Sunday, January 14, 2007

In Memoriam: Ben Belitt, 1911-2003

Ben Belitt was a true visionary poet, one of the few inheritors of Hart Crane (Alvin Feinman is another), as well as a fine translator of Pablo Neruda and Federico Garcia Lorca, among other Spanish language poets. He was a member of no school or movement. Although his work has been rather neglected, I consider him one of the major figures of twentieth century American poetry.

At least part of the reason for the neglect of Ben’s work, besides his lack of interest in self-promotion, is the density and obliquity of his work, and what Howard Nemerov calls its “menacing intensity.” As Nemerov writes,

“Belitt receives the world more exclusively by ear than most; he writes by a kind of radar, and a relevant sound, by the rules of his procedures, is assumed to be a relevant sense; as though the one response would naturally evoke the other…. It goes with this that he very often writes poems in which the discourse is more radical than linear, in which the meaning of the poem is gained not from reading through it so much as from reading around in it, and from listening to recurrences and obsessive preoccupations in a series of poems…. The attraction of a poetry somewhat deeply enciphered is…that we get to know it rather as we might ideally get to know this world itself, not by moralizing instructions but by the repetition and variation of its forms; such a poetry may contain sermons no less than the plainer sort, but the sermons will be in the stones, and not white-washed across their surfaces” (“The Fascination of What’s Difficult,” in Reflexions on Poetry & Poetics).

Ben was also one of my first poetry teachers at Bennington College over twenty-five yearsa ago, one who constantly brought me back to the wedding of world and word at which poetry aims. By means of his delight in letting language take the lead on the one hand ("the enemy joy," in his phrase) and his insistence on accuracy and precision on the other, he tried to help his students steer between the Scylla of quotidian commentary or recounting and the Charybdis of fluency for its own sake, that is, for the sake of one’s poetic ego.

In one of our first meetings, Ben asked me if I always told the truth in my poems. Being a rather earnest young man, and taking it as a test of my probity, I responded, “Yes, of course I do.” He smiled and said, “That’s too bad. You should let yourself lie in poems.” It was his reminder that art is the lie that tells the truth, and that the truth art tells need not be about oneself. While “honesty” might make the writer feel good about himself, in poetry it is beside the point.

“This Scribe, My Hand,” the title poem of his complete poems, which was published in 1998, is more straightforward than many of Ben's poems, but no less dense and rich. Addressed to John Keats, who died believing himself a failure, a man who had merely written words on water, it speaks both to Ben’s knowledge of the neglect of his work, his fears of being forgotten, and to his hope that, as for Keats, something would survive.

The poem can also be read as a kind of ars poetica: to write "in the posthumous way" is to write for and as the dead, as if one were dead, to write for the past and for the future which one will no longer inhabit though one hopes that one's poems will, that they will endure to be "posthumous."

This Scribe, My Hand

When this warm scribe, my hand, is in the grave.
John Keats


You are here
on the underside of the page,
writing in water,

showing your head
with its delicate fuses,

its fatal telemetry,
a moundful of triggers and gunpowder
like a field-mine,

your sixty-one inches
and your gem-cutter’s fingers,

taking the weight
of a “roomful of people”
but making no mark,

pressing the page as I write,
while the traffic in Rome
demotic with engines and klaxons,

circles the Pyramid of Cestius,
crosses a graveyard, and submerges
again like the fin of a shark.


I write, in the posthumous way,
on the flat of a headstone
with a quarrier’s ink, like yourself:

an anthologist’s date and an asterisk,
a parenthetical mark in the gas
of the pyramid-builders,

an obelisk whirling with Vespas
in a poisonous motorcade.
I make your surgeon’s incision for

solitude—one living hand, two
poets strangle in seawater and phlegm,
an incestuous

ego to reach for
the heart in the funeral ashes,
a deathbed with friends.


Something murderous flows
from the page to my hand—
a silence that wars

with the letters, a fist
that closes on paper: a blow
with the straight edge of a razor

that falls with a madman’s
monotony; or the adze
of a sleepwalking Sumerian

nicking the wet of the clay,
hacking a wedge in a tablet
in the blood and the mica,

till all glistens with language.
The criminal folds up his claspknife. The shutters
slam down on the streets. Nobody listens.


Out of breath with the climb, and
tasting a hashish of blood,
what did he see on the brink

of the Piazza di Spagna? A hand
in the frame of a cithara
where beggars and sunbathers

clotted the levels like musical
signatures, a Wordsworthian
dream of “degree,” “unimaginable

time” touched by an axe
blade—or a pram
on the Odessa Steps

torn from the hands of
the mother, gathering speed for the
plunge and rocking its tires

in the rifling, like a gun barrel,
smashing its way through the Tsar’s
executioners, to a scream at the bottom?


A failed solitude… The bees
in the Protestant grass
speak of it delicately

in the sweat of a
Palatine summer, guiding my hand
through the Braille of the letters.

Violet, bluet, or squill—
what was it I picked
under the epitaph, what

rose to my touch
in the thirst of the marble, a cup
from the well of your grave

in the noonday miasma,
a hieroglyph in the water, saying:
solitude, solitude, solitude:

you have it at last—your
solitude writing on water,
alone with its failure.


You are there
on the underside of the page,
a blue flower in my Baedeker,

writing on water. I know it.
The paper pulls under my pen,
peaks into waves

running strongly into the horizon.
The emptiness hardens
with balustrades, risers, and levels,

a staircase of Roman
azaleas. I slip on the blood and the ink
toward the exigent bed

of a poet. All is precarious. A maniac
waits on the streets. Nobody listens. What
must I do? I am writing on water,

blazing with failures, ascending,
descending among lovers and trippers.
You are pressing me hard

under the paper. At Santa Trinità dei Monti
the stairway parts like an
estuary, rises and falls like a fountain.

There is nothing to see but a death-mask, your
room in an island of risers and treads, oddly
gregarious, an invisible hand in the granite.


The tidal salts drain on a living horizon,
leaving a glare on the blemishing
paper. The silence is mortal.
Nobody answers.


RC said...

Ah,truths and lies exist on the same coin.Ben is one of my favorites.

PersnicketyRph said...

I miss Ben. He was a customer of mine, at my pharmacy. He'd come in and talk about his interest in quantum mechanics or some other scientific inquiry. Fortunately I was rarely too busy to talk. I regard him as one of the great masters of 20th century poetry. It was a great privilege to know him.

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