Friday, August 31, 2012

READING POETRY IRL: Michael Field: The Poet (Broadview Press, 2009)


Here’s a late 19th-century poem by Michael Field that we’re reading IRL:

A Girl,
     Her soul a deep-wave pearl
Dim, lucent of all lovely mysteries;
     A face flowered for heart’s ease,
     A brow’s grace soft as seas
     Seen through faint forest-trees:
     A mouth, the lips apart,
Like aspen-leaflets trembling in the breeze
     From her tempestuous heart.
     Such: and our souls so knit,
     I leave a page half-writ —
        The work begun
Will be to heaven’s conception done,
        If she come to it.

IRL means a lot of things right now.  First of all it means in a shared Google doc where we can co-author in real time but, unfortunately, without the immediate comfort of Garamond (our favorite font).  IRL means while boiling tea for water with the whistle off & glancing over our shoulders to make sure the kitchen hasn’t caught fire.  While discussing other things also.  While packing boxes.  While unpacking boxes.  (We’re both moving but we’re on opposite ends of the project.)  While also looking at a weird tax form.  & the dog runs over.

But then, the poem.  How many girls are in it?  It’s a poem of divisions & obfuscations.  The soul both dim & lucent & then only of mysteries.  The ease seas seen trees...the progress of syllables, the doubling of words (sea/see) & the doubling, the conflation of different elements of the body (like an old Renaissance blazon & have you seen The Tudors?)...the brow, not the eye, sees, or seas.  And then the body fractures in two—the lips part, the heart is in tempest, and suddenly the souls are two, two souls knit together.  “I leave a page half-writ —/The work begun/Will be to heaven’s conception done,/If she come to it.”  Is this a romanticized emblem of a woman, or a scene of two women writing together?

Onycha, Isla Leigh, Arran Leigh, Henny, Henry, Heinrich, Sim, Puss, All Wise Fowl, Erinna, Messalina Garden, and my Love were only a few of the names that Michael Field had for himself. It wasn’t that he had multiple personalities or a bad case of narcissism; it’s just that the grammar here gets a bit tricky. “Michael Field” was the pseudonym of two English poets and dramatists: Katherine Bradley (1846-1914) & Edith Cooper (1862-1913) but, more than this, he was a third entity: an expression of their unity as artists, lovers, & friends. Cooper was the daughter of Bradley’s elder sister Emma. When, after the birth of a second daughter, Emma Cooper became an invalid, Bradley took legal responsibility for the young Edith. As Edith grew up, Bradley encouraged her interests in poetry & ancient languages. By the 1870s, maternal affection had turned to desire, to which poetry sequences like Long Ago (1889; inspired by recently translated fragments of Sappho) and Sight & Song (1892; poems about paintings) would later attest. After attending University College, Bristol together, they decided to set up house (they came from a wealthy family, which gave them an unusual degree of financial freedom). The arrangement would last until Cooper’s death in 1913.

The name “Michael Field” was a way of figuratively combining their artistic identities by literally combining their nicknames. Out of their galaxy of endearments, they picked two—Edith was often called “Field,” & Katherine “Michael”—& smushed them together. Their early collaborative work as Michael Field, a verse tragedy called Callirrhöe and Fair Rosamund, made quite an impression upon its publication in 1884. (Up ’til then, their only published work, a volume of poetry, had appeared under the names “Arran & Isla Leigh,” possibly a hat tip to Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s Aurora Leigh, a verse novel.) The critics—who included Victorian luminaries like Robert Browning & Walter Pater—loved it—until Browning carelessly outed Bradley & Cooper as Field’s creators.

Suddenly, Michael Field’s reviewers started to argue about the overheated imaginations of aging spinsters & to worry about things like whether it was Cooper or Bradley—or someone else—who was “really” responsible for Field’s work. Bradley & Cooper continued to compose dramas, poems, and letters—& to circulate among the voluble & volatile members of the Aesthetic set. (Their acquaintance included Oscar Wilde ((yes, we know!)), the poet George Meredith, the critic Bernard Berenson & a bunch of other famous-in-the-nineteenth-century types.) Arguably, their greatest collaborative accomplishment was the joint diary they kept from 1888 until Edith’s death from cancer in 1913 (though Bradley continued to write journal entries until her own cancer-induced death in 1914). The way Bradley’s handwriting gives way to Cooper’s—or Cooper’s to Bradley’s—within the space of a line or a paragraph is a physical testament to the intensity & complexity of their relationship. Something we find particularly fascinating is the way they use the first person, switching from the singular subject “I” to the plural “we” within the space of a single paragraph. Take this entry from 1888:   


On Wednesday May 9th we were asked to visit Mr. [Robert] Browning . . . Ardently . . . he spoke of the Sapphics, expressing special interest in Tiresias wh. he had once himself thought of treating. When I remarked I wished he had treated it—he said “No: it ought to be treated by a woman.[”] He said to Edith he liked the 2nd series of poems even better than the first, & prophesied they would make their mark. But he refuses to write a preface. We must remember we are Michael Field. Again he said:—Wait fifty years.  

