Eliot Weinberger

A Spook in the House Of Poetry

1901: It had been a difficult birth; the mother had almost died. Perhaps in revenge, she insisted that he be given a girl's name: Vivian. His father, an illustrator, a sort of lowbrow bohemian, dressed at home in a kimono and rarely spoke. With the birth of a second child, Dickie, the family moved to a village on Long Island. Their large crumbling house was without heat; leaks there went unrepaired for decades. Neighbors shunned them as exotics. They were assumed to be French.
After the father abandoned them for a male lover, the mother and the two boys would sleep together in a locked room, a bureau pushed against the door; she with an axe by her bed, Vivian with a knife under his pillow. He would remember afternoons, lying on a couch with an unattended toothache, staring at a print on the wall: a beckoning skeleton, captioned "Death the Comforter."
Some years later the father returned to live in the house like John Gabriel Borkman, silently, entirely apart from the family. Meals were brought to his room on a tray. One morning he walked out and, without a word, hacked up the flowers.
The boy amused himself by taking long walks in the woods, learning French, German, Spanish, Latin, Greek, and dabbling in Hindustani, Persian, Gaelic, Romany, Russian, and the Assyrian cuneiform inscriptions. He wrote: "I am an outcast. My family is outcast. We have no friends, no social ties, no church, no organization that we claim and that claims us, no community." It is the childhood of a poet, a criminal, an ideologue, a spy, a closet homosexual, a scholar, or an informer.
Vivian was to be all of these. He enters the public domain in 1920 when, after drifting around the country, he took his mother's maiden name as his own and enrolled at Columbia University as Whittaker Chambers.
At Columbia, Chambers discovered poetry, inspired by an enthusiastic instructor, Mark Van Doren (then working on his first book) and fellow students Louis Zukofsky, Clifton Fadiman, Langston Hughes, Lionel Trilling. There too he discovered Communism. Zukofsky, for one, lent him a copy of the Manifesto. In 1923, when Chambers was forced out of school for publishing an atheistic play in the college magazine, Van Doren suggested he go to the new Soviet Union. He went instead to Europe with a student of art history, Meyer Schapiro.
Back from a short Grand Tour, he worked at the New York Public Library until he was dismissed for stealing books. His lovers were men or married women. His best friend was Zukofsky. He lived at home, or occasionally in a tent on the beach with a boyfriend. Home consisted of his mutually isolated parents, an insane grandmother who wandered the house with a knife in her hand, and an increasingly disturbed Dickie, who alternated suicidal depressions with wild nights cruising the speakeasies.
His concerns were poetry and Communism. The poems, published in The Nation from 1924 to 1926 are moody, self-consciously "modern," and sometimes cruel. In one, "Quag-Hole," the narrator arrives at a rendezvous outside of town. He hides; a woman appears; he watches her wait for him for hours; she leaves; he leaves. Another, an untitled poem on pears, ends abruptly:
… Where heels have ground
The pears to pulp late bees and yellow
Wasps fly fiercely: some are drowned.
There is one homoerotic poem, "Tandarei," published by the avant-garde pornographer Samuel Roth in his magazine Two Worlds. Steamy perhaps for 1926, it finally may say more than it intends:
But all my hand can encompass and possess
Is the tiny spinal-cords in your neck, and the ribs that drop
So fearfully into the cavity when you press
On me your heart that seems, at moments to make full stop,
As your sap drains into me in excess,
Like the sap from the stems of a tree that they lop.
And, as you draw your limbs like a pale
Effulgence around me, I must
Have them drawn into me, - as you fail
And begin to leave me. You shall be a hand thrust
Into my flesh; you hand thrust into me impale
My flesh forever on yours, driven in thru body-crust.
It ends, a page later:
Now I am right
In what I offended,
I may go go forth again, again unmastered, into the light.
Chambers joined the Party in 1925, to the dismay, he claimed, of his "fellow traveler" intellectual friends. One of them, undoubtedly Zukofsky, was recalled twenty-seven years later in Chambers' ponderous autobiography, Witness: "I told him the news. As usual, he squinted one eye and lifted the eyebrow of the other, so that he looked as if he were peering through a monocle. 'Do you drill in a cellar with machine guns?' he asked airily."
In 1926, after a number of suicide attempts thwarted by Whittaker at the last moment, Dickie Chambers was found dead, his head resting on a pillow stuck in an oven. Zukofsky commemorated him in "Poem Beginning 'The'" (lines 76-129) and, two years later, in one of the most beautiful elegies of the century, the third movement of "A", which begins:
At eventide, cool hour
Your dead mouth singing,
By 1930, Chambers had become mildly famous as the translator of a bestseller, Felix Salton's Bambi, of all things, and as the author of poems in The Daily Worker and short stories in The New Masses. The poems were routine ("For the dead, the dead, the dead, we march, comrades, workers") but the stories were a success: Lincoln Steffens praised them, the Moscow magazine International Literature found their questions "correctly" raised, and they were dramatized and translated in odd corners of the world. The next year Zukofsky included Chambers in the "Objectivists" issue of Poetry. His poem, also on Dickie's death, begins:
The moving masses of clouds, and the standing
Freights on the siding in the sun, alike induce in us
That despair which we, brother, know there is no withstanding.
and continues in a similarly abstract vein: "Only motionlessness as of the cars, / In beings of substance, remains undemeaning." On the preceding page is "1930's" by George A.Oppen (later to become part of Discrete Series); on the following page, "The Word" by Basil Bunting.
After brief service as the editor of The New Masses, Chambers left literature in 1932 to join a society even more obscure and elite than those of poetry, Party, and unspoken sexuality: the Fourth Section of Soviet Military Intelligence. He was never again a poet; as a spy he seems to have done little of importance.
In 1948 he enters history and legend, almost a figure of the contemporary existential fiction: the distasteful martyr, the outcast messenger bearing - depending on the auditor - false or bad news. His darkly motivated tales of pumpkins and rugs have never been explained. Only their effect is known: they destroyed the government career of one ambitious young man, Alger Hiss, and launched another, Richard Nixon.
During the trials, Chambers gave Zukofsky's name as a character reference. The poet, luckily, never testified, but the Poetry issue was entered as evidence. It is a moment to imagine in the history of modernism: the young Congressman Nixon, puzzling over pages of Objectivist verse.
Of Zukofsky's one "beautiful / Almost Sexual / / Brothers," Whittaker Chambers has frozen in the mind as, in his own words, "the short, squat, solitary figure, trudging through the impersonal halls of public building to testify before Congressional committees, grand juries, loyalty boards, courts of law." In the last year of his life, he was writing his friend William F. Buckley of his love for Lorca.