Archive for June, 2022

Marge Piercy

Friends and readers,

I’m pretty sure I’ve never written a blog on Piercy’s poetry, much less about her as a central foremother poet in English, though I’ve written blogs on her novels, memoirs, and blogs on feminist and other issues where I’ve quoted her poems. I love them — as well as those of her books I’ve read thus far. On her End of Days; on her Cat Poetry; “Sleeping with Cats.” Earlier blogging: Three Women (rescued from an attack by a virus).

I would like this evening to share as an interlude between my summaries of the Virginia Woolf virtual conference I joined in on, her

“Right to Life”

A woman is not a pear tree
thrusting her fruit into mindless fecundity
into the world. Even pear trees bear
heavily one year and rest and grow the next.
An orchard gone wild drops few warm rotting
fruit in the grass but the trees stretch
high and wiry gifting the birds forty
feet up among inch long thorns
broken atavistically from the smooth wood.

A woman is not a basket you place
your buns in to keep them warm. Not a brood
hen you can slip duck eggs under.
Not the purse holding the coins of your
descendants till you spend them in wars.
Not a bank where your genes gather interest
and interesting mutations in the tainted
rain, any more than you are.
You plant corn and you harvest
it to eat or sell. You put the lamb
in the pasture to fatten and haul it in to
butcher for chops. You slice the mountain
in two for a road and gouge the high plains
for coal and the waters run muddy for
miles and years. Fish die but you do not
call them yours unless you wished to eat them.

Now you legislate mineral rights in a woman.
You lay claim to her pastures for grazing,
fields for growing babies like iceberg
lettuce. You value children so dearly
that none ever go hungry, none weep
with no one to tend them when mothers
work, none lack fresh fruit,
none chew lead or cough to death and your
orphanages are empty. Every noon the best
restaurants serve poor children steaks.

At this moment at nine o’clock a partera
is performing a table top abortion on an
unwed mother in Texas who can’t get
Medicaid any longer. In five days she will die
of tetanus and her little daughter will cry
and be taken away. Next door a husband
and wife are sticking pins in the son
they did not want. They will explain
for hours how wicked he is,
how he wants discipline.

We are all born of woman, in the rose
of the womb we suckled our mother’s blood
and every baby born has a right to love
like a seedling to sun. Every baby born
unloved, unwanted, is a bill that will come
due in twenty years with interest, an anger
that must find a target, a pain that will
beget pain. A decade downstream a child
screams, a woman falls, a synagogue is torched,
a firing squad is summoned, a button
is pushed and the world burns.

I will choose what enters me, what becomes
of my flesh. Without choice, no politics,
no ethics lives. I am not your cornfield,
not your uranium mine, not your calf
for fattening, not your cow for milking.
You may not use me as your factory.
Priests and legislators do not hold shares
in my womb or my mind.
This is my body. If I give it to you
I want it back. My life
is a non-negotiable demand.

Expectant, of all life might offer, a digital picture by Lida Ziruffo


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Suzanne Bellamy — she just died — the conference poster

One of Virginia Woolf’s working tables — from Monk House

Dear friends and readers,

For four days two weekends ago I spent very long days on zooms, participating as a spectator, listener and then fellow commentator on a moving brilliant series of panels and independent key-note lectures on Virginia Woolf: June 9th – 12th, 20222. Virginia Woolf and Ethics. Last year around the same time the International Virginia Woolf Society hosted a similar conference, with the theme openly the pandemic (see last year’s blog on this and other virtual conferences). So now I’ve been privileged to go to their conference for a second time – and am regularly attending the Cambridge University series of virtual lectures (though I rarely blog on these as my stenography is so poor and it is just one 2 hour lecture). I wish there were going to be a third virtual conference next year, but I suppose they must come back in person and then I will be cut off.

As I did last time, I will not attempt to summarize or evaluate any of the papers, just pick up epitomizing details. This will though be the first of two blogs — so I took down a lot more this time than last.

Dora Carrington, An Artist’s Home and Garden

The conference began at Thursday morning, 9 am, a welcome meeting. At 10:30 am, I went to a session called “Things, Objects, Forms.” Alyson Cook talked of Between the Acts as an anti-war book through its presentation of objects. She said Woolf brings the non-human world to the fore here, and Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse (elsewhere too). Melancholy imagining of barrows puts before us a geological landscape. It seems the fabrication of stories is an imposition (one nature?). I agree our experience of life is limited by society. Leanna Lostocki-Ho also talked of Between the Acts as geological history. The pageant puts before us hypo-objects, which are defined as “things massively distributed across time and space.” (Stonehenge is a hypo-object). Against the vastness of time, human beings are a tiny point. Thus the pageant is “saturated with English history,” from airplanes you make out the scars of different historical eras. It seems the audience doesn’t recognize the point of Miss LaTrobe’s ethical pageant. “War is going on all around” the characters and places, “destroying everything.” Mary Wang talked about Flush.

