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Archive for the ‘foremother poet’ Category


Catherine Morland (Felicity Jones) and Henry Tilney (J.J. Feilds) entering the realm of the ancient Abbey, crossing the bridge (2007 Granada/WBGH Northanger Abbey, scripted Andrew Davies)

For a course at the Oscher LifeLong Learning Institute at George Mason University
Day: 4 Thursdays midday, 11:50-1:15 pm online,
F405Z: The Heroine’s Journey
Office located at 4210 Roberts Road, Fairfax, Va 22032
Dr Ellen Moody

Description of Course:

We will explore the archetypal heroine’s journey across genres and centuries in the western Eurocentric tradition, from classical times to our 21st century female detectives. Our foundational books will be Maria Tatar’s The Heroine with 1001 Faces (written as a counterpart to Joseph Campbell’s famous and influential The Hero with a Thousand Faces), and Maureen Murdock’s The Heroine’s Journey. Our four books will be Margaret Atwood’s Penelopiad, Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Tales; Elena Ferrante’s Lost Daughter; and Jane Austen’s Northanger Abbey. We will discuss what are journeys, the central experiences, typical plot-designs, characterizations, and events of the lives of our heroines of classical myth, fairy & folk tales (and connected to this historical romance and time-traveling tales), realistic fiction, and the gothic (and connected to this mystery/thrillers, detective stories). There are two recommended films as part of our terrain to be discussed: Outlander, S1E1 (Caitriona Balfe as Claire Beauchamp transported), and Prime Suspect S1E1 (Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison). I will supply some poetry (Atwood, Carol Ann Duffy, Marge Piercy), two scripts (for the serial episode of Outlander and the 2022 film adaptation of The Lost Daughter by Maggie Gyllenhaal), and one parodic modern short story (“Rape Fantasies” by Atwood), all as attachments.


Leda (Olivia Colman) stopping off to look at the sea sometime during her journey there and back (Lost Daughter, 2021)

Required Books (these are the editions I will be using but the class members may choose any edition they want):

Margaret Atwood. The Penelopiad. NY: Grove Press (originally O. W. Toad), 2005, ISBN 978-1-84195-798-2
Angela Carter. The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales. NY: Harper and Row, 1981. ISBN 0-06-090836X (reprinted with new codes many times)
Elena Ferrante. The Lost Daughter, trans. Ann Goldstein. NY: Europa, 2008.
Jane Austen. Northanger Abbey, ed. Susan Fraiman. NY: Norton Critical Edition, 2004. ISBN 978-0-393-097850-6. Another excellent (good introduction, good materials at the back of the book) modern edition is the Longman Cultural text, ed. Marilyn Gaull. NY: Longman (Pearson Educational), 2005. ISBN 0-321-20208-2

Strongly suggested films:

Outlander, Season 1, Episode 1, called “Sassenach” Written Roger Moore, directed John Dahl. Featuring: Caitronia Balfe, Sam Heughan, and Tobias Menzies. Available on Netflix (and Starz), also as a DVD. I can supply a script for this one.
Prime Suspect, Season 1, Episode 1, called “Price to Pay 1 & 2.” Written Lynda La Plante, Directed Christoper Menaul. Featuring Helen Mirren, John Benfield, Tom Bell. Available on BritBox, YouTube and also as a DVD


Kauffmann, Angelica: Penelope Taking Down the Bow of Ulysses (18th century fine painting)

Format: The class will be a mix of informal lecture and group discussion

Jan 26th: Introduction, Atwood’s Penelopiad, with a few of her Circe poems, and Carol Ann Duffy’s “The Big O” (from The World’s Wife)

Feb 2nd: From Carter’s The Bloody Chamber and Other Adult Tales read “The Bloody Chamber” (Bluebeard), “The Courtship of Mr Lyon,” (Beauty and the Beast)”Puss-in-Boots,” “The Lady of the House of Love” (Sleeping Beauty plus), “The Company of Wolves” (Little Red Riding Hood). Please have seen Outlander S1, E1. Another movie you could see is the 1984 Company of Wolves, an extravagant fantasy bringing together a number of Carter’s fairy tales and fables; she is one of the scriptwriters. It’s available on Amazon Prime.

Feb 9th: Ferrante’s The Lost Daughter, with Marge Piercy’s “Morning Athletes” If you are interested, see the film adaptation, The Lost Daughter, scripted & directed Maggie Gryllenhaal; while much is changed, it is absorbing and explains the book (Netflix film, also available as a DVD to buy); it features Olivia Colman, Jessie Buckley, Dakota Johnson, and Jack Farthing (as Leda’s husband). I can supply a script for this one too.

Feb 16th: Austen’s Northanger Abbey, with discussion that links the gothic to modern mystery-thriller and detective stories. I will send by attachment Margaret Atwood’s “Rape Fantasies” (a very short story). Please have seen Prime Suspect S1, E1-2. If you are interested, see the film adaptation, Northanger Abbey, scripted Andrew Davies, directed by Jon Jones; while much is changed, this one is also absorbing and adds to the book (available as a YouTube and DVD); it features beyond the two principals, Carey Mulligan, Liam Cunningham (General Tilney) and Sylvestre Le Touzel (Mrs Allen)


First still of Helen Mirren as Jane Tennison, late arrival at crime scene, driving herself (Prime Suspect, aired 6 & 9 April 1991, “Price to Pay”)

Select bibliography (beyond Tatar’s Heroine with a Thousand Faces):

Beard, Mary. Confronting the Classics: Traditions, Adventures and Innovations. Liveright, 2013. Early refreshingly jargon-free feminist readings of documents left to us.
Bojar, Karen. In Search of Elena Ferrante: The Novels and the Question of Authorship. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2018.
Carter, Angela. Shaking a Leg: Collected Writings [non-fiction, essays, sketches, journalism], ed Jenny Uglow, introd. Joan Smith. NY: Penguin, 1998
Cavender, Gray and Nancy C. Jurik, Justice Provocateur: Jane Tennison and Policing in Prime Suspect. Urbana: Univ of Illinois Press, 2012.
Cooke, Nathalie. Margaret Atwood: A Critical Companion. Westport, Conn: Greenwood, 2004.
Frankel, Valier Estelle. 3 books: Symbolism & Sources of Outlander: Adoring Outlander: On Fandom, Genre, and Female Audience; Outlander’s Sassenachs: Gender, Race, Orientation, and the Other in the TV series. Jefferson, NC: McFarland, 2015-17
Gilligan, Carol. In a Different Voice: Psychological Theory and Women’s Development. 1983; rep, rev Harvard UP, 1993.
Gordon, Edmund. The Invention of Angela Carter: A Biography. London: Chatto & Windus, 2016.
Klein, Kathleen Gregory. The Woman Detective: Gender and Genre. 2nd Edition. Chicago: Univ of Illinois, 1995.
Moody, Ellen, “People that marry can never part: A Reading of Northanger Abbey, Persuasions Online, 3:1 (Winter 2010): https://jasna.org/persuasions/on-line/vol31no1/moody.html ; The Gothic Northanger: A Psyche Paradigm, Paper delivered at a EC/ASECS conference, November 8, 2008 online: http://www.jimandellen.org/austen/gothicna.html ; The Three Northanger Films [includes Ruby in Paradise], Jane Austen’s World (Vic Sandborn, April 6, 2008: online: https://janeaustensworld.com/2008/04/06/the-three-northanger-abbey-films/
Pratt, Annis. Archetypal Patterns in Women’s Fiction. Bloomington: Indiana UP, 1981.
Southam, B.C., ed. Northanger Abbey and Persuasion: A Casebook. London: Routledge, 1968.
Sullivan, Rosemary. The Red Shoes: Margaret Atwood, Starting Out. Canada: Harper Flamingo, 1998.
Tomalin, Clair. Jane Austen: A Life. NY: Vintage, 1997.
Williams, Anne. The Art of Darkness: A Poetics of Gothic. Chicago: Univ Chicago P, 1995.


