Lachrymae Christi

Whitely, while benzine
Rinsings from the moon
Dissolve all but the windows of the mills
(Inside the sure machinery
Is still
And curdled only where a sill
Sluices its one unyielding smile)

Immaculate venom binds
The fox’s teeth, and swart
Thorns freshen on the year’s
First blood. From flanks unfended,
Twanged red perfidies of spring
Are trillion on the hill.

And the nights opening
Chant pyramids,–
Anoint with innocence,–recall
To music and retrieve what perjuries
Had galvanized the eyes.

While chime
Beneath and all around
Distilling clemencies,–worms’
Inaudible whistle, tunneling
Not penitence
But song, as these
Perpetual fountains, vines,–

Thy Nazarene and tinder eyes.

(Let sphinxes from the ripe
Borage of death have cleared my tongue
Once again; vermin and rod
No longer bind. Some sentient cloud
Of tears flocks through the tendoned loam:
Betrayed stones slowly speak.)

Names peeling from Thine eyes
And their undimming lattices of flame,
Spell out in palm and pain
Compulsion of the year, O Nazarene.

Lean long from sable, slender boughs,
Unstanched and luminous. And as the nights
Strike from Thee perfect spheres,
Lift up in lilac-emerald breath the grail
Of earth again–

                        Thy face
From charred and riven stakes, O
Dionysus, Thy
Unmangled target smile.

 

The title: “Lachrymae Christi” (The Tears of Christ) is a dryish pale golden wine, made from the grapes grown along the southern slope of Mount Vesuvius in southwest Italy in the state of Campania. The Neapolitans claim that the Saviour, looking down one day on the citadel of wickedness that Naples had become, shed a tear which fell on Mount Vesuvius, where a vine sprang up (the wine has nothing in common with the sweet dessert wine from Málaga, Spain, by the same name). Thus, both Christ and Dionysus, as dying/reviving gods are summoned in the title, which also implies resurrection.
Embedded in the title as well is a sense in which Christ’s blood and suffering are to be transformed into Dionysian celebration:

Whitely, while benzine
Rinsings from the moon
Dissolve all but the windows of the mills
(Inside the sure machinery
Is still
And curdled only where a sill
Sluices its one unyielding smile)

Stanza one: “benzine” is a key word for the entire poem. As a volatile flammable distillate it not only conjures fermentation and distillation, but fire, and ignites a long fuse that will burn through the poem to contact the “tinder” in the one line fifth stanza and then burst into flame in the seventh, as “lattices of flame.” Whitely (that is, purely, blankly, and voidly), the moon cleanses the world of human industry—almost. Even though the building (a mill evoking grinding labor) is dissolved, the lower part of the window still smiles evilly at the speaker—a smile that will not yield to “the benzine rinsings.” Note the double rhyme in this phrase, which must have appealed to Crane and possibly, sound-wise, led him to the juxtaposition.

Immaculate venom binds
The fox’s teeth, and swart
Thorns freshen on the year’s
First blood. From flanks unfended,
Twanged red perfidies of spring
Are trillion on the hill.

Stanza two: While this process is going on, spring comes forth, yet it is under the control of “whitely” (suggesting that an unknowable blankness, or abyss, enfolds everything, including the moon). The purification and void implied in the first stanza are picked now in “immaculate venom.” The fox is not evil, but from the lamb’s viewpoint, with its “unfended flanks,” it is deadly. As flowers burst forth, so does the blood of carnivorous consumption, life feeding on life. There seems to be something perfidious (treacherous) about this, or let’s say betrayal seems to be sewn into the nature of things. “Perfidious” starts a chain reaction, picked up in stanza #3 by “perjuries,” converted to “penitence” and “perpetual” in stanza #4, and then transformed into “perfect” in stanza #8, the five “p” words underscoring the transformation underway.

And the nights opening
Chant pyramids,—
Anoint with innocence,—recall
To music and retrieve what perjuries
Had galvanized the eyes.

Stanza three: Yet spring and night continue to open, expand, and the speaker can suddenly see through all the way back to Egypt, to the pyramids. The night makes him feel innocent again; it cleanses his eyes of the perjuries imposed on him (thus the night is effecting the speaker as the moon was said to effect the mills). Here “galvanized” probably denotes “coated,” as iron or steel can be coated with zinc, rather than “stimulated.”

While chime
Beneath and all around
Distilling clemencies,—worms’
Inaudible whistle, tunneling
Not penitence
But song, as these
Perpetual fountains, vines,—

Stanza four: The speaker is also aware of worms, evoking aerated earth, as well as the transience of the flesh. The worms are whistle-shaped; their tunneling is a kind of singing, and what their action implies is not repentance or moral remorse, but celebration. The proper response to death and betrayal is transformation, renewal. The perjury that had galvanized/coated the eyes must erupt as a perpetual fountain, or the adopting of a viewpoint in which all is sensed as flowing, in which destruction and immolation are, at the same, rebirth. Life and death are dyadic, a kind of circular causation.

