Inside the church at Tepoztlán
One winter in January, I stood with the Irish poet Paul Muldoon in front of a glass coffin, in the Mexican town of Tepoztlán. Inside, a figure lay under a purple cloth.
“Is that a saint of some kind?” Muldoon asked. “Do you think that’s real?”
I said I doubted it.
“That’s disappointing. Where I come from in Ireland, in the cathedral in Armagh, is the head of blessed Oliver Plunkett. A church without a head is really no church at all,” he said, with the bare trace of a smile. “When your expectations are as high as mine, almost everything is going to be disappointing.”
We had walked to the church together from town, retracing the poet Hart Crane’s footsteps around Tepoztlán. Muldoon walked slowly, his tweed jacket flapping, his brows knit together behind his thick frames. I was nervous and enthusiastic, wanting to make a good impression. I was standing next to a real writer; someone I’d read and admired.
We were in Tepoztlán as part of a writing program—Muldoon was leading a poetry class, I was participating in a cultural journalism workshop. I’d traveled there from Paris, where my husband and I had recently moved for my husband’s work. I’d never been published, despite many dozens of story submissions. I kept a blog, which was read by my mother and three friends. I worked odd, exhausting jobs, determined not to commit myself to any serious work that might get in the way of writing, but was rapidly losing faith in my own potential.
I applied to the program in Mexico one night in Paris after I’d unpacked all my books and placed them on our new bookshelves in the living room. When I was done, my husband asked whether I could clear a bit of space for his mathematics books, which I’d relegated to the guest room.
“No,” I snapped. “I can’t.”
He told me I was being unfair.
What did he know about unfair, I said.
I went up to the shelves and spread my arms.
“This is all I have for an office,” I sobbed. “These are my only friends.”
On the plane to Mexico, I read Hart Crane’s Mexico City letters. One of the letters was written in Tepoztlán, where I was headed. The descriptions in the letter were very similar to Crane’s poem “The Broken Tower,” which I’d recently read for the first time. This letter, I thought, was a sign of something.
Two days later in Tepoztlán, I introduced myself to Paul Muldoon after a reading hosted at a town home. Muldoon was lying on the hosts’ living room floor, petting their basset hound stretched on top of him. Outside in the garden, guests were drinking cocktails around a swimming pool.
I told him about Crane’s visit to the Tepoztlán monastery eighty-three years before. Crane had written his last poem “The Broken Tower” shortly afterward. In a letter, he described the religious ceremony he attended, very similar in its shades and echoes to “The Broken Tower”: the churchyard at dawn, the ringing of the bells, the steep, terraced cliffs.
Before Muldoon got up to go to the garden, I asked timidly if he would join me for a walk that week to retrace Crane’s footsteps. We could visit the church, walk around the monastery, go up to the terrace. Then we would sit down to read “The Broken Tower.”
I would write an essay for my workshop afterward, about Muldoon’s reactions to the poem and the landscape. Two great poets, I told him, meeting years apart in the monastery.
I added that the bell tower was currently closed for restoration—to me another strange sign—as if the poem were reenacting itself:
The bells I say, the bells break down their tower;
And swing I know not where …
The churchyard was empty except for young lovers nestled in the shade of the high walls, idle white dogs sprawled around the dusty grounds. Such courtyards are typical of Mexican churches and contain an outdoor altar, because the Spaniards had not wanted the indigenous people to enter the church.
“You know, however conscious one would be of the cathedral in the center of town,” Muldoon said, looking up toward the Aztec pyramid perched on the cliffs, “I’m sure a lot of people here haven’t completely given up on what the pyramid stands for. Why should they? That’s part of who they are and this is a belief system that’s been imposed on them.”
In his letter, Hart Crane talked of the same clash between the two temples in Tepoztlán, each one claiming the town as its own.
As we crossed the church’s wooden door embossed with animals (I thought they might be lizards; Muldoon suggested griffins), I said that Mexican churches must be very different from Irish ones.
“I was very familiar with the lushness of the entire Catholic package,” Muldoon said, “having been brought up as an altar boy, serving mass, being in charge of the incense boat and looking at all the splendid uniforms—the beautiful garments, the vestments—that the priests wore as they advanced in significance from bishops and cardinals all the way up to the pope and his gaudy garb. After that, the church that I went to was actually quite sparse, quite barren, and in that sense, I suppose the Mexican experience is somewhat different.”
His voice rose, tilted, descended, as he paused to choose his precise words.
We walked past the glass coffin, past plaster saints draped in sequined cloths and plastic roses, their niches lit with fluorescent lights. One Jesus was wearing a black wig.
“Do you not find these dressed-up dolls humorous?” I said, immediately regretting my question, and my choice of the word humorous.
“I suppose,” Muldoon said thoughtfully, “there is an exuberance—something of the carry-over of the native peoples.”
Eighty-three years earlier, in September 1931, Hart Crane visited Tepoztlán with an archeologist from Wisconsin to dig in the surrounding cornfields. Crane had arrived in Mexico City in April of the same year on board the USS Orizaba with plans to write an epic poem about the Aztecs.
