Printer Friendly

Works in progress: the uncollected poetry of Barnes's Patchin Place period.

Barnes wrote to Natalie Clifford Barney in 1965 that she was trying to put together what she called, in her characteristically apologetic way, "that horrid bulk termed |a choice, slim volume.'"(1) She had fourteen poems collected for her German editor, the fruit of endlessly protracted composition. "I take far too much trouble with a verse," she writes, "literally tens of pages to one stanza." One year later, in a letter to Emily Coleman, she confesses, "I am engaged in a frightfully time consuming act - poetry. A verse a month is great speed, and time jumps out the window as I go down the page" (20 September 1966, box 4, ser. 1). The pages for another project, a poem cycle, piled up; in 1967 she noted in a letter that the writing goes well, "but I will change it, over and over, until the room is ten feet high with one canto" (21 August 1967 to Marion Bouches, box 3, ser. 1). By September of that year she was working on the thirteenth canto, but she was agonized by her slowness: "What will become of it at this snail's pace?" she wails. "I can't do everything" (11 September 1965 to Marion Bouches, box 3, ser. 1).

During my last visits to the Djuna Barnes Collection in 1986 and 1987, I tried to find out what became of the poems Barnes was working on during the last forty years of her life. This essay is a collection of observations and speculations, not a final answer. Barnes told Hank O'Neal she wanted her drafts burned, after she had made her revisions.(2) That didn't happen. What I found in the Archives is the record of a massive attempt that resulted in scatterings of gold, not the single cache of glowing, jewellike poems that I hoped to find. I believe that there are probably enough scatterings for a posthumous collection in the "slim volume" mode. But putting together the major poem cycle would be like reconstructing a living dinosaur from a huge pile of bone fragments. The editor would have to make the kind of decisions that could result in an arbitrary version of coherence - pretty, but not what Barnes would have preferred.

Barnes's addiction to minute revision was complicated by her growing health problems. The list of her ailments rivaled Hemingway's at the end of his life. She complains, in a 1975 letter to her brother Zendon, that she has a bad heart, has had her gall bladder removed, suffers from varicose veins, arthritis, and "suffocation from asthma and whatnot and worthless legs. . . . I have not had the pleasure of eating anything I delight in for years! ! ! . . . and eating is said to be man's last passion! !" (4 August 1975, box 14, ser. 1). It's no wonder that her notebooks contain several lists of sick and mentally incapacitated artists, such as the following: "Richard Steele an addict, James Thompson lazy, poor Chatterton a suicide, Claire insane, Kit Smart ditto, Nietzsche mad, . . ." (box 2, unproc. notebook). She seems to be considering under which category to place her own name in this company of the great ones undone by infirmity.

Typing had become an excruciating ordeal; some days she even had trouble turning on her desk light. And Patchin Place, at one time a pastoral cul-de-sac hidden from the noise and dirt of Greenwich Village, was going to the dogs: "Writing amid the roaring of plumbing, howling of downstairs dog, thumping of small child on elephant's feet, library light out of order, and impotent fury rising" (24 March 1976 to Zendon Barnes, box 14, ser. 1).

Even though her arthritis had become so bad by 1965 that even sitting at her typewriter was a heroic ordeal, she persisted. Her manuscripts are palimpsests encrusted with addendum in red, green, and black ink written in her painfully crabbed hand.

The slim volume didn't materialize. Neither did the poem cycle that acquired various names during the last twenty years of her long life: As Cried, Gardens for Old Men, Derelictions, Nativity, Obsequies, Rakehell, Sardonics, There's No Gender in the Fossil's Eye, Tom Fool, Jackdaw, Laughing Lamentations of Dan Corbeau (The Book of Dan), The Ponder Rose, Viaticum, etc. In his diary covering the first six months of his association with Barnes, from September 1978 to February 1979, Hank O'Neal writes that he and Barnes selected "forty-seven possible candidates for serious work and set aside another folder for |approved' poems" (92). A typical work day, revising a poem entitled "Man cannot purge his body of its theme," began at four in the afternoon and ended at midnight. In January 1979, Barnes considered this poem "the most important one she has ever attempted"; her working folder contained at least 500 drafts (61). Barnes and O'Neal condensed it, amazingly, to a single sheet of legal-sized paper.

