Misplacing Stevie Smith.
Laura Severin, Stevie Smith's Resistant Antics. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1997. ix + 162 pp. $47.95; $18.95 paper
The turn of this decade has seen a revitalized and critically updated interest in Stevie Smith, that maverick and unevenly received poet-novelist who died in 1971 and achieved her first real resurrection as Glenda Jackson in Hugh Whitemore's eventually televised Stevie: A Play (1977). The very existence of Whitemore's production, which wove excerpts from Smith's work into a dramatization of her personal narrative, might be seen as symptomatic of what many of us have lamented with regard to much of the writing done about Smith: that like earlier criticism of women writers, it has been characterized by an obsessive interest in the author's life rather than her work--Smith's Dickinson-like spinsterhood, for example, or her connection, by virtue of her attempt to kill herself in 1953, to the postwar "suicide generation" of poets exemplified by Anne Sexton and Sylvia Plath. Such biographical criticism of women seems particularly jejune now that we've experienced the death of the author as well as of studies of spontaneously generated oeuvres. And yet it could be said that since 1991 we have inadvertently continued to go "in search of Stevie Smith," to borrow the title of Sanford Sternlicht's critical anthology of that year, though many of us are producing a Smith made more and more postmodern, in our own changing image.(1)
While every new writing about Smith is rightly to be welcomed (well, almost)(2) in the critical community, given its tardiness in taking her work seriously--and these two books, particularly Laura Severin's, do the very welcome job of re-envisioning Smith as a woman author among women authors, rather than as the not-quite-recognizably-feminist (and therefore not teachable in women's studies courses) "eccentric spinster"--one must remember when reading such studies that, of all the genres, critical writing has changed least due to postmodern internal critiques; it still quite often offers a unifying argument to portray its subject, using the very tools and theories of postmodernism that ought to problematize such a project. It can seem to be employing the wider scope of new and important perspectives such as those of cultural studies--which can seem especially and therefore dangerously all-encompassing and authoritative --and yet offer what in the end is an entirely traditional new portrait of the writer at hand, one we can draw a line around, see representationally, even if it's a portrait of a postmodernist, whatever we fancy that to be. My postmodern Smith is not the one imagined by Catherine A. Civello in Patterns of Ambivalence: The Fiction and Poetry of Stevie Smith, or by Laura Severin in Stevie Smith's Resistant Antics, but that won't be the point of this review. Reading my colleagues in Smith studies has made me rethink the ways in which I too have been writing about her work, if not so much my differing conclusions; I want to consider here the consequences of the various techniques we share among us, as well as speculate about another sort of approach.
Both Civello and Severin describe their projects as taking theoretical avenues that will skirt the problem of reading Smith biographically--Civello promising a "textual" reading, and Severin promising a broader view of the works as they take part in history and the larger cultural context, to correct those of us she feels have narrowed our vision of Smith's achievement by looking too closely at the texts themselves. These two critics' contrasting portrayals of what close reading accomplishes is the most interesting issue at hand here; neither meets her own criteria or mine, for differing reasons, and a misunderstanding of what close attention to the text should offer in a "postmodern" reading is the primary factor in what I find to be least successful in each book. As one consequence of this misunderstanding, and of their so rigidly taking up the alternative projects they announce, these books tell us far more about the theoretical approaches of feminist critics since the 1970s than they do about the texts being examined. Catherine Civello, whose bibliography is largely comprised of sixties and seventies psychology (aside from a sudden [Jane] gallop through Lacan in order to read Smith's novel trilogy), discovers a unifying "ambivalence" at the heart of each work by this woman writing in the midst of changing gender roles at midcentury. Laura Severin, starting out of a more up-to-date feminist/cultural studies/loosely poststructuralist critical atmosphere, locates a saucily resistant, carnivalesque, popular-culture-oriented Smith busy undoing the conservative domestic ideology of her time. As I read them both, I kept getting the uneasy feeling that I was hearing the books' respective visions of the author as an exemplary female subject or strategist reiterated, and in the same abstract terms, much more often than I was getting fully attentive readings of the work itself. Yet in each case, a clear image of the writer as an old-fashioned, very