Sunday, February 10, 2019

How Should We Read Louisa May Alcott's Poetry?

More than 130 years after her death, Louisa May Alcott is still one of the best-selling American authors of her generation, in large part thanks to her Little Women. This novel has been adapted twice in the last year alone, with yet another retelling due to be released later this year. Its perennial popularity has in large part determined Alcott's reputation: she is regarded, almost exclusively, as a sentimental novelist for girls. Though her gothic novels are back in print (even as many of her girls' novels go out of print), for most readers she remains Jo March's historical alter ego. 

I've read everything Alcott ever wrote that has been printed - all the novels, some of the letters and journals (many have not survived and a definitively complete collection of such materials is still not available), the vast majority of her short stories and novellas, her handful of autobiographical pieces... and her poetry. Though Alcott published a few poems in her lifetime and provided a fair number to be recited or sung at philanthropic events, her poetry tends to be totally marginalized in any assessment of her oeuvre. Is that a bad thing? 

To answer that question, one must consider what purpose these poems had for Louisa herself. In the pamphlet released by Orchard House, which collected the extant poems from numerous sources, from archives and manuscripts to the published novels, there are forty four poems. They are arranged chronologically, with the exception of "Love," which is undated, but by my estimation was certainly written in adulthood. It is striking, however, to see how few of these poems were written to be published as distinct works. A high percentage of the poems were written to accompany birthday or Christmas gifts. There are memorial poems that mourn both family members and friends - her most famous poem, "Thoreau's Flute," is among these. However, her best-known poem is almost certainly "Our Angel in the House," which she wrote originally after her sister Beth had died and later embedded in Little Women as the fictional Jo's elegy for the fictional Beth. While many of the juvenile poems are focused on nature - there are poems about robins, sunsets, and winter - or moral struggles to be good, in later life, the majority of the poems seem to have been written for specific events, for instance a meeting of the Concord Women's Club or a visit to the Newsboys' Home.

The poems that are most surprising and most fun, however, are the poems she wrote in mockery. Louisa had a wicked sense of humor, which she gleefully turned on herself as well as other people. In "Parody on the Graves of a Household," she impishly mourns the teeth she lost before she got dentures. In "The Downward Road," she and her sister May are "Yankee maids of simple mien" disgusted by the food they encounter in France, only to be entirely converted to "eels, mushrooms, pickled toad." In the end, they don't want to go home because the "Yankee" food is so bad! In "A Song from the Suds," which also ended up as one of Jo March's poems, she parodies the sort of ode usually made to more exalted forms of labor by celebrating "a glorious washing day."

Louisa's talents shine most brightly in these comic poems, and in none more so than "The Lay of the Golden Goose." In this fable-as-autobiography, Louisa tells the story of a scapegrace gosling who is shunned and tut-tutted by all the other fowls, until, when she grows up, she starts to lay golden eggs. Then all the birds who had once despised her hound the goose for more and more golden eggs of a literary sort. In the end, "So, to escape too many friends,/Without uncivil strife,/She ran to the Atlantic pond/And paddled for her life." By the end of the poem - one of her longest - the goose has recovered somewhat, but is settling down to produce more golden eggs. 

"The Lay of the Golden Goose" was not, as far as I'm aware, published during Alcott's lifetime. It reveals a great deal about how she regarded herself, both as an odd duck (ha!) in society and as a writer. Her "perverse" eccentricities and attempts to fly out into the wider world are cast as absurd, but they are also essential for the goose to contrive to settle down to lay her golden eggs. Louisa never tamed her rebellious streak, though she often attempted to tamp down her wilder impulses, and she was also, in contemporary terms, a workaholic. She worked intensely and at length, so much so that she nearly crippled her hand from gripping the pen for so many hours. She achieved her aim of supporting herself and her family, without recourse to marriage, but she paid for it dearly. Alcott seems to have loathed being famous - in Jo's Boys, she has her fictional alter ego, now a successful authoress, climbing out of the window to avoid autograph-seekers. This autobiography, though whimsical and comic, tells the story of someone who has never felt accepted or acceptable, who has attained worldly success, but finds the rewards dubious and the burdens heavy, and who, despite exhaustion, cannot shake a compulsion to respond to demands for more work.