Similar rescue work was planned for another very long poem, consisting of "about two inches of manuscript," to be called Virgin Spring (61). A fully realized version of this final, long poem probably does not exist. In my visits to the Archives, I did find, however, that the same verses and voices weave in and out of the overwhelming mass of her material attempts at coherence. Barnes's most frequently recurring themes are those with which she was obsessed in her earlier years in Paris and London: regeneration, the death of love, physical decay, the joke of old age, the joining of the excremental vision to a vision of a spiritual quest.

Barnes seems, not unnaturally, to have brooded on death, and on her own condition of being locked away from the world, perhaps with an eye to turning this brooding to account. As she put it, "It's not all unmitigated fun to be an anchorite!" (29 August 1965 to Barney, box 2, ser. 1). Her commonplace books were proving grounds for her current work-in-progress, which in 1965 seems to have been the slim volume of fourteen cantos about which she wrote to Barney. It was supposed to be spoken "by a tired thinking man" (15 September 1965 to Barney, box 2, ser. 1). This may be the group which, from August to November 1966, she called by various names, e.g., The Satires As Cried by Don Pasquin, The Pasquinatas, Laughing Lamentations of Dan Corve (also Tom Fool, Jackdaw, Satirics, and Sardonics, to choose a random sampling). According to her notes, the "tired thinking man," Don Pasquin, was inspired by a Roman bust disinterred in 1501. Cardinal Caraffa set it up at the corner of his palace, where the public used it as a community billboard "on which satirical Latin verses were posted on St. Marks Day" (box 1, unproc. Sardonics folder). A "pasquinade" is a "lampoon." Barnes's work-in-progress was to consist of loosely connected lampoons, which she called "items."

Poems start out singly, develop offshoots, become longer affairs, split like amoebae to become "several satiric, meaty and laughing ones," she writes (2 June 1967 to Barney, box 2, ser. 1). She told Barney in 1963 that "from my six volumes of notes I may scour out a poem, a paragraph, a something ... in any case it's all that's left of a full freighted ship" (6 December 1963, box 2, ser. 1).

One of the floating planks left in the wake of one such sinking vessel is a

brilliant poem from the As Cried group. In its most finished form, it seems to be about the apotheosis of an electrocuted man (Tom Fool, box 1, unproc. As Cried folder, dated 15 October 1965). The poem is a series of meditations on these terse lines from Donne: "If gold falls sick being stung by mercury, / What then does baser metal do, being stung by death?" Barnes used Donne's lines as the epigraph for the most complete of a half dozen versions of "If Gold Falls Sick" that I came across in the Djuna Barnes Collection, some version of which she sent to "Peter" (Sir Samuel Hoare), an English friend, for criticism.(3) The version that follows is provisionally entitled, "Tom Fool: If Gold Falls Sick"; in later versions, it acquired other titles. Its date, 15 October 1965, places it after the version she sent Peter Hoare:

"Who died that day on Dannemara?"

"If gold falls sick being stung by mercury,

What then does baser metal do, being stung by death?"

If electric fields our plots destroy,

And gravitational decay the keys possess;

If fire with flesh can make a new alloy,

And captured lightning pilot that address;

If leaded thongs unbolt "some other" boy,

As smallest moles our hidden cogs undress,

Then ask the jailor warden what he smelt

The day that cinder burnt Van Allen's belt,

What fuel made it resinous, what joy

Leapt through the sonic barrier of guilt?

The evolution of this poem is an exemplar of Barnes's composing method in her later years. Peter wrote an extensively detailed commentary on a version of this poem. Barnes's response to his critique is telling.

The subject of regeneration fascinated Barnes; she returned to it frequently in her commonplace notebooks. In notes for the manuscript entitled As Cried, Barnes recorded the story of "The Seven Sleepers Den," concerning "seven Greeks who locked themselves up (during the Christian persecution) in a cave, and slept two hundred years, and on being awakened, died." On the same notebook page, she writes: "Beware old women, like dried wasps (or small spiders) that can come out of the crystal stage, and bite again", (box 1, unproc. folder As Cried). I imagine that she saw herself as coming back to life in her published work. But lasting fame aside, Barnes was exercised by the question of whether death is a final stage or a threshold. Her later published poems of 1958-1971, including "Fall-out over Heaven" (which is a reworking of "Transfiguration," written in 1938), "The Walking-Mort," and "Quarry," deal in various ways with the Resurrection and its aftermath, when the dead rise again for judgment, also a favored theme in Nightwood and The Antiphon.

