Stephen Crane: Pioneering Zombie Poet

A year ago on the Monday night before Halloween, I read my zombie poems at the Harmony Cafe in Woodstock, a bar with a stage off to the side of a Chinese restaurant that’s more fun than its name implies. (Harmony in a bar? Only in Woodstock.) Victoria Sullivan arrived in ghoulish white face. I passed around a basket of bite-sized gummy brains. For an evening, we ignored the tired legacy of the Woodstock Festival recalled by the nostalgic posters on the walls to celebrate another great Sixties event, the release of Night of the Living Dead in 1968. Admit it, who’s more popular today, zombies or hippies? Not even close. By the time I got to Woodstock, I’d already joined zombie crawls in Rosendale, Saugerties, and Albany, with Kingston still to come. People in their twenties and thirties seem to like nothing better during the ghoulish season than to airbrush a red bullet hole onto their made-up white face, and then to drag a limp foot up the avenue. God bless them, I say, for their playful mockery of the grimness of our times, from endless war to endless recession. So at the Harmony I did my best to bring this youthful spirit to the gray beards of Woodstock. I began with my crowd pleaser, “Why I Love Zombies.” Then I got to the heart of the matter.

The Zombie Gene

I see it in the way my brother drives 45
on the highway, a company messenger
despite his master’s degree. Entering rooms,
he no longer turns on the lights, just sits
in the dusk furrowing his brow. The winter
our mother died he walked at the beach
& pronounced himself cured. I wish

I could drive a tire iron through his forehead,
puncture his lethargy, release his ambition.
Instead, he still lives with Dad & nags him
over TV dinners to take blood pressure pills.
Late night in the den where we first watched
Night of the Living Dead, they now revere
Charlie Rose interviews. They don’t understand;

in their back yard, deafening crickets mask
the slobbering chewing of a zombie
still wearing her old tennis dress for gardening.
I feed her my heart she never stops eating.

Time for confession. Moments after composing that final line I realized that I’d lifted it from Stephen Crane, the prodigious young genius of the late 1800s who gave us The Red Badge of Courage and some famous short stories before his death at twenty-eight. Though he’s not well known as a poet, I think he’s one of the greats. At twenty-one he wrote his first poetry manuscript within weeks, though he called them “lines,” recognizing that these brief allegories little resembled conventional poetry. He shared them with his mentor, Hamlin Garland, a novelist. “He would appear at Garland’s home with a sheaf of poems in his coat pocket, and remark that he had six or seven more lined up in his head, ‘all in a row,’ waiting to be set down. When Garland suggested he draft one on the spot, he did so without hesitation or a single crossed out word,” noted Julie Nord in my Dover Thrift Edition. Many dismissed these poems as “unrhymed, apparently formless…abrupt; his voice blunt, incisively ironic, and often harsh,” but Garland believed that “America had produced another genius, singular as Poe.” Two years later, The Black Riders and Other Lines, appeared, but so did The Red Badge of Courage, propelling Crane to fame and a new career as a war correspondent until he died of tuberculosis. Here’s the poem I unwittingly cribbed.


In the desert
I saw a creature, naked, bestial,
Who, squatting upon the ground,
Held his heart in his hands,
And ate of it.
I said, “Is it good, friend?”
“It is bitter—bitter,” he answered;
“But I like it
“Because it is bitter,
“And because it is my heart.”

After my reading, Leslie Gerber, the erstwhile host of the Goat Hill Poets and the Woodstock Times music columnist, recited from memory a Crane favorite of his own.


I saw a man pursuing the horizon;
Round and round they sped.
I was disturbed at this;
I accosted the man.
“It is futile,” I said,
“You can never—”

“You lie,” he cried,
And ran on.

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