I rank this poem and some of the others published in the pamphlet, especially the unexpectedly moving "Beds," "A Song from the Suds," "To My Brain," and the undated "Love," as worthy of critical praise. These poems can easily bear the weight of analysis. However, an issue remains: how do we read poems that were meant only for the intimate eyes of a few? We can do as I have done and sidestep the question, simply analyzing without fussing about the intended readership. But, in the case of Alcott's poetry, it seems better to remember where each of the poems in the pamphlet has been extracted from. Alcott never published a volume of verse; this posthumous collection, gleaned from so many sources, does not so much reveal her range as a poet as it reveals the many diverse uses for which Louisa wrote poems. It perhaps helps to think of the pamphlet as a scrapbook, rather than a collection of poetry, or to borrow from her own "In the Garret," as a set of "little chests.../Dim with dust and worn by time." In this way, the pamphlet does not so much contain a collection of poems as it does an eight-year-old's sketch of a robin, the card that accompanied a pair of slippers, a rose in memory of John Brown, a birthday cake, a Christmas carol, and many other small survivors of a rich life lived long ago. 

Wednesday, January 30, 2019

For Emily Dickinson, the Personal Wasn't All That Political

Emily Dickinson has become, with Walt Whitman, the founding poet of American poetry. She is beloved by both scholars and casual readers, the subject of endless volumes of literary criticism and the source of quotations for a plethora of Etsy products and Instagram images. It's common to lament that Dickinson didn't receive acclaim and was barely even published during her lifetime, never mind that she was ambivalent at best about presenting her work in print. It would be easy to assume that this lack of literary success while she was alive was the result of misogynistic publishing practice, but as Susan Howe has pointed out in an interview in The Birth-mark, "Emily Dickinson's inability to get her work published during her lifetime had almost nothing to do with the fact that she was a woman and everything to do with her originality." This is a more than fair point: American women writers can be counted among some of the most popular and critically successful during the nineteenth century, from Julia Ward Howe to Harriet Beecher Stowe, Margaret Fuller to Louisa May Alcott, and many others forgotten by all but specialist scholars today. Women poets, in particular, were treasured by American readers, precisely because it was believed that women could voice particular notions of beauty, simplicity, and truth from the domestic sphere that men could not. Thus, women's publishing success in the nineteenth century was not a feminist victory in the twenty-first century sense, since it was predicated on biologically essentialist assumptions about gender.

Howe further argues that, "I think she may have chosen to enter the space of silence, a space where power is no longer an issue, gender is no longer an issue, voice is no longer an issue, where the idea of a printed book appears as a trap." Howe's contention is fascinating and worth exploring further, not least of all because it challenges numerous received notions of contemporary feminism.

Today, it is taken for granted in feminist circles that women ought to be, and ought to want to be, empowered and that empowerment is attained through self-expression. To remain silent is to be oppressed, suppressed, repressed. Feminists are supposed to raise their voices and speak. However, speaking is not in and of itself empowering. If no one is listening to you, or no one who is listening understands you, it is speaking, and not silence, that becomes oppressive. One of the central problems of women's lives, in this very moment, is that a woman's 'no' is often heard as a 'yes' or a 'maybe' or 'whatever you say, mister.' Further, if we are all speaking, we create cacophony, rather than empowerment.

Choosing to remain silent is not a refusal of self-empowerment, but it is also not a means of self-empowerment. Instead, that choice elides the question of empowerment altogether. It is to assert, staunchly, with Bartleby, "I would prefer not to." In Dickinson's case, the silence of not publishing her poetry was also a means of creating a space in which her poetry could be unharnessed from the constraints of the cold realities of the public literary forum. She did not need to write apologia for her unusual syntax, her idiosyncratic punctuation, her elliptical references and ambiguous grammar. She did not need to neutralize the ironic observations, hitting her targets like Robin Hood's arrows, or the small blasphemies that seem quite modern to us and might have seemed unfeminine and indecent in her own day. She slips out from under the carapace of womanhood in a society that only valued angels in their homes and unlaces the corset of regular verse insisted upon by the arbiters of poetic culture.

