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Archive for the ‘Foremother Poetry’ Category

LadySmallwoodLindsayDuncan
Lady Smallwood (original story Lady Blackwell, player Lindsay Duncan — one of my favorite actresses), politician

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Nameless person calling herself Mary Morstan (original story, Watson’s wife, player Amanda Abbington), double

Dear friends and readers,

This was the best of this season’s films: the players returned to the guarded within anguish stride of the first season, only with a multiplication of women — in the original story blackmailer Charles Augustus Milverton knows the sexual past of only one woman, Lady Blackwell, whom he will shame as well as the honor of the man, and the family she is planning to marry into; here she has metamorphosed into a sort of subMargaret Thatcher, woman politician with reeking perfume (Thatcher liked to be sexy with men). In this 2013 story where Milverton has metamorphosed into the amoral ruthless social media magnate who is supposed to make us think of Rupert Murdock but is dressed like Dr Strangelove (all but the gloves, thus evoking Kissinger) and could as easily be Roger Ailes of Fox TV, considering the immediate influence he thinks he has, this villain also is pursuing a second woman: our sweet Mary Morstan turns out to be one of these nameless heroines (so familiar to readers of women’s romance (Rebecca anyone?), only her past appears to be one of violent assassination and such shameful ugly behavior she fears John Watson will be alienated forever if he is already not blindsighted by discovering all she has told him or implied has been lies.

Far more usual of the previous seasons are the twists and turns of extra plot-design with matter from other Sherlock Holmes stories woven in: so we first meet Sherlock apparently under the influence of drugs (opium become heroin? cocaine?) in a filthy temporary open air ruin-space of addicts where Watson has gone to find the son of a grieving black woman who comes to him as a doctor who cares for addicts.

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Black and white version of Sherlock (Cumberbatch) as we first see him (from Tumblr)

Now that Sherlock is blessed (to be pious about this) with a family, he and Mycroft and Watson and Mary too do some turns in the parental home at Christmas.

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The brothers (Matiss as Mycroft) – “Aw shucks, mum!”

Modern motifs combined with older ones include the Sherlock in hospital and Sherlock as out-patient, hovering murderous helicopters over our heads (we are under the bombs), stun guns; lots of overlay of computer print-outs as someone’s inner thoughts. In her study of Holmes stories Emelyne Godfrey showed that weapons, weird, pizzazz ones, or merely cruelly wounding were central to many of the Holmes’s tales; Godfrey also showed that the core meaning of respected masculinity in the tales was not spontaneous wild violence as a means of expressing say disapproval: as when Louise Brealey as the indignant Molly is reduced to half-hysterically slapping Cumberbatch with all her might for “throwing away his gifts”; but rather carefully channeled effective violence aimed at the mindlessness (sorry to say this but it’s true) of the lower class vulgar and/or somehow inferior male. The recent spate of Sherlocks (in the cinema too) move against the grain of Doyle’s work where smart calculated “restraint is a index of modesty, reserve, manliness, professionalism.” But so anxious are these new shows to make women the equal of men, even the silliest behavior if men are thought to do it is enough to give us a woman doing it so she will be deemed admirable.

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Molly worrying over Sherlock in a way that recalls Kitty (Amanda Blake) endlessly fretting over Matt (James Arness) in the 1995 Gunsmoke (‘Oh Matt! be careful.’ ‘I will, hon.’)

A recap.

I shall have to admit that Jim Rovira, one of the commenters of my last blog can make a good case for the thinness and feebleness of the original material in this case. “The Adventure of Charles Augustus Milverton” is deservedly usually ignored in studies of Conan Doyle’s Sherlock canon; it is just so cliched, down to the titillation and class snobbery of Sherlock disguising himself as a lower class man courting Milverton’s housemaid (unnamed in the original) to find out where Milverton is hiding the documents he uses to blackmail people and both he and Watson breaking the law (gasp!) in order to steal into Milverton’s lair (called Appleton Towers in both film and original story). Where in those Holmes stories that go deeper, family honor becomes a stalking horse for far more interesting social and psychological conflicts, not so here.

Perhaps they were attracted to the story for the same reason my husband Jim used to say the Sherlock canon has become cult stuff: it is so hollow you can pour anything you want into it. I think that’s unfair as I argued with Jim Rovira: there are some superb stories and lots of people (Emelyne Godfrey among them) have agreed with me the stories dramatize serious and important conflicts and themes then and since (through many film adaptations too). This one did allow for feminization (if I may be permitted the term) of the Sherlock material. Matiss and Moffatt took an opportunity to have yet another supposedly “tough” female about: the unnamed housemaid becomes a secretary/personal assistant who despite her Arab looks (the actress is Yasmine Akram) and name redolent of what Said called “orientalism” (Jasmine) sports a melodious Irish drawl and evening dress even in broad daylight.

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If we count Mrs Hudson — Una Stubbs doing her best to be memorable –

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and Mother Holmes (Cumberbatch’s mother also now employed), trying not to attact attention, the domestication (if I may coin another term) of the series I noted in Parts 1 and 2 is now seen in women women everywhere. One joke is to call Sherlock “Sherl” — feminizing the name to a diminutive of Shirley. The joke is made by Jasmine with the effect of bringing Sherlock “down” to her level; that is a woman — implicit is the idea that whatever are feminine qualities, they are not worthy.

I’ve no doubt Matiss and Moffatt did seize the doubling opportunity they hit upon to transform the apparently conventional female Mary Morstan character into a female action-hero who could also sustain a love interest: she emotes wonderfully well her love for “John,” and how she cannot stand to sit in the chair (per usual with the Sherlock material) and tell her tale as victim since her tale will make her beloved Watson reject her. And anyway we are against victims, are we not? there are no such things in the world any more, are there? they must be complicit, passive aggressive becoming a term of praise almost in this new anti-sympathy reactionary ethic preached up in popular media. She is very pregnant by the end and so happy to be so (photographed so as to emphasize this), but by the end of the tale there is real feeling between them:

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John and Mary’s faces as they talk to one another in their final scene

even if John shows his love for her by throwing away her story without reading it: instead of a packet of letters he hurls a thumbdrive into the fire.

Why did I like it – or think it an improvement on the previous two parts. Not for the multiplication of women as only intermittently did Lindsay Duncan or Amanda Abbingdon have moments of genuine feeling. Nor their or anyone’s violence. Nor for the any post-modern working out of typical Conan Doyle themes as in the previous season where camp art and a strong sceptical disillusionment and depressive mentality made for intelligent entertainment. Rather because despite the overlay of superfluous sudden outbursts of violence, modern gadgetry and neon underlinings, the program managed to recreate a companionable rhythm of story-telling, to re-establish the central effective team friendship of Sherlock and Watson

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ending in a rescue of vulnerable people from a genuinely horrible man in a way relevant to our era.

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The omnipresent spy gathering all our documents, the murderous cold-hearted ambitious capitalist politician with his militarist thugs in tow is a creature we can’t have too many attacks on. What could be worse than a man spying on us all? eager to tell unless we pay him huge sums of money.

That is, I thought the program did what good relatively faithful or commentary (heritage) film adaptations usually do, even if it was an appropriation or modern analogy type. It did take a long time getting there.

Ellen

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TWELVE YEARS A SLAVE
Chiwetel Ejiofor as Solomon Northrup re-named Plat when a slave (Twelve Years a Slave, directed Steven McQueen, screenplay John Ridley)

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Jay Morris Hunter as Ahab (Moby Dick, San Francisco opera production, Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer)

Dear friends and readers,

Yesterday and in the wee hours of the night I watched two movies I’d like to recommend not missing if you can help it. Both much worth immersing yourself in — thinking about in the case of Twelve Years a Slave and allowing the alluring beauty of the mood and music to bring you in with Moby Dick.

From what I hear other people say to one another, Twelve Years a Slave is misrepresented in ordinary talk somewhat. Since “word-of-mouth” retains its importance in making for a popular movie hit, I’m hurrying a little to write about Twelve Years. If seen by enough people, it could function (mildly) as Uncle Tom’s Cabin once did — this time to help against racial discrimination and racist thinking so prevalent in the US still. People have told me in some areas the film has not opened so maybe I’m precipitantly worrying the film will not be a commercial success. In my area it did open in our local art cinema; the owner rejoiced at getting two prints but it’s already in Theater 4 (smaller and not for continuing hits) and not many people were in the audience yesterday after only a week; and among these were a number of black people, so not many whites in the audience. This theater is not one black people go to much; it’s in an area that’s mostly white, upper middle and attracts art-film audiences. For The Butler I did have to go to Theater 4 but it had been playing for weeks and weeks, all summer in fact, and still the theater (4) was filled and it had a preponderance of white people. The Butler crossed the racial divide. In a nearby theater to me which has large black audiences The Butler was sold out on and off for weeks, long lines of black people waiting to go, early on and then the whites joined them.

Scuttlebutt (or what I’m told or read by friends) is how violent and hard to watch it is. It’s not non-violent and not easy to watch but not because you are shown excruciating torture or close-up shocking violence, nor is this perpetual or at all gratuitous. The violence wreaked on slaves that we see is precisely what will subdue and cow them (not nothing because it’s harsh and includes implicit threats of death), the beatings shown at a distance as (horrifyingly to decent emotions) par for the course, the ordinary routine of treatment for slaves. The coerced sex scenes (on the slaves Patsy played so effectively by Lupita Nyong’o) by the master Edwin Epps (Michael Fassbinder who does steal the movie) are not all that much different from what I’ve seen of half-rape type scenes in (soft-corn implicitly hard sex) movies which don’t name it that. The woman just lies there and lets him.

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Patsy asking Plat to help her kill herself

What’s memorable about the scene so many reviewers have mentioned of our hero, Solomon Northrup renamed Plat (Chiwetel Ejiofor) where he’s hung and will die if he does not manage to keep his toes on the ground is how everyday it is, how slaves walk by him unable to help him, how the whites watch and do nothing, and how the supposed “good” master (Bernard Cumberbatch as Master Ford) only comes to cut him down late at night lest he irritate his central over-seer. Ford gives him a violin but will not behave towards him as if he were a human being whose life matters.

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Plat rented out to a man who allows him to keep the money he’s paid for his violin playing

Twelve Years a Slave (based remember on a 19th slave narrative, a type or sub-genre) increased my respect for Stowe’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin (essentially several slave narratives interwoven into a middle class type white novel) and watching it helped increase my respect for that nowadays somewhat under-rated book. It has the same attributed flaws — in the sense that there is a reductive quality, a melodramatic exaggeration going on continually so really the charge hurled at Simon Legree that he’s a monster and no one could be that bad and if he were he’d be an exception can be hurled at Epps.