In the talk afterwards Jed Esty’s book, A Shrinking Island, was recommended as including sections on Woolf and E.M. Forster’s pageants. At the end of the pageant in Between the Acts, a pontificating vicar has to stop as planes (with bombs?) are flying overhead. When someone said estate country houses are hypo-objects, I thought of Foyle’s War, 7:2, “The Cage,” where one such country house has been turned into a secret prison for torturing people.

Many editions of To the Lighthouse

The plenary lecture at 1:00 pm was “Virginia Woolf’s Reparative Ethics” by Elsa Hoberg. She began with Eve Kosofsky’s way of reparative reading by a “paranoid” PVL; you “write to expose cracks in the texts” that “show systematic oppression.” The question is then “how to get nourishment and pleasure” from a text not offering these. To do this you must create “conditions for sustainability of peace,” and she instanced Woolf’s short column, “Thoughts of Peace during an Air Raid” (New Republic, Oct 21, 1940) as reparative. Politics create “fear and hatred,” which “increase from the violence of military machines.” Prof Hoberg suggested Woolf “enacts a paranoid position in Three Guineas. Comments included there is “a need for a from of self repair and access to creative feelings”,” that “peace” leaves room for (“elicits”) people caring for others. In this sense To the Lighthouse can be seen as “a reparative text.” I think of the painter in the book, Lily Briscoe.

There was then a brief session on what is happening in Texas right now (Woolf’s legacy is activism on behalf of women’s rights): one of the women speakers said “basic access to health care is unobtainable.” I add the Texas gov’t and state laws are criminalizing pregnancy.

Vanessa Bell’s Leonard Woolf

From 3-4:00 pm I attended “Leonard Woolf, the man, the feminist, the socialist.” Peter Stansky, a pre-eminent biographer of Leonard who asked (rhetorically) is Leonard Woolf under-valued? He emphasized Leonard’s five terrific memoirs, and novel, The Village in the Jungle, comparable to Orwell’s Burmese Days and Forster’s Passage to India. (Jim read the memoirs and novel and told me I must, but I have not yet got round to them.) Leonard’s sad self-assessment has hurt his reputation, and Virginia’s written work overshadows his, which includes a successful civil service career in Ceylon and Burma, his writing on Maynard Keynes, the League of Nations. In life Leonard had an “austere style ” and “self-effacing” way and the assurance of an English gentleman of his class and time. Leonard is sometimes blamed as “controlling” Virginia, for not allowing her to have children;” the truth is he was “immensely supportive” and ‘crucial for enabling her to achieve so much.”

Marielle O’Neil talked about the political partnership of the Woolfs, their work with others in the Women’s Cooperative Guild,” where people worked to help reforms for the sake of working class women, where tea tables and parlors provide space for women to meet independently. Classrooms are places of education where working class women’s voices can be heard. Records in a Sheffield local library of women reading from working class women’s letters. In “The Pleasure of Letters,” Anne Byrne talked of the long extensive correspondence of Leonard Woolf with Nancy Nolan, a Dublin housewife. These are “fragments of lived experience” that “conceal” and offer “rare insights” as Woolf tells of his life, books, animals. She is unhappy because she cannot get round to writing; Woolf affirms her goals. An “integral part of [herself was] taken away when her husband died in 1966. Comments include “people who write or paint are not happy; in fact, they often suffer.” Yet they derive “immense happiness from their work,” that the Sitwells had a streak of cruelty. Woolf wrote out of affection and concern for Nancy: they are a agape set of love letters.

The talk afterwards was varied: people cited a propos books, talked of Clive Bell and Keynes (“political role of the state is to make conditions where art is more important than politics”).

Harold Nicolson’s Some People

From 5-6:30 pm I attended “The Ethics of Life Writing.” Chunhui Lu asked what genre does Orlando belong to? What is a good biography? She talked of “fantasy” and an “exemplary life” — what is a good life? Todd Avery’s context was the Bloomsbury group’s interest in inventing new kinds of biography. She discussed Woolf’s “The New Biography” (1927) written partly in response to Nicolson’s Some People, where some of the portraits are fictional and to a dull biography by Sidney Lee; and her “Art of Biography,” and Woolf’s “The Art of Biography” (1939), where the catalyst was Strachey’s biographies. Biographers are artists, imaginative writers, and must found themselves on facts: ideally the biographer writes with a “becoming brevity,” and “maintains” their own “freedom of spirit;” lays bare facts “understood impartially.” The ethical use of biography became more urgent at the time of Three Guineas: the human situation was “so dire.” Andy Koenig brought out Woolf’s intense awareness of how “empty of women’s lives” are our “archives;” that one “needs” to “write non-existent lives. She questions “the rules” for biography because Woolf wanted “to be doing something different.” This was a thought-provoking talk on A Room of One’s Own, Jacob’s Room, Orlando, Flush (thoroughly researched) and Woolf’s biography of Roger Frye.

