Deirdra McAfee


In 1928 I washed up, wet and fatherless, in Union Beach, New Jersey, delivered from my mother Mary to wear my father's name: Nathwell Tate. Nat Tate I went by, Nat Tate I signed my work, name and work now lost as waterlogged Atlantis. They never found my body. Full fathom five thy father lies.
      My father was and he wasn't. A cipher, a story. I was four when he died. Or I died before him. Or he died or didn't die before I was born. They never found my body. I never found his body. He knew my mother but not me. He came, he went. A version, a void, a grave. She said he was a Nantucket fisherman. Sometimes. She said he drowned before me. Full fathom five.
      Lies that came and went. Wet dreams of death and drowning. My father was a naval architect. Submariner. Deep-sea diver. Merchant seaman. Missing. Killed in action. Dead in the water. Those are pearls that were his eyes. Sleepless as the river, unburied in a watery grave, locked in Davy Jones's locker.
      He came, he went. They never found our bodies. A cipher, a story. My mother Mary had a talent for polishing glassware. A barmaid, maybe, whom a sailor pressed up against, pressed in upon. He came, he went. A version, a void. Floating me, beaching me, drowning. Full fathom five. A grave.
      Or the darker version, wherein he pays for his pleasure, a shadowy urgent dockside encounter. I've had a few myself. Under thy shadow by the piers I waited, wrote my other father, the one who died when I was four. The father I adopted, not the one adopting me. Hart Crane, my chosen father, friend, beloved. Who died when I did, at thirty-two. A shadow, a darkness. Sleepless as the river. He died and didn't die; he lives in words. But all of us are dead now. Null, void, grave. They never found our bodies.


My mother, born Mary Tager, became the widow Mary Tate. Self-inventor, shape-changer, tale-teller; serving-girl, glass-washer. Kitchen maid, then cook, at Windrose, a small elegant estate on the wrong side of Peconic Bay. A sea-change erased me, perhaps: nothing earlier remains, no place or face, scent, sight, or sound precedes Windrose. I was three and lived with her there, "below the bridge," the locals say, north among potato fields and fishing-boats instead of south in the fancy Hamptons.
      She died before me. I was eight. One icy morning in Riverhead, Long Island, a delivery van delivered her from life into dead and bloody nothingness, broke her bones. River and island, full fathom five. When someone interrupted schoolyard softball to say so, I thought he was joking.
      A departure I wasn't witness to, a void unavoided. Thus I was delivered from her a second time, February 1936. Already snow submerges an iron year, wrote my other father, a lover of boys like me. He wrote that six years before she died. Two years before he drowned. We never met. I never found his body.

Often beneath the wave, wide from this ledge
The dice of drowned men's bones he saw . . .


The dice of her thrown bones delivered me up to her employers, the Barkasians, for adoption. Luck, it looked like. Money. Clever Peter could afford to ignore the Great Depression; he sold Albany Paper to DuPont for cash in 1927 and retired rich at 36. For childless Irina, his wife, marriage was the great depression.
      Peter fell in love with his new son, said a woman years later, my art dealer, who was maybe one of my lovers herself. Was she? Who were my lovers? Variety and brief encounters. They came, they went, and I did, too. Lost, obliterated, even to me, when I walked underwater and vanished.
      Fell in love with me, what did that mean? I was the emptiness Peter meant to fill, the story he meant to finish. He found my body, kept it, but I reclaimed it later. And still later he never found my body. They never found my body. He found my talent and fed it and tried to buy all my drawings and paintings. Fitted out a pretty little studio in the garden, a gilded cage.
      Later I made pictures he didn't like and sold them to others. Later still, practically too late, I took them back. Fire sank them. Full fathom five. So that rich Peter couldn't own me. I died before him, saw the dice of drowned men's bones.