James Baldwin would not like the way Plat is presented as sheerly noble and insofar as he can be good (see “Everybody’s Protest Novel”); he is not an Uncle Tom; he does not justify a(the character who does this who is popular now is Mr Carson in Downton Abbey) or suck up in his case in the face of horrible mistreatment, but he is an innocent as the film opens. When Solomon is lured to the south, it’s obvious that the two men luring him are crooks; they are over-praising him; he is a simpleton in the scenes. Master Ford as a character is better with his well-meaningness, and his inability to keep Plat, whose opinion Ford consults, thus whose abilities arouse the resentment-hatred of his over-seers slave-servant safe is believable, but numbers of the scenes are too obvious, he won’t help Plat for real, regards Plat as property he must sell to keep his debts down so our moral lesson is clear.

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Cumberbatch as the religious ethical man Ford nonetheless showing intense cowardice and lack of real understanding as he briefly explains to Plat why he sells him to Epps

But would such a man sell this man to Epps whom he knows is cruel, sadistic. Epps played as nearly psychotic and seemingly driven by guilt to be even crueller. The central parallel of the two works (Uncle Tom’s Cabin and the film Twelve Years) is this half-crazed white master. Epps is a Simon Legree and his wife a female version. But you do (Stowe and now McQueen) want to make sure the audience gets it.

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Sarah Paulson as Mrs Epps riping off Patsy’s ear and taking a chunk out of her cheek with a knife (in Dickens’s Travels in America he easily exposes slavery quoting the ads for finding escaped or “lost” slaves by the scars they are said to have)

Gets what? the key to the film’s power and importance is we see what happens to people who lose all status all caste worth – and in the case of chattel slavery this is reinforced by law which defines them as property. If they should be owned by a mad-man he is allowed to do as he wishes. The point is what law and custom allows. Sure in the Islamic world most men are not ogres, but the Koran and custom allow horrific treatment and power corrupts. People will use power if they are given it even when not as obvious as Legree or Epps.

The film is relevant to us today because today people lose a great deal of status and caste worth depending on how much money they make, the schools they go to, where they live, if they are broke — and worse, if they are immigrants or of a different racial color than the powerful. I was reminded of a book I recently reviewed on global emigration in the 18th century, enforced diasporas, and mass murder, Hodson’s Acadian Diaspora, where the point was made that safety for the average non-powerful non-connected person depends on staying where you are, among relatives or friends and people whose truth or falsehood you can gauge so not be cheated utterly to your destruction with no recourse in courts not made for you. See also David Denby on Twelve Years (from the New Yorker) as best movie on slavery made in the US thus far.

It seems to reflect a book too: there are intriguing sequences which are not part of the plot-driven movement: a group of Native Americans come to dance before the black slaves as if their culture is what slaves will understood. Other curious moments.

The one real flaw in the film is the ending as has been suggested in reviews and conversations I’ve heard. Not so much that Brad Pitt as Bass (a major contributor of money as a first-named producer) gives himself the role of our one abolitionist talker, and the only man to keep his faith with Plat.

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Brad Pitt as Bass actually listening to Plat (with exaggerated courtesy)

Plat before this trusts a white overseer who seems to be his friend with money in return for taking a letter to the post office to send to the north to reach friends to help him in court; the man tells Epps so immediately that the man does not have the letter as evidence and Plat manages to persuade Epps (not too bright) that he man is lying:

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Half-mad man

The story is improbable Plat persuades Epps, and then we watch Plat burn the hard won paper and writing he did so laboriously with home-made ink and quill.

Bass is a hired architect, an outsider and he does get in touch with authorities up north and friends of Northup — at considerable risk to himself if he’s found out he says.

The flaw begins with how easy it is for the friends to show up & take Northup away. Why did they never look for Northup before? Well, it is true that people were terrified and a reign of terror worked down south (Harriet Martineau’s travels in America books record this) but then it should not have been as easy as we see it for the men to take Northup away Epps should have shot him, would have. We are then not shown the court scenes that would have been another 2 hours but that would have been original and interesting — so let’s hope for a sequel? I doubt it.

The least real moment is the return of Northup to his family. He looks just as innocent and sweet as when he set out. Not haggard, not worn, not much changed at all. His black family is improbably prosperous throughout yet seem to have no connections to anyone black or white outside themselves. All subside into joy in a circle. Plat-Northup keeps apologizing and that makes psychological sense.

I compared the final scene to some photos I’ve seen of Primo Levi when he first returned from concentration camp,haggard, exhausted, not the same ever again. I wondered if a man dragged from freedom to slavery wouldn’t have the same hostage symptoms, the same urges to self-murder and sense of deep humiliation not to be gotten over. We get intertitles to tell us how Northup wrote and published his book in 1853 (Twelve Years in Slavery, and how he worked hard for the underground railway. So he stayed in the US I thought.

But then this quietly ominous final intertitle: no one knows how or when he died or where he is buried. Maybe murdered?

The central performances of male roles as everyone has said are stunningly good. I’ve already named the principles.

As a woman watching I had though to endure the annoyance of women being presented one-dimensionally throughout — except for Patsy the girl who becomes Epps’ concubine; who he beats, who picks heroic amounts of cotton each day — so she is never whipped for under-picking as others are. The two white mistresses are basically either phlegmatic and do nothing (that’s their role) or spiteful: Sarah Paulson Mrs Epps loathes Epps and tries not to have him in her bed, to leave him but he threatens her too – she is a form of his property too (this reminded me of Valerie Martin’s book that won the Orange Prize, Property); Mrs Epps is as sadistic, as sick as her husband, hates Patsy and hurls hard objects at her, knocking her down, cuts her face and ear cruelly, will not let her wash herself so she flees for soap and is gone for a few hours which leads to a horrific scene of Epps beating her and then forcing Plat to do it.

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The scene’s reality for the era (keeping clean was difficult) makes one feel it comes from the book — as one of Indians humiliating themselves by dancing as white people expect

We see one black woman who has become a white man’s open mistress: she is fatuous, self-centered, looks down at other blacks. I don’t say these are not human impulses but that’s all we get of these women. A black woman weeps incessantly because parted from her children; another forces herself sexually one night on Plat.

So it’s masculinist movie — Fanny Kemble’s Journal of a Residence on a Georgian Plantation, 1838-39 depicts the terrifying work load and sexual exploitation and cruelty wreaked on women — and their complicated humanity too. And Kemble as mistress identifies with them and within 4 years leaves her husband — she must leave behind her children to do it, only regaining the friendship of one of them in much later years. Such a thinking upright brave type woman is not in the film.

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Which brings me to the opera of Moby Dick where (like Master and Commander out of the Patrick O’Brien books) where no women are in the film — just remembered as embodying civilization itself.

The one women in the cast was playing the boy, Pip, who is almost drowned. Suffice to say it outlined the major hinge-points of the novel (as seen in a play originally with Orson Welles from the 1940s I once saw), and it brought out the meaningful themes: does life have any meaning? who is this haunted creature-fish and Ahab or Ishmael? they are lonely? Is there a God; if so, is he evil incarnate? The music was alluring, the lines resonant to larger meanings we can identify with through generalizations. Like all films it was made for today, with today in mind. The artwork beautifully picturesque:

The production did not emphasize the primal animal-fish (as did Winston Graham in his last Poldark novel, Bella) but human displacement, alienation. The production did seem to suggest that all would have been well but that the captain was mad. (That’s not the note of the Graham novels.) As I recall the book the thrust is all is not going to be well, never has. We see a dream life or men cut off from where they could know happiness as they are driven to make money in this dangerous occupation.

So I loved the deep melancholy of the men, their desperation to bring home some whale oil for money I see as part of human life. I bonded with the man who survives and calls himself Ishmael. He had wanted to go to an island with Queegqueg and live out our lives as best we can; I felt for Mr Starbuck who is nearly shot point-blank by Ahab, and almost shoots Epps on the way. There are the comic undercutting characters too.

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And he wouldn’t know, he was tempted

This novel centrally attacks tenets of Christian belief, from justice as always or often done, to stories of an afterlife. These are deliberately not love or dynastic stories. He wanted to be spared.

I bring them together because I watched them within 12 hours of one another, and was struck by the shared masculinity identification. For myself the plangent nature of the music, Ishmael as a person alone in this world resonated enough. I think Jim would have enjoyed the great range of the masculine voices they hired. The lines on the screen and wild waters as the ships turning out from lines, the wild waters — all pulled me paradoxically soothed me. The ending of the tale is tragic as is a good deal of life.

Friday nights on TV contain a revival of the old Great Performances which I remember from my childhood, watching with my father on the old Channel 13: Judith Anderson in Medea, a Chekhov play with a male character who lived in an attic with birds, a sad poet, a bitter absolutely perfect Twelth Night (so that’s what is meant), Peggy Ashcroft, Duchess of Malfi. Now a few weeks ago the four Henry plays, from Richard II to Henry V (and the actors and actresses were great from the extraordinary Ben Wishlaw as Richard (this was Shakespeare I thought — ever autobiographical in my reading), Lindsay Duncan as Duchess of York, David Morrisey as Northumberland, Tom Hiddleston as Henry, Roy Kinnear as Bolingbroke become Jeremy Irons as king, Michelle Dockery (Yay!) as Kate, Hotspur’s wife, Simon Beale as Falstaff, (I saw David Bradley too), magnificently done.

I did not realize the new version allows you to watch a re-run (as it were) as a podcast.

Learning to watch TV, a little
Ellen

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Coverillustrationblog

Dear friends and readers,

Ten days ago Maria Musiol contacted me to tell me she has now published her study of Vittoria Colonna through the lens of Colonna’s loving friendship with Michelangelo: she says it’s a “series of essays dealing with the recorded aspects of Vittoria’s external and internal life.” She has mailed me a copy, asking me to review it and I am planning on picking up said book tomorrow. I will start reading some time tomorrow.

She has published a German version of her text in Germany — which is historically consonant with the traditions of Colonna scholarship. The only other complete translation of the poems is in German. (Besides mine — Maria Roscoe missed out some, and attributed at least one poem by Veronica Gambara to Colonna.) The standard biography by Alfred Reumont is in German; those who read it in Italian (as I do, since I cannot read German) are reading a translation. I can see Ms Musiol has a new theory about Michelangelo’s drawings as pictures of Colonna and will deal at length with their relationship (as others have done before her).

She also tells me (I hope I am not trespassing to tell this here as it is significant) that she began her project twenty years ago: “After the premature death of my husband I came to Ischia and, looking for role models as a young widow, came across Vittoria Colonna and began my research about her, because there was no adequate biography.” She’s right: Reumont is outdated and without an inner life; Jerrold omits the complicated politics central to Colonna’s life. I have been rereading Colonna’s poems with new insight and feeling over these past two weeks — since the death of my beloved husband.

Coincidentally in middle September I had a query from another woman scholar now working on Francesco Ferrante D’Avalos, the Marquis of Pescara. Rita Lamb is working on his family background, researching specifically into legends and genetic history, which connect Pescara biologically (as a natural son) to the royal Aragonese family in Naples. I went up to my attic, and took down one of my boxes of 3X5 index cards and was able to tell her the names of his mother, father, their parents, and their parents’s parents as reported at the time. None of these members of the royal family, but all close as allies, fellow aristocrats, strongly Spanish in culture, and some even friends. See my brief sketch. If she publishes, beyond offering more about Pescara, she will probably shed light on the history and culture of Ischia.

