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Archive for the ‘women artists’ Category


Virginia, Leonard and Pinka Woolf


One of Virginia Woolf’s desks

Dear friends and readers,

Here am I to tell you about the second two days of the virtual Virginia Woolf conference held a few weeks ago now (for Thursday and Friday). Saturday, the first session I could make was “Flush: Canine Relations.” Having taught Flush twice (and read much of and by Elizabeth Barrett Browning), “Gypsey, the mongrel (short story in Woolf’s Complete Short Fiction), and myself loving animals and read a number of adult books with animal consciousness at the center (see “A literature of cats” and “Dogs: a Bloomsbury take”), I was alert to details in the papers on this panel.

Saturday. First up was Diana Royer: “A dog has a character just as we have.” Ms Royer talked about “Gypsey, the mongrel,” Flush, The Voyage Out, and Between the Acts. in the first animals are shown to be self-aware creatures, and this one gets angry at another dog, Hector. The real Flush was kidnapped and three times, and it was due to EBB’s bravery (and that of her maid) that she was able to rescue the dog the first time; thereafter she paid the ransom almost immediately. She valued the dog. Rachel Vinrace watches an old woman cut a chicken’s head off. A cow loses her calf in the pageant and bellows in grief.

How are we to regard the suffering of animals. Oliver Case, “Cross-Species Translations,” made the point others did on the panel and the people at the conference who contributed in the Q&A. Our emphasis on and reverence for our ability to speak stands in the way of our communicating with animals. In one scene Flush and another dog gaze at one another and “an intimacy beyond words is understood.” If you will imagine the animal’s thought, you can more easily love them. Accuracy of understanding precise meanings does not matter. There is a deep communal exchange of awareness was part of Sabrina Nacci’s presentation. With animals you can escape patriarchal norms. She shows that Flush gains agency outside EBB’s room. Body language and smell are ways of interacting. Ms Nacci said Woolf attends to violence and alluded to Paul Auster’s Timbuktoo.


One of the Woolfs’s cats, Sappho (there was more than one Sappho)

Everyone who spoke gave Woolf credit for a real relationship with her dogs — from the letters. I was surprised because in Woolf’s letters I have noticed her not that bothered when a dog runs off (gets lost) and too non-protective. I knew that with people about cats vocalize a lot more


A photograph of Virginia Woolf in 1926 by Ottoline Morrell

At this point I had a conflict. I had signed up and paid to participate in a zoom, one of the Virginia Woolf Cambridge lecture series — this one with Clair Nicolson, on the role of clothing and fashion in Woolf’s life and writing. Nicolson’s coming book is based on her dissertation “Woolf’s Clothing: An Exploration of Clothes and Fashion in Virginia Woolf’s Fiction.” She has curated exhibits on clothing, and pays close attention to fashion changes. Her talk was about the power of clothing, you place an exterior image in public between the world and your hidden self. Clothes can be a shield. She said that Leonard Woolf destroyed most or all Virginia’s clothing after her death – what he saved and gradually published brilliantly was the enormous body of life-writing left in manuscripts. A pair of her spectacles have survived. I was therefore not able to participate in any of the mid-day round tables (2 hours each), and have not yet viewed the video recordings. I intend to do that and perhaps add a few words about them in the comments to this blog.

On Blogging Woolf Alice Lowe provides the gist of the roundtable on Woolf and biofiction. The blogger lists a number of the biofictions discussed as well as a couple of recent brilliant biographies. I’ve gotten for myself Mark Hussey’s remarkable book on Clive Bell (and I listened to his brief talk on it during the conference) and

Peter Stansky spoke for a second time, now interestingly on the Dreadnought Hoax and (separately) Julian Bell (the third plenary, 4:00-5:30 pm). Prof Stansky wrote and revised recently a brilliant well researched biography: Julian Bell: From Bloomsbury to the Spanish Civil war: Julian, the son of Vanessa and Clive was killed very quickly upon going to Spain; he was an ambulance driver.

Horace DeVere Cole, was the organizer of the hoax: he enjoyed practical jokes that much (it’s said). Prof Stansky seemed to see the hoax as a protest against militarism. Julian Bell’s life is a tragic story. The book asks what does Julian’s life mean now. Stansky now a candid speaker (and can be very amusing), had to be discreet when writing about Julian’s love life. 40 years after the first version of the biography was published, much much new material has been gathered, sorted and published. He closed with one of William Faulkner’s sayings: “the past is continually changing. The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”


Vanessa Bell, The Bell Nursery — Vanessa Bell never recovered from, never got over her son’s death; she had not wanted him to go; Clive Bell was strongly pacifist

Saturday ended for me on that sentiment, since I did not join in on a Salon.

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The latest cover for SCUM Manifesto

Sunday I began with the “Feminist Resistance” panel at 9:00-10:30 am. Rasha Aljararwa is under the impression that silence is useful form of resistance. It provides a space for someone to exist within, she said. The merit of Loren Agaloos’s was her subject matter, Woolf’s caustic short satire, “A Society” (1921). Read it here as a pdf. Here is a coherent reasoned account of this allegorical short story. I’ve read the story and it is a passionately honest, rawly truthful, unusually direct (for Woolf) hard satire. There is an excellent account in Mark Hussey’s VW encyclopedia. Cassandra is one of the characters included (as a neutral spectator).

Kimberly Coates ““‘Daddy’s Girl’: Fathers, Daughters, and Female Resistance in Virginia Woolf’s Three Guineas and Valerie Solanas’ SCUM Manifesto” was one of the best short papers in the conference. Solanos’ manifesto contrasts strongly with Woolf’s Three Guineas. Solanos writes in crude demotic English, short paragraphs, lots of large letter headings. She was once famous for having tried to kill Andy Warhol. Originally she was rich, pretty and well-connected and sexually abused by a male relative; she spent her short (1936-88) uncompromising life attacking capitalism and misogyny; she spent 3 years in prison for attempted murder, and ended on the street as a prostitute.

At 11:00-12:30 I attended “Ethics and Archives. “Joshua Phillips described his experiences working in the archives with Woolf’s fragmentary drafts, especially the Berg collection in the New York Public Library in Manhattan. He sees Woolf as interested in the ethics of writing anonymously. Such a person still cannot escape pressure from an awareness of a scrutinizing or indifferent reader (“you can escape the shadow of the reader” is what he said). Because of publishers’ impositions, authors are pushed to be less subjective. Mr Phillips thinks Walter Benjamin’s work shows he was dogged by such tensions as ethical dilemmas. He found all sorts of interesting elements in the Woolf archives: experimental writing, asides, playfulness. Drew Shannon concentrated on a line written by Virginia to Leonard the day of her suicide: “will you destroy all my papers?” If it was a command, Leonard ignored it. Mr Shannon talked about the ethics of publishing what a writer did not want published; the gatekeepers of ms’s: owners, libraries, and (I’ll add) relatives, friends, professional & business associates. Mr Shannon pointed out that sometimes a diary can ruin a writer’s reputation. In the conversation afterwards I offered the idea that the line was a question: she wanted to know if Leonard would do that, and was suggesting he should not.


Here is Duncan Grant’s depiction of Virginia Woolf

Ana Quiring talked about fan fiction on the Internet based on Virginia Woolf’s writings and life, i.e., fantasies constructed from Mrs Dalloway and a distorted idea of Woolf’s life. (To me this is what the over-rated Michael Cunningham’s The Hours is.) So it seems that the sort of thing rained down on Austen’s writings and life is rained down on Woolf’s. I agreed with the speaker that sometimes these amateur fictions can rise (I’d put it) to insightful literary criticism. She urged us to keep an open mind towards these works, remember that Woolf herself lacked professional credentials. I know my blogs are (to use Quiring’s words) “unpaid and unsponsored.”