Once the woman dealer found me, I left Windrose but not my allowance, moved to metropolis, fell in with bohemians, drank all night at the Cedar Tavern, half-heard endless slurred and smoky esthetic arguments, earthshaking to all but me. Fell through uncounted affairs, fragile women, seafaring men, strangers, acquaintances, distances. Worked hard, drank harder, said little, thought less.
      I seemed to myself to be vanishing. Sober and standing beside my brilliant uproarious friends, I shrank. Rested and well-fed, athwart lithe lovers, I floated out of reach, though my willing skillfulness pleased them and they pleased me. Everything felt temporary; I was an outline of needs, wants, hungers.
      Sweating and sated with sex, I burned to be drunk; drunk and disordered, I bolted sex or work or food; painting or drawing, I had to lock myself in, block my rush to empty out my afternoons in any easy hot bed or dark bar.
      "Around 1950 everyone just got drunk and the whole art world went on a long, long bender," an artist's wife, a nobody like all the wives, said later. The wives cleaned up after and cried over the men, except the few wives who were artists, too, and outdrank and outdeceived them.
      I lean and loafe at my ease, observing. With them but not of them. The New York School: bad drunks, ambitious seers having amazing visions. Having messy affairs, brawls, and drunken blackouts. Starring in fast red stories full of sudden death or anticlimactic strung-out dissolution.
      Unlike them, I had success without ambition, free of struggle or setback. Peter monopolized my work and paid my dealer well, made me her best-seller. Starved me on false plenty, separated me from my scratching, striving colleagues, tamed my aims. Finally I made things Peter didn't want, and he loosened the leash. Although he couldn't drop it.


In September 1959, still trying to buy me, feed my talent, win me back, Peter purchased Europe. Georges Braque, old enough to be too old to be my father, entertained us in Normandy. Bourgeois paterfamilias, rock of reality, still reworking paintings at 78. Forged in art, tempered by faith and solitude. A presence.
      He died after me but lives on, as I do not. "You can never be good enough," Braque's life and work said. Not his words, which were: Persevere; enlarge your gift. But I fled Peter and Europe because I suspected the truth.
      I drank enough when I got back to work it out. Afloat on a flood-tide of booze, afire with its fumes, I understood at last: "You can never be good enough to be immortal." I saw cold-eyed the paltry work, pitiful talent, stunted genius of Peter's pet. Saw single instead of the double way an artist has to see.
      And saw the single solution, a double death, the easy sensible response to an extended invitation. "Leave a space," I said to myself, slurring the slippery words, "neither corpse nor corpus. A pyre, then a plunge. Vacancy, your fathers' tradition. Loss, the family legacy."

I told myself, or the liquor told me, that the writers and painters and hangers-on who bought my work and got blotto with me, blotted me and themselves out, they, too, would someday sink. Famous, or almost famous, somewhat known, or unknown, submerged in an iron year, some other year, some later year, they'd join me, jetsam irretrievable.
      This was my chance to get there first, cleanse the record, sift the archive, clear my name. Still a promising artist, not yet a disappointing one. Still time to escape in time.


As my chosen father knew. In 1932, after his Guggenheim year in Mexico, a vain year, an iron year, unable to conquer his planned poem on the Spanish conquest, Hart Crane sailed home on the Orizaba. Voyaging from Vera Cruz, True Cross, with his paramour Peggy Cowley, he made a pass belowdecks. The sailor beat him up.
      The bottom of the sea is cruel, Crane wrote in 1926, sailing already toward fame and his fate:

There is a line
You must not cross nor ever trust beyond it
Spry cordage of your bodies to caresses
Too lichen-faithful from too wide a breast.

      He disobeyed himself and crossed. Travel teaches terrible things; voyagers shipwreck beyond the fatal line, explorers drown against the too-wide breast of their undertaking. Mexico for him. France for me. True Cross. Saw true and crossed.

Out of some subway, scuttle, cell or loft, a bedlamite speeds to thy parapets, he wrote in 1930 to the Brooklyn Bridge. Tilting there, shrill shirt ballooning, a jest falls from the speechless caravan. Two years later Crane, too, tilted. Not a bedlamite, a realist. Who crossed from the Orizaba into endless mortality, not good enough, a jest falls.