In the meantime I updated my review of Brundin’s partial edition of some of Colonna’s religious poetry, and I linked Maria’s book into two places on my site: the table of contents page and the bibliography.

11/2/13: see Widow-parlando.

Ellen

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NODDING

Tizdal my beautiful cat
Lies on the old rag mat
In front of the kitchen fire.
Outside the night is black.

The great fat cat
Lies with his paws under him
His whiskers twitch in a dream,
He is slumbering.

The clock on the mantlepiece
Ticks unevenly, tic toe, tic-toe,
Good heavens what is the matter
With the kitchen clock?

Outside an owl hunts,
Hee hee hee hee,
Hunting in the Old Park
From his snowy tree.
What on earth can he find in the park tonight,
It is so wintry?

Now the fire burns suddenly too hot
Tizdal gels up to move,
Why should such an animal
Provoke our love?

The twigs from the elder bush
Are tapping on the window pane
As the wind sets them tapping,
Now the tapping begins again.

One laughs on a night like this
In a room half firelight half dark
With a great lump of a cat
Moving on the hearth,
And the twigs tapping quick,
And the owl in an absolute fit
One laughs supposing creation
Pays for its long plodding
Simply by coming to)his-
Cat, night, fire-and a girl nodding.


Drawing by Stevie Smith for her poem, Nodding

Dear friends and readers,

This is at least my fifth blog on a text about or with cats. Marge Piercy’s memoir, Sleeping with Cats, Doris Lessing’s On Cats, Boswell and Piozzi on Dr Johnson and Hodge, not to omit Temple Grandin who reminded me how much animals love to eat, how happy it makes them (Animals in Translation) and various poems (Elsa Morante’s “Minna the Siamese” comes to mind).

They’ve been multiplying since I adopted two cats, Clary (green-eyed tortoiseshell) and Ian (yellow-eyed male ginger tabby). I’ve learned that one knows nothing about why people like cats until one owns one. Cats are private creatures, showing their selves only to their “persons” or special friend and family. You can’t get to know a cat unless you live with him or her, and then it takes time. They do not perform for strangers. Stevie says we have made them nervous. I know they do not like changes in routine; we should do precisely the same things each day at the same time. If we deviate, they marginalize themselves, watching suspiciously until we all return to our routs again.

I told a friend about the 1978 movie, Stevie, with Glenda Jackson, how quiet and truthful it is about a writing life. My friend had noticed my Lessing and Hodge blogs and told me about a review Stevie Smith had written about a book intended to make as permanent as photos and books can a beauty contest among cats, Cats in Colour. It’s in her Uncollected Writings, Me Again, made up of poems, short prose, pictures by herself. Smith’s several-page review’s delightful, intriguing, melancholy, like her writing, has so many moods all at once, and (most unusual for a review) includes drawings and poems. It’s very hard to do justice to this prose, it’s genius-level, the points of view so much at variance and yet the perspectives all coming together to focus again and again on how there are two worlds here: “the Human Creatuere and the Animal” and how we do not respect “the Animal World.”

This descriptive section will have to do:

It is not only the cats of antiquity that seem so peculiar (3,000 years may allow some difference in form) but … scaled to the size of a thin mouse, as we observe an Egyptian puss, couched beneath his master’s chair? The Grecian cats, though better scaled, seem dull and the cats of our Christian era not much better. There is a horrible cat drawing in Topsell’s The Historie of Four-Footed Beastes, dated 1607; there he sits, this cat, with a buboe on his hip, frozen and elaborate. In every line of this drawing, except for the cold sad eyes, the artist wrongs cathood. Quick sketchers do better, by luck perhaps. We all know Lear’s drawings of his fat cat Foss. There is true cathood here, though much, too, of course, of Mr Lear, so ‘pleasant to know’. Quick sketchers too can catch the cat in movement, and, though much addicted to, and fitted for, reclining, the cat moves-gallops, leaps, climbs and plays-with such elegance, one must have it so. Yet only this morning, I saw a cat quite motionless that looked so fine I could not have disturbed it. Hindways on, on top of a gray stone wall, its great haunches spred out beyond the wall’s narrow ledge,this animal was a ball of animate ginger fur; no shape but a ball’s, no head, no tail that was visible, had this old cat, but he caught all there was of winter sunshine and held it.

She leaves the book of glossy photographs, the excuse for her reverie, way behind. It does seem as if this review was actually intended to be printed as the introduction to said book.

She opens by saying cats reflect the egoism and ambition of their owners, even those not engineered into breeds and made expensive because rarer. She just wished this book had had photos of ashcan and ordinary poor and feral and wild cats “alongside” the beauties. Not that misery reveals cat-nature any more than beauty. Its cat-nature, cat-facts, cat-intransigence she’s on about in her review — as these impinge on and affect us. She concentrates and repeatedly returns to cat’s eyes: “blank and shining,” enigmatic, in themselves the eyeball expressionless. Finally or ultimately we can’t reach them nor they us, no matter how hard either side tries. She finds embarrassing and distressing how the cat does try so hard to reach us — it’s yearning gestures, its needs, and she’s more comfortable with its savage ruthless behaviors, predatory, play-bites.

As she launches into her descriptions of cat-lives, she inhabits the same territories as Lessing. She thinks we do cats a disservice by “fixing” them. We are depriving them of a real experience of cat-life — maternal duties, sexual prowess. She does know many live tragic lives, die helplessly. Nervous creatures they are, “like all tamed animals” given reason to be by us, our love as well as easy cruelty, power over them.

The last portion of the review provides what we know of cats in history, from the earliest figures to today, and writes with real plangency when she talks of how cats were burnt with women as witches — their helpers you see (an aspect of misogyny though she does not use such terms since cats are associated with women living alone). Our cruelties to cats:

witchcraft is too grim a story for here and its rites too cruel for our pampered pets. Yet I remembered the witch legends of history, as when the Scottish witches were accused of attempting the death of the King and Queen on their sea-passage home to Scotland. The witches swam a cat off the coast of North Berwick, having first christened it ‘Margaret’, they cast it into the sea to drown and thus-they said-raise a storm-wind to sink the King’s ship. For this they were convicted and burnt, for the Scots law was crueller than ours and sent witches to the stake, while we only hanged them. But in both countries the poor cat that belonged to the witch, if he was ‘apprehended’, might also suffer death by burning or hanging.

She also tells stories of individual cats she has known — like Lessing again. She describes one costuming of a cat as an angel which is really a debased bridal picture and rightly calls it “depraved.” She liked to see galloping cats (and has a poem in her the Collected Poems on “Galloping Cats”). To watch them in movement, streaking, hunting. Apparently she enjoyed teasing her cat. I can’t do that. At the very end there are stories of “good cats” and a poem reminding me of Dr Johnson and Hodge, about “Major” “a very fine cat.”

The Story of a Good Cat. This was the cat who came to the cruel cold prison in which Richard III had cast Sir Henry Wyatt when young. Because of his Lancastrian sympathies Henry had already beenimprisoned several times, and even put to the torture. The cat saved his life by drawing pigeons into the cell which the gaoler agreed to cook and dress for the poor prisoner, though for fear of his own life he dared not by other means increase his diet. There is a picture of Sir Henry as an old man sitting in a portrait with the prison cell for background and the cat, a peculiar sad-looking little cat, drawing a pigeon through the prison bars. Underneath is
written, but so faintly it is difficult to read, ‘This Knight with
hunger, cold and care neere starved, pyncht, pynde away, The sillie
Beast did fee de, heat, cheere with dyett, warmth and playe.

Remember how Christopher Smart’s cat, Geoffrey comforted him?

We have cat fables and fairy stories where all the characters are cats. And she skilfully recreates the atmosphere of an Algernon Blackwood gothic story whose center is a feel for the presence of cats:

there is a young man of French descent who is travelling in France on holiday. Suddenly the train he is on pulls up at a little station and he feels he must get down at this station. The inn he goes to is sleepy and comfortable,the proprietress is also sleepy and comfortable, a large fat lady who moves silently on little fat feet. Everybody in this inn treads silently, and all the people in the town are like this too, sleepy, heavy and treading softly. After a few days the young man begins to wonder; and at night, waking to look out over the ancient roof-tops, he wonders still more. For there is a sense of soft movement in the air, of doors opening softly, of soft thuds as soft bodies drop to the ground from wall or window; and he sees the shadows moving too. It was the shadow of a human being that dropped from the wall, but the shadow moved on the ground as a cat runs, and now it was not a human being but a cat. So in the end of course the young man is invited by the cat-girl, who is the plump inn owner’s daughter and serves by day in the inn, to join ‘the dance’ that is the witch’s sabbath. For this old French town is a mediaeval witch-town and bears the past alive within it. Being highminded, as most ghost-writers are, Blackwood makes the young man refuse the invitation and so come safe off with his soul, which had been for a moment much imperilled.

Me I like to watch them looking happy and also when they play with one another games which show them capable of semi-planning and tricking one another. I enjoy how they have favorite toys they carry about in their mouths. Ian has a string, Clary a furry looking object once meant for a mouse. Poor pussycats when they get themselves in trouble. I enjoy when they vocalize at me. I say “miaow” back and “I know” and “just so” and “I agree.” They are talking. Smith in Collected Poems has this love lyric to cats, the “eth” verbs turning it into a hymn:

The Singing Cat

It was a little captive cat
    Upon a crowded train
His mistress takes him from his box
    To ease his fretful pain.

She holds him tight upon her knee
    The graceful animal
And all the people look at him
    He is so beautiful.

But oh he pricks and oh he prods
    And turns upon her knee
Then lifteth up his innocent voice
    In plaintive melody.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And to each human countenance
    A smile of grace he bringeth.

He lifteth up his innocent paw
    Upon her breast he clingeth
And everybody cries, Behold
    The cat, the cat that singeth.

He lifteth up his innocent voice
    He lifteth up, he singeth
And all the people warm themselves
    In the love his beauty bringeth.

Someone said to me when I praised Lessing’s book as non-sentimental, nonsense, it’s all sentiment. Quite right. So too Smith’s essay. We try not to be but do not succeed.

Here’s my free translation of Morante’s poem, applying it to Clary. I told myself I liked the non-sentimental ending but probably I found appealing Morante’s attempt to capture cat-behavior.

Clary the tortie

I’ve a tiny beast, a cat named Clary.

Whatever I place on her plate, she eats
Whatever I pour into her bowl, she drinks.

Onto my knees she comes, gazes at me,
turns, sleeping tranquilly, so I forget
she’s there. If, remembering, I name her,
sleeping, her ear quivers, trembles, this name
then casts a dark shadow athwart her rest.

Blitheful, she has by her a muffled
tinkling stringed instrument, crinkling thanks
so sweet in play, I pet and I scratch her
turning neck & small upheld head, nudge, nudge.

If I consider history, time, things
separating us, disquiet comes. Alone:
of this she knows nothing. If then I watch
her play with string, her eye color tinted
by the sky, I yield. Laughter re-takes me.

