Nella Larsen, “Passing”

1929

This short novel tells the story of Clare Kendry and Irene Redfield, two mixed-race women in Harlem in the 20s. They were childhood friends and had a chance meeting in Chicago years earlier, where Irene was estranged by Clare’s insistence on passing and marrying a white man. Clare “passes” as white even to her husband, Jack Bellew, since she has been sent to live with her two white aunts. When Clare (“passing”), Irene (mixed), and Gertrude (black) meet Jack for lunch, the novel assembles a sampling of racial diversity illegible to Jack as all participatory in the spectrum of blackness. Clare is already married to Jack, who thinks she is white. Irene lives in Harlem with her black husband, a doctor, and their 2 children. She is involved in the community, and invites Clare to a dance, warning her that it could blow her cover, but Clare decides to go. Irene becomes suspicious of her husband sleeping with the beautiful Clare, and this may be part of why she doesn’t warn Clare when Jack finds out that both women are black. She even considers betraying her herself “Why spare Clare?”

Most of the story is focalized through Irene’s free indirect discourse, which verges on stream of consciousness without explanation (for example, at the end of the novel, Irene wonders if Jack will divorce Clare on grounds of race, recalling “The Rhinelander case,” in which a woman was forced to strip in court so the jury could assess her skin). Jack discovers his wife’s race by proxy – he sees Felise and Irene, who lets on that Irene has been “passing,” and worries that Jack will figure out Clare’s race by extension. Jack calls her “a damned dirty nigger,” and as Irene rushes to her (“She couldn’t have Clare cast aside by Bellew. She couldn’t have her free”) she falls/jumps/is pushed from the window and dies. Irene “never allowed herself to remember” this, and “Irene wasn’t sorry… What would the others think? That Clare had fallen? That she had deliberately leaned backward? Certainly one or the other. Not – ” which implies that she pushed her. Yet Clare was “That beauty that had torn at Irene’s placid life. Gone!” No one suspects her, and Irene confirms that she “just fell.” Time slows and halts.

 

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F. Scott Fitzgerald, “The Great Gatsby”

1925

Set in the summer of 1922, The Great Gatsby is the quintessential, and perhaps original, text in which the surface is the substance, especially of the main character, but also the novel itself. Its New Franklinian concern with capitalism as a virtue finds a home in narrator Nick, who believes himself outside the system, but is simply passively partaking in it. In this way, Tom’s landed inheritance of the system is situated somewhere between Gatsby’s aggressive pursuit in the system and Nick’s total avoidance of it.

In keeping with the thought of surface as content in Gatsby, it’s worth considering the characters’ names: Jordan’s androgyny, Daisy’s false freshness, Gatsby’s name change to something invented and artificial. Nick Carraway’s last name suggests an ungrown seed or sprout, as well as “carried away,” which he is most of the time as he solipsizes Gatsby’s story and adds impossible-to-know details to it. Indeed, the narrative often reaches results passively, so that we don’t know how we got there (the biscuit in the dog’s water or the walk with Daisy told later).

The famous “disembodied face” passage about Daisy signals her as a creature not of the body, but of fancy, which is also how Gatsby himself is imagined. Like a beautiful Kurtz, she is reduced to the power of her voice, which “sounds like money.” The myth of Gatsby compels keeping it up, even despite better evidence. In contrast, both Tom and Myrtle are solidly bodily – Gatsby’s death is to float, while Myrtle’s is to be ripped apart by a car that leaves her breast flapping open.

D.H. Lawrence, “Women in Love”

1920

Originally of a set with The Rainbow, D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love exerted a major influence over later British novelists and critics alike. Lawrence rewrote the novel throughout the war, and its setting is largely that of Europe in crisis, even if we only see it at the level of philosophical thought, rather than physical danger. The characters themselves are types of the war, but they were also all to personal for Lawrence’s contemporaries, and he was sued for libel by Ottoline Morrell (Hermione) and others.

Wikipedia plot summary:

Ursula and Gudrun Brangwen are two sisters living in the Midlands of England in the 1910s. Ursula is a teacher, Gudrun an artist. They meet two men who live nearby, school inspector Rupert Birkin and coal-mine heir Gerald Crich. The four become friends. Ursula and Birkin become involved, and Gudrun eventually begins a love affair with Gerald. All four are deeply concerned with questions of society, politics, and the relationship between men and women. At a party at Gerald’s estate, Gerald’s sister Diana drowns. Gudrun becomes the teacher and mentor of his youngest sister. Soon Gerald’s coal-mine-owning father dies as well, after a long illness. After the funeral, Gerald goes to Gudrun’s house and spends the night with her, while her parents are asleep in another room. Birkin asks Ursula to marry him, and she agrees. Gerald and Gudrun’s relationship, however, becomes stormy. The four vacation in the Alps. Gudrun begins an intense friendship with Loerke, a physically puny but emotionally commanding artist from Dresden. Gerald, enraged by Loerke and most of all by Gudrun’s verbal abuse and rejection of his manhood, and driven by the internal violence of his own self, tries to strangle Gudrun. Before he has killed her, however, he realizes that this is not what he wants—he leaves Gudrun and Loerke and on his skis climbs ever upward on the mountains, eventually slipping into a snow valley where he falls asleep, a frozen sleep from which he never awakens. The impact on Birkin of Gerald’s death is profound; the novel ends a few weeks after Gerald’s death, with Birkin trying to explain to Ursula that he needs Gerald as he needs her—her for the perfect relationship with a woman, and Gerald for the perfect relationship with a man.