Claire (Caitronia Balfe) among the stones, just arrived in 1743 (Outlander S1, E1, 2015)

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Amelia Workman as Jane Anger


Talene Monahan as Anne Hathaway

Gentle friends and readers,

Talene Monahan’s Jane Anger is not a great play; after an initial superbly delivered monologue by Workman as Anger in front of a stage-size title page (Jane Anger), we (or I) was puzzled to be confronted by a farcical and static treatment of an apparently arrogant callow Shakespeare (Michael Urie) and his newly hired servant, Francis (Ryan Spahn) acting out a (to me) senseless comic routine worthy Jack Benny and his valet, Rochester (Eddie Anderson).  Remember him? Rochester was superb in his way and so too in this same raunchy sycophantic yet self-assertive way Spahn.  We learn that poor Will is experiencing writer’s block over an apparently plagiarized King Lear, that there is a previous version of this Celtic legend in a book Will is copying from. Perhaps we were to surmise Francis is gay.  This play makes great visual hay with Shakespeare’s sonnets which are addressed to a young man Will is in love with and a dark lady.

This took a lot of time, but somehow I felt this play wasn’t going anywhere and couldn’t figure out what we the audience were there for, even if (as we were reminded) below the room through a window we were made to feel a mob in the streets experiencing plague, and remember many doors were X’d.  Then suddenly climbs up and over the window sill, Jane. She is dressed wholly in black with a Venetian style bird mask.

The character, Jane Anger (her pseudonym) is modelled on a woman who lived and wrote one of the earliest feminist defenses of women. Monahan wrote the play during time of plague, our own, Covid-19, in 2020 (see Thomas Floyd’s story of the origins of the play).  The central life of the play is provided by the extraordinary performance of Amelia Workman who presents herself as a survivor in the “soft power” working class mode, laundress, prostitute, barmaid, whatever fell to hand (cook?), and has come to Will to ask him to sign her pamphlet, for without his signature she will never be able to persuade any printer to print her polemic. It quickly emerges she and Will have been sexual partners; she has a kind of rival in Francis (so my speculation about the sonnets has some evidence), and these three proceed to squabble until interrupted by drama’s fourth player, Anne Hathaway, also seemingly climbing up and over the window sill. Monahan plays the part in a stylized “bright comic” mode.

Colleen Kennedy has done justice to the tone and quality of the dialogue. Though it’s not quite as hilarious as Kennedy makes out, the characters discuss the plague (with obviously modern allusions thrown out), play-making, and become physically aggressive.  It is in the mode of other more brilliant crude riffs on masterpieces, history (as told seriously), and issues of the day. We witness how the men treat the women with contempt, and how they and Francis take out an almost embarrassing revenge on a thoroughly dislikable Will: he shows himself to be idle, lazy, a plagiarist who sneers at his long-suffering wife (left at home to cope with the children, one of whom died at age 11 or so). There was hearty spontaneous laughter at the slapstick, of which there is a good deal more; the use of sprayed blood all over a supposed painting of Shakespeare as backdrop especially.  Both Will’s arms are hacked off, as his penis (mockingly), which is thrown about. So the old banana routine really works. The language was as demotic as I have seen it in crude costume dramas on Starz (lots of reiterations of the word “fucking”) but this did not seem to bother the audience. Of course all the old rumors and printed words are rehearsed, including how Will left Anne the second best bed. Early on we had heard a lot about the dark lady; now the question is, was she Anne?  Anne claims this.  Spahn managed to dominate the stage and for that matter the whole theater when the actors turn to include the audience in their conscious antics. Spahn gave out photos of himself and told us that he was looking for an agent.

I admit to feeling disconcerted by this utterly irreverent emasculating of someone all of whose plays I have read, as well as the poetry (the sonnets form part of what is quoted from Shakespeare’s works) – and loved and respected very much.


The pair of men as morons

I like to remember John Heminge and Henry Condell, the friends who worked so magnificently to produce the astonishing first folio and professed themselves worried lest we not understand and appreciate their beloved noble-hearted colleague. So this was a low point in the proceedings for me.

But the play picked up when Will leaves the room in order to work for real on his coming play (I don’t remember what happened to Francis), and we were left with Hathaway and Anger. Why it took so long and was in comparison with the rest of the play so short I know not but the last twenty or so moments of this play had these two women telling each other of their lives. The death of Hamnet brought in earlier to point out how Shakespeare has not come home to see them die was now recounted. The friend whom I was with told me some of the lines were taken from Maggie O’Farrell’s sequel historical novel, Hamnet.  So now maybe I should buy that and read it.  And finally Anne reads aloud Jane’s pamphlet and (I was once, still am, an early modern literature scholar) it seemed to a real Elizabethan text was being read:

This was (I felt) the high point in the proceedings; the men did return, inexplicably chastened, and a quiet mood of respect for the previously silent and dismissed women ended the play.

It has been played elsewhere and I gather there is hope for other stage productions. This one is directed by Jess Chaynes. Other people could choose to do it differently. So I’d say if you are living near this or another production, or there is a video made of the play and it is eventually streamed on the Internet, Monahan’s play is very much worth sitting through.

Ellen

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Said to be a portrait (miniature) of Anne Finch; the portrait resembles in features a miniature of her father …

Friends and readers,

Here is the second paper that connects to the EC/ASECS meeting this year which I didn’t go to. It is a review-essay which I worked on and off for 2 years or so, and was published in the Intelligencer that was published just before the meeting, NS Volume 35, No 2, September 2022, pp 25-35. It’s obviously too long and complicated for a blog, so here too go over to academia.edu to read it:

Editing the Writings of Anne Finch, Countess of Winchilsea


Digital photo from Northamptonshire MS

Ellen

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Forough Farrokhzad (1934-1967)

“If my poems, as you say, have an aspect of femininity, it is of course quite natural. After all, fortunately, I am a woman. But if you speak of artistic merits, I think gender cannot play a role. In fact to even voice such a suggestion is unethical. It is natural that a woman, because of her physical, emotional, and spiritual inclinations, may give certain issues greater attention, issues that men may not normally address. I believe that if those who choose art to express their inner self, feel they have to do so with their gender in mind, they would never progress in their art — and that is not right. So when I write, if I keep thinking, oh I’m a woman and I must address feminine issues rather than human issues, then that is a kind of stopping and self-destruction. Because what matters, is to cultivate and nourish one’s own positive characteristics until one reaches a level worthy of being a human. What is important is the work produced by a human being and not one labelled as a man or a woman. When a poem reaches a certain level of maturation, it separates itself from its creator and connects to a world where it is valid based on its own merits.”[10][11] Emphasizing human issues, she also calls for a recognition of women’s abilities that goes beyond the traditional binary oppositions …” Forough Farrokhzad (from an interview)

I am delighted and honored to say that tonight we have a guest blogger who sent to Wompo (a list for and about women’s poetry) and now has given me permission to put here an (in effect) foremother poet posting.

