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 forms—from rapid stanzas with fixed rhyme schemes (“Nourish Me on an Egg,” “Do Take Muriel Out”) to long poems constructed of rhyming couplets (“The Passing Cloud,” “The Hostage”), to looser, more narrative lines (“Dear Karl,” “The Abominable Lake”). Yet the procedure from one poem to another—or one collection to another—does not present itself as neat linear development.
It is possible, however, to sketch out a set of preoccupations that Smith found compelling enough to return to throughout her career. One of the most conspicuous of these concerns is her investigation of inherited stories: fairy tales, narratives from the Bible, legends, and myths. Smith takes as her premise that material culture and literary culture constitute overlapping territories and is at pains in many of her poems to demonstrate the ways in which Western culture has organized itself in response to certain famous stories.
In a late poem called “How Cruel Is the Story of Eve,” for example, she argues the disturbing repercussions that Genesis, with its snake and its apple and its falling woman, set in motion: “What responsibility it has/ In history/ For cruelty.” She goes on to address the collective resistance of skeptical readers, who might call her estimation of the effects of Eve’s story exaggerated: What is the meaning of this legend, she asks, “if not/ To give blame to women most/ And most punishment?”
Smith is interested in stories and images that have saturated the cultural imagination of her society—stories that have defined and continue to influence the position of women, to shape attitudes about animals and wildness, to teach lessons about romance and relationships. Her poems refer back in literary history to William Blake (in her “Little Boy Sick”) and across boundaries of genre when she appropriates fairy tales (in “The Frog Prince”) or Arthurian legends (in “The Blue from Heaven”). As Smith points out, these stories color all human thought and are therefore important to anyone interested in disrupting some of those thoughts.
If Smith’s exploration of inherited stories uncovers some of the ways in which culture grids according to gender or species, her survey of the roles inherited and negotiated within families reduces the scale of the inquiry while maintaining precise attention to instances of ill fit between individuals and the roles in which they find themselves. Adults are irked at having to give up the colors and excesses of childhood (“To Carry the Child”); children with absent fathers are cynical from babyhood (“Infant”). Women with husbands and children weep over frying pans (“Wretched Woman”) or lash out—“You beastly child, I wish you had miscarried,/ You beastly husband, I wish I had never married” (“Lightly Bound”)—while women who refuse to compromise themselves by investing in less-than-adequate relationships doubt their own decisions and worry about isolation: “All, all is isolation/ And every lovely limb’s a desolation” (“Every Lovely Limb’s a Desolation”). Because Smith delights in circling round a situation, sizing it up from all angles, there also are poems that defend solitude—speakers who argue, for example, that the best personal prescription is to “shun compromise/ Forget him and forget her” (“To the Tune of the Coventry Carol”), despite the risks of isolation. The typical attitude of a wife toward her wifehood, a mother toward her motherhood, or a child toward her childhood is discomfort and cynicism. Figures in Smith’s poems are perpetually chafed by the discrepancy between their needs and the roles into which they believe they have been, one way or another, stuck.
For all her self-consciousness about cultural slots, Smith feels no obligation to limit her renditions of them to tragic monotones. Her preference for reading Agatha Christie novels in translation, for example, clearly indicates that she relished the humor of a poor fit. “If you read her in French,” she once remarked, “you get a most exotic flavor, because there never was anything more English than the stuff she’s writing. It’s great fun that the translations are rather poor.” Smith administered her critical, antic judgment to anything in sight, including her own loyalties—to Anglicanism, for example. While she remained personally loyal to the church her whole life, she cheerfully poked poetic fun at the awkward positions into which God forces his underlings.