consistent subjectivity emerges, and the works enter in, as they do in Whitemore's play, only insofar as snippets of them might contribute to the tracing and retracing of the outline around her face. It's a pity that I'm reviewing two feminist critics' work here, because this sort of highly ironic portrait-painting by theoretical numbers goes on in many ostensibly postmodern critical projects that I'm much less sympathetic to; nevertheless, I have to say that what I also find troubling here is that neither book gives us much evidence that Smith was interested in, caught up in, or affected by social problems beyond women's dilemmas and issues--oversights which I think constitute an inadvertent disservice not only to this author but to women's writing in general. I suppose that this review will be my own contribution to mappings of tendencies in recent feminist reading in that it will demonstrate a slowly culminating impatience on some of our parts with one-sided deliveries of an author--deliveries built on new assumptions about women's writing to update the old ones that limited it to certain gendered arenas. It seems that whatever theory may have taught us about the myopias of reading, we've only found new ways to use it to deliver myopic readings on our own (Trojan) hobbyhorses--a fact Smith appears to have understood quite well, having borrowed Laurence Sterne's hobbyhorses from Tristram Shandy to mount her erratic and contradictory speakers throughout her brilliant novel trilogy. (But that important allusion isn't one either of these studies acknowledges, perhaps because it offers no apparent segue into discussion of women's issues.) In other words, I feel that both of these books, though they focus on a single author, lose much of what she's done in order to wrest from her very complex, challenging, and at times rather messy collected works a clear outline drawing--much like the parodic cartoons she drew to accompany her poems--of what they would like her to look like. We're as a result constantly (and perhaps inevitably) in the position of misplacing Stevie Smith, of having to go out in search of her over and over again.
Updated--or "postmodern"--varieties of close reading should unfold, to the extent possible given each particular reader's limitations, a text's place in fantasies of history, gendered identity, cultural definitions of value, political and aesthetic philosophy, and so on. Closely focusing on language and form actually works against myopia in theoretically informed reading because one must attend to the multivalency of located words' contextual use value. Even a singular focus like Catherine Civello's could accommodate such readings; instead, Civello often stops at the first level of analysis after having observed polar tensions in a work and therefore having proven the existence of "female ambivalence." Civello insists on seeing Smith as an example of what she describes at the outset of Patterns of Ambivalence, in a three-sentence paragraph and solely through two quotations, as a midcentury woman caught between (external and internal) liberation and discrimination, and one therefore experiencing "the simultaneous occurrence of two antagonistic emotions (for example, inclination and disinclination, love and hate)" (from the Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler)(7).(3) The fact that Civello has few close readings of any single poems or other works in the course of her ninety-two page monograph, and that she tends instead to simply list or briefly quote from works that would back up her points as she makes them, is in itself suspect. Often I found myself stopping on some one or two mentions in a list, my credence undone either by the reduction of a complicated poem--one that was about much more than gender issues--to evidence of female ambivalence toward womanhood or by the brief glossing of a complex set of contradictory elements in a work to mean, through mind-boggling expansion, ambivalence toward life itself. Certainly anyone who has read Smith is already aware of her wrenching contradictions and her damning juxtapositions of "cultural goods"; but without close readings of the works themselves, we don't learn much about what that ambivalence indicates--for example, what the contradictory rhetorical gestures in the work suggest, what the larger discursive matrices for those conflicts might look like, what other kinds of social forces are in league with patriarchal ones to create varying tensions on each of the words and phrases (which in Smith's works are so often cliches, lifted from disparate levels of discourse), what other clues about the consequences of her impasse are available in the very medium she uses for expression but cannot fully control. It is true, as Civello claims, that her psychoanalytic approach to these polar tensions could be quite illuminating, if those tensions were indeed treated "as textual conventions that generate a fuller reading of Smith's poetry" (28), but that fuller consideration doesn't happen here; we get only those fragments of text that support the book's main project, if we get any look into the work at all.
