Caleb Crain’s glosses and responses to Auden’s “In Praise of Limestone” have been with me this week, as Auden himself keeps popping up from day to day, because he’s in everyone’s memoir from Samuel R. Delany to Maria Tallchief, because I have this new habit of mumbling “Lullaby” to myself in bars, because I was over at someone’s house and saw Goodbye to Berlin on the shelf, and I remember everyone forwarding around “September 1, 1939” in September 2001, and couldn’t have said at the time how off that was. The nineties had their shame, but in hindsight, especially after the decade we’ve all just lived through, it’s clearer that the thirties were low and dishonest in a different way.
What stays with me from “In Praise of Limestone” is the voice that Auden gives to limestone’s opposite numbers, those tempters toward other modes of life, because those are the temptations I’ve always been prone to. We hear contrary calls from granite and gravel, lastly the ocean:
I am the solitude that asks and promises nothing;
That is how I shall set you free. There is no love;
There are only the various envies, all of them sad.
You can go on for a long time believing that, or taking it as the ideal you morally ought to believe in, even if you don’t quite know how your life could express it. To listen seriously to the voice of the ocean—if not by doing what Hart Crane did, and leaping from the deck—is to commit an act of self-burial deeper than anything in Auden’s geology, and place a stone at the grave mouth that can never be rolled away. So you suppose.
We came back to the East Bay a decade ago. For a long time, whenever I looked at San Francisco across the water, I would have Eliot’s “Unreal City” on my lips, very much with Eliot’s own sourness: phantoms of capital half hidden in the marine layer, towers destined to fall, unless they’d been illusion all along, livestreamed out of a billionaire’s playpen. These days the unreality is still there but the towers no longer matter. It’s about what goes on underneath, in their lee, or across the water in Oakland. Going through Pride not as a spectator but as part of the show (the parades are for tourists, I was told, your job is to go dancing), I got enough late education to ask myself if I had come home, finally, in a way that I’d never thought home could encompass; and if it still seemed unreal the next morning, it was in the way of something you find yourself loving so fiercely that you can’t trust in its permanence. Isherwood’s Berlin or Delany’s East Village, seen through the glass of memory, were places of suffering and danger where, nonetheless, power structures were indifferent in just the right way for life to emerge, and show itself to be the way of life we needed.
If I feel it to be fleeting, and therefore precious, it’s possible that I’m confusing my personal situation with social history, and reading too much of a private awakening—necessarily brief, because past the end of youth—into a cultural moment. But Auden and Isherwood saw well enough what it would mean to step into the light, and how the backlash would crest; and even when you can’t make out the whole shape of a coming catastrophe, you might well feel that you’re living in an idyll, and count the hours.
For a long time it didn’t occur to me to read “Lullaby” as a political poem. Charlie Altieri’s seminar room didn’t encourage that kind of thing, and my own understanding of love was that it was a conduit out of the world, like death, and never led back in. The idea that an encounter in a midnight room could be classed as solidarity is just what the voice of the ocean is meant to drown out (there is no love); of course I came upon ideas of that sort in grad school, and of course I tossed them aside. Fantasies for children, I thought, and if they incorporated relations not fit for children’s ears, that was the most childish thing of all. But “Lullaby” is another late thirties poem, and it knows what’s happening outside the window, on the street, across the water; the fashionable madmen of the day are evoked not in order to be immediately dismissed, but because their presence makes the midnight encounter so much more urgent. In my arms till break of day let the living creature lie: that much and no farther. Mortals don’t get to ask for more. Or if they do, it’s only with the most provisional benediction, such as ends the poem, and perhaps the grace and cunning to keep that picture in your heart when you find you have to go it alone.