When days off, for people, for us, make time
festive, pity comes to me for her who can’t
distinguish. That she too may celebrate,
for her meal I give her canned tuna fish.
She doesn’t understand why, but blissful
with her sharp teeth snips, gnaws, swallows away.

The Gods, to offer her some weapon, have
given her nails and teeth, but she, such her
gentleness, has adopted them for games.
Pity comes again for her whom I could
kill with impunity, no trial, no hell
thought of, no remorse, prisons. Just not there

She kisses me so much, licks and licks, I’ve
the illusion that she cherishes me.
I know another mistress or me to her
is all the same. She follows me about
as if to fool me that I am all to her
but I know my death would graze her but lightly …

(from Elsa Morante, Alibi, Poèmes, Édition bilingue, French translations by Jean-Noel Schifano)

****************

A New Yorker cartoon from a couple of weeks ago

I will though end on some unsentimental poetry and warn my reader these demand a strong stomach. They are not by any of the above writers. First up, an post-WW1 & 2 German poet, Marie Luise Kaschnitz (1901-74). This Rufus (I allude to Lessing’s Rufus), like some of us when so badly hurt, enraged, could not be brought back:

Die Katze

The Cat

The cat that someone found sat in a construction site and screamed.
The first night and the second and the third night.
The first time, passing by, not thinking of anything,
He carried the scream in his ears, heard it waking from a deep sleep.
The second time he bent down over the snow-covered ditch,
Trying in vain to coax out the shadow prowling around there.
The third time he jumped down, fetched the animal,
Called it cat, because no other name occurred to him.
And the cat stayed with him seven days.
Her fur stood on end, refused to be smoothed.
When he came home at night, she leapt on his chest, boxed his ears.
The nerve in her left eye twitched constantly.
She leapt up onto the curtains in the hall, dug in with her claws,
Swung back and forth, so the iron rings rattled.
She ate up all the flowers he brought home.
She knocked vases off the table, tore up the petals.
She didn’t sleep at night, sat at the foot of his bed
Looking up at him with burning eyes.
After a week the curtains were torn to shreds,
His kitchen was strewn with garbage. He did nothing anymore,
Didn’t read, didn’t play the piano,
The nerve of his left eye twitched constantly.
He had made her a ball out of silver paper,
Which she had scorned for a long time. On the seventh day
She lay in wait, shot out,
Chased the silver ball. On the seventh day
She leapt up onto his lap, let herself by petted, and purred.
Then he felt like a person with great power.
He rocked her, brushed her, tied a ribbon around her neck.
But in the night she escaped, three floors down,
And ran, not far, just to the place where he
Had found her. Where the willows’ shadows
Moved in the moonlight. Back in the same place
She flew from rock to rock in her rough coat
And screamed.

(from The Defiant Muse: German Feminist Poems from the Middle Ages to Now, ed. trans. Susan Cocalis)

Smith says it’s better to love your cat to the point of folly than not to love them at all. And she has a passage that takes into account the same insight as Kaschnitz:

We were now swimming above a sandbank some half mile or so out from the shore. Presently the sandbank broke surface and we
climbed out and stood up on it. All around us was nothing but the sea and the sand and the hot still air. Look, I said, what is this coming? (It was a piece of wreckage that was turning round in the current by the sandbank and coming towards us.) Why, I said, it is a cat. And there sure enough, standing spitting upon the wooden spar was a young cat. We must get it in, said Caz, and stretched out to get it. But I saw that the cat was not spitting for the thought of its plight — so far from land, so likely to be drowned-but for a large sea-beetle that was marooned upon the spar with the cat, and that the cat was stalking and spitting at. First it backed from the beetle with its body arched and its tail stiff, then, lowering its belly to the spar, it crawled slowly towards the beetle, placing its paws carefully and with the claws well out. Why look, said Caz, its jaws are chattering. The chatter of the teeth of the hunting cat could now be heard as the spar came swinging in to the sandbank. Caz made a grab for the spar, but the young cat, its eyes dark with anger, pounced upon his hand and tore it right across. Caz let go with a start and the piece of wreckage swung off at right angles and was already far away upon the current. We could not have taken it with us, I said, that cat is fighting mad, he does not wish to be rescued, with his baleful eye and his angry teeth chattering at
the hunt, he does not wish for security.

And second, Hilary Mantel, her final devastating critique of life in Saudi Arabia is in her last paragraph of Eight Months on Ghazza Street: how relieved she is not to have to see the state of their cats, like ours, an emblem of us:

The street cats swarmed over the wall, looking for shelter, and dragged themselves before the glass. She watched them: scared cats, starving, alive with vermin, their faces battered, their broken limbs, set crooked, their fur eaten away. She felt she could no longer live with doing nothing for these cats. Slow tears leaked out of her eyes.

Ellen

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Mathilde Blind (1872) by Lucy Madox Brown (1843-94), chalks on grey paper

Dear friends and readers,

Frances Wilson’s summary of Mathilde Blind’s life in her review of Angela Thirkell’s book which tells the story of the four women-as-partners in Ford Madox Brown’s life, the last of which was Mathilde Blind, is unbeatable for vivacity and concision:

Mathilde was raised in Germany by an overbearing revolutionary stepfather who knew Karl Marx; her brother shot himself after failing to assassinate Bismark. In her own first attempt at revolt, Mathilde was expelled from school for atheism. A feminist, journalist, critic, poet, translator, novelist and biographer, she was a fabulously beautiful wild card (and most likely a lesbian) who shared with Madox Brown an interest in radical politics. She lived as a friend with the artist and his wife on and off for 20 years, until Emma’s death in 1890. Because none of their letters survives we cannot know the true nature of the relationship between Mathilde and Madox Brown; Thirlwell concludes that it “was probably not physical in the full sense”, but contained “a special erotic charge”. But had Mathilde felt any physical passion for Madox Brown, she seems the type to have expressed it. Mathilde is not only the most interesting of Madox Brown’s loves, she was also probably the most interesting woman in London at that time.

I’ve chosen her also because I found her poems in a book which choses unusual poets, provides a strong biography, and gives a lengthier selection than usual, Virginia Blain’s Victorian Women Poets: An Annotated Anthology. Blind’s are strong, passionate, electrifyingly descriptive and intelligently feminist, socialist. To begin with,

Manchester by Night

O’ER this huge town, rife with intestine wars,
Whence as from monstrous sacrificial shrines
Pillars of smoke climb heavenward, Night inclines
Black brows majestical with glimmering stars.
Her dewy silence soothes life’s angry jars:
And like a mother’s wan white face, who pines
Above her children’s turbulent ways, so shines
The moon athwart the narrow cloudy bars.
Now toiling multitudes that hustling crush
Each other in the fateful strife for breath,
And, hounded on by diverse hungers, rush
Across the prostrate ones that groan beneath,
Are swathed within the universal hush,
As life exchanges semblances with death.
[1881]

A Winter Landscape

ALL night, all day, in dizzy, downward flight,
     Fell the wild-whirling, vague, chaotic snow,
     Till every landmark of the earth below,
Trees, moorlands, roads, and each familiar sight
Were blotted out by the bewildering white.
     And winds, now shrieking loud, now whimpering low,
     Seemed lamentations for the world-old woe
That death must swallow life, and darkness light.
But all at once the rack was blown away,
     The snowstorm hushing ended in a sigh;
     Then like a flame the crescent moon on high
Leaped forth among the planets; pure as they,
Earth vied in whiteness with the Milky Way:
     Herself a star beneath the starry sky.
[1889]

She felt herself an internal exile; someone exiled from the rest of her society by virtue of her inner self. Towards the end of her life she wrote in her Commonplace book “I have been an exile in this world. Without a God, without a country, without a family.” Her series of love lyrics, published in The Ascent of Man (a Darwinian perspective made optimistic) is called Love in Exile. It begins:

1

THou walkest with me as the spirit-light
     Of the hushed moon, high o’er a snowy hill,
Walks with the houseless traveller all the night,
     When trees are tongueless and when mute the rill.
Moon of my soul, 0 phantasm of delight,
     Thou walkest with me still.

The vestal flame of quenchless memory burns
     In my soul’s sanctuary. Yea, still for thee
My bitter heart hath yearned, as moonward yearns
     Each separate wave-pulse of the clamorous sea:
My Moon of love, to whom for ever turns
     The life that aches through me.

She was deeply active on behalf of impoverished women and prostitutes, and her purview included non-western women. Blind’s poem “Mourning Women” describes, then addresses, the Muslim women of Egypt (from the volume Birds of Passage: Songs of the Orient
and Occident
[1895]
,

Mourning Women.

ALL veiled in black, with faces hid from sight,
     Crouching together in the jolting cart,
     What forms are these that pass alone, apart,
In abject apathy to life’s delight?
The motley crowd, fantastically bright,
     Shifts gorgeous through each dazzling street and mart;
     Only these sisters of the suffering heart
Strike discords in this symphony of light.

Most wretched women! whom your prophet dooms
     To take love’s penalties without its prize!
Yes; you shall bear the unborn in your wombs,
     And water dusty death with streaming eyes,
And, wailing, beat your breasts among the tombs;
     &But souls ye have none fit for Paradise.


Samuel Fildes (1843-1927), Applicants for Admission to a Casual Ward (1874)

Many many more poems at Matilde Blind (1841-96)

*******************

As to a more extended view of her life, I don’t mean to suggest she lived a solitary or at all reclusive existence. She’s much better known for her political and social activities. Her father had been a Jewish banker and she was born in Mannheim, Germany, but when he died and her mother remarried, the revolutionary leader, Karl Blind, the family moved to Paris, and from there to England where Matilde was educated at a London girls’ school. She tried to again admission to university lectures and her failure fired her first enthusiasm for women’s education. When she died, she bequeathed her estate to Newham College, Cambridge, to found a scholarship for women.

Her first poems were dedicated to Giuseppe Mazzini, and she supported the Italian revolutionaries; she was influenced by and admired Elizaabeth Barrett Browning and George Eliot, about whom she wrote yet another life (1883). Shelley, Byron inspired her. Two poems show her time in Scotland, one set in the Hebrides deals with religious questions from an atheist angle (The Prophecy of St Oran, 1881). The Heather on Fire (1886) is about the shameful Highland clearances, razed villages, people driven cruelly into further absymal poverty and emigration. There is no false romance here: we see the “agonizing plight of a crippled old woman whom no-one removed from her home before” it was set on fire; we see the people herded onto beaches to set sail for Canada. The scope, sincerity, intensity and authentic concern made her poems admired. She was no favorite with critics; her poems were not designed for male readers. Her fallen woman poem of a prostitute dying in a hospital was seen as distasteful. The pains of childbirth were not their concern. But Arthur Symons did published a full Poetical Works in 1900.