By Farideh Hassanzadeh.. For her poetry and more about her: she is also a translator and freelance journalist. On Poem Hunter

Farideh began with one of Farrokhzad’s poems (in translation)

It is Only Sound That Remains

Why should I stop, why?
the birds have gone in search
of the blue direction.
the horizon is vertical, vertical
and movement, fountain-like;
and at the limits of vision
shining planets spin.
the earth in elevation reaches repetition,
and air wells
changes into tunnels of connection;
and day is a vastness,
which does not fit into narrow mind
of newspaper worms.

why should I stop?
the road passes through the capillaries of life,
the quality of the environment
in the ship of the uterus of the moon
will kill the corrupt cells.
and in the chemical space after sunrise
there is only sound,
sound that will attract the particles of time.
why should I stop?

what can a swamp be?
what can a swamp be but the spawning ground
of corrupt insects?
swollen corpses scrawl the morgue’s thoughts,
the unmanly one has hidden
his lack of manliness in blackness,
and the bug… ah,
when the bug talks,
why should I stop?
Cooperation of lead letters is futile,
it will not save the lowly thought.
I am a descendant of the house of trees.
breathing stale air depresses me.
a bird which died advised me to
commit flight to memory.
the ultimate extent of powers is union,
joining with the bright principle of the sun
and pouring into the understanding of light.
it is natural for windmills to fall apart.

why should I stop?
I clasp to my breast
the unripe bunches of wheat
and breastfeed them

sound, sound, only sound,
the sound of the limpid wishes
of water to flow,
the sound of the falling of star light
on the wall of earth’s femininity
the sound of the binding of meaning’s sperm
and the expansion of the shared mind of love.
sound, sound, sound,
only sound remains.

in the land of dwarfs,
the criteria of comparison
have always traveled in the orbit of zero.
why should I stop?
I obey the four elements;
and the job of drawing up
the constitution of my heart
is not the business
of the local government of the blind.

what is the lengthy whimpering wildness
in animals sexual organs to me?
what to me is the worm’s humble movement
In its fleshy vacuum?
the bleeding ancestry of flowers
has committed me to life.
are you familiar with the bleeding
ancestry of the flowers?

Forough Farrokhzad was born in Tehran into a middle class family of seven children. She attended public schools through the ninth grade, thereafter received some training in sewing and painting, and married when she was seventeen. Her only child, the boy addressed in “A Poem for you,” was born a year later. Within less than two years after that, her marriage failed, and Farrokhzad relinquished her son to her ex-husband’s family in order to pursue her calling in poetry and independent life style. She clearly voices her feelings in the mid-1950s about conventional marriage, the plight of women in Iran, and her own situation as a wife and mother no longer able to live a conventional life in such poems as “The Captive,” “The Wedding Band,” “Call to Arms,” and “To My Sister.”

As a divorcee poet in Tehran, Farrokhzad attracted much attention and considerable disapproval. She had several short lived relationships with men-“The Sin” describes one of them,–, found some respite in a nine-month trip to Europe, and in 1958 met Ebrahim Golestan (b. 1922), a controversial film-maker and writer with whom she established a relationship that lasted until her death in an automobile accident at thirty-two years of age in February 1967.

Iranian Culture (A Persianist View), Michael C. Hillmann (translator, editor) page. From an Interview by Farideh of Larissa Shmailo (the translator), p 149

Dear Farideh:

Forrokhzad’s imagery is strong and uncompromising. I hear this poem aloud, spoken with force: “Why should I stop?” the poet queries, when around her is sound, the capillaries and cells and sperm become music in verse. Proclaiming “the bleeding ancestry of flowers,” the poet takes on the entire natural world and the cosmos, “shining planets” and the “uterus “of the moon and the human body. We follow her invitation to the motion of the horizon and the dead bird which taught her flight. Birds, worms, and “day is a vastness.”-this poem awakens us to the splendor of the variegated universe. This is an exciting voice which should not have been stopped at such an early age. Why should it have stopped?

Thanks so much for sharing!

Love,
Larissa

Here too Wendy Varaman’s interview with of Farideh:

When I first encountered the poems of Iranian poet Forough Farrokhzad, I immediately thought of Sylvia Plath.

Here, for example, are the opening lines of “Let us believe in the beginning of the cold season” (trans., Michael C. Hillmann):

And this is I
a woman alone
at the threshold of a cold season
at the beginning of understanding
the polluted existence of the earth
and the simple and sad pessimism of the sky
and the incapacity of these concrete hands.

To what extent do you think it is useful to link these two women, both of whom died tragically in their early ۳۰’s during the cold month of February, each apparently still at the mercy of love and in a white-hot fervor of writing? Are women poets in Iran and the United States today more similar to each other or more different?

Farideh Hassanzadeh-Mostafavi:

Even Death in a cold season and at the peak of Forough’s creativity is not a good reason to find much resemblance between these two women poets. Sylvia killed herself because she was suffering from the betrayal of her husband. She was a faithful wife and a mother in love with her children. Forough left her husband and her little son to find her fate and mate in poetry. Regrettably, feminists and antireligious people in Iran and overseas, try to introduce Forough as a victim of a patriarchal religious society. It is not true. They claim she was forced by her father to marry in her teens, but now everybody knows that she threatened her parents to commit suicide if they don’t let her marry the man she loved. They introduce her husband as a dogmatic man who didn’t let Forough write poetry and deprived her from her right as a mother to see her son.

Forough’s letters to her husband, published thirty years after her death by her son, prove that even after divorce she was deeply supported by her kind, generous, and loyal husband who never married again and devoted all his life to their son. He was himself a writer and painter.

As for her poetry, Forough s poems could make themselves free from personal problems and pay attention to the world around her, while Sylvia Plath’s poems speak of “self,” even when she writes about others. “Lack of love” for Forough, was a universal wound, not a personal pain:

And my wounds are all the wounds of love
I have piloted this wondering island
Through raging tempests and volcanoes
And disintegration was the secret of that unique being
Each little particle of which gave birth to the sun

I see more resemblance between Forough and Russian poet Marina Tsvetaeva. Both women were more loyal to love than to the men of their life, and both of them were more devoted to the truth of poetry than to the reality of life. Yet let me admit that if Iran has one Forough Farrokhzad, America has many, many, many “Forough Farrokhzads.” As a translator of women’s poetry and world poetry, I can attest that North America and Latin America have the best women poets of the world” (Wendy Varaman)

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

To which I can add:


A photograph of Farrokhzad

Thank you Farideh. I also like that photo on the cover of the DVD (her poetry read aloud).

I own another book of her poetry, Let Us Believe in the Beginning of the Cold Season, introduced and chosen and translated by Elizabeth Gray, Jr (ISBN 978-0-8112-3165-7)

This slender book contains a short life of the poet who died so young: Farrokhzad had a difficult life; she was brave and took off from conventional ways and traveled and wrote and published and made films and lived intensely at the same time as she must have been strapped for money and subject to lots of abuse in the media of her country. I can understand the content better om the book I own. I am thinking the tradition of being so inexplicit comes from inhibition, a desire not to let your private life be vulnerable to ugly public arenas, especially when you are a woman

Honestly, I have trouble understanding such allusive poetry where we are given metaphoric images but they have little concrete explanation or referents. Farideh, I am wondering if there is a tradition for this kind of imagery but I can think of “middle east” (I don’t have the right word for it) poetry where the referent is obvious, e.g., Constantine Cavafy (a male Greek poet). I also understand the content in general of the book I own. I am thinking the tradition of being so inexplicit comes from inhibition, a desire not to let your private life be vulnerable to ugly public arenas, especially when you are a woman. Perhaps candor and explicitness, which would make the poetry more accessible, understandable, might lead to a prison sentence or death.

Gray tells of her own education in the US at Stanford; that in the 1970s she learned Persian. Here’s her website where you are told all her credentials

Farideh replied that most of Farrokhzad’s poems were simple [in diction]; in her final days she was more than a poet: she became a thinker and philosopher, and her poetry departed from Iranian traditions.

Here is the poem from this volume which provides the volume’s title:

Let Us Believe in the Beginning of a Cold Season

And here I am
a lonely woman
at the threshold of a cold season
coming to understand the earth’s contamination
and the elemental, sad despair of the sky
and the impotence of these concrete hands.

Time passed,
time passed and the clock chimed four times,
it chimed four times.

Today is the first day of winter,
I know the secret of the seasons
and understand the moments well.

The savior is asleep in his grave
and earth, the kind acceptor, earth,
invites me to peace.