Though Lawrence is sometimes read as antifeminist, I treasure his novels because they explore female desire and sexuality at a wonderfully bodily, rather than symbolic, level. They also call attention to the vitality of female friendship and sisterhood, which accords with Woolf’s projects and with Doris Lessing’s, who begins The Golden Notebook with a reworking of Women In Love’s opening scene.

Like Howards End, Women in Love is a novel of ideas. Gerald, often read as an Ezra Pound or high modernist, is an idealist, whereas Rupert Birkin is more of a phenomenologist (or more Burkian?), not indulging sensuality as a hedonist, materialist, or aesthete, but suspending judgment for the sake of experience.

What I most noticed rereading the novel this time was the preponderance of the figurative language “like,” but especially “as if” – sometimes eight or ten times in a single page! Here are some examples from just a page:

[Hermione sang] in her low, odd, singing fashion, that sounded almost as if she were poking fun… [Ursula laughed], because Hermione seemed to be compelling her, coming very close to her, as if intimate with her; and yet, how could she be intimate?… [Hermione] spoke all the while in a mocking, half teasing fashion, as if making game of the whole business” 31.

To be sure, these linguistic figurations are hesitant similes, rather than sure, embodied metaphors, but they are also a clearer laying bare of the imaginative acts of thinking and writing. They form a kind of treatise with the reader, inviting engagement with the idea of the suspension of belief itself. This is compounded by Lawrence’s compound words and kennings – “mystic-real,” etc., highlighting language as an imaginative act as well.

The language even seems to infect reviewers – Walter Kendrick of the New York Times writes that the novel ends “as if Lawrence were annoyed with himself for failing to settle it.” In fact, the ending repeats the phrase as part of its imaginative inconclusivity:

“You can’t have two kinds of love. Why should you!” “It seems as if I can’t,” [Birkin] said. “Yet I wanted it.” “You can’t have it, because it’s false, impossible,” she said. “I don’t believe that,” he answered 473.

The mode of this figuration would stretch from metaphor (it is) to simile (it is like) to fictionality (as if), which seems to me one step away from the subjunctive storytelling of writers like Pynchon. In this way, they give on to a sort of utopian ideal, a fantasy of artistic hope, more than any actual belief that change will really occur. In this way, Women in Love exchanges one kind of idealism (Kantian or aesthetic, killed off in Gerald) for another (sociopolitical, still alive in Birkin).

Henry James, “What Maisie Knew”

1897

In the preface to this novel, Henry James acknowledges that the distance between the narrative voice and the likely vocabulary of a child is a way of negotiating the psychic difficulty around a limited but growing perspective. Typical of James, the novel is the psychological unfolding of a particular subjectivity over time, in the form of a narrative that defers what we otherwise would have seen by means of occlusion. For me, James hinges the Victorian and modernist moments in switching from “realism” to “psychic realism” in free indirect discourse, a stop on the way to the “stream of consciousness” and leaping between subjectivities that characterizes modernism.

Wikipedia’s Plot Summary:

When Beale and Ida Farange are divorced, the court decrees that their only child, the very young Maisie, will shuttle back and forth between them, spending six months of the year with each. The parents are immoral and frivolous, and they use Maisie to intensify their hatred of each other. Beale Farange marries Miss Overmore, Maisie’s pretty governess, while Ida marries the likeable but weak Sir Claude. Maisie gets a new governess: the frumpy, somewhat-ridiculous but devoted Mrs. Wix.

Both Ida and Beale soon cheat on their spouses; in turn, Claude and the new Mrs. Farange begin an affair with each other. Maisie’s parents essentially abandon her and she becomes largely the responsibility of Sir Claude. Eventually, Maisie must decide if she wants to remain with Sir Claude and Mrs. Farange. In the book’s long final section set in France, the older (probably teenaged) Maisie struggles to choose between them and Mrs Wix, and concludes that her new parents’ relationship will likely end as her biological parents’ did. She leaves them and goes to stay with Mrs. Wix, her most reliable adult guardian.

Tennessee Williams, “A Streetcar Named Desire”

1947

Blanche DuBois arrives at the home of her sister Stella Kowalski, married to the brutal Stanley. We learn that the DuBois family has lost their plantation, Belle Reve, in Laurel, Mississippi, and that Blanche has been fired for sleeping with one of her 17 year-old students, though she does not tell Stella this. Blanche’s ex-husband killed himself after his homosexual affair was revealed. While Blanche is arrogant and entertains delusions of grandeur, Stella is meek and subservient. Stanley and Stella have a passionate but abusive relationship, with Stanley drinking and beating and shouting at his pregnant wife. When Stella begins to seduce Stanley’s friend Mitch and tries to intervene in their marriage as a moral superior, Stanley digs up her past and confronts her about it. In the ensuing fight, we are led to believe he rapes her, causing a psychic break that becomes Stanley’s excuse to have her carted off to the looney bin (“Whoever you are, I have always depended on the kindness of strangers,” she says dimly.) Stanley and Stella make a tentative peace that marks the start of another cycle of violence in their home.

