Poem for the Weekend: Happily Ever After

 Image

Happily Ever After

 When Cinderella met her prince it was all so

easy.

Family troubles? The text is not

explicit:

how king and queen felt

when golden boy brought home

a cleaner.

Perhaps the mice resented

Being put in her service,

the dog disgruntled playing

footman.

 

Her tiara—paste

Her footwear—unreliable.

 

Still, against

the fairy godmother,

fat sisters, incantations and court champagne,

pumpkin coach, white dress so

becoming, the allure 

of her disappearance:

He never stood a chance.

 

Last night I came home, past midnight.

Unclear what spell

I’d broken:

my magic has never been strong. 

 

I awoke in dusty rags

arms stretched

across my pillow, shoeless

without you.

Charming.

           

 

 

A Woman’s Sentence

Like Emily Dickinson, many other women writers have been concerned with the unspoken – with the silence of women’s voices in literary history.

In Katherine Mansfield’s short story “Prelude” for example, we can see Mansfield’s attempt to describe the secret language of, and between generations of women. In the dreams of the story’s central character, Kezia we see surfacing the language of the symbolic and images of plants of birds and of other animals that she has inherited from her mother and grandmother. For Kezia and the other women in Mansfield’s story, the symbolic replaces traditional discourse, and is their birthright as women.

The difficulty, both for the characters in Mansfield story and for her readers, is to find meaning in this secret code:  Kezia does not understand the fearful “It” she sees in her dreams – she only knows to be afraid.

Likewise in Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own. There, Woolf discusses the the literal silencing of women’s words, voices and work in the western canon of literature.  In this text, Woolf is concerned with the lack of female “foremothers” upon whom the modern woman writer can rely for inspiration.

Woolf’s argument in this essay is that women writers can and should turn their exclusion to their benefit – by learning to write what she calls “a woman’s sentence.”

Just what might such a sentence might look like? On this topic, Woolf is less than clear, offering Jane Austen’s work as a guideline (but which one of Austen’s sentences we want to ask!) What is more clear for Woolf is what a Woman’s sentence is not: it is not the same as a man’s sentence.

In Woolf’s own fiction, and perhaps most especially in her fictional biography Orlando,  gender and the effect it has upon the mind of the writer is of central importance. But how far might a work like Orlando be said to cross the boundaries into women’s language, reliant as it is upon critiquing and deconstructing patriarchal forms such as the traditional biography, male literary and military history and even the male body? For Woolf and many women writers before and after her, the overwhelming demand to define oneself against what one is not (ie, Orlando may be best defined as “not a traditional biography of an aristocratic man; I know I am a woman because I am not a man, etc.) led to a kind of frustrating cul de sac of expression, but also to new forms of fiction informed by the symbolic, the rhythmic and by making use of silence itself to subvert meaning. But more on that soon….

 

Emily Dickinson: Telling it Slant

The 19th Century American literary man Samuel Bowles, who first published a few of Emily Dickinson’s poems, (anonymously and highly edited to remove her dashes, unusual capitalization of words and spelling errors) had this to say about women writers in his magazine THE REPUBLICAN in 1860:

 “There is another kind of writing only too common, appealing to the sympathies of the reader without recommending itself to his judgment. It may be called the literature of misery.  Its writers are chiefly women, gifted women, maybe, full of thought and feeling and fancy, but poor, lonely and unhappy. It may be a valuable discipline in the end but for the time being it too often clouds, withers, distorts.  It is so difficult to see objects distinctly through a mist of tears.”

Contemporary critic Harold Bloom repeats this idea that Dickinson’s poetry makes “the visible a little hard to see,” and indeed, her poetry does tend to approach themes of home, love, sexuality, death and melancholy from “a slant” as Dickinson herself called it.

POEM 258 

There’s a certain Slant of light,

Winter Afternoons –

That oppresses, like the Heft

Of Cathedral Tunes –

 

Heavenly Hurt, it gives us –

We can find no scar,

But internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-

 

None may teach it – Any –

‘Tis the Seal Despair –

An imperial affliction

Sent us of the Air –

 

When it comes, the Landscape listens –

Shadows – hold their breath –

When it goes, ‘tis like the Distance

On the look of Death –

 Throughout poems such as this one, Dickinson offers challenges to traditional forms of reading and meaning – awkward and highly original comparisons ( (IMPERIAL AFFLICTIONS/ THE HEFT OF CATHEDRAL TUNES /THE LANDSCAPE LISTENS/THE DISTANCE ON THE LOOK OF DEATH)  that appear to take the personal outwards, making the particular and specific universal and significant by looking at it sideways.  And Dickinson’s subversive slant strategy allowed her to infuse poetry that appeared to her contemporaries be full of homespun observations, and, as Bowles suggests

“ thought and feeling and fancy” with her complex contrarian philosophy. Dickinson’s business, as she told us, was not to relate “feelings” or “tears” as Bowles believed, but the revelation of a whole new way of thinking through “Circumference” and telling the truth, but telling it “slant” in order to offer the highest gift any writer can deliver:    

internal difference,

Where the Meanings, are-

 

Poem for the Weekend: Tale of Two

Tale of Two

’I hope you care to be recalled to life?’ And the old answer:

‘I can’t say.’  C. Dickens, Tale of Two Cities

Monsieur Manette chained to your bench and tinkering.

