The Nature Poet
A postwar Austrian poet — whose name you might not recognize but who was in his time a fairly important figure on the Viennese scene, a fixture of the literary circle at Café Raimund — struggled most of his career to free his poetry from the shadow of his father, a Nazi officer. No one suspected the son of any Nazi sympathies; he even married a Jewish woman. The problem, rather, was that all of his poetry was interpreted by critics as a meditation on his father’s crimes. In truth, he had no interest in his father, really no interest in the past at all. He cared about nature: mountains, creeks, ferns. He called himself, at various points, a creekpoet or fernpoet. Yet every creek, every fern, was construed by his critics — from his very first major review in Die Zeit in 1968 — as a “reckoning” with the actions of his father, who had once shot 150 Hungarian Jews in one day with his own pistol. The critic noted the total absence in the poet’s poems of people, history, politics, fathers, et cetera, and saw their absence as a sign that they were actually the poet’s primary concerns, the unspeakable void at the center of his ferns. (The review was extremely positive.)
Of course the poet deplored his father’s actions. But his “primary concerns” were mountains, creeks, and, especially, ferns.
Over the next decade he published two more acclaimed volumes of nature poetry. Both were interpreted as oblique meditations on his father’s crimes.
His fourth volume of nature poetry came out in 1985. It, too, was interpreted as an oblique meditation on his father’s crimes, but the reviews were less rapturous than before. The critic for the Süddeutsche Zeitung wondered if the poet had anything else to write about, anything besides his father’s wartime crimes, now more than forty years old. “The highly circumscribed nature of his interests,” wrote the critic, “became apparent with his second volume and glaring with his third. Now, with his fourth consecutive collection of poems to ponder how one generation’s crimes burden the next, it has finally become a liability.”
For the next thirty years the poet published nothing at all.
His friends began to suspect he was dead, presumably by his own hand. Everyone else forgot about him altogether.
But we now know that he never stopped writing.
In fact, he had embarked on his most ambitious project.
Since every description of a fern had been interpreted as an oblique meditation on his father’s crimes, he would write an epic poem about his father’s brutal crimes that was actually, obliquely, a description of a single fern. He knew the fern he wanted to describe. It grew on the fringes of a clearing in the woods near his home. A lovely fern. To describe it was easy. By now, that was nothing. But to describe it without mentioning the woods, the clearing, or the fern, to use only words that told how his father executed 150 Hungarian Jews, and yet to implant in his reader’s mind, by the time he finished reading the poem, an accurate and even quite detailed image of this one particular fern near his home: that was hard. He wanted his reader to close the book, this exhausting, appalling, tragic, merciless book, and have nothing in his head — no ideas, no horrors, no faces, no place names, no characters, no concepts, no morals — nothing but the precise image of a specific fern. He wanted the reader to think to himself: “I just read about the Holocaust. Why am I picturing this fern? What is the matter with me?” Such was the literary effect he was aiming for.
When he told his wife his idea, she left him.
The composition of the poem occupied the last thirty years of the poet’s life. In the first decade he contemplated his dead father, reading his journals and researching his savage Hungarian campaign, with special attention to the atrocities of June 1, 1941. The subsequent decade was devoted to careful contemplation of the fern: sketching the plant, scribbling notes, often simply sitting there staring at it. In the final decade of his life, the nature poet tried to describe the fern through a narrative poem about his father’s June 1st depravity.
This year he finally published The Kistelek Massacre. He died the night before its publication, uncertain whether he had succeeded in his aim. He would have treasured this morning’s brief review in Die Zeit, which simply calls The Kistelek Massacre “an elegant evocation of a fern.”
The Chimney Sweep
When, in 1919, Henry Hobson Fowler, the only son of a London chimney sweep, was named Wykeham Professor of Logic at Oxford University, his colleagues marveled openly at his improbable escape from the chimneys of his fathers into the rarefied air of logic and language. And for a time in his early career it really did seem that Fowler had torn himself root and branch out of his own past, from that long line of chimney sweeps into which he had been born, extirpating even all traces of his working-class accent.
