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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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,
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.
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.