December 3, 2008

Djuna Barnes

Djuna Chappell Barnes [USA]

Born in Cornwall-on-Hudson, Djuna Barnes grew up in a house in which her free-thinking father, lived with his mistress on one floor and Barnes’s mother—a English-born violinist—lived on the other. Barnes was raised mostly by her mother and grandmother, who had been a suffragist and friend of Oscar Wilde. Barnes and her four brothers were educated at home, but were encouraged by both father and mother to experiment in all the arts, lessons Barnes would take to heart, as she continued throughout her life to paint and write works of drama, fiction, and poetry.

In 1911 Barnes studied at the Pratt Institute in Brooklyn, also briefly attending the Art Students League. Upon the divorce of her parents, she began working as a journalist and freelance illustrator, writing first for the Brooklyn Eagle (in 1913) and then, with the help of Carl Van Vechten, writing regular interviews for the New York Press. Her earliest poetry was published in Harper’s Weekly in 1911, and throughout the second decade of the 20th century, she contributed regular works of fiction, essays, drama, and poetry to the New York Morning Telegraph.

In 1915 Greenwich Village publisher Guido Bruno printed her collection of poems and drawings The Book of Repulsive Women, scandalous in its day for its open discussion of sexuality and suicide. Although these poems were written in rhymed meters, their radical imagery and subject matter make them highly experimental, particularly when put into the context of poets such as Robert Frost, Edgar Lee Masters, and Edwin Arlington Robinson. In 1920, Barnes left for Paris and spent most of the next twenty years as an expatriate.

By the late 1920s Barnes had written several plays, performed by the Provincetown Players, and had begun writing for the New York Sun on theater and various other subjects. In 1923 Boni and Liveright published a collection of her stories and poetry in A Book, which was reprinted in 1929 as A Night Among the Horses. 1928 saw the publication, in Paris, of her lesbian work, Ladies Almanack, and the same year Horace Liveright published in New York her picaresque fiction, Ryder.

In Barnes lived in Paris with artist Thelma Wood, but their relationship, recounted her Barnes’s great fiction, Nightwood, was an extremely difficult one, and Barnes, having begun to drink heavily in New York, became an even heavier drinker in Paris. Kay Boyle describes Barnes as arriving early each morning to begin drinking late into the night. Throughout the late 1920s and early 1930s Barnes published very little new work as she focused on her anatomy, the masterpiece, Nightwood, which was published to great critical acclaim in 1936 in London, and in 1937 in New York.

The only major work following Nightwood as the highly artificial, but brilliantly poetic play The Antiphon, published in 1958 and performed in Stockholm, in a translation by U.N. Secretary-General Dag Hammarskjöld. In 1962, Barnes revised many of the stories that she had published in earlier collections, and published a new collection of short fiction, Spillway. The last years of her life were devoted to writing poetry.

After her death, Sun & Moon Press published several of her previously unpublished interviews, essays, and stories in several volumes, including Smoke and Other Early Stories, Interviews, Djuna Barnes’s New York, and The Collected Stories of Djuna Barnes. Sun & Moon also brought together a volume of her drawings, Poe’s Mother.


The Book of Repulsive Women: 8 Rhythms and 5 Drawings (New York: Guido Bruno, 1915/New York: Alicat Bookshops Press, 1948/ Los Angeles: Sun & Moon Press, 1994; reprinted by Los Angeles: Green Integer ON NET, 2012); A Book [poems and stories] (New York: Boni and Liveright, 1923)/reprinted as A Night Among the Horse [with three additional stories] (New York: Horace Liveright, 1929); The Antiphon (London: Faber & Faber, 1958/New York: Farrar, Straus & Cudahy, 1958/reprinted (Los Angeles: Green Integer, 2000); Collected Poems, With Notes Toward the Memoirs, edited by Phillip Herring and Osías Stutman (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).

From Fifth Avenue Up

Someday beneath some hard
Capricious star—
Spreading its light a little
Over far,
We’ll know you for the woman
That you are.

For though one took you, hurled you
Out of space,
With your legs half strangled
In your lace,
You’d lip the world to madness
On your face.

We’d see your body in the grass
With cool pale eyes.
We’d strain to touch those lang’rous
Length of thighs;
And hear your short sharp modern
Babylonic cries.

It wouldn’t go. We’d feel you
Coil in fear
Leaning across the fertile
Fields to leer
As you urged some bitter secret
Through the ear.

We see your arms grow humid
In the heat;
We see your damp chemise lie
Pulsing in the beat
Of the over-hearts left oozing
At your feet.

See you sagging down with bulging
Hair to sip,
The dappled damp from some vague
Under lip.
Your soft saliva, loosed
With orgy, drip.

