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Archive for the ‘Poetry’ Category

26JimEllenblog1980s
memories surround what’s left
Jim and Ellen Moody, later 1980s, living in present house in Alexandria

Time. I, that please some, try all, both joy and terror
Of good and bad, that make and unfold error,
Now take upon me, in the name of Time,
To use my wings — The Winter’s Tale

Dear friends and readers,

A favorite book with me, so favorite that like a few others (e.g., a Roget’s Thesaurus I’ve had since age 12-13; a Dictionnaire Larousse par Marguerite-Marie Dubois …, 1971), it has sat on my desk wherever it’s been, for years and years — is John Hollander’s Rhyme’s Reason: A Guide to English Verse. I have never found anything better when it comes to cataloguing, defining, exemplifying, and what’s more enacting the inner life and purpose of different forms of English verse. It’s so easy to use; so clear. I know he’s making fun of what he’s doing (it’s tongue-in-cheek), showing off. (It also takes the same place in my pantheon as 1066 and All That did for Jim.) I’ve paid to have my Thesaurus and French dictionary re-covered twice now, and if ever I lost Rhyme’s Reason I’d immediately buy another copy. It’s a great original anthology.

Here is Hollander’s villanelle, a favorite form for me:

This form with two refrains in parallel?
(Just watch the opening and the third line.)
The repetitions build the villanelle.

The subject thus established, it can swell
Across the poet-architect’s design:
This form with two refrains in parallel

Must never make them jingle like a bell,
Tuneful but empty, boring and benign;
The repetitions build the villanelle

By moving out beyond the tercet’s cell
(Though having two lone rhyme-sounds can confine
This form). With two refrains in parallel

A poem can find its way into a hell
Of ingenuity to redesign
The repetitions. Build the villanelle

Till it has told the tale it has to tell;
Then two refrains will finally intertwine.
This form with two refrains in parallel
The repetitions build: The Villanelle.

Repetition. It was a favorite form for Jim, who especially valued and reread William’s Empson’s villanelles (his favorite, “Missing Dates”; I also would reread “Courage means running” (“Muchafraid went over the river singing/Though none knew what she sang”). Jim liked rhyme, stanza, form in poetry (Anthony Hecht another favorite).

As some of you know he, Jim, my lover and friend of 45 years, husband of 44, who made this Ellen and Jim have a blog, two, died now slightly more than 3 days ago (October 9, 2013), and last night I wrote this villanelle to express what it’s like for me now:

Where are you? I cannot reach you.
Surrounded. The sky a thick wall
Nothing’s there on the other side.

Here now that junkyard outside
of which nothing mattered. Eccomi.
Where are you? I cannot reach you.

“Hon.” “Didn’a fash yersel my you!”
His words, blood flowing through my heart.
Nothing’s there on the other side.

Death’s world is rotting. Decay.
I tried to stop you from going there.
Where are you? I cannot reach you.

Time divides. When he was alive
When he’s not alive any more
Nothing’s there on the other side.

The silence of reality
What can I do? a bird flings itself
Where are you? I cannot reach you.
Nothing’s there on the other side.

As I wrote on Under the Sign of Sylvia, one can say in verse what one can’t in prose. Still I’m not sure I didn’t express these thoughts much better blurted out grammarless as I was feeling them in a text message I sent to a friend (Miss Schuster-Slatt once upon a time), but I don’t know how to reach the archives (if it is archived) on an i-phone.

JimLaura1978laterintheyearblog
Jim, summer 1978 (age 29-30), in Seaman Avenue NYC flat, with few-months old Laura

21JimIzzyLauraReachingDown
Jim, 1985, reaching down to baby Isobel, Laura to the side (Alexandria house again)

I shall be putting a few photos on this blog with poetry (not to worry, mostly it will not be by me) to remember him as he was across the years.

Ellen

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The death of Dido

Dear friends and readers,

Sometimes we do go to live operas. And most of the time it’s one of the productions of Carla Huber’s In-Series, now in its 30th (yes thirtieth!) year. I want you to know how wonderful, original and daring this theater has been.

