Gerald Stern reads Samuel Greenberg’s “The Tusks of Blood”
Poetry of American Identity: Recordings by Contemporary Poets
The Tusks of Blood
My chant must enclose hell And yet here leave behind Myself of touch and vow; My hour has come when gales— The brief song of Greek— Have found the inner teeth alone. Here listen, someone is calling— Why the ugly praise and fate? Shall I be a joiner to this And leave here the good hope? Not to prank the lucky star I’ll apologize, wait until The great way works for woe! Woe? never, you Parsifal; Never—and by the trait of love’s Light shell, sneering outpour. Not to blame—wait, a travel For an excuse; a good life lay In the real actions, the pomped Horn, and the pardons of a door. What interfering, cloaked love Rules my thoughts! Shall I write: O anger, hast thou Not treated thy refuging forbear? Perhaps I can walk a bit To my truthful veins and relate The sport of the steeds that trot The stirring muscles of an earthly Gait and my hearted glow. O worm, worm-heated soil, Peal sad mereing folds Where cometh a home afar; And again a slow fainting ghost Gliding over a path easily seen. . . God! some voices disturb me From the inner room; I catch the subject: Death! Death, what a careless value To such aged spirits. Again A sad remark. Life not valued By such retired souls, who Should be apart to believe Justice . . . Ah, man, not thy boast! He was a marked lad Who poorly helped himself. What should this mean? Fill your pockets—I’ll let You know the grass of a grave. O the pillars of silk and good tea, Confusion of women, the bare bust— Embarrassment, carnal filth Of its justice lacks environment; O creaking earth, necessity; hell, No more wise; then the next child— What can he give? You pallid stork, gazing— Who gazed before you, cooled The summer spray? Very bad for an apartment Jew to claim Everlasting renaissance. What a delivery was this, Sucked by secret gilded creatures Who slew gold for a membrane! O tear, sped into the basin Of sparkling night aghast in silence, And the pipes’ swift pain Of the boiling steam shocks uplifting You, endless wretch of silver!—Samuel Greenberg
Gerald Stern reads Samuel Greenberg’s “The Tusks of Blood”
Transcription of Commentary
I’m going to read a poem today about a mostly unknown poet named Samuel Greenberg, who was born in Vienna in 1893 and died, twenty-three years later, in 1917. The poem—aside from being fascinating and brilliant, perhaps a great poem—is illustrative, also in its way, of the huge wave of immigration coming from southern and eastern Europe at the turn of the last century. And I’m using it as an illustration of that—particularly of Jewish immigration in the Lower East Side into America, but mostly Jews who settled in New York City in the Lower East Side, which of course by this time was well-known for movies and stories and so on. There, of course, were Italian immigrants and Russian and Polish and Lithuanian and Hungarian, and so on—immigrants as well, and their experiences are not to be ignored. And I suspect—I know, in some respects—almost identical to the Jewish experience.
Between 1881 and 1910, over a million and a half Jews came from Poland, Russia, and other areas in eastern Europe, and they settled in their ghetto in the Lower East Side—it wasn’t defined by the government as a ghetto, but it was a self-imposed ghetto—coming mostly out of limited opportunities and poverty. There in the ghetto they worked in sweatshops—as we all know, pushcarts were in the street; as we all know, the streets themselves were swarming with people as we’ve seen in the movies. The flats they lived in have been somewhat romanticized because of very, very famous singers, actors, writers, artists of various types—grew up in that ghetto. The rooms themselves, the apartments, were dark, smelly coldwater flats, known by the famous name of “tenement.” Ironically, in the last fifteen years, the Lower East Side has been gentrified—even large buildings, small skyscrapers, are being built there. It’s ironic beyond belief.
But Samuel Greenberg was a genius of sorts and, strangely odd in his way, he both painted and he wrote poetry. He would probably have died unknown, except that Hart Crane—the great Hart Crane, the great American poet, born in 1898—discovered his poetry somehow and was madly obsessed with it—by the language, the imagination, the irrational images of Greenberg. And he went so far as even to . . . well, I’ll use the word copy, I’ll use the word plagiarize, one poem from Greenberg. Greenberg’s poem is called “Conduct,” and Crane’s poem is called “Emblems of Conduct.” It is not a major poem of Hart Crane, and I’m not—how shall I say—putting him down or attacking him for this. He was overwhelmingly inspired by Greenberg. Of course, Crane’s inspiration extended beyond Samuel Greenberg, I must say.