Perhaps those two young hands were true, those two young hands
buried below ¸in the never ending snow
And next year, when spring
sleeps with the sky beyond the window
and shoots thrust from her body
the green shoots of empty branches
will blossom O my dearest one, my dearest only one

Let us believe in the beginning of a cold season

Farrokhzad also painted; this is from the wikipedia website

A brief literary biography of Forough, Michael Hillmann’s A lonely woman: Forough Farrokhzad and her poetry, was published in 1987.[5] Farzaneh Milani’s work Veils and words: the emerging voices of Iranian women writers (1992) included a chapter about her. Abdolali Dastgheib, literary critic writer, published a critical review of Forough’s poems titled ‘The Little Mermaid’ (Farsi title پری کوچک دریا) (2006) in which he describes Forugh as a pioneer in modern Farsi poetry who symbolizes feminism in her work.[16] Nasser Saffarian has directed three documentaries about her life: The Mirror of the Soul (2000), The Green Cold (2003), and Summit of the Wave (2004), and Sholeh Wolpé has written a short biography of Farrokhzad’s life in “in: Selected Poems of Forugh Farrokhzad (2007).

Posted by Ellen

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This photo is dated 2000 — Barbara Ehrenreich


Hilary Mantel, Weekend Oxford Literary Festival, April 1, 2017, Oxford, England.

Friends and readers,

I want to record the passing of two more important women in our era (Elizabeth Windsor was important for what she was), these two important for themselves as individuals:  Mantel for her masterly writing (fiction, non-fiction, life-writing), her accurate understanding of the nature of history, of social-psychological life, her polemics (especially when she exposed the inhumanity of many medical establishments), her feminism; she was a humane and truthful poet, thinker, creator; Ehrenreich for her political vision, her many books and political activity on behalf of the impoverished, vulnerable, her forays into historical realities, as writer and also as thinker. Both were strong feminists.

I first became aware of Mantel as writer of columns and diary entries for London Review of Books when she told of her agony and mistreatment at the hand of the British National Health, then the most insightful piece of writing I’ve ever come across about anorexia, “Girls Want Out.” These led me to her contemporary novels: I’ve still not forgotten Eight Months on Ghazzah Street, and I was so taken by her autobiography, I wrote my first blog about her, on Giving Up the Ghost. I’ve loved historical fiction since I was in my earliest teens and was bowled over by her Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies.

Mantel was able to write such brilliant historical fiction because she had thought hard and deeply about history: see her The Reith Lectures. She delved the gothic, seances, mediums (Beyond Black). Her Catholic background (and breaking away from it altogether) lies behind some of the themes of her work and also her “take” on Sir Thomas More. She took unusual angles on life (from most people) and made us see earlier eras and movements from the point of view of people central to but before her ignored or misunderstood (e.g. A Place of Greater Safety). I admit that her work can be uneven; she can go over the top in comic highjinks and miss her target; she could write woodenly. But part of this was she dared to ignore conventions, norms of writing and what we are supposed to feel. She was original. I taught Wolf Hall twice. I like Larissa MacFarquar’s essay on her Life with Ghosts. Mary Robertson is the important early modern scholar who began the change in attitudes towards Cromwell; to Robertson Mantel dedicated Wolf Hall; here are her memories of Mantel.

I found Mantel’s tone of mind deeply appealing. I feel sad when I think how young she was and how much more she could have written.

Barbara Ehrenreich I read for the first time as a crucial voice in 2nd wave feminism, I saw her as a socialist feminist. She was active as a journalist in projects to encourage working women to tell their own stories. I found her Nickel and Dimed electrifying — really — and taught it twice.

Her Witches, Midwives and Nurses is an important book about misogynistic exploitative attitudes towards women. Like Mantel was consistently, when Ehrenpreis was interested, she was profound scholar. In her obituary essay on her, Katha Pollitt (The Nation) quotes Rebecca Solnit’s choice of a quotation from Nickel and Dimed, In Memoriam.

As a response to Pollitt’s obituary (published under her name), I confide today every other week at 7:10am in the morning pay for 3 Hispanic women to come to my house and industriously clean for 75 minutes.  Cards on the table.  Right now also I teach for free, and most of my life I worked for a wage (as an adjunct lecturer) that I could not have lived on.  I lived on my husband’s salary and mine made our lives together more comfortable, helped put my daughters through college and (for Izzy) graduate school.  I don’t think of myself as “an anonymous donor, a nameless benefactor, to everyone else;” rather most of my life I was badly exploited, angry, and maimed in my self-esteem. I remember being put off now and again wonder if Ehrenpreis was a little too optimistic and assumed other women could be as strong as she was in some of her political rhetoric.

Nevertheless, Ehrenpreis wrote books like Bait and Switch, how the delusions of an American Dream as if this idyllically wealthy way of life were available to all destroyed people; Blood Rites is about (as the subtitle tells you) the origins and history of the passions of war She too (like Mantel) early on exposed the hypocrisy of the medical establishment. I remember somewhere she wrote about the hatred men and some women have towards allowing women access to contraception. There are numerous areas where she and Mantel write from the same perspective.

I find this wikipedia article very good. Here is a tribute from Amy Goodman at DemocracyNow.org/. Listen to Ehrenreich speak. The world needs people like her fighting for other people.

I’ve listed my blogs on Mantel in the comments.

Ellen

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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

Ellen

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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).

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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.

Ellen

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Christa Wolf, Frankfurt, Germany, October 1999

A life, review-analyses of Patterns of Childhood and Cassandra and 4 essays. Patterns of Childhood is about growing up in a fascist state (what she saw), WW2, then the years of the East Germany, finally 1970s and global imperialism — in narratives of childhood, memories, meditations, and travelogue. The 4 essays are travel memoirs of Greece, meditations on literature, her Cassandra, & women’s writing.

Dear Friends and readers,

I’m delighted to able to say the curriculum committee at OLLI at AU has approved my course for 4 weeks this summer:

Retelling Traditional History & Myth from an Alternative POV

The course aim is to explore books which retell stories and history from unexpected and often unvoiced POVs. In War in Val D’Orcia, An Italian War Diary, 1943-44, Irish Origo retells the story of World War Two as a woman in charge of Tuscan estates who hides partisans, POWs & runs a school for evacuated children. Cassandra & Four Essays by Christa Wolf tells the story of Troy from her POV, no longer a nutcase but an insightful prophet. It is profoundly anti-war & emerges from Germany’s history 1930s – 70s.

For weeks before giving this course I devoted myself to reading both the set books and several others by and about both Origo and Wolf. I’ve written on Origo on this blog before (however inadequately I now feel), but I’ve never written on Christa Wolf’s magnificent books or said anything about her. One of the great and important woman authors of the 20th century — as well as absorbing, moving, an original thinker, a candid truth-teller who led a life where she became involved with harrowing and intendedly humanely productive events of our time. Of those I read, I found the most riveting and continually interesting and will speak of here were some of her books of life-writing, her historical fiction, and her essays: the misleadingly titled, Patterns of Childhood (it was originally ironically A Model Childhood), The Quest for Christa T (disguised autobiography), Cassandra and Four Essays, No Place on Earth, and Parting with Phantoms, 1990-94.

I only began her Medea (she completely transforms the tale), and read it compulsively but must reread — it reminds me tonight of Ferrante’s Days of Abandonment and Joan Didion’s Play It As It Lays, in her One Day a Year, 1960-2000 (it’s September 27th) and Eulogy for the Living. But this course will give me the impetus and reason/opportunity for these (as well as more Origo) and I will write two more blogs on both women. I cannot speak too highly of them in life and as writers.