We were privileged on Tuesday night to be able to to go to a performance of the now over 200-year old chamber Baroque opera by Henry Purcell (composer) and Nahum Tate (librettist-poet): Dido & Aeneas, his abandonment of her taken from Virgil’s 4th book of the Aeneas. I think this may be the third time I’ve seen it: once downstairs in Vivian Beaumont Theater in NYC (a 1970s short-lived attempt to do small operas at the Met, Piccolo Met), once at the Folger, and now on just off U-Street.

This time the theater was so crowded, there was not an empty seat. I fear not everyone knew what they were in for. I heard one woman gong on about the interesting plot, and during the intermission someone behind me exploded with irritation because she was completely grated upon by the formality, conventions, music itself of this 17th century piece. She “had not expected this!” The second piece was a ballet by Manuel Falla, El Amor Brujo (Love by Sorcery), whose puppet show version of Don Quixote Jim and I saw at Castleton a couple of summers ago, Master Pedro’s Puppet Show. It was very still: basically we watch a woman’s nightmare enacted in front of her.

I suspect many in the audience were there for Carla — or because they go to her productions. She seems to know so many people, even recognizes us (or pretends to successfully). She is a miracle woman. Thirty years ago she quit a teaching post in music in a local college and started up this theater. Most women who do it (and women do it) leave off after a couple of years at most: Catherine Flyte ran out of money; you have praise that’s high and not many people come; it’s vexing and tiring and often thankless. Exhausting. She manages partly by devoting half her time to Spanish cabaret which brings in a popular crowd. But she does not compromise quality, taste, intelligence either in her higher culture or more popular ethnic productions. Sometimes the costumes and production design is clearly done on a shoestring budget, and she moves from theater to theater. But she sustains herself. Five Mozart operas where the libretto was rewritten to be modern and relevant. Carmen redone from Jose’s point of view.

This Dido and Aeneas was stylistically performed, beautifully sung, and the costumes lovely and appropriate, but (as we have before) we wondered if there is not a problem in the opera itself. Nahum Tate’s libretto seems to veer between sceptical slightly mocking comedy (subtly seen in the light-hearted witches) and the plangent tragedy of an abandoned woman. That Aeneas is given this hopelessly inadequate explanation for himself does not help matters in the sense of understanding the opera’s stance. Jim suggested that perhaps the origin of the first production explains the see-saw quality where sometimes you find something ludicrous in language or act and cannot be sure it was meant to be funny. Purcell did the opera for a school of young women (girls really) and wrote a moralistic “warning lesson” for them. Nahum Tate, fresh from the Restoration theater, with its ribaldry and misogyny made fun. Or perhaps it was the other way round.

Remarkable how many of these masterpiece-gems in the later 17th cetnury are plays written for schoolgirls to perform: Racine’s Athalie one example. Even more: how adult and grave the content can be.

Be that as it may (as they say), the music is exquisitely poignant in Dido’s famous lament. I embed a YouTube from Hampton court; do click and listen:

I know much less about Love Through Sorcery. It too places a forlorn woman at the center, but she is not a passive or accepting victim. The first version was a gypsy scene. Originally Candelas was a gypsy from Cadiz who goes to a cave to a sybil to ask the witch to conjure up her lost lover. As directed by Alan Paul, this version gave us a working woman whose lover has died, but she cannot rid herself of ambivalent memories. She works up the courage to summon him, and remembers good as well as very bad times in order to exorcise the demon from her soul. The piece included dancing by an alter ego, pantomime, much poetry. I suppose it was a ghost opera. By contrast, Falla’s Don Quixote episode was witty and pessimistic. Both modern disillusioned pieces.

An excerpt of the ballet done traditionally in a large theater:

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

I asked the next morning on C18-l was there any literature, any secondary studies of this play. No answer cameth. But one friend said she finds herself driven wild by Dido: the play is so a male point of view.

The libretto is written strictly from a man’s POV … I, too, love the music -— Purcell was a musical genius -— our choir has sung some of his works [from his and Dryden’s “King Arthur”] and they were more fun to sing every time we rehearsed them). She was a queen! She’d get over that guy in no time flat -— I can’t stand Aeneas in this version. I just want to go up and slap her, shake her, and say “Get a grip, girl!” But that’s just me, most likely.