But either he was still held in the grip of a tenacious ancestral worldview, or the condescending awe of his colleagues awakened in him certain latent ancestral loyalties, or perhaps he simply came to see some symbolic value in his ancestral vocation, for he began around 1922 or 1923 to speak of his approach to philosophy “as a kind of logico-linguistic chimney sweeping,” and over time construed this metaphor in an increasingly literal fashion.
For a while it remained purely figurative. “Our task,” he told students on the first day of his fall 1923 seminar, according to notes taken by one of them, “is to shimmy up the flue of logic and language and clear it out.” In fall 1924, he specified: “We clear out the philosophical flue with, in one hand, our brush and, in the other hand, our scraper.” Fall 1925: “With our brush we sweep away the loose soot, and with our scraper we chip away at the solid soot.” According to the seminar notes, a student asked whether Fowler was referring to “a real chimney or a logico-linguistic chimney,” and Fowler replied: “A logico-linguistic chimney. The philosophical flue.” In a lecture that spring term, Fowler warned: “It’s extremely easy to get trapped in the flue and to suffocate from the soot. As you’re climbing, you must never jam your knees against your chest, in this position.” He showed them. “You’ll suffocate, and we may very well have to dismantle the chimney to retrieve your body.” Again a student asked, according to the lecture notes, whether he was referring to “an actual chimney or some kind of philosophical chimney,” and Fowler replied: “A philosophical chimney.”
Starting in the fall term of 1928, Fowler distributed to his seminar students a brush and a scraper and asked them to raise, whenever they were arguing a philosophical point, either the brush, if they were dislodging loose logico-linguistic soot, or the scraper, if they were chipping away at solid logico-linguistic soot. He himself brought to seminar every week a long, adjustable, articulated rod with a brush head affixed to one end. With your brushes and scrapers and this flexible mechanical brush, Fowler exhorted them, we shall clear out the philosophical flue.
“Having done so,” said Fowler, in one student’s notes, “we mustn’t expect the flue to remain clear ever after. Soon, with use, it will fill up with ash and soot once again and we shall have to climb up it once more with our brushes and scrapers, our adjustable rods. Such is the nature of chimneys.” He fielded from a student the usual question — are you talking about regular chimneys or logico-linguistic chimneys? — but replied this time that he did not understand the distinction the student was trying to draw.
“A chimney,” said Fowler, “is a chimney. We clear out the soot.” He gestured up and down with the long rod. “We clear out the soot.”
In late autumn of 1930, a number of Fowler’s students complained to the head of the department that most of their seminars were now spent clearing out chimneys around Oxford, work that was dirty, dangerous, and not conspicuously philosophical in nature. Yesterday he had sent them up a very treacherous chimney whose flue had both vertical and horizontal sections and multiple right angles. Two students had almost suffocated to death. The only sign that a logic seminar had been taking place was that Fowler had occasionally referred to the flue as “the philosophical flue.”
He became, after this, quite a controversial figure. Half the university persisted in thinking him a genius, a refugee from poverty who had not only escaped his past but now wielded it as a metaphor to demolish our old beliefs about logic and language. They looked on with wonder as he crossed the quadrangle covered in soot, carrying his long adjustable rod with the brush head affixed to one end. The other half thought his escape attempt had, belatedly, failed. He was, in the end, still a chimney sweep. He was not so much wielding his past as being wielded by it, less seizing upon a metaphor than being seized upon by it, they said, and he would, in due course, cause a number of students to die of suffocation.
From our modern vantage point we understand both perspectives on Fowler. Both were right. He did sweep out some 19th-century nonsense from our understanding of logic and language, and he did cause the death by suffocation of numerous undergraduates and graduate students. Both were right; but these days, if Fowler is remembered at all, it’s as a chimney sweep, the last of a breed, not as the first of a new kind of logician. His own body was found wedged in his own particularly narrow flue in the winter of 1953. A bricklayer had to be summoned to gain access to the corpse.
