Under the Flight Path
August Kleinzahler remembers Christopher Middleton
Christopher Middleton hated New York. Among the things he particularly disliked, I suspect, is New York’s position as a cultural bazaar, where reputations are bought, sold and traded, with the attendant buzz of speculation. He was incapable of schmoozing, and his career suffered accordingly. New York’s greatest draw, people action and brute energy, would have been lost on him.
In 2012 Middleton travelled to New York to receive an award from the American Academy of Arts and Letters. He was in his mid-eighties. Recognition of his work in the English-speaking world had been scarce, which is probably why he bothered to make the trip. Perhaps it was always unlikely that someone whose models were Hölderlin, Mallarmé, Tzara, Robert Walser and Gottfried Benn would win prizes, honours or even a sizeable readership in Britain or the US. And his poetry has a prickliness about it, as did the poet: a quality of neither asking nor needing to be liked.
In any event he would have been pleased to return home to Austin, where – after his childhood in Cornwall and degree at Oxford and teaching in Zürich and London – he had been living for the last fifty years. He owned a flash pair of cowboy boots, but not a Stetson. Austin and the University of Texas were at their very best when Middleton arrived there in 1961 as a visiting instructor; he settled permanently in 1966, leaving a soon-to-be ex-wife and three children behind in London. Harry Ransom, then president and later chancellor of the university, was determined to make it a cultural centre, a not incurious notion. He proposed ‘that there be established somewhere in Texas – let’s say in the capital city – a centre of our cultural compass, a research centre to be the Bibliothèque Nationale of the only state that started out as an independent nation’. Ransom had recruited scholars and writers like Roger Shattuck, Donald Carne-Ross, William Arrowsmith and others who would have been more likely to land in the Ivy League or the great state universities. So Middleton wasn’t wanting for company. The poet David Wevill was a long-time friend and neighbour. The brilliant Swedish poet and fiction writer Lars Gustafsson turned up in 1974, and kept Christopher both amused and busy translating his poetry into English. John Silber, who later became a reactionary megalomaniac (first as president of Boston University and then as failed gubernatorial candidate), was at that point a brilliant and progressive dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, also brought in by Ransom. The music scene – Willie Nelson, Waylon Jennings and the ‘outlaw’ country set – was about to get going, and the honky-tonks were beginning to jump. The town itself was becoming a magnet for the counterculture. There would have been few better places for someone like Middleton to land. He liked birds, and Austin, it seems, is on a migratory flight path. I’m not sure there’s a birdcall Christopher didn’t know.
Movement is central to any given Middleton poem. They have an improvisatory, unstable feel to them and are dance-like, a dance of the intellect, if you will, and in these qualities have an affinity with the painting of Paul Klee. His syntax plays a critical role, with its orderings, the alternating presences and absences, its copulae or want of; clauses gone floating from the main substantive and verb; periodicity, abrupt declarative bursts. The poems have a tense, torqued character. The transitions are unpredictable and the sensibility feels more European than English. They read as if the author had, like Joyce, a variety of other languages going on in his head at any given time:
But all the time these bats flick at me
And plop, like foetuses, all over the blotting paper.
Someone began playing a gong outside, once.
I liked that, it helped; but in a flash
Neighbours were pelting him with their slippers and things,
Bits of coke and old railway timetables.
I have come unstuck in this cellar. Help.
Pacing up and down in my own shadow
Has stopped me liking the weight it falls from.
That lizard looks like being sick again. The owls
Have built a stinking nest on the Eighteenth Century.
(‘Edward Lear in February’)
Middleton was also one of the pre-eminent translators of his era, chiefly from German. As an essayist he had few peers, though Guy Davenport was one of them. Middleton and Davenport met a few years after the war when Davenport was a Rhodes Scholar at Oxford. I hadn’t known of the connection until I sent a copy of my first collection of poetry to Davenport, who, along with Middleton, had written a blurb for it. Davenport wrote back something like: ‘Did you know that when you were in your nappies, young man, Christopher Middleton and I were knocking around Italy together, taking in the cultural highlights?’ I know he used the word ‘nappies’ because I remember having to look it up.
In 1977 or so, as a rather despondent young man faced with another long winter in Montreal, working at crap jobs paying barely enough to get by on, with no prospects and nobody much interested in my poetic enterprise, I had decided to bite the bullet and send a few poems to Davenport and Middleton. In essence, I was asking them if I was any good. Because if I wasn’t, it was growing ever more apparent to me that I had better get down to finding a proper career – at the post office, selling encyclopedias, something. I wrote to them because I thought – and think still – that they were the smartest fellows out there, as well as the least blinkered, independent of any clique. They both wrote back promptly and with enthusiasm. I couldn’t have been happier if I’d just won the lottery, and on the same day Hanna Schygulla turned up on my doorstep with a bottle of Liebfraumilch in hand.