It would be interesting to put this in conversation with other texts about the decay of the South – Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury, Flannery O’Connor’s short stories, etc. I also think John Osborne’s  1956 Look Back In Anger is a direct rewriting of the play in postwar Britain – a national rather than a regional project. In that play, the husband similarly abuses his pregnant wife, though he does not rape her friend, but engages with her consensually. At the end, the two original lovers are drawn back together through pet names and begin their unhealthy cycle once more.

Claude McKay: Poems

Claude McKay, perhaps most known for his novel Banjo, was also a poet of the Harlem Renaissance. Jamaican by birth, he settled in America, where he became a citizen in 1940. He saw capitalism and racism as inextricably linked, and devoted much of his work to overturning conventional belief via conventional forms (the sonnet, the novel, etc.). He was a devout believer in the potential of the Soviet Union, but did not seem to experience the disillusionment that Hughes and others did.

“THE HARLEM DANCER,” 1917/1922

Applauding youths laughed with young prostitutes
And watched her perfect, half-clothed body sway;
Her voice was like the sound of blended flutes
Blown by black players upon a picnic day.
She sang and danced on gracefully and calm,
The light gauze hanging loose about her form;
To me she seemed a proudly-swaying palm
Grown lovelier for passing through a storm.
Upon her swarthy neck black shiny curls
Luxuriant fell; and tossing coins in praise,
The wine-flushed, bold-eyed boys, and even the girls,
Devoured her shape with eager, passionate gaze;
But looking at her falsely-smiling face,
I knew her self was not in that strange place.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. Interesting to compare the dancer's dislocation from physical space with the stripper in Ellison's Invisible Man and with the dancers in Hughes' poetry.

“HARLEM SHADOWS,” 1918

I hear the halting footsteps of a lass
      In Negro Harlem when the night lets fall
Its veil. I see the shapes of girls who pass
      To bend and barter at desire’s call.
Ah, little dark girls who in slippered feet
Go prowling through the night from street to street!
Through the long night until the silver break
      Of day the little gray feet know no rest;
Through the lone night until the last snow-flake
      Has dropped from heaven upon the earth’s white breast,
The dusky, half-clad girls of tired feet
Are trudging, thinly shod, from street to street.
Ah, stern harsh world, that in the wretched way
      Of poverty, dishonor and disgrace,
Has pushed the timid little feet of clay,
      The sacred brown feet of my fallen race!
Ah, heart of me, the weary, weary feet
In Harlem wandering from street to street.
A poem about the senses and the exhaustion of the urban flaneur in three stanzas of six lines with the rhyme scheme ababcc dedecc efefcc.

“THE LYNCHING,” 1919

His Spirit in smoke ascended to high heaven.
His father, by the cruelest way of pain,
Had bidden him to his bosom once again;
The awful sin remained still unforgiven.
All night a bright and solitary star
(Perchance the one that ever guided him,
Yet gave him up at last to Fate’s wild whim)
Hung pitifully o’er the swinging char.
Day dawned, and soon the mixed crowds came to view
The ghastly body swaying in the sun
The women thronged to look, but never a one
Showed sorrow in her eyes of steely blue;
And little lads, lynchers that were to be,
Danced round the dreadful thing in fiendish glee.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abba cddc effe gg. The horror of the subject in the rather prosaic form of the sonnet is striking here. The speaker shifts from the family of the victim to the body itself, ending on the women and children – “lynchers that were to be” thronging around the “thing” made of the victim’s body.

“IF WE MUST DIE,” 1919

If we must die, let it not be like hogs
Hunted and penned in an inglorious spot,
While round us bark the mad and hungry dogs,
Making their mock at our accursèd lot.
If we must die, O let us nobly die,
So that our precious blood may not be shed
In vain; then even the monsters we defy
Shall be constrained to honor us though dead!
O kinsmen! we must meet the common foe!
Though far outnumbered let us show us brave,
And for their thousand blows deal one death-blow!
What though before us lies the open grave?
Like men we’ll face the murderous, cowardly pack,
Pressed to the wall, dying, but fighting back!

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The first 8 lines are in a subjunctive tone of prevention, while the last 6 represent a turn that is a rallying cry to leftist political action.

“AMERICA,” 1921

Although she feeds me bread of bitterness,
And sinks into my throat her tiger’s tooth,
Stealing my breath of life, I will confess
I love this cultured hell that tests my youth!
Her vigor flows like tides into my blood,
Giving me strength erect against her hate.
Her bigness sweeps my being like a flood.
Yet as a rebel fronts a king in state,
I stand within her walls with not a shred
Of terror, malice, not a word of jeer.
Darkly I gaze into the days ahead,
And see her might and granite wonders there,
Beneath the touch of Time’s unerring hand,
Like priceless treasures sinking in the sand.

An English sonnet with the rhyme scheme abab cdcd efef gg. The poem is remarkable for enacting in its form (an English sonnet by a Jamaican-born black immigrant in America) the conflict of its content (a man torn between violent political resistance and cultural infatuation).

“MOSCOW,” 1953

Another sonnet, but in a Petrarchan octet/sestet structure (with the unusual rhyme scheme abcd bcda / efg fge). The octet describes Moscow as McKay saw it; after the volta, the sestet turns to how the memory preserves him and gives him hope (almost like Wordsworth’s daffodils). The poem transforms Moscow into Byzantium, perhaps a comment on a Yeatsian ideal of aesthetic and political union, as in “Sailing to Byzantium.”

