Monday, February 27, 2017

Something New

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We feature each week Nicholas Reid's reviews and comments on new and recent books.

“THE COLLECTED POEMS OF KATHERINE MANSFIELD” Edited by Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison (Otago University Press, $NZ35)
Let me begin this review with an embarrassing admission.
Like every other New Zealander, I know that Katherine Mansfield (pseudonym of Kathleen Mansfield Beauchamp 1888-1923) is one of our greatest literary luminaries. But I have never studied her diligently and methodically, and my knowledge of her work is largely limited to reading my way through the 34 of her short stories that were selected by Elizabeth Bowen for a Collins edition many years ago. Sorry, but I do not have on my shelves the capacious volume of her complete short stories that every literate New Zealander is supposed to have.
I do know, however, that her fame rests on her short stories, and not on poetry. Therefore I approached this volume with considerable interest. 156 large pages of poems by Katherine Mansfield – at least as large a collection as the complete works of some canonical poets – preceded by an introduction and followed by informative notes on nearly every poem. They are presented handsomely here in a sturdy hardback with a flowery cover design, which immediately suggests something fin de siecle (actually it’s taken from the decorations of a Polish church by Stanislaw Wyspianski). To complete the period feel, there is a violet-coloured (or is that mauve- or lavender-coloured?) ribbon bookmark. The presentation is, dare I say it, reverent.
As an edition, there is much to say in favour of this volume.
Let’s begin with the intelligent and jargon-free Introduction by the editors Gerri Kimber and Claire Davison. They remind us that the collection really is the complete poems of Katherine Mansfield – it contains absolutely every poem that she wrote (the majority unpublished in her lifetime) from 1903, when she was a 14-year-old schoolgirl, to 1922, mere months before he death at the age of 34. They take pride in the fact that this volume publishes for the first time all of Mansfield’s 1910 collection The Earth Child, which is not included in its entirety even in the otherwise definitive Edinburgh Edition of her works. The Introduction also stresses both the sheer bulk of Mansfield’s poetry – she wrote poetry at every stage of her writing life, but rarely submitted poems for publication – and the fact that her style changed and developed. The younger Mansfield was besotted by the verse of Oscar Wilde and the “decadents”. But later she was well-read in European and modernist poetry and this had major effects on her own verse.
Wisely, however, the editors do not “talk up” her poetry too much. Amid much praise for Mansfield’s poetry, they also note:
Many poems will… seem to linger on the borders of prose, as if they were short stories in some more condensed form, deliberately constrained in the tighter rhythmic patterns of verse. Others may read like the denouements of stories…” (p.17). They declare that “diction and form are often simple and traditional: floating trochees, sing-song iambics, a certain sentimental sweetness that might just appear too cloying.” (p.21)
One of the best aspects of this edition is the simplest. The poems are printed in as chronological an order as the editors can arrange them. You may recall that some months back, when I reviewed the CollectedPoems of Alistair Te Ariki Campbell, I expressed my frustration that that (incomplete) volume of Campbell’s verse was arranged thematically and not chronologically, and therefore deprived us of the opportunity to see the poet’s style and preoccupations developing.
No such problem here.

*   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *   *
And now for the poems.
We begin in 1903 with the collection Little Fronds. They are the poems of a talented and clever fourteen-year-old girl, filled with rather clichéd romantic conceits, running close to doggerel and really pastiches of what the girl has been reading. It is not unusual to find the likes of:
Day took off her azure mantle
She laid down her golden crown
And she sank to her rest on the cloudlets
On pillows of rosy down” (“The Three Monarchs” p.28)
A benign teacher would probably praise and encourage a girl who wrote this sort of thing, while recognising that she had a long way to go. And yet the girl was herself aware of this fact. The last words of Little Fronds admit that she is penning “childish thoughts”:
Dear little book, farewell
I have loved thee long
With thee, my childish thoughts
Are ever gone”. (last words of “Farewell” p.37)
As she becomes an older teenager, Katherine Mansfield is no Chatterton, Rimbaud or even Dylan Thomas – in other words, no ground-breaking teenage genius. Her verse is still conventional although her reading is wide (the editors note the probable influence of Heinrich Heine’s ballads on some of her efforts). At seventeen, she is looking back to childhood by producing her Children’s Book of Verse which, as an end-note quoting Claire Tomalin says, is transparently an imitation of Robert Louis Stevenson’s Child’s Garden of Verses. Many of the verses in this collection presuppose a comfy middle-class home with Mummy and Daddy bathing and powdering baby (see “The Bath Baby” pp.52-54) and at least some are cloying to read. Yet the teenaged Mansfield doesn’t provoke in me the “Tonstant Weader Fwowed Up” response that Dorothy Parker awarded to the verse of A. A. Milne. As the editors correctly note, even in these childhood-oriented poems there is sometimes a sly and mocking undertone. A poem like “Opposites” (pp.66-67) dares to introduce the fact of class distinctions into what is ostensibly a children’s poem about shoes.
There are, however, also poems that jolt us a little with their dated attitudes. “Grown Up Talks” has a group of children discussing the question of where babies come from, and ends with the awkward lines:
Half-past-six said – he’s so clever –
Cleverer than me – I mean
“ ‘I suppose God makes the black ones
When the saucepan isn’t clean!’ ” (“Grown Up Talks” p.71)
By the time Mansfield is approaching the age of twenty and, in 1908, leaving New
Zealand for the last time (see the poem “In the Tropics” pp.87-88), she is still in the grip of Edgar Allan Poe’s musical romanticism, but she is beginning to shake it off as she turns more frequently to blank verse and vers libre. Her verse more frequently has urban (specifically London) settings, some of them verging on the grim, as in the poem “October” which she dedicated to her eldest sister:
Dim mist of a fog-bound day…
From the lilac trees that droop in St Mary’s Square
The dead leaves fall, a silent, shivering cloud.
Through the grey haze the carts loom heavy, gigantic
Down the dull street. Children at play in the gutter
Quarrel and cry; their voices sound flat and toneless…”
                                                            (“October” p.90)
The long poem in blank verse “The Winter Fire” (pp.92-93) – the best thing in this collection up to this point - is edging its way towards being a short story. It ends dispiritingly with “The drunken, bestial, hiccoughing voice of London.” The little-girl lyricism is gone and we are now hearing the voice of an adult.
In her twenties, Katherine Mansfield’s voice is often openly confessional and first-person.
Poems like “In the Church” and “The Lilac Tree” (p.94) show her going through a phase of melancholic bewilderment, very heavily influenced by the desolate winter landscapes that appear in Thomas Hardy’s poems. Only when she is approaching 21 (the poems of 1909) do we begin to hear what could be characterised as erotic, as in “Sleeping Together” (pp.98-99), apparently addressed to an early lover, and other poems which suggest intense personal relationships.
The 35 poems of The Earth Child (pp.109-131) are published here as a collection for the first time (Mansfield submitted the whole collection for publication… but only some sections appeared as individual poems in “little magazines” of the time). The editors rightly notice the influence of Walt Whitman in the sequence – the free-flowing loose form of each poem, the confessional style, which also suggests a personal mythology, and so forth. Most of the poems are played out in rural settings (alternately sylvan and desolate), which seem archetypal. Indeed, they are the type of poems that one wants to psychoanalyse. What are they really saying about Katherine Mansfield’s emotional life? Sometimes a hesitant and critical self-portrait is implied:
Why are you smiling so?
Girl face in the shadow
Your open brow, your smoothly banded hair
The painful shadow under your eyes,
These do not speak of joy  -
Yet your mouth is tremulously smiling,
Is it a dream that makes you so happy?...” (The Earth Child Part XV, p.116)