The close readings that Civello does do seem to depend on taking Smith's words absolutely literally--which is not what goes on in any sort of good "textual" reading, and which leads this study into a good deal of confusion. In the chapter on poetry, for example, as Civello focuses on the first of her ambivalence-generating oppositions, she arrives at some fairly remarkable conclusions, such as that "children evolve into animals in Smith's imagination," because she understands Smith to be "advocat[ing] the diminution of the child (immaturity)," while she "glows with approval in the animal works," a fact that for Civello demonstrates Smith's ambivalence toward life itself for a woman of her generation because Smith also "portrays animal life--her metaphor for adulthood--as a captive state" (31, 35, 34). This local snarl of explanation is, I think, due to Civello's literal reading of poems such as "To Carry the Child," a very tongue-in-cheek piece that presents the internal struggle between childhood and adulthood by seeming to take the adult point of view that the child must be "burnt away" in order for the adult to survive. Civello takes that quotation from Smith's haunting essay "At School," on what the author might, if asked, teach to schoolchildren; in only a few pages it questions every sort of English cultural value and educational practice by subtly accelerating its pace, deepening its sarcastic tone, increasing its use of dark imagery from her poems, and ending with this section of commentary on her poem "At School," which she says she would teach to her class:
Then I should start off in class by saying what I thought about it. This: that the children in the poem are young, loving and sad. That they do not understand yet about the school they are at. It is a sort of Purgatory, a school where they have to learn to be better and wiser and "older." ... But this school is a bit of a forcing ground too, with the harsh lights, and the radiators turned full on. And the shadows are not friendly. And when they ride out together, it is a melancholy landscape, and where they think they would like to go ... the "sea-pool" ... is never quite near enough for the time they have. It is an ominous place, running up close to panic. But learn they must.... The idea is also this: that human affections and passions, likes and dislikes, are "young" (hence the children-idea) ... and that all this must be burnt away, taught and learnt away, before the children can "grow up." But what are they supposed to grow up into? Ah--that is a mystery--something that seems cold to us, cold with more than the touch of death. And the written comments of my imaginary "class"--the "homework"? Well, I would read them sometime--chiefly to see if these ideas of mine had come through to any of the children, and then, and only of very secondary interest I fear, to see what ideas, if any, the little beasts might have of their own.(4)
Only the most literal reading could affirm this speaker-persona's suggestion that "burning away" the child is necessary, but Civello's conclusion is that "[Smith] insists that prolonging youth is unacceptable" (30). In the bits of the poem "To Carry the Child" that Civello omits from her quoting of it, the same "maturing" process is enforced by the already-processed adult upon the unprocessed and threatening but less powerful child (little girl and boy; this is one of the many non-gender-specific issues in Smith's work). Civello reads as Smith's (not the speaker's) "conclu[sion] in strong language" the penultimate stanza's exhortation to "Let the children lie down before full growth / And die in their infanthood," even though these omitted three stanzas make it clear that this adult speaker is threatened by what the child represents:
As the child has colours, and the man sees no Colours or anything, Being easy only in things of the mind, The child is easy in feeling. Easy in feeling, easily excessive And in excess powerful, For instance, if you do not speak to the child He will make trouble. You would say a man had the upper hand Of the child, if a child survive, I say the child has fingers of strength To strangle the man alive.(5)
It's surprising given her psychoanalytic approach that Civello doesn't at least retrieve this "children idea" as a repressed force, though later she does suggest some very interesting new things by looking at the narrator of the novels (whom she equates with Smith) as demonstrating pre-oedipal behaviors on a Kristevan model. But in this poem, Civello misses the fact that Smith's description of this so-judged "childish" force as "anarchistic" in the final stanza is indication that it is exactly that which Smith relies upon to, as a speaker puts it in "The Donkey," "break things up" (Collected Poems 535), or shift meanings from expected paradigms. In the interest of her thesis concerning Smith's ambivalence toward her womanhood, Civello must read each authorial statement as Smith's own, and as voicing a genuine, contradictory desire, rather than reading carefully the tones, rhythms, repeated patterns and images from other poems, and above all the historically and culturally located value systems interrogated by Smith's shifts between discourses--beginning with, for example, the stark contrast with childlike thinking made by rigid religious epistemology apparent in the essay quoted from above, with its analogic reasoning based on church mythology ("Purgatory") and its teleology based on inarguable church "mystery." The very fact that Civello asserts, halfway through the book, that "the poet casts persona in her own image, and readers can identify persona with author in much of Smith's work" (44) signals the confused nature of this study, which had promised at its outset a textual rather than a biographical reading. The "image" of Smith retrieved here isn't Smith's but a predictable one of Civello's own unacknowledged making.
