Tuesday, April 22, 2014

reading Russ: The early poetry (1954-1957)

reading Russ table of contents

I am not, perhaps, the best person to discuss Joanna Russ's early poems. My knowledge of and ability to write about poetry are limited at best, and certainly I am not competent to talk about these works in the context of their time and place, as I have next to no idea of what that context was. What poetry were people writing and reading in America's mid-1950s? I know there were the beats; I think Black Mountain and Denise Levertov's move to the United States were about this time; but that's about it, and at any rate would the teenage Russ have been familiar with this work? I don't really know. But context or no, I've read these poems, out of a general interest in Russ-the-writer, and I'd like to talk about them.

When I speak of the "early poems," I'm referring to a body of work consisting, to the best of my knowledge, only of fifteen short poems published between 1954 and 1957 (when Russ was between the ages of 17 and 20) — twelve in the student-run Cornell Writer and three in Cornell's more official literary journal Epoch.* I have these poems, thanks to the intrepid ILL efforts of a certain lezbrarian without whom I shudder to think, on a number of photocopied sheets stapled together. Some of these pages — all from The Cornell Writer — include other poems from some of Russ's classmates, none of whose names are familiar to me (no surprise Thomas Pynchon juvenilia, say, though he did work on the journal for part of the time Russ was at Cornell and might well have some work elsewhere in it), and judging from these her poetry was largely of a piece with that of her cohort. It's mainly free verse tending to the formally conservative, with self-consciously elevated and historical (if not pretentious) vocabulary and imagery; in all one gets much more of a sense of "I want to be a poet" than of poetry actually occurring in these pages. Which is, of course, fine; I hate to think what anyone might make of anything I wrote between 17 and 20, and I can hardly claim to have reached the level Russ would attain even just a few years later!

*I know there are a few other poems from this period theoretically available, but I have limited myself to published works for this read-through (not that I wouldn't be interested in reading unpublished works! — but travel to archives is not, alas, always feasible). Several of her later works could also be considered poems — "It's Important to Believe" and "A Short and Happy Life" come to mind — but these are so far as I know the last of her readily recognizable verse poems.

Brit Mandelo, in the only study of these poems that I know to exist, points out that "[t]heir significance as poetry is tied inextricably to their significance as early works of a major writer." This is true, but I must say that at least at this early stage of my familiarity with these poems I do not see the bulk of them as being particularly significant even in these terms. Stilted poems like 1954's "Autumn" — as uninspired a bit of seasonal description as any wannabe poet ever wrote — are perhaps mildly interesting in the sense that it can be heartening to see that even the best writers have also written awkward trivialities, but for me, at least so far, they provide essentially no insight into those of Russ's works that matter.

However! I agree with Mandelo that a small handful of these poems show the young Russ to be a writer with something going on; indeed there are some moments here that I think rise above specialist-only interest. Surprisingly, one of these is the first — to my knowledge the very first work Russ ever published anywhere: 1954's "Some Day Again." After a somewhat embarrassing excited-to-be-at-college opening ("this ivied corner"), the first stanza deals nicely with an imagined reappearance of Saint Francis in the modern world. He, "Perhaps some day again,"

Trembling with wings and bright eyes,
Will walk into the sunlight and the gray stone
Bearing silently the silent wound of hard beaks on calloused hands,
Bearing corn in his saint's hands, corn and a slower time.
The language here interests me, particularly the "Bearing silently the silent wound," with its interplay of different but overlapping silences (which then feeds into the further interplay created by the repetition in slightly different contexts of the words "bearing" and "hands"). And the portrayal of Francis as sort of uncomfortable and frightening — wounded by his birds, his being surrounded by them not idyllic but strange, "trembling" — is intriguing. I admit I don't actually know enough about the saint to judge whether he's being deployed to any meaningful advantage here, but the difference between the sort of vaguely soft and nice received image of him I usually have and the much more worrisome picture called up here reminds me, perhaps idiosyncratically, of Buffy Sainte-Marie's astonishing "Mary," in which the listener is made by both word and sound to consider not the joy or the tranquility but the terror that also comes with knowing that one must become the mother of God.