Thy Nazarene and tinder eyes.

Stanza five: the one line fifth stanza creates a mid-way pause in the poem. At this point a lot of material accumulates and coalesces. Christ on the cross is to be transformed into Dionysus or, to put it slightly different, the tears (remorse, sorrow, sufferings) of Christ are to be consumed in the livingdying god of poetry and wine, Dionysus, the inventor of vine culture. Joseph Campbell writes, “Dionysus, known like Shiva as the Cosmic Dancer, is both the bull torn apart and the lion tearing.” The birth of Dionysus is also pertinent here: Father Zeus appeared in his true form as lightning, killing Dionysus’s mother, Semele, and causing the god’s premature birth (and the need on Zeus’s part to shelter the infant in his thigh until his subsequent rebirth). Both Dionysus and Christ are symbolically killed and eaten yet resurrected gods of bread and wine; a significant resemblance between the fate of Dionysus and Osiris links Dionysus in the poem to pyramids and sphinxes. Dionysus is also, besides vines, a god of trees (note “slender boughs” in stanza #8). While he dies a violent death, there is no evidence I know of that he was burnt at the stake or on a pyre (as was Hercules). Dionysus was dismembered but not burned, so Crane’s vision of him as being burned at the stake appears to be his own invention. This is also true about Christ; mauled and crucified, he was not in the Gospels set on fire.
The Nazarene’s tender eyes are “tinder eyes,” inflammable, kindling in effect.

(Let sphinxes from the ripe
Borage of death have cleared my tongue
Once again; vermin and rod
No longer bind. Some sentient cloud
Of tears flocks through the tendoned loam;
Betrayed stones slowly speak.)

Stanza six: While the sixth stanza takes place, the Nazarene is set on fire by Crane and begins to transform into a blazing Dionysus (who does not fully appear until the last stanza). “Let” here means unbound, I believe, or released.
“The ripe borage of death” = death envisioned as medicinally fertile. I wonder if the Egyptians had borage (the sentence implies they did). The hybrid sphinx (evoking Dionysus and Christ at the moment they fuse) emerges from a demulcent herb (capable of soothing an inflamed membrane). I understand that borage is also used in the preparation of a cordial.
“Vermin” (related to the worms above) and “rod” (flagellation associated with the penitence above) “No longer bind” plays off the venom that binds the fox’s teeth in the 2nd stanza.
Now instead of worms, “a sentient cloud / of tears flocks” (stanza #2 lamb flanks recalled) “through the tendoned” (or now human) “loam,” or earth. Why were the stones “betrayed?” Perhaps because until this minute they were not envisioned as participants in a cosmo-poetic resurrection?

Names peeling from Thine eyes
And their undimming lattices of flame,
Spell out in a palm and pain
Compulsion of the year, O Nazarene.

Stanza seven: Back to the god’s eyes, which are now peeling/pealing, as bells peal, with names (Adonis, Attis, Dionysus, Christ, etc.)—with each name carrying its own “undimming [lattice] of flame” (recalling the burning of viniculture and creeping vines). These names “Spell out in palm” (the spiked palms of the Nazarene, also the palm tree, thus Dionysus-associated). “Compulsion of the year” = the driven cycling of nature, relentless, without freedom to deviate, that all living things suffer, Dionysus and Nazarene here as a man.

Lean long from sable, slender boughs,
Unstanched and luminous. And as the nights
Strike from Thee perfect spheres,
Lift up in lilac-emerald breath the grail
Of earth again—

Stanza eight: “sable,” like “swart” (stanza #2) = black; the ”boughs” that the burning figure leans from are blackened (possibly from past burnings as well). They become the “riven stakes” (possibly from vineyards) in stanza #9. As a transformation of the moon with its rinsings/clearings this figure is now aflow with fire, that is, he is “unstaunched” (not cauterized or checked but “luminous,” light-giving). The nights that previously opened to pyramids now strike an ethereal harmony (Pythagoras’ vision, produced by planetary motion—“harmony of the spheres” I assume is being alluded to here). The “perfect spheres” suggests dew and grapes, as well as sweat (borage is also diaphoretic). “Perfect,” the culmination of the “p” flotilla, also suggests that the word itself has reached a state of grace.
Then the “breath” of the “earth,” embodied in the blazing god, is proposed to consist of lilacs and emeralds (plants and gems). The “grail” is no longer associated solely with Christ (from which he ate the Last Supper, in which his blood was collected, or in other versions, from which he drank wine at the Last Supper). The “grail” now belongs to Dionysus, or to a Dionysian perspective in art. “Again” implies that this is a cyclic, perhaps yearly/seasonal ceremony. The god is thus blessing the fruitfulness of the earth as he burns, with the lifting up of the grail, another trope for resurrection/transformation.

                  Thy face
From charred and riven stakes. O
Dionysus, Thy
Unmangled target smile.

