The Poetry of Joanna Russ, Part II: Poems, 1954-1957
by Brit Mandelo
Joanna Russ, uncredited obituary photo
In the last issue we introduced the poetry of Joanna Russ, published during her years at Cornell University, and considered its relative obscurity as a part of her body of work—both the reasons for that invisibility and the potential reasons why Russ did not continue writing poetry later in her career. Having dealt with the framework of history surrounding these poems, I'd like to shift the angle of analysis to the poetry itself. Many of the twenty-six poems in consideration here could be called speculative, and the best among them certainly are. Those that aren't tend to be the less adventurous poems: they're about the seasons, or walking in a park, or they're historical (though, some of the historical poems are quite speculative, also).
The poems in question are spread out over a few publications; first, a list of the works in question and where they appeared. Those published in Epoch (3) are "To R. L.," "Family Snapshot—Botanical Gardens," and "A La Mode." Those performed at the 11th Festival of Contemporary Arts Poetry Reading II (5) are "The Queen at Ur," [*] "Down White Park Street," [*] "To an Unknown Draughtsman," "Doubtful Lament," and "The Small Dark Dialogues." Russ co-translated one poem with a Dorothy Gilbert titled "Gurndel and Gurth," which was published in The Cornell Writer, along with the majority of her other published poems (11): "Autumn," "Autumn I," "Death and the Gentleman," "Incident In The Public Gardens," "Never Forgive Me," "Northerner," two untitled pieces, "Queen at Ur," "Schoolteacher's Daughter Speaks," and "Some Day Again." The rest of the poems (7) included in her papers are unpublished: an untitled beat poem, a version of the published "Never Forgive Me" titled "Nightmare in Summer," "Down White Park Street," "The Fall," "Sappho in the Suburbs" (Russ's handwritten note on this places it as being drafted in her last year of high school), "When the Lights Go on Again in English Departments all over the World," and "You Will be Dead, My Friend."
The earliest publications are those from 1954; there are five separate poems published that year, appearing in The Cornell Writer. The first of those is "Some Day Again," published in March of '54. The imagery of the poem, including Saint Francis and the dangers of the well-lit empty rooms of a home, is vivid, but the language conveying it is uneven and there isn't much coherency between the stanzas. The middle stanza is the strongest—
Oh we are wiser now, or know at least
Not to look for witches in the outside wind
Or in the massy midnight under trees
But in a lit and empty room unshadowed:
Knowing well the heartland where the Black Sabbath lies.
—but its connection to the rest of the poem is tenuous at best; the first stanza being about St. Francis, and the last about willow trees and the month of January. There is a glimpse of quality, but the whole does not stand.
The next poetic appearance comes in May '54 with "Northerner," a short snapshot description of a Norseman standing at the sea and looking south. There is a coherency in "Northerner" that the previous poem lacked; it has one concentrated idea, described in the fullness of a moment. The language is overwrought, though; not precise in the way that serves poetry (and Russ) best. "Glare the bisque eye sees," for example, is an unexpectedly convoluted line following a clear description of the colors of sea and sky.
After "Northerner" there is a gap—the next publications do not come until December, but then there are three poems appearing in one month and one issue of The Cornell Writer. "Autumn" and "Autumn I" are, as one might guess from the titles, seasonal reflections, and are quite similar in tone and imagery. They are closer in execution to Russ's juvenilia than to her later published poetry; "Autumn" has jumbled imagery and mixed metaphors that could, possibly, work, but don't, while "Autumn I" has clunky word repetition and a lack of cohesiveness. Both are reminiscences of autumn, the sort that poets have been writing since the beginning of poetry as a medium, but neither does much unique or attention-getting with the subject. They seem to be a step backward from even the earliest poem, "Some Day Again," which—while not cohesive—had strong language and imagery; "Autumn" and "Autumn I" ring as imitative and not particularly of interest.
The other December '54 poem, "Never Forgive Me," is also in the unpublished category under the alternate title "Nightmare in Summer," but there are no large revisions between the two versions; a word here and there, and the changed title. "Never Forgive Me," the published version, is a departure from the prior poetry in Russ's early career: it manages to be coherent and reasonably concise, while its imagery is supported by strong diction and appropriately employed punctuation. It would strike me as a poem perhaps connected in its imagery to the Vietnam War—except it's a year too early; that conflict is dated as beginning in late 1955. Instead, the descriptions of the soldier in the jungle are eerily prescient, especially with the down-note tone of the poem; keep in mind the original title, "Nightmare in Summer." The arc of the narrative—because this is not a reflective poem or a snapshot; it has movement—is the narrator first coming across something incongruous and lovely:
Never forgive me for I came on you
As on a table set inside the jungle
[ … ]
The table could have been Sheraton and slender,
Set with china and silver in winking nests
With a woven linen cover that cried for touching
And still pools of russets and the blare,
Silent and ordered, of glasses in circumspect squads.
