This was a little valley all to myself (when I thought of Plutzik before disaster)

Alex Zondervan
Alex Zondervan
Alex Zondervan

Eliot, T. S. “Full Text of ‘After Strange Gods : A Primer of Modern Heresy.’” Internet Archive,
Accessed 3 Apr. 2020.

Eliot, T. S. “A Sceptical Patrician.” Rev. of The Education of Henry Adams: An Autobiography.
4647 (23 May 1919): 361-62.

Eliot, T. S.. The Complete Poems and Plays of T.S. Eliot. (reprinted.). London: Faber & Faber, 2004. Print.

Plutzik, Hyam. “ Death At The Purple Rim.” Hyam Plutzik, Poet,

Plutzik, Hyam. “For T.S.E. Only.” Academy of American Poets.

Plutzik, H., and D. Halpern. Letter from a Young Poet. Watkinson Library at Trinity College, 2015, Print.

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This was a little valley all to myself (when I thought of Plutzik before disaster)

Alex Zondervan
Alex Zondervan

Sometime in March, 2020

This was a little valley all to myself
In Connecticut's northern hills: Cornwall was there;
Warren to westward: Waramaug Lake to the south;
And the great Gehenna sufficient six-score leagues—

Last week I returned to my parent’s home in Sherman, a small town in the northernmost part of Connecticut. The house, nestled at the base of a mountain on the threshold of Candlewood Lake, offers a getaway from the city. Whispers move through the rooms, pressing inward from its perimeter and when darkness falls, the numerous windows become vast reflections that amplify any sense of absence. As I worked on some writing, read a bit, and spent some time with my family, I was interrupted by a thought that brought me to a town named Kent just a few miles north of Sherman: there a picture of Hyam Plutzik as a young poet, sitting beneath a tree at The Purple Rim with a box of Corn Flakes. 

A few months ago I met Edward Moran who introduced me to the life and work of Plutzik. Moran gave me Letter from a Young Poet which Plutzik wrote to Odell Shepard, his former professor at Trinity College, shortly after completing his Yale graduate study at the age of twenty-nine in 1941. The letter spans about seventy pages and concludes on the eve of Pearl Harbor. Plutzik begins by reflecting on his past uncertainties, fearing that what he was “doing was passing and inconsequential, an interlude in life rather than part and parcel of life itself.” He recounts how in the summer of 1937, “the city just doesn’t allow me to think” and sought refuge at the The Purple Rim. Plutzik quickly enters a rhythm, recognizing that despite his anxiety of being unable to locate himself within a narrative framework, his actions that occur in the exchange of intellectual and physical activity becomes his parcel through life. 

It was Plutzik’s time at The Purple Rim that inspired the poem “Death at The Purple Rim” which begins with the killing of a woodchuck and becomes a meditation that circles the poetic-self against the stage of America’s entrance in the Second World War. While violence opens the forefront of the speaker’s attention, so is his relationship to life, life to material, material to world, and he locates these exchanges in the disruptive and transitive energy of action.

I remember my own trips to Kent, the trails of Kent Falls, having lunch on the main street—all memories which I have not thought of for years and now return, finding them altered by a different poetics brought about by the experience of reading Plutzik; can a space become a caricature through appropriated memories? The geography of my memory stirs but the gap remains, defamiliarizing the familiar. 

What madness, I thought, and what fear unholy,
If the stars of tomorrow night were new and unknown,
Arranged in strange constellations! Where Orion stood,
The form of a mammoth! where the Pleiades ever shone,
Two flickering yellow suns circling each other,

Nameless. There to the south were the hills I had crossed
From the Guilford shore: Grown dim as their substance itself,
The exertion of afternoon hours was lost in their purple.
I looked at the waters before me and saw them shining
With inner brightness like that of the star-crazed sky.
No landmarks were here, and I, a parcel of dark,
Was limned between shining worlds. Northward I faced.
The roar came back to my ears.