John Everett Millais (1829-96), Blow blow though winter wind (a Scotland scene)

As to her prose writing, she admired Mary Wollstonecraft, wrote an article on her (1878) and herself spent her life as an independent woman. She traveled widely in Europe and Egypt and through Scotland, published translations from Goethe, and wrote a life of the French revolutionary, Madame Roland (1886), and (her most famous work today) translated the extraordinary Journal of Marie Bashkirseff (1890), herself a fine artist. Her one experimental novel, Tarantella: A Romance is online (18805). To sum up her social existence as seen by others, confident, generous, she had circles of friends in the arts (especially the Pre-Raphaelites), knew the radical novelists, Mona Caird, was friends with Eleanor Marx. Blain says that Blind loved to give “‘literary dinners’ in rooms in well-chosen hotels.”


Lucy Madox Brown, The Duet (1870), watercolor on paper

See wikipedia and recent articles:

S. Brown, “‘A Still and Mute-Born Vision': Locating Mathilde Blind’s
Reproductive Poetics,” Essays and Studies 56( 2003): 123-144.

James Diedrick, “‘My Love is a Force That Will Force you to Care':
Subversive Sexuality in Mathilde Blind’s Dramatic Monologues.”
Victorian Poetry 40.4 (2002) 359-386.

James Diedrick, “A Pioneering Female Aesthete: Mathilde Blind in the
Dark Blue.” The Victorian Periodicals Review 36.6 (2003): 210-241.

Christine Sutphin, “Human Tigresses, Fractious Angels, and Nursery Saints:
Augusta Webster’s A Castaway and Victorian Discourses on Prostitution and
Women’s Sexuality.” Victorian Poetry 38.4 (2000) 511-532

As to Lucy, as will have been seen she succumbed to romantic pictures of actors playing Shakespeare. But then these sold. But she also wrote a book, on Mary Shelley and it’s online.

I thank my good friend, Fran, for helping me find some of the above material and filling me in on her knowledge of Blind from Fran’s childhood in Lancaster and now life in southern Germany.

I had begun to place my foremother poet blogs over on Austen Reveries where they have mounted up to 18, as under the sign of a central women writer (who also wrote verse); but this one I felt really was not a life which can be placed with Austen as a gravatar, example. For the other (25) foremother poets on this blog, see the archive here.

Ellen

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Amy Clampitt

A Thrush singing in Dorsetshire

Dear friends and readers,

This foremother poet blog on Amy Clampitt, is done differently from most. I was so taken by her “The Hermit Thrush” after reading a review in Women’s Review of Books of a newly published book of her poems, that I wrote a brief foremother poet posting and then put this poem on Wompo — at whch there was an outpouring of Thrush poems in reponse. So this is Amy Clampitt amid the thrushes. I found 2 UTube videos where one can hear the thrush’s song and watch a couple: the one above and one at the end of the blog.

Jim and I don’t share that many favorite poems but one is Basil Bunting (Yorkshire poet)’s (part of which forms the epigraph to my Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two):

A thrush in the syringa sings.

‘Hunger ruffles my wings, fear,
lust, familiar things.

Death thrusts hard. My sons
by hawk’s beak, by stones,
trusting weak wings
by cat and weasel, die.

Thunder smothers the sky.
From a shaken bush I
list familiar things,
fear, hunger, lust.’

O gay thrush.

(1964)

Syringa is sweet-smelling lilacs and Austen planted one in her first garden in Southampton for the sake of a line by Cowper that includes the syringa.

**********************

The latest issue of Women’s Review of Books (Jan/Feb 2012) is particularly rich and fine, and among its essays are no less than three on women’s poetry. One of these Amy Clampitt whose name I’ve heard before was written about in such a way I longed to read her poetry. In no time I found this masterpiece:

The Hermit Thrush

Nothing’s certain. Crossing, on this longest day,
the low-tide-uncovered isthmus, scrambling up
the scree-slope of what at high tide
will be again an island,

to where, a decade since well-being staked
the slender, unpremeditated claim that brings us
back, year after year, lugging the
makings of another picnic—

the cucumber sandwiches, the sea-air-sanctified
fig newtons—there’s no knowing what the slamming
seas, the gales of yet another winter
may have done. Still there,

the gust-beleaguered single spruce tree,
the ant-thronged, root-snelled moss, grass
and clover tuffet underneath it,
edges frazzled raw

but, like our own prolonged attachment, holding.
Whatever moral lesson might commend itself,
there’s no use drawing one,
there’s nothing here

to seize on as exemplifying any so-called virtue
(holding on despite adversity, perhaps) or
any no-more-than-human tendency—
stubborn adherence, say,

to a wholly wrongheaded tenet. Though to
hold on in any case means taking less and less
for granted, some few things seem nearly
certain, as that the longest day

will come again, will seem to hold its breath,
the months-long exhalation of diminishment
again begin. Last night you woke me
for a look at Jupiter,

that vast cinder wheeled unblinking
in a bath of galaxies. Watching, we traveled
toward an apprehension all but impossible
to be held onto—

that no point is fixed, that there’s no foothold
but roams untethered save by such snells,
such sailor’s knots, such stays
and guy wires as are

mainly of our own devising. From such an
empyrean, aloof seraphic mentors urge us
to look down on all attachment,
on any bonding, as

in the end untenable. Base as it is, from
year to year the earth’s sore surface
mends and rebinds itself, however
and as best it can, with

thread of cinquefoil, tendril of the magenta
beach pea, trammel of bramble; with easings,
mulchings, fragrances, the gray-green
bayberry’s cool poultice—

and what can’t finally be mended, the salt air
proceeds to buff and rarefy: the lopped carnage
of the seaward spruce clump weathers
lustrous, to wood-silver.

Little is certain, other than the tide that
circumscribes us that still sets its term
to every picnic—today we stayed too long
again, and got our feet wet—

and all attachment may prove at best, perhaps,
a broken, a much-mended thing. Watching
the longest day take cover under
a monk’s-cowl overcast,

with thunder, rain and wind, then waiting,
we drop everything to listen as a
hermit thrush distills its fragmentary,
hesitant, in the end

unbroken music. From what source (beyond us, or
the wells within?) such links perceived arrive—
diminished sequences so uninsistingly
not even human—there’s

hardly a vocabulary left to wonder, uncertain
as we are of so much in this existence, this
botched, cumbersome, much-mended,
not unsatisfactory thing

Amy Clampitt


Said to be a hermit thrush

A biography with reviews and poetry linked in.

I can contribute this brief life too:

Amy Clampitt was born on June 15, 1920, and brought up in New Providence, Iowa. She wrote poetry in high school, but then ceased and focused her energies on writing fiction instead. She graduated from Grinnell College, and from that time on lived mainly in New York City. To support herself, she worked as a secretary at the Oxford University Press, a reference librarian at the Audubon Society, and a freelance editor.

Not until the mid-1960s, when she was in her forties, did she return to writing poetry. Her first poem was published by The New Yorker in 1978. In 1983, at the age of sixty-three, she published her first full-length collection, The Kingfisher.

In the decade that followed, Clampitt published five books of poetry, including What the Light Was Like (1985), Archaic Figure (1987), and Westward (1990). Her last book, A Silence Opens, appeared in 1994. The recipient in 1982 of a Guggenheim Fellowship, and in 1984 of an Academy Fellowship, she was made a MacArthur Foundation Fellow in 1992. She was also a member of the American Academy of Arts and Letters and taught at the College of William and Mary, Amherst College, and Smith College. She died of cancer in September 1994.

I have read that she is accused of being bookish! if so, all the better (see poems in comments). If this woman be not a foremother, where are foremothers to be found?

And here is the outpouring of thrush poetry from the women poets and lovers of poetry from Wompo (Women’s Poetry list) whence we had an outpouring of thrush, with photos and another UTube performance of a bird. These were placed on Wompo over three days. Friends, were Congress to enact this draconian censorship bill on behalf of the movie and music industry and other powerful corporations who the Internet takes business from (narrow public media owned by a few) and other powerful institutions threatened by the Net this is the sort of thing they’d silence, black out.

By Margo Berdeshevsky (which she shared with us):

Of the Song Bird

Legend tells of the community of birds who had wings but no song as yet : of a contest offered them by the god : of the prize of song—offered to that bird who could fly the highest : of the tiny dun white-spotted-thrush who knew it had no powers to fly high enough to win and wanted to—

Who crept, instead, who hid her small self in a white eagle’s feathered crown to fly far higher than all others : who dozed there, dreamed there, concealed in her carrier’s flight, and longing—and when her eagle tired, she who knew, and bounded out and upward farther still—

Legend tells of the coveted prize of song she heard and learned there, in the heights : of the thrush who returned with the song of spheres in her thirsty small throat, who knew she had won by cheating : who saw the gathering of birds below—a community, receiving, each, their entitled songs—

Legend of the thrush who went away then, hid in the deepest of forests out of shame—but who could not help her song from rising, even in those stands of webbing vine and shadow—of a quest for beauty, of goodness as we barely know it but beg to receive it—that it brings us to longing, only—

Frailty, that rarely, like the thrush, the gorgeous song in us climbs, a bird ashamed of its arriving at a possession of beauty by unsanctioned means, a slouching off to such a dim-lit place where the song erupts in spite, its open-winged remembering, seining from the quiet—

We decided that these thrush poems project world views and tell us much about their poets:

The Laughing Thrush

O nameless joy of the morning

tumbling upward note by note out of the night
and the hush of the dark valley
and out of whatever has not been there

song unquestioning and unbounded
yes this is the place and the one time
in the whole of before and after
with all of memory waking into it

and the lost visages that hover
around the edge of sleep
constant and clear
and the words that lately have fallen silent
to surface among the phrases of some future
if there is a future

here is where they all sing the first daylight
whether or not there is anyone listening


White-crested laughing thrush

W. W. Merwin

Thrushes

Terrifying are the attent sleek thrushes on the lawn,
More coiled steel than living – a poised
Dark deadly eye, those delicate legs
Triggered to stirrings beyond sense – with a start, a bounce,
a stab
Overtake the instant and drag out some writhing thing.
No indolent procrastinations and no yawning states,
No sighs or head-scratchings. Nothing but bounce and stab
And a ravening second.

Is it their single-mind-sized skulls, or a trained
Body, or genius, or a nestful of brats
Gives their days this bullet and automatic
Purpose? Mozart’s brain had it, and the shark’s mouth
That hungers down the blood-smell even to a leak of its own
Side and devouring of itself: efficiency which
Strikes too streamlined for any doubt to pluck at it
Or obstruction deflect.

With a man it is otherwise. Heroisms on horseback,
Outstripping his desk-diary at a broad desk,
Carving at a tiny ivory ornament
For years: his act worships itself – while for him,
Though he bends to be blent in the prayer, how loud and
above what
Furious spaces of fire do the distracting devils
Orgy and hosannah, under what wilderness
Of black silent waters weep.

Ted Hughes

A cruel poem, embodying the cruelty of the natural and human worlds.


A darkling thrush

The Darkling Thrush

I leant upon a coppice gate
When Frost was spectre-grey,
And Winter’s dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day.
The tangled bine-stems scored the sky
Like strings of broken lyres,
And all mankind that haunted nigh
Had sought their household fires.

