Cheever, Cummings, and the Biographer’s Quest

John Cheever said of E. E. Cummings:

I was in doubt that I could make something of myself as a writer until I met two people who were very important to me: one was Gaston Lachaise and the other was E. E. Cummings. Cummings I loved, and I love his memory. He did a wonderful imitation of a wood-burning locomotive going from Tiflis to Minsk. He could hear a pin falling in soft dirt at the distance of three miles. Do you remember the story of Cummings’s death? It was September, hot, and Cummings was cutting kindling in the back of his house in New Hampshire. He was sixty-six or -seven or something like that. Marion, his wife, leaned out the window and asked, “Cummings, isn’t it frightfully hot to be chopping wood?” He said, “I’m going to stop now, but I’m going to sharpen the ax before I put it up, dear.” Those were the last words he spoke.

Susan Cheever, John Cheever’s daughter, met the poet when she was fourteen years old and he came to her high school for a reading. Afterwards, she and her father drove him back to Manhattan. The story of this visit starts Susan Cheever’s new biography, E. E. Cummings: A Life.

I learned of her book when I came across the interesting article, “How to Solve an 88-Year-Old Literary Mystery,” written by Cheever, in The New York Times. In 1926, Cummings’ father died in a horrible accident: his new Franklin sedan was split in half by a steam-powered locomotive. The accident “catapulted Cummings into an adulthood that included his disastrous second marriage and the crisis of confidence that led him into therapy. It also inspired one of the finest dirges ever written, a glorious requiem mass of words, the poem that begins: “My father moved through dooms of love/through sames of am through haves of give/singing each morning out of each night.”

Susan Cheever’s article describes her quest to find out how the accident happened.  “I read everything written about the accident, yet it continued to baffle me. Why didn’t Rebecca [Cummings’ mother and driver of the car] stop at the railroad crossing? How could she have missed the belching, screeching, clanking steam locomotive bearing down on her?”  Answering such questions are part of a biographer’s job description, but in this article, Cheever takes us inside into her personal quest to find the answer.  Find the full article here, and the poem alluded to above below:

my father moved through dooms of love
by e.e. cummings

my father moved through dooms of love
through sames of am through haves of give,
singing each morning out of each night
my father moved through depths of height

this motionless forgetful where
turned at his glance to shining here;
that if(so timid air is firm)
under his eyes would stir and squirm

newly as from unburied which
floats the first who,his april touch
drove sleeping selves to swarm their fates
woke dreamers to their ghostly roots

and should some why completely weep
my father’s fingers brought her sleep:
vainly no smallest voice might cry
for he could feel the mountains grow.

Lifting the valleys of the sea
my father moved through griefs of joy;
praising a forehead called the moon
singing desire into begin

joy was his song and joy so pure
a heart of star by him could steer
and pure so now and now so yes
the wrists of twilight would rejoice

keen as midsummer’s keen beyond
conceiving mind of sun will stand,
so strictly(over utmost him
so hugely) stood my father’s dream

his flesh was flesh his blood was blood:
no hungry man but wished him food;
no cripple wouldn’t creep one mile
uphill to only see him smile.

Scorning the Pomp of must and shall
my father moved through dooms of feel;
his anger was as right as rain
his pity was as green as grain

septembering arms of year extend
less humbly wealth to foe and friend
than he to foolish and to wise
offered immeasurable is

proudly and(by octobering flame
beckoned)as earth will downward climb,
so naked for immortal work
his shoulders marched against the dark

his sorrow was as true as bread:
no liar looked him in the head;
if every friend became his foe
he’d laugh and build a world with snow.

My father moved through theys of we,
singing each new leaf out of each tree
(and every child was sure that spring
danced when she heard my father sing)

then let men kill which cannot share,
let blood and flesh be mud and mire,
scheming imagine,passion willed,
freedom a drug that’s bought and sold

giving to steal and cruel kind,
a heart to fear,to doubt a mind,
to differ a disease of same,
conform the pinnacle of am

though dull were all we taste as bright,
bitter all utterly things sweet,
maggoty minus and dumb death
all we inherit,all bequeath

and nothing quite so least as truth
—i say though hate were why men breathe—
because my Father lived his soul
love is the whole and more than all

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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