In the talk afterwards a new bio-fiction, Norah Vincent’s Adeline: A Novel of Virginia Woolf was praised; I brought up Maurois’s Aspects of Biography, which I find to be as good (I wondered why no one mentioned it) on the genre as Forster’s Aspects of the Novel. I also mentioned Woolf’s brilliant historical novel, unearthing, bringing to life a 15th century young woman, “The Journal of Mistress Joan Martyn,” the self-reflexive Memoirs of a Novelist where a Miss Linsett is unable to re-create and make living the life of her friend Miss Willatt because the former was too bound by inner repressions and the latter’s papers kept mostly silent about what most mattered to her (see my comment).


I took far fewer notes, heard fewer talks on Friday — among other things, I had to go out shopping. I did go to the first session, 9-10:30 am, “Subjects of Violence.” Candis Bond talked of the graphic frank depictions of street harassment in The Years (a man exposes himself to Rose in The Pargiters; she flies for safety into a shop in The Years). Street harassment of women in later 19th century was a social problem; women were annoyed, damaged, humiliated, scared by male strangers in public spaces — lifelong trauma can be the result. In The Years Woolf breaks the silence.

Laura Knight, Logan’s Rock, Cornwall (1916)

At 11-12:30 I tried “Time and Tide, Form and Fold: Benjamin Hagen, Laci Mattison, and Shilo McGiff performed in tandem soliloquys inspired by, paraphrasing, offering insights and explications of and from The Waves. They dazzled listeners with descriptions of landscape and hypo-objects, anti-colonialist perspectives, pastoral and anti-pastoral allegories (some elegiac, some “false”), affirmations and “things hardly ever said aloud; they staged “thinking minds:” we heard voices; what do soliloquies do?; an alienation came emerge from an “over-pullulating world.” Death ends life for individuals, but Will anything survive? The Waves‘ bleak vision (“disgust used as weaponized morality”) This triple talk was inspiring and exhilarating.

The keynote speaker was Gretchen Holbrook Gerzina and her talk on “Bloomsbury and race” included discussion of black people in London from the 18th century, the Dreadnought Hoax (more in my second blog on this), the Windrush generation; recent public sculptures and new anti-immigration laws in the UK. I attended from 3:00-4:30, “Moments of Being:” Epiphany and Ethics in Virginia Woolf’s Writing,” and from 5-6:30, what can be found of Woolf’s attitude towards Shakespeare (“Who’s afraid of William Shakespeare”). The first had papers on secular spirituality (you might say); I did like a comment on Mr Ramsay’s “intense loneliness;” the second set of papers taken a whole seemed to suggest considerable ambivalence in Woolf towards Shakespeare’s plays.

I should mention the two evenings had social party zooms on offer. I’m sure all who attended would have been welcoming or at least polite. I was already very tired, and I felt that these are intended for people who truly know each other after dedicating their careers as well as personal social lives to Woolf. So abstained.


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An enchanting ironic romance occurring in Tuscany

This is the cover of the audio book

Bernini’s Daphne and Apollo in the Galleria Borghese in Rome — to which our heroine, Lucy Stark, comes, is riveted by & comments on

An enchanting ironic romance occurring in Tuscany

Dear friends and readers,

While I have for a few years now made a point of writing blog-reviews of summer movies (Mr Holmes Puck and Mr Rogers), or movies that uplift you (Luxor, Oliver Sacks, Dig) I’ve rarely talked of a summer book or summer reading, except it be linked to a movie (David Nicholls’s Us). So a new venture.

I feel a bit awkward also because Valerie Martin is one of the US’s finest novelists, an anti-southern southern novelist and has not gained the kind of recognition that she should — except as a writer of a sequel or post-text to Stevenson’s Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde in her Mary Reilly. I should be writing of her powerful Orange Prize winner, Property, a historical novel taking place in 19th century New Orleans, a nightmarish book focusing on a plantation wife (white) and her black slave, one that brings before us in such a concise form what a society where one group of people are said to own another and treat them as not human; or The Great Divorce, about the intermingling of people with animals apparently lost in our modern world. I know I like her for her concern for non-human animals (see her Consolation of Nature stories). She has written a trio of children’s books about two cat friends, Anton and Cecil. Once I have read one of her books the memory of the emotional experience stays with me, even if I lose the details.

