May 2014

Liza Bright


Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology edited by Robert Hass and Paul Ebenkamp

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, who used blank verse to dramatize the plight of the woman poet-visionary in Aurora Leigh, famously lamented her lack of antecedents: "I look everywhere for grandmothers and see none." Now, over a century and a half later, in this strange morning of the twenty-first century, we are at the very least rich with models of the serious woman poet, with her varied voices and fixations, revisions and cultivations, and those poets that could be called Browning's granddaughters and great-granddaughters are our own grandmothers and great-grandmothers. And it is this particular generation, those born into a late nineteenth century that seemed secure and whole, then continuing womanhood -- and writing poetry -- amid the early twentieth century's cataclysmic ruptures and ruins (which, of course, for women also meant the crucial possibility of reinvention and revolution), that we call modern.

Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology collects many of these poets together for several hundred often highly experimental pages; their various names greet with both the warmth of familiarity and the thrill of discovery. Djuna Barnes serves as always to illustrate the importance of inversion in revelation: "In the North birds feather a long wind" begins one of her strange, lovely poems and "Even vases in the making / Are uncouth" ends another. One can almost imagine these written from some café corner on the Left Bank, amid doomed but grand romances and other expatriate entanglements. (Dadaist Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven, whose poetry appears in this volume with provocative declarations like "My bawdy spirit is innate" and "No spinisterlollypop for me," was a close friend; Barnes is partly credited with saving her poems that were published for the first time in 2011 in Body Sweats.) An even more recognizable name, Gertrude Stein, again forcibly proves that language is flexible yet and words have not done nearly all they may do, or undo: "Put a sun in Sunday, Sunday" starts off the dizzyingly inventive poem "Yet Dish," which soon hits upon something like a modernist mantra with "pieces pieces places of places."

Also hallucinatory in their cumulative effect, although in its own way, are Mina Loy's highly original poems, gemlike and full of unexpected glints. To some former lover, likely based on the Futurist leader Giovanni Papini, her speaker in "Songs to Joannes" intones in semi-regret: "We might have coupled / In the bed-ridden monopoly of a moment / Or broken flesh with one another / At the profane communion table / Where wine is spill'd on promiscuous lips." Shocking in its day for its bodily focus, it retains most spectacularly its sense of the wild possibility of language. "Love," goes its final line, interposed with a Dickinson-like series of dashes, is "the preeminent litterateur" ("Nature," it is coyly claimed earlier, is "that irate pornographist"). Marianne Moore's poetry achieves something similar, where the masterfully employed obscure word works to open up meanings and expand ways of seeing. In "An Octopus," "dots of cyclamen-red and maroon on its clearly defined / pseudo-podia / made of glass that will bend -- a much needed invention." She offers something like a challenge and self-definition to her fellow modernists in the final lines of "The Past is the Present": "Ecstasy affords / the occasion and expediency determines the form."

Anne Spencer, born in the first generation after slavery, writes poetry that, among other things, reflects vividly the type of private garden-side contemplation that had been largely stolen from her slave ancestors. In "Lines to a Nasturtium," she envisions this bright flower drenched in mythical import: "I saw a daring bee, to-day, pause, and soar, / Into your flaming heart; / Then did I hear crisp crinkled laughter / As the furies after tore him apart?" Another Harlem Renaissance name is Angelina Weld Grimke. In a short, evocative poem entitled "The Black Finger," she imagines this title image "against a gold, gold sky," and queries it: "Why, beautiful still finger, are you black? / And why are you pointing upwards?" Full of portent and symbol, each characteristically sparse and enigmatic line is a deft threat against the white establishment and all its ongoing crimes. In another poem, one of Grimke's many that serve as expression for her largely hidden lesbian identity, a speaker professes to another woman her ardent desire to "creep / Through the long brown grasses / That are your lashes" and "deeply drown" in her mysterious eyes. In addition to its lyrical power, the poem underscores the many overlapping hostilities against which such courageous lives were led.