And, after that encounter, for a moment losing the sensation of the jungle into "a papered wall"—but then a parrot shrieks, distracting, and the narrator is "plunged again/back into creepers." The final stanza closes the arc of discovery, distraction and loss:
Never forgive me for I plunged back in,
Bogged in the shiny flowers I could not eat,
Hugging always, behind my aching eyes,
The gaudy parrot that hopped to the higher branch
Greatly joyful, and squawked and shrieked once more.
"Never Forgive Me" is the first of Russ's poems to contain layers of interpretation, a sense of movement, and a greater coherency. There are discombobulating shifts in reality for the narrator, who is at once in a jungle and in a dining room wall-papered with a fruit theme, at once seduced by the sight of fresh fall apples but repulsed by the "sulphured rasp of a scarlet match" hidden underneath, "sign of enchantment and signal of rotten spells." It's a complex poem that's engaging and intriguing; Russ, at seventeen, has managed a speculative, strange poem that—while not perfect—contains all of the necessary elements for a pleasing read. It's the first burst of real quality in the early poetry of Russ, but not the last.
The three undated, unpublished manuscripts, which cannot be accurately placed in the chronology of the rest, seem a safe bet to consider next, around the published poems of 1954. Of these three, "Sappho in the Suburbs" is the only one with a suggested date—Russ's note on the manuscript page is "written last yr. of h.s., I think – JR." The other two are the untitled beat poem and "You Will Be Dead, My Friend." Of the three, I find "Sappho in the Suburbs" the strongest, though it is uneven in quality. Its strength comes from the anger and the aggressiveness of the women in the poem toward the sun/son ("Shut the window on him; he will still come in/Blatantly male and giggling") and toward the world in which they are trapped, "twisted in the same net." The nascent feminism in this poem harkens to Russ's later work, in which rage and humor are the weapons with which patriarchy may be dismantled, but does so incompletely: the discussion of female mutilation to avoid having to see the sun, of women hurting themselves and each other, is a dissonant element in the poem, sounding a note of desperation and defeat. It is still a fascinating poem, as it was likely drafted around 1953, which would make it the earliest of the lot. The stanzas are arranged wildly and without much rhythm or reason, and the language trips over itself frequently, but the commentary of the poem is vibrant and adventurous in the context of its drafting by a high-school girl in the early 50's.
The other two are less remarkable; the beat poem is rather obviously intended to be imitative, labeled as it is, and deals with coercive incest. The beat diction and form did not seem to be terribly engaging for Russ, as she never revisits it or even titles this particular poem, which implies to me that it was a practice-poem that didn't spark anything. The last of the undated works, "You Will Be Dead, My Friend," is about death and the passage of time. Its final lines are its redeeming ones; the poem is not particularly unique, but the call out to history and death's muteness is striking: "If you wanted to/You could not speak to them. And even if I wanted to listen/They could no longer say a word to me." (This poem also appears with considerable revisions under the title "Doubtful Lament" in Russ's performed poems at the 11th Festival reading and the revised copy is both leaner and stronger.)
To get back on the chronological track we move to 1955, which was the year of Epoch publications, with no original poems appearing in The Cornell Writer. (The translation "Gurndel and Gurth" co-written with Dorothy Gilbert does appear in The Cornell Writer during this year, but will not be considered here.) "To R. L." appeared in the Spring '55 issue of Epoch, and the edition that I have for reference is not the published copy but the revised manuscript, so any discrepancies may be attributed to that. "To R. L." is the most speculative poem of the lot so far, and one of the most fluid pieces. Russ's technique is visibly evolving month to month in these poems; the starts and stops in quality and the unevenness seem to be smoothing out in stages. "To R. L." begins:
Turn to the window. What does the snow mean?
Let me fancy that once I used to know
So long ago that you cannot remember.
From there the narrator describes a mythological past, the past too long ago for memory, in which R. L. and she/they (no gendered pronoun is given for the narrator, and one cannot assume the narrator to be the poet) are riding across a winter field under a northern sky, he "a captive prince, an African" and they "an ice-born saint, not one of heaven's," unconnected to any Christian god, a part of what seems to be intended as an early pagan belief system. The mythological setting is given form in the narrator's past and the ageless, endless field through which they ride. The milieu of the poem is built with careful, sparse details, richly worded, in a way achingly familiar to readers of Russ's prose. Such lines include:
I had a god, but they broke off both his horns
And shut him in a tapestry; thus he died.