The Worker’s Fist
In 1902 the rubber-goods mogul Moses Frenkel gave his son a large sum of money to produce the company catalog. Unbeknownst to his father, Isaac Frenkel was a nascent anarchist whose feelings toward his father — an arch-capitalist who was nevertheless a humane, compassionate man, beloved by his factory workers — were ambivalent in the extreme. Isaac embezzled the money and produced an anarchist broadsheet called The Worker’s Fist. Isaac’s ambivalent feelings, however, must have bled over into the text, for his father studied The Worker’s Fist carefully and then congratulated him on an “outstanding rubber-goods catalog” with a “pungent, poetic title. Bravo, bravo.”
The Inverted Pyramid
In January, the Stupendous Bosches, a family of acrobats celebrated for their “inverted pyramid” trick, collapsed while performing the inverted pyramid at a circus in Bremen. Six Bosches across three generations were killed.
Only the bottom Bosch, the tip of the inverted pyramid, survived.
This happened on the very same day, at the same hour, that Professor Pasternak, the distinguished mathematician whose family had long ago formulated the Pasternak Problem in combinatorics, leaped to his death from the top of St. Isaac’s Cathedral in St. Petersburg.
Professor Pasternak was survived by his son, a fellow mathematician.
There was, of course, no reason to suspect a link between these two tragedies. But when Bremen police spoke to the bottom Bosch, and Petersburg police spoke to Professor Pasternak’s son, they made an unlikely discovery: the bottom Bosch was a Pasternak, and the last Pasternak was a Bosch. Police in both cities were stumped, and neither Bosch nor Pasternak would say another word.
Berlin’s best detectives were sent to Bremen. How had a Russian mathematician infiltrated their nation’s most beloved upside-down acrobatic configuration? Moscow dispatched its best detectives to Petersburg. How had a German acrobat infiltrated their nation’s most esteemed mathematics department?
Eventually it emerged that Bosch, the youngest son of the Bosch acrobatic clan, and Pasternak, the youngest son of the Pasternak mathematical dynasty, had met by chance on a riverboat cruise of the Daugava River in Riga, where one (Bosch) had come to perform with his family circus act, and the other (Pasternak) had come to speak on his family’s problem at a combinatorics conference.
According to a Latvian computer programmer who was also on the cruise, the two men were initially amused by their physical resemblance, which was striking, Bosch’s beard notwithstanding. They started talking, comparing their respective responsibilities as the most recent offshoots of two legendary families.
The conversation grew heated. Evidently, each believed his burden was the more onerous.
In the inverted-pyramid formation Bosch had to physically support three generations of male Bosches on his shoulders. His father stood on his right shoulder, his brother on his left shoulder. On his father’s shoulders stood his paternal grandfather and his great-uncle, and on his brother’s shoulders stood his maternal grandfather and a first cousin twice removed. All this a hundred feet in the air, on a high wire. One wobble and his entire family fell to their doom, shouted Bosch. And they weren’t just standing there, they were juggling, a stream of machetes flying back and forth between the grandfathers, not to mention the great-uncle’s five flaming torches, et cetera!
Pasternak merely laughed, the Latvian programmer recalled.
So Bosch had six living Bosches standing once a night on his back, is that right? asked Pasternak. That’s nothing. He had twelve generations of Pasternaks, both living and dead, standing at all times on the surface of his brain, in a treacherous variant of the inverted pyramid you might call a vertical column formation. Twelve generations ago, in 1744, his ancestor presented the Pasternak Problem to the Imperial Russian Academy of Sciences. He spent the rest of his life thinking about the problem, but he failed to solve it. So did the next ten generations. So did Pasternak’s father. And now it fell to him. He had been given every resource, every advantage. His father had even cut short his own mathematical career to provide his son with a top-notch mathematical upbringing. All the best schools, the best teachers. Training in Germany, France, and America. He had nearly three hundred years of past Pasternak thinking to draw on. It was, as his father put it almost every morning, time to solve this thing.
That, said Pasternak, is what I call a burden. Twelve dead men standing in a column on my brain. I would kill to have six live family members juggling on my back! I would feel as light as a feather!
My God, said Bosch the acrobat, what I would give to feel nothing but the purely symbolic weight of your dead ancestors.
It’s heavy, said Pasternak.
I bet it’s not actually so heavy, said Bosch. What’s heavy is six physical jugglers.