First a little life:


Answering questions

She was born in to lower to middling middle class Germans who lived in a province that had been fought over by Poland and Germany for centuries, and it was just then German; her father was a grocer assisted by her mother. As happens to gifted children, even in a girl in a fascist country, her gifts were early on recognized and she was sent to good schools. What she thinks important in her Patterns of Childhood is that she was subjected to Nazi education and was for a while an enthusiastic member of Hitler’s Youth Camps. Patterns of Childhood (like Cassandra) is written from the vantage point of her older years, traveling with her husband, and growing daughter in 1974 back to places she grew up in or experienced the terrors of war and refugee life, when her mind moves into different streams of flashbacks, sometimes from very early in her life, then again her adolescence, and more than one severe disillusionment: there is her re-education as the horrors of Nazism became apparent, from the terrifying destruction of Jewish life and then Jewish people — to the disappearance of people into extermination-slave labor camps (including socialists, gay people, disabled). She saw her father bullied and threatened into obeying Nazism. The war came and she flees with her mother – father already a POW – and brother.

The dates that matter are of her publications and three more: 1951 she married to a like-minded journalist and it was a long happy and collaborative marriage: they wrote and traveled and lived together. There were two children

After the war she had a period as a socialist and journalist-editor where she rose to respect and prominence in the early and middle literary culture of East Germany. First novels are social realism; they are readable novels, but she wanted to break away and she found imposed on her communist dogma, gradually sees that the life supposed to be wonderful is not turning out that way. Yes people have jobs, houses, but those rising to power are increasingly corrupt, and this middle area of consumer goods does not emerge. She begins to write very modernist books and writing – more like Virginia Woolf and modernists, without herself having much access to them. She joins the campaign for nuclear disarmament. Many writers left – but she and her husband did not (reminding me of Anna Akmatova). She broke with the leaders of East Germany, and the second level of people who controlled who got good positions.

There was a 2-3 year period where she was an informer for the Stasi — a period, which when it came out after the two Germanies merged (after 1989), did her reputation so much harm, it never recovered — I see much misogyny in the continual attacks and demands for an apology. There are a series of what I’ll call wild unreal fantasy long short stories: These are not much mentioned in what is written about her in English: the political position overshadows all, unhappily. I’ll mention two: “The life and opinions of Tomcat”, and let me tell you Tom is one sophisticated tomcat whose references to philosophy and Marxism left me bewilderes, but she is clearly arguing comic style against all sorts of economic and metaphysical ideas. It’s not that common to write an animal tale with cat as consciousness; AN Wilson has a poignant one called Stray. “What Remains” is another comic paranoid fantasy, dramatizing what it feels like to be in a constant state of surveillance where your things are taken from you – you can’t go by a window, go out to your garage and pick up your car; hone calls are nerve-wracking. She wasn’t that keen on capitalism In Parting with Phantoms she tells of what it feels like to watch a socially cooperative business turn capitalist — how quickly attitudes seems to change. There are interviews where she is treated very hostilely. I find it like the way Hilary Clinton was treated, and Wolf (while she didn’t kill herself) was not that good at stonewalling. She went to live in LA – California where it was sunny but she didn’t stay

Then around 2000 there is what I’ll call a period of relative silencing (what often happens to women). She continues to writes seriously but seems to have been much less in the public eye. Most of the famous respected works come before 2000. She was made very ill on and off in later life. See also this moving synopsis of the hard time she had inflicted on her in later life and how much she did achieve.

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The narrator, Nelly Jordan, tells of her 1971 trip to her hometown–the former Landsberg, now part of Poland–with her husband, her brother, and her daughter Lenka; of her childhood during the Nazi period; of the three years she has spent writing the present book; and of her efforts to explain to Lenka how Nelly and her parents could have failed to oppose the Nazis. Daily middle-class life under fascism is described in detail, often by inserting authentic materials such as newspaper clippings. Such events as the limitation of the freedom of the press and the establishment of concentration camps do not really affect the family; they continue to operate their store and remain largely apolitical, as did so many Germans, not realizing that their disinterest is making possible the consolidation of Nazism. As a young teenager, a group leader in the “Young Maiden” section of the Hitler Youth, she idealizes a female teacher dedicated to Hitler. The memoir is presented as a novel and so is daring in suggesting–contrary to the official dogma of the GDR — that East Germans as well as West Germans share in the guilt of the Nazi past. The problems of the 1970s, such as Vietnam, Chile, Greece, and the Middle East, are referred as part of the contemporary context. The last part of the book is an escape narrative, as Nellie and her relatives flee across the Elbe, then are forced even farther west, and end up living half starved with several other families (28 people total) in a farmhouse in what eventually becomes a Soviet zone. They exhibit a full sense of German suffering and a deep sense of outrage at historic houses bulldozed, bombings, civilians being shot wholesale and other atrocities.

I was taken by the narrative immediately. Strong passionate prose intensely written. Ursule Molinaro and Hedwig Rappoli’s translation is gripping: it seems as if Wolf deliberately cultivates a distanced style while sweeping in to show us the ravaged emotional and complicated stories and social realities of the adults and children surrounding her as a child. The pictures of her dolls reminded me of mine. Of her relationships with cousins. chapter delves how her father was driven to allow himself to be drafted into World War 2. She also depicts the mother’s sudden half-hysterical protests and the use of the term or name Cassandra emerges. Her mother’s behavior is Cassandra behavior.

In the chapters there are are narrativs in the present, remembered narratives of the past, and meditations. She also uses epigrams to signal the change of theme. Two later chapters registering the full horror of this “final solution.” When she first heard the term, long after when she came fully to understand what these people were doing — IG Faben, a hideous company which I hope is historically remembered for a behavior so heinous it’s unspeakable without strong nerves as one writes. Also from POV of that time and now, 1970s when Allende is being overthrown and another monstrous conflagration going on. What must be grasped about fascists. Again her mother a Cassandra, to protect her daughter, is mean to others. And we met or see an original of Christa T.

When they have to flee: it seems that at the last moment irrationally Charlotte, Nelly’s mother, cannot bear to leave her home. She feels she is guarding. But when the truck sets off without her, she realizes she has nothing to do, she can guard nothing. She sent off most of the “precious stuff.” And what we see is her join forces with another person (a relative) to chase down the truck and re-find her children. I found I couldn’t face the idea of what was going to happen if it was that mother and daughter would never see one another again so I peeped forward until I managed to ascertain that after a long ordeal they are reunited. As Charlotte goes forward (on foot, there is nothing else) she hears of the truck and thinks she will find them quickly, but our narrator warns us not. So Nelly (young Christa) is to endured on her own with her younger siblings and an uncle — in the piece I found ascertaining that they are reunited, I gathered Nelly was for a time in a concentration camp.

In the summing up chapters of what we’ve learnt — she’s on about how much needs to be forgotten in order to continue in life, but also that “time is running out” somehow on humanity. I’m thinking it ought to have been called The Testament of a [1930s & WW2] Survivor. She ends in the remembered sections, on the time just after WW2: her father brought home in terrible state, his death, her mother’s mortal illness, and she is with people who have TB — who died, who didn’t expected and unexpected. Done to make it fitting. Modern time is 1975 and latest brutal coup engineered by US recorded. Then we are back on this trip of 1970s, with her husband, brother (her daughter’s uncle) and a daughter’s views.

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The story begins: She has arrived before Mycenae (gates of town Agamemnon is returning to) in a sort of cage, a basket and with her is her maid-companion, Marpesa and her children -– twins. In this version they are not Ajax’s after all, they are the children of another thug-rapist, Eurypylos, whom she was given as wife to by Priam in return for Euryplos fighting on the side of the Trojans; she is taken out of the cage. It does not matter whether they are Agamemnon’s, Ajax’s or another thug – it was forced. She knows when they go inside Clytemnestra will have axed the blustering wimpering Agamemnon, now by her side, to death, and not only she but the children and maid will go the same way. We then get a long series of flashbacks as she remembers how they got to this point.

First half several dominant themes emerge immediately. A society based on utter exploitation of women, no rights whatsover, often enslaved. She is forced to endure the Greek Panthous in bed, though he disgusts her. An elder of Troy, an old man. Like Nestor. Second half she is raped by Ajax in a fit of rage. Patriarchy based on war and aggression as necessary, cult of a hero. I mentioned in Origo’s work what we see is an ethic of caring, concern, refusal to retaliate, love. There is little room for this beyond the friendships of women. I don’t have it to hand at this moment but we are told about a group of huts the women retreat to, just outside Troy. They sew, cook, talk and even dance there – they have some liberty when they get to talk to one another. That is a theme in this novel (in Wolf’s Medea, Medea has been betrayed by her pupil, so the teacher-mentor motif as common in women’s novels as the mother-daughter paradigm is deeply perverted – as if Jane Eyre turned on Miss Temple or Miss Temple on her). The various women telling one another things. Confiding.

Significant changes from traditional story to emphasize: she and Aeneas are lovers; Wolf has given Cassandra the role of Dido, whom in Virgil’s Aeneid was queen of Carthage and lover of Aeneas. Only Aeneas is no longer something of a sneak (that’s not Virgil’s view), but a noble loving man who wanted to take Cassandra with him.

Two halves. Much of the first half does consist of Cassandra’s memories as a child, young woman, growing up with vignettes of all the characters involved – including importantly Aeneas, Eumelos, you might take him to be Kissinger (or Dr Strangelove in the famous movie, who was acted as an imitation of the very young Henry Kissinger crossed with a nutty Nazi in a wheelchair).

She was Priam’s favorite daughter and loved to sit with him as he discussed politics and matters of state. Her relationship with her mother, Hecuba, however, was never as intimate, since Hecuba recognized Cassandra’s independence. At times their interactions are tense or even cold, notably when Hecuba does not sympathize with Cassandra’s fear of the god Apollo’s gift of prophecy or her reluctance to accept his love. When she ultimately refuses him, he curses her so that no one will believe what she prophesies. When Cassandra is presented among the city’s virgins for deflowering, she iwas chosen by Aeneas, who makes love to her only later. Nonetheless, she falls in love with him, and is devoted to him despite her liaisons with others, including Panthous — indeed, she imagines Aeneas whenever she is with anyone else. It is Aeneas’ father Anchises who tells Cassandra of the mission to bring Hesione, Priam’s sister who was taken as a prize by Telamon during the first Trojan War, back from Sparta. Not only do the Trojans fail to secure Hesione, they also lose the seer Calchas during the voyage, who later aids the Greeks during the war. Menelaus visits, a complicated silly quarrel, Hesione taken and Paris follows returns (Cassandra intuits because Helen is not seen) with out Helen.

A beautiful happy moment where she becomes the lover of Aeneas. Pius Aeneas. Forgive me I could not come before now. She wakes upon a very bad dream and he takes her to her mother. Cybele a goddess of dance in a temple

Climax at center (this part of the story is in Shakespeare’s despairing satiric Troilus and Cressida): the Trojans get together to decide if they should go to war. Remember the narrative is not place in the order things occurred. Instead the segments are thematic and things are ironically juxtaposed. Like in an epistolary novel. There are three ships returned from the Greek islands and Greece. Paris is there and very angry and for war as is Troilus. Eumelos, guard, very untrustworthy, is manipulating for war. The problem comes out that if they are to fight for Helen, absurd some say, she is not there. Paris was so incompetent he didn’t manage to bring her all the way. All they have is this phantom. There is a version of the Troy story where she is spirited away to Egypt. One of Euripides’ plays has Helen landing in Egyptian with the cunning Egyptian tyrant. The allegory works very nicely if you substitute for Helen Weapons of Mass Destruction. There were no weapons of mass destruction We were going to war with Iraq (by the way there were no Iraqis on the 9/11 planes, they were Egyptians) because of all these weapons of mass destruction But when it was found out, we did not leave. And her Troilus and Hector object. So what? Our honor is at stake. Cassandra gets very excited, known to be excitable. Oh Woe is me Woe is me and Priam agrees to have her dragged away and chained.

In the second half all chaos breaks out and Achilles emerges as this senseless utterly dishonorable brute (as he does in most versions of the story since Euripides and then particularly the Aeneid. In this version Achilles brutally murders Troilus after Troilus attacks him for having murdered Hector and then dragged him in a chariot around Troy – desecrating his body. This is what happens in Homer’s Iliad, which is pro-Greek. But we are supposed to understand that Achilles was in this mad rage because his lover, Patroclus, has been murdered by Diomedes, another thug ( the whole of Homer’s Book 5 of Iliad is Diomedes murdering people)

The close: Cassandra tells of the final events: another Amazonian princess, companion-maid, Myrine, murdered, and the sounds remind Cassandra of Polyxena heard screaming by Achilles’ grave where she was murdered; Andron her lover had coward-like betrayed her. Hecuba she remembers called Hecuba (mother of Trojans) a “howling bitch.” Cassandra’s children are dead. “Yes, that is how it happened.” You are a hero. I don’t want to become a statue or hero. How are we to understand her refusal.

The four essays are travelogues, literary critiques and explications of her books (see what I wrote just above) and an essay on women’s literature. If you read Wolf’s first two travel reports to find something concrete out about Greece, you’ll be very frustrated. She does not tell us but she is in Metelyn, Germany because there is a group of people meeting there to stop nuclear armament, campaigning against building these huge arsenals of nuclear bombs whereby we can destroy the earth many times over. This is 1981 when she has come out as a political activist against the present German GDR and the Western one too

The story of the first two: here’s a strike in Copenhagen that gets in their way, they land, are taken by their friends to the friends’ apartment, lovely meal. Their friends take them for drives around Athens and out to the countryside, by the sea, they meet other people, friends of friends, they visit taverns, eat out. At some point they go to the Acropolis and wander about. Just what you’d expect. In the first report, the housekeeper-cook complains to Wolf about the mistress who treats her badly (says the house-keeper-cook). We get a lot about the food they eat, the drinks, and twice both in Athens and then part 2 they find they must go down to a police station (or so they are told and register themselves, answer questions). It’s not clear they must do this, but they do it twice. They are used to this presumably.

They make friends with two free spirits, Helen and Susan traveling together and become a sort of foursome or maybe six-some. The difference between the first travel report and the second is on the second they take a boat to Crete where some believe women were once powerful. In the second they no longer have a car, so they travel about on buses with irritatingly noisy (modern music) . They go to an amphitheater where thousands of years ago these plays were played – by men as far as we can tell, no women there. They participate in Easter Ceremonies. Much conversation and thoughts about the conventional history of what they are seeing and what they are seeing and imagining what was.

There are the barest of references to the complicated political history of Greece after WW2 and the1950s where the US CIA was involved in overthrowing a socialist regime, parties within Greece fighting ferociously, and at first a conservative regime put in place but eventually Greeks themselves worked out tenuous solutions. There were long-lasting premiers at times. The Greek orthodox church remained strong.

The fourth essay: I just love where Wolf attacks Aristotle’s ideas on tragedy or art, and quotes a male (p 278) who tells her “He does not understand me …. (p 278) I was so stupefied I could not answer him.” The female genres have been subjective novels. Ahe opens with an individual reverie I’ll call it on one of Ingeborg Bachmann’s poems where she first gives you one of the stanzas and only after that the full poem, and then her terms of reference are not the usual English and American women authors you might expect or be familiar with or at least have heard of, maybe a couple of French – so while there is a reference to Virginia Woolf – and remember I said that Woolf was not available in East Germany in translation until well into the 1970s, instead of say Susan Brownmiller (Against our Will), Adrienne Rich, Gloria Steinem, Erica Jong (I’ve never read Fear of Flying), popular novel or Simone de Beauvoir. Joan Didion, Susan Sontag, she cites Anna Segler, Ingeborg Bachmann, Marie-Louise Fleisser; she refers to their lives a bit, their writing but especially Bachmann who was a poet and whom Wolf knew, but then ends on a long passionate argument that the literature women read starting with earliest classics (Homer)is male-centered, women presented through male eyes, and proceeds herself to explain ancient classics from POV of women in charge – as if matriarchies really existed at one time and the present way we know these famous one is men having twisted the stories to suit them in charge.