The second stanza shifts to a consideration of what Mandelo describes as "the dangers of the well-lit empty rooms of a home," while the third and last stanza, which even visually is startlingly brief in comparison with the first two, shifts again to speak of the seasonal changes implicit even in a tree dormant in winter. The connection between the stanzas at first seems tenuous at best. Mandelo criticizes the disjunction, but for me it is useful to focus on the last word of the first stanza, "time," to see what, I believe, Russ is going for here. For the entire poem is concerned with time, and not just time as a singular thing but the different kinds of time, and different motions within them. The first stanza begins by bringing the past (Francis) into the present, or more particularly into a hypothetical future ("some day"), and closes with the invocation of "a slower time"; indeed it is the figure of the past that comes "bearing" this slower time, along with corn — which, as I read, suggests that the "slower time" is that cyclical time in which there is not onrushing linear progress but return ("some day again"), the seasonal time in which crops like corn are sown, grown, harvested, and sown again. But then the opening of the second stanza brings into play a second meaning of the phrase "a slower time" — that is, the commonly-held notion of a past time in which life was slower, a time we have lost in exchange for Progress (a time, of course, in which people's lives were more bound up in the other sense I have ascribed to "a slower time"). That stanza in its entirety, coming immediately after the phrase ("bearing...a slower time") that I have singled out as the poem's hinge:

Oh we are wiser now, or know at least
Not to look for witches in the outside wind
Or in the massy midnight under trees
But in a lit and empty room, unshadowed,
Knowing well the heart-land where the Black Sabbath lies.
We are wiser now, perhaps; but what has progress gained us? We may know better where to look for them, but there are still witches (on which more in a moment) — the techno-scientific eradication of shadows has not eradicated the "Black Sabbath" of the heart. But perhaps even progress is not so all-consuming as that ambiguously lamenting "Oh" might suggest — for just as some day again Francis might return, so will the spring:
Still reaches (not quite to the sky
Not quite past a quiet wall)
Willow yellow willow in January,
A premonition of flowers.
Much is going on here, from the way the parenthesis interferes with the completion of the thought begun with "Still reaches" (so that grammatically the willow ends up reaching neither "to" nor "past" anything, but simply reaches; of course as we read all three of these overlap) to the way the word "premonition" casts us back over the entire poem, nearly every line of which resonates with it in one way or another. I am fond too of the way the "not quite"s of the parenthesis seem to be echoed by the poem's (I think deliberate) refusal to conclude with anything, well, conclusive.

To be sure, Russ does not yet seem to know quite what to do with all of this play with time, with the cycle of the seasons and with linear progression — but that she knows, this early on, that it is important to summon these things up is remarkable.

One thing I must remark on, that I so far have obscured by speaking only in the terms set up by the poem itself, is the figure of the witch. Here that figure seems to stand simply for evil, especially in opposition to the Christian goodness of Saint Francis (though of course, just as that goodness is shown in a complex and uncomfortable way, so too is the evil). To begin with, this heavily Christian-moralistic figural system is somewhat surprising coming from a writer with so secular-Jewish a background as Russ's (which makes me suspect that, as good as the poem is in many ways, it comes not so much from a place of artistic need as of received notions of what a poem can be about). More than that, though, it is a reminder that we are here reading work that predates Russ's awareness of and engagement with a feminism capable of reclaiming the witches, interpreting them not as evils (real or imaginary) but as a lineage of wise women whose knowledge and power had to be destroyed to make way for the further entrenchment of patriarchal power that came with the advent of capitalism. Those witches we are too clever to look for in the dark of nature knew things that the young Russ could have benefited from knowing, had there not been such a wholesale destruction of that knowledge.

Interestingly, though Russ did not yet know about the erasure of these traditions and knowledges, she nevertheless seems to feel the lack, as we see in 1955's "To R.L.". (Full disclosure: I don't know who "R.L." is, and I also don't know if I'm supposed to or not.) It begins with what I have not been able to resolve into anything other than a muddle, a sort of canned-"exotic" midcentury colonialist fantasy ("You were a captive prince, an African"), but then, a little before the halfway point, there is a startling moment where either Russ or the poem's speaker identifies herself with an ancient, forgotten (indeed forcibly erased) "evil", and it is in this moment that the poem really begins for me:

I felt like an ice-born saint, not one of heaven's.
One of the devil's, maybe, I never knew.
I have no soul; I never was a Christian.
I had a God once, but they broke off both his horns
And shut him in a tapestry. So he died.
The death of the speaker's god is an interruption in the transmission of the tradition, the ways of knowing that would have enabled the speaker to know her own nature ("I have tried to raise an image of myself/In vain out of the cloudy, northern sky.") — and yet, in the face of impossibility, the speaker nevertheless declares herself to be something, even if only "something": "I am something left from a much earlier time./I am one of earth's saints."