In a marginal note to "Tom Fool: If Gold Falls Sick," she writes: "They say that at [the point of] electrocution, the victim is made by shock some |other.'" Barnes's investigation in this poem has to do with the Catholic mystery of the flesh made spirit and the possibility of redemption in a real universe. She has cast the poem in an interrogative shape, a syllogism that dares the reader to accept increasingly difficult premises leading to a statement that requires a leap of faith into mystery.

The poem operates in this manner: If you'll accept the possibility that the radioactive fields of the Van Allen belt thwart some of our attempts at space travel, and if you'll accept the possibility that the weightlessness of outer space is in some way a "key" if it neutralizes that barrier, then will you accept electrocution as a means to "unbolt" the trapped soul set free by the "captured lightning" of the electric chair? Barnes builds the effect of a logical progression by repeating the "If' clauses three times. The notion of "thwarted effort" is picked up in the phrase "captured lightning" (1. 4) and echoed in the next line in a pun on the phrase "leaded thongs unbolt" (as in "bolt of lightning"). The burned flesh of the prisoner, eaten away like the body in a cemetery "undressed" by "smallest moles," is the metaphorical equivalent of the glowing, shooting star the purified soul becomes as it "bursts through the sonic barrier of guilt." The first transformation is physical: electricity transforms the prisoner into an "other." It's that second, spiritual transformation, made possible by the incandescent joy of release, that the jailor warden could not possibly "smell." If anything, he "smelled" burned flesh. So "smelt" is another pun: when he electrocuted the prisoner, he transformed a sinner into an "other," as the metallic constituents of raw ore are separated, during the smelting process, into their components and then fused to become something more precious.

Barnes showed few people her poetry. She records the fact that T. S. Eliot had said, probably with regard to The Antiphon, that her verse "limps" (box 1, unproc. folder As Cried). But she sent Peter a version of "Tom Fool: If Gold Falls Sick" in the fall of 1965, "knowing [his] discretion" (September or October 1965, box 4, ser. 1). She writes ostensibly for technical advice: "But what is Van Allen's belt precisely, and how do you spell it, and does it jog into place here? And [does] the sconic [sic] barrier ... as something burst apart by a |rising soul' make sense?"

But what Barnes probably wanted to know is whether the poem works. "Do you like it?" she asks Peter. In the As Cried series, she was experimenting with what she called a "very plain straight |put it there' manner" of writing. It must have shocked her when Peter replied that he might like the poem if he "understood a word of it." He corrects her spelling and her grammar, questions her choice of words, claims the last line doesn't scan (he might have been right about the last line; the version she sent was written earlier than the one quoted above). After a lot of nervous throat-clearing and protesting that he doesn't shut off enough of his rational mind when he reads poetry, Peter cautions her that the Van Allen belt is a band of radioactivity about 100 miles from the surface of the earth, outside our atmosphere, and thus not subject to "gravitational decay," since weightlessness is already a factor. It doesn't occur to him, however, that "unleaded thongs unbolt" refers to the thongs holding the Dannemara prisoner to the electric chair. Possibly, she added the question "Who died that day at Dannemara?" and altered the fifth line after receiving his response, which is dated 6 October. The version quoted above is dated 15 October. He acknowledges that "there is something pretty remarkable in this," but blames the poem's "technical inadequacies" for its failure to achieve its full force. It troubles her that Peter seems depressed about his ability to judge the poem, "as though I had no respect for your opinion, except as a lexicon, or a manual for electricians, - this ... as you should know is not so" (21 November 1965, box 9, ser. 1). Barnes quietly thanks him for his attention to details and his expression of "sombre joy," a phrase that better describes the tone of the poem.

Barnes could hardly have chosen a worse reader; Peter was apparently unable to give her more than grudging respect for her effort. He seems to blame his own thickheadedness while handing her thunderbolts. Barnes rarely sought out criticism, but when she asked for advice, she seems to have listened. Because T. S. Eliot once said her verse "limps," she blames herself in her letters for trying to write alexandrines. Peter criticizes the phrase "captured lightning pilot that address." Out it goes in later versions. Barnes needed an Emily Coleman to cheer her on and bully her into submitting her work for publication. But she and Emily had had a serious falling out in 1941 and never put their friendship completely back on track. And in 1965 Emily had her own problems, had in fact undergone a course of shock treatment that may have inspired Barnes to write "Tom Fool: If Gold Falls Sick" (Barnes to Hoare, September or October 1965, box 4, ser. 1).