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


From Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party — the Renaissance Women section

Most women’s literature has been destroyed once it was written, re-framed (Sappho the only women ancient writer we know of for sure cut just to bits), only in the 18th century do we begin to hear women talking for and to themselves – the mocking and satiric Jane Austen among the first of these. I confess for those who made it to the end of the fourth essay I do not at all believe there was ever a matriarchy the way Wolf and some schools of feminism believe – Judy Chicago’s Dinner Party a huge display in museums of 39 famous and archetypal female figures having dinner together; the floor is covered with little biographies of hundreds of women in history. As far I’m concerned Chicago wastes the first 7 plates on women goddesses who cannot have existed. But throughout the history of the arts from the beginning there have been central women characters who play roles that have drawn women to them – and real historical women who have contributed to western (it’s mostly) society. A mostly Eurocentric table.

Cassandra is among these. I’ll name a few again since we don’t much hear them this way: still remembered today, Penelope (Odysseus wife) – knitting away, Medea, child-killer, Clytemnestra, nut case, Iphigenia, sacrificial daughter, Dido, seduced abandoned, a suicide, Cassandra, nut-case fast forward to Arthurian matter Guinevere, adulteress, Morgan le Fay, a witch, somewhat unhappily these queens who got their heads cut off – compensatory victimhood I call it – Anne Boleyn, Mary Stuart, Marie Antoinette, all of whom had their heads chopped off – warnings against wanting power – and among these I do include Hilary Clinton who I believe the other day in a rant Trump was saying should clearly have been executed.


Christine de Pizan’s Capital letter — she wrote books of imagined exemplary women

In my next blog on Wolf, I’ll write about Medea, No Place on Earth (if possible Anita Raja or Elena Ferrante’s Italian translation too, and Eulogy for the Living.


Mid-life from a conference of German writers

Ellen

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From a recent essay on Brooks by Doreen St Felix (New Yorker, 2018)

To Prisoners

I call for you cultivation of strength in the dark.
Dark gardening
in the vertigo cold.
in the hot paralysis.
Under the wolves and coyotes of particular silences.
Where it is dry.
Where it is dry.
I call for you
cultivation of victory Over
long blows that you want to give and blows you are going to get.
Over
what wants to crumble you down, to sicken
you. I call for you
cultivation of strength to heal and enhance
in the non-cheering dark,
in the many many mornings-after;
in the chalk and choke.

Dear Friends and readers,

We cannot let Black History Month pass by on this blog without remembering, praising, attempting to characterize the wonderful poetic oeuvre of Gwendolyn Brooks.

What I want to say about her is I was all wrong, and the reason I want to start this way is to suggest to for many readers, and probably white especially, it’s possible the poems you have come across are from her earlier poetry more seemingly (and in truth) conventional in values and stereotypes than her middle and later periods. When it’s a case of one or two poems in an anthology or on a page of selections, inevitably you read her “the mother:” today it prompts anti-abortion religiously-rooted utterances, insisting on the centrality of motherhood to women, without any memory or awareness of how powerless women as mothers are in reality, and especially Black women whose sons and daughters can still be casually killed on the street with impunity. One comes across poems which, when read in isolation, seem to portray a picture of young colored girls sheltered from reality, seeking the most obvious treats, stereotypes which belong in a 1930s movie.

To me some of these early poems seem to accept the impoverished life inflicted on Black people. They are often written from a child’s point of view.

A song in the front yard (from her earlier period)

I’ve stayed in the front yard all my life.
I want a peek at the back
Where it’s rough and untended and hungry weed grows.
A girl gets sick of a rose.

I want to go in the back yard now
And maybe down the alley,
To where the charity children play.
I want a good time today.

They do some wonderful things.
They have some wonderful fun.
My mother sneers, but I say it’s fine
How they don’t have to go in at quarter to nine.
My mother, she tells me that Johnnie Mae
Will grow up to be a bad woman.
That George’ll be taken to Jail soon or late
(On account of last winter he sold our back gate).

But I say it’s fine. Honest, I do.
And I’d like to be a bad woman, too,
And wear the brave stockings of night-black lace
And strut down the streets with paint on my face.

In later years she was sarcastic over her Anniad (still said to be modeled on Virgil’s Aeneid, when in form and imagery it’s surely Chaucerian and reminiscent of medieval European romances): in one interview I’ve come across she says she won the Pulitzer for it and Annie Allen because its learning was snobbery. She calls its allusive techniques (which surely she worked hard on) pompous; she says to her the Pulitzer is a pleasant salute.

Brooks evolved; when you’ve read her middle and last poems, in retrospect these earlier ones read quite differently — she is first of all writing “seriously the inner lives of young Black women: their hopes, dreams and aspirations;” depicting how they become part of a community (painfully); the “day-to-day struggle” within European forms, genres. In her interviews and some quotations from her scattered prose, I find that like many another brilliant person, she hated going to parties, and struggled to find her own voice, and people she was compatible with, to discover what would be a good time for her. She also fits into Annie Finch’s perspective and defense of the poetess tradition of white American women from the 19th through mid-20th century — rhymes, strong formal elements, strong sentiment.

So I’ll call the sonnet-like sequence called Womanhood middle period and invite the reader to read and listen to this vimeo

These poems on womanhood for Black women are not paid enough attention to. What is preferred are the shorter poems or those about Black man.
They are superb and present a continuum of Black manhood as experienced in the US. Read her Negro Hero: to suggest Dorie Miller: the man who lived and died, a reading of the poem. She can take on a male voice, and speaks for central Black young men in the 20th century.

Paul Robeson

That time
we all heard it,
cool and clear,
cutting across the hot grit of the day.
The major Voice.
The adult Voice
forgoing Rolling River,
forgoing tearful tale of bale and barge
and other symptoms of an old despond.
Warning, in music-words
devout and large,
that we are each other’s
harvest:
we are each other’s
business:
we are each other’s
magnitude and bond.

Malcolm X
———
for Dudley Randall

Original.
Hence ragged-round,
Hence rich-robust.

He had the hawk-man’s eyes.
We gasped. We saw the maleness.
The maleness raking out and making guttural the air
And pushing us to walls.

And in a soft and fundamental hour
A sorcery devout and vertical
Beguiled the world.

He opened us –
Who was a key.

Who was a man.

And also in rage:

The Pool Players.
Seven at the Golden Shovel.

We real cool. We
Left school. We

Lurk late. We
Strike straight. We

Sing sin. We
Thin gin. We

Jazz June. We
Die soon.

In her last phases (last quarter of 20th century), she became a plain-spoken quietly angry, sarcastic poet, pithy, vivid, chronicler of African-American life using both its own development within literature, in the contemporary social roles chosen and inflicted, with an awareness of Black music (jazz) and visual art. I now find her a deeply moving urban poet, terse, epigrammatic, using free forms, speaking symbolically, allusively.

Read her Primer for Blacks.

To those of my Sisters who kept their Naturals
Never to look a hot comb in the teeth.

Then this late poem:

To an old Black woman, Homeless and Indistinct

1.
Your every day is a pilgrimage.
A blue hubbubb.
Your days are collected bacchanals of fear and self-troubling.

And your nights! your nights.
When you put you down in alley or cardboard or viaduct,
your lovers are rats, finding your secret places.

2.
When you rise in another morning,
you hit the street, your incessant enemy.

See? Here you are, in the so-busy world.
You walk. You walk.
You pass The People.
No. The People pass you.

