Saturday, July 11, 2009

“From Fifth Avenue Up”

If it’s Saturday, then it’s time for the Weekly Poem once again, & I think we have an interesting selection today—but first, a bit of news. My computer appears to have picked today to give up the ghost—not an unexpected event, & I’ll hasten to add that even if the computer’s a lost cause I should be in good shape in terms of files between an external hard drive & my subscription to (an online back-up service, that is either free or purchased for a pretty nominal monthly fee, depending on how much back-up you need). Still, this turn of events will leave me without my usual computer access for the rest of the day, so I may be pretty slow on responding to comments. With any luck, I should have something brand new to start using by this evening. How this will affect tomorrow’s post I can’t say quite yet.

The Langston Hughes post for last week’s poem got me thinking about U.S. writers from marginalized groups, & it occurred to me that, like Hughes, a poet or writer can be a member of the literary canon & still be marginalized—e.g., as an “African-American writer” or a “gay writer” or a “leftist writer” or a “woman writer.” In other words, the categorization can be a way of keeping writers from a sort of full acceptance as “writers”—period. This doesn’t mean that I don’t believe writers who come from a marginalized segment of the population don’t have a different take on the world at large than writers who come from a more mainstream segment. On the other hand, such categories obscure the overarching fact that any writer first expresses his/her own experience, & while part of that experience would beaffected by her/his inclusion in a marginalized group, the experience of individuals within any type of group is very far from monolithic.

So today we have a poem by Djuna Barnes. Ms Barnes is somewhat similar to Langston Hughes in that she could be said to an official member of the modernist literary canon. On the other hand, again like Hughes, Barnes doesn’t tend to be known as much for her work as a whole, but for one part of it—the novel Nightwood, which was championed by T.S. Eliot. But Barnes was also an accomplished poet & journalist & wrote a number of other works, among them the 1915 Book of Repulsive Women from which today’s poem is taken. Does the Book of Repulsive Women come from Barnes' experience as lesbian? Of course, as does Nightwood & here other writings. However Barnes' work speaks eloquently, if sometimes desperately about desire & the recesses of the heart.

Hope you enjoy today’s poem.

From Fifth Avenue Up

SOMEDAY beneath some hard
Capricious star—
Spreading its light a little
Over far,
We'll know you for the woman
That you are.

For though one took you, hurled you
Out of space,
With your legs half strangled
In your lace,
You'd lip the world to madness
On your face.

We'd see your body in the grass
With cool pale eyes.
We'd strain to touch those lang'rous
Length of thighs,
And hear your short sharp modern
Babylonic cries.

It wouldn't go. We'd feel you
Coil in fear
Leaning across the fertile
Fields to leer
As you urged some bitter secret
Through the ear.

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.

See you sagging down with bulging
Hair to sip,
The dappled damp from some vague
Under lip,
Your soft saliva, loosed
With orgy, drip.

Once we'd not have called this
Woman you—
When leaning above your mother's
Spleen you drew
Your mouth across her breast as
Trick musicians do.

Plunging grandly out to fall
Upon your face.
In grimace,
With your belly bulging stately
Into space.

Djuna Barnes


  1. Two reads and I'm still not sure I get it all, but what an interesting woman she must have been! I've never even heard of her, but I'm off to Google her now. Again, John, great post. Thanks for the intro.

  2. Hi Karen:

    Glad you'd like to find out more about Djuna Barnes-- that's great! & thanks.

  3. Interesting and powerful poem. I, too, am off to find out more about Djuna Barnes...

  4. Hi Willow:

    So gratified that people want to find out more about her! Thanks.

  5. What does it mean your computer 'picked today to give up the ghost'?

    -- I guess it means it's dying?

    If so, I do hope your back-up devices and services come through for you; it can be very upsetting to lose your files, etc.


    I got all excited, though: thinking you were quoting Henry Miller!

    "Once you have given up the ghost, everything follows..."


    I've never heard of Djuna Barnes, either.

    I'm not sure I like how she mixes all that sexuality with the image of breast-feeding a child.

    Perhaps she was never a mother...

    I like sexuality in my poetry, too, but I think some things are sacred, and should be seperated, like red socks from white laundry.


    Best of luck with the computer stuff; and with finding a working machine. :)

  6. Hi Ginger:

    The desktop is dead; I'm going to see if it can be resurrected for a reasonable amount of money. I'm pretty confident my back-ups will work fine, but of course one never knows for certain until one starts in. I have over 20 gigs backed up on mozy, so that's going to take days to dowload onto another machine. Thanks for the well wishes.

  7. I've been reading a collection by Carol Ann Duffy which I'm thoroughly enjoying. I like Ms. Barnes's poem too - her imagery is shocking in a way. I like the use of the word "lip". I will definitely look out for her work to own and read at my leisure.


  8. Hi Kat: I've liked what little I've read of Duffy's work-- mostly at our friend TFE's. I really think you might like "Nightwood," which is widely available. I don't have my handy little cheat sheet for html link code on this computer, but you can read the entire 'Book of Repulsive Women" here:


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