poem index

Cracking the Shell of the World

Year

2010

Type

Essay

In 1909, D. W. Griffith, in collaboration with screenwriter Frank E. Woods and legendary cameraman G. W. "Billy" Bitzer, created Edgar Allen Poe [sic]—the slip up in the subject's middle name apparently a mishap of Griffith's haste to complete the short film (just seven minutes) for the centenary of Edgar Allan Poe's birth. A dramatization of the writing of "The Raven," Poe fancifully adapts "The Philosophy of Composition," the poet's own dubiously meticulous recollection of the genesis of his 1845 poem, while mixing in asynchronous bits from his later life.

Griffith's film opens on the side-lit attic lodgings of a beautiful and doomed young woman, a hybrid of "lost Lenore" and Poe's wife, Virginia, who although long ill from tuberculosis actually survived the publication of "The Raven" by some two years. The woman rises from the filthy sheets of her pallet, raccoon-eyed and wasted, only to direct desperate gestures of wide-armed entreaty toward the window. All surfaces of the garret emanate wintry poverty but for an improbable "pallid" bust of Pallas, not "just above my chamber door," as in the poem, but turned away from the sickroom on a shelf by the bed.

Lenore/Virginia's lover, or perhaps her husband, returns. Even absent Griffith's misspelled title, we'd instantly recognize this slender wraith as Poe from the famous Pratt and Hartshorn daguerreotypes—pale, mustached, dazed, his greasy formal duds already draped in ghosts. He enters clutching his latest manuscript, dropping the pages uselessly to the floor as he registers the dire morbidity of the attic. Poe too makes the same melodramatic entreaties to the window, yet this time, instead of nothing happening, "suddenly" (as the poem remarks) a raven materializes on the shoulder of Pallas. Since this is a film short and not a feature, and Poe is after all a writer, he sits down pronto to chronicle the strange visitation from "Night's Plutonian shore" but stops to prop up the comatose woman so she can appreciate his lines.

In the next scene, Poe is inside a busy office—presumably the editorial seat of Graham's Magazine, in Philadelphia, which rejected "The Raven" but advanced the author $15, though in the film the editors both turn down the poem and refuse his request for a handout. Poe then enters the office of another editor, likely George H. Colton of The American Review, who accepts the poem even after his female assistant mocks its singsong cadences. The editor pays Poe in cash, and the relieved poet stumbles off.

Cut to the garret where Lenore/Virginia is dying. Poe rushes in with food and a blanket, but he's too late. He again makes that large gesture towards the window—and by this point, the recurrent gesture obviously is the visual equivalent of the inexorable "Nevermore" refrain of "The Raven": "And my soul from out that shadow that lies floating on the floor / Shall be lifted—nevermore!"

Despite its histrionics, Edgar Allen Poe radiates insistent, inspired detailing and, in 2009, now exactly 100 years later and on the occasion of the second Poe centenary, can look to us also like a canny hypothesis about how art gets made. Art—Griffith suggests—any art, whether Poe's poems or his own films, runs along a continuum of domestic life (that couple in the attic), otherworldly mystery (the spectral bird), pleasure (Poe's hyped up delight in his own creation), a marketplace (those alternately dismissive and disbursing editors), beauty (Lenore/Virginia, "The Raven"), and emotional desolation (forlorn Poe's). That Griffith would summon a poet to probe his own fledgling cinematic art should be no surprise—artists routinely call on other arts to understand their own: poets, for instance, investigate paintings in the literary genre known as ekphrasis (literally "speak out"), much as Simonides tagged painting "silent poetry" or Horace proposed ut pictura poesis ("as is painting so is poetry").

Over recent decades, celebrated poems, as numerous commentators have observed, increasingly appear in movies, yet not always to the advancement of either art. As poets occasionally try to borrow street glamour from, say, classic noir films with easy invocations of guns and shadows, so poems sometimes enter modern films—from Sophie's Choice to Four Weddings and a Funeral, from Crimes and Misdemeanors to In Her Shoes—as a grasping after class and seriousness, both gestures instances of a middlebrow cultural move that film critic Manny Farber once tagged "white elephant art": "reminiscent of the enameled tobacco humidors and wooden lawn ponies bought at white elephant auctions decades ago.... filling every pore of a work with glinting, darting Style and creative Vivacity."

