Saturday, May 20, 2017

Haniel Long, “Easter 1933”

Haniel Long, photographed by Ernest Knee
I’ve been reading the modernist poets of Santa Fe, New Mexico, and among that group Haniel Long, whose Pittsburgh Memoranda (1935) I’ve previously discussed. In my research and reading of Long, I was also struck by his poem “Easter 1933,” which was not included in any of his collections, but was published in Poetry magazine and can be read for free in their archives (read it in full, here). It doesn’t quite fit with the direction I’ve gone in in my other readings of Long or the Santa Fe group, but it’s such a good poem. So, here is my take on it.

After the 1928 publication of The Turquoise Trail anthology, and moving into the 1930s, the Santa Fe scene continued to thrive. Poetry designated its December 1933 issue as a “Southwestern Number,” guest-edited by John Gould Fletcher. Long was among its contributors. His sole offering, a 72-line poem titled “Easter 1933,” was in many ways that issue’s centerpiece. A sophisticated handling of various mythic elements, political commentary, and strands of personal experience, it takes as its subject an Easter visit to the Enchanted Mesa in New Mexico, a site near the Acoma pueblo and Mount Taylor (a mountain considered sacred by Native Americans). It begins with snippets of conversation among those on the sojourn, rendered paratactically, and then moves to a description of

the Mesa, ivory chiefly, slanting up to pink —
precipitous, what we had come to see,
high above the rippling white
wind-written-upon sand. (138-39)
There is a sense of amity among the group and awe before this signal landmark. Being at the mesa, approaching the desert with reverence, on a day holy in the Christian calendar (Long’s father was a Methodist missionary), sparks a meditation on history, civilization, and politics. Putting Acoma pueblo among a number of other noteworthy cities — “magnificent Chinese cities”; Florence; Rome; Richmond, Virginia; Vienna (139) — Long goes beyond the familiar pattern of primitive-equals-good and civilization-equals-bad that he and other Santa Fe poets had vaunted only a few years before in The Turquoise Trail. In this poem, none of these cities represents a utopic situation (not even Acoma), but
Despite the faults a scrutiny discovers,
they were magnificent, and to think of them
is to receive obscure sleep-giving pleasures
like those from mountain or butte. (139)
Carl Redin, Enchanted Mesa, oil on canvas, 1929
Long considers cities and the natural world alike and finds joy in each. It is a more nuanced view than the stark binaries between the decadent city and the spirituality of the desert that many of the Santa Fe poets asserted in the 1920s. While the focus is still on the centrality of land and nature, “Easter 1933” sees Long moving toward a synthesis of different mythological frameworks and modes of living.

This is reflected in the poem’s form, a discontinuous, free-verse pastiche of images, thoughts, and quoted conversation (not unlike the documentary style used in Pittsburgh Memoranda). As it continues on, Long returns to a vision of the mesa, then relays a companion’s comment that “Something is always happening to wonderful people and cities / to hurl them into the age in which they live,” which prompts the unspoken rejoinder, “No matter what you say, / democracy for me is still a virgin, / has never been tried” (139-40). Celebrating “the mystical love of one’s own landscape” (140), Long suddenly drops in an allusion to the Grimm fairy tale “The Three Snake-Leaves,” then ends:

Ask the Navajo, ask the Zuñi — ask the Acomanero
why he thrusts his prayer-wands
into the flank of Mount Taylor.

. . . anyway, we’ve broken through our winter crust —
taking time to be with the earth and the sun,
hearing meadow-larks and mocking-birds,
and visiting with a strange mesa
all by itself in the shifting sands. (140; ellipsis in original)
As with other Santa Fe poets, Long retains his interest in Native American myth and ritual, but now it is portrayed as one strand among many in the more multifarious worldview he constructs. It stands alongside the Christian myth of Easter (rebirth, “we’ve broken though our winter crust”), of the ideal of American democracy (which for Long has yet to be achieved, “has never been tried”), of great civilizations (“magnificent” cities), of European legend (Grimm fairy tales, themselves often distilled from earlier European mythological material), and so on. The particulars no longer matter for Long; as he had written in Notes for a New Mythology (1926), “Whoever pictures life as he sees it, re-assembles in his own way the details of existence which affect him deeply, and so creates a spiritual world of his own” (13). In “Easter 1933,” finally, there remain nothing but images of the natural world with the poem’s speaker and his companions imagined as pilgrims “visiting with a strange mesa,” which stands mesmeric amidst the continual change (“shifting sands”) that occurs below it.

“Easter 1933” perhaps then suggests that, for Long, myths in a sense are disposable, that he will make and remake his world as necessary. Native American myth is certainly important to him, as someone alive to his environment and surroundings, but in this poem he seems to understand the limitations of his sympathy to it. Why do the Navajo, the Zuñi, and the Acomanero sacrifice prayer-wands at the site of a sacred mountain? They have their reasons, as Long intuits, but he does not purport to speak for them — ask them, he says, and “anyway” moves on.

Similarly, while he clearly does not promulgate Christianity as such, he gestures toward its trope of renewal at Easter, eschewing the particulars of the story. In moving through a number of different mythological frameworks in this poem, Long acknowledges that none of them can be eternal or absolute. Only the “strange mesa” itself seems so, and Long demurs from explicit summarizing, leaving its importance up to the reader — each individual person who visits the mesa, he suggests, is free to draw his or her own meaning from it, mythological, religious, or otherwise, or not to draw any particular meaning at all.

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