Elsewhere, an emotional connection with a lover (or lovers) is implied:
There are days when the longing for you
Floods my heart – my veins are full of tears,
My hair seems to hold something of your wild scent,
I fancy my voice becomes as your voice,
And my slightest gesture shows my dependence on you…” (The Earth Child Part XVIII, p.118)
Fairy-tale becomes code becomes autobiography. Fittingly it ends with another self-portrait (“To K.M.” pp.130-131). Like much else in this volume, however, it does leave me saying that this is very interesting for somebody who wishes to write a biography of Katherine Mansfield; but that too often it reads like a form of self-therapy rather than finished poetry.
It is interesting that in most of the years that follow (1911 to 1922), the poems are fewer. Having already admitted that I am no expert in either Katherine Mansfield’s life or her work, my guess is that by this time she was well launched into her short-story-writing career, and poetry was a less frequent resort. She writes poems either mocking or affectionately parodying London literary figures of the day. She tells a silly anecdote (scarcely a poem) about house-hunting with John Middleton Murry (“The Deaf House Agent” p.145). She laments the death of her brother during the war by submitting to the discipline of more conventional metre and rhyme in two poems (p.147). Often the scene of her poems is domestic and close – yet there is an odd pull against domesticity, a facility to at once enjoy hearth-and-home and yet mildly ridicule them. (See the poem – one of her most finished – “Camomile Tea” p.149). One would have to be in on the joke to know (without resort to the helpful endnotes) that the playful “Night-Scented Stock” (pp.156-157) was gently mocking the knees-ups for Bloomsbury intellectuals that were held as Lady Ottoline Morrell’s home.
While the poems of later years are fewer, there is a new poignancy to them when the circumstances of their composition are known. Given that it was written towards the end of the First World War, Mansfield’s translation of a ballad by Heine (“A Version of Heine”, p.160), a German poem with its references to the dead, can only have evoked, for her, her own losses to the war (especially of her brother). The four lines of “Verses Writ in a Foreign Bed” (p.166) are flippant and a little silly, until we learn that they were written a little after she had been diagnosed as having tuberculosis:
Almighty Father of all and Most Celestial Giver
Who has granted to us thy children a Heart and Lungs and a Liver;
If upon me should descend thy beautiful gift of tongues
Incline not thine Omnipotent ear to my remarks on Lungs.”

Indeed the few poems of her very last years very much reference the discomforts of disease and the shadow of impending death. The very last poem in the book, “The Wounded Bird” (pp.182-183), is self-mythologisation in the face of death, with lines such as:
The hunter threw his dart
And hit her breast,
Hit her, but did not kill.
O my wings, lift me – lift me
I am not dreadfully hurt!
Down she dropped and was still.”
Yet having noted the changes in her circumstances and in her preoccupations, there is little real development in her style. Poems like “The New Husband” (pp.174-175) and “He Wrote” (pp.176-177) speak of her personal situation, confined to beds in sanatoria and rarely visited by her husband Middleton Murry. But their form is the sing-song of very conventional verse.
I enjoyed the week I spent working my way through The Collected Poems of Katherine Mansfield and once again thank the editors for their clear, informative and jargon-free notes and introduction. Certainly I learnt much about Katherine Mansfield by reading this book. But, as a confessed non-expert on the subject, I still have the nagging suspicion that these poems are an adjunct to the real work the writer did in another literary form. Would they have been so handsomely presented to us now if Katherine Mansfield were not the famed short-story writer?

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