But even if we don't stop to wonder if the earth can have saints at all and what this might mean, this declaration is not so solid as it may seem — for at the word "earth" the poem immediately pivots again, mid-line: "I am one of earth's saints. The earth is running down/But it never ends; the universe unreels/Forever...". The speaker had a past, but that past died in the permanence of a tapestry; she thought to forge an identity out of the earth, but the earth, though it never ends, has no permanence and so no future: these are the two sides of a tragic paradox. As with "Some Day Again," there is a sense of the poem pulling past and future around itself in the present, but this time the history is not one of life but of death, the premonitions not of flowers but of ice — a sort of romantic stand-in for the heat death, prefiguring the more ironically bathetic-but-sublime deployment of similar images at the climax of the soon-to-come "Nor Custom Stale," the story that marks the real beginning of the Russ we know. The poem ends:

Each flake will be a century of time
And time will slide beneath our feet like snow
And still we ride and still the snow comes down
And still we never reach the line of trees,
The pine-tree woods where nothing living stirs.
Now is left us only what there was
And the world is running down. The snowflakes fall
Slower and slower in frozen time. So we.
And speaking of prefiguring Russ's entry into sf proper, the last of the poems that I find merits serious consideration on its own terms (though it again suffers from the immaturity of its writer), 1957's "The Queen at Ur," wouldn't be at all out of place in a current edition of, say, Strange Horizons, or any of the other poetry-oriented sf magazines. For better or worse, I should add — because when I say it would not be out of place, I mean that it really would fit right in; for me, in my admittedly limited exposure to it, there is a great deal of sameness to contemporary sf poetry, and "The Queen at Ur" feels just like it in everything from its sometimes dime-a-dozen lyrical loveliness-and-melancholy to its body-as-universe images. I don't mean to be entirely negative. I am interested in this poem — I largely agree with what Mandelo writes about it toward the end of her study, and have little to add to that, except to say that I find the poem much less extraordinary than she evidently does.

But at any rate this is full-fledged sf ("I feel with fleshless hands the rigid pattern/Of stars, order, law"), and in its unexpectedly sharp (or blunt?) last lines even seems to point to some of the uses the mature Russ would find for sf.

She speaks:
Daughter, train your soul for the gracious amenities
That come finally with death. Emulate my corpse.

The rest of the poetry is, or at least thus far strikes me as, fairly trivial,* though there are intermittent moments of interest. The poem beginning "Beautiful naked bodies walk across", after its, ahem, unconvincing adolescent-fantasy eroticizing of the men of ancient poetry (much more believable when Pier Paolo Pasolini does it early on in his "The Religion of My Time") moves quickly to a genuinely disquieting finish — all the more disquieting because it is so inconclusive — with a distinctly unappealing Pan (or satyr?), "half in rut," nervously crying "Madam!...Madam!" in his "rusty squeak." "Death and the Gentleman," one of Mandelo's favorites but not one of mine, is at times quite effectively funny in its way ("When I am dust — /More's the pity — /The worms that eat me/Will all turn witty."). "The School Teacher's Daughter Speaks", with its closing scene of (what on the surface reads as) explicitly homoerotic male beauty (much more convincing here!), is reminiscent-in-advance (preminiscent?) of Russ's much later non-fiction writing on a similar subject, in her classic essay on K/S. And the last two poems, "Family Snapshot — Botanical Gardens" and "A la mode" (published together in a 1957 Epoch) are a major departure from the other poems, freer and more formally odd, if still not too unusual; they strike me as semi-successful attempts at the kind of dark levity now associated with Sylvia Plath, pointing at the horror in the quotidian with fractured humor (they're either that or they just completely miss me).

*I always feel the need to make this sort of disclaimer when writing about those of Russ's works I don't care for, as she like no other sf writer I know resists the reader's easy grasp. Are these poems trivial or do I just not know how to read them? In this specific case the first possibility seems the more likely, but better perhaps to play it safe.

These flashes aside, though, the rest of the early poetry for the most part is a collection of awkward juvenilia, hardly even illuminating when considered as the early work of a great writer. Even the three poems I have singled out as worth more consideration, despite what I would insist are their intrinsic strengths and interest, are far from major works. As I mentioned before, this is not at all unexpected; there are not many people whose teenage writings would stand much scrutiny — not everyone can be a Rimbaud, and I doubt we'd want it that way. What is startling, though, is to realize that only two years (and no published writings) separate the publication of the last of these poems and the first of Russ's main body of work, the aforementioned "Nor Custom Stale," which is a fully-realized, mature work. To be sure, there are three short prose works I have yet to read that were published during the same period as the poetry (also in The Cornell Writer), and perhaps I'll find a clearer preparation there for the leap into "Nor Custom Stale," but it is nevertheless remarkable to read these tentative, bumbling efforts, and know that it is not long at all before something entirely different will emerge.


Justin Wade said...

Liked it,

I have a different take on the passage with the witch. (And I can take or leave everything but that passage).

I think that section is dripping with irony.

The key is heart-land. We know not to look out at the literal land for witches, the outside wind, massy midnight under trees and evil witches only exist in the heart-lands of man.

I think the irony is that of course, we still don't know this any better now than then. Projection.


Chuckie Kautsky said...

For the record, Pynchon;s story "The Small Rain" - First published in March, 1959 in the Cornell Writer, No. 2, pp. 14–32.
So a bit later.