From today's vantage point, it seems a shame that Dickinson became the darling of American poetry only after her death, that her work was only published after her death. She can't tell us how the poems ought to look on the page. She can't tell us which poems are finished and which are fragments, if she would even have seen a difference between the two. But it's questionable whether this circumstance is a tragedy or a felicity. There is a quality in Dickinson's work that can't be pinned down. She is a literary butterfly that escapes every net. "Split the lark," she wrote, "and you'll find the music." But Emily Dickinson is one lark that we can't split open, plainly and simply because she repaired into a poetic world of her own making, one without any publisher but her own hand. Does that make her 'empowered'? Perhaps not. Can we really, in all sincerity, imagine the white-clad, slant-rhyming woman receding into the distant past wanting to be empowered? At such an idea, I cannot help but see her with a bemused, Mona Lisa smile. Feminism demands empowerment because it demands that women be visibly, vocally participant in the socio-economic sphere, but Dickinson didn't need to be empowered because her poetry didn't depend on the faddish caprices of society or the hollow rewards of capitalist economy. 

Thursday, January 17, 2019

Short Films for Fans of Anaïs Nin

Anaïs Nin is more famous for her personal life - particularly the sexual aspect of it - than for her writing, though of course, it can be difficult in her case to separate the two since her most read works are her diaries. They're heavily expurgated, but nevertheless frank and, unsurprisingly, it was her intense love affair with Henry Miller and his wife June that Philip Kaufman chose to make the theme of his biographical film. The focus on Nin as a sexual figure tends to overshadow all but the sexual aspects of her writing, not all of which was confessional narration of her sex life or erotica. In fact, her collections of erotica were published posthumously and, although the volumes of her continuous novel, Cities of the Interior, are certainly not lacking in intensely sensual scenes of sex and desire, I am struck every time I read her work by the delicacy of the way she describes music, interiority, the body as it dances or walks down a street, the oddity and eccentricity of people. Nin's lightning-strike poems and stories have little in common with Kaufman's film, which runs well over two hours, and wears its lengthy runtime rather obviously. It's safe to say that Nin, always experimenting literarily, sexually, and intellectually, would prefer an evening of experimental short films than a slog of a film that, despite Kaufman's long shots and copper-tinged lighting, isn't very sexy. Here are seven to start with: 

At Land (1944)
Nin actually worked with avant-garde director and scholar of dance Maya Deren on another of her films, Ritual in Transfigured Time. The two women had many obsessions in common, from dance to psychoanalysis, poetry, women's interiority and the dream. Deren wrote, directed, and starred in At Land, an elliptical oneiric journey that begins with a woman washed up on a beach. Though not as erotically charged as Meshes of the Afternoon or her dance-centric shorts, At Land dives deep in what Nin would have termed a woman's cities of the interior.

The House Is Black (1963)
Forough Farrokhzad's documentary about a leper colony is actually a film about beauty that breaks the heart. Farrokhzad narrates her only film with her own poems and passages from the Koran and the Bible, her lilting voice carrying us through scenes that could be horrifying if she didn't waft us as lightly as a feather through them. The eye of her camera refuses to see ugliness, capturing instead as beauty's opposite the suffering of those afflicted. 

The Man with the Suitcase (1983)
Like Deren and Farrokhzad, Chantal Akerman also appears in her film, as a fictional version of herself, a writer who finds she cannot manage to work because the presence of a house guest completely upsets her usual routine. Each time she sits down to write, she is assailed by the knowledge that the man staying with her might come in or go out; she tries to sneak into the bathroom unseen and scarf down breakfast before he wakes up. Whether one sees an allegory of the anxiety of literary creation or the coexistence of women with unwanted men, this film is remarkably funny!

Mermaid (Rusalka) (1997)
Nin's obsession with aquatic metaphors, with images of oceans, waves, and mermaids, would be satisfied by this gorgeous and astounding adaptation of the Slavic fairy tale of Rusalka, created by Aleksandr Petrov. Petrov is a magician whose films are animated by filming the transformation of oil paint as it dries on panes of glass. Visually exquisite, Mermaid dramatizes the tragedy of love spurned, chains of broken hearts drowning one after the other as each takes its revenge.