John Updike: “A&P” & “Separating”

“A&P” (PIGEON FEATHERS, 1962)

The story begins “in medias res,” but on the low register of suburban American summer:

“In walks these three girls in nothing but bathing suits. I’m in the third check-out slot, with my back to the door, so I don’t see them until they’re over by the bread. The one that caught my eye first was the one in the plaid green two-piece. She was a chunky kid, with a good tan and a sweet broad soft-looking can with those two crescents of white just under it, where the sun never seems to hit, at the top of the backs of her legs.”

The old woman at the register he’s tending (a “witch”) catches him ringing up crackers twice because he’s distracted. Other than “the chunky one” is “the striking one” that will “never quite make it,” and finally, the “queen”:

“She didn’t look around, not this queen, she just walked straight on slowly, on these long white prima donna legs. She came down a little hard on her heels, as if she didn’t walk in her bare feet that much, putting down her heels and then letting the weight move along to her toes as if she was testing the floor with every step, putting a little deliberate extra action into it. You never know for sure how girls’ minds work (do you really think it’s a mind in there or just a little buzz like a bee in a glassjar?) but you got the idea she had talked the other two into coming in here with her, and now she was showing them how to do it, walk slow and hold yourself straight.”

In a Holden Caulfield tone, he continues: “She had on a kind of dirty-pink – – beige maybe, I don’t know — bathing suit with a little nubble all over it and, what got me, the straps were down…. I mean, it was more than pretty.” In the next paragraph he names her “Queenie,” just starts calling her that, and delightedly describes the “house-slaves in pin curlers [who] even looked around after pushing their carts past to make sure what they had seen was correct” – these girls walking around barefoot in their swimsuits in the A & P.

“You know, it’s one thing to have a girl in a bathing suit down on the beach, where what with the glare nobody can look at each other much anyway, and another thing in the cool of the A & P, under the fluorescent lights, against all those stacked packages, with her feet paddling along naked over our checkerboard green-and-cream rubber-tile floor.”

The speaker considers what happens to a woman’s body when it is displayed not just among, but as packaging like any other. There’s a sweetness to the boy’s innocent connectedness to a community to whom he’s told this story already: “Now here comes the sad part of the story, at:least my family says it’s sad but I don’t think it’s sad myself.”

“…the girls come to me. Queenie puts down the jar and I take it into my fingers icy cold. Kingfish Fancy Herring Snacks in Pure Sour Cream: 49¢. Now her hands are empty, not a ring or a bracelet, bare as God made them, and I wonder where the money’s coming from. Still with that prim look she lifts a folded dollar bill out of the hollow at the center of her nubbled pink top. The jar went heavy in my hand. Really, I thought that was so cute. Then everybody’s luck begins to run out.”

Suddenly the girl speaks and her class becomes all to evident to the narrator:

“Queenie blushes, though maybe it’s just a brush of sunburn I was noticing for the first time, now that she was so close. “My mother asked me to pick up a jar of herring snacks.” Her voice kind of startled me, the way voices do when you see the people first, coming out so flat and dumb yet kind of tony, too, the way it ticked over “pick up” and “snacks.” All of a sudden I slid right down her voice into her living room. Her father and the other men were standing around in ice-cream coats and bow ties and the women were in sandals picking up herring snacks on toothpicks off a big plate and they were all holding drinks the color of water with olives and sprigs of mint in them. When my parents have somebody over they get lemonade and if it’s a real racy affair Schlitz in tall glasses with “They’ll Do It Every Time” cartoons stencilled on.”

The manager repeats “This isn’t the beach,” and the tense of the story shifts: “Queenie’s blush is no sunburn now, and the plump one in plaid, that I liked better from the back — a really sweet can — pipes up, “We weren’t doing any shopping. We just came in for the one thing.”

“We want you decently dressed when you come in here.”

“We are decent,” Queenie says suddenly, her lower lip pushing, getting sore now that she remembers her place, a place from which the crowd that runs the A & P must look pretty crummy. Fancy Herring Snacks flashed in her very blue eyes.

Lengel tells the narrator, who we now know is named Sammy, to ring them up. He does, and gives Queenie her change.

The girls, and who’d blame them, are in a hurry to get out, so I say “I quit” to Lengel quick enough for them to hear, hoping they’ll stop and watch me, their unsuspected hero. They keep right on going, into the electric eye; the door flies open and they flicker across the lot to their car, Queenie and Plaid and Big Tall Goony-Goony (not that as raw material she was so bad), leaving me with Lengel and a kink in his eyebrow.

Even though he can see they might be gone, he repeats, “I quit.” His repetition parallels that of Lengel insisting the girls leave. “You didn’t have to embarrass them.” “It was they who were embarrassing us.”

“I don’t think you know what you’re saying,” Lengel said.

“I know you don’t,” I said. “But I do.” I pull the bow at the back of my apron and start shrugging it off my shoulders. A couple customers that had been heading for my slot begin to knock against each other, like scared pigs in a chute.

“Sammy, you don’t want to do this to your Mom and Dad,” he tells me. It’s true, I don’t. But it seems to me that once you begin a gesture it’s fatal not to go through with it. I fold the apron, “Sammy” stitched in red on the pocket, and put it on the counter, and drop the bow tie on top of it. The bow tie is theirs, if you’ve ever wondered. “You’ll feel this for the rest of your life,” Lengel says, and I know that’s true, too, but remembering how he made that pretty girl blush makes me so scrunchy inside I punch the No Sale tab and the machine whirs “pee-pul” and the drawer splats out.