The deal was struck then and there, the Latvian programmer told authorities. Pasternak would grow a beard and pretend to be Bosch; Bosch would shave his beard and pretend to be Pasternak. The first to capitulate to the pressure of the other’s family had to buy a round of beer.
Bosch taught Pasternak — who luckily spoke fluent German from his studies — the rudiments of acrobatics, and Pasternak taught Bosch — who spoke fluent Russian from his travels — the rudiments of combinatorics. Then Pasternak went with the circus to Bremen, and Bosch went with Professor Pasternak back to Petersburg.
Disaster struck both families immediately. In Bremen, six Bosches climbed onto Pasternak’s back, his knee wobbled, and they all fell to their deaths. In St. Petersburg, Bosch bungled a simple mathematical operation, and Professor Pasternak realized that his son would never solve the Pasternak Problem. He went straight to St. Isaac’s and flung himself from its golden dome.
Presented with the evidence, Pasternak and Bosch confessed.
The Germans wanted Pasternak to pay, and the Russians wanted Bosch to suffer, but the best lawyers in both countries could not find a German or Russian law that they’d actually violated. Reluctantly, the police released them. They met up three days later in a Riga bar, where they split the cost of the round of beer. Freed from their acrobatic and mathematical obligations, each planned, exuberantly, to spend the rest of his life pursuing his actual passion: birding for Bosch and backgammon for Pasternak. But at that moment, Riga police burst in and hauled them off. It seems Latvia has an old, seldom-enforced law on its books forbidding the sale or barter of one’s dynastic duties. The penalty is death.
The Furniture Store Owner’s Son
In Vilnius, around the turn of the 20th century, an assimilated Jewish businessman who owned a thriving furniture store was stunned and profoundly disturbed to learn that his relationship with his son, which was tense in the usual ways but by no means unloving, had been converted — by the son — into a theory of history, society, eschatology, art, the novel, and politics. This was, of course, the period during which artistic and intellectual Jews all across Europe were busily converting the particulars of their relationships with their recently assimilated businessman fathers into art of supposedly universal significance and ideas of supposedly universal application. But the furniture-store owner was unfamiliar with these works. When he came across his son’s book, in which he and his sofas, beds, and hardwood chairs and his (always well-meaning) efforts to introduce his son to the furniture trade were made to represent more or less the whole cosmos, the march of human history, and the form of the bourgeois novel, he was devastated.
He summoned his son to the furniture store.
“Is this,” he asked, holding up the book, which he had hardly understood, “really what you think of me?”
Yet the son was already transposing the particulars of this conversation, their last of any substance, into a universal key.
Strassberg & Strassberg
The Strassberg brothers, though easily among the most talented of the Brill Building songwriters, were never able to reproduce the success of their late-1950s hits “Good Girl (I Need You Bad)” and “Lookin’ for a Woman,” both recorded by Big Jim Harrison and the High Flyers, in part, according to a recent biography of the brothers, because Harrison and other Brill Building singers grew concerned about the lyrical direction their love songs seemed to be taking. In 1958’s “Good Girl (I Need You Bad)” the Strassbergs wrote of a “girl in Kansas City, standing five foot three / I feel a million miles tall, when she’s standing next to me.” By 1959, in “Lookin’ for a Woman,” they were writing about a “San Francisco baby, ’bout five foot five / toolin’ round the city, she’s gonna teach me how to drive.” Despite the success of these songs, which reached number three and number eight on the charts, respectively, Harrison declined to record their 1960 song “Drown You in Kisses,” featuring the lyric “Love me a woman, almost six feet tall / big ol’ beard, she tossin’ me a ball / Yeah, gonna drown you in kisses, but don’t you fear / I’m gonna toss you a life raft, you and your beard.” That same year they approached an up-and-coming doo-wop group called the Sliders with a love song called “Bristly, Big, and Black,” which began: “Long Island baby, Hungarian-American Jew / Six feet tall, taciturn, big ol’ beard too / Tuck me in, baby, the way you did way back / Her beard ticklin’ my cheek, bristly, big, and black / Oh yeah / Her beard was bristly, big, and black.”
The song failed to make the charts.