An essential source: “Stanley Sadie & associates, New Grove Dictionary of Music (‘Grove 5′) for reliable sources, mostly musicologists, on Purcell. (Purcell, one of my favorite subjects.)”

It is true that Purcell turns Virgil’s stoic male tale into one of the many tragedy queen operas to come. No different I suppose than many of our (by some) worshipped modern numinous stars and dead queens too (Marilyn Monroe dead at 33, Princess Diana), only more obvious. Think of all the Schiller based operas. A number of women poets wrote satiric responses to these tragedy queens, among them Anne Finch on Jane Shore (the play itself was political), Elizabeth Tollett on Anne Boleyn, Lady Mary Wortley Montagu on Mary Queen of Scots, to name but three.

So, gentle reader if you require an antidote to Dido’s lament, here’s

An Epilogue to a new play of Mary Queen of Scots [never finished], design’d to be spoke by Mrs Oldfield by Mary Montagu

What could Luxurious Woman wish for more
To fix her Joys, or to extend her Power?
Their every Wish was in this Mary seen,
Gay, Witty, Youthful, Beauteous and a Queen!
Vain useless Blessing with ill Conduct joyn’d!
Light as the Air, and Fleeting as the Wind.
What ever Poets write, or Lovers vow;
Beauty, what poor Omnipotence hast thou!
Queen Bess had Wisdom, Councel, Power
How few espous’d a Wretched Beauty’s Cause!
Learn hence, ye Fair, more solid charms to prize …

If you will Love, love like Eliza then,
Love for Amusement like those Traitors, Men.
Think that the Pastimes of a Leisure Hour
She favour’d oft — but never shar’d her Power.

The Traveller by Desart Wolves persu’d,
If by his Art the savage Foe’s subdu’d,
The World will still the noble Act applaud,
Tho’ Victory was gain’d by needfull Fraud.

Such is (my tender Sex) our helpless Case
And such the barbarous Heart, hid by the begging Face.
By Passion fir’d, and not with held by Shame,
They cruel Hunters are, we trembling Game.

Trust me Dear Ladys (for I know ‘em well),
They burn to Triumph, and they sigh — to tell.
Cruel to them that Yeild, Cullys to them that sell.
Beleive me tis by far the wiser Course,
Superior Art should meet superior force.

Hear: but be faithfull to your Interest still,
Secure your Hearts, then Fool with who you will.

and Anne Finch’s The audience tonight seems so very kind. Tollett is not so satiric because her Anne writes the night before she is to be beheaded, but she is far wryer, corroded than Tate and Purcell’s Dido. It is also fair to say that Dido has not been picked as a favorite tragedy queen by other men, and in women’s poetry is often used as a Penelope type icon: strong, individual, independent, and ethical, even if done in the end. Anne Finch identifies with this Dido in an autobiographical teasing poem to her husband, asking him to come home after a quarrel: A Letter to Daphnis at London

Not that I don’t love Traviata.

I digress in order to suggest some lines of identification and full context. for both Dido and Candelas (who might be seen as a quiet prosaic daughter of Merimee’s Carmen in the short tale).

We ate out in a nearby good small French restaurant and I had my first ratatouille in years. Washed down by Merlot. Jim a steak similarly washed down.

In January Carla will do Mozart’s Clemenza di Tito on Mozart’s birthday. Since Jim and I and Izzy are going this Saturday to an HD Met performance I’ll be able to compare. I’ll bet Carla’s is as good, and perhaps more relevant. Who knows? maybe the libretto will be one of her updated ones.

In honor of the In-Series and Carla Huber, apparently not a lamenting dying nor ghost-haunted lady.

Ellen

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Simon Keenleyside as Prospero

Dear friends and readers,

Lest it be thought I’ve gone over-the-top in my praise of so many of these Met Operas transmitted by HB, my reaction to the first act of Ades’s and Oakes’s Tempest was it’s so still, and “there’s nothing doing.” I didn’t like the (to me) screetch-y high notes of Ariel, nor the lack of long melodic arias. The costumes were trying too hard. Keenleyside with his skin tattoos, feathers on his head, was still not US Indian-like; Ariel in pink fluff with ludicrously heavy-make-up – all green eyes; the lovers far too well-fed and smooth, he like something out of When Knighthood was in Flower, she like some fairy tale maiden in the Blue Fairy Book. Robert LePage’s re-building of aspects of La Scala on stage could have made for a disconnect, it added nothing.

