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Poem of the week: Secrecy by Samuel Greenberg

Carol Rumens
·4-min read
<span>Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy</span>
Photograph: incamerastock/Alamy


The apparent gale, vaned in winding storms
Has filled the air with hail and mystic frost
The peaceful alley through bowing elms revealed
Pregnant buds, where spring has failed the lewd heart
Darkness over the ocean’s deep was offering moonlight
Movable, silver, vanishing waves that enrolled
The wild summer blossom that in sanguine
Peace bared the ray of gold; until bronze
Shades of autumn quietly lowered a
Humble veil upon the ground in preservation –
Thick clouds that separate over the
Spotless blue of glazing greys. A simple
Tint vanishes, as the storm of fusion
Displays the shocking flood that vapors have gathered

Samuel Greenberg was born in Vienna in 1893. His family emigrated to the US when he was seven and he grew up on New York City’s Lower East Side. His formal schooling was brief; family poverty compelled him to start work at the age of 12. Undeterred, he pursued a varied programme self-education, which included reading poetry – especially Keats, Shelley and Emerson – taking weekend drawing lessons, and studying the paintings he saw in galleries and museums. There’s a certain parallel with Isaac Rosenberg, a few years his senior, born in London’s East End to Jewish immigrants, and gifted at both poetry and painting.

This week’s poem, from Greenberg’s Sonnets of Apology (1915-16), may depict an actual scene, filtered through heightened imagination, or describe a painting. The latter is more likely, I think, from the opening reference to “The apparent gale” followed by the intensely vivid description that shows how motion is captured in lines and light: we recognise the gale because it is “vaned in winding storms” (a fine piece of verb-and-noun-weaving) and “has filled the air with hail and mystic frost”.

In Vienna, Greenberg’s father had been a textile worker, specialising in gold and silver brocade. Images in Secrecy may arise from a memory of his father’s trade, transposed to a vaster, newly significant setting. Secrecy is never less than visually interesting, but the description of the moonlight on the water is particularly powerful: “Darkness over the ocean’s deep was offering moonlight / Movable, silver, vanishing waves that enrolled / The wild summer blossom that in sanguine / Peace bared the ray of gold”. At this point the poet’s five-beat line, always generously interpreted, expands and creates rhythmic equivalence to the visual breadth.

Greenberg’s secretive poetic collage includes images of “the peaceful alley”, “bowing” elm trees with “pregnant buds”, and “wild summer blossom”. This bright latency is subsequently muted with a turn of seasons and colours, when “bronze / Shades of autumn quietly lowered a / Humble veil upon the ground in preservation”. The breaks at the ends of lines nine and 11 are unsettling, as if the poet’s observation or thought process insisted on a record of visual disruption. Although the lineation becomes again more measured and steady, the last dominant image is dramatic. It centres on what “the storm of fusion” has created – “the shocking flood that vapors have gathered”. Greenberg may be hinting at a subtext of the first world war, his “storm of fusion” the more vicious weather of ordnance, as a result of which “spring has failed” both “the lewd heart” and the future lives of the young combatants. It’s a difficult poem to interpret, and useful to remember that Greenberg may primarily be thinking about a painting – this one, The Storm by Pierre Auguste Cot (see above) seems a possible candidate. It may be too easy to be led by dates, and imagine the tragedy of early death as a connection between Greenberg and the English war poets.

Greenberg died of tuberculosis in 1917, at the age of 23. There’s an interesting and important postscript. His brothers, together with the art critic, William Murrell Fisher, salvaged several hundred poems and prose fragments, and Fisher showed the manuscript to Hart Crane. Crane was highly impressed – to the extent of “borrowing” lines from six of Greenberg’s other sonnets in constructing his own Emblems of Conduct. The result was a happy one for Greenberg’s posthumous reputation, resulting in the publication of Poems from the Greenberg Manuscripts (1939), further collections and a secure place in the still-unfolding story of modernism.