The Hudson As You Haven’t Seen It Before

Thomas Wolfe wrote big rhapsodic novels such as Look Homeward, Angel that I read as a teen. After his early death in 1938, an enthusiast named John S. Barnes went through Wolfe’s prose to convert passages into poems with line breaks, which were collected and published as A Stone, A Leaf, A Door. I love these examples of cross dressing poetry and prose. Jack Kerouac cannibalized his haiku for Desolation Angels. Melville was so immersed in Shakespeare while writing Moby Dick that whole paragraphs scan in iambic pentameter. Even Donald Rumsfeld had a book of poetry in him surely more entertaining than his current biography.

Here’s Thomas Wolfe’s rhapsody to the Hudson River.

Like the Light

And above all else,
The Hudson River was like the light—yes
Oh, more than anything it was the light,
The light, the tone, the texture of the magic light
In which he had seen the city as a child,
That made the Hudson River wonderful.

The light was golden,
Deep and full with rich golden lights of harvest;
The light was golden like the flesh of women,
Lavish as their limbs,
True, depthless, tender as their glorious eyes,
Fine-spun and maddening as their hair,
As unutterable with desire as their fragrant nests of spicery,
Their deep melon-heavy breasts.

The light was golden
Like a golden morning light
That shines through ancient glass
Into a room of old dark brown.

The light was brown,
Dark lavish brown
Hued with rich lights of gold;
The light was rich brown shot with gold
Like the sultry and exultant fragrance of ground coffee;
The light was lavish brown
Like old stone houses
Gulched in morning on a city street,
Brown like exultant breakfast smells
That come from basement areas
In the brownstone houses where the rich men lived;

The light was blue,
Steep frontal blue,
Like morning underneath the frontal cliff of buildings;
The light was vertical cool blue, hazed with thin morning mist;
The light was blue,
Cold flowing harbor blue of clean cool waters
Rimed brightly with a dancing morning gold,
Fresh, half-rotten with the musty river stench,
Blue with the blue-black of the morning gulch and canyon of the city,
Blue-black with cool morning shadow as the ferry,
Packed with its thousand small white staring faces turned one way,
Drove bluntly toward the rusty weathered slips.

The light was amber brown
In vast dark chambers shuttered from young light
Where in great walnut beds the glorious women
Stirred in sensual warmth their lavish limbs.

The light was brown-gold
Like ground coffee, like the merchants
And the walnut houses where they lived,
Brown-gold like old brick buildings
Grimed with money and the smell of trade,
Brown-gold like morning in great gleaming bars of smart mahogany,
The fresh wet beer-wash, lemon-rind, and the smell of angostura bitters.

Then full-gold in the evening in the theaters,
Shining with full golden warmth and body
On full golden figures of the women,
On fat, red plush,
And on rich, faded, slightly stale smell,
And on the gilt sheaves and cupids and the cornucopias,
On the fleshy, potent, softly-golden smell of all the people;
And in great restaurants the light was brighter gold,
But full and round like warm onyx columns,
Smooth warmly tinted marble,
Old wine in dark rounded age-encrusted bottles,
And the great blonde figures of naked women
On rose-clouded ceilings.

Then the light was full and rich,
Brown-golden like great fields in autumn;
It was full swelling golden light like mown fields,
Bronze-red picketed with fat rusty golden sheaves of corn,
And governed by huge barns of red
And the mellow winey fragrance of the apples.—
Yes, all of this had been the tone and texture of the lights
That qualified his vision of the city and the river
When he was a child.

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