What took time to emerge was the focus on an ethical-psychological relationship between Caliban and Prospero: when Prospero loses Ariel, he’s left without consolatory dreams. Ares really gave us an adaptation, serious interpretation of Shakespeare’s play (Enchanted Island was more Dryden/Davenant).


Audrey Luna as Ariel

The play-story does not depart from any of the hinge points of Shakespeare’s; Meredith Oakes’s script brought over to operatic music Shakespeare’s austere visionary core with its intimations of dream aspiration and realities of brute animal creatures and vicious envious evil (Caliban and the Milanese apart from Ferdinand). The young lovers were appropriately innocent for their short beautiful songs and their and all the music was like Debussy (Pelleas et Melisande) — ever there quietly beautiful. After a while the set also turn of the century, with its conceit the people are in an opera house grew tiresome. Yes there was a computer island, soft sea, and we began to see the slow emergence of Prospero’s character as regretful, remorseful, bitter yet in act willing to forgive began. That’s part of the play’s naturalistic miracles.

The last part or act was so moving to me. Keenleyside showed how well he can act: I identified with him as the older person having to give over, to let go, and I liked the presentation of Caliban as an aspect of the solitary Prospero. None of the really powerful lines were omitted, and Prospero’s response to Miranda’s “O brave new world,” was plangently disillusioned.


Alan Oates as Caliban

I’d like to see it again so I could enter into Act 1 from the perspective of what is to come.

As to the interviews, Deborah Voight can carry these off. To some extent she asks real questions about singing technique. You could see in Ades’s eyes a moment’s oh I wish I didn’t have to do this hype but he managed and gave eloquent interviews where he spoke more simply and directly about writing and putting on the opera and his relationships with the singers. He said that he saw himself as their support.

Some reviews: this review particularly insightful and with good photos and stills. See New York Times review. Another review.

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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Amos Brown house, Whittingham, Vermont (seen from angle of the front porch)


Some of our stuff all over the desk in the front room: guidebooks, the log book of Landmark, my French dictionary

Dear friends and readers,

We returned a few hours ago, from our latest venture staying at a Landmark Trust house, the so-called Amos Brown house, in central-south Vermont, a short walk from the borders of Massachusetts, and not too long a car ride from the Berkshires where remarkable theater, museum shows, festivals of music and art go on during the summer months each year. This is our tenth Landmark house (we have gone to these many more times than 10, having stayed at Amos Brown twice now, and Cloth Fair, in London, many times), and that we did enjoy staying in this place may be seen by our having returned to it, and our new plan to stay at Danescombe Mine in two autumns from now, to be able to explore Poldark and DuMaurier sites in Cornwall.


Danescombe Mine turned into a vacation place, Cornwall

But we did return early by two days and because this time we had a working ipad, I was able to write genuine diary entries each day, I offer to these who are interested to explain why we returned early (a problem with the Brown house), and give more of a genuine immediate feel of our travel experience than I usually do — since travel to and from this house we did.

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Ellen reading later in the evening front room


Jim upon arrival, in kitchen

July 30, 2012

We arrived yesterday afternoon. It is now morning and I am describing our experience yesterday. The place felt lovely partly because it is so quiet. I am now made aware of noisy even our Alexandria suburban block is. Few or no cars pass by here, and we have a minimum of electric appliances. Sitting in the garden on a rocking chair the air is restorative too — as it’s so cool in comparison to Virginia. All is comparison. The house is a genuinely later 18th century house tactfully restored. We can live here in comfort. On the drive here, I finished Graham’s The Angry Tide, began Baker’s The Rise of the Victorian Actor, and am now going to try Holroyd’s A Strange Eventful History (the enormous book you see on my lap). Jim made us a lovely meal and we once again explored the house.

The handwriting style on this iPad is so pretty but I cannot share it.

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


I find a working radio!