I look around for my girls, but they’re gone, of course. There wasn’t anybody but some young married screaming with her children about some candy they didn’t get by the door of a powder-blue Falcon station wagon. Looking back in the big windows, over the bags of peat moss and aluminum lawn furniture stacked on the pavement, I could see Lengel in my place in the slot, checking the sheep through. His face was dark gray and his back stiff, as if he’djust had an injection of iron, and my stomach kind of fell as I felt how hard the world was going to be to me hereafter.

It’s hard not to quote this story in big sections because the tone is so painfully true, and yet so shudderingly maudlin. Updike manages to capture that moment in adolescence where you think it’s just you who feels certain things and will stand up for them, as well as the sad reality that most people will end up decent but conventional, like Lengel and Sammy’s parents. The mix in this of class makes the point all the sharper.

“SEPARATING” (TOO FAR TO GO, 1974)

The Maples, Joan and Richard, plan to tell each of their children (Judith, Jr., John, and Margaret) separately about their impending divorce, with “the bauble of summer” to hopefully distract them. Updike employs the wonderful image of construction as a sign of impending doom for couples, and the Maples’ arrogance in thinking they could escape this fate (their prosaic name is perfect here). “All spring he had been morbidly conscious of insides and outsides, of barriers and partitions. He and Joan stood as a thin barrier between the children and the truth.” He is fixing up the house for his departure and is focused on the lock to the porch’s screen door. Judith, who has just returned from England, tells her father, though she loved her year abroad, that she was happy to come home: ” ‘I’m an American.’ She was a woman… The partition between himself and the tears broke… the back of his throat aching… the champagne, the lobsters… he saw them and tasted them through tears.” As he begins to cry, the children let on that they have known. ” ‘That we do not love each other’ was the rest of the sentence; he couldn’t finish it.” John, the younger boy, gets upset and his father leads him to the green rise as he begins to cry. In bed, Joan complains that it was Richard’s idea, but his tears made her look bad. He lies awake thinking and tells his wife he would “undo” it all if he could, but she asks, “Where would you begin?” “There was no place.” As he drives his older son Jr. home, there is an abrupt twist: “They turned the corner; the church they went to loomed like a gutted fort. The home of the woman Richard hoped to marry stood across the green.” Jr. goes to bed without saying much or seeming affected. His wife goes into Jr.’s bedroom and is haloed by “an inexplicable light.” The boy cries and kisses his father on the lips, asking “why?” “Why. It was a whistle of wind in a crack, a knife thrust, a window thrown open on emptiness. The white face was gone, the darkness was featureless. Richard had forgotten why.”

Seamus Heaney: Poems

Heaney (1939-) is a particularly interesting Irish poet to put in conversation with others because of his model of history: digging. Like Yeats, Heaney’s bog bodies dig up a “memory bank” of ritual sacrifice and tradition lost that resonates through myth and mystery. But whereas Yeats and Eliot both emphasize models of historical change, development, or deterioration over time, Heaney’s model is fascinated a kind of ahistorical flattening: with the temporal collapse of discovering something material that is intact and preserved from a separate time. In this sense, his work feels more postmodern in its recovery. He ties the personal past (his father and grandfather digging peat) to a national or international past (the bodies dug up in peat bogs around Europe dating from 8,000 BC to WWII). His poems often obsess over the particularities of these bodies, as well as the tension between their foulness and perfect intactness. Writing after 1969 and the resistance and killings, he was particularly aware of the peat bogs as spaces that remained undivided when everything else in Ireland was cut up.

“DIGGING,” 1966

Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests; snug as a gun.
Under my window, a clean rasping sound
When the spade sinks into gravelly ground:
My father, digging. I look down
Till his straining rump among the flowerbeds
Bends low, comes up twenty years away
Stooping in rhythm through potato drills
Where he was digging.
The coarse boot nestled on the lug, the shaft
Against the inside knee was levered firmly.
He rooted out tall tops, buried the bright edge deep
To scatter new potatoes that we picked,
Loving their cool hardness in our hands.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
The cold smell of potato mould, the squelch and slap
Of soggy peat, the curt cuts of an edge
Through living roots awaken in my head.
But I’ve no spade to follow men like them.
Between my finger and my thumb
The squat pen rests.
I’ll dig with it.
As the speaker owns the pen, not as a sword or even a shovel, but a gun, it’s unclear whether he’s brought closer or driven further from his father in making the act of writing parallel to digging.

“THE GRAUBALLE MAN,” 1969

As if he had been poured
in tar, he lies
on a pillow of turf
and seems to weep

the black river of himself.
The grain of his wrists
is like bog oak,
the ball of his heel

like a basalt egg.
His instep has shrunk
cold as a swan’s foot
or a wet swamp root.

His hips are the ridge
and purse of a mussel,
his spine an eel arrested
under a glisten of mud.

The head lifts,
the chin is a visor
raised above the vent
of his slashed throat

that has tanned and toughened.
The cured wound
opens inwards to a dark
elderberry place.

Who will say ‘corpse’
to his vivid cast?
Who will say ‘body’
to his opaque repose?

