Stevie Smith populated the margins of her poems with idiosyncratic drawings of swimmers and potted plants, ghosts and dogs, howling children and flirting couples. She doodled this art herself, when, as she explained, she was “not thinking too much. If I suddenly get caught by the doodle, I put more effort into it and end up calling it a drawing. I’ve got a whole collection in boxes. Some are on tiny bits of paper and drawn on telephone and memo pads.” Smith insisted that the drawings be published with her poems, even though they do not technically “illustrate” the words on the page. Instead, she chose drawings that seemed to her to illustrate “the spirit or the idea in the poem.”
In some ways, reading Smith’s poetry is like fishing in one of her boxes filled with drawings on loose sheets and tiny bits of paper. As one moves from one drawing to another, one poem to another, the habits of her imagination become familiar. One can identify concerns (death, spinsterhood, sexuality) that appeared early and persisted late, name maneuvers (analysis of myth, parody of family roles) that recur again and again. One learns to recognize the spatialization of her impatience with categories through images of claustrophobia (“Souvenir de Monsieur Poop”), to expect her assumption of the proximity between love and hate (“I HATE THIS GIRL”), to look for the ways in which grief feeds the heart (“So to fatness come”). She moves back and forth among...
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