Said to be paintings of Amos and Sarah Brown

July 31, 2012

Morning again.

I should have said yesterday that I regretted not staying to see Laura (that is, getting off at 9:00 am yesterday morning), as after all we got here by 4:30 pm. Last night our i-pad enabled us to listen to Leonard Cohen and Mahler. This morning we found a working radio and outlet and have listened to Boston’s version of NPR. So we had news (Nevada judge says forbidding late term abortions doesn’t get in anyone’s way, India having life-threatening storm), weather (cool), and now Ravel’s Pavan for a Dead Princes.

It is better having this connection to the outside world. I find this time (as I did the summer we stayed in the 19th century New York house, near Glimmerglass in Cooperstown), that I want to have this sense of connection. I miss the Internet and my Net friends, I miss knowing the news. I wished I could work my DVD player to help tire myself at night so I could sleep 6 hours in a row.

At the same time I like staying in centuries old houses. It makes me feel special, as part of history, conjoined to others. After its history as the Amos Brown farm (basically an agriculturally-based middle class family group), this place became a pleasure second-home for upper middle class people. For example, In the 1930s the rich Grace family played polo here with friends. It reversed this trend in the later 20th century, when it became a Carthusian monks’ sanctuary; it was the monks who let the place go to ruin (while they dreamed of paradises), and devastated the still unrestored Unit (it would cost so much to fix) by using cheap materials to fix things (like cement instead of bricks).

Like the other Landmark places, this house’s furnishings are tasteful. The chandelier in the dining room is such as the Brown family might have had had they had electricity, modern materials to look like lovely imitation iron, and a taste for simplicity. The pictures in the house are much improved. Beyond the supposed portraits of Amos and Sarah Brown, nice landscapes, flower still-lifes.

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One of the many new pictures in the Brown house: a landscape in the bedroom


Armide, Cupid, with Hatred (the soprano and two dancers), from 2012 Lully’s Armide, Glimmerglass

August 1, 2012.

Morning again. Last night I had that strange experience I sometimes have at home: I could make out everything in the rooms in this house even though I didn’t put the lights on. This time yes it was the full moon outside. I love the luminosity of the darkness. At nearly 10 pm we did walk out to see the stars and I could make out so many despite the moon making the sky less black. The light comes from 100s of years ago.

Yesterday (July 31st) we drove to Glimmerglass, a long drive there and back (3 hours) but worth it. Beautiful place, friendly talk with people like ourselves in taste, a witty lecturer, Lully’s Armide. The second half very good: Armide is turned from Tasso’s evil witch into a sentimental romance heroine enthralled by Rinaldo, and I feel the story is Dido and Aeneas. I found the music dull, non-expressive. The singers playing the parts looked right. Rinaldo very handsome. The whole thing done accurately as a Baroque opera, costumes, much dancing and beautifully woven in. We ate our own picnic and had white Riesling wine, and ate our dinner at home too.

When we returned, we looked at the Landmark Trust book and discovered we’ve stayed in 10 places: Cloth Fair (London, Smithfield, many times); Fox Hall (Chichester, a duke’s hunting lodge); Elton House (Bath) to follow in the footsteps of Austen, Burney, Radcliffe; Peters Tower (clock tower, near Exeter) to go to a Trollope conference; Shute Gatehouse (Devonshire) to go to Lyme;, the Old Hall (Somerset) to go with Laura and Izzy to neolithic sites, great houses; Georgian house in Hampton Court, the gardiner’s house, wonderful wandering around the grounds at night; Steward’s house (Oxford), from which I went to the British 18th century conference and Jim bought and cooked pheasants; Amos Brown farmhouse, Vermont. Now we hope to stay in Danescombe Mine, Cornwall.

I found in the library in the house (each house has an appropriate library) and red Charles T. Morrissey’s Vermont: a History. Informative, lightly written, decently mundane. 23per cent of people in Vermont live in dire poverty. It’s 19th century iron industries sailing trade, and farming are gone. Factories too — along the road they are arts buildings. Tourism, people who come to second homes, vacationers, and local economies (people serving one another’s needs) are its bases. It’s unlike New Hampshire which is arch conservative, has no income tax, and practically no services for its people. But the decent socially responsible attitude of Vermont’s legislature can be thwarted by the way business is conducted: a meeting is held for passing each law (includes the public and is advertised), thus no laws can get passed constraining hunters to control themselves and keep the deer population up. Hunting and gun types come and shout down, threaten the legislators, and will have brought enough people to vote down the representatives.