But from Griffith on, poetry and the movies have stalked an ongoing conversation of mutual affinities and refractions, sources and collisions, analogues and renunciations. Following Griffith on Poe, it's possible to pair some poems and films—among them Frank Bidart's "To the Dead" and Allan Dwan's The Gorilla, Edward Field's "Curse of the Cat Woman" and Val Lewton's Cat People—that maneuver outside the white elephant zone, their conjunctions cunning, acute, even—as Farber might say—"ornery."

Frank Bidart's "To the Dead," the first poem of In the Western Night: Collected Poems, 1965–1990 (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1991), is also a hypothesis of how art gets made. Like Griffith's Edgar Allen Poe, "To the Dead" tracks that hypothesis about art at the intersection of the living and the dead, poetry and the movies—here surprisingly by way of Allan Dwan's forgotten 1939 slapstick horror vehicle for the Ritz brothers, The Gorilla, a film vaguely in homage to "Murders in the Rue Morgue" that features a gorilla named—what else?—Poe. Right from the opening, Bidart shadows hesitation and persistence, intensity and deflection:

What I hope (when I hope) is that we'll
see each other again,—

...and again reach the VEIN
in which we loved each other...
It existed. It existed.

There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,—

As he does so often in his poems, Bidart posits another rival world interior and original to any daily surfaces—"There is a king inside the king that the king / does not acknowledge," and "But soon she heard the music beneath every other music," as he writes in "The Second Hour of the Night." Now to particularize what he might mean by "a NIGHT within the NIGHT" and to focus the moment of connection he is at once anticipating and recollecting, Bidart glances at The Gorilla:

...for, like the detectives (the Ritz Brothers)
in The Gorilla,

once we'd been battered by the gorilla
we searched the walls, the intricately carved
impenetrable paneling

for a button, lever, latch
that unlocks a secret door that
reveals at last the secret chambers,

CORRIDORS within WALLS,
(the disenthralling, necessary, dreamed structure
beneath the structure we see,)

that is the HOUSE within the HOUSE...

That Bidart was able to retrieve anything at all from The Gorilla is the first astonishment. The Ritz Brothers fall among the great vaudeville comedy and dancing brother acts, and Allan Dwan directed upward of 400 films, including Robin Hood, The Iron Mask¸ The Sands of Iwo Jima, Cattle Queen of Montana, and The Most Dangerous Man Alive. Still, any currency The Gorilla holds today resides in Bela Lugosi's self-parodying turn as Peters the Butler, the clever presence of Patsy Kelly (later of Sam Fuller's The Naked Kiss) as a shrieking maid, and the fact the Ritz Brothers notoriously walked off the Fox set complaining about the script. Alternately mystery, fright night, and farce, The Gorilla merits remembrance particularly for the episodes Bidart memorializes, in which concealed doors open out of bookcases and walls into that "HOUSE within a HOUSE." ("This house is a maze of secret panels," one Ritz brother half complains, half exclaims); the passageways culminate in the discovery of a microphone—shades of Cocteau!—broadcasting updates on the gorilla slayings to a radio in the study.

A third section of "To the Dead" seems to tunnel inside the house of The Gorilla and excavate it, Bidart's route veering from personal into allegorical:

There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,—

...there were (for example) months when I seemed only
to displease, frustrate,

disappoint you—; then, something triggered

a drunk lasting for days, and as you
slowly, and shakily sobered up,

sick, throbbing with remorse and self-loathing,

insight like ashes: clung
to; useless; hated ...

This was the viewing of the power of the waters

while the waters were asleep:—
secrets, histories of loves, betrayals, double-binds

not fit (you thought) for the light of day...

