[28 January 2004]
Djuna Barnes’ reputation as a central figure in American modernist literary circles has risen dramatically in recent years. A special issue of The Review of Contemporary Fiction was devoted to her work in 1993; Virago has published collections of short stories and interviews (the latter memorably titled I Could Never be Lonely Without a Husband): Faber continues to publish Nightwood, her best-known work, famously lauded by T. S. Eliot when it was first issued in 1936: and now Fyfield has collected together for the first time into one slim volume just about all the poems she wrote and published.
As a writer of fiction and poetry, interviewer, minor artist (five of her drawings, crossing Beardsley with Tove Jansson, are included here; her painting of Cordelia Coker Pearson in riding clothes provides the book’s cover) and major controversial figure (she was a child abuse victim and long-term alcoholic, dying in 1982 at the absurd age of 90), Barnes more than holds her own in the literary pantheon, and yet, as critics like Bonnie Kime Scott have argued, her work resists attempts to categorise it easily alongside such modernist luminaries as Hemingway, Woolf or Eliot. Barnes is much closer to Mina Loy, herself a marginal modernist maverick.
One problem the contemporary editor faces is Barnes’ own reluctance to republish, or even acknowledge, her own earlier work. “In the latter years of her life,” Rebecca Loncraine comments in her informative introduction to this volume, “she seemed determined to keep herself out of print (and out of pocket).” Nevertheless she went on writing into old age, living as a recluse in Greenwich Village, in something close to squalor for 40 years.
In his biography Djuna: The Life and Work of Djuna Barnes, Philip Herring comments that “Barnes labored steadily at her poetry during the final years. She hoped to write a long poem—perhaps cantos—but the drafts accumulated, the editing became impossibly complex, and the stacks of partially completed poems rose higher and higher”. He also cites her own description of The Book of Repulsive Women, first published in 1915: “My first book of poems is a disgusting little item.” From these unpromising beginnings Rebecca Loncraine has gathered a remarkable body of work.
Of the poems themselves much can be said. Barnes writes in a curiously anachronistic style, in which content jars against form, as if children’s nursery rhymes were refilled with material purged by centuries of prurient censorship, and made vibrant, living things again. She’s heavily influenced by late-Romantic excess—these poems abound with echoes of Keats and Shelley: “And so it is, and will be year on year / Time in and out of date, and still on time / A billion grapes plunge bleeding into wine / And bursting, fall like music on the ear”, she writes in ‘Pastoral’, in a seeming parody of Shelley’s own notorious near-self-parody, “I fall upon the thorns of life! I bleed!”. Elsewhere her poems are pure Gothic sensibility, a century late:
Does not the wind moan round your painted towers
Like rats within an empty granary?
The clapper lost, and long blown out to sea
Your windy doves. And here the black bat cowers
Against your clock that never strikes the hours. (‘Six Songs of Khalidine’)
Barnes is occasionally fond of the fake archaism (a poetic device as old as Edmund Spenser, and one of Coleridge’s worse habits), so stallions are “ebon” (not black), and ‘woe’ is spelt ‘wo’. She dares to rhyme ‘rooms’, ‘tombs’ and ‘wombs’ (and, two lines later, write “And those who have their blooms in jars”) in ‘From Third Avenue On.’ But these are playful moments, mere vestiges of a flirtatious decadence. Her real force as a poet resides in her excessive literary morbidity, her overwhelming sense of linguistic putrefaction.
As titles like ‘Suicide,’ ‘Death,’ ‘The Last Toast’ and ‘To the Dead Favourite of Liu Ch’e’ might suggest, she’s a poet of mortality, finding evidence of its presence in the irreversible making-absent that time works on all things. The opening poem, ‘The Dreamer,’ concludes with a gasp of horror—“Faith, what darkness!”—from which Barnes only momentarily recovers in subsequent poems. ‘Call of the Night’ addresses a dog in its closing lines: “You too know, old fellow? / Then lift up your head and bark. / It’s just the call of the lonesome place, / The winds and the housing dark.” ‘Six Carried Her Away,’ a self-explanatory title for a narrative poem, echoes Hardy, Dickinson, even Emily Brontë.
Sometimes decadent excess overflows in moments of Swinburnesque passion:
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. (‘From Fifth Avenue Up’)
Or the same image can recur to wholly different effect, in a wholly different kind of poem:
The frail music on her window
Facing starkly towards the street
Is scribbled here by tipsy sparrows
Etched there with their rocking feet.
Is fashioned too, by every beat
Of shirt and sheet. (‘Seen From the ‘L’‘)
Yet one senses, reading these poems together, that Barnes’ preoccupation with the lusciously erotic is always a safety valve, a temporary escape from the insistence to which her poems return. ‘To One Feeling Differently’ exemplifies this; clearly a poem of sexual frustration, it’s also a near-aggressive lament for lost love, a protest against rejection, a plea against abandonment and a dirge for “The solemn lisping of untimely things” all at once, concluding with lines that surely excoriate the addressee beyond healing: “on high lamenting wings / Cold time screams past us, shedding sparks of pain - / Of which you are the core and the refrain.”
In adding to the burgeoning oeuvre of Barnes’ writings available to the contemporary reader, this collected edition of Barnes’ poems is long overdue. It affords valuable insights into a neglected body of work that troubles conventional literary categories and disturbs as much as it surprises, in poems that are, as the editor puts it, both “repellent and compelling.”