It's telling that at the beginning of her book, Laura Severin misreads what I have written to date about the problems of biographical criticism on Smith, assuming that because I reject a fully author-centered reading and espouse a language- and discourse-centered, close-reading, (inter)textual approach, I must also "dismiss historical and cultural readings" (3). In doing so, she not only conflates biography and culture as textual resources for reading (a problem I will return to) but also perpetuates the damaging idea that somehow close reading is incompatible with theoretically oriented reading, a notion that seems to go hand-in-hand with the rampant and wrongful relation of current close-reading practices with New Criticism. Close focus on a text can no longer even possibly mean dismissing historical and cultural readings, given our current reconsiderations of texts within varying dynamics of linguistic slippage; my question as I began reading Severin's book was, How can one do the sort of historical-cultural reading she proposes without such close textual focus? The answer, of course, is that what tends to undergo analysis are not so much the cultural assumptions and historical imaginings available in the language of the text, its forms and the discourses used or distorted by the author whom we can then locate in conceptual space and time, but rather "set" imaginings of the author first, as pictured by the critic within history and culture, and from that touchstone readings of the texts will follow. Severin is insightful enough in this book to see much more complexly into the writing than Civello and thus draft her version of a presciently postmodern Smith in a way that does indeed illuminate a number of the "resistant antics" that Smith seems to deploy. Severin also does a very fine job of illuminating the conservative world of women's journals that Smith reviewed for and the wartime propaganda about women's duties that surrounded Smith during and after the 1940s. Yet what we have in Severin's conclusions as drawn through this contextualization is, in some ways, simply the inverse of Civello's portraiture; Severin's Smith is a figure that fully resists her patriarchal oppressors, and Civello's is a figure rendered ambivalent by the same. There is little study of Smith's dispersed self within culture--of either Smith's opinions or her texts as having been in part written by her cultural moment--or evidence of her having written in response to any provocations beyond those of domestic ideology. Again, this clear focus on Smith as only one sort of consistent actor in language forces Severin, like Civello, into reductions of and, at times, simple misreadings of the works rather than postmodern explications of them.
Yet Severin's is a "poststructuralist" Smith--one whom she describes in the terms Julia Kristeva used to characterize her "third generation" of feminists, those "concerned with the deconstruction of sexual identity, the `demassification of the problematic of difference'" (7). As such, Smith is to be seen as someone "not out of her time," Severin cautions, but as one "whose beliefs did not easily match those of other politically recognizable feminist groups of her day" (7). Severin quite helpfully draws in a background of contemporary feminisms incompatible with Smith's sensibilities, as well as evidence of the conservative backlash against women that we know was operant at midcentury. But it's at this point that one misses to some extent Civello's recognition of Smith's at least partial ambivalence about her womanhood, because none of her contradictory attitudes about gender (or anything else) come into play; Severin would give us an author entirely consistent in her prescient form of resistance, absolutely stalwart in opposition, full of integrity, coherent in every strategy, predictable in every outline, and, I would argue, "out of her time," though we have been assured that she is not to be seen as such in this study. Speaking as a critic who was writing about Smith in close to these same terms before this book's publication, I implicate myself as I say that a number of us have, like Severin, wished to do the absolutely contradictory act that characterizes much literary criticism arising out of theoretical models such as these: describe our subject--from whatever period--as an agent who can wield postmodern critiques from various (very modernist, ironically) transcendent positionings (or as a mirror image of ourselves as we would like to see ourselves in the act of writing about them), when questioning precisely this sort of illusion of self-designed agency is at the heart of poststructuralist theory's project. In other words, both our own writing and our view of what our subject was writing need further refining; we too often use our theory as our "subject" instead of incorporating it into our strategies of both reading and writing and then seeing what happens as a result. The only answer for it--as we've found in plenty of analogous realms, such as the pedagogical--is to infiltrate or revise practice from below existing categories rather than impose new ones from above, to start with the text as intertext and work outward from there.