Crane's first book was White Buildings, the name I chose for my second series, cut short by my departure, another body never found. The Bridge, his second, was my first. "I like bridges," I told another nobody, Logan Mountstuart, failed writer and minutely attentive daily diarist. "So strong, so simple—but imagine what flows in the river underneath."
      The city's discards, useless, used up, empty. Offal, garbage, disposable temporary anonymous unidentifiable trash. And beneath that, the jetsam, all that sinks, whatever isn't light enough to live or real enough to last. The bottom of the sea is cruel, Crane wrote.
      But was it? When he reached it, did he find it so? There the open spaces, the empty stories, the varied versions of all my fathers, my only true lovers, waited to embrace me. Cold but not cruel, they mingled me into their indifference. Those are pearls that were our eyes. No more striving or failing, rising or falling, no more friends, enemies, lovers, ecstasy, pain. Our bodies were not found.


After I went to Europe, met Picasso, lunched with Braque, I rushed to New York, afire to retract my work. "Here lies one whose name was writ in water," said Keats about himself. About me, too, more than half in love with easeful death. In December I persuaded the owners to return my pieces for reworking. In early January I stole Peter's trove at Windrose, years of sketches, drawings, paintings. Then I reworked every piece. In fire. Erased myself, unmade, undid, unbuilt.
      I lit myself with liquor to help me burn away my work, burned my name just days before I walked the waves. Wrote my name on water, vanished my works and days, quenched name foretold drenched body.
      I burned all the bridges I could find, more than 200. The drawings invited their fiery fate hungrily, cascades of bright ashes and sparks leaped into the sea-gray sky. The paintings gave hot oblivion a warmer welcome still, their colors ran into the flames, melting and changing, iridescent as they vanished.
      The burning body of my work was mine to destroy; rich Peter would get no richer betting on me. The drowning body of my self was mine to sink, something else he couldn't own. Ashes to ashes, dust to dust, nothing to nothing, a lovely symmetry in that.
      Finally I'd found my ambition, discovered my desire—the long longing to join my missing fathers in the void, become no more, nauta, sunken sailor, naught. Wash away the space I was—life, loves, work, talent—restore it to perfect nothingness. Only in darkness is thy shadow clear. Full fathom five, shining in the depths. Burnished and empty like you before me, O my fathers! Fire-scoured and pure.


That done, half a month into the iron year of 1960, my thirty-second year, I bought my ticket. In a breezy, bitter January sundown, as the shuddering Staten Island ferry steered for the dusk between Liberty and the Jersey shore, I shed hat, coat, and scarf and climbed over a guard-rail guarding nothing.
      The wind I leaned into was biting, cold as the steely chords of the Brooklyn Bridge, the harp and altar of my chosen father. Passengers shouted, seabirds cried, a steamship somewhere groaned, but I heard only wind and the words I whispered as I waited to join my fathers, my brothers. Under thy shadow by the piers I waited. Twenty-eight years astern, I crossed Crane's line. I flew for the water, wings wide.


Crane saw the Brooklyn Bridge lift night in its arms. But his life was water under the bridge in the dark, like my father's and my own. Like them I drowned, disappeared. We all drowned. Only in darkness is thy shadow clear. Water and fire rush to fill space, fall or rise, wash out or burn off, clean and burnish. Leave no trace.
       Silver-paced as though the sun took step of thee, beloved Brooklyn Bridge, you watched me board the boat and turn toward night. When the ferry faced Union Beach, I jumped. Like Crane, my lover, leader, chosen father.
      I whispered his words as I waited and then went:

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...

      As Nat Tate's son, I looked back to Union Beach. As Hart Crane's son, I jumped. Only in darkness is thy shadow clear. Mere flesh, instantly frigid, quickly breathless, lungs icy sodden sponges. No one found my body, submerged in an iron year, like my dead fathers Nathwell Tate and Hart Crane. Far down, full fathom five.


Three days later, since I'd failed to rise again, since poor Mary, my dead mother, had ceased relations with the sea and could deliver me no more, rich Peter and the rest packed up my studio downtown. My affairs were in perfect order: extinguished, scoured, bare.
      A single new painting, fatherless, unfinished, stood calm in my swept vacant purified studio: Orizaba/Return to Union Beach. White winter light played across blues, purples, blacks, bold as bruises. When Mountstuart explained the title, Peter burst into tears, a father at last. Outside, snow submerged an iron year.


I've collaborated for several years on one-of-a-kind books with Mark Shepheard, a Richmond visual artist. I wrote this piece for "Margin," our first show. Nat Tate was real. Hart Crane was real. But the story is fiction, the brushy vital verge between fact and dream.