Stanza nine: “O Nazarene” (stanza #5) is now “O Dionysus,” as if the god now looks down at the speaker (though his eyes have been twice acknowledged). The lack of a verb here is significant. After “Thy face,” I think we are to pause, as if the verb missing is covered by such a pause. Note that “O” is set by itself at the end of this line, punning on zero as well as the roundness of the target to appear two lines later. The last line presents us with a god whose face is filled with arrows but who is still smiling. This “unmangled… smile” is set against the unyielding sill smile in stanza #1. The “twanged red perfidies” (stanza #2) may play into the target also, as a twang is the sharp release of a bowstring, and to twang is to release an arrow (a minor point, perhaps, but “twanged” is so odd that one seeks to account for it).
The dovetailing drive of the poem seems to be one in which the negative suffering-for-others qualities of what we might call “the Christ complex” are to be not substituted, but subsumed, assimilated into the positive, celebratory qualities of the “Dionysus complex.” If I am to be torn apart, the poet seems to be saying, I want to sing as I break or burn; I do not want to go down in penitence. This transformation is synchronized with the appearance of spring, though it is worth pointing out that spring is also seen as one aspect of a venom-bound natural cycle. Since Crane prays for this transformation (in command “Lift up…”), we can assume that the poem is self-reflective of his own life and creative problems. There is a strong implication running through the text that his own tendency has been to take as personal, as directed him, the venom, perfidies, perjuries, and betrayals that are part of the havoc of his life. By casting his speaking self against the great cycles of natural life and mythological imagination, it is as if Crane would depersonalize these negative forces and transform them into the compulsive pain of being part of life at large. The absolutely extraordinary last line, we should note, does not present a Dionysus made whole, or a figure who has simply been purified by fire—rather, in the word “target” are gathered all the arrows, all the agonies evoked at various points in the poem, so that the smile we encounter is one that carries in its surrounding flesh the cruel and horrifying contradictions of life and yet is somehow “unmangled,” whole. One might say that this is a truly honest smile because it is offered not in evasion or simplistic transformation of the speaker’s multifoliate sufferings.

 

Note:
Over the years I have written several poems about Hart Crane, and in a couple of them I have invented conversations with him. The longest of these pieces is “At the Speed of Wine” (Hotel Cro-Magnon, 1989). A shorter “conversation,” which took place on the patio of Hotel Centenaire, in Les Eyzies, in the French Dordogne, on July 20-21, 1985, has the following exchange, which seems pertinent to this Gloss:

He paused long enough for me to ask: your Dionysus, with a Nazarene core, is a full company of bit parts as he flames and sparks at the stake. In what sense is his “target smile” “unmangled?”
“The ‘I’ must go unpruned and be allowed to elaborate its tendrils. Since I could not ‘shoulder the curse of sundered parentage,’ I sought a hermaphroditic grafting. I refused my parents’ nature in favor of a vision that included crucifixion and pagan multiplicity. Dionysus never was mangled—his being takes place in parts, or minute orders, ‘divine particulars,’ yet ‘the bottom of the sea is cruel.’ For the Protestant, always under curfew, the underworld is infested with criminal elements, thuds of Capone, Manson butt-raped as a child whose later martial hysteria wrote its ‘helter-skelter’ in living flesh. As a Protestant, I was always on that ‘sundered’ leash when I went down into the image hive, but that was part of my vision too: to wander under Dionysus and to suffer Dionysus in the flesh. Because of this, I allowed my sense of line to be governed by Tate and Winters. Only the voicings rising in writing, I know now, are not estrangements. Winters often visits me in this place. In death his soul has become mellow and most open. I see him wandering a nearby vale, chewing peyote, reading Artaud, his flesh neatly stacked on his skull…”

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Clayton Eshleman’s most recent collections of poetry are Anticline (Black Widow, 2010) and An Anatomy of the Night (BlazeVOX, 2012). Black Widow recently has published a large collection of poetry and prose, The Price of Experience, that goes back to 1967, including Eshleman’s 35-page LSD poem, “The Moistinsplendor.” In 2013, Wesleyan University Press published his co-translation, with A. James Arnold, of Aime Cesaire’s earliest 1939 text of the famous Notebook of a Return to the Native Land in conjunction with UNESCO’S Year of Aime Cesaire and a Cesaire conference on the Wesleyan campus.  Eshleman’s forthcoming publications include Penetralia, a new collection of poems (Black Widow Press, 2014), and Clayton Eshleman: The Essential Poetry 1960-2015 (Black Widow, 2015).  Eshleman received a National Book Award and twice received the Harold Morton Landon Translation Award from the Academy of American Poets.  Eshleman continues to live with his wife Caryl in Ypsilanti, Michigan.  His website is http://www.claytoneshleman.com

“A Gloss on Hart Crane’s ‘Lachrymae Christi” first appeared in the online magazine Fascicle. It also appears in Clayton Eshleman’s Archaic Design (Black Widow, 2007).

From The Complete Poems of Hart Crane edited by Marc Simon. Copyright © 1933, 1958, 1966 by Liveright Publishing Corporation.  Copyright (c) 1986 by Marc Simon.  Used by permission of Liveright Publishing Corporation.

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