Once we’d not have called this
Woman you—
When leaning above your mother’s
Spleen you drew
Your mouth across her breast as
Trick musicians do.

Plunging grandly out to fall
Upon your face.
In grimace.
With your belly bulging stately
Into space.

(from The Book of Repulsive Women, 1915)

Twilight of the Illicit

You, with your long blank udders
And your calms,
Your spotted linen and your
Slack’ning arms.
With satiated fingers dragging
At your palms.

Your keens set far apart like
Heavy spheres;
With discs upon your eyes like
Husks of tears;
And great ghastly loops of gold
Snared in your ears.

Your dying hair hand-beaten
‘Round your head.
Lips, long lengthened by wise words
And in your living all grimaces
Of the dead.

One sees you sitting in the sun
With the sweeter gifts you had
And didn’t keep,
One grieves that the alters of
Your vice lie deep.

You, the twilight powder of
A fire—wet dawn;
You, the massive mother of
Illicit spawn;
While the others shrink in virtue
You have borne.

We’ll see you staring in the sun
A few more years,
With discs upon your eyes like
Husks of tears;
And great ghastly loops of gold
Snared in your ears.

(from The Book of Repulsive Women, 1915)


Corpse A

They brought her in, a shattered small
With a little bruised body like
A startled moon;
And all the subtle symphonies of her
A twilight rune.

Corpse B

They gave her hurried shoves this way
And that.
Her body shock-abbreviated
As a city cat.
She lay out listlessly like some small mug
Of beer gone flat.

(from The Book of Repulsive Women, 1915)

To the Dead Favourite of Liu Ch’e

The sound of rustling silk is stilled,
With solemn dust the court is filled,
No footfalls echo on the floor;
A thousand leaves stop up her door,
Her little golden drink is spilled.

Her painted fan no more shall rise
Before her black barbaric eyes—
The scattered tea goes with the leaves.
And simply crossed her yellow sleeves;
And every day a sunset dies.

Her birds no longer coo and call,
The cherry blossoms fade and fall,
Nor ever does her shadow stir
But stares forever back at her,
And through her runs no sound at all.

And bending low, my falling tears
Drop fast against her little ears,
And yet no sound comes back, and I
Who used to play her tenderly
Have touched her not a thousand years.


Sleeping with the Dogs [a review of Djuna Barnes's Collected Poems; with Notes Toward the Memoirs]
by Douglas Messerli

Djuna Barnes Collected Poems; With Notes Toward the Memoirs, edited by Phillip Herring and Osías Stutman (Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 2005).
Djuna Barnes Nightwood (New York: New Directions, 1936).

Let me begin by saying it’s wonderful to have Barnes’s Collected Poems finally in hand. I immediately must qualify that enthusiasm, however, by admitting that when editor Phillip Herring first proposed such a collection to me years ago, I demurred. Barnes is one of the great authors of the twentieth century, but her poetic talents are best expressed in her fiction and drama; like Joyce, her works described as poems seem oddly conservative, if only because her language has always been closer to the sixteenth and seventeenth century traditions. Her carefully wrought, often rhymed stanzas, accordingly, seem ploddingly old-fashioned when compared with Williams, Stein, Moore, even Cummings—other writers of her own generation. The final poetic works, moreover—writing to which she devoted herself almost exclusively during her last years—were so intensely overworked that it seemed nearly impossible to determine which versions were to have been her final choices. The manuscripts housed at the University of Maryland library were densely written over, words and lines crossed out, associations and sources scribbled throughout the margins, so that any editor would face a near-impossible task in preparing a definitive text. Neither Herring nor Stutman seem to me to possess the understanding of poetry to succeed, and despite their brave attempt, numerous questions about Barnes’s choices in these poems remain unanswered.

The most annoying aspect of the University of Wisconsin’s publication, Collected Poems: With Notes Toward the Memoirs are the editorial comments on her last poetic writings. While I appreciate the editors’ comments on various editorial issues, in which they compare different versions of the poems with the manuscript she had put aside as completed, and their references to sources are often helpful, it is truly a disservice to the poet to comment on or to interpret the poems—sometimes even mocking the poet’s concerns—in passages such as this:

Commentary: DB had her dictionary open to the “sp” section of this poem. She
gives us words such as “spilth,” “spelth,” “splints,” “spiles,” and “spatch.”
One has heard of “audacity” but not “caudacity.” The subject seems to be
a mummified woman, what was found in the grave, and what it all meant.

Certainly any editor might be encouraged to interpret the work at hand, but it seems inappropriate to make such obvious snipes against the poet’s methods and end in what is clearly a dismissal of the writing which most readers are encountering for the very first time.