I sat through Beth Rigel Daugherty’s long “On the Ethics of Teaching Virginia Woolf.” She went through many of Woolf’s critical essays, bringing out the strongly pedagogical thrust of many of them, their strong valuing of literature for itself as an experience of life, their aestheticism, detachment, deeply anti-worldly perspective. Ruskin can be seen as an important voice for Woolf. Her plenary lecture was rightly very well received.


This is a beautifully read aloud rendition by Nadia May (the more common name for the reader)

This wonderful conference ended for me on the penultimate offering, a panel “celebration” of editors of editions of Jacob’s RoomI love this novel: for a while after I first read it, I thought it my favorite of Woolf’s longer fictions. I’ve rearranged the order of the talks and remarks.

Vara Neverow surveyed the original reception of the book and more recent attitudes. Original reviews were mixed; only a few scathing, but the initial positive reception faded. David Daiches rejected it (years later regretted his review); James Hafley — two narrators at least one clueless; Brewster was snarky (1962). Some saw it as a freakish; another critic said the minor characters have more inner life, and the narrator is a device; Kathleen Wall (? not sure that was the name) wrote on ekphrasis and elegy in Jacob’s Room (2002), and about how women have been denied access to private aesthetic experience. Christopher James (perhaps recently) talked of its center being bisexuality. I should make explicit that Jacob is partly a surrogate for Woolf’s dead brother, Thoby Stephens. In the conversation afterward someone remarked the Cambridge Edition of Jacob’s Room by Stuart Clerke can serve as an interpretive touchstone; someone else that it can be read and should be read as an historical novel (about the near past now beginning to repeat itself in war).

Suzanne Raitt did the Norton Critical Edition, talked of the many editions. She encountered Jacob’s Room at an older age (38, 40 when the edition was published). It’s an experimental novel; Woolf had had lengthy bouts of mental illness by this time; she told us of an article by Kate Flint in The Review of English Studies, 42:167? (1991):361-72, about the elderly women and young men in the novel. Kate Flint spoke of her edition, done early in her career, and about working at the Berg.

Ted Bishop (Canadian) said there are 10 named characters in the novel who never answer one another; it has no narrative drive, not much chronology; we have flash forwards to characters when older. The time element is all time is there all at once. There is a touch of the grotesque. He also said Alberta (which he retired from) is now demolishing its humanities center; how people used to be kicked out of the Berg collection. Maria Rita Dummond Viana who translated Jacob’s Room had held a translation workshop and suggested that translation is a mode of reading, the most intimate act of reading one can do. “I cannot help but translate what I love” (I thought of Madame de Chastenay’s translation of Anne Radcliffe’s Udolpho into French and Radcliffe made French, my own of Vittoria Colonna and Veronica Gambara.)

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Though Covid has brought such devastation and grief to so many people on this earth, the capability of zoom software to bring people together visually and aurally from across the globe, when used for that purpose, especially when it is hard, almost impossible for many to reach one another so apparently intimately any other way, has been a tremendous unexpected gift.  Although this is against my own interests (as someone who finds travel such an ordeal and has limited funds and hardly any helpful connections), I hope that zoom or online conferences and lectures will not replace in person get-togethers in more local areas, as there is a untranslatable-into-words difference between getting together in person and talking every which way to one another as genuine single group when the group is made up of more or less friends of the same tribe, with the same interests and ways of life.

One solution is to offer far-away conferences in both modes: in person and on-line. JASNA is now doing that; ASECS is planning to alternate in person and on-line conferences. The problem with hybrids for meetings of people who really live within say 40 minutes of one another is too many may opt for convenience, depleting the in person experience too much, while hybrid remains an uncomfortable mix, putting too much pressure or an impossible task on the teacher or lecturer (leader of the session). This said, I cannot drive at night, and with public transportation increasingly disappearing in the US (the very conservative and reactionary domineering substantial minority does not want middling and poorer people to be able to reach where they live or even go through), for me in N.Va the online classes at the bookstore Politics and Prose this summer are a needed rejuvenating time of pleasure with others.


Vanessa Bell’s Bird in a Cage

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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Dear friends and readers,

I’ve not given up or put away my review of the new Cambridge Finch volume altogether. I’ve been reading (for example) Gillian Wright’s Producing Women’s Poery, 1600-1730: Text and Paratext, Manuscript and Print: a study of women’s poetry as the texts appear in the manuscripts across this era.  I’m going to contribute the following talk/paper (maybe 15-20 minutes worth) at the coming EC/ASECS conference (in person! at Winterthur museum, Wilmington, Delaware) for a panel called Material Matters, meant to concentrate on the material phenomena surrounding or part of texts (including the lodging the poet writes in):

“From Beginning to End of the Long 18th Century: Anne Finch’s poetry in manuscripts and Austen’s unfinished and finished fiction in manuscripts (for a panel called Material Matters)

At the opening (so to speak) of the era, that is, the later 17th century, and the close, the early 19th, we can now study most of two writers’ manuscripts in recent edited editions from Cambridge. I will argue there is much to be learned from reading these two women’s manuscripts in both the printed forms, if one can get hold of the ms in some form other form (facsimile, digitalized), or (as it were) raw (the ms itself in a rare book room). The attitude of mind of the authors to the work, her perceived status, the attitudes towards her of those living directly around her come out. Dating, visible processes seen on the pages, emerge from behind the curtain of formal publication. I will also show that over this long haul little changed in women’s status (here both in effect high elite) and how that shapes the works I discuss too.

This talk/paper also comes out of the work for the review I did for The Intelligencer of the Cambridge Edition of Austen’s Later Manuscripts (Everything Else); for that one I also read the Juvenilia in manuscripts volume. I studied older manuscripts, pre-18th century, and more recent ones, individuals and miscellanies.


Amanda Vickery expatiating to the viewers over a manuscript book of letters (At Home with the Georgians)

That is, if I can get there and find ways to and from the inn to the conference sessions at the museum it’s to be held in. For some this would be nothing. For me, it’s a lot to get past. I get lost, it’s a long way, and I can no longer drive in the dark.

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.

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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.’

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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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Hung Liu, The Year of the Rat (2021) – this is one of the last portraits she did and it is downstairs in the lobby to lure you upstairs

Friends, readers,

Another woman artist, this time a woman photographer and painter whose work I saw in the DC National Portrait Gallery a couple of weeks ago. The following video where a curator takes you through many of the paintings and photographs in the exhibit, you learn so much about Liu’s life story, the images she made in the different phases of her existence, and hear Hung Liu talking about what she is trying to achieve in general, and what were her aims and circumstances in each of the works she is led to talk about — that the usual blog I would do for a woman artist feels superfluous. Click and see and hear. Hung herself talks in the interview clips of the importance of remembering people, especially to the person who remembers and the one remembered.



This is called Father’s Day: it is Liu with her father — he was taken from the family when she was five, imprisoned, enslaved, treated harshly and strictly for 50 years at the time when she learned where he was, and visited him. He told her that after so many years of such barbaric treatment that he can no longer show emotion.

She was proud of her mother and her grandmother’s stoicism in the face of such hardships:

All the information you need otherwise is provided in the marvelous catalogue book of the exhibition (Portraits of Promised Lands), with three essays and many beautiful plates, which I recommend buying. To be honest, and iconoclastically I think you can have as deep an experience as felt in the galleries, maybe more deep reading this book as going to the gallery. The difference is the size of the images and you have to imagine the thick impasto you eyes register as you gaze.

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Here I just suggest emphases and perspectives, single out the most striking images.

