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Joys of Desolation

You are quite potty about death,” says Celia to Caz in The Holiday,

how you do go on about death, listen if she can think of one other thing—death, death, death. I see you with black sequins and seaweed clinging to your hair. You are like the child in the story who saw the Italian funeral, very grand it was, and as black as a maidservant’s dream of death, and the child cried out, Che gusto avrei di morir’ anch’ io. You, my dear, might have been that little Roman, oh dear, oh dear, the little Roman monster amorous of death, be-jetted, be-feathered, besequined, death, death, death.”

And the voice Celia puts on to say it in is “rather peculiar, familiar too, rather lisping and thin, it squeaks a little at high pitch.”

Here is the dominant theme, the style, the vocal pitch of that odd fish Stevie Smith (born Florence Margaret in 1902, died in 1971). “A nugget of genius,” one reviewer ascribed to her; “nervy, bold and grim,” she called herself. Though she wrote three “novels” (more extended free associations than novels as we know them), she is best thought of as a poet of small, farouche poems illustrated with doodles, a cross between Ogden Nash and Blake.

Though her reputation has seesawed, there have always been Stevie Smith fans, and for long I resisted being one of them; the lisp in the voice, the high pitch, and the squeak seemed to me—that terrible English condemnation—affected. Fauxnaif, quaint, whimsical. But the freefloating imagination, the sure instinct for style, above all the deep note of death, death, death sounding through the wispy poems eventually wins one over. Stevie Smith loved to win admirers; she was abominably lonely as well as fey and funny.

The foundations for that were laid down in childhood, broken by illness and bereavement (perhaps even earlier; she wrote a poem on her weaning—“oh the famishment for me”). Her parents were mismatched and when she was three her father left wife and two daughters and went into the navy, sending occasional postcards and little else.

I sat upright in my baby carriage
And wished mama hadn’t made such a foolish marriage.
I tried to hide it, but it showed in my eyes unfortunately
And a fortnight later papa ran away to sea.

There is a suggestion in this, however airily put, that she had felt herself responsible for her father’s desertion; and certainly that she was a wary, precocious child. The result of never having been really childish was that the child lived on in the adult Stevie Smith, a source both of her talent and of her melancholy.

Mother, aunt, and great-aunt set up house with the two children in a far-out north London suburb where they had little money but good schooling. When Peggy (later Stevie) was five she fell ill of tubercular peritonitis and, following the horrible medical custom of the time, was sent away to a nursing home for three years. Her family visited, but it was at this time that the lifelong attacks of desolation must have set in. She decribes in the autobiographical Novel on Yellow Paper how she cried and refused food and was chilled by indifferent caresses that were so unlike her mother’s. It was at this age, too, she says, that she learned to love suicide, and she makes the dubious proposition that all children should be introduced to it at this age:

To brace and fortify the child who already is turning with fear and repugnance from the life he is born into, it is necessary to say: Things may easily become more than I choose to bear…. That “choose” is a grand old burn-your-boats phrase that will put beef into the little one, and you see if it doesn’t bring him to a ripe old age.

When she came back, her mother was already beginning to be ill with the heart disease she was to die of when Peggy was seventeen. In Novel on Yellow Paper, again, she describes the torture of watching her mother—“When I saw the suffering of my much loved ma, I could not help her. I raged against necessity, I raged against my absconding and very absent pa, I raged and fumed and spat.” And she died; and “the last minute when you are dying, that may be a very long time indeed.”

So for the first seventeen years of her life Stevie Smith learned very thoroughly that indeed it is possible that things may become more than we can bear and that it is best to make a servant of death, a deliberate choice. And she clung to safety—her surviving aunt, the suburban home, a monotonous job—for most of her life as a writer. But she must have been learning other things, too, that enabled her to coast so freely with her imagination, to let go and fly. There was much Edwardian suburban security and fun for the two girls—books and church and the countryside and amateur dramatics (she shone at dramatics and at drawing, and was to use both later, in illustrations and poetry readings). Her childhood accounts for the “death death death” note, but also for the wit and joy and confident originality.