The draft she showed Peter Hoare went through her customary stages of minute alteration, evisceration, and ultimate assignment to the purgatory of her folders of notes (three boxes of typescripts, and nineteen boxes of notebooks and folders in the Archives). "Captured lightning" becomes "liquid lightning"; the phrase disappears from a version rewritten in 1968. The poem suffered a series of name changes: she calls it "The Beast" in 1965, "Tom Fool" later that year, and it becomes an "item" in her "pasquinade" period in 1968. Ultimately, she let it go; the poem never made it into the list of forty-seven finalists or the "approved folder," which she apparently assembled with Hank O'Neal's help in 1979. If "Tom Fool: If Gold Falls Sick" can be taken as an indication of what she could do, assuming that it is anything like the final version she had in mind, Barnes's genius was still vigorous in the late sixties. I believe that she revised this poem, as she did so many others, literally out of existence.

There are approximately ninety versions of the poem labeled "As Cried." The poem that began "Man Cannot Purge His Body of Its Theme," which O'Neal recalls trailing some 500 drafts behind it, continues, in one of its avatars, under the title "Dereliction":

Man cannot purge his body of its theme,

As goes the silkworm ferrying her thread,

To baste the shroud to metamorphose in

From a silk-proud head.

There's no such quarrel in the fossil's eye.

Pander, pass by. (box 1, unproc. "Dereliction" folder)

It should be noted that the name "Dereliction" was given, at various stages, to almost all of the poems that appear in the "approved" file. The fifth line of this fragment becomes the opening line for a new series of poems, "There is no gender in the fossil's eye." And so it goes. There are approximately 150 versions of this poem in the "Dereliction" folder.

As Cried was begun as early as June 1963. It contained the following poems: "Call Her Walking Mort," "The Bo Tree," "Dereliction," "When the Kissing Flesh is Gone," and "Discant." Some time in the middle sixties the As Cried poems began to take shape under the title Satirics (also variously called Satires, Sardonics, and Satires as Cried by Dan Corbo, Dereliction, etc.). She worked on this grouping from 1966 until at least the end of 1968, when she sent a copy of Satires to Peter du Sautoy of Faber and Faber, apparently for safekeeping (she sent a similar batch to her German publisher, Suhrkamp Verlag). He sent them back almost a decade later, with the note: "It has been safely in my file and has not been seen by anybody outside" (17 January 1975, unproc. box 1). Since there were over 300 pages of manuscript in the folder marked Satires, the sheer bulk would have protected her from prying eyes.

Barnes submitted a long poem cycle to the New Yorker, to be called "Work in Progress: Rite of Spring." She saw it as "a totally new idea" (10 March 1982 to Fran McCullough, unproc. box 1). The title suggests a rhetorical marriage between Ingmar Bergman and James Joyce, sections of whose Finnegans Wake were called "Work in Progress" when they first appeared in transition. Barnes complained to McCullough that the poetry editor, Howard Moss, would have accepted it, if Barnes had agreed to delete one word, which, of course, she refused to do (letter dated 10 March 1982). Apparently, this is the grouping Hank O'Neal helped her assemble. Laughing Lamentation and Satires were to be next.(4)

I think Barnes was looking for another spokesperson, one like Matthew O'Connor, who could articulate a complex set of attitudes towards sex, especially the male sex. She searched for images to express the indignity of aging. Old men, she might have said, are physically ridiculous, if not repulsive, a fitting closure to a career that began with expressions of ambivalence aimed at her own sex in The Book of Repulsive Women. Her Dan Corbeau - also known as Dan Corve, Don Coeue, Corvo, etc. - one of the As Cried candidates, seems to be another tribute to Dan Mahoney, who was the model for Matthew O'Connor. The central figure in Nightwood, Dr. O'Connor has a license to kill; as a transvestite homosexual, he can blast men and women with impunity, since he himself is androgynous. Barnes needed a voice that could take potshots at male vanity without sounding vengeful and petty. She experimented with what I called earlier "the joining of the excremental vision to the vision of a spiritual quest" in poem fragments, such as the following, entitled "Descent: The Coupling" from the folder marked "Approved Poems":

When riderless a horse is seen

Rearing at the timber line

From a smoking sphincter drop

Braided hay upon the green.