The poems collected in Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology are diverse, but they are linked, too. Each seems to gaze directly and speak indirectly -- or sometimes vice-versa -- in that quintessentially modernist mode, even as the particulars of intention and expression are distinct and individual. Images associated with femininity appear and reappear, carrying with them a freshness that seems to come in part from their creative origins outside the masculine tradition. Drawing from her work as seamstress, Hazel Hall describes "cross-stitched on a black satin bag / Two listening macaws" that in their sewn immobility remain in constant "futile energy"; here a trivialized feminine product is translated into potent metaphor for what endures and what does not, the macaws' "green tails / blue wings, yellow breasts, and sharply turned heads" unexpectedly offering a flipside view of the intersection between life and loss. In Amy Lowell's "Patterns," her speaker confesses that "I too am a rare / Pattern" as her internal "passion / Wars against the stiff brocade" of her elaborate dress, first in erotic imagining and then in the face of sudden grief. Across these works, woman is presented not as mere passive object, but as subject -- variously, and often simultaneously, she is critic, visionary, lover, and guide.

In the modernists' concern to understand the momentary end-point that was their contemporary lives, so new and seemingly uncharted, they also inevitably, ceaselessly turned to the past. In an excerpt from Lola Ridge's vivid rendering of early twentieth century urban realities, The Ghetto, half-protest and half-celebration, the speaker wonders if the Hester Street immigrant girls' ancestors -- "those ancient mothers who saw the dawn break over Egypt" -- could have fathomed what diaspora would do to their children's-children's-children: "Across the centuries / The march of their enduring flesh." The subtle anarchist sensibility of this work finds altered echo in Lowell's imagist ransacking of past myth to anoint the present day, asking "Tell me, / Was Venus more beautiful / Than you are / When she topped / The crinkled waves"?  But it is H.D. who above all devoted her art to the reworking of Western tradition into feminine experience, where woman's grandeur is not the distant mythic ideal but close and biting, with revolutionary potential. In "Helen," she writes, "All Greece reviles / the wan face when she smiles, / ...could indeed love the maid, / only if she were laid / white ash amid funereal cypresses."

Throughout these poems (and manifestos and other prose works, too) there is the palpable sense that they were written during a time when it truly seemed that an arrangement of words -- fine explosions of metaphor, exquisite rending of traditional forms, idiosyncratic typography -- could in fact work to undo everything, could help make the world anew and bring history to its knees. For the modernists, literary expression was enacted as unapologetic, unqualified rebellion, perhaps for a perfectly primed audience (Robert Hass muses in his afterword that even H.D.'s "absence of capitals at the beginnings of lines must have produced their mild shock"). In every carefully constructed image or phrase, the stakes feel very high; however otherwise divergent, the writings are united by their sense of urgency. The editors attempt to answer the question of modernism partly through biography, and this too makes sense. The tantalizing details given of lives boldly led against convention (Freytag-Lorinfhaven with her "headdress made of birdcages and wastepaper baskets"; Loy's rollicking resume that neglects few avenues for art and adventure; the many famous names linked to these poets in love and friendship, to say nothing of their often vital relationships with one another) nearly rival the poetry for spellbinding intensity.

How conservative and staid so much contemporary writing -- and living -- feels alongside these modernists! How inspiring and heartening it is to read their daring attempts to do something entirely new with language, undertaken both in seriousness and wild play. What to Browning was only an absence, lacuna, and loss, is for us granddaughters and great-granddaughters of the modernists an absolute inheritance, no less glittering than any actual deco-era jewels (like Ridge's "coral beads, blue beads, / beads of pearl and amber" or Stein's beadlike repetitions: "necklaces, neck laces, necklaces, neck laces"). One need only flip these pages to revel in the modernists' richness and our riches; still their experiments in poetic expression surprise, unsettle, soar.

This collection is vast, but I want more; I look and see grandmothers everywhere.

Modernist Women Poets: An Anthology edited by Robert Hass and Paul Ebenkamp
ISBN: 978-1619021105
208 pages