I am one of earth's saints. The earth is running down
But it never ends; the universe unreels
Forever as we ride across the field
The gray and plowed-up field of winter stubble
Seeing always the line of darkening trees,
The wood ahead and the snow drifting across.
The close of the poem is the culmination of those lines; after describing these settings and the two figures in the empty field, the cold grey landscape, Russ hooks the poem back onto its beginning by picking up the imagery and the meaning of the snow.
Each flake will be a century of time
And time will slide beneath our feet like snow
And still we ride and still the snow comes down
And still we never reach the line of trees,
The pine-tree woods where nothing living stirs.
Now is left us only what there was
And the world is running down. The snowflakes fall
Slower and slower in frozen time. So do we.
The close of the poem is particularly powerful in relation to its opening; in "To R. L.," Russ has crafted a mythical tapestry between two references to the meaning of snow, tying the narrative to a thematic arc with careful diction and imagery. This poem is a far cry from "Autumn" and "Autumn I." Russ's improvement and her developing grasp of detail and word-usage is obvious on the page; "To R. L." is not flawless, but it's doing a variety of things at once and doing them with reasonable success.
The next manuscript, dated July '55, is unpublished: "The Fall" is about the "actual" events of the fall of Adam and Eve in the garden of Eden—it is posited as an unremarkable moment, which the animals don't even remember. The fall occurs when the animals try to wake a sleeping Adam to appreciate the beauty of the sunrise, and Adam turns the tiny giraffe away with scorn to go back to sleep and continue dreaming. The poem doesn't stand out particularly; this may be a reason that it remained unpublished. It's an interesting idea, and some of the better imagery in the poem is about the cuteness and undeveloped nature of the early animals, but the poem is not to the caliber of, say, "To R. L." The next two poems are published in the same issue of Epoch (Fall '55), "Family Snapshot—Botanical Gardens" and "A La Mode." They are both very short works, seemingly connected by topic, and are snapshots (unsurprising, considering the title of the first!). These are a return, almost, to those lackadaisical seasonal poems in 1954, with the exception that the language in these poems is clearer and more concise. These are the last poems of 1955, and the weaker of the bunch—while perfectly functional, they do not remain with the reader long after one has finished reading them.
While Russ's poetry does span from 1954 to 1957, the best of the lot are clustered around the end of that period, between 1956 and 1957. I am placing the 11th Festival of Contemporary Arts Poetry Reading II in 1957 also, though it is not dated, by virtue of dates on other drafts which are read at the festival; it seems unlikely that it was before 1957. There are five poems dated 1956, and eight dated 1957, including those performed at the reading. The best of these are "Death and the Gentleman," "Schoolteacher's Daughter Speaks," and "Queen at Ur." The rest are still of higher quality than the earliest publications, further demonstrating the definite growth in technique and skill that "To R. L." showed, but do not quite match the heights of Russ's work in poetry, which to me are represented by those three works.
The three poems published in The Cornell Writer's May 1956 issue are two untitled works and "Incident In The Public Gardens." The two untitled poems are both snapshots. One contains the memorable metaphor "time is a quiet bee," and both are miles ahead of the early snapshot poetry, but are not doing anything particularly exciting—just lovely, and lacking in feeling. The other is a classical piece about the men in myth and the image of the satyr, but it is lacking direction. "Incident In The Public Gardens" is another poem revolving around imagery—it seems to have been an experimental theme for Russ in 1956—this time about the infant Buddha and the heavens leaning down to suckle him. It's especially handsome; no longer is unintentional word repetition a problem for the young Russ. The poem displays the precision that would bring her much success in her later career and also makes the best of these last poetry publications especially strong. One last unpublished poem, dated 1957, is "When the Lights Go on Again in English Departments all over the World"—it is extremely short and was perhaps not intended to be published; it seems a bit scattered. The play with Latin words and lines such as "all the meaningless communicative noises of the snails" are intriguing, but not ultimately gripping.
The poems read at the 11th Festival have been discussed previously in a few places; "Doubtful Lament" is a revised and tighter version of "You Will Be Dead, My Friend," while "Down White Park Street" appears as an unpublished 1957 manuscript and as a poem performed. Neither version of "Down White Park Street" is engaging, enmeshed as the poem is in common imagery of blood and snow. "To an Unknown Draughtsman" is a fairly feminist poem about young women; more specifically about a drawing of a young woman named Helen by another woman, also named Helen, one light and one dark. The critique of the split gendered room of a dance, the way the young men stare at the women, is evocative. "I will hate these boys," the narrator says, offering her poem to the Helen who drew the other Helen. Its only flaw is that it is not concise enough; there are extra words, and extraneous lines, that do not add much to the overall effect. "The Small Dark Dialogues" is the least pleasant of all of Russ's poems; its imagery is dark, and the final lines are: "And say: I crave the shining heel of/obliteration." I don't care much for its frenetic pace. The last poem read in this performance that I would like to discuss is also one of my favorites of Russ's work as a poet: "The Queen at Ur" (published as "Queen at Ur").