The land’s sharp features seemed to be
The Century’s corpse outleant,
His crypt the cloudy canopy,
The wind his death-lament.
The ancient pulse of germ and birth
Was shrunken hard and dry,
And every spirit upon earth
Seemed fervourless as I.

At once a voice arose among
The bleak twigs overhead
In a full-hearted evensong
Of joy illimited;
An aged thrush, frail, gaunt, and small,
In blast-beruffled plume,
Had chosen thus to fling his soul
Upon the growing gloom.

So little cause for carolings
Of such ecstatic sound
Was written on terrestrial things
Afar or nigh around,
That I could think there trembled through
His happy good-night air
Some blessed Hope, whereof he knew
And I was unaware.

Thomas Hardy

*******************
Turning back to women’s poetry and thrushes, it’s been suggested that in women’s poetry one finds women poets who identify physically and intimately with small animals. (See Women’s faery poetry). For a near contemporary we have Mary Oliver


Am alert watchful thrush

And to go back in time, two from my favorite era, the 18th century. This is in the spirit of Robert Burns’s To a Mousie, or a similar vein. It really belongs to an early part of the animal rights movement; other poems (often by women) against experiment and really empathizing with (for example) cats are part of this earlier context.

Elegy: On finding a young THRUSH in the Street, who escaped from the Writer’s Hand, as she was bringing him home, and, falling down the Area of a House, could not be found

Mistaken Bird, ah, whither hast thou stray’d?
My friendly grasp, why eager to elude?
This hand was on thy pinion lightly laid,
And fear’d to hurt thee by a touch too rude.

Is there no foresight in a Thrush’s breast,
That thou down yonder gulph from me would’st go?
That gloomy area lurking cats infest,
And there the dog may rove, alike thy foe.

I would with lavish crumbs my Bird have fed,
And bought a crystal cup to wet thy bill;
I would have made of down and moss thy bed,
Soft, though not fashion’d with a Thrush’s skill.

Soon as thy strengthen’d wing could mount the sky,
My willing hand had set my captive free:
Ah, not for her, who loves the muse, to buy
A selfish pleasure, bought with pain to thee!

The vital air, and liberty, and light,
Had all been thine: and love, and rapt’rous song,
And sweet parental joys, in rapid flight,
Had led the circle of thy life along.

Securely to my window hadst thou flown,
And ever thy accustom’d morsel found;
Nor should thy trusting breast the wants have known,
Which other Thrushes knew, when winter frown’d.

Fram’d with the wisdom Nature lent to thee,
Thy house of straw had brav’d the tempest’s rage;
And thou, thro’ many a spring, hadst liv’d to see
The utmost limit of a Thrush’s age.

Ill-fated Bird! and does the Thrush’s race,
Like Man’s, mistake the path that leads to bliss;
Or, when his eye that tranquil path can trace,
The good he well discerns, thro’ folly miss?”

——Helen Maria Williams

(1790)

***********************

Ode to the Missed Thrush

Charlotte Smith

The Winter Soistice scarce is past,
Loud is the wind, and hoarsely sound
The mill-streams in the swelling blast,
And cold and humid is the ground[;]
When, to the ivy, that embowers
Some pollard tree, or sheltering rock,
The troop of timid warblers flock,
And shuddering wait for milder hours.

While thou! the leader of their band,
Fearless salut’st the opening year;
Nor stay’st, till blow the breeze bland
That bid the tender leaves appear:
But, on some towering elm or pine,
Waving elate thy dauntless wing,
Thou joy’st thy love notes wild to sing,
Impatient of St. Valentine!

Oh, herald of the Spring! while yet
No harebe1l scents the woodland lane,
Nor starwort fair, nor violet,
Braves the bleak gust and driving rain,
‘Tis thine, as thro’ the copses rude
Some pensive wanderer sighs along,
To soothe him with thy cheerful song,
And tell of Hope and Fortitude!

For thee then, may the hawthorn bush,
The elder, and the spindle tree,
With all their various berries blush,
And the blue sloe abound for thee!
For thee, the coral holly glow
Its arm’d and glossy leaves among,
And many a branched oak be hung
With thy pellucid missletoe.
Still may thy nest, with lichen lin’d,
Be hidden from the invading jay,
Nor truant boy its covert find,
To bear thy callow young away;
So thou, precursor still of good,
0, herald of approaching Spring,
Shalt to the pensive wanderer sing
Thy song of Hope and Fortitude.

The above too has a larger specific context from the time: poems about nature in a time of war (Napoleonic). It fits in with some eighteenth century poetry by poets like Thomson and Cowper, discussed by Favret (her last name) in a recent brilliant moving article in PMLA (“Still Winter Comes”, PMLA 124:5 (2009):1548-61

Just listen to that gay song and watch at the Metro Toronto Zoo with people commenting.

Ellen

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Letters to the World: poems from the Wom-po listserv

Dear friends and readers,

ON the Wompo listserv, a member, Lesley Wheeler, has posted a URL to an essay she wrote on the Wom-po community:

A Salon with a Revolving Door: Virtual Community and the Space of Wom-po, Contemporary Women’s Writing, an Oxford online Journal.

It is a defense of listserv life from the point of view of this listserv set up to discuss women’s poetry, and be haven for women poets and those interested in women’s poetry; goals included meeting other women poets and creating a healthy women’s community. I’ve been a member of a member of for some years now and remember when we first bruited the idea of publishing an anthology of poems by the members (interspersed with prose comments on the listserv community), Letters to the World. Lesley’s article is valuable for putting into some permanent (traditionally respected form) a history of this community, for treating it with respect, and pointing out some of the significant functions such listservs can play in real people’s lives.

Lesley’s essay also shows real respect for the members of the wompo listserv, and its peculiar formations. Perhaps though she does somewhat over emphasize the function or centrality of the famous respected people over and over again. They are attractions to other people and can help keep people posting (if mostly through backchanneling). Her choice of topic too — international versus national conversations, how location actually does figure in what is said and to whom and about what — needs to be thought about more. It’s not that overwhelming a thread at all, though the outsider-insider nexus is a central part of the experience (so we all do know who are the dogs on the Net and who cannot be kicked). I wish she had developed the importance of conversation as community more. It seems to me that’s the central insight of her essay. When conversation dies, the community vanishes.

A wee correction: it was not I who started Wompo Wednesday. It was a part of the listserv conventions when I came: on Wednesday all are invited to put poems by contemporary living women onto the listserv. Joelle Biele has been keeping that up still, with a occasional people joining on to comment or contribute a poem or two. I did pick up on it and kept it up for a while with them. The same goes for Foremother Friday. There I made more of it than had been intended: I not only posted poems by women who were poet foremothers (at first they had to have died sixty years since), but also contributed little lives and a short piece of criticism and I did it regularly for a number of years and 30 of my pieces became part of their Wompo festival site and listserv Foremothers Corner. But it was there as a option for posting something for Friday when I came on, others have kept it up since I gave over doing it so regularly and began to put the postings here on this (Foremother poets) and my other blog too (Austen Reveries group).

I regret there’s never been one on Kevin Berland’s C18-l nor Patrick Leary’s Victoria (so far as I know) and also none on Austen-l: too much prejudice surrounds these unexclusive virtual community groups (especially from those inside exclusive coterie groups in academia or publishing), and Austen-l has suffered bouts of flame wars and (to be honest) trolls and a ruthless use of it for self-advertisement (so that anything can be said about Austen, no matter how improbable) and insufficient moderation (it has no owner in this sense). But Austen-l has been a real wide-ranging known community fostering all sorts of people as beginning writers as well as scholars and Janeites. A number of people have told me this (Cindy James who wrote My Jane Austen Summer comes to mind and is one of many many).

These listserv communities have meant so much to me and I know to others. For me they have given me a life I did not have before, could never have had any other way (like others in this I know), one I value and cherish and try to sustain. I see the same happening for other people who have stayed on listservs and opened blogs and websites; for individual friends, my daughters, their friends. I’ve published four times on listserv communities I’ve been part ofP: my Trollope on the Net is 50% about the people reading Trollope’s novels, how we went about it and what we said; my “On reading divergent Fanny Burney d’Arblays” and “Johnson and Boswell Forever” describe and commemorate two reading and discussions we had on Eighteenth-Century Worlds @ Yahoo, and my “Women in Cyberspace” is about cyberspace is a strongly gendered experience, differing in significant ways for women and men. This one Joan Korenman, listowner of the long-time WMST-l was genderous enough to place on the Net as one of the permanent papers of the community of women scholars. I am aware the word “community” with all its unexamined positive resonances is one some people refuse to see as real in cyberspace (sometimes I feel in meanness, sometimes ignorance, sometime fear because they’ve had or heard of bad experiences) and Leslie addresses this question too. The greatest red herring in debates over cyberspace life is that it takes you away from all your others social worlds: lots of people have few or small and uncongenial social worlds and should shout that out as central to the outsider/insider nexus.

Ellen

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Caterina von Hemessen (1527/8 – ?1566), Portrait of a Lady, 1551

Dear friends and readers,

Six years ago now I finished making this large bibliography page for women’s literature (it’s not limited to women poets), and rejoice to say that Anna Galovich has translated it into Estonian and placed it on her website.

I am planning to take all my foremother poet postings, website additions and (revised) partially poet blogs over the years and place them in a single region on my website this summer; one place where people can come to. This will help encourage me to do it.

The origin of all this was my translations of Renaissance women poets, whence my choice of Caterina for the page and this blog.

Ellen

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Stevie Smith’s drawing underneath her poem, “My Soul”

Dear friends and readers,

Stevie Smith is one of my favorite 20th century poets. I’ve been wanting to write a foremother poet blog for her, and waiting until I could re-see the movie, Stevie (1978), based on her life, and starring Glenda Jackson (director Robert Enders, writer Hugh Whittemore), but as I’ve discovered now that I can’t obtain a DVD, and tonight read a splendid literary evaluation of her poetry, have decided to go ahead without benefit of the fictional-biographical portrayal.

A second problem for me is since I like her poetry so much, and have 3 books of it (plus selections and prose writing), I just didn’t know which ones to select. But select I must, so I have chosen a mix of longer monologues, lyrical and epigrammatic verses.

To start with the latter, a poem which states simply what makes love worthwhile and lasting:

Autumn

He told his life story to Mrs Courtly
Who was a widow. ‘Let us get married shortly’,
He said. ‘I am no longer passionate,
But we can have some conversation before it is too late.’

move onto the former (long monologue) where we see her overturn conventional identifications and judgemental views:

Phèdre

I wonder why Proust should have thought
The lines from Racine’s Phèdre
Depuis que sur ces bords les deux ont envoyé
La fille de Minos et de Pasiphaé to be
Entirely devoid of meaning,
To me they seem
As lucid as they are alarming.
I wonder why
The actresses I’ve seen
Playing Phèdre
Always indulge
In such mature agonising.
Phèdre was young,
(This is as clear in Racine as Euripides)
She was young,
A girl caught in a trap, a girl
Under the enforcement
Of a goddess.
I dare say Phèdre
In fact I’m sure of it
Was by nature
As prim as Hipolytus,
Poor girl, poor girl, what could she do
But be ashamed and hang herself,
Poor girl.