Sound a dump for wretched man,

Who in bramble where gripes meet

Is come about to "cover foot"

And to kick his fires out. (unproc. box 3)

The portraits and vignettes in this grouping seem inspired by Herrick's line, which she quotes in her commonplace book, about "an old, poor, lying flatt'ring man." She called this set of drafts Gardens for Old Men (from a line that shows up again and again, in various forms: "There should be gardens for old men / To twitter in"). Barnes worked on this series for at least ten years; as late as June 1977 she was still trying to pull them together under a variety of titles, including Resurrection Pie, Imigo, Virgin Spring, and Dereliction: Parthenogenesis and Phantom Spring. She frequently borrowed lines from the earlier Sardonics, which is replete with examples of the physical grotesquerie of old age:

Man's member, like the tough swan neck

(Tho softly lidded like a sleeper's eye)

Jewing wattles, swelling in his lap

Rears up and drums

And bang! another life has death between its gums.

(box 1. unproc. Sardonics folder)

Such fragments are vivid, appalling. Certainly "sardonic" is the right term to describe the tone of the following lines she borrowed from another earlier poem, "Dereliction":

Nothing's as vanquished as an old man's groin,

The golden fig that beaked beneath its peg,

The great bull-curl that lolled along the loin,

The gray-fly whistles where those parcels hung,

And calls them down, as in a minaret

The muezzin pricks the Arab to his drone,

Through what pipkins are your ashes blown?...

(box 1, unproc. As Cried by Dan Corve folder)

Her attempts to describe the indignity done by age to the body take her from the rather lapidary effect of this description of a vagina as "the mantle of the pelvic oyster creeping" to the forthright exclamation: "What! Kiss the famine of an old man's mouth?"

In one writing phase, Barnes projected a closet drama (temporarily titled Rakehell, later called Nelly Hauk) on the subjects of age, sexuality (or the lack of sex for the elderly male), the futility of love, the fear of death, the uselessness of bearing children. One draft begins with play notes setting the scene: "A watering spot, the last salt-lick of the aging, for old water fowl and their consorts, the general midden of the time. . ." (notebook, unproc. box 2, dated 13 December 1963). One of the late published poems, "The Walking-Mort" (1971), was initially part of the As Cried grouping. Placed in the context of a long closet drama, "The Walking-Mort" makes sudden sense as a dialogue between Dan Corve (one of the names the narrator of As Cried went by) and Nelly Hauk, a whore (the archaic meaning of "mort" is "mistress or sweetheart"):

The Walking-Mort

Call her walking-mort; say where she goes

She squalls her bush with blood. I slam a gate.

Report her axis bone it gigs the rose.

What say of mine? It turns a grinning grate.

Impugn her that she baits time with an awl.

What do my sessions then? They task a grave.

So, shall we stand, or shall we tread and wait

The mantled lumber of the buzzard's fall

(That maiden resurrection and the freight),

Or shall we freeze and wrangle by the wall?(5)

Assuming that this poem was part of a larger dramatic dialogue, Barnes seems to have employed the strategy that had guided her through the writing of Nightwood and The Antiphon: take a fat book and turn it into a thin one. When she detached the poem from a context that would identify the speakers, the poem's dilemma became universal. "The identity of |she' and |I' [is] ambiguous," according to Louis F. Kannenstine.(6) Andrew Field states confidently that "The poem speaks in two voices, but as always they both belong to a single woman."(7) Cut loose from its context, the poem's rich complexity can sustain multiple readings. But the context underlines a primary pattern of reference to copulation as an act of intergender warfare; the conflict is made explicit in an earlier version of line 7: "The pitch-down passion of the buzzard's fall" (Box 1, As Cried folder). When male buzzards make love, that act is called "treading." To tread is also to dance; the charges and countercharges which make up the first six lines of this incomplete sonnet act as a kind of minuet of frustration (or, as the earlier version has it, "So, shall we dance, or shall we tread and wait... ?"). The implications of "squalls her bush with blood" are obvious; when menstrual blood is replaced by "maiden resurrection" or motherhood, the result, the "freight," will "task a grave" - stated prosaically, if the speaker "treads" with "the walkingmort," the latter will produce an infant who will eventually die, producing more death, hence the title, "The Walking-mort," or "living death."