Here’s a Rich Girl marching briskly to her charms.
She is suede and scarf and belting and perfume.
She sees you not, she sees you very well.
At Five in the afternoon, Miss Rich Girl will go home
to brooms and vacuum cleaner and carpeting,
two cats, two marble top tables, two telephones,
shiny green peppers, flowers in impudent vases,
visitors.
Before all that there’s the luncheon to be known.
Lasagna, lobster, salad, sandwiches
All day there’s coffee to be loved.
There are luxuries
of minor dissatisfaction, luxuries of Plan.

3.
That’s her story
You’re going to vanish, not necessarily nicely, fairly soon
Although essentially dignity itself a death
is not necessarily tidy, modest, or discreet.
When they find you
your legs may not be tidy nor aligned.
Your mouth may be all crooked or destroyed.

Black old woman, homeless, indistinct —
Your last and least adventure is Review.
Folks used to celebrate your birthday!
Folks used to say ‘She draws such handsome horses, cows
and houses.’
Folks used to say ‘That child is going far.’

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

Wikipedia includes an account of her life and awards: all I can do in brief space is highlight a few events. She was born in Kansas, and brought up in Chicago, which remained her home, and to its cultural worlds she belonged all her life (like August Wilson remained a Philadelphian). She began to read and write well at an early age; her earliest poetry (as a young girl was published in the Chicago Defender (Black newspaper founded in 1905 by Robert S. Abbott). She did not fit easily into high schools; one too white, one where she was ostracized as too Black for the place; finally she settled in an integrated school, Englewood. Sending her work out brought her to the attention to James Weldon Johnson and Langston Hughes. She found a place with other Black writers in 1935 in WPA groups, e.g., Illinois Writers Project. In 1935 she went to Kennedy Key (?) College, joined the South Side Community Art Center; was married to Henry Blakeley Jr in 1939. From her you can slowly trace her ever-expanding circle of friend-writers and publications. A landmark was the 1945 A Street in Bronzville. Richard Wright wrote a commentary on her work. From this one we have

Kitchenette Building

We are things of dry hours and the involuntary plan,
Grayed in, and gray. “Dream” makes a giddy sound, not strong
Like “rent,” “feeding a wife,” “satisfying a man.”

But could a dream send up through onion fumes
Its white and violet, fight with fried potatoes
And yesterday’s garbage ripening in the hall,
Flutter, or sing an aria down these rooms

Even if we were willing to let it in,
Had time to warm it, keep it very clean,
Anticipate a message, let it begin?

We wonder. But not well! not for a minute!
Since Number Five is out of the bathroom now,
We think of lukewarm water, hope to get in it.

She was often the first African-American to receive this or that award. Her last years she is going to conferences, teaching at universities. She finally made public her own struggle for racial self-acceptance. She urged writers to create young Black protagonists who go counter to commercial  or best-selling tropes. In 1968 she was appointed Poet Laureate of Illinois.

She nurtured and mentored others; her very last volume was about children, poetry seemingly for them (they are bold, revealing for example, the problem of incest where males are encouraged to be aggressive and at the same time marginalized and poverty-stricken), Children Coming Home.

The standard biography seems to be by George Kent, A Life of Gwendolyn Brooks. The Library of Congress has brought out a slim volume of her poems edited and introduced by Elizabeth Alexander: The Essential Gwendolyn Brooks.


The Field of Angels memorial at the Whitney Plantation in Wallace, Louisiana, honoring the 2,200 enslaved children who died in St. John the Baptist Parish between 1823 and 1863

Ellen

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A double stock flower (tagetes patula?)

Dear friends and readers,

After all I have something for Christmas this year: it’s a beautiful poem that Anne Finch wrote and sent to Lady Selena Finch Shirley (1681-1762), a graceful compliment also meant for Lady Selena’s daughter, also called Selena.

Finch says looking upon the flower in its ripe prime (paradoxically during winter) reminds her of the time when she “That beauteous maid wou’d view/The green house where I liv’d retired;” that is, between 1700 and 1703 when Anne lived at Wye Shirley Finch would come to visit her in a green house or garden near Wye. This was when Finch was enduring the aftermath or getting over one of her intermittent depressive breakdowns, this one partly brought on by the anxiety over the flight of the Stuart court, Heneage’s attempted flight with them, and his arrest, bail, and threatened trial for Jacobitism, and a conviction of treason. In the event he was freed and left to live quietly (no office for him of course).


Here is Wye, now a college in Kent, where Anne wrote some of her most beautiful poetry, much of it melancholy and personal

This time included the first years of Lady Selena’s life with her husband, Robert Shirley, Lord Ferrers (1650-1717); married to him in 1699, she went on to have ten children. She was a daughter of George (and Jane?) Finch; thus a relative of the Finches (whom Cameron located living at Wye College in the early 1700’s). One woman recovering from mental distress and trouble, and the other incessantly pregnant, they made a pair together. Now fate or destiny has made Selena a widow and placed her in the country, and made Anne a Countess too, most unexpectedly also placing her in town (both the result of the inheritance by Heneage of the earldom when his nephew, Charles, died so young), in town where she is in need of the rejuvenating presence of her friend.


This is apparently an image of Lady Selena Finch Shirley when young

Writing the poem and imagining the flower brings together in Anne’s mind the two women’s minds together, makes them alive to one another through the medium of these words in a verse epistle. These are sentiments Anne expressed in her In Praise of the Invention of writing Letters).

Gentle reader, you must read it aloud slowly, savoring the tones of this renewal of friendship at a distance between the two friends

How is it in this chilling time,
When frost and snows the season claim,
This flow’ring plant is in its prime,
Which of July assumes the name?

But since we poets speech bestow,
And form what dialogues we please,
With animals or plants that grow,
And make them answer us with ease.

Tell me (said I) prolifick stock,
Which do’st these fragrant treasures bring,
What is it can such stores unlock,
At Christmas as outvie the spring?

Thus ask’d, the flower of tinctur’d bloome,
Soon blush’t into a deeper dye,
Cast stronger odours round the room,
And sweetly breath’d out this reply.

Tis true, all plants of my nice sort
Have not such license to appear,
But wait till Phoebus keeps his court,
In the hot circle of the year.

Whilst I a brighter influence own,
Than is imparted from the skies;
Nor take my blossoms thus full blown,
From summer, but Selena’s eyes.

Her cheering smile, her modest air,
Did me to this perfection charm;
For nothing droops when near the fair,
But all is lively, all is warm.

That beauteous maid wou’d often view
The green house where I liv’d retired,* *Wye
Who did such early graces shew,
That I to suit them was inspired.

Sometimes a sprig from me, I thought,
Might happily adorn her hair,
Or pardon me if ’twas a fault,
Might rest upon her bosom bare.

My soft perfumes for her design’d,
I ev’n from Zephyrus withdrew;
Unless when that obliging wind
Wou’d shed them round her as he flew.

Delighted when by me she stood,
I wish’d for some transforming art.
For had I then been flesh and blood,
I should have told her all my heart.

Yet I to Flora softly pray’d,
To hasten my disclosing day;
Who doating on the fairer maid,
For her does now my buds display.

But from a strange reverse of fate,
She to the country, I the town, *Anne in town
Have sadly been remov’d of late,
And neither to advantage shown.

Then let none blame you, if my flower
Beneath your roof is faded seen,
But know that such enlivening power
Is only granted to fifteen.

I for Selena shall repine,
And when some noble youths you see,
Bow their dejected heads like mine,
Think in our passions we agree.

What farther answer cou’d be made,
Or father question could I try?
Then let her come, and cheer our shade,
Or men and plants in town must die.

On this fourth of January 2022, two days before twelfth night.


Melissa Scott Miller, A Dusting of Snow at Islington Gardens, 21st century (don’t miss the cat)

Ellen

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