The repeatedly imposed idea in Severin's book is that all aspects of Smith's writing "work together to stop the romance plot" (67 and passim). The effort to portray Smith as an updated Virginia Woolf in this respect (and there are some valuable comparisons here of Smith's The Holiday with Woolf's The Years), and to read her disruptions of the old linear romance-marriage-death-before-death plot for women, owes a good deal to feminist rereadings of modernism such as one finds in Rachel Blau DuPlessis's Writing beyond the Ending, Ellen G. Friedman and Miriam Fuchs's Breaking the Sequence, and even Sandra Gilbert and Susan Gubar's gender-saturated studies of the modern period. Severin also brings in very interesting studies of popular imaginings concerning "woman" and the expectations of Smith's reading public via writers such as Mica Nava and Billie Melman. Issues of class as a problematic in women's writing--a very important topic that calls out for more critical study, certainly in readings of Smith--are therefore able to arise here, though the desire to read a Bakhtinian dynamic into the mix (however good that might be in itself) leads to what seem at times to be almost willful misreadings. For example, Severin attempts to read "carnival laughter" into the final image of Smith's terrifyingly oblique story "Surrounded by Children," in which a mad old woman disrobes and crawls into a rich child's perambulator on a public green and is spotted by the rest of the children in the park, both rich and poor, who "close in upon her fast" and laugh cruelly as the old woman fancies herself dying--"transfixed in grotesque crucifixion"--under their gaze (Me Again 26-27). It is not true, as Severin claims, that "the park visitors ... leave their normal domestic tasks and indulge in a parody of the domesticity they themselves represent" (111); this is not "the people's laughter," effected by those "burying the remnants of their social selves," but quite exclusively the laughter of the not-yet-fully-socialized children, and the "moral" of the story, a 1939 precursor to William Golding's simpler postwar nightmares, is not so singular or so clear or so fully focused on domestic ideology. In general, Severin's far-too-swiftly explained, uncoordinated, and seemingly obligatory weaving in of a whole spectrum of current theorists as she makes her arguments is often not helpful or convincing and at times does damage. For example, the brief references to Gilles Deleuze and Felix Guattari made to help her translate Edward Said's ideas on "Orientalism" into familially channeled desire, constructed for the purposes of her localized readings of Smith's speakers' varying degrees of "possessiveness" toward India, are in some ways fascinating but ultimately also offensive, in that they sublimate all of the other historical and political issues at hand in Smith's work that have to do with racial difference specifically, and with English prejudices, not primarily with extensions of the nuclear family drama.
Severin's readings of other stories she concentrates on, including "Beside the Seaside" and "The Herriots," are also rather significantly skewed to make them be about, respectively, women's spirited escapes from male dominance and the new rhythms of male-female relationship that she believes Smith envisions in our better future. In the first story, the women drive off from their vacation spot in search of "the home of Pluto [a name that I assume, given the surrounding text, is associated with so-named special military operations during World War II] and to the great lighthouse of Dungeness" (Me Again 22)--all of which should give one pause before they are read as a positive "escape" for women. In the second case, Severin backs up her thesis that Smith is advocating that the "claustrophobic closeness" of married couples "needs to be opened up with the rhythms of friendship," and that "relationships are more bearable with a larger quota of females to males" (114), by suggesting that the end of "The Herriots" offers us a "peaceful threesome": Mr. and Mrs. Herriot, plus the old woman Mrs. Barlow whom Peg Herriot befriends. She suggests that Mrs. Barlow acts as a "needed buffer" between the Herriots, and that they're much better off than they had been when the two of them had cried alone about their impoverished situation. But Mrs. Barlow is associated from the moment of her introduction with death; she quite seriously suggests that death is the only way out of difficulties, and the end of the story Severin so warmly welcomes takes place in a cemetery. As for the relationship between the Herriots--well, it's difficult to see that it has improved, since we're told that after Mrs. Barlow enters their lives, "they were very quiet now; there was no conversation." The death/life rhythms that pulse through the relationship between Celia and Caz in Smith's final novel in her trilogy, The Holiday (1949), are also read by Severin as prototypical of a new kind of relationship, a "new world order" between sexes (46), built on the destruction of our conventional one. But Caz (whose name is shortened from Casmilus, the surname of Smith's narrator for the first two books of the trilogy) and Celia, the narrator for this third novel, are cousins; their relationship is further made incestuous by the rumor that they share the same father, and therefore, in their own eyes, sex, or the fulfillment of their desires, remains impossible. It's difficult not to see that Smith is deploying them as something like psychomachic counterparts of a multiply referential unit representing something much larger in British postwar culture that is breaking down by the late 1940s; the irony here is that Severin, so keen to demonstrate Smith's deconstruction of the traditional linear romance, privileges the romantic plot in this book above all of the other broken trajectories that romance is by and large only a metaphor for.