On his first night in Tepoztlán, he went to the monastery for the yearly festival of the god Tepoztécatl. The monastery was abandoned, its painted walls plastered, the cloister overgrown with banana trees. On the terrace, people had gathered around lanterns wearing white suits and hats.
In a letter to William Wright, Crane wrote, “a drummer and a flute player standing facing the dark temple on the heights, alternated their barbaric service at ten minute intervals with loud ringing of all the church bells by sextons of the church. Two voices, still in conflict here in Mexico, the idol’s and the Cross … It is something to hear bells rung, but it is inestimably better to see the sextons wield the hammers, swinging on them with the full weight of their entire bodies like frantic acrobats.”
As light was breaking over the mountains, a townsman handed Crane drumsticks and asked him to participate in the music.
Some months later, Crane wrote what would be his last poem, “The Broken Tower.” At the time, he was having an affair with Peggy Baird, the wife of his friend Malcolm Cowley. He sent the poem to magazines while he was still in Mexico.
And so it was I entered the broken world
To trace the visionary company of love, its voice
An instant in the wind (I know not whither hurled)
But not for long to hold each desperate choice.
Baird joined Crane in Mexico City and the couple spent several tumultuous months together before deciding to go back to the United States. When they left for New York on the Orizaba, Crane had not yet heard back from editors about the poem.
On the morning of April 27, he came to Baird’s cabin wearing pajamas and a topcoat. Baird told him to put on clothes, and shave.
“I’m not going to make it dear,” Crane said. “I’m utterly disgraced.”
He went up to the deck. The ship was treading the Tropic of Cancer. He took off his coat, draped it over the railing, and threw himself overboard.
I spent my afternoons leading up to my walk with Muldoon on the terrace of the monastery, overlooking the cliffs. I read and reread “The Broken Tower,” sitting on the terrace ledge, puzzling over the elusive words, cloaked in the shades of the landscape around me.
Pagodas, campaniles with reveilles out leaping—
O terraced echoes prostrate on the plain!…
I also read everything I could of Muldoon’s poetry, his essays, and interviews. I even found this verse he’d written many years before:
Both beautiful, one a gazebo.
When Hart Crane fell
from the Orizaba
it was into the trou normand of the well.
This was another sign, I thought. Those days before our walk, I imagined the essay I was going to write, lines of it flitting through my mind at every hour. I imagined Muldoon enchanted by the landscape; the two of us deciphering its connections to the poem; all the coincidences leading up to that moment. I thought this essay would be a turning point for me, that I was finally going to write something that mattered.
In the years since I’d started writing, I’d been waiting for something to happen. I wanted for someone with authority—a real writer—to encourage me. I didn’t have an answer to that question writers are asked so often: Why do you write? I had no conviction of my own, so I wanted to be told why it was worth doing what I wanted to do.
At that time, there was a short story I wrote and rewrote called “A Letter to the Author.” A young narrator describes going on an imaginary walk with an author she admires, all the conversations they would have and the ways in which she would delight him with her observations.
It’s possible that when I met Muldoon to go to the cathedral, I’d already conflated him with a character I’d imagined for years.
We were talking about the first lines of “The Broken Tower” as we entered the monastery. The cloister was bright with orange trees and rose bushes.
The bell-rope that gathers God at dawn
Dispatches me as though I dropped down the knell
Of a spent day—to wander the cathedral lawn
From pit to crucifix, feet chill on steps from hell.
“I think it’s quite effective,” Muldoon said. “We tend to think of it as the bell-rope gathering the people of God to prayer, to the church. But of course, at some level, the implication is that God resides in the people.”
We continued up the narrow staircase to the terrace. The jagged cliffs appeared in front of us, red in the afternoon light.
“The purpose of such structures must have been to leave the locals in awe,” Muldoon said. “To inspire and to awe—that’s the principle at work here.”
I listened carefully, ready to be awed.
We walked to the monks’ cells, now converted to a library and reading room, chilly even in the late afternoon.
“It’s so beautiful here,” I suggested—more question than statement.
A bored clerk asked us to sign our names on a clipboard.
“There is something to be said of the cloistered life,” Muldoon said.
We sat for a while looking out at the town, the busy market stalls.
I took out Crane’s letter and “The Broken Tower” from my bag. It was marked with syllabic accents and notes I’d scribbled in the margins. I wanted to make sure I knew all the technical aspects of the poem—all the iambs and spondees I’d studied in the previous days.
“This is a very strange line,” Muldoon said, taking the poem from me.
…a tower that is not stone
(Not stone can jacket heaven)
“And this one,” I said, underlining with my finger.
My word I poured. But was it cognate, scored
Of that tribunal monarch of the air
Whose thigh embronzes earth, strikes crystal Word
“ ‘Scored of…’ ” Muldoon said. “What does that mean? Do you think of that in musical terms? Do you find that sums up Tepoztlán, or the local god?”
I had not thought of the lines in those terms at all. I had been swept up in Crane’s “felicitous juggling” of words, as he had once called the writing of poetry. Muldoon continued reading aloud.
Have you not heard, have you not seen that corpse
Of shadows in the tower, whose shoulders sway
Antiphonal carillons launched before
The stars are caught and hived in the sun’s ray?
“I’m lulled by Hart Crane, by his music,” Muldoon said. I nodded vigorously.
“But frankly there comes a point where one needs more than music. One needs some sort of pay-off.”
“Honestly,” he continued, “I find myself coming out and saying ‘What? Have I not heard?’ Actually I’m not sure that I have. And why are you even asking that question? What sort of a question is that? I don’t know. And I don’t care.”
“I admire Hart Crane,” he said, “but there are times when his poems seem slightly over-egged.”
I must have stared blankly.
“In the sense that we talk about over-egging the pudding,” he explained. “Putting in too many eggs. It becomes too rich.”
“There is too much going on there,” he said, “So much going on, in fact, that it’s not entirely clear what is going on at all.”
I asked if he knew that the poem was about Crane’s first affair with a woman.
“Well, that’ll do it,” he said. “That would confuse a person.”
But the story, I insisted, was tragic. At his death, Crane thought himself a failure, believing that the editors had rejected his poem.
“It is conceivable,” Muldoon said, “that those editors were not wrong.”
I was going to explain that Malcolm Cowley at The New Republic had not rejected the poem but was too busy with his own book to respond; Morton Dauwen Zabel at Poetry hadn’t received Crane’s letter with the poem. I might have convinced Muldoon that the poem had more merit; I could have salvaged another line, pointed out some surprising words. But I was disheartened. I could tell that the moment of bonding I’d imagined for days was unlikely to happen.
We got up to leave. The clerk pointed toward the clipboard and asked us to sign out.
The cool hallways were crossed with shadows. Echoes of children playing rang faintly around us.
“I must say I rather like this—the repose of it,” Muldoon said. “But then I have to think about what they were doing to the local populace, in the name of a God who doesn’t exist.”
Without lingering, we walked back to town.
When I was back in Paris, I sent Muldoon the essay I’d written about our walk. I hoped, of course, that he’d tell me he liked it and that I was a good writer. Or even that I should continue writing. I also sent him a book of photographs of Mexican villages to thank him for the walk.
He didn’t respond.
In the months that followed, I told the story of the walk with Muldoon to anyone who asked about my writing, as if the encounter legitimized me as a writer.
With each telling, the walk took on fantastical proportions, littered with coincidences and signs. What Muldoon said about the poem—that it was “over-egged”—became an inside joke among my friends, synonymous with anything that disappointed us. And Muldoon himself became a sort of somber deity.
I realize that Muldoon would have been startled by this version of events; to hear that a simple walk he’d granted a student, and his honest views about a poem, were blown out of proportion.
A few months later, I ran into him on the street when I was visiting New York. To me, it felt like an unbelievable coincidence; another sign. Muldoon, naturally, treated me like a distant acquaintance. He asked how I was doing, said he’d been well, and busy. He didn’t mention the essay or my present. It seemed he’d forgotten all about it. Then he walked off, telling me to take care. All of this I added to the story the next time I told it.
In the telling, I grew to love Hart Crane and “The Broken Tower” more than I ever had. As a narrative device, my love for the poem served to highlight the effect of Muldoon’s dismissal. I couldn’t admit that my disappointment was about something else entirely, too strange to say out loud: that Muldoon and I had remained strangers by the end of the walk and that, when our hour together came to a close, I was no more or less a writer than I’d been before.
But perhaps there was a reason why I wrote. An obsessiveness; a proclivity to mythologize, to turn life into story.
That’s how I began writing my first novel, about a young woman’s walk in Paris with the writer “M.” In its earliest form, the first chapter of the book was the essay I’d sent Muldoon. To this, I added chapters about the coincidences that followed, compiling a meandering inventory of signs and symbols. But I was already tired of recounting the same story. I began imagining other scenarios for an afternoon spent in the company of a writer. Little by little, I let go of the walk in Tepoztlán. I had more or less come back to that story I’d been writing for years, the letter to the author.
When I first spoke to Muldoon that evening he lay on the floor with a basset hound, he’d said, “Poems don’t come from nowhere. They come from a specific time and a specific place.” He added, however, that these times and places were often multiple.
Early on in the novel my narrator says, “The symmetrical letter with which I represent M, offering a tip of the hat to the neat symmetries of fiction, is an invention.”
I finished the novel late in spring. That summer, I ran into Muldoon once again, this time in Paris. He was walking across the Saint-Sulpice plaza, talking on the phone. He squinted when he saw me, trying to make out who I was. “Just a minute,” he spoke to the receiver, “It’s someone I know.”
We exchanged greetings, then walked our separate ways. This, too, I thought, must be a sign of something.
Aysegul Savas is a writer based in Paris. Her first novel, Walking on the Ceiling, is out this week from Riverhead Books.
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