We move across centuries in our imagined places.

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A picturesque but not untrue photo of main street area in Williamstown — first built in the 18th century


One part of one portion of a wall in the Clark Museum Remix/UCurate exhibit

August 2, 2012.

Morning coffee done I sit and write. The first part of yesterday (August 1st), we enjoyed. I wrote on this iPad, breakfasted, and were happy together. We went back to bed, afterward talked, then rested, and then we drove to Williamstown, to the Clark museum. The drive was pleasant, past quiet streams, around mountains.

We had a good time at the Clark even though most of the museum is closed for extensive renovation. The people running the museum set up two spaces which could give you hours of delight. One, made up of three large interlocking rooms was called Classic Clark. The rooms had the usual set-up pictures on its walls (say 4 to a wall), and these had been taken from the museum’s most beautiful interesting paintings: the curators showed their stuff, they have good taste, intelligence, a sense of humor. We saw some favorites we remembered from last time, a few startling ones (one by Laurence Alma Tadema), each group set up by era (such alluring Constables, and set up with respect to the doors and arches so that when you see one set you have an amusing counterpart looking at you (it seems).


The characters in Alma Tadema pictures are so English upper class — these resemble the actors in the BBC I, Claudius — yet the painting is so good, especially the marble

The other was one huge room called Remix/UCurate was a work of inspired tricksters . I had noticed that there was a selection for small paintings in Classic: I thought the criteria was unusual, no it was small to fit more in. So Remix had many small gems as well as some medium-size, and a couple of well-chosen large. Extraordinarily good and unusual choices juxtaposed in non-era and non-school ways, but whose content made all sorts of comments on one another, often ironic. What made it though was words.

On a ledge were about 10 or more i-Pads, tablets like this one. You took one round with you and it was easy to get to literally several intelligent easy-to-read paragraphs on each, sometimes the painter, sometimes the painting – making you see so much more than you can on your own – I have been persuaded (you’d think I would not need this) words can be an intrinsic part of an art museum experience. And of the wonders of technology. They had four cabinets of small sculpture, plates, silver work, all keyed to paragraphs on the i-Pad. They had fit in in effect a floor of fascination in one room. They had two desks with large versions of these tablets: there the reproductions of the paintings could be large, and, candor here, vied with the tiny painting themselves, at least for clarity.

We stopped half way through and lunched at their service cafeteria and had fine meals. Mine was salmon, good lettuce and tomato salad, and yummy potato salad (with egg and onion), with cabernet sauvignon.

It was too hot to walk much and we could not find anything having any wi-fi. We came home. Jim was too tired to go out and we decided to walk to Massachusetts (half hour walk), and stay in to eat our roasted chicken, carrots, salad. Alas, after putting the stove in, it rained, and it seems Green Mountain Electric Company is not prepared for thunder or rain. We lost power. We found we had no water, and the stove provides no way to shut it off. No on of off button, no plug could be found. We feared leaving the house lest the stove set the place on fire. Even if we had planned it, the Bennington concert (we had thought of going to) was out.


The kitchen, showing the stove we could not shut off

This occurred at 5:30 pm. We called the caretaker number we were given and were assured someone would come to shut off the stove. No one ever came. So we couldn’t leave lest the chicken inside set the house on fire. There was one large candle and we drank wine ate peaches and cheese and bread, but soon it was dark, and we were aware of how isolated this house is. I phoned the electricity company several times, each time getting more response. The last call produced someone for me to talk to. We were promised power back at 8:30 pm but in fact it came back after 11 pm by which time we had gone to bed. No water means no working flush.

Someone in the Landmark log book said they had been this way for three days and nights. Someone else said this house is haunted. We heard what seemed to be human howling down the road twice. Jim suggested screech owls but my guess we are again near a man who beats his wife. In NYC across the alley from our apartment every Saturday night we’d hear this snarling gnarled male voice and then a woman screaming screaming and then she’d cry and then silence; this went on for some 7 years.

