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

Gregory Corso’s Sound and Fury

It’s even harder to find Corso’s poems than it is to find Ferlinghetti’s poems. In fact, the only new book I could find after considerable searching in three different states was Gasoline published by Ferlinghetti’s City Lights Books, which is one of Corso’s first books.

However, the search was well worth the effort because I like Corso’s poems very much, though I’m still unsure why. Perhaps I‘m drawn by the sound of his poems, for at his best he reminds me of Dylan Thomas or Gerard Manly Hopkins. Perhaps I’m drawn to his imagery, which reminds me of Salvador Dali, with strange, grotesques, disconnected but linked images that seem to emerge from another plane, plain despair.

His best poems in this volume range from short imagist poems like “I Miss My Dear Cats” to Whitmanesque poems like “Ode to Coit Tower” reminiscent of Ginsberg’s “Howl.”

Most of his poems, no matter how conventional in some aspects, contain a weird twist that identify them as Corso’s work, as in “I Miss My Dear Cats:”

I Miss My Dear Cats

My water-colored hands are catless now
seated here alone in the dark
my window-shaped head is bowed with sad draperies
I am catless near death almost
behind me my last cat hanging on the wall
dead of my hand drink bloated
And on all my other walls from attic to cellar
my sad life of cats hangs

At first glance the poem seems merely a tribute to an elderly lady who has loved cats her whole life. At first it even appears that she like to paint her cats, “my water-colored hands.” But this nostalgic little reverie is suddenly snapped to attention by the phrase “dead of my hand,” and “bloated,” like dead, bloated. This line makes for a rather ambiguous, and haunting, last line. The poem, despite its cheerfully inviting title, reminds one of an Edgar Allen Poe tale.

Perhaps I like “Puma In Chapultepec Zoo” purely because it captures the way I’ve felt about zoos ever since I can remember.

Puma In Chapultepec Zoo

Long smooth slow swift soft cat
What score, whose choreography did you dance to
when they pulled the final curtain down?

Can such ponderous grace remain
here, all alone, on this 9x10 stage?

Will they give you another chance
perhaps to dance the Sierras?

How sad you seem; looking at you
I think of Ulanova
locked in some small furnished room
in New York, on East 17th Street
in the Puerto Rican section.

A perfect metaphor? a beautiful, zooed puma compared to a world famous dancer, now trapped, forced to remain forever on a 9x10 stage. Who would dare consider doing the same to a human dancer?

“Paris” is a more typical Corso poem than the previous two, though. It contains delightful wordplay, driving rhythms and interesting rhymes and off-rhymes.

Paris


Childcity, Aprilcity,
Spirits of angels crouched in doorways,
Poets, worms in hair, beautiful Baudelaire,
Artaud, Rimbaud, Apollinaire,
Look to the nightcity –
Informers and concierges,
Montparnassian woe, deathical Notre Dame,
To the nightcircle look, dome heirloomed,
Hugo and Zola together entombed,
Harlequin deathtrap,
Seine generates ominous mud,
Eiffel looks down -- sees the Apocalyptical ant crawl,
New Yorkless city,
City of Germans dead and gone,
Dollhouse of Mama War.

The opening line, with the invented “childcity, aprilcity,” somehow captures the romantic view of Paris. But this original clichéd view of the city is corrected through later images and magical words like “deathical” or “New Yorkless,” “entombed,” “ominous mud.” Ah, cans’t thou not imagine what couldst happen in a New Yorkless minute? It must have been magical to hear Corso read this stuff live.

Now, don’t quote me on this, I’m sure in retrospect I’ll deny it, maybe I’m just high on spring sunshine, but I think “Ode to Coit Tower,” might well be my favorite poem by a Beat poet that I’ve read so far:

Ode to Coit Tower

O anti-verdurous phallic were't not for your pouring height looming in tears like a sick tree or your ever-gaudy- comfort jabbing your city's much wrinkled sky you'd seem an absurd Babel squatting before mortal millions

Because I filled your dull sockets with my New York City eyes vibrations that hadn't doomed dumb Empire State did not doom thee

Enough my eyes made you see phantasmal at night mad children of soda caps laying down their abundant blond verse on the gridiron of each other's Eucharistic feet like distant kings laying down treasures from camels

Illuminations hinged to masculine limbs fresh with the labor sweat of cablecar & Genoa papa pushcart