In an interview with poet Mark Halliday that concludes In the Western Night, Bidart eventually circles back into the secret house of "To the Dead," remarking: "Again and again, insight is dramatized by showing the conflict between what is ordinarily seen, ordinarily understood, and what is now experienced as real. Cracking the shell of the world; or finding the shell is cracking under you." The final lines of the poem transpire inside that cracked shell, that "HOUSE within the HOUSE," which holds Bidart's past as well as his imagined future and is the house his poem makes—a "secret place" built from yearning and wreckage for the dead "together" with the living:

There is a NIGHT within the NIGHT,—

...for, there at times at night, still we
inhabit the secret place together...

Is this wisdom, or self-pity?—

The love I've known is the love of
two people staring

not at each other, but in the same direction.

The intricate ways the "shell of the world ... is cracking under you" was the ingrained subject, even the daring provocation, of the smart, hermetic horror movies Val Lewton produced at RKO during the early 1940s: I Walked With a Zombie (1943), The Leopard Man (1943), The Seventh Victim (1943), The Ghost Ship (1943), Isle of the Dead (1945), The Body Snatcher (1945), Bedlam (1946), and, particularly, two titles, Cat People (1942) and The Curse of the Cat People (1944), which Edward Field conflated for his poem "Curse of the Cat Woman" in his bravura 1967 collection Variety Photoplays (Grove). (The poem was reprinted in After the Fall: Poems Old and New recently published by University of Pittsburg Press.) If Bidart pulled a majestic poem from a marginal film, Field surmounted an opposite risk—the intrinsic hazards of transporting powerful movies into a poem—because Lewton, unlike Dwan, is one of the essential visionaries of American cinema. For his slippery intro, Field thus warily if casually edges along:

It sometimes happens
that the woman you meet and fall in love with
is of that strange Transylvanian people
with an affinity for cats.

You take her to a restaurant, say, or a show,
on an ordinary date, being attracted
by the glitter in her slitty eyes and her catlike walk,
and afterwards of course you take her in your arms
and she turns into a black panther
and bites you to death.

Or perhaps you are saved in the nick of time
and she is tormented by the knowledge of her
   tendency:
That she daren't hug a man
unless she wants to risk clawing him up.

Field relishes the agitation inside his throwaway phrases, especially the way the offhand misogyny of the clichés ("glitter in her slitty eyes," "her cat-like walk") jostle against the revelation that the woman is covertly, literally a cat. Over forty years later, Variety Photoplays remains the most stylish and adventurous poetry book about the movies. Yet even Field's abiding enthusiasts, such as Laurence Goldstein, who in his otherwise impeccable study The American Poet at the Movies, which introduced Field to serious criticism, incline to underplay him—Goldstein recently praising Field's "campy tributes" and all but dismissing the films behind his work. The accomplishment of "Curse of the Cat Woman" is inseparable from Lewton, and the planes of Field's poem shift as one remembers more about Cat People.

Val Lewton never shot a movie, and he received only one official (pseudonymous) script credit, but he operated as the catalyst for an astute and ambitious RKO production team that included directors Jacques Tourneur, Mark Robson, and Robert Wise; screenwriter DeWitt Bodeen; director of photography Nicholas Musuraca; composer Roy Webb; and set designers Albert D'Agostino and Walter Keller. Lewton's stories accented period minutiae and secured stage designs in Goya and Hogarth. Lewton concluded Cat People on a quotation from John Donne, and his legend was actually for something like pedantry rather than shock. In a 1951 Nation obituary, Farber quipped that Lewton's "talents were those of a mild bibliophile," and a magazine profile on the set of The Body Snatcher captured Lewton testing lipsticks, supervising sound recordings, rejecting candle holders, and coordinating camera men, writers, actors, and agents.