The diaries have a lot of moods: sometimes they’re psychological drama, other times they’re more like a travelogue (Cooper & Bradley did a lot of traveling, particularly in Europe) or a social calendar. Often they’re a little tedious in the way daily writing can be. But they are always, always intensely social, not merely in the way they speak to the relationship between Cooper & Bradley but in the way they situate that relationship among the complicated networks of late Victorian society. (Cooper & Bradley aren’t without precedent as a high-profile same-sex literary couple: the Ladies of Llangollen, frex, a pair of Irish spinsters who ran away together & settled in Wales, where they would play host to scandalous poets like Byron, Shelley, & Wordsworth before he got terminally respectable.) Because they are so concerned with the social—who visited whom, who thinks what about so-and-so’s new poems—Michael Field’s journals are one of the best records we have of women performing personal & artistic intimacy within a community. & the way intimacy between women gets performed in a social space is maybe what’s most interesting here—not, of course, to discount the power of the erotic relationship from which much of that intimacy no doubt derives. Bradley & Cooper were uniquely close, it’s true, but their work as Michael Field (although irreducible) makes a great starting point for considering how women—queer and otherwise—perform intimacy right now, especially as artistic collaborators, especially in the overwhelming social noise of the information age. (Did we mention we’re on Twitter?)  

In the first episode of HBO’s Girls (created by Lena Dunham) we get Hannah & Marnie in a bathtub debating who gets to see whom naked. It’s a way of establishing intimacy among female friends that seems to play with that weird Hollywood trope of pathologizing friendships between women or maybe pathologizing lesbian desire (we’re not sure which) by showing girls bathing together (See: Peter Jackson’s Heavenly Creatures. See: Sandra Goldbacher’s Me Without You.).  & Dunham’s characters are intimate, even if they’re not always kind or even very good friends to one another. We’re interested in this bathtub scene for two reasons: 1) it shows just what a limited vocabulary TV & film have for talking about intimacy between women & 2) it tells us something really discomfiting about how ill at ease we are when watching other people’s displays of intimacy.

Let’s talk about that second point. This is the first of many scenes in Girls that shows us that, though intimacy may not be awkward for the ones involved, it’s almost always awkward to witness. In fact, one rubric for measuring the success of representations of intimacy may be to ask how awkward they are for the viewer, how well they walk the line between inviting observation &, at the same time, making an external audience aware of its exclusion. This may explain why it feels somehow voyeuristic to read Michael Field’s journals: they’re a performance, sure, but it’s not necessarily a performance meant for you, the reader. Cooper & Bradley were performing primarily (though maybe not solely) for each other there, whereas their plays & poetry were explicitly written to be read by others.

(& by the way we should ask you--do you love Girls or love to hate Girls because as far as we can tell those are the only two options.  & if you hate it did you watch it in spite of hating it or because you hated it?  & when is season two coming out? We, in general, hated to love it, or just loved it, you know, for what it’s worth.)  

This brings us to another point about cliques & coteries & why they interest us so much. They have a dark side: at first they seem to be about inclusion, people banding together to handle something or do something or think about something. But, at some point, & often from their inception, cliques are about who they exclude, who gets to sit at the table with the popular kids. & when the stakes are higher than that—when they’re about who gets to speak & how often & what counts as art in the first place—that’s where the ethics of clique-making & breaking get really complicated. Which speaks to the passionate critiques of Girls as exclusive, narrow, racist, anti-sex, & even misogynist. True, Girls is attempting, on some levels, to satirize the economic privilege of its cast, particularly in the character of Hannah Horvath; many have pointed out, however, that the cast is made up of the wealthy, white daughters of celebrities, which somewhat lessens the bite. It’s a fair complaint, especially in light of the title: do you have to be white & well off in order to count as a girl &, when you finally grow up, a woman? As the Michael Field example shows, money can buy women the space for artistry but maybe only specific kinds of women. &, in any case, Bradley & Cooper took a male pseudonym in part because they wanted critical approval—that is, the approval of their privileged, male audience. “Michael Field” was, in some ways, a subversive performance of intimacy, but it was also an attempt to gain access to the boys’ club. (Even the in-group has in-groups.) The case of Girls—both the show & the conversation surrounding it—highlights our cultural insecurities about watching others be intimate, whether it’s the “good” intimacy of affection or the “bad” intimacy of cronyism. It embarrasses us or it makes us jealous or else (often rightly) angry about the injustices of exclusion. & this is why artistic cliques & coteries are something we really need to think about in a larger context—they tell us both about how we make communities through art & also how those communities have failed to be inclusive enough or honest enough or wise enough & also how we might be able to do better. In short, we have intimacy issues.

Interviewed in Marie Claire (we read it on the plane), Caitlin Moran alludes to the loose narrative structure of Girls, which seems to stress, formally, the show’s reliance on creating a sense of intimacy observed: “It doesn’t see women as massive makeover projects.”  We keep hoping to encounter representations of intimacy—& especially intimacy between women—that withhold their prescriptions & their judgments about how an intimate relationship should look. In an essay called The Rejection of Closure (1985), American poet Lyn Hejinian (we love her) quotes Hélène Cixous: “A feminine textual body is recognized by the fact that it is always endless, without ending [...] There’s no closure, it doesn’t stop.” Maybe the problem with representations of intimacy between women is that they haven’t been specific enough, generous enough, capacious enough, inviting enough, & daring enough to show an intimacy that doesn’t rely on bathtub clichés or easy moral judgments, an intimacy without boundaries, as strange & profound & difficult as it is IRL.

This is our kind of girl talk.

Works Consulted Besides HBO’s Girls:

Katherine Bradley & Edith Cooper (ed. Marion Thain & Ana Vadillo). Michael Field: The Poet. Broadview Press (2009) [A Girl-125; Journal excerpt-233].

Martha Vicinus. Intimate Friends: Women Who Loved Women, 1778-1928. University of Chicago Press (2006) [98-108].

Caitlin Moran interviewed by Roberta Bernstein.  “How to Be a Woman,” Marie Claire (August 2012) [106].

Hélène Cixous. “Castration or Decapitation?” in Signs 7, no. 1 (Autumn 1981), 53.  Quoted by Lyn Hejinian in “The Rejection of Closure” (1985), published many places including The Poetry Foundation website.