Around the turn of the last century, the Tower of London and St. Paul’s Cathedral were prominent on the city’s skyline. Now, from the Tower Bridge, St. Paul’s is dwarfed and impossible to make out while the Tower itself is camouflaged in a dull tan coat, a diminutive corral in comparison to its backdrop, soaring with skyscrapers and the Gherkin quite formidable there in the midst of it.
These days, London is preoccupied by a bevy of cranes, cranes that seem in constant repose. These cranes that gather in the city center keep themselves at strange angles, and are kept there as if with sculptural rather than architectural intentions, as if merely to inform space. These cranes interest me, because instead of actually serving out their renovative purpose, they stand still, and their very stillness seems a physical testament of this time in history, of that stagnancy and of the incapacity for things to develop with robust momentum.
Some bow and pivot; others stretch and survey in yogic poses. Then there are a few that point, stridently, a long, accusing finger at the sky. But at the end of the day, all are as they have always been, and one begins to wonder why they are even there at all, if not to suggest to the collective imagination the idea of progress.
I know it might sound absurd. After all, the cathedrals and domes that I have seen in Italy were constantly bandaged in layers of scaffolding and plastic, yet would always emerge anew, so why not these buildings here?
For me, cranes symbolize civilization. They are emblematic of change and flank cities for that very reason, to improve upon what is there. Always situated at dizzying heights, they loom and dominate with arms full of augury, encouraging cities young and ready for change or old and incorrigibly mired in the past on to things ever new and unseen.
And yet it is difficult to think of a city like London as a place that desires or requires change. I stand at my window often and gaze out wondering what all of this will look like twenty years from now, fifty years from now; if there will be stasis or progress, triumph or disaster?
We often borrow from nature to give voice to man-made things. A crane is a bird (a rather extraordinary and elegant one) and is simultaneously this instrument, so mechanical and devoid of elegance that one cannot help but think it ingenious how someone could have imagined such a metaphorical bridge, an entirely, almost nonsensical, leap of faith.
Yet once a thing is named, it is empowered to exist in a whole new way and begins to assume in our mind an authority of its own, an unquestionable ownership such that it is impossible to think of another word in its place. We cannot conjure up the image of a crane with words like floss, toothpick, or needle. In reality, we need language to remain static in order to render the world classifiable.
Language is a mysterious and delicate thing that glimmers with a kind of bodilessness. It is not an autonomous, self-generating, self-perpetuated mechanism but rather arises from the inside to meet the requirements of coexistence. It was something that we had to encounter within our own bodies, through rhythm and sound, in order to begin to make sense of the world, and to make progress in it.
Before constructible, sentential meaning, there is the gesturing toward meaning, the assigning of signifiers to things we can see, which we mine from the guttural spewing of this gullet we call our voice box. We label the world in order to sort out the inchoate mess that exists within and without, then overlay the abstract upon the real. This, originally, was the job of the poets.
In Sir Philip Sidney’s Apology for Poetry (1595), he points out that it was the Greeks who thought of the poet as an artisan in words, a kind of craftsman the way a potter was one who fashioned things from clay on a wheel. The Greek word poiein means “to make.”
Seven hundred years before the Middle English period, during which the English language was being formed out of a handful of dialects from the Angles, Saxons, Jutes, and Frisians, the Old English operative word for poet was scop, meaning “shaper.” Later on in the 15th century, we had the Scots poet William Dunbar’s famous elegy, “Lament for the Makaris,” which W.S. Merwin would later echo and David Ferry, too, in his book Of No Country I Know.
Here is Lament’s twelfth stanza:
I se that makaris amang the laif
Playis heir ther pageant, syne gois to graif;
Sparit is nocht ther faculte;
Timor mortis conturbat me.
(I see the makers among the rest
Playing their pageant then going to grief.
Spared not is their faculty;
Fear of death disturbs me.)
Crucially, these earliest poets of the English language had the job of praising; praising, that is, divine creation. The 7th century “Hymn” by the monk Caedmon recalls God’s visit to him in a stable.
“Hwat sceal ic singan?” the monk asks. What shall I sing of?
“Sing me frumscaeft,” replied God, commanding the monk to sing praises for his creation.
There are other words for “poet” in the Western lexicon, such as seer, prophet, diviner. In early Roman history, the word vates stood alongside augurs—meaning interpreters of the flights of birds—and haruspices—meaning interpreters of entrails—as part of an authoritative gang of divine interpreters. We have the word “vatic” in Vatican now, which etymologically means “the place of the prophecies.” To be “vatic” means to possess the “divine madness.”
In the way that language is not monolithic (made of one stone), I believe that poets will always be necessary, not to change the laws or to cure diseases which aren’t their aim but to account for the shape of the totality of causes, to keep the stones moving.
Thus cranes suggest to my mind an endless array of other symbols.
An old Japanese legend tells us that if one folds a thousand origami cranes, one would be granted a wish by the gods. The Manzanar Cemetary’s fence and memorial are garlanded with strings of colorful cranes, a timeless tribute to the 10,000+ internees and to the dead who are buried there and elsewhere.
In Hiroshima, there is a park called the Hiroshima Peace Park in which there is a monument to a little girl named Sadako Sasaki who, years after the atom bomb dropped there, died of leukemia caused by radiation exposure, a disease the Japanese call the “atom bomb disease.” She, too, folded over a thousand paper cranes before dying at age twelve.
In the Handbook of Tibetan Buddhist Symbols, cranes are one of the six symbols of long life. Whereas in occidental folklore, the stork carries the bodies of the newly born, the crane ferries the souls of the dead to the “western heavens.” Coincidentally, Buddha Siddhartha is said to have died at a place called the Crane Grove.
There is also a verse in the Bible, Isaiah 38:14:
I chattered like a swallow or a crane.
I moaned like a dove.
My eyes weaken looking upward.
Lord, I am oppressed.
Be my security.
So how do the cranes of today compare to the cranes of yesteryear, with their depth of significance, steeped as they have been in pain that is directly linked to physical beauty?
These stationary iron birds certainly do seem to have a loud voice and a cry that is hoarse and melancholy, just as real-life cranes do, though physically, they are too ill-fitting and carnival-esque to be like their live models. Perhaps in the future, they will come to earn more authority and aesthetic integrity than they have now?
I could be okay with that whenever it comes to be, but for now, let’s just keep it moving!