La P'tite Lili (1927)
Director Alberto Cavalcanti's collaboration with a very young Jean Renoir, acting opposite his then-wife and muse Catherine Hessling, is in a deplorable state and possibly past the point of being properly restored. Even so, this adaptation of the popular song (with the score arranged by modernist composer Darius Milhaud) is oodles of horror-tinged fun, jauntily telling us the story of the p'tite Lili, a bow-mouthed orphan who becomes a fallen woman and meets a nasty end.

Remembrance of Things to Come (2001)
Though often described as a documentary, Chris Marker and Yannick Bellon's impressionistic telling of French history through photographs taken by Denise Bellon, the latter's mother, throughout her life, has such a prismatic and specific to the point of eccentric approach to its subjects that it ought to be placed in its own realm: it shows us the truth, but it's a truth that is slippery and personal and contingent. This is history as diary - Denise Bellon's visions of her France show the country transforming, but they do not let us slip into a universalized, totalized mode of historical thinking. 

Themes and Variations (1928)
Today, Germaine Dulac's reputation rests on her groundbreaking film, The Smiling Madame Beudet, which is widely regarded as the first feminist film, but Dulac was a prolific, professional filmmaker and was constantly experimenting. I adored this exercise in montage and rhythm, cutting between a ballerina's limbs and the pistons of a metallic machine. Themes and Variations mesmerizes the viewer, who comes to actually hear phantom music through the silent film's manipulation of rhythmic editing.

Saturday, January 12, 2019

Is Dario Argento's "Suspiria" a Dance Film?

Ballet isn't the most popular of art forms in the twenty-first century. In the United States at least, it probably owes its continued, if threatened, existence almost exclusively to the annual bonanza of The Nutcracker, a Christmas tradition that even those who would never dream of seeing any other ballet often hold dear. So it's perhaps no great surprise that most people will struggle to come up with many ballet films off the top of their heads. Most people will come up with Black Swan, Suspiria, and not much else. I, however, love ballet and have compiled a list of what I believe are the very best ballet films. Since then, I've found a few more that I would add to that list - Ben Hecht's preposterous but atmospheric Specter of the Rose and Dancer, a documentary about Ukrainian ballet wunderkind and bad boy Sergei Polunin - but I hadn't up until now seen the film that usually tops lists of films about dance: Dario Argento's Suspiria.

I didn't care for it, but that's no surprise. I don't tend to like horror films and I found it to be an alternately oppressive and silly experience. What I wasn't expecting, given its prominence in discussions of ballet on film, is that it really isn't a ballet film. Though set in what we are told is an elite dancing academy, there are no ballet sequences. The students only dance in one scene in the entire film and that scene makes it embarrassingly clear that Argento didn't bother casting dancers. Their gawky, awkward leaps and turns, uncoordinated and ungraceful, look ridiculous. Argento has a reputation for laissez-faire directing, but my goodness, the brief display in this scene is bad to the point of pain.

Perhaps a film needn't have actual dance sequences to have something to say about dance, but in the case of Suspiria, dance is essentially a means to an aesthetic end, but not an especially interesting one. Putting willowy girls in skintight black onesies onscreen seems to have been the most crucial reason for the Tanz Dance Academy (the 'Dance Dance Academy' if we translate the German - oh dear) to be a dance school, instead of, say, a cooking school or a painting school. Dance is totally beside the point.

Thus, I don't see any way in which Suspiria could be considered a dance film, though from what I have heard, without having seen it, Luca Guadagnino's remake could be so considered. What frustrates about this incorrect genre labeling is that it indicates the paucity of attention that actual dance films receive. Why should Suspiria be the automatic first choice for any list of dance films when it doesn't have any actual dancing in it? Pedro Almodóvar's Talk to Her, though rarely if ever classified as a dance film (except perhaps by yours truly) has a lot to say about dance and includes scenes of one of Pina Bausch's ballets. Calling Suspiria a film about dance is a bit like saying that Raiders of the Lost Ark is about teaching university classes or Casablanca is about how to run a bar. The 'Dance of the Hours' sequence in Fantasia, with its affectionately ludicrous choreography, its dainty hippos, airy elephants, and slithery crocodiles, expresses something of the sublime absurdity of the dance. Suspiria, on the other hand, is a film in which dance is nothing more than a minor ploy to get its heroine propelled into the academy of the occult.