Crane’s George’s Mother: A Tragic Story of the Bowery
Stephen Crane’s novella George’s Mother: A Tragic Story of the Bowery has the virtue, aesthetic as well as social, of examining the life of the poor. European drama and fiction, until the middle of the nineteenth century, focused on the highly-placed, so Crane was in the early ranks (along with Mark Twain, George Washington Harris, and a host of others) with his rendering of dialect. Though it may not sound like any surviving subculture to twenty-first century readers, we know that Crane threw himself into the life of the city’s lower strata, sleeping at rescue missions and socializing with prostitutes. Somewhat less focused on providing detailed descriptions of tenement life than Crane’s earlier and more popular Maggie: A Girl of the Streets, George’s Mother tends at times toward myth or allegory. Still, lugubrious or melodramatic as the story may seem, it is familiar to every police officer and social worker today. If the old Bowery is gone, George and his mother have only multiplied.
Appropriate as it is, the naturalist label is insufficient for Crane; his greater achievement is closer to expressionism. The story’s moody opening, in which the urban rain creates a scene the reader is told would be “condemned” were it in a picture. The glare of red street-lamps casting wavering patterns accentuates the confused movement of the city’s crowds. Later we hear that a similar street-lamp’s reflection is “the death-stain of a spirit.” The scene is markedly similar to what would appear in Hollywood film noir pictures forty years later. The whole class system is suggested by the detail of “loungers, descended from the world that used to prostrate itself before pageantry.”
The extraordinary nineteenth century existentialism that makes Black Riders, Crane’s volume of poetry, seem so modern today underlies this story, making its aim well beyond the reader’s sympathy, arousing fear as well as pity. To Crane the city was mysterious: the anonymous, alienated, the essentially modern mode of social life. Though the same as the “unreal city” of Eliot’s “Wasteland,” for George, its marvels reduce to his friend Jones’ sophisticated familiarity with bartenders.
Extraordinary images appear unexpectedly. George’s pitiful mother is like “withered grass,” the wall-paper roses mutate to aggressive crabs, to the depressed spirit the dust of the avenue is galling and the streets filled with “spectres as large as clouds,” “granite giants” signifying the “futility of a red existence.” A jolly storyteller snorts like a pig, ignorant of his own absurdity as was Camus’ man gesturing in a telephone booth.
The Crowning of Louis
The Crowning of Louis (Li coronemenz Looïs) an anonymous twelfth-century Old French chanson de geste, one of six celebrating William, Count of Orange. The poem, in the laisse form familiar from the Song of Roland, has (like Crane’s story and, indeed, all literature) a highly mediated relation to reality. Though the opening scene concerns a historic event, the passing of power from Charlemagne to his son Louis, it is not a reliable source of facts. (For instance, Louis’ obvious reluctance to take power is in part excused because of his age -- “barely fifteen” -- whereas he was in fact thirty-six at the time.)
William himself is heroic due to his loyalty and his prowess. The sort of pledged service that structured the feudal world is one of his highest values. One’s service is not even dependent on the personal qualities of the leader. William not only remains true to Louis in spite of the new king’s feckless ways, he is fierce, almost uncontrollable (as Gilgamesh had been) in Louis’ defense. He kills readily which entitles him to boast extravagantly. When Arneis suggest a sort of regency until the king matures, William feels like striking him dead for treason, then hesitates due to Christian scruples, but he cannot control himself and kills him in one blow. William then scolds the deceased knight, for both his attempt to usurp power and his sudden death, saying, “I only intended to chastise you a little.” At times his might is cartoon-like, humorous and grotesque, in a way more common to Irish poetry. In The Song of William he can barely restrain himself sufficiently to avoid killing the valuable horses along with their riders. He regularly cuts people in half and, as in the old Westerns, the general run of his victims die instantly. In fights with his major opponents, again mirroring Hollywood convention, the advantage goes evenly back and forth until the hero strikes the final blow.
Not long after these poems, the great medieval epics were composed: the Nibelungenlied, Tristan and Iseult, Parsifal. In all of these the hero is a lover as well as a fighter. William, though he makes passionate war to take Orable as his queen, advances his suit through killing, not love-making. He gives lip service to Christianity in order to justify attacks on the Mozarabs. The way he behaves, of course, would have horrified Christ. He represents the single-minded aggressive ego so central to men’s self-image since archaic times.
Padma Jared Thornlyre’s Mavka
The technological advances that have made producing a book such a simple and inexpensive undertaking have led, naturally, to a proliferation of small presses and self-publishing. Though it is virtually impossible to keep track of what’s going on, some first-rate work regularly appears in regional poetry scenes which is likely to be altogether unknown by people a few states away.
I was delighted recently to receive a copy of Padma Jared Thornlyre’s Mavka, “a poem in 50 parts” from Turkey Buzzard Press in Kittredge, Colorado. The book is long and slender, its offbeat shape accentuated with striking art by Brian Comber (burning brightly on the front and inside covers). It is as though a child of Blake took a dose of surrealism and then picked up Kandinsky’s palette.
Thornlyre’s title is the name, one learns, of a Ukrainian nature goddess and the poet thus chases after divine love, human love, and love of the out of doors simultaneously and with sometimes breathtaking passion. Apart from a number of Ukrainian references. he is also something of a Grecophile, so Dionysos pops by now and then, as does grilled octopus.
Wide-ranging as his references are, the poetry is solidly based in the Rocky Mountains where the poet lives. At times he practices the deep image nature vision associated with Gary Snyder in an older generation and Artful Goodtimes, another Coloradan, in his own. The poems are filled with precisely defined images from his immediate surroundings, and, more unusual yet, Thornlyre is a craftsperson with a sensitive ear. Every line has delights for the ear as well as the mind.
Here, on Bear Creek, muskrats nibble
Cattails, rainbows wiggle in willow shade, all stealth
& hungry muscle, while rapids tickle my ears.
He offers intimate and revealing glimpses of his life and struggles, while maintaining in the background a reassuring awe-ful joy. This is a sequence that rewards reading aloud even for the reader sitting alone.
Wherever one may live, this book is available for $20 from Turkey Buzzard Press, P.O. Box 354, Kittredge CO 80457.