I hoped I could recall you to life.

 

Lost love is a malingerer: blows cold air

into your garret.

Numb to all but the pattern you work

the days, the years of your confinement.

I am right outside your door.

 

In the best of times I conceived a plan of rescue.

Bribes to gain entry.

Axe to release you.

Fireman’s carry, over my shoulder

out to the city our carriage

awaits.

 

But revenge freezes keys in locks

my feet immobile, blocks of ice: I too am framed

in longing.

 

In the worst times, we keep busy.

You with your shoemaking,

me with my knitting.

A coded tale in purls.

 

Raise your white head, and read

what I have wrought:

No fire to warm you.

No papers for passage.

No guarantee of escape.

 

Stay Monsieur Doctor, in your cell:

A far, far better thing.

We are alike only in our sentence,

the tyrant of the past.

 

Poem: Port Enyon

Port Enyon

 Low tide surrenders the everyday,

the face we show the world recedes

into the sea.

In its place are boulders, fissures, wormcasts,

pools of green so deep they defy the clean

sweep:  the pull of sun and moon

cannot diminish them.

Beautiful/ugly world;

algaed barnacles, the dead husks of

black mussels, slug-like anemones, sea flowers

yellow brown and alien.

And this is life.

 

When the tide turns all is flattened, homogenous.

But you and I know:

Beneath this placidity is darkness,

is decay so slow, wise and stubborn

no power on earth

can wash it away.

 

 

 

 

Writer’s Diaries Part V: Louisa May Alcott: Dutiful/Devil

 

 

Now that I have submitted the first 10,000 words of my new novel to my agent I am back to my work on Writer’s Diaries by way of further brain stimulation. Like Virginia Woolf and Katherine Mansfield, Louisa May Alcott kept a diary throughout her life, and on its pages navigated her own split place in literary and familial history— as both the creator of dutiful daughters in The Little Women series and the pseudonymous author of sensational, subversive ‘thrillers.’ One major influence on Alcott’s writing life was her father, Bronson Alcott.  Bronson was, among other things, an educational reformer, and as Karen Haltunen argues in ‘The Domestic Drama of Louisa May Alcott’ ‘the impression that Bronson expected children to convey with their bodies was the perfect repose of their minds […] he required his young students to sit perfectly still, without fidgeting or whispering.’   From infancy, however, Louisa, ‘presented a major challenge to her father’s educational theories […] Louisa was demanding, noisy and even violent’ . Just as Mr March in Little Women sees anger as the sin that will halt Jo’s pilgrim’s progress, Bronson constantly instructed Louisa in calmness, stillness and patience.  And while the fictional Jo March’s boisterousness bristled beneath her calm exterior, so too did Louisa’s own stifled energies need to find expression. 

Alcott found this release by secretly writing and publishing numerous sensation stories either anonymously or under the pseudonym AM Barnard. In tales with titles such as ‘Pauline’s Passion and Punishment’, ‘Doctor Dorn’s Revenge’ and ‘The Mysterious Mademoiselle,’ Alcott escaped from the morality tales for which she had become famous (and through which she single-handedly supported her family) by writing tales of passion, incest, revenge, drug addiction and murder.    

Alcott once wrote that she’d rather be a ‘good daughter’ than a ‘great writer’ and the Little Women series compounds this image of Louisa as conforming like Jo March to the desires of her father.   In her pseudonymous thrillers, however, she avoided Bronson’s  policing gaze by writing not of feminine stillness, silence and governing one’s temper, but of powerful women with uncontrolled desires. Alcott’s journals offer enticing clues towards understanding this split-voiced fiction, as they witness the divide between her private desire and her public duty that was woven into fictions that seem otherwise irreconcilable: the passion, decadence and addictions of the characters in her thrillers are merely the dark reverse of the controlled and dutiful characters of her morality tales.

From the age of eleven to Alcott’s premature death at fifty, images of enclosure and intrusion (physical and moral) in the journals run alongside an anxious recital of financial wins and losses—in which none of her astounding successes ever silence her fear of not having enough to share. In an undated sketch of her childhood cited by Alcott’s first biographer, Ednah Cheney, Alcott noted that ‘[r]unning away was one of the delights of my early days; and I still enjoy sudden flights out of the nest. ’Louisa’s need for escape hints at the dynamics of their family structure and her relation to the moral surveillance of her father.

Bank Holiday Poem

 The Heron

On the rough river that runs behind

the house I live in now

a  blue heron stalks.

He works without movement, one-legged, listening

master of balance, quick on the draw.

Don’t look him in the eye  my daughter

says, freckles across her nose.  He’ll swoop!

I wonder how she judged his gender.

She is already leaving me.

The bird attacks

drilling down in the muck piercing

the head of a small silver fish,

muddying the water with red blood.

Herons like things that glitter, she says.

Which of them does not?

I hold her hand tightly.

It’s time for bed.

That evening the heron has gone.

Water now fills the place where he stood.

