Stevie Smith’s critics, even those who acknowledge her as a major British poet of the twentieth century, have found it impossible to place her work within any literary movement. Smith herself recognized that she could not be lumped with T. S. Eliot, or Stephen Spender, or Dylan Thomas. This volume of poems, essays, reviews, stories, and letters portrays a quirky, individual writer who traced an unconventional literary path into delightful tangles and cut through clichés with terrible, swift words. Smith’s literary executor, James MacGibbon, in his brief preface, disagrees graciously with the editors, Jack Barbera and William McBrien, about Smith’s attitude toward death, but he praises their diligent research. In their persuasive introductory essay, following the preface, Barbera and McBrien offer a lively biographical interpretation of Smith’s writings, touching on her sharp judgment of children as neither innocent nor guileless, on her interweaving personal friendships with her literary creations, on her loneliness, on her delight in intelligent discourse, and on her affectionate regard for death. A reading of this anthology supports Barbera and McBrien’s portrait of Smith: unromantic, whimsical, at times morbid, but always entertaining.
The splendidly funny line drawings included throughout this collection suggest both the speed of Smith’s insights and the mature, complex personality giving rise to her sharp judgments on human society. These drawings have not been published previously, and, although her collections of poetry are all illustrated, those drawings rarely have accompanied her poems included in anthologies. At first glance, Stevie Smith’s line drawings remind one of James Thurber’s cartoons; their strength derives, however, not from ridicule or a familiar contempt, but rather from sympathetic mockery and sharp-witted observation. As Smith herself notes, in a review of Thurber’s cartoons, the monotony of his work betrays a schoolboy’s obsession with pursuing, devouring women; her images reveal more tolerance for diversity. The eyes in her figures capture the viewer’s attention and create the attitude which gives each sketch its zest. One lowered eyebrow defines a British bulldog’s skepticism. The rolled-back glance of a woman in a feathered hat combines with her half-smirk to suggest that, though she hears the words being spoken from on high by a fellow bus-rider, she does not take them to heart. Within a bewildering world, contentment miraculously appears in the upwardly slanting eyes of a woman standing in the rain, amid leafless trees and evergreens, backed by slanting, tall urban buildings, under a sky in which the sun, a star, and the crescent moon shine together. The rounded oval eyes of the girl on the title page convey both innocence and a sort of stunned despair. These various attitudes also characterize Smith’s collected writings.
Stevie Smith’s achievement as a poet should not be judged on the evidence of the sixty-three poems included in this anthology. Perhaps eight of these succeed; the others display her affection for playful doggerel and quick, caustic summary. Fortunately, her nine volumes of poems stand on their own merit. The poems reprinted in Me Again do offer a diverse sampling of her verbal facility, her fascination with the morality of human relations, and her keen ear for colloquial speech, which she hears as unconsciously funny and revealing too much.
In many of her poems, the reader eavesdrops, with a narrative persona, on the speeches of characters who, by their omissions and by their unconscious transferals, invite one into their most intimate lives. The earliest poem reprinted here, “Goodnight,” brutally exposes the unpleasant, unsatisfactory sexual intimacy between a man and a woman. Three perspectives remain distinct: the voyeuristic narrator, the passively suffering female, and the contemptuously nasty male. Their three voices comment coldly on sexual arousal. In a letter about this poem, Smith, after toying with the term “obscenity,” does not, finally, accept the label. In “Goodnight,” the voices convey no titillation, no pleasure; each voice barely conceals pain, frustration, and weariness.
In “On the Dressing Gown Lent Me by My Hostess the Brazilian Consul in Milan, 1958,” Smith again reveals the dissatisfactions of marital intimacy by juxtaposing a third person and an unhappy couple, but she adds, in effect, a fourth persona, by having the third person retrospectively meditate on their encounter. The narrator, a British woman, recalls her fling with the husband by remembering the wife’s dressing gown, and her sympathetic memory today distances her from the careless, irresponsible, childish role she once played with the husband. The snatches of conversation that she now recalls combine with her contemporary reflection on herself as a stranger, speaking with a British accent, intruding on the Portuguese and the Italian spoken by her hostess and by the natives of Milan. As this narrator confesses her offenses, however, the rhythm of her lines captures the frivolity of her escapade, in a quickstep and glide.
Platitudes become dangerously self-fulfilling prophecy in “Marriage I Think,” as an overly intellectual woman articulates her dismay that her thoughts frighten away a potential mate. Her loneliness and self-pity begin to seem excessively indulgent in the final lines, as her tragic fate is mourned by the narrator’s flat voice. Smith echoes the conversations and monologues of ordinary social discourse, but her poetic imagination, by creating an unconventional listener, forces one to hear the tension behind the words spoken.
A skeptical listener annotates her BBC feature program on prostitution. She begins by sardonically recording the artistic motives claimed by a promoter of pornographic films, then she notes that he never mentions his monetary gains. Her drama develops as she replays voices of the women who perform in those shows and who sell their bodies, protesting that there is no sin in their business. Finally, one hears the women reveal their dream of one day earning enough money to retire.
“Beautiful,” written when Smith was...
(The entire section is 2545 words.)