She seems to have derived her passionate devotion to the deeply hurt by society and the vulnerable, and desire to give all her subjects quiet dignity, from the way her family was treated in her early life: her father’s fate (see above) was the result of his having fought in the army of Chiang Kai-shek; the family destroyed all the photographs and memorabilia of their lives they had lest any be interpreted against them. They didn’t flee, rather marginalized themselves, hid their individual identities, and only gradually as Hung’s gift emerged sent her quietly to the best schools and then art college in China available. She had herself to do two years farm work, and traveled, everywhere she saw thwarted and hurt people, she painted, and then later took photographs and painted these in her own distinctive way (the film will tell you of this) within terms of the imposed social realism of China. Like many others in such a situation, she learned much but felt constricted, that she was not fulfilling her art’s potential. They are not just downtrodden people, but people whose identity is at risk, like this one:


Summoning ghosts — the woman is beautiful but she resists us by turning to the side, she is dressing her hair and wearing that outfit to please another

She was both fortunate and her family maintained some good connections (her grandfather had been a scholar and botanist), and was able to travel to the US, go to an art college in California, and become part of the art worlds there. She became a resident artist at Capp Street Project in San Francisco in 1988; she eventually married a fellow art student, Jeff Kelley, who became her curator. She went onto graduate school, became a citizen, a Professor Emerita herself, had a child, a boy. In her earlier life she took many photographs as she traveled around China tracing the changes or just the events and behavior of people working out the cultural revolution. These photographs have to be experienced in the order they are placed in a narrative. In the US she resumed such travels down south (where both white and black, but mostly black lived hard lives), to places Asian people made communities in.

Here are some of these: she identifies with a plow-bough young man (black, living down south),


A plow-boy in the American south

A hopeful African-American woman — see the way she swings dangling feet or shoes


Dangling Feet

She talked with ex-Comfort Women in Korea:


This is from the cover for the book cited above (Promised Lands)

Here is a less well known portrait of comfort women:

There is also a portrait of an aged woman with bound feet, who cannot walk — very distressing in its ordinariness.

Much more hopeful: I love her monumental portraits of children, here are two young ones, the one helping the other to eat. I love the small pictures of small creatures, and how her linseed application visibly drips:

Here are two leaning against a wall:

She has a large portrait very beautiful of a black woman with flowers all around her.

She is famous for painting over or up, the photography of Dorothy Lange, whose perspective is coterminous with Liu’s. So here is Migrant Mother made somehow less grim by the coloration and a slight change in the woman’s expression or face and also making the pair further back in the picture space:

Her Dorothy Lange types are when original with her more poignant, as in this Father’s Arms:

Another too distressing to reprint, but found in Promised Lands is of a half-starved woman, with very narrow breasts, who has a baby clinging to one of her nipples. She is dressed in an undershirt with work shirt over, to her left a sad-faced child, a man who shades his face with a hat, another looking to the right as if far in the distance ….

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I was strongly taken by this exhibit and went back a second time; that’s when I bought the book, the first large art book I’ve bought since Jim died. Hers is a redemptive art. She is paying attention to people others usually only register as a number who needs to be checked off, as it were “visible,” finishing what work they were given: it does not matter if their participation is active or genuine. There are few landscapes alone. Such images were thought very self-indulgent in her early training: consequently they are the circumstances against or in which the person pictured must live or work in most of her images.

But she did a series called My Secret Freedom, which are curiously pastoral, very conventional except for the objects and houses she invents (look at the grey boat):

Individual objects painted in her more usual way, very large, turn up now and again: Blue slippers; a bed; a comfortable desk chair with pillow; a grey phone, titled Telephone January 20, 2012:

This wikipedia article is useful. There are short insightful essays on-line on individual images. We are told of her crucial contributions, given thoughtful descriptions of the art techniques she uses to make her memorable portraits; how she’s summoning and commemorating ghosts

Ellen

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Nanci Griffith: 2012/many years ago (probably 1990s) (1953-2021)

I grew up listening to Nanci Griffith in my mother’s car. I still remember seeing her live. I’ve loved her music to this day. #RIP — Izzy on Twitter

I have to remember the next time I do a video and then watch once (I never watch more than once) and find myself wincing at the sounds of my voice and accent: “Your own voice is the voice that carries you through life best” — Nanci Griffith —

Friends and readers,

Yesterday when I read on Twitter (to which news comes the fastest) that Nanci Griffith had died that day, I felt — somewhat to my surprise — so grief-stricken. I began to cry. I thought of all the hours I had spent over the years listening to her singing first on audiocasettes and then CDs in my car. I used to spend a lot of time in my car, and often Izzy was with me (especially during her elementary and junior high school years). I just had to go over and listen to one of my favorite of her songs: “It’s a long long way from Clare to here:”

Now don’t misunderstand me — I am intensely relieved that I need no longer go back at all, the best day of my life was the one where I left the USA for England … and came back with Jim and an alternative life I could live as myself

I then rushed over to the New York Times for an obituary, and was fobbed off by a brief one, which said she had asked that no one write about her until a week after her death (I saw that on several sites yesterday), but today there is far from truly adequate, but at least an informed one about her life and her career. It is true to say that she never achieved the wide popularity others did. I think too that she hid her more troubling insights under “a deceptive prettiness.” Early on, like Willie Nelson, she presented herself as a innocent sweet young white girl who was just dropping these unexpected ironic and satiric remarks, and seduced by romance, as in her famous “Love at the Five and Dime:” her opening remarks are to be treasured too:

My British mother-in-law told me of how she worked from 5 am to 11 pm as a servant, a lower-governess in a great house (later 1920s), a form of enslavement, and when she finally fled, and got a job at Woolworth’s how liberating it was — just 5 and 1/2 9 hour days a week, a salary of sorts, all Sunday and evenings free and off. The real life details the New York Times writer refers to resonate in this way with ordinary vulnerable working people

Rolling Stone magazine had an obituary featuring her musical career yesterday. I know all the songs mentioned; my favorite album is Other Voices, Other Rooms. I also would play There’s a light Beyond These Woods. She did voice political points of view, mostly strong humane, leftist-liberal, from what I’d call a “soft” or emotional stance: she presented herself as deeply hurt at injustice, racism, and told stories of individuals variously stymied, thwarted, and then making do with what they had. An underlying thread, not made explicit ever, was about women, abused as girls, deluded themselves. A rare tragic song: “Tecumseh Valley:”

I can never listen to this too many times. Never tire of it. Caroline is what I could have ended as

Surely this next one — “The Great Divide” — is utterly characteristic and when I listen to it tonight tears come to my eyes – one of her themes is the pain of cherished memories:

While I found real variety in her songs and music, she had a particular personal feel to her angle on country music, which included yodelling (which I loved when she accompanied it) because she presented country in ways that felt old-fashioned, with the kinds of instruments, voice sounds, and stories one expected from early on. NPR says her original inspiration was Loretta Lynn (I’ll add EmmyLou Harris & Linda Rondstadt & Patsy Cline); that she was the interpreter of other people’s songs, but it is also true that a song she originally wrote or was the first one to sing became a hit when done by some more mainstream personality — for again she retained in her music a strong sense of her origins in Texas, and working class rural American life. “When you can’t find a friend, listen to the radio” speaks to us all in the cities too: from Austen City Limits: here she names some of her favorite female predecessors

Izzy came with Jim and I to the Berkshire in the early 1990s, when she could still not command a mass crowd: it was a small venue for people sat at tables eating and drinking (in Annandale) and her personal style, seeming unassuming friendliness went over very well. But we also went once to Wolf Trap, and she filled the Filene Center — that must’ve been not far off from summer 2000. She was a big hit in Ireland and often sang with the Chieftains — this Irish group is a real favorite of mine. I love listening to Irish and Scots music.

My friend, Nick Hay, wrote on Twitter: “She always said either ‘I will always believe’ or ‘I still believe’ which was I always found intensely moving. So I still and will always believe Nanci.” I agree with him that it is vital not to forget her political commitment which is summed up in “It’s a Hard Life:”

Ellen who grieves for the loss of her very much

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Dahlia Ravikovitch 1997 photograph (1936-2005)

A tweet I read tonight on twitter: “Tonight I put the kids to sleep in our bedroom. So that when we die, we die together and no one would live to mourn the loss of one another” Eman Basher @sometimes Pooh.” This reminded me of what I was told of a cousin of my mother’s in WW2. She chose to accompany her 6 children into the gas chamber rather than let them die alone.

Dear readers and friends,

This is an unusual foremother poet blog for me: most of the time I do not choose a woman poet because of the immediate political relevancy of her work; here in this time of another slaughter of Palestinians, yet more destruction of the open air prison they are forced to endure existence in, and the apparent indifference of all those in charge of gov’ts with the power to stop this shameless horror, I put forward Dahlia Ravikovitch’s poetry where she as a native-born Israeli, Hebrew-speaking and writing, eloquently cried out against what the Israeli gov’t (and the people who voted it in) inflict on a people whose country they seized by war (1948, 1967). Unless otherwise noted all the poems are translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld:

In this poem Ravikovitch identifies as an Israeli woman watching as a young female Arab is about to be destroyed

Hovering at a low altitude

I am not here.
I am on those craggy eastern hills
streaked with ice
where grass doesn’t grow
and a sweeping shadow overruns the slope.
A little shepherd girl
with a herd of goats,
black goats,
emerges suddenly
from an unseen tent.
She won’t live out the day, that girl,
in the pasture.

I am not here.
Inside the gaping mouth of the mountain
a red globe flares,
not yet a sun.
A lesion of frost, flushed and sickly,
revolves in that maw.

And the little one rose so early
to go to the pasture.
She doesn’t walk with neck outstretched
and wanton glances.
She doesn’t paint her eyes with kohl.
She doesn’t ask, Whence cometh my help.

I am not here.
I’ve been in the mountains many days now.
The light will not scorch me. The frost cannot touch me.
Nothing can amaze me now.
I’ve seen worse things in my life.

I tuck my dress tight around my legs and hover
very close to the ground.
What ever was she thinking, that girl?
Wild to look at, unwashed.
For a moment she crouches down.
Her cheeks soft silk,
frostbite on the back of her hand.
She seems distracted, but no,
in fact she’s alert.
She still has a few hours left.
But that’s hardly the object of my meditations.
My thoughts, soft as down, cushion me comfortably.
I’ve found a very simple method,
not so much as a foot-breadth on land
and not flying, either—
hovering at a low altitude.

But as day tends toward noon,
many hours
after sunrise,
that man makes his way up the mountain.
He looks innocent enough.
The girl is right there, near him,
not another soul around.
And if she runs for cover, or cries out—
there’s no place to hide in the mountains.

I am not here.
I’m above those savage mountain ranges
in the farthest reaches of the East.
No need to elaborate.
With a single hurling thrust one can hover
and whirl about with the speed of the wind.
Can make a getaway and persuade myself:
I haven’t seen a thing.
And the little one, her eyes start from their sockets,
her palate is dry as a potsherd,
when a hard hand grasps her hair, gripping her
without a shred of pity.

This one makes explicit the aim of the Israeli gov’t and settler colonialist “ethnic cleansers”

Get out of Beirut

Take the knapsacks,
the clay jugs, the washtubs,
the Korans,
the battle fatigues,
the bravado, the broken soul,
and what’s left in the street, a little bread or meat,
and kids running around like chickens in the heat.
How many children do you have?
How many children did you have?
It’s hard to keep the children safe in times like these.
Not the way it used to be in the old country,
in the shade of the mosque, under the fig tree,
where you’d get the kids out of the house in the morning
and tuck them into bed at night.
Whatever’s not fragile, gather up in those sacks:
clothing, bedding, blankets, diapers,
some memento, perhaps,
a shiny artillery shell,
or a tool that has practical value,
and the babies with pus in their eyes
and the RPG kids.
We’d love to see you afloat in the water with no place to go
no port and no shore.
You won’t be welcome anywhere.
You’re human beings who were thrown out the door,
you’re people who don’t count anymore.
You’re human beings that nobody needs.
You’re a bunch of lice
crawling about
that pester and bite

If you are still reading, two more:

A Mother Walks Around

A mother walks around with a child dead in her belly.
This child hasn’t been born yet.
When his time is up the dead child will be born
head first, then trunk and buttocks
and he won’t wave his arms about or cry his first cry
and they won’t slap his bottom
won’t put drops in his eyes
won’t swaddle him
after washing the body.
He will not resemble a living child.
His mother will not be calm and proud after giving birth
and she won’t be troubled about his future,
won’t worry how in the world to support him
and does she have enough milk
and does she have enough clothing
and how will she ever fit one more cradle into the room.
The child is a perfect izadil« already,
unmade ere he was ever made.
And he’ll have his own little grave at the edge of the cemetery
and a little memorial day
and there won’t be much to remember him by.
These are the chronicles of the child
who was killed in his mother’s belly
in the month of January, in the year 1988,
“under circumstances relating to state security.”

The Story of the Arab who died in the Fire

When the fire grabbed his body, it didn’t happen by degrees.
There was no burst of heat before,
or giant wave of smothering smoke
and the feeling of a spare room one wants to escape to.
The fire held him at once
—there are no metaphors for this—
it peeled off his clothes
cleaved to his flesh.
The skin nerves were the first to be touched.
The hair was consumed.
“God! They are burning!” he shouted.
And that is all he could do in self-defense.
The flesh was already burning between the shack’s boards
that fed the fire in the first stage.
There was already no consciousness in him.
The fire burning his flesh
numbed his sense of future
and the memories of his family
and he had no more ties to his childhood
and he didn’t ask for revenge, salvation,
or to see the dawn of the next day.
He just wanted to stop burning.
But his body supported the conflagration
and he was as if bound and fettered,
and of that too he did not think.
And he continued to burn by the power of his body
made of hair and wax and tendons.
And he burned a long time.
And from his throat inhuman voices issued
for many of his human functions had already ceased,
except for the pain the nerves transmitted
in electric impulses
to the pain center in the brain,
and that didn’t last longer than a day.
And it was good that his soul was freed that day
because he deserved to rest.
— Translated from the original Hebrew by Karen Alkalay-Gut

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To be accurate, Dahlia Ravikovitch’s oeuvre as a whole is not dominated by poems of protest on behalf of the Palestinian people or other groups the Israelis or their allies have decided to “take out.” While she appears to have been a peace activist, and sincere political humanist from the outset of her career, much of her earlier poetry is written in styles and imitation of Biblical and archaic verse; for a secular poet and independent woman (married twice, with her son born from a lover she did not marry), her allusions and content are (to me) jarringly from patriarchal sources: her mother had been a graduate of a religious teachers college who went on to train as a teacher of Jewish studies, and Dahlia herself became a a student immersed in Hebrew, Biblical, and Jewish studies. She also wrote prototypical “women’s verse” at first (fantasy, presenting herself as overwhelmed by the world) and only gradually does feminist verse emerge. While courageously outspoken against all the forced evacuations, land and house confiscation, abuse of Arab women and children in ordinary discourse and the groups of people she demonstrated and worked with, her earlier targets were the abuse of language, power and powerlessness itself.

For myself I find her poetry direct, forceful, but, except for the personal autobiographical poems, curiously detached from modern reality until half way through her oeuvre. My feeling is it was over time that she became passionately horrified by what she saw the state she lived in did to non-Jews living on the land mass it controlled. It was as she grew older she grew angry at the norms many women obeyed. Perhaps it was after she lost custody of her son (1989, a great grief for her), that she began her moving poetry about mothers.