Just as soon as Plutzik centers himself within his gardened world at The Purple Rim, he dives beyond its circumference and into the unfamiliar. It is in this being “a parcel of dark” that the speaker’s relationship to reality and fantasy overlaps—“between shining worlds” where an exchange is held between place and poetics, earth and experience. And Plutzik, with both “Death at The Purple Rim” and in Letter from a Young Poet, constructs his poetics through this mix of memory and space, recounting not only his own experiences but also turning to a distinctly generous mode of diction that harks back to a century before. I am reminded of Ralph Waldo Emerson whose essay’s often circle an initial germ before unfurling into a transitive poetics that navigates the gap between memory and experience. In the exchange between self and world, Emerson writes in his essay “Experience” that “I am a fragment, and this is a fragment of me,” and highlights the dialectic relationship between the self and writing as a process of continuous becoming. Likewise, the speaker of “Death at The Purple Rim” describes himself as “a parcel of dark,” being within a world both “new and unknown” that reverberates between a continuous displacement of self and space.

While both Plutzik and Emerson navigate their experiences of self in space through language, Plutzik draws attention to the ways that geographies reconfigure the mind. As Plutzik was an emigrated Jew living in America, physically displaced from the city and existentially displaced by the rise of the Nazi state, his attention to cityscapes, rural farmlands, and institutional dynamics reflect his own way of thinking. And yet, despite facing a double front, Plutzik orients himself in “Death at The Purple Rim” as his speaker decisively says “Northward I faced,” intent on a cardinal direction, a line of invisible possibility, or hopes towards a dream, as a declaration that pulls him from a liminal world to reality. Perhaps Plutzik’s response is not too dissimilar from Emerson who concludes “Experience” by writing, “never mind the ridicule, never mind the defeat: up again, old heart!—it seems to say,—there is victory yet for all justice; and the true romance which the world exists to realize, will be the transformation of genius into practical power.” These two figures, working through radically different circumstances, find routes of framing the self through “practical power” which might arise through a poetics; that writing is in itself a form of action that responds to changing geographies.  

A few nights after reading “Death at The Purple Rim” I attended a poetry reading with Moran, finding it miraculous to be present at the warm, intimate, and yet secretive gathering that took place in a Flatbush apartment. There, a different world sustained beneath the radar of the other public happenings in the city, reminiscent of a different moment in time when extravagant literary salons were a city staple and figures such as Elizabeth Bishop, Marianne Moore, and Djuna Barnes might be found at the Crane’s Fifth Avenue apartment. During the reading, my attention drifted from the voice that traveled from a room adjacent and shifted to the people, decorations, refreshments, as I reflected on the series of strings that led me there. It was in Brooklyn that Plutzik was born and later returned in the 1930s where he worked a variety of jobs that led him to The Purple Rim. A few nights earlier, in a stripped down Bushwick apartment complex, I stood in a large crowded room surrounded by smoke and graffitied walls. Amplifiers lined one wall, a makeshift bar against another: “three bucks for a beer.” A band played loud thrashing metal reminiscent of the sound associated with the underground punk scene of the ‘80s. The band, the space, were doing something excitingly new and yet completely out of any present moment in time. I wondered how these renditions of events create a residue, repeating and reimagining histories through a tuned urgency of renewed destruction. That becoming limned in this liminal space of our own fiction, cosplaying within our ‘historical imagination,’ is able to arrive at something true; that true moral experience is not separate from our fictional artifice. Both the reading and the band took place in a space saturated in associated and appropriated memories—something like this has happened before. The etiquette remains but the room, its people, keep shifting in reference to meet this other unintelligible thing.

This other unintelligible thing was present in my own hopes of arriving in the city nearly a year ago. Despite my challenges of finding stable work and having a reason to occupy this new landscape, a dissonance resounded through my experience of occupying a world filled with biographies of those before. But knowledge does not equate experience. As my relationship to the city developed a tension that makes it difficult to locate myself, transitioning between pockets somewhere out of time, the allure of returning to Sherman has grown stronger. With what seems like endless possibilities, continuously expanding and shifting, reorganizing the familiar framework of the city, where I walk, where I am, who I meet, a paralysis takes hold. Today becomes unapproachable. Between odd jobs, isolation, and displacement, the city becomes a caricature suspended between my own experience and those other stories that surface through time, memories which I’ve undoubtably appropriated from people who no longer share this world with me. Suddenly, a song that I vaguely recognize plays overhead: New York, I love you but… I am anxious to confront the vastness of the city’s possibilities, the soft whisper that invites apathy and meaninglessness. It was this feeling that T.S. Eliot’s criticized in his poem “Gerontion” whose speaker, an old man, appears to be modeled as a persona of Henry Adams. Eliot thought Adams saw “for education, with the wings of a beautiful but ineffectual conscience beating vainly in a vacuum jar:”

After such knowledge, what forgiveness? Think now
History has many cunning passages, contrived corridors
And issues, deceives with whispering ambitions,
Guides us by vanities. Think now
She gives when our attention is distracted
And what she gives, gives with such supple confusions
That the giving famishes the craving. Gives too late
What’s not believed in, or is still believed,
In memory only, reconsidered passion. Gives too soon
Into weak hands, what’s thought can be dispensed with
Till the refusal propagates fear. Think
Neither fear nor courage saves us.

