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Archive for January, 2012

Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It has been claimed that to surrender one’s heart is to be enslaved, by which it could be meant that when the heart is owned by another, all the abject shamefulness of slavery devolves to one’s lot, such as lack of autonomy, enforced obedience, servility, victimhood, humiliation and more. This claim asserts that to give one’s heart is to cease to be free.

To what extent can this be true? Do we have any choice in the matter? That is, do we fall in love volitionally? Is being in love the equivalent of slavery? Does one indeed become a slave to another when one surrenders one’s heart? Does the one to whom the heart is given become a slave owner? If love is requited and a heart is given in return, do both parties become slaves of each other?

If the one to whom the heart has been given, becomes a master – then it follows by an inescapable logic, she is a debased human being. But is this so? Is the slave a mere possession, and the master a moral reprobate? Can giving and receiving of core affections be reduced to such an abject level as this?

It is true that some people  – and they tend mostly to be women – become the chattels of others under the auspices of contracts and conventions which are widely approved of and accepted by social and religious institutions alike, and marriage was, for women at least, just such an institution, and frequently is. Economic conditions too have their power to enslave, and most of the world’s population have no other choice than to exchange their labour in return for remuneration under the terms dictated by employers. Imprisoned people are slaves of sorts, as are the old, the severely ill, and the incapacitated. But these are not matters of the heart. All these many varieties of slavery have in common that they are, for the most part, without real reward, and that they are all essentially heartless.

When does a person who has given his or her heart to another become a slave? I suppose it could be when the heart (which signifies the love and devotion given to another) is not valued, or not returned, or not respected. Heartbreak is indeed a kind of enslavement, when pain and misery become the master, and a kind of all-pervasive negation becomes the element we find ourselves swimming in. The dismantling of one’s very self in an ensuing process of undoing and demoralisation more than resembles, and is perhaps worse than, slavery. But this is the result of losing one’s heart rather than giving it – by which I mean, it fails to be the ‘possession’ of either the giver or the recipient.  Such misadventures are the lot of many of us humans, and considering how painful and damaging they are, we fervently wish to escape them. We might wish to remain safe from the vicissitudes and dangers of love by avoiding the occasions of love, but what may be gained from such a resolve?

We may consider one woman’s thoughts on the subject – and one who was intimately familiar with the heart’s surrender, and with a more mundane form of enslavement as well – that of being the property of the Convent, and the Catholic Church. It would appear that Juana Inés Asbaje gave serious thought – and more – to the subject of love, and to love in the context of slavery and slave ownership. It was with grave sorrow and misgiving that she chose to become a nun, and bind herself in an indissoluble bond to the church and convent, thereby enslaving herself for life, with not the slightest hope of an eventual manumission.

 
Encarece de animosidad la elección de estado durable hasta la muerte.

Si los riesgos del mar considerara
ninguno se embarcara, si antes viera
bien su peligro, nadie se atreviera,
ni al bravo toro osado provocara.

Si del fogoso bruto ponderara
la furia desbocada en la carrera,
el jinete prudente, nunca hubiera,
quien con discreta mano le enfrenara.

Pero si hubiera algo tan osado,
que, no obstante el peligro, al mismo Apolo
quisiera gobernar con atrevida

mano, el rápido carro en luz bañado
todo lo hiciera, y no tomara sólo
estado, que ha de ser toda la vida.

 

 

She ponders the animosity inherent in choosing a way of life binding until death.

If the dangers of the sea were to be considered,
None would dare embark, upon once having viewed them.
Neither would one risk the peril of confronting
The fearsome bull within the fraught arena.

If the ardent and fiery brute-force of the race
Should go unchecked, surely the furious bolting   
Of the steed would not be dared by any rider,
Rather it would be bridled and discreetly handled.

But should there be another so daring, so undaunted,
That despite the self-same dangers, facing an Apollo,
She would seek to control and govern with fearless hand

The breakneck progress of that dazzling chariot,
She would dare all, and not elect to choose
An estate demanding lifelong possession of her very being.