She was born in 1936, the daughter of a Russian born engineer who emigrated from Russia to Palestine via China. When she was six, her father was run over by a drunken Greek soldier in the British army; one of her early successful (and a characteristic) poems registers the trauma she felt when two years later her mother first told her that her father was dead:

On the Road at Night there stands the man

On the road at night there stands the man
Who once upon a time was my father
And I must go down to the place where he stands
Because I was his firstborn daughter.

Night after night he stands alone in his place
And I must go down and stand in that place.
And I wanted to ask him: Till when must I go.
And I knew as I asked: I must always go.

In the place where he stands, there is a trace of danger
Like the day he walked that road and a car ran him over.
And that’s how I knew him and marked him to remember:
This very man was once my father

The use of repetition, the simple stanzas, rhymes, monosyllables, and plain blunt sarcasm are central to her most memorable shorter lyrics and feminist poetry, as in

Clockwork Doll

I was a clockwork doll, but then
That night I turned left, right, round and around
And fell on my face, cracked on the ground,
And skillful hands tried to piece me together again.

Then once more I was a proper doll
And all my manner was demure and polite.
But I became damaged goods that night,
A fractured twig with only tendrils to prevent a fall.

And then I went invited to dance at the ball
But they cast me me with the writhing dogs and cats
Though all my steps were measured and true.

And my hair was golden, and my eyes were blue
And I had a dress printed in garden flower sprawl,
And a trim of cherries tacked to my straw hat.

She must have been a difficult (as the common adjective used) child from the first. Her mother took her and her siblings to live on a kibbutz after the father died, but at age 13 unable to cope with the collectivist conformist atmosphere of such a place, Dahlia left and moved from foster family to foster family. She was lucky to meet and be mentored by a literature teacher in high school Baruch Kurzweil who praised the way she blended archaic and contemporary modes; with high grades (a story of an intelligent reading girl) and the encouragement of Avraham Shlonsky, the leading poet of the pre-State Hebrew Moderna, and Leah Goldberg, a major woman poet of the time, her verse was published when she was 18; she went to Hebrew University in Jerusalem, was awarded a scholarship for Hebrew studies at Oxford.

For a woman whose work received so many prizes over the years, she did not do well (I am not surprised) in the academic or publishing marketplace when it comes to positions or jobs, and at the end of her life she was living in what is described as “a modest apartment in Tel Aviv, near the Mediterranean, barely ekeing out a living” as a journalist, TV & theater critic, high school teacher, writer of popular lyrics. She translated into Hebrew poems by Yeats, T. S. Eliot, Poe and others, as well as children’s classics, such as Mary Poppins. She is said to have suffered from severe depressions; when she was found dead in her apartment, it was at first assumed she killed herself.

Medically speaking it was determined she died of heart irregularities (“sudden death”) but surely her serious emotional breakdowns, lack of a secure family life, peripetatic lifestyle, several relationships, and underlying moods in her poetry (justifiable anger, bitterness, anguish and just strong passion for whatever she is feeling) and poverty (which she is said to have worried about) helped bring on a relatively early death. Not that she was spiritually alone or neglected; she collaborated with other poets, musicians, and respected public figures seeking peace, justice, and equality for all in Israel.

If the interested reader wants to know more, I list in the comments a couple of websites beyond 5 more blogs (by me), and a few reviews of Szobel’s book. For this blog I read Hovering at a Low Altitude: The Collected Poems of Dahlia Ravikovitch, translated by Chana Bloch and Chana Kronfeld (where most of the poems here come from) and A Poetics of Trauma by Ilana Szobel. I find Szobel’s psychoanalytic and close reading approach to Ravikovitch’s poetry to be illuminating, useful — she will help the reader appreciate Ravokovitch’s poetry in all its layering. See The Poetry Foundation, Jewish Women’s Archive, an obituary from The Guardian.

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


From a series by Martha Rosler: House Beautiful: Bringing the War Home

So here are a few of the poems I find most successful and appealing. This first one is said to have been a favorite with her; and is often reprinte

Dress of Fire (The Dress)

You know, she said, they made you
a dress of fire.
Remember how Jason’s wife burned in her dress?
It was Medea, she said, Medea did that to her.
You’ve got to be careful, she said,
they made you a dress that glows
like an ember, that burns like coals.

Are you going to wear it, she said, don’t wear it.
It’s not the wind whistling, it’s the poison
seeping in.
You’re not even a princess, what can you do to Medea?
Can’t you tell one sound from another, she said,
it’s not the wind whistling.

Remember, I told her, that time when I was six?
They shampooed my hair and I went out into the street.
The smell o shampoo trailed after me like a cloud.
Then I got sick from the wind and the rain.
I didn’t know a thing about reading Greek tragedies,
but the smell of the perfume spread
and I was very sick.
Now I can see it’s an unnatural perfume.

What will happen to you now, she said,
they made you a burning dress.
They made me a burning dress, I said. I know.
So why are you standing there, she said,
you’ve got to be careful.
You know what a burning dress is, don’t you?

I know, I said, but I don’t know
how to be careful.
The smell of that perfume confuses me.
I said to her, No one has to agree with me,
I don’t believe in Greek tragedies.

But the dress, she said, the dress is on fire.
What are you saying, I shouted,
what are you saying?
I’m not wearing a dress at all,
what’s burning is me.
— translated by Chana Bloch and Ariel Bloch

She can express sheer sensual delight and pleasure; here is sonnet using the same devices of repetition and simple words and natural imagery:

Delight

There did I know a delight beyond all delight,
And it came to pass upon the Sabbath day
As tree boughs reached for the sky with all their might.
Round and round like a river streamed the light,
And the wheel of the eye craved the sunwheel that day
Then did I know a delight beyond all delight.
The heads of the bushes blazed, insatiable bright
Sunlight striking the waves, igniting the spray.

It would swallow my head like a golden orange, that light.
Water lilies were gaping their yellow bright
Mouths to swallow the ripples and reeds in their way.
And indeed it came to pass on the Sabbath day
As tree boughs lusted for the sky with all their might,
And then did I know a delight beyond all delight.

There is a series of poems where she expresses raw feelings as a woman involved with men who don’t treat her that well and whom she herself accepts because there is nothing better to calm herself with. I’d reprint “Cinderella in the Kitchen” but it is long so here is a shorter one from this type or series:

At Her Own Pace

A woman is holding a small photo.
She is no longer in her prime.
Travels a lot. Airplane. Suitcase.
For months on end, she stays
with relatives of hers.
“At your pace I couldn’t,” she says.
An introverted woman,
gentle in her ways.
People give in to her. She gives in too.
She’s on the move again. Airplane. Suitcase.
Nothing was set in advance.
The phone rang. She was flooded with a joy
that could tear the heavens open. He’s a man who’s not hers
in the full sense of the word.
She walks from room to room alone. An endless calm.
In the innermost circle of her being, she’s torn to pieces.
On the outside she’s calm. Doesn’t really seek
to take possession.
A small passport photo in her hand.
He’s wearing a tie. A featureless face,
I would say. For her he’s really
the world entire.
Apart from that, outside the innermost circle
she’s calm and recoiling
at her own pace.

Her poems on mothering are intertwined with her protests against brutal war — she saw mothering in war zones:

The quieter intense lasting grief of loss (this also includes typical sarcasm):

What a Time She Had!

How did that story go?
As a rule she wouldn’t have remembered so quickly.
In that soil no vineyard would grow.
A citrus grove stood there,
sickly,
stunted.
The single walnut tree blooming there bore no fruit
as if some essential life-giving element
were lacking in that soil.
Hard green lemons.
A balding patch of lawn.
A great tranquillity.
On the western side, the hedge went wild
and there was a honeysucker, of course
(today we’d call it a sunbird)
-if he were still alive
he’d be twenty years old.
In the valley, the army was hunting down human beings.
Fire in the thicket.
Summer’s hellfire blazing as usual.
Evening mowing down shadows, merciless.