These last three works are the high point of the poetry of Joanna Russ, wherein she displays a coherence and a skill that make me ache for the poems that were not written beyond 1957. These skills uplift her career as a fiction writer; she has obviously learned much about words and the ways in which a writer may use them by writing poetry, but there are no more poems beyond these closing lines.
"Death and the Gentleman" appeared in The Cornell Writer in March 1956; it's the longest of Russ's poems, and the one most concerned with telling a story. It begins:
Out one morning
In the fine June weather
I met Death and my friend
—and continues with the narrator discussing the nature of death and how her dandy friend has died. The dandy friend has definite shades of Oscar Wilde, with his wit and his words, while Death "did not speak" and all of his spaces in the poem are enclosed with parentheses. It's a sharp, humorous poem despite its ostensibly serious subject, poking fun at the cynical smiles of the "fop" Death, and at the narrator's friend, who has lines like "When I am dust—/More's the pity—/The worms that eat me/Will all turn witty." This poem also has a rhyme scheme that works so unobtrusively that I didn't at first notice it, until a stanza or so into the piece—that's the best sort of rhyme scheme. It rolls naturally and with a great deal of playfulness. "Death and the Gentleman" is memorable for its comedy and its light-stepping, precise diction; even if the subject is hardly new, since the Decadent poets and onward, the way in which Russ frames it with her language and her imagery makes it fresh.
"Schoolteacher's Daughter Speaks" was published in The Cornell Writer's November '56 issue. This poem is about a centaur turned man who comes to live in the young narrator's house, a handsome and brilliant thing; of him, she says "In friendliness/We had the gold-headed love living with us that year." Her brother is the only one who hates the centaur, who is always with a woman lying in the grass, always handsome, always filling the town with an "anarchy" that "passed as if nothing were going on." The story of this poem culminates in some of my favorite of Russ's lines, and makes it also the only published queer poem in her body of poetic work. The brother:
Stood stiff as our guest said with open arms:
We're both of us good men, friend, are we not?
Then they embraced, together as if blown together
Into perfect concord, like brothers, standing by the table
While I rushed out to my mother, crying that O
The room was lovely as they stood like gods,
Kissing in the kitchen.
The lead up to those final lines makes them quite the kicker; the sourness of the brother while the centaur roamed their town and lived in their house, spreading his love—among women, of course—and his beauty, and finally the brother's breakdown when the centaur is about to leave them, his anger and his weeping. Then, the kiss. It's a tiny short story in a poem's form, blindingly precise with its emotional and narrative content, all fit into such a small space. "Schoolteacher's Daughter Speaks" is mythical but deeply real, a grand poem.
The last of these three poems, "Queen at Ur," appeared in The Cornell Writer in April '57, presumably after the 11th Festival reading of a different, less polished version. This is a historical/speculative poem, about "The Lady Shub-Ad, lying Dead in Sumer/Five times a thousand years, brick-tombed to dust," who speaks to the reader about the ways in which she is "filled with all events" and "could stretch out a hand to the farthest star." The imagery of space and eternity, of the smallness of time, are stunning in this poem. The poem itself is short, but each word is ultimately necessary and perfect. The ultimate culmination of the young Russ's experiments with diction and a developing precision in her work, "Queen at Ur" is fabulous and resonant. It ends: "Daughter, train your soul for the amenities/That come finally with death. Emulate my corpse." The images and the language of this poem will stick with me, as a reader, for (I suspect) a long, long time, though perhaps not as long as the reach of the dead queen of the poem, who is no longer even a physical presence past dust.
Those are the last poems of Russ's career; three speculative works that would be at home in any of our contemporary magazines. The steady improvement of Joanna Russ's work over the course of her short career as a poet leads to extrapolation on what might have been, had she kept with the form, but it wasn't to be. Instead, we are left with this small collection of works, spanning only three years. Both for their own merits and for their contribution to the context of Russ's later successes, they are worth consideration. The poetry of Joanna Russ is nearly invisible in her body of work, but I am happy to have offered some discussion of the poems and their place in her oeuvre to the critical conversation on Russ's legacy to the speculative community—and that includes the poets.