Often the editors are simply wrong-headed in their assessments of Barnes’s endeavors. At one point, for example, they observe that a poem (“Laughing Lamentations”) “seems to be a collection of images that do not quite cohere.” The poem (which Barnes evidently herself felt was incomplete, and enfolded within another longer poem) is indeed a very strange one; but the images do very much “seem to cohere”: a young woman, head bowed in a kind withheld laughter (“Laughter under-water”)—a product of some unspoken sorrow (presumably related to failed love, since she has been “stung by mercury,” an image that calls up both the poisonous “quicksilver” and the God of messages and travel)—ends with a “new nativity” (the woman with bowed head is compared earlier to a “peasant in a praying stall”), ending with the image of a new birth. The narrative voice, moreover, “bends upon himself” in a way that reminds one of Dr. O’Connor of Nightwood stealthily moving home through the Paris streets—another image of the bowed. In short, the images cohere, despite jumps in narrative logic. The poem works just fine as poetry, but is perhaps more confusing if read as a kind of narrative, which it appears the editor’s have interpreted it to be.

On the very next page another poem is described as “on the verge of being a finished poem, but there are still obscurities to be ironed out.” One might ask, “Isn’t that the job of the reader and/or of critics having read this very publication?”

The poem from Satires, “if some noble show…,” Herring and Stutman describe as “little more than a collection of phrases that might prove useful in a more focused poem.” There is no doubt that this poem is, in some sense, unfinished, but I find its radical similes and images some of the most arresting of her later work:

his tongue
Like the potters thumb reams out her mouth,
To sing his own and plighted song
To sing his journey among drought voyaging
Among sea-groves

This Odysseus-like male does not allow the female figure even to speak, in the very act of what might be a kiss stealing even her potential words to sing the story of his own voyage. If only all of Barnes’s late poems were so radically disjunctive and powerfully expressed!

While it is wonderful to read some of Barnes’s “Notes Toward the Memoirs,” moreover, mightn’t that have been included in another book that felt more at home than in her only volume of Collected Poems? Here it seems simply attached, as if they editors felt that had yet another piece that might round out the volume.

I am not arguing for a sense of generic purity! Barnes herself mixed fiction, art and poetry in her early collection, A Book (1923), and included art in several of her works. Why then present the early poems The Book of Repulsive Women without its accompanying drawings, images intensely related to these poems? On the other hand, why does this book contain a series of photographs and three drawings, two of which have nothing to do with her poetry?
These and other issues result in a sense of frustration rather than celebration for the publication of another volume in the oeuvre of one of the greatest of American authors.

At their best, the poems reveal Barnes’s great love of language, her dark satiric wit, and reiterate her mythic, emblematic vision of mankind and its inevitable march towards self-destruction in its return to its bestial roots. Like Yeats’ “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor,” Barnes’s poetic work, particularly her poetic satires, presents a world of human beasts that is both utterly fascinating and terrifying:

When beasts hump backwards for the acts,
The scroll of heaven too retracts

she writes in “Dereliction.” Indeed, from her earliest work on, her focus is the relationship of man to beast, her fascination with “the hem that dusts [her] ankles with its fur,” (“Vaudeville,” 1923). As she writes in “Lullaby,” first published in A Book, in a series of images that remind one of the ending of her fiction Nightwood of 1936:

When I was a young child I slept with a dog,
I lived without trouble and I thought no harm;
I ran with the boys and I played leap-frog;
Now it is a girl’s head that lies on my arm.

It may be interesting to actually compare those images. For Barnes clearly is at her poetic best in passages such as these from that great fiction; and it is in these that we recognize her poetic achievement:

Then she began to bark also, crawling after him—barking in a fit of
laughter, obscene and touching. The dog began to cry then, running
with her, head-on with her head, as if to circumvent her; soft and
slow his feet went padding. He ran this way and that, low down in
his throat crying, and she grinning and crying with him; crying in
shorter and shorter spaces, moving head to head, until she gave up,
lying out, her hands beside her, her face turned and weeping; and the
dog too gave up then, and lay down, his eyes bloodshot, his head
flat along her knees.

Ultimately, Barnes’s world is not just a fallen one, but is a world inured to, perhaps even in love with its destructiveness. Although Barnes was most certainly a modern woman, she was anything but a modernist, was a writer ill at ease on her own century. Sleeping with the dogs, returning to the beasts was inevitable—preferable, perhaps—to sleeping with a man or woman who dooms one to Hell, to a life of hellish suffering, if not a location in metaphysical space:

Disintegration now is all as motion;
Yet cat-wise he will fall, all four feet down
On paradise, the upside down. (“There Should Be Gardens”)

Los Angeles, September 13, 2006
Reprinted from Shadowtrain [England], No. 9 (October 2006).

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