Eliot’s speaker is unable to rely on his own intellectual experience as well as action, whose conscience is overtly aware of his position and relation to memory and time; his desire for something that is neither life nor death. He is a skeptic of experience. And Plutzik—whose persona in “Death at The Purple Rim” takes on the voice of an experienced, older person despite being at a young age—was very much aware of Eliot at the time. While Plutzik admired Eliot for his poetic virtue, he was also disappointed by his anti-Semitic sentiments that arise in his poem “Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar'' or in his critical essay “After Strange Gods” where Eliot writes “free-thinking Jews [are] undesirable.” However, in “For T.S.E. Only” Plutzik writes, “Come, let us pray together for our exile. / You, hypocrite lecteur! mon semblable! mon frère!” and the persecuted poet responds to Eliot uninvited, turning the table and pulling up his own chair, declaring what similarities the two have in common and in-turn, criticizing Eliot’s own narrowed prejudice. In this case, Plutzik’s writing is his action. Likewise, the threat of possibility is articulated in “Death at The Purple Rim” when Plutzik writes:

I have thought of dreams as perhaps like the rings of a tree

But thus: while the ring of each year is larger than last,
The dream of each year is smaller; and at the end,
When the desperate final dream has tightened about you,
And encloses a space no bigger than you yourself,
It circles your neck and strangles you and you perish ...)
So if I laughed in my garden, who will upbraid me?

While both speakers undergo a figurative death and speak around the possibility of dreams as they are synonymous with a future in its becoming, a paralysis encroaches on the question of what to do, who will respond. And while the circumference of Plutzik and Eliot’s worlds are that through they know it by, apathy, nihilism, and ultimately, becoming incapacitated in the face of overbearing possibility, Plutzik locates a loophole within the confines of his garden. For Plutzik, it becomes the tacit work he undertakes which draws him away from those larger circles of uncertainty and returns him to body, laughing as though an affirmation of his own being out of context. 

Intent on locating meaning within experience, Plutzik returns to a linear narrative at the end of “Death at The Purple Rim” where he confronts the woodchuck’s death. But the speaker does not relish in the killing and instead mediates a space that falls between the moral and real, the poetic and scientific. It is as though Plutzik writes as a way of thinking about being within a larger context, reverberating between the boundaries of the garden, resisting moral absolutism, and locating meaning within the exchange of experience and intellect:

I sighted along the barrel. The gray-brown chest
Again was framed in the fatal circle of iron.
Yet still he sat, as my finger turned round the trigger,
With snout raised up to the sky, to the bright sunlight
This brother-dweller in night, to the bright sunlight.
O drinker of sunlight! Drink, O rink of your liquid!
For this passing moment shall see you drink deep of darkness,
That I and all men must drink, but when we know not
O drinker of sunlight, drink of your golden liquid!)

As I worked in the yard the other day, the warm sun of a new season mixed with a cool breeze, and moving wheelbarrows full of earth, leaves, moss, rot, and gravel, I thought about Plutzik and began daydreaming about moments that ricochet between the past and future. I thought about the circumstances that Plutzik found himself in the first half of the 20th century and how the moment at which I find myself are not always immediately reconcilable through action; that our hopes might not be met by expectations. Laying cradled beneath the Sherman hills, immersed by repetitive tasks, the weight of possibilities sunk below the horizon and a certain relief washed over me. Only birds, breeze, trees, sun, and sweat. And in its particularity, my attention drifting throughout the perimeter of the valley’s circumference, any tension became suspended against the vast possibility of today as a counterpoint arrived: in approaching a dissonant crossroad between my own reality and fantasy, what begins to feels like aimless wandering, a rhythm resurfaces through a poetics spanning Connecticut’s northern hills.

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