After the fiasco of “Bristly, Big, and Black,” the Strassbergs went into seclusion, as the biography recounts. Their music publisher, Brill Building legend Al Kushner, tracked them down eventually to a dilapidated trailer in the woods of Maine. They lived knee-deep in sheet music: hundreds of love songs about this tall, resolute, very reserved, 60-year-old Hungarian-American “woman,” almost metaphysically lonely, sporadically emotive but for the most part inscrutable, with her big scratchy black beard. Kushner told them: “Boys, I know exactly where you’re coming from. I come from there, too. These are my kind of love songs, but they’re not the kind my singers wanna sing or America wants to hear. If you can write me one of those, though, if you can somehow harness this source of inspiration of yours and use it to produce a regular little love song, a song about romantic love, set to one of your snappy Strassberg melodies, I promise you I’ll make it a number one hit.”
The Strassberg brothers worked through the winter and spring, and in June of ’62 they marched into the Brill Building with the music and lyrics for “Come Home in Your Woman’s Dress, Baby” (“Been leavin’ the door unlocked for you, baby / Last night I dreamed you appeared / So beautiful, so short, such a woman / A woman’s face, no beard / Tell me you love me, baby / Wearin’ that dress I can’t hardly bear / Tuck me in like you used to / Wearin’ your dress like a woman would wear / Come home in your woman’s dress, baby / I’ve been missin’ you, missin’ your nearness / Come home in your woman’s dress, baby / Been missin’ your face, completely beardless”). Lee Richards & The Robots took it to number thirty-nine on the Billboard Hot 100, a comeback of sorts, but not the comeback they’d hoped for.
Al Kushner summoned the Strassberg brothers to his office. I can do a whole helluva lot, he said, but one thing I cannot do is take a song about your father’s beard and turn it into a top ten hit.
The song is about romantic love, insisted the older Strassberg. The romantic love a man feels for a regular woman, no beard.
No beard, said the younger Strassberg.
I have to let you boys go, said Kushner. I wish you the best.
The biography loses sight of the Strassberg brothers not long afterward. They’re heading out of Manhattan in a Volkswagen van, the younger driving, the older strumming a guitar in the passenger seat. Jim Harrison of the High Flyers saw them last. They waved to him at a stoplight up at 79th and Riverside, rolled down the window, sang him a couple of lines about an Austro-Hungarian immigrant with his Austro-Hungarian beard, his Jewish-American convictions and his Jewish-American fears, and then rolled up the window and turned onto the Henry Hudson Parkway, heading north. They were smiling, Harrison recalled some fifty years later. They seemed happy.
The Flemish Engraver’s Son
A seer whose prophecies had never failed foretold that the artistic fame of the great Flemish engraver Dierckx would one day be eclipsed by that of his infant son. Dierckx immediately built a small stone tower behind his home and locked up his son in it. The boy never learned to speak. He never learned to draw, never held an artistic tool, never encountered paint, clay, or wood. Twice a day he received through a slot in the wall a meal of bread and water, and as he ate his father watched from a peephole to ensure that nothing artistic was made of it. He had no medium with which to express himself; even his excretions were promptly removed. Nor, to the father, did he seem to possess an artistic sensibility at all. He ate, drank, urinated, shat. In winter he sat huddled in his rags. In summer he pressed his forehead to the cool stone floor. He moaned, he howled, he quaked. Often he dashed his head against the wall.
But none of this reassured the engraver. Just the opposite, in fact. He’d surpassed his own masters not by engraving better what they engraved well, but by engraving what they had not even thought to engrave. Likewise, the way in which his son surpassed him artistically, he would probably not even recognize as art.
Any of this might be the art! The moaning, the howling, the quaking. The art of rag huddling, the art of pressing against stone. How he ate, how he shat: was it art? The head-dashing: art? What aspect of his son’s evident insanity would one day be regarded as genius, while his own lucid engravings were left to rot? On the son’s 19th birthday, the elderly engraver rushed into the stone tower, appeared before his son for the first and last time, and stabbed him to death with his largest chisel. The son’s name is not recorded. Dierckx is still considered the high-water mark of late Renaissance Flemish engraving.