All that is left of the battle is this:

Bloodied scales beneath the current

the silence that surrounds me

things our child is too young to know.

You loved me once like that: stoic, ruthless.

Eyes on the glittering prize.

A poem for the weekend

Further avoidance of writing fiction has helped me to write this poem (working on a theme in the novel so I feel entirely justified….)

Note Pinned to the Saddle of a Wandering Mare

Partner, I admit

I left you to the graft

wrangling, branding, counting heads:

I forgot to shut the gate.

Things on the ranch haven’t changed.

So empty the echo

deafened you. So dark you gave up

on matches. So quiet at night

I roped you to my ear.

I liked your prairie

eyes, the way we rode like friends

along the trail: my singing, your red kerchief,

the lariat round your neck. I’m sorry

for the handcuffs and the lock

across your door.

I was so hungry

I ate you alive.

Writer’s Diaries Part IV: Virginia Woolf

In January 1920 while beginning work on her first experimental novel Jacob’s Room, Woolf boasted in her diary about her newfound technique: ‘the approach will be different this time: no scaffolding; scarcely a brick to be seen;[…] I see immense possibilities in the form I hit upon more or less by chance’ (Diary 2:13). By 1923, however, Woolf’s method was causing her distress, and after the success of Jacob’s Room, she struggled with her next novel, Mrs Dalloway: ‘I have almost too many ideas,’ she wrote. ‘I want to give life and death, sanity and insanity, side by side […] ‘this is going it be the devil of a struggle. The design is so queer and so masterful […]’ (Diary 2:248).

The struggles Woolf gives voice to in her diary, her trouble with the ‘queer’ and ‘masterful’ narrative she is attempting,  highlight her overwhelming need to claim a place for herself in literary (and by extension, her illustrious literary family’s) history. As she would later proclaim in Three Guineas (1938), she believed that the ‘boldest mission’ of ‘Victorian sons and daughters’ like her was to ‘cheat the father, to deceive the father, and then to fly from the father’ (244).

As Woolf’s diaries make clear, her preoccupation with narrative structure was one such form of revolution. Thus her journal not only recounts experiments with form but also her negotiations of her family history that took fictional shape in novels like To the Lighthouse (‘the centre is father’s character, sitting in a boat, reciting We perished, each alone, while he crushes a dying mackerel’ [Diary 3:19]). Writing in her diary of her most experimental novel, The Waves in 1931, Woolf noted: I can give in a very few strokes the essentials of a person’s character. It should be done boldly, almost as caricature. […] The abandonment of Orlando and Lighthouse is much checked by the extreme difficulty of the form—as it was in Jacob’s Room.

I think this is the furthest development so far. […] It is bound to be very imperfect. But I think it possible that I have got my statues against the sky (Diary 3:300). As innovation in her narratives and the growth of her literary reputation surface as her most pressing concerns, Woolf’s diaries are both the battlefield on which she confronts, and the border between, those central preoccupations. On these pages Woolf pores over the divide between the self that keeps the journal and the one that creates her fiction.

In 1922 Woolf wrote ‘It is a mistake to think that literature can be produced from the raw. One must get out of life […] one must become externalized; very, very concentrated, all at one point, not having to draw upon the scattered parts of one’s character.’

 This idea that fiction-writing is somehow removed from life helps to explain a difference in voice between Woolf’s fiction and her journals. Woolf’s key figures, her public voice of sensibility, is wrought in images of the sun, waves, and mirrors in her fiction. Those same images are symbolic of the private struggles over identity and subjectivity we see in her diaries. The life Woolf records in these pages is for the most part critical reflection upon her place in literary and family history: both the queerness and newness of the narrative structures of her work and the distance she feels from ‘Virginia’— her public writing persona. ‘The truth is,’ she wrote in 1926, ‘one can’t write directly about the soul. Looked at, it vanishes’ (Diary 5:357).

What inspires writing: The Hurricane

 

 

I have begun working on a new novel.  Don’t tell anyone.  Because they say that the moment you start talking about it you stop writing about it, and to some extent that’s true.  When my students ask me how to get published, I say “finish writing something good,” and I am not being facetious.  What I mean is that while most would-be JK Rowlings stand little chance of making a living as a novelist – they have no chance at all if they don’t finish writing something good.  It’s sort of like my sister said to me when my marriage failed.  “You might not ever fall in love and be happy in the future – but at least now you have a chance to fall in love and be happy in the future!” She was right.  You have to be in it to win it.  And the same with writing.  But where does the inspiration come from?  If Woolf and Mansfield used their diaries as “practice grounds” for their fiction, what do others use?  For me, an image comes first – right now it is the image of the life guard shack at Long Beach New York, slamming into the boardwalk during hurricane Irene last summer.  I had been to that beach the day before with my family, and was due to go to a wedding at a hotel on the boardwalk the night of the hurricane.  The hotel flooded, the wedding was postponed and thereby seeds of a novel were sown.  How they will grow, I have no idea, yet.  Or I should say I have lots of ideas, still.  And I should be writing them down now instead of telling them all to you.  Maybe this blog is becoming my Woolfian ‘practice ground.’