The working radio this morning (Vermont NPR) says rain, thunderstorms today and tomorrow. Yesternight involved 1044 houses. I know travel means travail, but last night did not amuse Jim. I began to have bad thoughts about my life. Jim says today we will fit in 2 days activities and go home tomorrow. I am willing to chance until Sunday, partly not to lose the money or time away. I have said to him, let’s not over-react, let’s see how the promised rain affects the house today.

I would be sorry not to go through with my plan to spend a day translating poetry by Elsa Morante, using French intermediate verse in a bilingual edition of her Rime I found on the Net. That’s why I brought my dictionaries.

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A tall bear made of woolly roses from Oh Canada


Mass MoCA, the outside and parking lot

August 3, 2012

Morning again. Yesterday (August 2nd), we ended on a high note. We have been very good here together, very happy — in the car, walks, touring towns and countryside, a lake, and our bed much used.

We went to another museum, Mass MoCA it is called, in North Adams City. Massachusetts Museum of Contemporary Art, it made the MoMaA look staid. Three exhibits, and a tiny permanent collection.

Most objects were not paintings on walls, and those which were used the cartoon-y style that has become common. I found charming a large dollhouse complete with furniture. There was one called “love which dare not speak its name and it included a dramatization of the Lone Ranger and Tonto (partly meant to be funny). Much was hard satire on modern culture, the capitalist exploitative sexist absurd and cruel arrangements and norms but much was not preachy, and actually understandable. A book of photos of stealth airplanes used to kidnap people and take them to interrogate, torture and imprison them in secret places. Shell planes run by the U.S. There was a hut with a bed, surrounded by electronic gadgets, the hut a hexagon tent on which were beautiful films of nature, the natural world, including people.There was the usual self-indulgent kind of thing which shows no art (a film of clouds given explanations, surrounded by detritus), but Oh Canada (an exhibit) was superior to much contemporary art.


From the dollhouse exhibit

I remember the bad taste of junk across the Whitney one year by star pupils, doubtless conceived in a strongly competitive environment. Oh Canada had scenes of snow, wilderness used, and history. Two paintings on the Acadian deportations and massacre, parodying the lies of Benjamin west and Edward Dicksee. Artist Marie Doucette.

The building itself was a vast factory where the art was continually to show us the bare brick walls, pipes, all the stairways metal, all doors metal, ceilings with bare pipes. This decor was kept up everywhere, toilets too. We ate in a cafe which had good small meals. I note all the people we see in these places are clearly middle class looking, modern dress versions. Near us in this cafe a man read a Wall Street Journal, his wide had her hair carefully died and cut so as to look super casual.


A photograph of the company for A Month in the Country, set against a photo of the theater

The piece de resistance of our trip, and perhaps all the performances we’ve been to this summer was the Williams Theater production of Turgenev’s A Month in the Country. I’d never seen or read it. We arrived about an hour before the performance was to begin, and it took 3 hours, including intermission.

A very great play modestly put before us with a minimum of stage props and costumes and lights. The actors performed it wonderfully well. Real inward selves versus intermittent public facades to protect themselves was the basic perception with a real attention to power relationships undercut by irresistible human emotions and inescapable social arrangements made the perception Turgenev had of the characters. I felt so for the male friend of the family, living off them, and us by them. Hard parts were sympathetically done — like that of the husband. Comedy, pathos, even quiet tragedy as the young girl is driven by our heroine to marry a rich kind man the girl feels nothing for, yet this problem is and was and is the central arrangement of our heroine’s life.

There is just too much to say so I’ll leave it at that only saying my respect for Trollope went up as I remembered how much Trollope admired Turgenev, that Turgenev wrote an empathetic biography of Gogol. I hope Tyler on Trollope19thCStudies is willing to read and talk about Turgenev’s Fathers and Sons.

I remembered the parking garage and the theater from 5 summers ago when we saw here a superbly rich Lilian Hellman play set in Louisiana and a southern woman’s play about 3 sisters. WTF (a pun) is willing to do quiet Chekhovian as well as radical farce plays. Last time we saw 4 plays (a Stoppard comedy, Shaw’s Mrs Warren’s Profession), a Glimmerglass production of an Offenbach opera; we had one day at a lake. This time we have not been as lucky with the summer theater on offer just when we came, and we have had one bad night.