How awful the French actess
Marie Bell
Made her appear.
Poor Phèdre,
Not only to be shamed by her own behaviour
Enforced by that disgusting goddess,
Ancient enemy
Of her family,
But nowadays to have played
By actresses like Marie Bell
In awful ancient agonising, something painful

Now if I
Had been writing this story
I should have arranged for Theseus
To die,
(Well he was old)
And then I should have let
Phèdre and Hippolytus
Find Aricie out
In some small meanness,
Say
Eating up somebody else’s chocolates,
Half a pound of them, soft-centred,
Secretly in bed at night, alone
One after another
Positively wolfing them down.
This would have put Hip off,
and Phaedra would be there too
and he would turn and see
That she was pretty disgusted , too
so then they would have got married
and everything would have been respectable
and the wretched Venus could have lumped it,
Lumped I mean Phèdre
Being the only respectable member
Of her awful family
And being happy.

I should have liked one member
of that awful family
To be happy.
What with Ariadne auf Naxos,
and Pasiphaé and that awful animal
and Minos sitting judging the Dead
In those awful dark halls.
Yes, I should like poor honorable simple sweet prim Phèdre
to be happy. One would have to be pretty simple
to be happy with a prig like Hippolytus
But she was simple
I think it might have been a go
If I were writing the story
I should have made it a go.

Even if altogether too often quoted, Not Waving But Drowning is one of her supreme and characteristic achievements, and for it I have (from a friend on WWTTA) a taped commentary and reading aloud. (I am not sure it will work; I had it on the blog but it was removed for copyright infringement after third parties apparently told someone with the power to block the UTube.) If you can find this UTube recording, you hear her unsettling way of reading aloud, a off-key frank talk that is more haunted and memorable than you at first realize. You also learn that the poem is based on a real incident of someone who really drowned while others thought he was just waving.

She lived her life with women, at one point in a house of aunts, and a sister (when she was young her father went to sea and thereafter never saw his family); this poem testifies to the beauty of the female household:

A House of Mercy

It was a house of female habitation,
Two ladies fair inhabited the house,
And they were brave. For although Fear knocked loud
Upon the door, and said he must come in,
They did not let him in.

There were also two feeble babes, two girls,
That Mrs S. had by her husband had,
He soon left them and went away to sea,
Nor sent them money, nor came home again
Except to borrow back
Her Naval Officer’s Wife’s Allowance from Mrs S.
Who gave it him at once, she thought she should.

There was also the ladies’ aunt
And babes’ great aunt, a Mrs Martha Hearn Clode,
And she was elderly.
These ladies put their money all together
And so we lived.

I was the younger of the feeble babes
And when I was a child my mother died
And later Great Aunt Martha Hearn Clode died
And later still my sister went away.

Now I am old I tend my mother’s sister
The noble aunt who so long tended us,
Faithful and True her name is. Tranquil.
Also Sardonic. And I tend the house.

It is a house of female habitation
A house expecting strength as it is strong
A house of aristocratic mould that looks apart
When tears fall; counts despair
Derisory. Yet it has kept us well. For all its faults,
If they are faults, of sternness and reserve,
It is a Being of warmth I think; at heart
A house of mercy.

This the anguish of loss of such a friendship in a softly melting lyric:

Pad pad

I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more

What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.


Drawing by Stevie Smith

I like this brilliant art criticism (how imitations tarnish and bring out what’s bad in the better version of something too). I think of Kenneth Clark’s The Nude is after all endless pictures of naked women for men to look at and judge; he is perfectly unconcerned (the phrase is Austen’s about Lydia Bennet) with their circumstances, context, the models themselves.

Salon d’Automne

One thousand and one naked ladies
With a naivete
At once pedantic and unsympathetic
Deck the walls
Of the Salon d’Automne.
This is the Slap school of art,
It would be nice
To smack them
Slap, slap, slap,
That would be nice.
It is possible
One might tire of smacking them In time
But not so soon
As one tires of seeing them.
We too
Have our pedantic and unsympathetic
School,
It used to show
A feeling for animals.
The English are splendid with animals,
There was The Stag at Bay
And Faithful unto Death,
And Man’s Best Friend the horse this time
Usually under gunfire,
The English are splendid with animals.
That older school
Was perhaps
On an intellectual level
With the Salon d’Automne.
Nowadays, of course,
We are more advanced:
The bad modern painter
Has lost the naivete
Of that earlier school
And in its place
Has developed a talent
For making the work of his betters
Seem stale
By uninspired Imitation.
Really
This is more tiring
Than the thousand and one
Naked ladies.

This poem of a dance performance at a school, dated June 1939. The poet is there watching them, and the imagery of a “cold summer sky” and dark hard currents in the air, with something “equivocal” underneath the “veneer” of a “vision of innocence” soon to come to an end connects to the coming war:

The Ballet of the Twelve Dancing Princesses

HAYES COURT, JUNE 1939

The schoolgirls dance on the cold grass
The ballet of the twelve dancing princesses
And the shadows pass

Over their cold feet

Above in the cold summer sky the clouds mass
The icy wind blows across the laurel bushes
The sky is hard blue and gray where a cloud rushes
The sky is icy blue it is like the night blue where a star pushes.

But it is not night
It is daytime on an English lawn.
The scholars dance. The weather is as fresh as dawn.
Dawn and night are the webs of this summer’s day
Dawn and night the tempo of the children’s play.

Who taught the scholars? Who informed the dance?
Who taught them so innocent to advance
So far in a peculiar study? They seem to be in a trance.
It is a trance in which the cold innocent feet pass
To and fro in a hinted meaning over the grass
The meaning is not more ominous and frivolous than the clouds
that mass.

There is nothing to my thought more beautiful at this moment
Than a vision of innocence that is bound to do something
equivocal
I sense something equivocal beneath the veneer of an innocent
spent
Tale and in the trumpet sound of the icy storm overhead there is
evocable
The advance of innocence against a mutation that is irrevocable
Only in the imagination of that issue joined for a split second is
the idea beautiful.

**********************************

Stevie Smith, photograph on the Net

There are a large number of sites for Florence Margaret Smith (1902-71), which retell her life and offer criticism of her poetry and prose and art as well as cite books and articles: see, e.g., wikipedia tells us also that she suffered from depression all her life, a popular biography and bibliography by Anne Bryan

What follows is a summary of Jane Dowson’s critical essay (a rare good one), her introduction to her selection in Women’s Poetry of the 1930s: A Critical Anthology, with a few interjections of my own (put in parentheses).

Dowson begins by telling us that Smith was self-educated: she found the environment of the “prestigious North Collegiate School for Girls repressive,” and did not go on to college for she foresaw for herself only a career as a teacher, which she did not want to do. She read on her own and took classes in literature, theology, the arts, classics, history. In 1922 she became a secretary to the publishers George Newnes and Nevil Pearson and remained so for 30 years. She wrote prolifically despite repeated rejections from publishers.

She is “framed as an idiosyncratic spinster” though she was later known also for her theatrical readings of her poems (see above). She makes people uncomfortable with her announced preference for death, and readers have found her poetry “unclassifiable.” Philip Larkin called her work “facetious bosch” (in the UTube she obviously has an over-the-top plummy accent, while mocking all pretension.) , but, as Dowson says, “disregard for convention is … a contrived and political gesture.” She renders class and status distinctions irrelevant by “integrating folk culture, ballds, nusery rhymes, hymn tunes, and proverbial sayings.”

Perhaps most striking is her “irreverence” and “literary referentiality” whereby she produces a kind of “metacommunication” (the poems are self-conscious). Dowson’s themes is the social conscience of her chosen women and Smith has strong “socialist sympathies” with outsiders, “children, women, and the socially disadvantaged.” She “challenges” “groupismus.” She opposes “institutionalized uniformity,” and there is a “dialectic of mass culture versus elitism” (see her “Salone d’Automne” and “Sterilization”).

This is “not light-hearted verse;” there is much “unease” and a use of “psychological realism” (which makes for deep melancholy). Her feminism is in her use of off-beat figures, unusual identifications, and “portraits of powerlessness.” “Betrayal” is a central theme, and we see women “the casualties of men’s freedom to choose (“Marriage I think” has an abandoned wife). She rejects “the discourses of power” (academic or hierarchical, traditional viatic poetry). There’s a “persistent transgression” of “conventional assumptions” of all sorts from many areas of life.

By dismissing the poems as “odd or strange” or “eccentric” readers are trying to undo her desire to upset the security of decorums (a kind of disguise). Dowson ends her introduction by quoting Smith’s answer to some of these critics:

You will say: But your poems are all story poems, you keep yourself hidden. Yes. But all the same, my whole life is in these poems … everything I have lived through, and done, and seen, and read and imagined and thought and argued. Then why do I turn them all upon other people, imaginary people, the people I create? It is because … it gives proportion and eases the pressure.”

I close with these three from Jane Dowson’s anthology:

From Jane Dowson’s anthology:

Sterilization

Carve delinquency away,
Said the great Professor Clay.

A surgical operation is just the thing
To make everybody as happy as a king.

But the great Dostoievsky the Epileptic
Turned on his side and looked rather sceptic.

And the homosexual Mr. Wilde
Sat in the sunshine and smiled and smiled.

And a similarly inclined older ghost in a ruff
Stopped reading his sonnets aloud and said ‘Stuff’

And the certainly eccentric Swift, Crashawe and Donne,
Silently shook hands and thanked God they had gone.

But the egregious Professor Clay
Called on Theopompous and won the day.

And soon all our minds will be flat as a pancake,
With no room for genius exaltation or heartache.

And our children and theirs will preen, smirk and chatter,
With not even the sense to ask what is the matter.
21.19.1937


Drawing placed to the side of “Marriage I think”

Marriage I think
For women
Is the best of opiates
It kills the thoughts
That think about the thoughts,
It is the best of opiates.
So said Maria.
But too long in solitude she’d dwelt,
And too long her thoughts had felt
Their strength. So when the man drew near,
Out popped her thoughts and covered him with fear.
Poor Maria!
Better that she had kept her thoughts on a chain,
For now she’s alone again and all in pain;
She sighs for the man that went and thoughts that stay
To trouble her dreams by night and her dreams by day.

A last rejecting any heterosexual relationship as a necessary solution to life’s lack of meaning, a child speaking to her mother:

Landrecie

What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother,
They stand in the doorway to hear what is said,
Waiting and watching and listening and laughing,
Is there no word that will send them away?

What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother,
What shall I say to them, must I say nothing?
If I say nothing, then will they not harm us,
Will they not harm us and shall we not suffer?

What shall I say to the gentlemen, mother?
See, they are waiting, and will not depart.
Closed are your eyelids, your lips closed in silence
Cannot instruct me, oh what shall I answer?