Dark and electric in a United States at war, Lewton and his RKO cronies devised scenarios of implicit menace and everyday wonder while performing inside limitations as stringent as a double sestina's: only horror films, bantam budgets, eighty-to-ninety minute running times, and titles supplied by studio brass. The Seventh Victim, I Walked With a Zombie, and The Ghost Ship especially dispose some of the most otherworldly and elegiac episodes in American film even as they offer vivid novelistic reductions of jobs, houses, and manners. For Manny Farber and James Agee, Val Lewton was American commercial cinema in the 1940s. Farber located in him "the strange authenticity of a daguerreotype." For Agee, Lewton embodied both rare "movie intelligence" and a still-rarer sense of lived experience: "You are seeing pretty nearly the only acting and directing and photography in Hollywood that is concerned with what happens inside real and particular people among real and particular objects."

In Cat People, as Field loosely adapted the plot, a hearty American engineer, Oliver Reed (played by Kent Smith) meets Irena Dubrovna (Simone Simon), a pretty yet elusive fashion designer, as she is sketching a panther at the Central Park Zoo, and falls in love with her. Irena is troubled by a legend from her Serbian childhood of a tribe of devil worshippers who invaded her village, turning her ancestors into "cat people" who at moments of powerful feeling transform into vicious cats. Oliver discounts Irena's story as a superstitious folktale and persuades her to marry him, although she won't go to bed with him out of fear she would in passion kill him. Oliver enlists the aid of friends and professionals, all notably conflicted—from a work colleague, Alice (Jane Randolph), who confesses her love for Oliver to a psychiatrist, Dr. Louis Judd (Tom Conway), who soon tumbles for Irena. Lewton and director Tourneur proceed by indirection, oblique and artful, esteeming suggestion, the unseen—shadows, sound effects, off-screen violence—all angles and connotation. Eventually Dr. Judd contrives to meet Irena alone at her apartment and tries to kiss her. Now a panther, she mauls him, although the psychiatrist manages to stab her with a blade concealed in his cane. Reverting to her human shape, Irena flees to the zoo, where Oliver and Alice find her body. "She never lied to us," Oliver marvels, stalwart to the finish.

As Field continues his poem, the perspective would still seem to be Oliver's, the reiterated you inscribing the hapless husband, even as the second person inevitably implicates the reader:

This puts you both in a difficult position—
panting lovers who are prevented from touching
not by bars but by circumstance:
You have terrible fights and say cruel things
for having the hots does not give you a sweet temper.

One night you are walking down a dark street
And hear the pad-pad of a panther following you,
but when you turn around there are only shadows,
or perhaps one shadow too many.

You approach, calling, "Who's there?"
and it leaps on you.
Luckily you have brought along your sword
and you stab it to death.

And before your eyes it turns into the woman you love,
her breast impaled on your sword,
her mouth dribbling blood saying she loved you
but couldn't help her tendency.

Here once again Field digs into the frisky slang, yet his sharpest wit springs from a recasting of pop psychology into teen talk ("having the hots does not give you a sweet temper," "she loved you / but couldn't help her tendency"). For those who haven't seen the film lately, that psychobabble is the main cue this isn't necessarily Oliver's story or even, through him, the rapt, insinuated reader's. Field's poem draws its imagery and often language mostly from four speeches interspersed through Cat People, addressed by Dr. Judd to Irena and intended to justify both his condescension to her honest fears and his own questionable advances on her. The good doctor cautions Irena not to reveal their sessions to her husband, threatens to commit her when she resists his overtures, urges Oliver to annul their marriage, and finally (shades of Freud!) puts her down with his sword cane. The words of a dubious seducer, a tainted emblem of human reason and superior insight, "Curse of the Cat Woman"—much like Cat People—slyly mounts a case for the irrational. Field's closing stanza is appropriately neat—and clueless:

So death released her from the curse at last,
and you knew from the angelic smile on her dead face
that in spite of a life the devil owned,
love had won, and heaven pardoned her.

"These things are very simple to psychiatrists," Dr. Judd says in Cat People, yet perhaps not so simple to filmmakers and to poets. The "camp" of "Curse of the Cat Woman" wasn't Lewton but psychiatry—shorthand, of course, for all the other ways, including too many poems and films, we deny devastation or wonder, that "shell of the world ... cracking" under us.