It becomes clear, then, that historical-cultural study in this book is not effected to complicate our potentially reductive readings of even the very richly interwoven linguistic tapestries of the novels, but instead morphs into critical biography, streamlining and shaping the work so that it becomes singular in action and project--even Aristotelian in its heroic achievement. It seems very important to Severin that Smith not only be found presciently postmodern in her resistance to gendered stereotyping, but that she also get credit for going one step further in looking through our age's aporetic discomforts into post-postmodern spaces beyond it--that she be seen to "simultaneously ... deconstruct the second wave of domestic ideology and offer alternative social patterns" (102). Therefore, in addition to the idea that Smith offers visions of new rhythms that might develop between genders, Severin's thesis includes an argument about Smith's introduction of fantasy at the ends of her narratives in order to transgress generic boundaries and move from satirical treatments of the domestic sphere into a kind of departure mode; like the escapes she sees some of Smith's female characters making, these departures suggest another possibility arising, another world at hand. In Smith's hands, "fantasy ... suggests change is possible, but only through extreme imaginative leaps," Severin argues (109), asserting that Smith's narratives either end violently, calling for "destruction of the society she depicts," or end in prophetic/fantastic mode, as in "The Herriots" (where Peg dreams beforehand of the house in which she finds Mrs. Barlow). But it's very difficult to read the death or destruction at the end of such pieces, or fantasy arising therefrom, as being optimistic, and Severin doesn't succeed in her attempts to do so. It seems that while she and Civello are to be welcomed for at last giving this enormously complex trilogy the major place in the oeuvre that it deserves, their readings of it reduce and shape it somewhat misleadingly rather than explicate it.
Smith's novel trilogy is perhaps one of the most difficult, densely allusive, and interculturally literate works of fiction to emerge from the inter- and postwar years in Britain. Its range of commentary is vast; almost every phrase is a reference to a political, theological, literary, or popular "line" from the times, or from Smith's own voluminous and omnivorous reading, or from history--all of them distorted by other kinds of discourse layered on at significant intersections, causing a constant effect of "interference." It is a work about invidious reception of messages and being a passive receiver, at times, of cultural propaganda; it is a perfect if daunting text to examine from a cultural studies perspective. It is true that in some ways the trilogy gets its impetus, book by book, from the narrator's failed relationships, but "the times are the times of a black split heart," as we hear in The Holiday, and "the times" are in many ways the protagonist here --our narrator is also blackened by them and is by no means simply the voice of a progressive/progressing feminine spirit.(6) Like the shifter/ "bawd" Pompey in Shakespeare's Measure for Measure, who turns on his underground friends given the chance for authority over them in prison, and Pompey the Great, whose turn at the mill left him conquered by a greater tyrant, Julius Caesar, Smith's Pompey and Celia are caught up in metamorphoses that are Kafkaesque in their suggestion that her characters are a series of changing roles rather than actors, or at least in danger of being dressed as such. The trilogy moves from a kind of Gertrude Steinian monologue about things close to home in Novel on Yellow Paper to a surreal passage toward Germany in Over the Frontier, the second novel, in which our narrator plays truant from her health sanatorium in a "schloss" (or castle, with its echoes of Kafka's novel by that name), dons a uniform, takes a "commission" as a high-ranking officer in an unnamed conflict, and becomes a killer: "not less guilty than peasant and Archbishop, not less guilty than frivolous and brilliant Generalissimo."(7) The uniform that she first puts on at the request of her soon-to-be-abandoned lover Tom is one she at first "intuitively hated," "[b]ut if there had been nothing in me of it, nothing to be called awake by this wretched event [the war], should I not now be playing, in perhaps some boredom, but safely and sanely enough, with those who seem to me now beyond the frontier of a separate life?" (Over the Frontier 267).
