folds and envelopes of the conquering embryo; and these, now fully developed, had waited until Carl's full growth to present themselves.Metcalf: “. . . the multiplicity of Job’s boils I have heaped on Carl and Michael Mills.”
Metcalf: “I never had any interest in Scientology. Scientology is the quasi-religious cult that Hubbard developed when Dianetics failed to make him the billionaire he wanted to be. My interest in Dianetics was two-fold: the notion of physiological memory (you bang your thumb with a hammer, the cells of the thumb remember it); and the notion of personal memory as a time-track, from conception to the present, with every item on it theoretically recoverable. These ideas, particularly the latter, were invaluable to me in developing the methods of Genoa. The personal time track became a historical-cultural time-track, a physical imprint: Carl Mills quoting from books he had never read, etc. Once Genoa. was written, I lost all interest in Dianetics, at least consciously.”
Out of Genoa:
Locked in solitary, in a cell remote from the others, Carl remained out of control, raving and screaming long after he was sober.Metcalf: “Carl Austen Hall and Bonnie Brown Heady were the names of the Greenlease killers. No, I didn’t write the book to try to explain the killing, that’s absurd. Such a gross act defies explanation, it’s simply a phenomenon, like the Grand Canyon. As you say, my intent was to work through a part of my / our (America’s) history.
Then he suddenly became quiet. He began chatting with the guards, and, through them, sent messages to the other officers. In a short time, he was in a front office, having an interview . . . and a little after that, he was on the street, a free man, all charges dropped. He had simply conned his way out . . .
Once when I asked him about his, he laughed, put his arm on my shoulder, and quoted Melville, with appropriate flourish: “. . . men are jailors all; jailors of themselves.”
. . . and added, matter-of-factly: “I liberated myself . . .”
For a while, Carl seemed to desert Concha, or at least two-time her. He took up with his final companion, a creature named Bonnie—fat, blowsy, alcoholic . . . she would sit in a rumpled bed, drunk, dirty, her stringy hair falling down, and quote Wordsworth and Keats . . . sneezing and weeping violently, lamenting that she suffered from “Rose Fever”: unconsoled when Carl told her that Hart Crane, American poet, was similarly allergic . . .
Carl once bragged to me, confidentially, that he had accomplishd intercourse with Bonnie twelve times during thirty hours . . .
“There were other models for the two brothers, Carl and Michael. Two brothers, in particular, whom I met when I was involved in Dianetics. They lived in Anderson, Indiana. The older was a barber, and a sexual pig . . . the younger, when we visited the old family farm out in the country, sat in his parents’ wheelchair.”
Metcalf: “. . . reading, in tandem, a 500-page biography of Jack Kerouac, and a 900-page biography of Ezra Pound. Leaves one with the feeling that ours is indeed a strange country.
“Pound believed that the human brain was made up of semen. That takes care of the male, I suppose . . . and I imagine he thought that women didn’t have brains.
“When he died, only one eye closed. (‘Watch it, kid! I may be dead but I got my eye on ya!’)
“He gets linked with the likes of T. S. Eliot, but in some ways he makes more sense in company with Henry Ford and W. C. Fields.”
Metcalf: “. . . the reasons for the revival? One’s first thought . . . is why the death? Why did Moby Dick bomb? Seventy years, 1851 to 1921. The reasons have been well rehearsed, An imposed culture, a culture that pretty much isolated and ignored Whitman and Dickinson, as well as Melville. But why the timing of the revival, right after World War I? A friend of mine suggests that we had to be exposed to modern art, to Cubism, Braque-Picasso, before we could ‘see’ Melville . . .”
Out of an 1851 review of Moby-Dick; or, the Whale in The Athenæum (London): “This is an ill-compounded mixture of romance and matter-of-fact. The idea of a connected and collected story has obviously visited and abandoned its writer again and again in the course of composition. The style of his tale is in places disfigured by mad (rather than bad) English; and its catastrophe is hastily, weakly, and obscurely managed . . . Our author must be henceforth numbered in the company of the incorrigibles who occasionally tantalize us indications of genius, while they constantly summon us to endure monstrosities, carelessnesses, and other such harassing manifestations of bad taste as daring or disordered ingenuity can devise . . .”