And his rusted hair,
a mat unlikely
as a foetus’s.
I first saw his twisted face

in a photograph,
a head and shoulder
out of the peat,
bruised like a forceps baby,

but now he lies
perfected in my memory,
down to the red horn
of his nails,

hung in the scales
with beauty and atrocity:
with the Dying Gaul
too strictly compassed

on his shield,
with the actual weight
of each hooded victim,
slashed and dumped.

The “swan’s foot on a wet swamp root” here reminds me of Yeats. The way the body is both still itself, preserved, and yet merged with the bog by weeping “the black river of himself” contributes to an interaction between presence and absence, history and contemporaneity. Again, he is both a corpse and impossibly alive, distant and yet avowedly not merely symbolic of “the actual weight of each hooded victim, slashed and dumped,” referring to the political violence of Ireland.

“PUNISHMENT,” 1975

I can feel the tug
of the halter at the nape
of her neck, the wind
on her naked front.

It blows her nipples
to amber beads,
it shakes the frail rigging
of her ribs.

I can see her drowned
body in the bog,
the weighing stone,
the floating rods and boughs.

Under which at first
she was a barked sapling
that is dug up
oak-bone, brain-firkin:

her shaved head
like a stubble of black corn,
her blindfold a soiled bandage,
her noose a ring

to store
the memories of love.
Little adulteress,
before they punished you

you were flaxen-haired,
undernourished, and your
tar-black face was beautiful.
My poor scapegoat,

I almost love you
but would have cast, I know,
the stones of silence.
I am the artful voyeuur

of your brain’s exposed
and darkened combs,
your muscles’ webbing
and all your numbered bones:

I who have stood dumb
when your betraying sisters,
cauled in tar,
wept by the railings,

who would connive
in civilized outrage
yet understand the exact
and tribal, intimate revenge.

The treatment of the “little adulteress” as a small creature in a halter reminds  me of Lo in her “coltish subteens. Dating from the first century C.E.,  she was a blindfolded 13 year-old with her head shaved and brain removed when thrown into the bog. Her body is a ship with “the frail rigging of her ribs,” weighed down with a stone. She is “a sapling,” “a poor scapegoat” of “tribal, intimate revenge,” to whom the poet says, “I almost love you/ but would have cast, I know,/ the stones of silence./ I am the artful voyeur/ of your brain’s exposed/ and darkened combs.”

“THE SKUNK,” 1979

Up, black, striped and demasked like the chasuble
At a funeral mass, the skunk’s tail
Paraded the skunk. Night after night
I expected her like a visitor.

The refrigerator whinnied into silence.
My desk light softened beyond the verandah.
Small oranges loomed in the orange tree.
I began to be tense as a voyeur.

After eleven years i was composing
Love-letters again, broaching the ‘wife’
Like a stored cask, as if its slender vowel
Had mutated into the night earth and air

Of California. The beautiful, useless
Tang of eucalyptus spelt your absense.
The aftermath of a mouthful of wine
Was like inhaling you off a cold pillow.

And there she was, the intent and glamorous,
Ordinary, mysterious skunk,
Mythologized, demythologized,
Snuffing the boards five feet beyond me.

It all came back to me last night, stirred
By the sootfall of your things at bedtime,
Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer
For the black plunge-line nightdress.

A funny poem to compare to Lowell’s “The Skunk Hour,” it begins, as Lowell’s, with the speaker observing a skunk in suburbia. Rather than watching her lick cream, here she appears “like a visitor” while he hears “The refrigerator whinnied into silence.” As he transforms the skunk into his wife, “there she was, the intent and glamorous,/ Ordinary, mysterious skunk,/ Mythologized, demythologized… Your head-down, tail-up hunt in a bottom drawer/ For the black plunge-line nightdress.”

Ted Hughes: Poems

Ted Hughes (1930-1998) is known for metaphorical poems focusing on the common forces of the human and animal experiences. In Crow he abandoned realism and tradition in favor of “speaking a language that raises no ghosts,” although with its folkloric symbolic tone, it is somewhat reminiscent of Yeats.

THE HAWK IN THE RAIN

“WIND,” 1957

This house has been far out at sea all night,
The woods crashing through darkness, the booming hills,
Winds stampeding the fields under the window
Floundering black astride and blinding wet

Till day rose; then under an orange sky
The hills had new places, and wind wielded
Blade-light, luminous black and emerald,
Flexing like the lens of a mad eye.

At noon I scaled along the house-side as far as
The coal-house door. Once I looked up –
Through the brunt wind that dented the balls of my eyes
The tent of the hills drummed and strained its guyrope,

The fields quivering, the skyline a grimace,
At any second to bang and vanish with a flap;
The wind flung a magpie away and a black-
Back gull bent like an iron bar slowly. The house

Rang like some fine green goblet in the note
That any second would shatter it. Now deep
In chairs, in front of the great fire, we grip
Our hearts and cannot entertain book, thought,

Or each other. We watch the fire blazing,
And feel the roots of the house move, but sit on,
Seeing the window tremble to come in,
Hearing the stones cry out under the horizons.

Like reading the other side of Plath’s poem “The Rabbit Hunter,” where she is awed and afraid of his particularity and masculinity, here Hughes’ perspective is one of exhaustion, wear, and alienation after exploring the wider landscape.

‘THE THOUGHT-FOX,” 1957

I imagine this midnight moment’s forest:
Something else is alive
Beside the clock’s loneliness
And this blank page where my fingers move.

Through the window I see no star:
Something more near
Though deeper within darkness
Is entering the loneliness:

Cold, delicately as the dark snow
A fox’s nose touches twig, leaf;
Two eyes serve a movement, that now
And again now, and now, and now

Sets neat prints into the snow
Between trees, and warily a lame
Shadow lags by stump and in hollow
Of a body that is bold to come

Across clearings, an eye,
A widening deepening greenness,
Brilliantly, concentratedly,
Coming about its own business

Till, with a sudden sharp hot stink of fox
It enters the dark hole of the head.
The window is starless still; the clock ticks,
The page is printed.

The thought emerging and moving “now, and now, and now” reminds me of Stevens – “it was snowing and it was going to snow” in “13 Ways of Looking at a Blackbird.” The nose before the eyes is an interesting idea of writing via the senses – also think of James (the ambassadors) – how senses are literal but also figurative. Nature, in general, is more symbolic here than in the American modernists and mid-century poets.

LUPERCAL

“RELIC,” 1960

I found this jawbone at the sea’s edge:
There, crabs, dogfish, broken by the breakers or tossed
To flap for half an hour and turn to a crust
Continue the beginning. The deeps are cold:
In that darkness camaraderie does not hold.

Nothing touches but, clutching, devours. And the jaws,
Before they are satisfied or their stretched purpose
Slacken, go down jaws; go gnawn bare. Jaws
Eat and are finished and the jawbone comes to the beach:
This is the sea’s achievement; with shells,
Verterbrae, claws, carapaces, skulls.

Time in the sea eats its tail, thrives, casts these
Indigestibles, the spars of purposes
That failed far from the surface. None grow rich
In the sea. This curved jawbone did not laugh
But gripped, gripped and is now a cenotaph.

The sea’s achievement is the reduction of life to monument.

“PIKE,” 1960

Pike, three inches long, perfect
Pike in all parts, green tigering the gold.
Killers from the egg: the malevolent aged grin.
They dance on the surface among the flies.

Or move, stunned by their own grandeur,
Over a bed of emerald, silhouette
Of submarine delicacy and horror.
A hundred feet long in their world.

In ponds, under the heat-struck lily pads-
Gloom of their stillness:
Logged on last year’s black leaves, watching upwards.
Or hung in an amber cavern of weeds

The jaws’ hooked clamp and fangs
Not to be changed at this date:
A life subdued to its instrument;
The gills kneading quietly, and the pectorals.

Three we kept behind glass,
Jungled in weed: three inches, four,
And four and a half: red fry to them-
Suddenly there were two. Finally one

With a sag belly and the grin it was born with.
And indeed they spare nobody.
Two, six pounds each, over two feet long
High and dry and dead in the willow-herb-

One jammed past its gills down the other’s gullet:
The outside eye stared: as a vice locks-
The same iron in this eye
Though its film shrank in death.

A pond I fished, fifty yards across,
Whose lilies and muscular tench
Had outlasted every visible stone
Of the monastery that planted them-

Stilled legendary depth:
It was as deep as England. It held
Pike too immense to stir, so immense and old
That past nightfall I dared not cast

But silently cast and fished
With the hair frozen on my head
For what might move, for what eye might move.
The still splashes on the dark pond,

Owls hushing the floating woods
Frail on my ear against the dream
Darkness beneath night’s darkness had freed,
That rose slowly toward me, watching.

Interesting to compare to the old fish in Murdoch’s The Bell and to Elizabeth Bishop’s “The Fish,” more about the catch and release moment. Also the pond “deep as England,” vs the available surfaces for American poetry.

CROW

“CROW’S LAST STAND,” 1970

Burning/burning/burning/there was finally something/ The sun could not burn, that it had rendered/ Everything down to – a final obstacle/ Against which it raged and charred/ And rages and chars/ Limpid among the glaring furnace clinkers/ The pulsing blue tongues and the red and the yellow/ The green lickings of the conflagration/ Limpid and black – / Crow’s eye-pupil, in the tower of its scorched fort.

Like Yeats a bit in its agrarian, folkloric symbolism and focus on shaping, rendering, reductive forces common to aesthetic production and nature. Crow is anthropomorphic, a trickster figure, staging a kind of gender war (written directly after the death of Assia and baby).

BIRTHDAY LETTERS

“DAFFODILS,” 1998

Remember how we picked the daffodils?
Nobody else remembers, but I remember.
Your daughter came with her armfuls, eager and happy,
Helping the harvest. She has forgotten.
She cannot even remember you. And we sold them.
It sounds like sacrilege, but we sold them.
Were we so poor? Old Stoneman, the grocer,
Boss-eyed, his blood-pressure purpling to beetroot
(It was his last chance,
He would die in the same great freeze as you) ,
He persuaded us. Every Spring
He always bought them, sevenpence a dozen,
‘A custom of the house’.