The seer’s failed prophecy was little noticed, but it became a source of fascination and skepticism for the seer’s son, an apprentice to his father. Whenever his father averred the perfect certainty of his prophecies, or regaled another dinner party with his impeccable predictions about the King’s Duck, the Bookbinder’s Goiter, or the French Merchant’s Fortune, the son would inquire, with an air of naive curiosity, “What about the Flemish Engraver’s Son?”
A Memorial on the River Havel
On the River Havel, near Wannsee, a talented young lawyer who was also a promising Expressionist poet fell through the ice and drowned. His inconsolable father and his very anguished friends both agreed that a statue ought to be erected on the banks of the Havel in his memory, but they could not agree on its design. Should the statue represent him in his capacity as a lawyer, as his father wished, or in his capacity as an Expressionist poet, as his friends wanted? In the end, they compromised. They commissioned and erected a statue of the young man — Heym — holding forth over the Havel; whether he was reciting a poem or presenting a legal argument was left to the spectator.
When, however, the friends convened at that tragic bend in the Havel on the second anniversary of Heym’s death they found that his father had installed, fifteen feet in front of the statue, in the middle of the river, a second statue, of a judge on his bench. This effectively closed off the possibility that the Heym statue was reciting a poem, and left no doubt that he was presenting a legal argument.
The friends, all of them Expressionist poets, were outraged. They rowed into the river and tried to topple the judge statue, then to vandalize it, but the thing was made of granite and virtually indestructible. Finally, they decided to pool their meager funds and commission three new statues: two figures seated six feet from the Heym statue, clearly poetry fans, listening raptly, and immediately behind them, back-to-back with them, an elderly lawyer addressing the statue of the judge. Now it appeared the Heym statue was reciting a poem to a small but avid audience, while nearby, in the shallows of the Havel, some lawyer was addressing a judge about an unrelated legal matter.
These granite statues were similarly unmovable and unbreakable. All the father could do now was install a statue of a poet between the first statue and the two seated poetry fans, so the poetry fans seemed to be listening to that poet, not to his son, as well as a statue of a stout woman and a dog between the new lawyer sculpture and the judge, so the lawyer seemed to be addressing not the judge but his stout wife and his loyal dog. On the pedestal of the judge’s statue he had an engraver chisel, “Order in the courtroom! Counselor Heym, please proceed” — thus implying that the son’s oral argument had been interrupted by the impromptu poetry reading and the sudden meeting-up of the elderly lawyer with his wife and dog.
After much deliberation, the friends commissioned a statue of a courtroom functionary looking at the judge while pointing at Heym with one hand and the elderly lawyer with the other hand, with an engraving on his pedestal reading: “Which Heym? They’re both named Heym.” But almost instantly Heym’s father installed a statue of a second functionary pointing at the elderly lawyer, with an engraving reading, “No, his name is Wurmbacher.” With that, the now-penniless Expressionist poets had to accept defeat. Heym’s father’s wealth was inexhaustible, they realized. And he was willing to spend all of it to determine his son’s legacy.
Everyone involved in this story died and was more or less forgotten. But in the 1970s a circle of conceptual artists in Berlin — of which David Bowie was for a time on the periphery — rediscovered this emotional, illogical assemblage of granite statuary. It became a site of pilgrimage. When, in 1992, the German government announced that it would be razed to make way for a bridge over the Havel that would ultimately connect Berlin and Hannover by high-speed rail, a number of artists protested. These ten senseless and unsightly statues were part of the legacy of German Modernism, they said. But the statues were torn down nevertheless, and today one can reach Hannover from Berlin in an hour and a half, a fact for which even the artists are grateful.
One winter evening in 1905, on a street corner in Moscow, a radical who was carrying a bomb toward his tsarist father’s home happened to bump into an acquaintance, a painter who was carrying a Symbolist painting toward his realist father’s studio. On the far corner they spotted, purely by chance, a philosopher friend who was carrying an idealist manifesto toward his materialist father’s office. The radical planned to kill his father, the Symbolist to surpass his father, and the idealist to refute his father. But when the radical, kneeling in his father’s bathroom, armed his bomb, it went off prematurely and he killed himself instead. What happened to the other two is unknown.