Like these two, several others novels and two books of short stories are too complicated to present as a frame to a deceptively light simple Northanger Abbey tale — Italian Fever belongs to a Jane Austen blog because Italian Fever among other things alludes to NA, and like it and Atwood’s Lady Oracle (she has been a close friend to Margaret Atwood — see wikipedia), is both a gothic and a parody of a gothic, self-reflexively ironizing detective fiction, erotic romance (Lucy’s love-making with the beautiful imperturbable, expert in pleasurable sex, Massimo brings to mind Gabaldon’s Clare Randall and Jamie Fraser); an adult new awakening or coming-of-age (Lucy’s name alludes to E.M. Forster’s Lucy Honeycombe; also his Where Angels Fear to Tread). There is something here of Edith Wharton’s Roman Fever. Wisps of Henry James’s Daisy Miller

This is the Italian cover, which reminds me of a scene from Andrew Davies’ 2009 adaptation of Austen’s Northanger Abbey

Why the novel is deceptively light is that story continually skirts the traumas and violence of the female gothic, a story of an author who may have killed himself because he spent his life alone writing terrible books that sell to mass audiences, or who may have been murdered, and is now haunting old Tuscan villas as a ravaged ghost. The way in which these are skirted are a kind of sleight of hand where our skillful author has this or that Italian character Lucy is meeting for the first time, simply refuse to discuss something, or slip away with a promise to be back soon and in the meantime leave the heroine in a splendid restaurant eating yummy food with other people, or a museum, or a place just tucked away in a beautiful countryside (Brescia) or city (Rome). Lucy is remarkable adaptable and allows herself to be taken over by others, who hold their fire or danger in check, and turn out not to be willing to bother to hurt her. It’s not worth it. Why torture a kitten?

Only Lucy is not a kitten. She is a thoughtful now divorced young editor who has been working for DV, who, when he dies, is given the assignment of going to Italy, to bring back his manuscripts and deal with his agents in Italy, also see what happened. DV is said to have fallen down a well. To have been a depressive. The relationship of the back family with our protagonist reminds me of Peter Cameron’s City of our Final Destination, only Lucy does not end up embedding herself in the new dead author’s family, but escaping (like Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz) back home, having had her wondrous experience. The way the suddenly magical places turn up reminded me especially of Mary Poppins; for each is compartmentalized; Lucy gets to return to wherever her bedchamber is to rest between bouts of investigation. But like Catherine Morland, repeatedly she finds she was under an illusion, and the glamor or idealism or anger/revenge as a motive she was attributing to someone is no such thing. Something far plainer: like being a rather cold opportunist explains DV’s mistress, a painter now living in Rome.

As with a couple of Martin’s other novels, there is much ekphrasis in this book; Lucy encounters famous and imagined works of art. Not infrequently they give rise to feminist interpretations on the part of Lucy, which when she describes her ideas to other people, they seem not to hear. So Bernini’s statue of Daphne and Apollo is not about love, but an attempted rape. That’s consensus, but Lucy does not remain with that. She says look at the terrified look in Daphne’s eye. Far from preferring to escape into stone treehood, she wanted a tender loving man — which role Massimo plays: like Suzanne Juhasz says in her studies of women’s novels, Reading from the Heart, the archetype behind favored strong lovers makes him a combination of sex partner and mother. She is erotically attracted to Bernini’s David, wishes she had the wit of Paulina Borghese, whose sculpture by Canova evokes a memory of story that when Pauline was asked how she could pose, she asked, why not? the room is heated. Other paintings and statues and landscape evoke from Lucy the evolving story of an novelist’s life. Martin herself married for a second time an Italian man, lived with him in Italy for a time. She visits Sansepolcro, and looking about the town and art work, especially that of Piero Della Francesco, the man she is with tells her of what his life as a visual artist (painter) has been.

A detail from Della Francesco’s Resurrection — Lucy looks at another imagined Resurrection, an image of Christ

She describes her clothes in comical insightful ways — deconstructing as it were how women are constructed by the clothes so as to offer their bodies for display, will she or nill she: “she spent the evening with the unsettling sensation she was standing behind her breasts, as if she was presenting them for inspection.” Enchanting meals, the most tasteful of old buildings, people who offer wise advice and mean no harm — except they sort of have something to hide, which after all Lucy never finds out. Cultural analysis of Italian lives is part of the mix. Never mind. She is perhaps better off not to know, for there is a dangerous world behind the curtain she could probably do nothing about, nor know what to do, being just a little naive.

The book is beautifully written: Martin’s control of style in each of her books is pitch perfect to what she wants to convey of a time (she has several historical novels), character, genre, type story. Like one of her favorite authors, R. L. Stevenson, she captures you with her language. The voice of Mary Reilly belongs to a nineteenth century servant writing her diary. Lucy’s is the voice of a (singularly lucky) young woman out on a summer adventure. I read it so compulsively, so enjoyed the irony, romance and descriptions, that I have written this blog.

Valerie Martin (recent photo)


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