Unlike her sister, Stevie (as she now became) was not considered clever enough for university, so went to work as a secretary in a publishing house. Here she stayed for thirty years. “Dark was the day for Childe Rolandine the artist/When she went to work as a secretary-typist”; nevertheless for much of her time she seems to have been reasonably happy there. She lived in the Palmer’s Green house (as she was to do all her life) with Aunt, “the Lion of Hull,” a majestic maiden lady who heated up Stevie’s bedtime milk and cossetted and championed her. “Oh how deeply thankful I am I didn’t go having an aunt with clever ideas about literature and painting. Oh how I dread these cultured gentlewomen, like you get so many of in America.” And yet, “of course my life runs on secretly all the time, as it must, and she has no idea that it does.”

Part of the secret life was writing poems, part of it love affairs. There were two men in Stevie Smith’s life in her twenties (and possibly none after), men she could not imagine marrying but whom she grieved over. She felt herself to be solo. Opinions vary about her love life; friends have said she was waiflike and spinsterish, but on the other hand she had long slim legs and wrote in Novel on Yellow Paper:

Miss Mogmanimy would enlarge upon how alcohol leads to irregularity in sexual behaviour. Oh what a lovely phrase that is, and how it does not describe the way you feel at parties sometimes, if you have your right friends there, and that lovely feeling, you get quite shot up, and it is lovely oh how I enjoy it.

Ahem, as she was found of saying.

She submitted some poems to a publisher (“neurotic,” “very ultra-1934”), finally got some into print but was told by the editor to go away and write a novel. In six weeks she produced Novel on Yellow Paper, which came out in 1936 with a miniature furor—as if Gertrude Stein had written Diamonds Are a Girl’s Best Friend, said a newspaper. It also initiated a problem that was to pursue her; friends resented appearing in frank or mildly malicious descriptions, and she was dropped from some guest lists.

Yet she wrote as much to win friends and admirers as for any other reason, Barbera and McBrien point out; life with Aunt and at the typewriter did not provide much scope for her wit and style, and it was through the writing that she came to know writers and get on a circuit of literary parties and weekend visits. (She was a dreadful guest, jealous of children and animals who upstaged her, demanding of her own way; but she was often asked again.)

Even those who are devoted to Stevie Smith’s poems may have mixed feelings about the three novels. Novel on Yellow Paper is an extended soliloquy, a ramble—The Holiday has more structure—with endless digressions and quotations. She wants to think the book rather than write it: “Oh talking voice that is so sweet, how hold you alive in captivity, how point you with commas, semi-colons, dashes, pauses and paragraphs?” It is a preoccupation that was of her time (The Waves came out in 1931). Sometimes whimsy hovers a little too near. But then there are the moments when fantasy takes off, as it does in her long description of a private game she liked to play. You’re walking down a long straight road somewhere in France, she says; the road turns into a track, the track into a dried marshland; you turn to the right, and find the house, and go up the path and inside and shut out the wind. You find food and fresh figs and a fire, outside the wind and sea are roaring; you go to the big stone bath with brackish water, and after your bath you put on a heavy toweling gown. You go down the corridor to the room with straight, hard bed and fine sheets:

Ah this is the lovely dark room, and the air is in and about and in through the great open windows, and the grey light is in the dark sky far away.

Ah night space and horror, keep my dream from me.

It is a lonely fantasy. Comfort turns to a flash of fear.

The year after Novel on Yellow Paper, the first collection of poems came out, winning good reviews; the next novel, Over the Frontier, was less successful, but Stevie Smith was now quite part of the 1930s literary scene. “She is in love with Death…and with the scenes of childhood,” said a critic; “her writing has the air of an odd only, lonely child.” She was always very consciously an orphan; and as she grew older got the look of a withered Alice in Wonderland.

In the second book of poems death is much more omnipresent than before; the title poem, “Tender Only to One,” means tender only to death. Stevie Smith’s death fantasy was not of her mother gasping her life away—that was life, suffering; death is always seen as a wonderful blankness, a deliverance. It is life that is dry, dusty, restless—in Novel on Yellow Paper she sees the Devil in garbage, empty ice-cream cartons; death is coolness and flowing water and cessation. “Oh, beastly mind that shifts so much, that is a tyrant, that runs every way and every way at once,” she says; but death

is a scatterer
He scatters the human frame
The nerviness and the great pain
Throws it on the fresh fresh air
And now it is nowhere.

