‘My grandmother’s love letters’ by Hart Crane

There are no stars to-night
But those of memory.
Yet how much room for memory there is
In the loose girdle of soft rain.

There is even room enough
For the letters of my mother’s mother,
That have been pressed so long
Into a corner of the roof
That they are brown and soft,
And liable to melt as snow.
Over the greatness of such space
Steps must be gentle.
It is all hung by an invisible white hair.
It trembles as birch limbs webbing the air.
And I ask myself:

‘Are your fingers long enough to play
Old keys that are but echoes:
Is the silence strong enough
To carry back the music to its source
And back to you again
As though to her?’
Yet I would lead my grandmother by the hand
Through much of what she would not understand;
And so I stumble. And the rain continues on the roof
With such a sound of gently pitying laughter.

Hart Crane is a poet I started reading very recently — only about a week ago. He was an American poet and what I have read so far of his work has completely startled me in a way I find so exciting because his work is new (to me), and I can’t wait to read and discover more. 

The opening, “There are no stars tonight/But those of memory” really drew me in to this poem. It is such an evocative phrase, with the idea that there is nothing to guide him but memories… that there is no destiny to be followed save one that leads backwards, into memory. This is what I imagine old age to feel like.

Another thing I would like to point out in this poem is how the poet refers to his grandmother, in the second stanza, as “my mother’s mother,/ Elizabeth”. I think this is very significant, and touching. The poet recognises the family tie to this woman, but he does not call her ‘grandmother’ — he calls her “Elizabeth”. I love the way he gives “Elizabeth” a line to herself. By employing his grandmother’s first name, I get the impression that the speaker is allowing this lady to remain her own entity — Elizabeth — not simply ‘grandmother’, as he had presumably known her.

I love the description of the love letters being, “pressed so long/ Into a corner of the roof/ That they are brown and soft/ And liable to melt as snow”. There is something so American about the way that phrase sounds (to me); it is so deft and uniquely-angled in its beauty. It is like each word is weighed so carefully and spoken so slowly…

I also love the image in the final stanza of the poet leading his grandmother by the  hand through “much of what she would not understand” — and so he stumbles. For me, he stumbles because she does not understand; it makes him hesitate because perhaps she has been a measure for him of what is right. Perhaps he is afraid to tread in places where she has not because she would not understand and perhaps she would not approve.

I think this is such a touching description of the pain of loving one who is frail — one who is at once so aged and yet, in some ways, innocent as a child. And the rain’s “gently pitying laughter” is for the poet (I think), rather than for his grandmother.

Reviewed by Emily Ardagh