We then drove back to and toured North Adams City, found an assuming good restaurant where “casual American food”, scotch and ginger ale (for me)’ and artisan beer (for Jim) was to be had, and where there was at last wifi. Jim emailed Izzy we would be home today in time for supper; Laura responded almost immediately. They were at the tennis match together.

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Our bed


Our clothes across the way

Jim has surprised me by his determination to go home early, as maybe I surprised him with my willingness to stay, not until Monday, August 6th by 10 am (I had thought that overdone), but till Sunday — to see the musical Class Act, about Chorus Line, which Jim had bought Saturday matinee tickets for in Stockbridge where there is an exquisitely good Italian restaurant; to go to a lake (Friday, today that would have been), and in the l’apres-midi sit and translate Italian out of the French Morante.

But no. We had been away from home long enough. I never heard him say that before. Myself I started perhaps for the first time to talk of how I understood now why people took vacations. This year I had had a culmination of more social experience and interaction than ever before, and understood vacationing was getting away from the stress, self-comparisons and beratings of all that. I really was willing to stay, but as I am ever intensely relieved to be home. I remembered how Laura had said “be sure and come back,” and wanted to know how Izzy was doing, how the cats were too.

On the radio the weathermen kept predicting a hard rain, thunderstorm, maybe even lightning (and perhaps the Vermont electricity company was not prepared for this). I had been scared again last isolated position of the house. Ever since I read Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood I’ve been unnerved at the idea two lone gunmen can come into someone’s house and bully, emotionally torture and then kill everyone in the house. The recent Aurora massacre had reminded me how the US is a violent place, filled with people driven wild by excruciating demands, norms, and deprivations.

And I usually do what Jim wants. I spent my life by his side and he takes care of me. So we packed, and drove home. I’d like to go to the Berkshires again, next time stay in Massachusetts or New York where we are surrounded by people, houses I can see, and feel I am in an area served by an electricity company prepared for rain.

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Chairs in front room

I did read Kate Summerscale’s Mrs Robinson’s Disgrace: The Private Diary of a Victorian Lady (excellent, recommended), Lucasta Miller’s The Bronte Myth (which I hope to blog about), am almost finished with Graham’s Stranger from the Sea (Poldark novel 8, which I hope to write about as I’ve changed my view on it, and now like it very much), and began Charlotte Smith’s Young Philosopher, Margaret Kennedy’s Troy Chimneys (a historical novel set in the Regency period — who knew?). I gave up on Holroyd’s overdone saccharine book on Ellen Terry and Henry Irving and never got into his wife, Margaret Drabble’s Arnold Bennett (another time …. ). Jim read Irving Howe’s Notebooks (critical essays), John Hollander’s poetry, and Sondheim’s Look, I Made a Hat. We listened to much music together, and Jim & I read to one another Hollander’s poem, “The Ninth of AB” which begins

August is flat and still, with ever-thickening green,
    Leaves, clipped in their richness; hoarse sighs in the grass
        Moments of mowing, mark out the lengthening summer.
        The ground
We children play on, and toward which maples tumbler their
        seed
    Reaches beneath us all, back to the sweltering City:
        Only here can it never seem yet a time to be sad in.
Only the baking concrete, the soften asphalt, the wail
    Of wall and rampart made to languish together in wild
        Heat can know of the suffering of summer. But here, or
        in woods
Fringing a pond in Pennsylvania, where dull-red newts
    The color of goals glow on the mossy rocks, the nights
        Are starry, full of promise of something beyond them,
        north
        Of the north star, south of the warm dry wind, or east of the
        sea.
    There are no cities for now. Even in this time of songs
        Of lamenting for fallen cities …

It ends with the poet not escaped after all, in a room dark with the old tropes of despair as he turns to fallen cities, to ruined places, wailing walls, human history. It is a profound lamentation

As I used to say to my daughters, when we got home from a trip, home again, home again, jiggedy-jig.

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)

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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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