Vestal Lady on Brattle

Unfortunately the second half of Gasoline, called the Vestal Lady on Brattle, Corso’s first book of poetry, isn’t as brilliant as the first half of the book. Still, I gained insights into Corso and the effect that his background had on his vision of life, and there are several poems that are good in their own right.

It seems to me that if we were to accept Ginsberg’s contention that the Beats were an extension of Transcendentalism, even though I personally reject that argument, then Gregory Corso would be the Hawthorne of the group because he seems to understand, or at least portray, the nature of evil better than any of the others. "In the Tunnel-Bone of Cambridge" rightly asserts that Corsco seems destined for "Black:"

IN THE TUNNEL-BONE OF CAMBRIDGE
1
In spite of voices-
Cambridge and all its regions
Its horned churches with fawns’ feet
Its white-haired young
and ashfoot legions-
I decided to spend the night

But that hipster-tone of my vision agent
Decided to reconcile his sound with the sea leaving me flat
North of the Charles
So now I’m stuck here-—
a subterranean
lashed to a pinnacle

2
I don’t know the better things that people know
All I know is the deserter condemned me to black-
He said: Gregory, here’s two boxes of night one tube of moon
And twenty capsules of starlight, go an’ have a ball-
He left and the creep took all my Gerry Mulligan records with him

3
But he didn’t cut out right then
I saw him hopping
On Brattle street today-
he’s got a bum leg
on his way to the tunnel-bone
He made like he didn’t see me
He was trying to play it cool

4
Wild in the station-bone
Strapped in a luggage vision-bone
made sinister by old lessons of motion
The time-tablebone said: Black

Handcuffed to a minister
Released in a padded diesel
The brakeman punched my back: Destination, black

Out the window I could see my vision agent
hopping along the platform
swinging a burning-lantern-bone like mad
All aboard, he laughed, all aboard
Far into the tunnel-bone I put my ear to the ear
of the minister–and I could hear
the steel say to the steam
and the steam to the roar: a black ahead
A black ahead a black and nothing more.

It’s not too difficult to imagine why Corso would feel like a "a subterranean/ lashed to a pinnacle" at Cambridge. It’s hard to be positive, but it’s likely that his "vision agent," "the deserter" is identified with a satyr, or even the devil, "hopping on Brattle street." Whoever it is, he has put the narrator on an express train to "a black ahead/ A black ahead a black and nothing more." No doubt where that’s headed.

The fact that he feels like an outsider is reflected in several of his poems, but the title poem for this section probably best depicts his alienation from the people in this town:

The Vestal Lady on Brattle

Within a delicate grey ruin
the vestal lady on Brattle
is up at dawn, as is her custom,
with the raise of a shade.

Swan-boned slippers revamp her aging feet;
she glides within an outer room …
pours old milk for an old cat.

Full-bodied and randomly young she clings,
peers down; hovers over a wine-filled vat,
and with outstretched arms like wings,
revels in the forming image of child below.

Despaired, she ripples a sunless finger
across the liquid eyes; in darkness
the child spirals down; drowns.
Pain leans her forward – f ace absorbing all –
-mouth upon broken mouth, she drinks…

Within a delicate grey ruin
the vestal lady on Brattle
is up and about, as is her custom,
drunk with child.

the vestal lady on Brattle
is up at dawn, as is her custom,
with the raise of a shade.

Swan-boned slippers revamp her aging feet;
she glides within an outer room …
pours old milk for an old cat.

Full-bodied and randomly young she clings,
peers down; hovers over a wine-filled vat,
and with outstretched arms like wings,
revels in the forming image of child below.

Despaired, she ripples a sunless finger
across the liquid eyes; in darkness
the child spirals down; drowns.
Pain leans her forward – face absorbing all –
-mouth upon broken mouth, she drinks…

Within a delicate grey ruin
the vestal lady on Brattle
is up and about, as is her custom,
drunk with child.

Now, like many of his poems, I’m not sure what all the images refer to, but I do know that it’s not a good thing to be trapped "Within a delicate grey ruin." Delicate or not, it’s still an ancient ruin if it’s grey. And I doubt that a young college student would be much attracted to an old lady who "pours old milk for an old cat."

It’s what happens beyond here that defies easy translation. It appears that the woman tries to conjure up a baby in a "wine-filled vat," suggesting the Salem witch trials that must have happened nearby. Since "vestal" suggests "virgin," the only way, with one possible exception, to have a child would be to conjure one up. Amid this conjuring, though, she waves a "sunless finger" and the child "spirals down; drowns" suggesting even more macabre possibilities. No matter the exact translation, the narrator clearly sees these "virtuous women" as somethng other pillars of society. They are sterile, haunted sirens "drunk with child."

The brilliant, if mind bending, "In My Beautiful…and Things" foreshadows the even more brilliant later poem "Marriage:"

In My Beautiful…and Things

All beautiful things
My things
In dead dogs in cellophane wrapped and tied
And still as beautiful as mine
In my tomb-rooms of dust and no things

A present practice of mine
When a beautiful chick passes by
To squeeze it thru my keyhole
Or slip it under the door if she’s old
And not like a mother or a bitch

Or a motherless dog
Then I’ll take her in my beautiful
And things
And will love her in cellophane with string
Like music for a world and no things

But I’m not proud with my dirty sink
And her things hanging on my doorknob to dry
It were better to be alone than a bitch
Housewifing my unwrapped dust
With nylons and sticks of tea and no things

Now, this poem makes no more sense to me than Harry Belafonte’s beautiful rendition of "Man Piaba" did to my beautiful four-year-old daughter years ago, but I love it as much as she loved that song. Makes me laugh, makes me cry. Sure sounds like love to me. Mostly I dig that part about, "It were better to be alone than a bitch."

D’ya ever wonder why love don’t come easy?

Here’s the best page I found on Corso on the net, though it’s relatively easy to find articles on him.

Corso at American Academy of Poets

2 thoughts on “Vestal Lady on Brattle

  1. I knew Gregory Corso in the 1950s. All of his ‘poetry’ then, was for me, so much senseless blabber. I lent him the use of a sleeping bag for one night, and he stayed for the entire winter, sleeping and writing on the floor of my neighbor’s apartment which was something of a crash pad on Mulberry Street in N.Y.C. I think it was the next Fall, 1953 or ’54, that he spent the literary season in Cambridge ‘squatting’ in a college dorm. He was resourceful. When he returned
    to New York he gave me an autographed copy of The
    Vestal Lady, and still later, he came to my studio
    on Sixth Avenue, where I photographed him. I’m glad he has been published and that he had been asked to do readings – it’s a validation of sorts for his life. I knew and had photographed Anthony Hecht and W.H. Auden and Jack Kerouac. Would Gregory feel honored to be in the same company with them?, equally, would they feel honored to be in the same company with Gregory Corso?

  2. I don’t necessarily understand Corso’s poetry, but I do enjooy reading him. In think it’s the energy.

    Other than that, a junky — which then was “hip” and scandalous, but which today, in the “alternative”/”grunge” music scene, is “hip” and so accepted as not even remarked upon.

    Perhaps relatedly, I enjoy reading Ted Berrigan, though he was (unnecessarily) a speed freak. Amazing, today, how so few comment on the lesser qualities of (such as) poets, as if denial by means of oblivious silence will validate their productions as being “creative”.

What do you think?