Dowson cites Seamus Heaney, “A Memorable Voice,” Preoccupations: Selected Prose 1968-1978 (London, Faber, 1980, pp. 199-201); Martin Pumphrey, “Play, Fantasy and strange laughter: Stevie Smith’s uncomfortable poetry,” Critical Quarterly, 28:3 (1986):85-96; Francis Spalding, Stevie Smith: A Critical Biography (Faber, 1988) and Jack Barbera and Wm McBrien, Stevie: A Biography (Heineman, 1985)


Glenda Jackson as Stevie Smith

I add a further selection: Edward Hirsh, “Stevie: the Movie, a Column,” American Poetry Review, 29:4 (2000):32-27, an evaluation of the film (low-budget, low-tech art movie, surprisingly profound and deeply felt”) and poetry, which strongly praises both (“a heartbreaking brightness we needed all along”): he quotes her: “I’m probably a couple of sherries below par most of the time.”

Romana Huk, “Misplacing Stevie Smith,” a review of Catherine Civello’s Patterns of Ambivalence: The Fiction and poetry of Stevie Smith, and Laura Severin’s Stevie Smith’s Resistant Antics, in Contemporary Literature 40:3 (1999):507-23.

Sheryl Stevenson, Stevie Smith’s Voices, Contemporary Literature, 33:1 (1992):24-45.

Jack Barbera, “The Relevance of Stevie Smith’s Drawings,” Journal of Modern Literature 12:2 (1985):221-36. The drawings done separately prompted more poems, and they provide specific instances, grim, jokey, of the general assertions or themes of the poems.


The House of OverDew (drawing placed above poem, by Stevie Smith

My books at home are Stevie Smith: A Selection, edited by Hermione Lee (with an excellent introduction, Faber 1983); Stevie Smith, Selected Poems (New Directions, 1962); and Me Again: Stevie Smith: Uncollected Writings, Illustrated by Herself, edited by Jack Barbera and Wm McBrien (Vintage,1983)

See further foremother blogs in Reveries under the Sign of Austen, Two

Ellen

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Dear friends and readers,

Another in my series of foremother poet blogs, a third recommending an anthology: Jane Dowson’s Women’s Poetry of the 1930s. This anthology suggests that much as I loved Alison Light’s Forever England and Nicole Beauman’s The Greatest Profession, both on women novelists and memoirists from early to mid-20th century England, Light’s suggestion that women novelists have been ignored because they were as a whole group conservative, won’t stand up to scrutiny. In fact there were many women of the left around, and Dowson has gathered together some of the finest.

Let me briefly tell of four: First, Nancy Cunard (1896-1965). Born very rich, she became a fervent fighter “for the cause of the dispossessed” (Jane Dowson’s words).

Here is a scathing poem Cunard wrote as an address to the pilot of a plane which just bombed a Spanish village (1930s):

To Eat To-Day

They come without siren-song or any ushering
Over the usual street of man’s middle day,
Come unbelievably – abstract – beyond human vision ­
Codicils, dashes along the great Maniac speech.
“Helmeted Nuremberg, nothing,” said the people of Barcelona,
The people of Spain – “Ya lo sabemos, we have suffered all.”

Gangrene of German cross, you sirs in the ether,
Sons of Romulus, Wotan – is the mark worth the bomb?
What was in it? salt and a half-pint of olive,
Nothing else but the woman, she treasured it terribly,
Oil, for the day folks would come, refugees from Levante,
Maybe with greens … one round meal- but you killed her,
Killed four children outside, with the house, and the pregnant cat.
Heil, hand of Rome, you passed – and that is all.

I wonder – do you eat before you do these things,
Is it a cocktail or is it a pousse-cafe?
Are you sitting at mess now, saying “visibility medium …
We got the port, or near it, with half-a-dozen,” I wonder­
Or highing it yet, on the home-run to Mallorca,
Cold at 5000 up, cursing a jammed release …
“Give, it ‘em, puta Madonna, here, over Arenys-
Per Bacco, it’s nearly two – bloody sandwich it’s made down there -
Aren’t we going to eat to-day, teniente? te-niente?”
Driver in the clouds fuming, fumbler unstrapping death.
You passed; hate traffics on; then the shadows fall.

On the simple earth
Five mouths less to feed to-night in Barcelona.
On the simple earth
Men tramping and raving on an edge of fear.
Another country arming, another and another behind it ­
Europe’s nerve strung like catapult, the cataclysm roaring and
swelling …
But in Spain no Perhaps, and To-morrow – in Spain, it is, Here.

A brief review of an edition of her poems; an excellent concise account of her life (Leslie M. Blume in the Huffington Post); a photo which captures something of her character in her face:

Then a novelist, Winifred Holtby (1898-1935), whose Anders Woldby and South Riding (adapted twice for mini-series on British TV), a couple of us on Women Writers Across the Ages have recently read together:

Boats in the Bay (1933)

I will take my trouble and wrap it in a blue handkerchief
And carry it down to the sea.
The sea is as smooth as silk, is as silent as glass;
It does not even whisper
Only the boats, rowed out by the girls in yellow
Ruffle its surface.
It is grey, not blue. It is flecked with boats like midges,
With happy people
Moving soundlessly over the level water

I will take my trouble and drop it into the water
It is heavy as stone and smooth as a sea-washed pebble.
It will sink under the sea, and the happy people
Will row over it quietly, ruffling the clear water
Little dark boats like midges, skimming silently
Will pass backwards and forwards, the girls singing;
They will never know that they have sailed above sorrow.
Sink heavily and lie still, lie still my trouble.

A dual life of her and Vera Brittain who was Holtby’s partner, enabling her to publish and responsible for the posthumous publication of South Riding against the fierce opposition of Holtby’s mother.


Holtby

And last for tonight Ruth Pitter’s (1897-1992) whose poetry is moving and (like Elizabeth Hands) keeps her individual life before us:

Old, Childless, Husbandless

Old, childless, husbandless, bereaved, alone,
She knew more love than any I have known -
Familiar with the sickness at its worst,
She smiled at the old woman she had nursed
So long; whose bed she shared, that she might hear
The threadbare whisper in the night of fear.
She looked, and saw the change. The dying soul
Smiled her last thanks, and passed. Then Mary stole
About the room, and did what must be done,
Unwilling, kind heart, to call anyone,
It was so late: all finished, down she lay
Beside the dead, and calmly slept till day.
Urania! what could child or husband be
More than she had, to such a one as she?

Her partner was a woman and they kept cats:

The Talking Family

With the early morning tea
Start the day’s debates.
Soon the Talking Family
Gathers, gravitates
To the largest room and bed,
That all may share in what is said. All the Cats forgather too,
With a calm delight,
Tab and ginger, long-haired blue,
Seem to think it right
That they should share to some extent
In this early parliament. Perhaps they only want a drink
(Which of course they get)
But myself I like to think
That the Cats are met
Because this animal rejoices
In the sound of human voices. What they are we do not know,
Nor what they may become.
Perhaps the thoughts that ebb and flow
In a human home
May blow to brightness the small spark
They carry through the vasty dark.’
– “Perque pruinosas tulit irtequieta tenebras”. – Ovid.


Ruth Pitter

Pitter was lower middle class in origin and wrote in a traditional style. No wonder she was ignored. Larkin remembered her and the feminist movement has helped.

And not least was Valentine Ackland (1906-69):

Communist Poem, 1935:

‘What must we do, in a country lost already,
Where already the milIs stop, already the factories
Wither inside themselves, kernels smalIing in shelIs,
(‘Fewer hands – fewer hands’) and alI the ploughed lands
Put down to grass, to bungalows, to graveyards already.

What’s in a word? Comrade, while stilI our country
Seems solid around us, rotting – but still our country.
Comrade is rude, uncouth; bandied among youths
Idle and sick perhaps, wandering with other chaps,
Standing around in what is stilI our country.’

Answer them: Over the low hilIs and the pastures
Come no more cattle, over the land no more herdsmen;
Nothing against the sky now, no stains show
Of smoke. We’re done. Only a few work on,
Against time now working to end your time.

Answer: Because the end is coming sooner
Than you allowed for, hail the end as salvation.
Watch how the plough wounds, hear the unlovely sounds
Of sirens wring the air; how everything
Labours again, cries out, and again breeds life.

Here is our life, say: Where the dismembered country
Lies, a dead foeman rises a living comrade.
Here where our day begins and your day dims
We part – announce it. And then with lightened heart
Watch life swing round, complete the revolution.

Since’s Ackland (born Mary Kathleen McCrory) is nowhere as well-known as her long-time partner, Sylvia Townsend Warner, and was herself a lesbian, Valentine Ackland, I emphasize a few salient facts which many accounts obscure or distort. Brought up Anglo-Catholic; when young, married, she left her husband, and lived a highly unconventional sexual personal life. She met Warner in 1930, with whom she lived mainly in Dorset for the rest of their lives. She initiated her and Warner’s activities in the Spanish civil war, socialist and pacifist activities. Like Nancy Cunard, Ackland wrote a series of articles for the Left Review about the deprived condition of the poor in the 1930s. The Left Review published her poetry, reviews of books about the Spanish war, and translations. With other women writers of the 1930s (Winifred Holtby, Storm Jameson, Naomi Mitchison), she also attended a Congress of Writers in Paris in 1935, and another similar congress in New York in 1939 (where a major topic was the contemporary loss of democracy). She worked actively to help Spanish Republic (driving a lorry, working at Tythrop House, a home for Spanish refugee children). She left an autobiography, For Sylvia: An Honest Account (written 1949). Late in life she became a quaker.


To use Emma Donoghue’s term in her Passions Between Women, Ackland was the female husband of the pair.


Sylvia smoking at her desk (I must write a blog for her too)

***********************************
Like Kerrigan’s, Honey’s and Paula Feldman’s anthologies, Dowson makes a strong case for publishing anthologies of women’s poetry: “‘Humming an entirely Different Tune?’: A case study of anthologies: Women’s Poetry of the 1930s.” Beyond showing how necessary, vital it is to keep women’s literature alive and in print and part of a tradition we can (ourselves as women) find, create meanings from, not be humiliated in public and then silenced by “respectable” criteria — to make women’s anthologies. Only here does the other set of highly varied complex criteria count and come forth. (AT the conference I was at the men merely sneer or refuse to recognize what you are saying as having any validity (reminding me of religious people about Darwin), or complain men suffer worse. we have to develop a separate criteria for women’s arts, be this in visual, dramatic, poetic, or novelistic art. A week or so ago I tried again on Eighteenth Century World at Yahoo: a definition presented to the group of historical fiction would simply have denied that women wrote any good historical fiction, which is patent nonsense. I tried to present the alternative criteria and some samples, but the silence that greeted my argument told me I had gotten nowhere.

I should like also in this posting about foremothers to say I’ve moved my Reveries under the Sign of Austen blog (a foremother to us all), to Word Press. This blog has its own complement of foremother poetry. My first was Caroline Bowles, an effective poet (1808-77) of blank verse, and my last blog Mary Hays, a biographer, polemicist, and feminist (1760-1843).

Ellen

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