in this town, poetry’s a
—Hart Crane, “Porphyro in Akron”
Standing in front of the mausoleum, you can see the headstone near the iron palings by the road. Every year pilgrims come to pay respects. I’ve seen a votive offering of Bud Light still netted in plastic. One can missing. In poor taste, but not tasteless. We come to offer and to look for something.
HAROLD HART CRANE
1899 – 1932
LOST AT SEA
Six years ago I made the trip, Columbus to Garrettsville. Two-and-a-half, three hours. I knew before I set out that the headstone was just a cenotaph. That the headstone wasn’t even his but his father’s. His name and dates crammed. An afterthought.
These are things I care about, though I shouldn’t: whether the body is there, whether he would’ve wanted a memorial in Ohio, whether the father wondered would his son outlive him.
For my sixteenth birthday, my parents gave me a copy of his poems with a brown and gold dust jacket. I liked the strong lines. I wrestled with them like sleep, like Robert Duncan says.
The cemetery wasn’t on the map I printed. I parked down the street from a church. I went up to the doors of the church. St. Ambrose. No one was around. I noted the times for Mass, then left.
O City, your axles need not the oil of song.
I will whisper words to myself
And put them in my pockets. (“Porphyro in Akron”)
He didn’t grow up here, just was born. But his father and his father’s father did. I wander around the streets. I look at the storefronts. Everything is summer and brilliant and austere. I walk into a bookstore that wouldn’t have been here when he was.
He liked to hang out in Richard Laukhuff’s bookstore in Cleveland, where he read the latest Poetry and Seven Arts. It was there he got the itch for New York City, his first true love.
The bookstore owner doesn’t know where the cemetery is. I’m directed to a bar across the street.
There is little feeling on the part of the writers of this State that they are or belong to a single unit of soil or group of craftsmen.
—Harlan Hatcher, “Ohio in the Literature of the Twentieth Century”
Russell Atkins Barbara Smith Keith Tuma C S Giscombe Jason Molina Toni Morrison Tyrone Williams Nikki Giovanni Hanif Abdurraqib
In college I read the Clive Fisher biography. In it I learned about Laukhuff’s. About the church, St. Ambrose—built up from his grandfather’s house. About his parents’ squabbling. About his suicide attempts. About his mother’s Christian Science and his father’s business savvy. About his love of sailors.
Two men sit apart on stools, sunlight filtering in. I ask the bartender does he know the way to the cemetery. He motions to one of the men. Clean-cut, elbows splayed on the bar, he looks over and nods. He says he’s heading out that way, would I care to follow him. He smiles and turns back to his drink. I wait for him, sipping water in silence.
I get the car and return to find him idling in an antique Ford. Well-preserved. We turn down a road heading out of town. He hangs his arm out the window, his forearm bare to the elbow where he’s rolled the sleeve. When you think Ohio-born, you think of him. I think of him. At length the arm lifts and points to the iron palings. I see a mausoleum on a small hill. Lightly touching the hood of the truck, he telegraphs his farewell and drives on.
He wrote “Porphyro in Akron” in 1920–21 while working at his father’s factory. The boss’s son, he takes in an afternoon with the employees:
“I remember one Sunday noon,
Harry and I, “the gentlemen,”— seated around
. A table of raisin-jack and wine, our host
Setting down a glass and saying,—
“One month,—I go back rich.
I ride black horse…. Have many sheep.”
But Akron doesn’t need the poet’s song. The city runs smoothly enough without him. Love. Class. Vocation. Porphyro’s on the outs. So he goes back in. Putting words in his pockets. Shutting the door to the bedroom. Holed up in his room at least he has books to read.
Martha Pfeffer. I strolled through the rows. George Arbuthnot. Behind a worn marker I saw a cottontail rabbit. Edith Bosley. After thirty minutes without luck I was ready to leave. And just then I spotted it, almost tripping on it. A low flat slab. I stood over the headstone and I knew he wasn’t there, and though the difference between that kind of absence and the body’s disappearance into dirt amounts at best to a few stray bones, I clung to the distinction, and I was annoyed why I came all this way for nothing. I had come looking for a cenotaph but that was all I found. Then I took pictures. Then I looked at the road. Then I got in the car and checked the clock.
I make the sign of the cross as the pews fill. An old woman sits next to me. Mass begins. He was a reluctant Christian Scientist, if he was any kind of religious at all. I listen and respond and I think of him. I turn to the old woman. Peace be with you. The service ends and I’m ready to leave, but they start delivering the parish announcements. Announcements are followed by a report on the recent mission trip. It goes on and on. When the collection basket comes around I pass it on without pretending to look in my wallet.
I drive south. Afternoon, then evening.
I stop reading him, but I think about Garrettsville periodically for the next year: the church, the bar, the bookstore, the grave. I mean to write something. Then I talk with a friend who tells me about his own pilgrimage. He sketches the Midwestern epic he’s writing about it.
Feeling unoriginal, I stop thinking about Garrettsville. I think of him.
Permit me voyage, love, into your hands… (“Voyages”)
It seems sometimes almost as though you had lost yourself, and were trying vainly to find somewhere in this sea of humanity, your lost identity. (Letter to his father, December 31, 1916)
The voyage of love, love’s possibility, took him to New York. For poetry not to be a “bedroom occupation,” he needed to be lost in the metropolis.
I read him in bed in Ohio. I’ve never left.
In my bedroom, I dream about Akron, about Cleveland, about Lorain, about Garrettsville, about Columbus. I wonder if Ohio is no longer a place from which a writer has to flee. Like Hart Crane, like Sherwood Anderson, like William Dean Howells. I wonder what it means to live here and what we might yet make of it.
Painting: Harold Hart Crane, Carl Schmitt. © 2004 Carl Schmitt Foundation