Never far from a breakdown

Djuna Barnes’ Collected Poems: With Notes Towards the Memoir displays her fascinating and furious mind at work.

By Brian Phillips
Poetry Foundation Media Services

Collected Poems: With Notes Toward the Memoirs, by Djuna Barnes. Ed. by Phillip Herring and Osias Stutman. University of Wisconsin Press. $24.95.

Djuna Barnes is one of those small, sharp points of vividness that seem to hover around important periods of literary history: quick, peripheral, mosquito-like, delirious, drunk on strange intensities. She was in Paris during the high time of Modernism and seemed to know everyone, go everywhere, hear everything. Literary life was a whirl, all “glorias,” as she wrote sardonically in her notes toward the memoir she never lived to finish: all “aperitifs, Amontillado sherry or Rhine wines, cocaine, opium, or Cocteau.” T.S. Eliot took her to lunch; she called Joyce “Jim”; Gertrude Stein praised her ankles. As a writer–she produced novels, poems, and plays–her manner was lushly and sensationally gothic, and seemed eccentric to those pillars of conformity, Stein and Ezra Pound.

She was taken seriously, only not quite seriously. Even Eliot, who championed her work–he published her novel Nightwood at Faber and Faber and acted informally as her literary agent–had reservations. When he convinced Faber, against his better judgment, to publish her play The Antiphon, he contributed what must be one of the most backhanded blurbs in the history of the medium. “Never has so much genius,” he wrote, “been combined with so little talent.”

For a long time Barnes’s reputation has rested on Nightwood, her novel about lesbian life in Paris. Until quite recently, many of her poems were unknown. When the war broke out, she returned to New York, took an apartment in Greenwich Village, and went into a seclusion that lasted forty years; it was assumed that she had all but ceased to write. But all that time, it turns out, she was writing poetry, and working hard at it, too: piling up hundreds of drafts and feeling her way toward a new style–one that would be derived less from other Modernists than from the seventeenth-century Metaphysicals.

The results of this long experiment have now been published in a new Collected Poems, alongside her earlier verse and the notes toward her prose memoirs, and they are fascinating. There isn’t a great poem in this book; very little of the later work is even finished. But the record of this light and furious mind slowly unraveling itself in the attempt to say what it had to say is painfully compelling, and Barnes frequently rises to moments of splendid poetry. She calls the falling Lucifer, marvelously, a “salmon of the air.” Her manner is rhythmically compressed, aphoristic, riddling; she dwells on inscrutable allegories, often drawn from a private stock of warped Christian imagery:

How should one mourn who never yet has been
In any trampled list at Umbria? Nor seen
The Unicorn thrust in his dousing beam?
And Mary from the manger of her gown,
Ride Jesus down.

She is almost entirely sealed off from the main currents of influence in twentieth-century poetry, though as in the example above she sometimes echoes the more cryptic mode of Yeats. (“The crowns of Nineveh” would be at home in many of her poems.) At times she reads like a strange combination of Donne and Swinburne; at other times, fantastically, like something scribbled by a goblin from Christina Rossetti:

When I was an infant
Knuckling my foot,
Keeling on the huck-bone,
Blowing through my snout,
It was observed by huntsmen
(Though they did not shoot)
I was in my hubris,
Bowling Gods about.

The backgrounds of these poems, even when they appear to be comical, are almost always bitter, and this is in many ways a difficult book to read. Barnes frequently loses control of her powers and writes verse that is gory or mawkish or absurd. It should be remembered that many of these poems are drafts, written very late in her life.

We begin to feel, however, that the real achievements of this poetry depend on its never being far from a breakdown; that to convey the view from the edge of the abyss it was necessary to risk falling into it. Had Barnes governed herself, had she written poems that might have “succeeded” in a more conventional sense, she might never have attained the beautiful and violent and glorious extremes that sporadically fill this book. But she didn’t. And so she did.

Brian Phillips is a regular reviewer for Poetry magazine.

© 2007 by Brian Phillips. All rights reserved.

Distributed by the Poetry Foundation at


~ by ericedits on April 8, 2008.

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