Part of Barnes's dilemma as she tried to edit her own work is that, as she grew older, her readers knew more about her life than they knew about her writing. Her attempt to remain anonymous by trimming back the context that would explain what her poems "mean" was both damaging to her productivity and ultimately futile. (Field reaches the inevitable, but invalid, conclusion that the "mantled lumber of the buzzard's fall" is "the paternal beast, slouching backwards, away from Bethlehem," missing entirely the lovely doubling of bird references [241-42].)

It is impossible to look at the massive number of drafts Barnes produced and argue, as O'Neal does, that her low productivity from the publication of The Antiphon to her death in 1983 was due to "laziness," sloppy work habits, or a preference for conversation (O'Neal 124). Barnes saved a letter she received from Valerie Eliot in 1969. T. S. Eliot's reluctance to make final choices must have struck a chord in Barnes:

Tom declined to select his own poems for an anthology on the ground that "authors must not make their own choice; one has too much tenderness for the little poems of one's own which have always sat about in corners and never been asked for a dance by anybody." (25 March 1969, box 5, ser. 1)

What I found in the boxes and files of the Djuna Barnes Collection at the McKeldin Library was the record of incredible gallantry and dedication to a goal that receded as Barnes's growing infirmity made the completion of her last work impossible. But she left an epitaph, "Quarry," a poem she described as "very important work" (O'Neal 43).(8) While it may not be possible to reconstruct the living dinosaur from this single bone fragment, the importance of "Quarry" as an indicator of the direction Barnes was trying to take her poetry is of more than passing archaeological importance.

Quarry

While I unwind duration from the tongue-tied tree,

Send carbon fourteen down for time's address.

The old revengeful without memory

Stand by -

I come, I come that path and there look in

And see the capsized eye of sleep and wrath

And hear the beaters' "Gone to earth!"

Then do I sowl the soul and strike its face

That it fetch breath.(9)

As she had tried to do in "Tom Fool: If Gold Falls Sick" and "Fall-out over Heaven," Barnes is celebrating the technique of counterpointing science's ability to probe surface reality with the specialized knowledge of the "essence" of things available only to the poet.

In a note written in 1977, Barnes observes: "If you loose [sic] your attention, discrepancy shows up. You forget the chestnut, you then forget the hairy downy (surface of) the . . . base of the nut, you forget plainsong, discant, melody on which discant is raised" (my emphasis; notebook for Gardens of Old Men, box 1). The kind of attention that must be paid is the kind that leaves no stone unturned. The poem celebrates the poet's willingness to slap the soul into consciousness, thus taking back Nora's lament in Nightwood that she had violated Robin by striking away her sleep.

What you have to do in this sorry age is use the tools available for expanding consciousness. The first two lines of the poem refer to two ways to determine the actual or relative age of an object: dendrochronological and geological dating. Scientists can date specimens by gauging the radioactivity in organic matter, identified by the isotopes measured in carbon 14. A second method of cross-checking for "time's address" is by counting the number of individual ring widths in a sample of ancient wood. One method can date specimens as old as 35,000; the other can measure backwards 8,000 years.

Against science, which can measure time mechanically but can't quantify the element of feeling that is stored in an "ancient specimen," the poet counterpoints "the old revengeful without memory" - revengeful feeling without capacity to date, to fix specific times and places. The will that says "Stand by - I come" is valiant, however, if not accurate or efficient. Barnes's poetry, in its thousands of permutations, is the tool that she uses to excavate the "quarry" of her own memory (the "awl" or "all" that she uses to "bait time"). Memory is also the site of excavation. The object quarried is called a "square stone," from the Latin "quarre." It is probably not farfetched to recall the Rosetta Stone that provided the key to the deciphering of hieroglyphics in the context of Barnes's forty-year search for the key to memory that would drag meaning out of the hieroglyphics of her notes and revisions. What she could have accomplished with a computer staggers the imagination. But she would have rejected the device in favor of "plain-song, discant, melody on which discant is raised."

The key to the poem is the word sowl. Barnes told O'Neal: "If you don't know the meaning of |sowl,' it is impossible to figure out the ending of the poem" (43). "Sowl" is a dialect variant of the word soul. The effect is to turn a noun into a verb and a reverberation. Barnes's use of it as a verb recalls the practice of going about on All Souls' Day singing and begging for Soul Cakes, an activity not unlike the writing and revising of the Discants, Laughing Lamentations, and Sardonics, that occupied the last years of Barnes's life. "Sowling" is one of the methods by which she raises the soul to consciousness, through song: "Then do I sowl the soul and strike its face / That it fetch breath."

