To Brooklyn Bridge

Brooklyn Bridge, Walker Evans, 1929Crossing the Bridge

In the fall of 1928, Hart Crane moved into a building across the street and a few doors down from Walker Evans in New York. It was close to the waterfront, and Crane hoped to finish his poem there.

Though Frank Stella was originally set to illustrate the poem, the new friendship with Walker Evans made him change his mind, and use three of Evans’ photographs instead. It was the beginning of Walker Evan’s career, and near the peak of Crane’s.

The two men had a lot in common. According to biographer Belinda Rathbone:

Crane was a fascinating companion. His talk was vivid with puns and crazy metaphors, and his laughter could fill a room. He could talk poetry for hours, reciting passages from memory or discussing endlessly how poetry related to the other arts — “how a Bach fugue, a Chinese painting, a Donne Sonnet, all irrationally illuminated each other,” as one friend recalled, and ultimately, how his words could find their spiritual equivalent in pictures.

The poem was mostly finished at the time, and you really couldn’t call the inclusion of Evan’s photographs a collaboration.

But they do fit together. The poem was first released in a fine limited edition, printed in France, and later in the United States. The quality of the finished product was to influence Walker Evans aspirations for the rest of his life, as well as setting a certain tone of sympathy, in detachment.

Hart Crane was perhaps the first truly great man that Evans befriended, but he wasn’t the last.

The introductory section to The Bridge is this proem, prefaced by a quote from Job (where Satan described how he came before the Lord)

From going to and fro in the earth,
    and from walking up and down on it.

Brooklyn Bridge, Walker Evans, 1929

To Brooklyn Bridge

How many dawns, chill from his rippling rest
The seagull’s wings shall dip and pivot him,
Shedding white rings of tumult, building high
Over the chained bay waters Liberty–

Then, with inviolate curve, forsake our eyes
As apparitional as sails that cross
Some page of figures to be filed away;
–Till elevators drop us from our day . . .

I think of cinemas, panoramic sleights
With multitudes bent toward some flashing scene
Never disclosed, but hastened to again,
Foretold to other eyes on the same screen;

And Thee, across the harbor, silver-paced
As though the sun took step of thee, yet left
Some motion ever unspent in thy stride,–
Implicitly thy freedom staying thee!

Out of some subway scuttle, cell or loft
A bedlamite speeds to thy parapets,
Tilting there momently, shrill shirt ballooning,
A jest falls from the speechless caravan.

Down Wall, from girder into street noon leaks,
A rip-tooth of the sky’s acetylene;
All afternoon the cloud-flown derricks turn . . .
Thy cables breathe the North Atlantic still.

Brooklyn Bridge, Walker Evans, 1929

And obscure as that heaven of the Jews,
Thy guerdon . . . Accolade thou dost bestow
Of anonymity time cannot raise:
Vibrant reprieve and pardon thou dost show.

O harp and altar, of the fury fused,
(How could mere toil align thy choiring strings!)
Terrific threshold of the prophet’s pledge,
Prayer of pariah, and the lover’s cry,–

Again the traffic lights that skim thy swift
Unfractioned idiom, immaculate sigh of stars,
Beading thy path–condense eternity:
And we have seen night lifted in thine arms.

Under thy shadow by the piers I waited;
Only in darkness is thy shadow clear.
The City’s fiery parcels all undone,
Already snow submerges an iron year . . .

O Sleepless as the river under thee,
Vaulting the sea, the prairies’ dreaming sod,
Unto us lowliest sometime sweep, descend
And of the curveship lend a myth to God.

A rip tooth of the sky’s acetylene. Images just don’t get much more vivid than that. Hart Crane was near the top of his form. But Walker Evans was still pretty much derivative of the New York School; the best from him is yet to come.

These images were mainly a letter of introduction to the world; Walker Evans grew a lot from here.

Walker Evans, 1929

1 thought on “To Brooklyn Bridge”

  1. “Livid with puns”???? That can’t be right! I’ve never heard of anyone become pale on account of punnage. Maybe it was “vivid with puns”… (Sorry, just picking the nits.)
    Right you are… Proofreading never was my strong suit! Thanks!

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