Pompey as a character recognizes her inability to maintain a "separateness" as an agent in this novel; she is woven into her culture's (meaning Europe's) fabric--its dreams, its literature and philosophy, its failings and illusions, its triumphs and its trajectory at midcentury, the latter defined in part through numerous echoes, sounding in the narrator's voice, that allude to Conrad's narrator Marlow in Heart of Darkness. Yet Civello attempts to read the moment in which Pompey dons the uniform in front of a mirror (using of course Lacan's mirror imagery; one saw that coming) as a "rejoic[ing] at the moment she glimpses her new-found strength" (73), and this whole surreal section as "an index to her developing ego in her quest for female identity." Traveling "over the frontier" means for Civello in this novel a "begin[ning of the narrator's] psychic separation from her aunt," who has become her mother figure (72). Severin reads the same section as Pompey's "destruction" of that male corollary to the romance narrative, the adventure plot, which she asserts is not linked to the first part of the novel, the romance narrative. Thus once Pompey has so vanquished "the oppositional logic of the gender system," Severin suggests she is left with "nowhere to go. Able to exist in neither feminine nor masculine garb, Pompey self-destructs, only to be replaced with Celia in The Holiday. Celia attempts what Pompey has not been able to, to create a world `outside' the gendered narratives of Smith's period" (41). But there is no connection in Severin's reading of these events to the cultural moment she promised to bring us to, not a mention of the narrator's situation within the compromising discourses of her time beyond those of the "gendered [largely literary] plots" she might fall prey to, not even a word about the other European authors whose texts interweave her own; it is consistent with Severin's sequestering biographical rather than historical focus that Pompey's monstrous transgressions are not to be read as taking part in Smith's prewar context. And seeing The Holiday's project as entirely one in which "Celia ... does manage almost entirely to pull herself out of the rhythm of romance" (42) takes us back into the same focus. How the novel is infiltrated by what has been a developing matrix of discursive influences throughout the trilogy remains undiscussed, and the bewildering array of textual markers that bring in other "stories" beyond this autobiographical one remains unread.
What these writers are offering us in terms of continuing consideration of Smith is more valuable than my various worryings here might suggest--particularly with regard to Severin's book, many parts of which are praiseworthy, such as her section on Smith's crossings of genre in her drawings to accompany poems and her chapter on the "sung poems," which rightly takes some of us to task for not thinking enough about what that further splaying out of the poems into multiple media might suggest. But my concern here is that they are conventional considerations insofar as they obey all the old unwritten rules: you must read only to that precipice past which your study will become disunified and your subject grow blurry or dangerously dispersed at the edges, close read only those bits of works that clinch your thesis, and don't be self-conscious about your inevitably reductive conclusions or you'll lose your author/ authoritative voice. In other words, the problem--or current syndrome --these writers to varying extent exhibit is, in a sense, baiting and switching; they are not giving us what they tell us they are, "textual readings" as we now understand them, or "cultural studies" readings on an intertextual model, beyond an inclusion of select bits of history used as they would be in a biographical reading, to situate the writer against a backdrop, rather than read her/his work in continuation/discontinuation of its textual lines.(8)
And what might it mean to do both--read textually and also from within a poststructuralist and/or cultural studies orientation? The prospect necessarily frightens any critic, because it means reading without a portrait in mind or an ending first (if I might update Rachel Blau DuPlessis's earlier ideas about women writing beyond or without a set ending in mind; in some ways this kind of reading is the ultimate feminist project, as well). It also means beginning with the text as intertext, reading both its conscious and subconscious allusions as always already inscribed "expression," with a sense of the author not as effaced (in my practice, anyway) but as a very particularly "historied" being, located quite solidly in culture or at intersections of cultures, built up from a specific discursive background that both defines her/his limitations and contributes to an understanding of the verbal formulas and ideas assembled in the text at hand. It also means being conversant with as broad a cultural background as possible when one writes, so that close care in the reading of words and phrases and forms will cause planes to resonate along many vectors and lines rushing away from as well as into the work, helping readers get a view too of how variously and at times insidiously interconnected are the fountains and fault lines of a culture's textual terrain. It inevitably means feeling inadequate to the task, or should; self-reflexivity on the part of the critic with regard to her/his own shortcomings or hobbyhorses as a reader is, I think, also essential if the critic's voice is to undergo as careful an analysis as the one to which that critic is subjecting the text. And yet the flip side of this description carries the caution that we can culturally study an author to a kind of Barthesian death--another sort of self-fulfilling prophecy if it results in our reading broader theories of historical and cultural vectors shooting perhaps through but also past the text, where other things might be happening while our sights are set on the clearer line that is our own theoretical horizon. For all its shortcomings, New Critical close reading brought critics back from thinking about what a text should do (in terms of humanist approaches or other kinds of moralizings) to what it does do. New models of close reading might bring us back from our own inadvertently biographical/autobiographical criticism, which theory can, when it functions as our new morality, service all too easily.