The primary meaning, however, of "sowl" in the last two lines is obstetrical. An obscure dialect meaning of the verb "to sowl" is "to pull, seize roughly, etc. by the ear or ears"; the Oxford English Dictionary notes that it is used with reference to animals, especially dogs or pigs.(10) Like a doctor using a pair of forceps, the poet grasps what is essential to her self, the "soul" of painful memory ("the capsized eye of sleep and wrath"), lugs it forth, and slaps it awake, like a doctor spanking a baby's bottom. The obstetrical metaphor offended Sir Samual Hoare - but Barnes insisted that her poem required the midwife action of "strike its face." The "quarry," which she must both capture and bring to life, is herself. She is hunter, doctor, and infant. The metaphor stayed.

Barnes needed the metaphor to complete the poem's pattern of counterpointing opposites. The last two lines echo the structure of the first two, which balanced carbon dating against counting ring widths on ancient trees as ways to establish truth about the past. With typical economy and bravura, Barnes counterbalances the methods of masculine science against the methods of feminine art, song, and maternal creativity. The effect is musical; "Quarry" is a discant played against a melody; in other words - plain-song.

Barnes does not, as Kannenstine observes, "struggle for release from the tongue-tied state in which she is frozen." The poem's movement is not "downward" (168). Barnes breaks through. The ultimate release is out of the womb of time and into the air, not the grave. If this poem is Barnes's epitaph, it is a bold denunciation of the failing of her power. And it suggests that her poetry was moving away from archaic language that merely obscured meaning, a method that she had used in The Antiphon, and toward a "very plain straight |put it there' manner" of writing that was neither "poetic" nor conventionally "feminine." Moving forward, she simultaneously moves backward: plain-song is the Christian church's most ancient form of vocal music. When Barnes uses plain-song's technique of counterpointing voices, she recalls Mikhail Bakhtin's "dialogic discourse." But then Barnes never used a convention in a conventional way. Beware old women who can burst into wasplike fury, even ten years after their death.

NOTES

(1) Letter to Natalie Clifford Barney, 29 August 1965, box 2, ser. 1, the Djuna Barnes Collection, McKeldin Library, University of Maryland, College Park, MD. Subsequent references to unpublished items from this collection will be made parenthetically. (2) Hank O'Neal, "Life is painful, nasty and short . . . in my case it has only been painful and nasty": Djuna Barnes, 1978-1981: An Informal Memoir (New York: Paragon House, 1990), 60; hereafter cited parenthetically. (3) The following verse, which might be the version Peter saw, is part of the As Cried ms. dated September/October 1965 (Box 1, unprocessed):

If electric fields our plots destroy,

And gravitational Decay the keys possess,

If leaden thongs unbolt some other boy

As fossil coals the hidden cogs undress;

If fire with flesh can make a new alloy

Then ask the jailor warden what he smelt

What fuel made it resinous, what joy

Sounded the barrier of coded guilt?

(4) Hank O'Neal, "The Barnes Diaries: Djuna Barnes, September 1978-February 1979" (manuscript of "Life is painful, nasty and short. . . "), 32. (5) Djuna Barnes, "The Walking-Mort," New Yorker, 15 May 1971, 34. (6) Louis F. Kannenstine, The Art of Djuna Barnes: Duality and Damnation (New York: New York University Press, 1977), 167. (7) Andrew Field, Djuna: The Life and Times of Djuna Barnes (New York: Putnam's, 1983), 241. (8) Djuna Barnes, Ladies Almanack (New York: Harper & Row, 1972), 88. Mentioned in postscript, "About the Author," which, according to Field, was "written by Miss Barnes herself' (174). (9) Djuna Barnes, "Quarry," New Yorker, 27 December 1969, 53. (10) I am grateful to Steven Moore, Senior Editor of the Review of Contemporary Fiction, for suggesting that Barnes might have intended "sowl" to connote "to pull roughly, especially by the ears"; letter, 8 June 1993.
COPYRIGHT 1993 Review of Contemporary Fiction
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1993 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:Djuna Barnes
Author:Levine, Nancy J.
Publication:The Review of Contemporary Fiction
Date:Sep 22, 1993
Words:5812
Previous Article:The "beast turning human": constructions of the "primitive" in 'Nightwood.' (Djuna Barnes)
Next Article:Rattlesnake Farming.
Topics:

Terms of use | Copyright © 2016 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters