It was 1931 and spring in Mexico City. Stood in front of a rosebush studded with new blooms was the American poet Hart Crane, a recent arrival. In a little under a year, Hart would step to his death from the Orizaba ocean liner, as the boat made its way from Havana to New York. For now, here was the roaring boy in repose in a friend’s garden, biting his cigar and inhaling the smoke through his teeth. His grey hair, once the dark, reddish brown of stained wood, was combed behind his ears.
Despite the heat, Hart wore a double-breasted naval coat and a heavyweight Breton top. His white trousers were cinched with a recent purchase: a leather belt comprised of large pockets that circled the waist. His host, the short story writer Katherine Anne Porter, quickly took a photograph. Hart looked out of the frame and a grin formed around his eyes and mouth.
Porter’s photograph of Hart connects five new friends: the photographer, her subject and three others. Around Hart’s neck hangs a pony bridle with jangling bells: a gift from the silversmith and collector William Spratling. One portrait was sent as a keepsake to Hart and Porter’s friend, Ernie O’Malley, the former IRA officer. The fifth friend, Moisés Sáenz, introduced Hart and Porter to Spratling and O’Malley and worked in the Mexican post-revolutionary government’s Department of Public Education. And now, I find myself drawn into the photograph’s curious web as it arrives on my computer screen in an email from Ernie O’Malley son, Cormac, winging its way to me from Mexico via Connecticut.
My book, Stronger than Death: Hart Crane’s Last Year in Mexico, began when I found a lost poem of Hart’s, Nopal, in O’Malley’s New York archive - a poem even O’Malley thought lost. In the National Library of Ireland, looking up into its vast, circular ceiling, painted rhythmic shades of spearmint, I pursued O’Malley across biographies, military histories and his own memoirs, trying to grasp the complex man that Hart knew.
By the time he arrived in Mexico, O’Malley was a teacher, poet and art historian. He had embarked on a long exodus through Europe, the United States and Mexico in the wake of the Irish Civil War. In April 1922, six years since the Easter Rising, O’Malley’s garrison of Anti-Treaty Republicans had occupied the Four Courts. Free State forces laid siege, led by Michael Collins. On the last day of June, a final round of explosives blasted through the stone walls, forcing the anti-treaty rebels to surrender.
O’Malley was captured and taken to the Jameson distillery around the corner. He escaped and headed south, making his way through Wicklow to Carlow. He was captured once again in November and taken to Mountjoy Prison. O’Malley was lucky to survive. The other IRA leaders present at the Four Courts were summarily executed: Rory O’Connor, Liam Mellows, Joe McKelvey and Richard Barrett. In 1924, long after the war ended, O’Malley was released.
He left Dublin early in 1925, his body bearing the marks of the last decade. He wore special boots, designed to accommodate injuries inflicted by British torturers in Dublin Castle as 1920 turned into 1921. Six bullets shot from the guns of Free State forces had made his flesh their home, and there they remained until his death in 1957. O’Malley instinctively knew that romanticism was dangerous. He was, as he wrote in a letter, wary of ‘developing into a symbol’, hearing his name slip into songs about battles and played in dances out in the countryside.
Years later, he confessed that he was avoiding the trauma of the preceding years. The ‘associative’ memories ‘intrude too much at home’, he wrote, finding solace in the ‘impersonality and detachment’ he felt while travelling. In the weeks before he met Hart, he began work on the first of his two memoirs, On Another Man’s Wound. Writing from a position of exile, he signs the preface to the first volume ‘1931-34, New Mexico, Mexico, Peru’.
It is tempting to find O’Malley in lines from one of the plays that kept him company on his travels, Lady Gregory and WB Yeats’s Cathleen ni Houlihan, which debuted a few weeks before his fifth birthday. In this one-act play, Cathleen ni Houlihan, first played by Maud Gonne, delivers a prophecy of sorts. She is free Ireland personified, transformed into an old woman. Arriving at the doorstep of a family celebrating the marriage of their son, ni Houlihan tells the family that she requires the defence of her lands. This is to be an ongoing sacrifice, she intimates, ‘many that have been free to walk the hills and the bogs and the rushes will be sent to walk hard streets in far countries; many a good plan will be broken.’
Plans were broken, far countries were walked through. In Mexico, O’Malley met Hart Crane. They ‘became friends and remained friends to the end despite my sense of personal discipline and his utter lack of it’, O’Malley wrote, partially registering Hart’s deepening alcoholism and struggles with his psychological health - reductive narratives of which have dogged Hart’s writing, figuring the poet as the alcoholic poète maudit, doomed to Baudelairean damnation in the Gulf of Mexico. Hart and O’Malley spent their time drinking and discussing poetry and paintings. O’Malley was, Hart wrote, ‘the most quietly sincere and appreciative person…we drink a lot, look at frescos - and agree!’
Although their time together in Mexico City was brief, traces of O’Malley can be found in Hart’s poem Nopal. Hart presents a critique of colonialism that seems to borrow from his revolutionary friend as he imagines a conflict between the country’s pre-Columbian religions and Catholicism, the opuntia cactus providing an alternative to the cross.
Hart, too, became a ghostly presence in O’Malley’s writing. In his second memoir, The Singing Flame, published after Hart’s death, O’Malley conjures a poem by his friend as he remembers the slow bleed of spring into summer during the opening salvos of the Civil War. When the Free State forces turned the walls of the Four Courts to fragments of stone and powder, they also destroyed the Public Records Office in the adjoining building.
O’Malley recalls the moment that documents dating from the 12th century were lost: ‘The yard was littered with chunks of masonry and smouldering records; pieces of white paper were gyrating in the upper air like seagulls…Flame sung and conducted its own orchestra simultaneously.’ Papers fly and O’Malley surrenders his group of soldiers, under instruction by his IRA commanders. Papers burn and a three-day-old war beds in for a year.
Hart’s To Brooklyn Bridge can be glimpsed in O’Malley’s elegy to the lost archives. In Hart’s poem, a seagull circles the ‘chained bay waters’ of Manhattan. Its wings are ‘apparitional’ as ‘some page of figures to be filed away’, ghostly records or scraps of paper that vanish, and with ‘inviolate curve, forsake our eyes’. Hart’s seagull takes off, springing from the bridge and beginning the poem.
‘I did not like some of the articles that appeared after his death’, O’Malley wrote of his friend, noting how they seemed to read Hart’s death back into his poetry. ‘I meant to write of him as I had known him, but I did not.’
A good 90 years later, I wanted to finish that project, belatedly correcting false impressions of Hart, instead showing the man who was alive before he was dead: Hart in his Mixcoac garden, with its calla lilies, roses and calendulas; his male lovers with whom he bathed in mountains treams; his visit to a pulque festival in Tepoztlán, where he struck an ancient ritual drum. Sifting through the remnants of conversations, letters and documents, I set to work.
Stronger than Death: Hart Crane’s Last Year in Mexico by Francesca Bratton is published by JM Originals