University of New Hampshire
(1.) In Search of Stevie Smith, ed. Sanford Sternlicht (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse UP, 1991).
(2.) I must say I was hard-pressed to welcome a genuinely zany book like Arthur Rankin's The Poetry of Stevie Smith: Little Girl Lost (Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire: Colin Smythe, 1985), which reads Smith with such a completely non-self-reflexive, Blakean spiritual fervor that it strikes me as being another sort of exercise altogether, not critical attention to the work of this author. It was fortunate that in the same year Jack Barbera and William McBrien produced their truly helpful book, Stevie: A Biography of Stevie Smith (London: Heinemann), which offset the damage that such a first book-length study might do to any author's afterlife, and that Francis Spalding's very fine critical biography Stevie Smith: A Biography (New York: Norton) appeared four years later. These have been the only three book-length studies of the oeuvre by single authors to date.
(3.) The quotation in Civello's text is taken from a reference to Bleuler's 1910 descriptions of the syndrome in The Encyclopedia of Psychology (ed. H. J. Eysenck and W. Arnold [New York: Herder and Herder, 1972] 47). Civello provides another brief description of ambivalence in this paragraph as "a simultaneity of conflicting feelings `toward the same person, object or action,'" but it is attributed to "Stein and Urdang 46" without a relevant footnote included.
(4.) From Me Again: The Uncollected Writings of Stevie Smith, Illustrated by Herself, ed. Jack Barbera and William McBrien. (New York: Farrar, 1981) 124; first and third ellipses added.
(5.) From The Collected Poems of Stevie Smith, ed. James MacGibbon (London: Penguin, 1985) 436.
(6.) The Holiday (1949; London: Virago, 1979) 143.
(7.) Over the Frontier (1938; London: Virago, 1980) 264.
(8.) Severin, as she strives to discuss Smith's as a "composite art form"--that is, poems with drawings, anticipating those of Mary Kelly and other more recent artists who use mixing to "undo the appealing coherency of woman's image in mass cultural products" (49)--justifiably criticizes some of us for not paying attention to the poems' drawings as more than extensions of the text, or as having "a separate cultural history." But aside from pointing back to William Blake and Edward Lear--the former not fitting as well into the comic or parodic model proposed--it's difficult to see what this seemingly simple sketching in of precursors in the same mode of composite creating actually does for Severin's readings of the poems. She does begin to say some interesting things about the comment that Smith's line drawings might be making with regard to line drawings in women's magazines, but much of the disruptive dynamic she discusses with regard to the poems and drawings duplicates the strategies others have used.
ROMANA HUK is associate professor of English and European cultural studies at the University of New Hampshire. She is co-editor, with James Acheson, of Contemporary British Poetry: Essays in Theory and Criticism (SUNY, 1996) and has published numerous essays on contemporary British poetry. Her book on Stevie Smith for Macmillan's Women Writers series is forthcoming, as is a collection of essays from Wesleyan University Press on problems of reading avant-garde poetry in English across cultural and national boundaries.3