Now she is a mother: On the Attitude towards Children in Times of War

He who destroys thirty babies
it is as if he’d destroyed three hundred babies,
and toddlers too,
or even eight-and-a-half year olds;
in a year, God willing, they’d be soldiers
in the Palestine Liberation Army.

Benighted children,
at their age
they don’t even have a real world view.
And their future is shrouded, too:
refugee shacks, unwashed faces,
sewage flowing in the streets,
infected eyes,
a negative outlook on life.

And thus began the flight from city to village,
from village to burrows in the hills.
As when a man did flee from a lion,
as when he did flee from a bear,
as when he did flee from a cannon,
from an airplane, from our own troops.

He who destroys thirty babies,
it is as if he’d destroyed one thousand and thirty,
or one thousand and seventy,
thousand upon thousand.
And for that alone shall he find
no peace.

Author’s note: This is a variation on a poem by Natan Zach that deals [satirically] with the question of whether there were exaggerations in the number of children reported killed in the [1982] Lebanon War.
Lines 1-2, He who destroys: cf. Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 4:5: “He who destroys a single human soul. . . , it is as if he had destroyed an entire world.”
Lines 16-17, As when a man: Amos 5:19, about the danger of apocalyptic yearnings.

This is the concluding poem in the volume translated by Boch and Kronfeld:

The Fruit of the Land

You asked if we’ve got enough cannons.
They laughed and said: More than enough
and we’ve got new improved antitank missiles
and bunker busters to penetrate
double-slab reinforced concrete
and we’ve got crates of napalm and crates of explosives,
unlimited quantities, cornucopias,
a feast for the soul, like some finely seasoned delicacy
and above all, that secret weapon,
the one we don’t talk about.
Calm down, man,
the intel officer and the CO
and the border police chief
who’s also a colonel in that hush-hush commando unit
are all primed for the order: Go!
and everything’s shined up like the skin of a snake
and we’ve got chocolate wafers on every base
and grape juice and Tempo soda
and that’s why we won’t give in to terror
we will not fold in the face of violence
we’ll never fold no matter what
‘cause our billy clubs are nice and hard.
God, who has chosen us from all the nations,
comforteth with apples
the fighting arm of the IDF
and the iron boxes and the crates of fresh explosives
and we’ve got cluster bombs too,
though of course that’s off the record.
Serve us bourekas and cake, O woman of the house,
for we were slaves in the land of Egypt
but never again,
and blot out the remembrance of Amalek
if you track him down,
and if you seek him without success
Blessed be the tiny match
that a soldier in some crack unit will suddenly strike
and set off the whole bloody mess

From Bloch and Kronfeld’s notes: “The Fruit of the Land” (Hebrew, zimrat ha-arets), zimra means singing; in biblical Hebrew it can also mean “produce, bounty”. Block and Kronfield capture the macho voice of the defense types we constantly hear in the media rhapsodizing about Israel’s superior firepower. But nowadays they wouldn’t acknowledge they have “more than enough” and would have answered the opening question – ” You asked if we’ve got enough cannons” – with a demand for more funds for the military. There is much allusion to the Bible.

Central to the poem is the reality that things do not have to be this way. Armaments ever worse do not have to be the fruit of the earth

I pull out separately this rare more cheerful poem: New Zealand is a colony which succeeded: not all countries founded by colonizer end in cruelty, brutality, hatred; we see in this poem her early Biblical allusions, her use of repetition, her personal voice, the irony and sarcasm, and a late turn to acceptance.

Two Isles Hath New Zealand

Africa’s not the place to go right now.
Plagues, famine — the human body can’t bear it.
Brutality. They flog human beings with bull-whips.
Asia — it would make your hair stand on end.
Trapped in the mountains, trapped in the swamps.
The human body can’t bear it,
There are limits to the life force, after all.

As for me,
He shall make me lie down in green pastures
in New Zealand.

Over there, sheep with soft wool,
the softest of wools,
graze in the meadow.
Truehearted folk herd their flocks,
on Sundays they pay a visit to church
dressed in sedate attire.

No point hiding it any longer:
We’re an experiment that went awry,
a plan that misfired,
tied up with too much murderousness.
Why should I care about this camp or that,
screaming till their throats are raw,
spitting fine hairs.
In any case, too much murderousness.
To Africa I’m not going
and not to Asia, either.
I’m not going any place.

In New Zealand
in green pastures, beside the still waters,
kindhearted folk
will share their bread with me.

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Al-shifa Hospital, 2014

Which other women have written powerful political verse, including directly about war successfully (whose work I know)? Charlotte Smith, Anna Barbauld, Simone Weil, Alice Oswald. Who have pictured it? Martha Rosler. Novels and plays and memoirs: Ann Radcliffe (in her Summer Tour), Olivia Manning, Iris Origo, Lillian Hellman, Suzy McKee Charnas, Marta Hiller, Margaret Atwood, Adhaf Soueif

Ellen

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For three days I could find no information on the Persephone Books’ move to Bath. But this fourth day I got a letter from a company representative to say yes, sadly, they are are moving. I had concluded that I fell for an April 1st fools day hoax. No such luck, they have been driven to the smaller city, away from Bloomsbury and the nearby British Library. I include my correspondence with them in the comments


Nicola Beauman (b. 1944) recently

“I like books that tell me how we lived,” says Persephone’s founder Nicola Beauman.“I’m very, very interested in the novel as social history.”

Dear friends and readers,

This is a shorter blog than I’ve been in the habit of writing, more in the nature of an item of news, followed by context suggesting the meaning of the news. I’ve been very frustrated since the YouTube of Nicola Beauman announcing the move of the Persephone bookshop located in Bloomsbury (Lamb’s Conduit Street, near the British Library), London to Bath, which I saw on twitter and was able to trace to a Carol Shields site on Facebook, is not movable — I cannot share it, nor can I link you to it, except as a tweet (on twitter — do click as of this morning the video is still there). I cannot even find the originating story in any of the major online newspapers I read. No wonder; there is no originating story there. The Video says nothing about moving; it is about why and how Beauman started Persephone books and that is is managing to survive during the pandemic though online sales and its reputation among a select loyal group of readers. I was correct to surmize that economics might driving the shop from its present location to this western spa city, only it was quietly announced in a newsletter that goes out to members of the Bookstore and potential customers who subscribe.

Why make this blog. Because the marginalized announcement together with the way the store is tactfully run, and the people are careful to control how it appears and is discussed — is indicative of the continued marginalization of women and their justified apprehension of the way they will be presented. And yet it has been since the beginning of the 20th century and the suffragettes’ presses, and until now, so crucially important that women have their own presses.  As I cannot be sure you will heat the YouTube yourself, I’ll tell you what she says below. I will “flesh out” some of the points she makes with my own experience.  Then add some information on other presses publishing women’s and feminist books.


A photograph from one of the corners of the bookshop

Nicola Beauman started the company in 1998 because she had long loved 20th century women’s books, and finding for decades that most publishers would publish very few books by women of them, especially if they were about mothers centrally, that at long last (like the little red hen) did it herself. She says what is unique to the 20th century is women are still strongly constrained by all sorts of inhibiting conventions and until the 1960s/70s could get good jobs or into professions, were not seen or active widely in public life in general the way they began to be as of the 1980s. Yet they were going to public school up to university, working “outside the home” (“out to work”) in large numbers before World War Two, had the right vote and many rights and liberties that men have. So knowledge, self-esteem, self-confidence were within their purview regularly.

The result is a peculiar angle on life. I have discovered in teaching 20th century political novels by women this term, I just love not only the books I’m teaching, but to read about and some of other 20th century women’s political books.

I’ve twice taught a course I called 19th Century Women of Letters, and once Historical Novels by Women, especially set in the 18th century and dealing with war. I moderate a small modest listserv on groups.io I call WomenWriters.