Bounty of electricity & visions carpented on pig-bastard night in its spore like the dim lights of some hallucinating facade

Ah tower from thy berryless head I'd a vision in common with myself the proximity of Alcatraz and not the hip volley of white jazz & verse or verse & jazz embraced but a real heart-rending constant vision of Alcatraz marshalled before my eyes

Stocky Alcatraz weeping on Neptune's table whose petrific bondage crushes the dreamless seaharp gasping for song O that that piece of sea fails to dream

Tower I'd a verdure vagueness fixed by a green wind the shade of Mercy lashed with cold nails against the wheatweather Western sky weeping I'm sure for hu-manity's vast door to open that all men be free that both hinge and lock die that all doors if they close close like Chinese bells

Was it man's love to screw the sky with monuments span the bay with orange & silver bridges shuttling structure into structure incorruptible in this endless tie each age impassions be it in stone or steel either in echo or half-heard ruin

Was it man's love that put that rock there never to avalanche but in vision or this imaginary now or myself standing on Telegraph Hill Nob Hill Russian Hill the same view always Alcatraz like a deserted holiday

And I cried for Alcatraz there in your dumb hollows 0 tower clenching my Pan's foot with vivid hoard of Dannemora

Cried for that which was no longer sovereign in me stinking of dead dreams dreams I yet feign to bury thus to shun reality's worm

Dreams that once jumped joyous bright from my heart like sparks issued from a wild sharper's wheel now issued no longer

Were't not for cities or prisons 0 tower I might yet be that verdure monk lulling over green country albums with no greater dream than my youth's dream

Eyes of my hands! Queen Penthesileia and her tribe! Mes-senger stars Doctor Deformous back from his leprosy and woe! Thracian ships! Joyprints of pure air!

Impossible for me to betray even the simplest tree

Idiotic colossus I came to your city during summer after Cambridge there also no leaf throbbed between my fingers no cool insect thrilled my palm though I'd a vision there Death seated like a huge black stove

Inspired by such I came to your city walked Market Street singing hark hark the dogs do bark the beggars are coming to town and ran mad across Golden Gate into Sausalito and fell exhausted in a field where an endless scarecrow lay its head on my lap

How happily mad I was 0 tower lying there amid gossipy green dreaming of Quetzalcoatl as I arched my back like a rainbow over some imaginary gulph

0 for that madness again that infinitive solitude where illu-sion spoke Truth's divine dialect

I should have stayed yet I left to Mexico to Quetzalcoatl and heard there atop Teotihuacan in T-prophetic-Cuauhxi--calli-voice a dark anthem for the coming year

Ah tower tower that I felt sad for Alcatraz and not for your heroes lessened not the tourist love of my eyes

I saw your blackjacketed saints your Zens potsmokers Athenians and cocksmen

Though the West Wind seemed to harbor there not one
pure Shelleyean dream of let's say hay—
-like universe
golden heap on a wall of fire
sprinting toward the gauzy eradication of
Swindleresque Ink

Corso’s vision here seems almost Blakean (forgive me, Jeff), Blakean in both its glory and its wonderment, enhanced, perhaps, by a dash of confusion, a vision of a tower dedicated to the workers forever despoiled by its nearness to The Rock, to Alcatraz, “Ah tower from thy berryless head I'd a vision in common with myself the proximity of Alcatraz and not the hip volley of white jazz & verse or verse & jazz embraced but a real heart-rending constant vision of Alcatraz marshalled before my eyes/ Stocky Alcatraz weeping on Neptune's table whose petrific bondage crushes the dreamless seaharp gasping for song O that that piece of sea fails to dream.”

It’s nearly as impossible for me not to be caught up in the highs and lows of this poem as it is impossible to understand exactly what Corso’s vision is.

Surely, though, this home of the beats, this new paradise, is found lacking, for it does not harbor “one pure Shelleyean dream of hay-like universe.”

Still, ‘twould be a dull jack that did not jump “joyous bright” to find phrases and lines such as “sparks issued from a wild sharper's wheel,” “verdure monk lulling over green country albums,” “Joyprints of pure air!” or “singing hark hark the dogs do bark the beggars are coming to town.”

Rock me, rock me baby, for a little while, the man doeth out-dylan Dylan.

Doeth it matter if it be but sound and fury signifying nothing?