I never met Davenport, though we corresponded for many years. He wrote absolutely the best letters, ones that always left me encouraged and exhilarated. I finally did meet Middleton when I was invited to teach a semester at the University of Texas twenty years after that first letter. He had lived for many years in pleasantly rustic circumstances beside a lake in the nearby hill country with his partner, Ann Clark, but now lived by himself in a modern apartment in central Austin, undistinguished except for what was inside: the objets d’art, furniture and books. This is the way he described it: ‘Since 1984 I’ve occupied a two-room apartment in an older neighbourhood of Austin; Carolina wrens, cardinals, doves and sparrows, the bluejay, the crow and the mockingbird enjoy this terrain also. I hear the traffic and through the branches of an immense pecan tree, when they are bare, I can discern a distant downtown silhouette.’ Close by there was an upmarket steakhouse called Jeffrey’s that he liked. The routine was that I drove to his place, where we drank some Rhône wine, then proceeded to Jeffrey’s, where we drank some more Rhône wine, dined, then returned to his apartment for some more wine. ‘Are you all right to drive?’ he would always ask at the end of the evening. ‘You bet,’ I’d assure him, bravely.
When I arrived at his apartment he’d always greet me, a bit dazed, as if he’d half-forgotten our plan to meet. He probably had, because, inevitably, he was deep in a book. It might be the Goncourt Journals, or Timon of Athens, or the letters of Edward FitzGerald. One time it was an essay on storytelling by Marilynne Robinson, the next a little known novel by Joan Chase set in rural Ohio and entitled During the Reign of the Queen of Persia. It was at Christopher’s that I first heard the piano pieces of the Catalan composer Federico Mompou. On another occasion he recounted meeting Lawrence Durrell, a hero of his younger days, in Paris, and not being at all let down. Middleton’s enthusiasms were more wide-ranging than those of anyone I’ve known, and wholly unpredictable, although kitsch or sport never came up, or literary gossip. He wasn’t big on small talk. He would pour a glass of wine and share his excitement about the book at hand, which would, in turn, lead to related excitements about other books and paintings and music and places and things and people. He would have been a glorious teacher to study under. I learned a great deal from him.
Near the end of my time in Austin, I turned on the car radio and there was Christopher, a guest. He and the host seemed to be friendly; he’d clearly been on the programme a number of times. The host asked Christopher to read a poem. Then to my astonishment – so anomalous did it seem against the usual chatter and country music that were staples of the show, and in that furnace blast of a May morning in south central Texas – Christopher read aloud, first in German, then in his own English translation, Goethe’s ‘Night Thoughts’ of 1781:
Stars, you are unfortunate, I pity you,
Beautiful as you are, shining in your glory,
Who guide seafaring men through stress and peril
And have no recompense from gods or mortals,
Love you do not, nor do you know what love is.
Hours that are aeons urgently conducting
Your figures in a dance through the vast heaven,
What journey have you ended in this moment,
Since lingering in the arms of my beloved
I lost all memory of you and midnight.
In 2013, his health declining, Christopher moved into a nursing home in Austin. No one is happy in such places. It goes without saying that someone as intellectually vigorous, selectively companionable and independent-minded as Christopher would be unhappier than most. He’d sneak away now and then, once even getting on a plane to visit one of his daughters. Mostly he just went down the hill to a friend’s antiquarian bookstore or to Jeffrey’s for some Rhône wine. ‘Got to keep the pecker up,’ he’d say.
We spoke over the phone with some regularity. He’d hold forth on whatever it was he was reading: J. Henri Fabre on the song of the cicada, a collection of Zen Poems, ‘Tintern Abbey’ (astonished, as if he’d never read Wordsworth before). Another time he told me he was reading a volume called Beckett Remembering, Remembering Beckett, a gathering of reminiscences. ‘And to think,’ Christopher said, ‘that I’ve been stuck in a shithole like this for all these years when I could have been in Paris!’