All other things being equal, I often prefer women’s prose texts and poetry to men’s. They are inwardly much richer by virtue of the aesthetics that often informs them. Why not plays? because until recently almost all stage plays were written from a male angle even when women got a chance to write and to be staged. Women have, it seems to me, broken into screenplays for movies much quicker than for plays — less money, less prestige.


The Carlyles at Home by Thea Holme, a partial view of the cover — see excellent blog

my other Persephone books are Reuben Sachs by Amy Levy, The Making of the Marchioness by Frances Hodgson Burnett, Miss Pettigrow Lives for a Day by Winnifred Watson, Susan Glaspell’s Fidelity, Beauman’s own The Other Elizabeth Taylor, a book of short stories, and a lovely catalogue.

I love that the covers of these books are grey. Virago had a policy of choosing for covers paintings or images by women, or the kind that a woman would not — not a woman as a come-hither-fuck-me sex object. They seem to have given that up and turned to more abstract designs (as has Oxford of late), as if the publishers fear that younger adults today will not be attracted to a picture that depicts the 19th or even 20th century — as too old-fashioned. Grey solves the problem I have had many a time: a book I long to read comes with a soft-core porn image of a woman on its cover.

I am now reading a very good translation of Tolstoy’s Anne Karenina by Richard Pever and Larissa Volokhonsy, in a deluxe Penguin edition. In order to be able to endure the physical object, I put over the image of a woman’s knee which suggested what was up her thigh, a still from Joe Wright’s film adaptation of the novel featuring Keira Knightley looking desperately calm. Sometimes I can’t find an image that fits, so I just have to cut the cover off — weakening and eventually ruining the book. Grey reminds me of the old sets of good book sold in the 1930s and 40s by Left Book Clubs with soft brown or beige covers, sometimes with soft gold or silver lettering.

Beauman says that Persephone has kept up their high standard of choice and their have been sales sufficient to stay in business, even during this pandemic. But they will have more budget to publish and do more of the things they like to. They miss the in-coming customers and occasional events (book launches, talks). IF they had to they could succeed in Bath & spread their wisdom, and splendour there. But after all, they do not. Mockers may find their presence absurd, but I don’t nor their shop.

The New York Times had a spread of pictures and story to commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the press and bookshop: A Bookstore of One’s Own by Sarah Lyall. Over on Twitter, Elaine Showalter tweeted to my comment that I like the shop, love the imprint, prefer to read good books by women most of the time, that I’ve covered wonderful lists, and there “really should be a book about the great feminist presses;” I replied there is a fine book on Virago: Catherine Riley: The Virago Story: Assessing the Impact of a Feminist Publishing Phenomenon. This retells the origins of the press, its struggles to stay true to its mission, good books by women, its morphing into divisions of larger publishers and its stubborn integrity until today, the specific women who have made it what it is. I own too many (cherish most) to enumerate. An essay on the authors favored who resemble Austen can be found in Janeites, ed. Deirdre Lynch: Katie Trumpener, The Virago Jane. But a full scale book would be enourmously helpful in understanding one important strand of feminism today: other presses born around the time of Virago were Spare Rib, Pandora (“Mothers of the Novel” were the older books), Feminist Press of NYC. Anyone coming to this blog who can think of others, please supply the title in the comments.

As for Beauman herself, I’ve read her superb (highly informative) A Very Great Profession: The Woman’s Novel, 1914–39, Virago (London), 1983 (about early and mid-20th century women writers and their books); The Other Elizabeth Taylor, Persephone (London, England), 1993 (did you know Taylor was a communist? and had affairs — you wouldn’t realize this from the surface stories of her books unless you think about them a bit); and Morgan (on EM Forster as seen and realized through his imaginative writings). The first and third have meant a lot to me. I have been to the shop twice, once with a friend I’d never met face-to-face before, knew for years here on the Internet. We had coffee and some kind of cake.

Ellen

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I have listened to Nadia May (Wanda MacCadden is an alternative pseudonym) read aloud Jacob’s Room & find this the most appropriate of all the covers I’ve seen for this book

Friends and readers,

Last Saturday I had the privilege of listening to Alison Hennegan give a talk that took well over an hour on Jacob’s Room for the new Cambridge online (virtual) lecture series on the works of Virginia Woolf. Woolf and her writing is not the only topic Cambridge is developing different streams for: an upcoming one starting in spring is to be about Women Writers.  It includes May Sinclair (Life and Death of Harriet Frean), Sylvia Townsend Warner (Lolly Willowes), Elizabeth Bowen (The House in Paris), Rosamond Lehmann (Dusty Answers), 10 women authors altogether, 10 books; there is to be one on Jane Austen. I gather there are series organized around topics (I attended a separate virtual conference on African Literature this morning), courses, single books, themes. If this one by Prof (I assume) Hennegan is typical of the close reading, and the one on African Literature (about the history of publication in all its phases and angles), I wish I had the time and money to go to many many. A friend told me the sessions on Woolf’s Voyage Out and Night and Day were as stunningly insightful.

It’s my experience when I go to listen to a lecture or am part of a class, if I can take good notes and transcribe them afterwards I understand and remember so much more — of, barring that since I no longer can take down in sten what is said, get a copy of the papers at least, make concrete and centrally coherent some of what I remember, what I learned becomes part of my mental universe. Alas, there will be no copies of papers because they wouldn’t want to share individual ideas without the kind of credit accounting that is given someone when they publish conventionally (the peer-edited journal, the book published by the respected or university press). There was a hand-out sent by attachment, and at first I tried to take notes, but it became too much, and I was losing what she was saying as I struggled to catch up with what she had said. Now that I am aware of what are the obstacles (as it were) and what I should try to do, maybe I’ll somehow take out more in future as I’ve signed up for Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse and closer to the time mean to sign up for some of the women writers and their novels.

Here I want to say that she was offering a way of reading Jacob’s Room which went past or ignored the problem of Woolf’s lack of interest in creating vivid living characters so that the text seems filled with memorable people who carry the meaning of the text, embody its themes, shape the inferences and what we learn from the book. She was moving at the level of utterances. She began with general remarks and the sort of summarizing of general themes one does with any novel discussion. So she said Jacob’s Room was Woolf’s first fully experimental novel. She characterized it as “an elegy to Woolf’s brother, Thoby, dead at 26, an elegy with a ghost of a man at its center; a death-haunted novel, which opens with Betty, Thoby’s mother, writing a letter filled with grief, loss, as she is a recent widow. I know when I wrote of this novel on this blog I emphasized how no-one I had read wrote about the book as a novel with a widow at its center, beginning, carrying on and ending with her. To this Prof Hennegan added that it is filled with vulnerable women, several of whom Jacob has liasions of different kinds but to none of them does he give of himself for real or truly. We are made to pick up the suggestions about their absent presences. The novel is filled with presences who are not quite there.

Prof Hennegan suggested that we might take Jacob’s Room to be a reply to Katherine Mansfield who criticized Night and Day for failing to address the war. Jacob’s Room showed is engendered by and continually aware of this war: we are watching this or these (Jacob’s friends and companions) young men, upper class, being exquisitely prepared, for professions, for leading a nation of peoples, for art, for invention, from academic to social education, from travel to building homes, lives for themselves end simply slaughtered senselessly — insofar as any true interest of their own. She thought one redemptive them is art outlast human life; art is the means by which human life is extended. The theme of education is central; she writes a prose thickly laden with literary allusion. Women in the book are presented as weak, unknowable and ultimately terrifying to men who however have all the power to do things women do not. She thought D.H. Lawrence and E.M. Forster have similar views. (I disagree that Forster presents women this way, but D.H. Lawrence might — to me DHL sees women as objects for men to fuck).