“Nature and Free Animals”
Smith argues in one early poem, for example, that the human impulse to make dogs into pets has always been prompted by the unbearably cramped space of the will to which people find themselves restricted when they see, on one hand, “Nature and Free Animals” and on the other, God himself. The poem begins with God’s irate pronouncement that humans have committed the one moral error he cannot abide: “they have taught [dogs] to be servile . . . To be dependent touching and entertaining.” Given human pride in legal systems that articulate and protect human rights, to complain that having “rights to be wronged/ And wrongs to be righted” insults a God-given wild dogginess might strike one as ludicrous. However, Smith celebrates the possibility of uninhibited if violent life that animals represent while poking merciless fun at the ways in which human laws and orders actually trivialize death. The person God reprimands in this poem shoots back a feisty self-defense: “Nature and Free Animals/ Are all very fine,” the speaker grants, but with them “on the one side/ And you on the other,/ I hardly know I’m alive.” Squeezed from both directions, humans have no room to exercise either instinct or will, and it is precisely this unpleasant sensation that compels them to make dogs into pets. Having made her irreverent point, Smith undoubtedly chuckled at the anagrammatic joke of resisting God by putting a leash on his name spelled backwards.
Not being one to shy away from the unorthodox destinations toward which her unorthodox theories point her, Smith accepts the fact that her celebration of animals must accommodate violence. Thus, in a poem called “The Zoo,” a lion “sits within his cage,/ Weeping tears of ruby rage” because he has been deprived of his natural capacity for violence. “His claws are blunt, his teeth fall out,/ No victim’s flesh consoles his snout,” the speaker reports sympathetically, concluding that it is no wonder that “his eyes are red/ Considering his talents are misused.” Smith gives God due credit for having bestowed on the lion “lovely teeth and claws/ So that he might eat little boys.”
Oddly as such a compliment rings, other of Smith’s treatments of animals suggest that it is not an entirely backhanded one. The reader may wince at being made politely to admire the lion’s gift for making snacks of little boys, but when one is presented with the alternative of allying oneself with pet owners as depicted in poems such as “Jumbo,” the crunching of bones begins to have a certain raw dignity:
Jumbo, Jumbo, Jumbo darling, Jumbo come to Mother.But Jumbo wouldn’t, he was a dog who simply wouldn’t botherAn ugly beast he was with drooping guts and filthy skin,It was quite wonderful how “mother” loved the ugly thing.
What Smith ridicules here is not the ugliness of Jumbo but rather the human compulsion to assert its will even over such a mangy beast. Jumbo’s unwillingness to be bothered with his yodeling “mother” is a caustic enough comment on humans’ clumsy interference with naturally occurring systems in which dogs, with wonderful indifference, eat dogs. Smith takes clear delight, however, in pushing the caricature one step further. In linking humans’ desire to lord it over the likes of Jumbo with the sacred job of mothering, she insinuates that perhaps people are not as far removed from the harshness of nature as they wish to believe.
“A Mother’s Hearse” and “The Wanderer”
Crass as one may find such an intimation, Smith doggedly pursues the possibility that “the love of a mother for her child/ Is not necessarily a beautiful thing” (“A Mother’s Hearse”). “Mother, if mother-love enclosure be,” one child protests, “It were enough, my dear, not quite to hate me.” While another Brontë-like waif trails about tapping at windowpanes and crying that “you have weaned me too soon, you must nurse me again,” the speaker corrects the misapprehension of the unhappy ghost. Would she indeed “be happier if she were within?” Smith guesses not: “She is happier far where the night winds fall,/ And there are no doors and no windows at all” (“The Wanderer”).
Just as God and beasts are understood to restrict the possibility for human action by having prior claim on both divine instruction and animal instinct, claustrophobia of the will looms over the enterprise of motherhood. What Smith seems, in fact, to be suggesting is the unattractive possibility that domination is one of the primary (and primal) motivations of humankind. The desire to dominate warps even the best-intentioned of projects and even love.
“Papa Love Baby”
If mothers threaten to smother their little darlings, the conspicuous absence of paternal will allows children to rule in worlds of lopsided power. The gigantic quantity of control one presumes that parents wield over their toddlers, for example, dwindles rather rapidly in “Papa Love Baby” when the child administers judgment:
I sat upright in my baby carriageAnd wished mama hadn’t made such a foolish marriage.I tried to hide it, but it showed in my eyes unfortunatelyAnd a fortnight later papa ran away to...
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