I spoke to him one autumn evening in 2014. I was out on the deck at my place in Claremont, taking in the last of the desert light, admiring the gnarled, dusty old sycamore whose leaves had finally begun to turn. Christopher was beside himself with excitement over an essay he’d just come across about Baudelaire’s contemporary Théodore de Banville. Baudelaire had described the ‘lyrical way of feeling’ de Banville shared with those of ‘least leisure’, who in ‘marvellous instances’ of ‘lightness’ attain paradisiacal ‘higher regions’. ‘That sounds exactly like something you could have written,’ I said, thinking of passages of his that describe the way the lyric comes into being and operates. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Yes, yes, yes …’
When he asked how I was, I used to describe whatever I happened to be looking at: the backyard there in Claremont with its sycamore, behind it the sky going pink against the summits of San Gabriel Mountains to the north; or the garden here in San Francisco; or the Olympic Range across the Strait of Juan de Fuca when I was in Victoria, along with the smell of the sea; or the magnificently broad Tagus and the Azulejo tilework on a visit to Lisbon; or the view across the Hudson to the towers of Manhattan. He’d sigh audibly each time.
He missed his old love, Ann. Even Thom Gunn was enchanted by her. Thom was very rarely, if ever, enchanted by women, and certainly wasn’t enchanted by Christopher. (Nor Christopher by him, and they could not have been more disapproving of each other’s poetry.) He did find himself a girlfriend at the home, a 91-year-old Belgian jazz pianist who’d lived for many years in New York and whose son, to her outrage, had deposited her at the home in Texas. I told Christopher that I had a Belgian girlfriend too, which was partly true, at least on her father’s side.
‘Well, how old is she? She’s not also 91, I hope.’
‘No, no, she’s 49,’ I said.
‘That’s not young!’ Christopher said with extreme disappointment.
‘It is for me,’ I replied. ‘I’m 63.’
‘that’s not possible,’ Christopher gasped.
‘It’s true,’ I said. There was a long pause.
‘Well, that would have seemed to me most unlikely.’
‘And at last he was free,’ Christopher said, ‘finally at peace.’ He was trembling with feeling and it wasn’t easy for him to breathe. He had just read the conclusion of the Walser story ‘The Walk’ to me. He went to fetch his oxygen. We were in his nursing home, an upscale modern brick building, a cross between a hospital and five-storey apartment block, described in advertisements as a ‘professional/residential woody enclave just off the MoPac freeway’. It could hardly be more manicured or more creepy.
It was about a year since Christopher’s doctors had given him 48 hours to live. I had found him sitting facing the door in the middle of an ample living room. The walls were covered with shelves of books and assorted objets d’art that his children had brought from his apartment in town after he fell ill. Everything was arranged exactly as it had been at home. He had Mompou playing. I suspect he didn’t want me to find him diminished in any regard and put on a brave show.
‘Do you suppose,’ he asked, ‘that had I stayed in England it might have turned out differently?’ He was speaking of his reputation. ‘I wouldn’t have liked all that family stuff, driving the children around to activities and all that.’ I told him that I thought that Britain might well have stifled his imagination, that he was right to have done as he did. Whether this is true or not, I couldn’t say. It might well have been true. It was clearly what he wanted to hear.
Some years ago, after a divorce, I undertook a major cull of my books. I gathered hundreds on hundreds, lined them up on either side of my hallway, and arranged for a sympathetic bookman to pay me what he thought was fair. ‘Are you OK?’ he asked when he laid eyes on them. It was a reasonable question.
The collection grew back, like kudzu. I remarried. The shelves are heavy with new life. One recently collapsed, depositing its contents around the recumbent body of my astonished but unharmed wife. I see myself as similarly embowered. The books are a comfort to have around me, a psychic insulation. At the same time, I look at them with apprehension. What will become of them? In one of my last conversations with Christopher he confessed that he had been very anxious about what would become of his library, a formidable one, but that his daughter in Colorado had begun building shelves in her house to accommodate them. It too was something he wanted to hear, and it gave him tremendous comfort.
During our final phone call, Christopher admitted he was too weak to pick up a pen. For someone who lives to write poetry a pen is the last thing to be relinquished, even after the books and the capacity to read them. After all the rallies and reprieves, his months and years of confounding the doctors and cheating death, the time had arrived.
A final collection, Nobody’s Ezekiel, was published a few weeks before he died at the end of November. The tone throughout is valedictory, as one might expect. The poems haven’t the playfulness and torsion of his earlier work, but there are a few beauties, one in particular, ‘Fragment’, which no one but he could have written:
Even if I’d known what you wanted to hear from me,
I’d have disappointed you.
Only in the night,
toward a certain pitch
believe me, the dark sweltered
a marvel for you.
A mockingbird was
inventing a song, it sang on and on;
not a note in imitation,
the song conjugated trills delicate and furious,
melodies broken beyond repair;
it sang to bring the thunder on
and it sang the more
the louder the storm, thicker fell
sheets and sheets of rain.
That was a night in the back of beyond.
Silence becomes you.
There he is, again
the little owl,
calling to you.