She felt the natural world is strong throughout the novel, that we watch boundaries between phenomena dissolve, everything intertwined, what people feel, do, do think, all dissolve. In my comment to her (which we were encouraged to write in the chat area) I offered the idea that I found in Woolf’s words and all they conjure up (characters, things, events) levels of past suggested, so that we continually find ourselves plunging into older and older eras, and then can leap to the present, that the words also take seriously the tiniest little object or piece of life and perceive it as attached to the largest and just as important and through our apprehension of this as we read the paragraphs we move through time and space sensually — geologic as well as historical, cultural, geographic, geologic. She appeared to like my idea, and I told of how hard it was to make people in a class like Woolf, enjoy her and that I tried to attach this texture of Woolf’s — which I found very emphatic but also tied to characters and stories in Jacob’s Room, The Years and Between the Acts. I had tried to make them see this and appreciate the texture by the students’ strong tendency to read looking for people or events that spoke to them in their lives. But as we talked (this was only a couple of minutes as she went on to the next person’s comment) and she said reading aloud Woolf was the best way to enjoy her, or imaginatively reading aloud slowly, I remembered this summer how well the short fiction had seemed to come across when I read it aloud and really emphasized close reading the utterances for themselves. Just bringing this home to myself made the two hours very worth while.

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Roger Fry, Carpentras, Provence (1930) — I include pictures by Bloomsbury artists, which I find consonant with Woolf’s fiction

In the body of her talk, Prof Hennegan went over various critics’ reactions to Jacob’s Room, and used these as jumping off points occasionally to show how the given critic was looking for something that Woolf did not want to supply, but more often how what they did write was perspicacious. W.J. Courtney thought Woolf unlike any other writer except Dorothy Richardson, in the discernment of nuances of character, “keen discernment of those small, inessential things which go to the making of a life … scores again and again. Her art is “impressionist” and influenced by “jazz”! (“in its tense syncopated movements, its staccato impulsiveness”). Gerald Gould found “beauty,” “lyrical passages — one, in particuar, about crossing Waterloo Bridge in a wind: she can make us feel what she calls ‘the ecstasy and hubbub of the soul'”. He did feel Woolf wrong not to help “the simple-minded reader” to make “connexions” in the fiction “clear.” An anonymous reviewer complains of “no narrative, no design above all, no perspective: [the book’s] dissolving views come before us one by one, each taking the full light for a moment, then vanishing completely.” Vanessa Bell’s cover illustrations were not liked because it did not represent anything seen in the novel. She included all Leonard Woolf’s notes on how many copies were printed by Hogarth Press, after the second impression how many had sold altogether, how much money they made on the book: £42 4s 6d which would today be
£2,402.32

Then 14 passages from the novel were discussed as examples of her techniques, themes, modes — on the ram’s skull; Mr and Mrs Plumer; women in King’s College Chapel; Betty Flanders pondering the nature of her dead husband; the problems of gender, the effect of sex … ; Sopwith entertaining graduates in his room, then years later these men, now mature, remember Sopwith; Jacob’s view of Florinda; an insoluble problem of beauty, in Florinda; the light over King’s Collee Chapel, the Women’s College garden at night; the poignant closing paragraph and sentence of the novel. She repeatedly came back to showing how boundaries of all sorts in the book dissolve away. I shall save these to study — I suppose the method is rather like Matthew Arnold’s “touchstones.”

I suppose I can bring forward here what I wrote elsewhere in this blog on the book when I first finished it:

Jacob’s Room begins as a widow’s story. No where is this mentioned in the literature. Mrs Betty Flanders’ husband died in an accident it feels like years ago, leaving her with three children — one so young it cannot have been that many years. But we are made to feel her husband’s death happened a long while ago to her. She is in Cornwall for the holidays and writing a Captain friend, Barfoot (he’s married so safe) in Scarborough. There is a painter about whom Woolf writes in similar ways to what she says of Lily Briscoe, color, and lonely people who don’t fit in: Mr Steele. On the beach, a little later Mrs Flanders hears the waves, the ship — her husband died of an accident at sea. We are told he left her impoverished, but Woolf’s idea of poverty is different from some of us it seems. She has a nanny, doesn’t cook her own supper, doesn’t have to work for money. But she is at a great loss with these boy children, hanging from her….

Woolf continually moves from inward presence to inward presence and by so doing uncovers a real feeling of living life which includes sex bought from prostitutes by our hero. Many of the presences come from utterly different classes in different areas of life. We also experiencing Jacob in a large variety of social worlds and deeds. Suddenly too the narrator will go into deep dream time on the place where the narrative has settled and allude way back in time so it becomes a movement through centuries, deep history embedded in people today One aristocratic lady likes such-and-such food because her ancestors have been enjoying it since their death, this partial recreation. The novel of manners or social life is left far behind.

Jacob’s Room is as de-centered as un-heroic as Roger Fry (her biography) as de-centered as The Waves, Between the Acts. While we can believe in Jacob, he is just a center knob in a wheel where all the spokes — all the many living presences and places come out of. I just love how he loves and thinks in terms of the Greek classics. This morning I listened to how Woolf manages to bring in tandem a sense of a desperately homeless (near) prostitute trying to get into the house where Jacob lives and other street people and the people at a party he went to — when he came home he thought how delightful to be with 10 new people (themselves beautifully captured), and we find a long reverie on the books at the British library, all by men, Jacob is spending his evening’s reading.

3/4’s through I began to worry about Jacob. I’ve read somewhere that he dies at the end — perhaps that’s why people say (carelessly) this book is about her brother. Jacob is the central node of the book, but it is in space equally about many people whom he comes across and spends time with. Especially women who are vulnerable. I am so touched with those women Jacob goes to bed with — this is indicated discreetly. They are the models paid to strip naked by his friends or at the Slade: ignorant, even dumb, without a chance in the world for respect or security or comfort. Prostitutes. His mother, the widow, whom the book opened with hardly goes any where in her life, hardly meets anyone outside her narrow class sphere and local area.

By near the end of the book Jacob has fallen in love with a married woman he meets while touring, but he has not connected deeply with anyone (not her either). He is not married. It’s hinted people think he’s homosexual and he writes to a male friend Bonamy. I can’t see any other ending but death. Probably in World War One. The book takes place just earlier. At the end of The Voyage Out Rachel dies. In the middle of To the Lighthouse Mrs Ramsay dies, and in the last third we are told of three other deaths of characters who meant something. I wonder if anyone has written about this urge to death in Woolf’s novels — probably, this one seems the saddest of all. We cherish this character as we are told his close friends do. Others say he is the best person they ever met. He never hurts anyone. He has truly intelligent (sceptical) attitudes towards politics. Acts with compassion and courtesy. The book is about life itself as a stream of feeling; she feels equally intense over say a crab or some other creature endlessly trying to say jump over something and it cannot.

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Carrington, The Baroque Harmony in the ice off the Labrador Coast, Tinsel in Glass (1929) =- part of the strange beauties in The Voyage Out are Woolf’s descriptions of the South American land- and seascapes our characters encounter

I wish Cambridge would put online the lectures on The Voyage Out and Night and Day that I missed. Since I can find nothing on Prof Hennegan’s lecture on Night and Day that seems to me interesting, let me say briefly it is much better until the very end (when there is a jejeune depiction of a love proposal and courtship so hot-house, idealized, naive, I was embarrassed by it), with some of the most interesting parts, the Mary Datchett story (a spinster who loves the hero and is carving out a life for herself dedicated to liberal political causes), Ralph Denham’s character and world (modelled on Leonard Woolf), and the meditations (in effect) on the problems of writing biography (the heroine, Katherine Hilbury is said to be helping her mother write a biography of her father, now dead, once a super-respected poet. I am very much looking forward to the the lectures I’ll go to on Mrs Dalloway and To the Lighthouse.

Ellen

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