Besides, we still weren’t sure we wanted to own
Anything. Mainly we were hungry
To convert everything to profit.
Still nomads-still strangers
To our whole possession. The daffodils
Were incidental gilding of the deeds,
Treasure trove. They simply came,
And they kept on coming.
As if not from the sod but falling from heaven.
Our lives were still a raid on our own good luck.
We knew we’d live forever. We had not learned
What a fleeting glance of the everlasting
Daffodils are. Never identified
The nuptial flight of the rarest epherma-
Our own days!
We thought they were a windfall.
Never guessed they were a last blessing.
So we sold them. We worked at selling them
As if employed on somebody else’s
Flower-farm. You bent at it
In the rain of that April-your last April.
We bent there together, among the soft shrieks
Of their jostled stems, the wet shocks shaken
Of their girlish dance-frocks-
Fresh-opened dragonflies, wet and flimsy,
Opened too early.

We piled their frailty lights on a carpenter’s bench,
Distributed leaves among the dozens-
Buckling blade-leaves, limber, groping for air, zinc-silvered-
Propped their raw butts in bucket water,
Their oval, meaty butts,
And sold them, sevenpence a bunch-

Wind-wounds, spasms from the dark earth,
With their odourless metals,
A flamy purification of the deep grave’s stony cold
As if ice had a breath-

We sold them, to wither.
The crop thickened faster than we could thin it.
Finally, we were overwhelmed
And we lost our wedding-present scissors.

Every March since they have lifted again
Out of the same bulbs, the same
Baby-cries from the thaw,
Ballerinas too early for music, shiverers
In the draughty wings of the year.
On that same groundswell of memory, fluttering
They return to forget you stooping there
Behind the rainy curtains of a dark April,
Snipping their stems.

But somewhere your scissors remember. Wherever they are.
Here somewhere, blades wide open,
April by April
Sinking deeper
Through the sod-an anchor, a cross of rust.

The poem is to Sylvia, about cutting and selling flowers in spring with their daughter, who no longer remembers her mother. The collection broke a 35 year silence on Hughes’ part. It is a response to Wordsworth’s daffodils as well – the kinds of memories the flowers conjure here are less those of solace than treasured, fragile moments. The scissors form a beautiful image of violence and vulnerability.

Derek Walcott: Poems

Walcott, a West Indies poet, has called himself “a schizophrenic” and “a mongrel” in terms of his divided heritage, “a mongrel of style.” He called the Irish “the niggers of Britain,” and felt he shared a literary heritage especially with Yeats, Joyce, Synge, and others. He is particularly noted for his deft cross-cultural use of metaphor.

“A FAR CRY FROM AFRICA,” 1956/62

     A wind is ruffling the tawny pelt
     Of Africa. Kikuyu, quick as flies,
     Batten upon the bloodstreams of the veldt.
     Corpses are scattered through a paradise.
5     Only the worm, colonel of carrion, cries:
     "Waste no compassion on these separate dead!"
     Statistics justify and scholars seize
     The salients of colonial policy.
     What is that to the white child hacked in bed?
10     To savages, expendable as Jews?

     Threshed out by beaters, the long rushes break
     In a white dust of ibises whose cries
     Have wheeled since civilization's dawn
     From the parched river or beast-teeming plain.
15     The violence of beast on beast is read
     As natural law, but upright man
     Seeks his divinity by inflicting pain.
     Delirious as these worried beasts, his wars
     Dance to the tightened carcass of a drum,
20     While he calls courage still that native dread
     Of the white peace contracted by the dead.

     Again brutish necessity wipes its hands
     Upon the napkin of a dirty cause, again
     A waste of our compassion, as with Spain,
25     The gorilla wrestles with the superman.
     I who am poisoned with the blood of both,
     Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?
     I who have cursed
     The drunken officer of British rule, how choose
30     Between this Africa and the English tongue I love?
     Betray them both, or give back what they give?
     How can I face such slaughter and be cool?
     How can I turn from Africa and live?

The Kikuyu, mentioned in the second line, battled the Brits in Kenya for 8 of the years of the 1950s. Walcott attempts to politicize their death by comparing the “savages, expendable as Jews.” “I who am poisoned with the blood of both, Where shall I turn, divided to the vein?” reminds me of Countee Cullen’s “What is Africa to Me?” Finally, the choice between “Africa and the English tongue I love” recalls much of the tension of the earlier Harlem Renaissance poets, while the final lines draw attention to the higher-than-ever political stakes, echoing Yeats’ historical poems by concluding with a question: “How can I face such slaughter and be cool? How can I turn from Africa and live?”

“THE SCHOONER FLIGHT”

A long poem, the Norton excerpt is the first section. “I stood like a stone and nothing else move/ but the cold sea rippling like galvanize/ and the nail holes of stars in the sky roof,/ till a wind start to interfere with the trees.” “I, Shabine, saw when these slums of empire was paradise./ I’m just a red nigger who love the sea,/ I had a sound colonial education,/ I have Dutch, nigger, and English in me,/ and either I’m nobody, or I’m a nation.” “I knew… there’d be no rest, there’d be no forgetting.” “As I worked, watching the rotting waves come/ past the bow that scissor the sea like silk,/ I swear to you all, by my mother’s milk,/ by the stars that shall fly from tonight’s furnace,/ that I loved them, my children, my wife, my home;/ I loved them as poets love the poetry/ that kills them, as drowned sailors the sea.” This passage is especially reminiscent of “The Wasteland” and “The Waves.” “When I write/ this poem, each phrase go be soaked in salt;/ I go draw and knot every line as tight/ as ropes in this rigging; in simple speech/ my common language go be the wind/ my pages the sails of the schooner Flight.”