At any rate, to get back to him: he fell in love with America in his way, and he lived in poverty in his early youth. His father was an embroidery worker in gold and silver and made a decent living, but somehow one of the panics—one of the depressions or other—he lost everything, and so Samuel was on his own from the age of sixteen or seventeen on. He got a job in a leather factory. He may have gone to the seventh or eighth grade, I’m not sure exactly how long—fell in love with baseball. The family lived at the corner of Suffolk and Grand, a place then that was . . . he described in one of his prose memoirs as “an insult of poverty, an insult of life.” He developed, as many others did, tuberculosis at an early age; spent half of his life, really, in wards and tuberculosis sanatoriums. Indeed, his last two years he was helpless and died in such a sanatorium.
As far as poetry is concerned, his chief influences were Keats, Shelley, and—more than anybody else—Emerson. He did have access to Palgrave’s Golden Treasury and somehow, as it does to original, isolated poets—like Dickinson, like Blake, Chatterton—as they somehow get the information—mystically, magically—it’s theirs. And there is, in his poetry, a rush of sound and image. He filled seventeen notebooks with drawings and poems, mostly in pencil, and it took weeks and months, even years, to decipher some of these. Maybe twenty to thirty percent of the work has been published. And it was for the work—through the praise and discovery of him—by the well-known poet and critic Allen Tate, that Greenberg’s work became available. Tate said, among other things, that no history of the 20th century, of 20th century poetry, would be complete without reference to Greenberg.
There are so many things to say about him, but I’m going to read one poem and then I’m going to say a few words about his strange and unique and beautiful autobiography that he wrote of about eighteen pages. I’m going to read a few words from that. So we go to the poem itself, “Tusks of Blood.” As far as I can decipher it, the poem, which is written in alternate three- and four-stressed lines, is an awareness—an experience—of a birth in one of those flats that I discovered next door.
And the ending, “endless wretch of silver,” probably refers to the steam radiators, though it may refer to the silver—the child may have been emblematic—or it may have been the symbol of the child or the silver nitrate that was poured into his eyes, I don’t know. But I want to say that in the autobiography—I’m just sort of explaining it in his strange and innocent language—I’m going to read one or two short passages.
We often found our father laboring over a frame of gold, a real axel easily remembered, some working maidens at his side, and perhaps even our mother took part in the exquisite handling of thread and stitch. Some pure, Hebrew atmosphere gathered between our doors, rabbi and priest, Negro and Greek, such fathoms of character sprang up between the embroidery tasks.
And then his mother’s death—
Life was now a spongy condition. Our mother gradually became ill. Ear trouble, germ trouble, nose trouble, skull trouble, death trouble, resulted and the family buried her, somewhere on Long Island, where a cemetery called Washington was the grave for many poor victims, as our un-praised love was settled. We returned to a café near the dune place, where gathered a party of thirty or more, ate cheese and eggs, with a schooner of beer and coffee. The rituals of the Jewish religion demand that one remain seated for seven days upon the floor. Well, we sat on soft cushions.
And finally, finally at the very end he says—
And it happened again that the old story of weakness [and he’s referring, here, to tuberculosis] returned. I was taken to the hospital of descending charity, where things became a careful selection through sanitation and rest. Where was school? Oh, what I would give for the knowledge of grammatical truth. But I saw that science is perfection, as long as the world exists”
And so, I’m going to end with that. Thank you.
This poem is in the public domain.
- In beauty bright by Gerald Stern (catalog record)
Gerald Stern (1925- ) was born in Pennsylvania and educated at the University of Pittsburgh. He published his seventeenth book of poems In Beauty Bright: Poems in 2012. Stern’s many awards and honors include the National Book Award, the Wallace Stevens Award, the Ruth Lilly Prize, and the Pennsylvania Governor’s Award for Excellence in the Arts, as well as the Rebekah Johnson Bobbitt National Prize for Poetry from the Library of Congress. He has received fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council of the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts, and the Guggenheim Foundation, and was Poet Laureate of New Jersey from 2000–2002. Photo credit: Martin J. Desht
Learn more about Gerald Stern at The Poetry Foundation.
Samuel Greenberg (1893-1917) was born in Vienna, Austria, though, at age seven moved to the Lower East Side of New York. He was educated at public and Hebrew schools, but ultimately left school to help support his family. He died of tuberculosis at the age of twenty-three. Though he never published during his lifetime, he is noted for his influence on American poet Hart Crane, and his work has been published posthumously. Self-portrait by Samuel Greenberg. Courtesy of the Fales Library and Special Collections, New York University.
Learn more about Samuel Greenberg at The Poetry Foundation