It is all unreal and consolatory; yet there is a kind of hopefulness in seeing death as so benign. And of course there was the side of her that got hopefulness from life as well; the authors tell a story of how she and a friend walked in at the stage door of a theater, went up and discovered boxes full of mustaches and false noses, put them on, and “twizzled and twirled” in delight. A late poem called “I Wish” shows us that side. She wishes, at first, that she could find a gray dove’s wing to hide her head under; but then she sees reflected in a car’s chromium hub a whole world stretching out, and she wants to go into that world, where she would find a road and a blue sky and a beach.

She was far from being the realistic kind of suicide who sees that the act is the loneliest thing anyone can do. Yet she did in fact make a suicide attempt. It was in her early fifties, after the distractions of love and first authorship and wartime, when she was beginning to be unfashionable and to find it hard to get published. This is a carefully documented book, and yet the authors say in just one sentence that she tried to slash her wrists at the office. Surely, with such a passionate death pursuer, we should know more: What preceded it? How seriously did she try? Was anyone there at the time? Who found her and what happened then? At any rate, the attempt was a success in its way, because her doctor ordered a long rest and that she should leave the secretarial job, which by now was surely very wearisome. Financially, she managed thereafter by doing book reviews and poetry readings.

Although she regularly reviewed novels as well, she began to be sent many books on Christianity by editors. It was a subject that made her endlessly fascinated, ambivalent, angry, and the editors recognized a good source of copy. In general her theme was “This God the Christians show/Out with him, out with him, let him go.” The Christian story is a fairy tale, she wrote; God has not been fair to us; he is a murderer of his son. And if the son was human, why did he not experience the sins we have to struggle with? What about the cruelty of Hell? But there was a great longing all the same for submission to a source of love and care, a source that she lost early in life and looked for ever after. In The Holiday she wrote:

I kneel down in the aisle, leaning back on my heels with my head against the pew, I say: the soul does not grow old, the soul sees everything and learns nothing, and I say: How can we come back to God, to be taken into Him, when we are so hard and separate and do not grow…. And I say, if we are to be taken back, oh why were we sent out, why were we sent away from God?

The crucial question was expressed in the title of one of her poems, “Will Man Ever Face Fact and not Feel Flat?” Of course there was always room for wise-cracks (on the Assumption of the Virgin—“If the universe is expanding is she still Going Up?”). But as usual the pain and the jokes went together. Bravest of all martyrs, she wrote in one of her reviews, are the martyrs to atheism, and perhaps she was thinking of herself. She loved Christianity but felt self-respect demanded that one should forgo it. God made us savage so that we should survive, she wrote; we don’t remember that “you put this poison in us”—

Generally we stand
With the tears on our face
And our hands clasped in anger,
Faithful but unfortunate.

The great Trappist monk Thomas Merton, who loved Stevie Smith’s work, said he found much true religion in it.

In the 1960s began the era of poetry readings, and a revival of fame for her; she proved to be a natural-born star. Through most of that swinging decade she was nursing Aunt, who lived to be ninety-six, and the poetry readings were her only escapes. She began to chant some of her poems rather than speak them, and this was a great success. A small elderly lady dressed like a schoolgirl and singing odd poems in a flat voice might have been grossly embarrassing, but she brought it off. In 1967 she appeared at a “Psychedelic Feast” of poetry reading with a number of drunk Beats, and outread them all.

Aunt died in 1968, a release for Stevie and yet a great sorrow. She was only to live three more years herself. Death disproved his benign nature, as he usually does, and came in the form of a brain tumor. Curiously, the letters she wrote when her perceptions were already clouded seem only an extension of the style she had always cultivated—

(Anyway I’ve had now to sing glad pleas for happy gladdings of more endless pops & goes. I have signed my name but now I feel awfully frightened. Am I saying wisely in these solemn legalnesses) that any little murder, caused by here & there, has been quite let off by my names having been signed so beautifully!??

Her conversation disintegrated as the source of her jokes, her loneliness, her loves was crushed by the indifferent growth. But once or twice, her friends noted, she said in her old way, “heigh-ho.” Heigh-ho for wry amusement, for stoical sorrow.

Jack Barbera and William McBrien’s biography is excellent, understanding, well researched, with many lively quotations from Stevie’s clever friends. Only, there is something about her that makes American academics seem just a little like her character Mr. Poop. Sometimes when they are explaining a joke or elucidating a squiggly drawing, well…ahem.

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