The Harvard Advocate

From the Shelf

The Advocate has hit the jackpot. For some years now it has solicited nationally, and has seldom produced an issue in which student writing predominated. Merely by seeking the best of any recent crop of Harvard graduates, it has aligned itself with professional "little magazines," rather than with other undergraduate publications, in competition for individual manuscripts; and since the Advocate does not pay its contributors, it has rarely gotten enough to land it very high in its chosen league.

The Centennial Issue marks an exception. It has one play, one story, and one critical essay, each among the most exciting samples of its genre that I have recently seen. It has seventeen poems, all by eminent poets, four of them exceptional. Finally, it has four reminiscences of the late T. S. Eliot, slightly redundant, but inevitably so given the limits of such works.

The play is John Hawkes's "The Undertaker," a surrealistic and occasionally metaphysical fatherson dialogue. Father and son, the cast-of-characters tells us, are both in their "mid-forties." (Confuting us again, it tells us that the father is "a small-two undertaker"; this proves a misprint for "small-town").

Our first look at the father has him holding a gun to his temples, and the whole play is a debate preceding his suicide. Much is left enigmatic (to their me, at least), such as the constantly reiterated fact that the father buried mostly Negroes, most of them preachers. It does seem pretty clear, however, that the two senses of the word "undertaker" are being punned on, as when the father says "The best preachers simply turn into undertakers and shoot themselves." These seem to be "undertakers" of suicide, rather than undertakers pure and simple.

I cannot judge how well the play would act; it is a short one-acter and long portions are filled by two monologues. The prose is beautiful to read, though, full of salient images, like the long compounded string in the son's recited dream; it is also highly mellifluous, without sacirficing impact, as in the father's "Big fat black men of God or little black shriveled sacks with the calling still in their protruding bones"; and it achieves minor effects as perfectly as large ones, like the setting of the father's long monologue: "You know the church, Edward. It's where the chickens always block the road if you're out driving." Throughout, the prose moderates the shock of surrealistic events by its quiet, measured tones; yet it can rise harmoniously to a rather violent crescendo in:

"It's not too late, my boy. The little shards of bone from your father's temple will be scattered around this lavatory floor like the bloody roots and broken crowns of extracted teeth."

Jonathan Kozol's story "The Contest" is the most impressive I have seen in any college magazine. It takes place at a British Public School, in the mind of one David Screiber, an adolescent American. David's father Aaron (MD) is pushing him up the world's imaginary ladders:

"Hagar (David's grandfather) had made it from Warsaw to Boston Light; Aaron had made it from Boston to Harvard Yard; in more than the journeyman's sense David would be expected to make it to the top of Beacon Hill."

From David's enrollment we enter almost immediately, and dwell almost entirely, in his tortured fantasies of Oedipal father-hatred, which becomes also a peer-group-impressed horror of his Jewish ancestry. He dreams of wrestling for his school against the School for the Hebrew Blind. His opponent turns into his father:

"'They wouldn't let me in unless I did it. I'm sorry, son, if I've embarrassed you; I don't want to retard your career; but I had to see you, and they only let blind men on the team. So I did it. I did it with a fire-poker.'"

Quoting Kozol out of context, or summarizing his story, cannot possibly convey the general restraint which allows such horrors to be mastered and integrated smoothly. His short, firm sentences, with their simple rhythms, have great incorporative power. Furthermore, the characters of David's dream repeat phrases that sound supremely factual and establish reassuring landmarks in our yoyages through the subconscious. Thus the wrestling coach: "Schreiber, I want you to such a lemon: when the acid gets on your tonsils it turns to sugar."

The essay I find so exciting is Prof. C.L. Barber's "Perfection of the Work," an Erikson-style psycho-analysis of Shakespeare. Barber takes the Sonnets as his data, Lorenz as his theoretician, and Keats as his stimulus, rather echoing Keats's famous "Negative Capability" letter when he wonders "how it was possible for Shakespeare to endure his openness to life, his selfless sense of other identities." Barber is wildly speculative, but modestly, openly so, and produces some stimulating starting points for inquiries into the relationship of artist and society.

Kay Boyle's "A Poem About the Jews" rolls in 169 long, free-verse lines from Old Testament times to the present, noting random instances of anti-Semitic atrocity. She mentions the Nazis only in anticipation, and millenium-old progroms accumulate a terribly immediate horror from the comparison. "The Germans were not alone in their fury." Finally, she narrates in stoical understand language the Mississippi murders of Goodman, Schwerner, and Chaney, and poses devastatingly the question: "Can we say/ Now we have heard enough? Can we say the history is done?"

William Ferguson's "Father and Son" does not explicitly reiterate the Hawkes and Kozol theme suggested by its title. Its simple diction yields no readily paraphrasable theme at all, yet the poem has a strange power. Worth seeking out, it may urge readers toward concurrence with Eliot's precept, that superior poetry can communicate much before it is wholly "understood."

Adrienne Rich has contributed one of the poems from her superb last collection, "Face to Face." She evokes the American past with her infallable precision, lending high rhetoric the aspect of everyday speech in such phrases as "the prairie wolves/ in lunar hilarity," moulding images sharp as her beloved snapshots in passages like: "How people used to meet!/ starved, intense, the old/ Christmas gifts saved up till spring,/ and the old plain words."