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
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
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
Is the tiny spinal-cords in your
neck, and the ribs that drop
So fearfully into the cavity when
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
Effulgence around me, I must
Have them drawn into me, - as you
And begin to leave me. You shall
be a hand thrust
Into my flesh; you hand thrust into
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
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
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