 

 

In this poem, Juana Inés appears to mean the very opposite of what she is saying. If one considered the dangers inherent in certain choices, one would not choose them. If one considers the dangers, and still chooses, one is an equal of the gods.  As in the case of many of Juana Inés’s poems, her reasoning and the sense can be applied to many other situations as well. The conclusions are apt and applicable to a multiplicity of serious situations.

To which category then can we assign Juana Inés? She considered the perils of a lifelong commitment to convent life, and in eternal servitude of the church. She made this terrible choice, even though a freer spirit probably never drew breath. She did so after full consideration, which makes her daring all the more remarkable. But if we consider her statement that had she possessed sufficient daring she would not have made the choice she did (to be a nun) we have to see it as a self-deprecating sleight-of-hand. She did see, she did dare, and she did choose – even though the she had to choose between two different but equally  restrictive futures. She rejected the conventional roles available to women, all of them as the property of individual men. She became instead the property of a male institution, the church, but only because she aspired to write and study, to love, and to pursue learning. She was no mere nun, but a true and genuine poet.  Love and poetry were her true vocations. Exigency alone dictated her choice, and it was one which demanded the highest degree of courage and fortitude on her part.

But it was the choice to love unstintingly which gave Juana Inés her chief joy, and highest degree of freedom. It did not matter to her that she loved under nearly impossible conditions and enormous constraints. The fact was that she loved with her all, and surrendered her all to love. It appears to me that her experiences in loving unleashed a remarkable creativity, and drew deeply of her soul’s potential. It heightened and refined her humanity, and made of her an illumined being.

 

Expresa su respeto amoroso: dice el sentido en que llama suya a la señora virreina marquesa de la Laguna.

 

Divina Lysi mía:
perdona si me atrevo
a llamarte así, cuando
aun de ser tuya el nombre no merezco.

A esto, no osadía
es llamarte así, puesto
que a ti te sobran rayos,
si en mí pudiera haber atrevimientos.

Error es de la lengua,
que lo que dice imperio
del dueño, en el dominio,
parezcan posesiones en el siervo.

Mi rey, dice el vasallo;
mi cárcel, dice el preso;
y el más humilde esclavo,
sin agraviarlo, llama suyo al dueño.

Así, cuando yo mía
te llamo, no pretendo
que juzguen que eres mía,
sino sólo que yo ser tuya quiero.

Yo te vi; pero basta:
que a publicar incendios
basta apuntar la causa,
sin añadir la culpa del efecto.

Que mirarte tan alta,
no impide a mi denuedo;
que no hay deidad segura
al altivo volar del pensamiento.

Y aunque otras más merezcan,
en distancia del cielo
lo mismo dista el valle
más humilde que el monte más soberbio,

En fin, yo de adorarte
el delito confieso;
si quieres castigarme,
este mismo castigo será premio.

 

She expresses her loving respect, explaining what she means when she says Her Ladyship the Vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, belongs to her.

 

My divine Lysis
pardon me if I dare
then to address you thus,
since to be called yours exceeds my merit

and to this I cannot presume.
To call you mine I would be placed
at the mercy of your sovereign darting rays
if in my boldness I have overreached, and dared.

It is an error of the tongue
when that which is called imperial
and mastered, and of the dominion
appear to be the slave’s possessions.

“My king” declares the vassal,
“My prison” claims the prisoner,
and the most humble slave
without the slightest offense can claim her master as her own.

Thus when I call you mine
I am not in the least pretending
that you will be adjudged to belong to me,
but solely that I wish to be yours.

I saw you – but just stop there:
in order to say there is a fire
it is sufficient to show the cause
there is no need to affix blame on anyone for the result.

To see you so elevated
does not impede my audacity,
for there is no deity who can remain beyond
the reach of  lofty flights of cogitation.

And yet there are those, more deserving –
in their proximity to heaven –
equally placed is the humble valley
as the superbly high mountain.

Finally, I must be confessed
of this sin, which is my adoration –
and if you wish to chastise me,
your chastening will be my reward.

 

 

 

This poem, which appears to be of the utmost humility, is actually making a cosmic claim. Even as she calls herself a slave, she places her claim in a position superior to all dominion. How could this be? This playful equivocation with the first person possessive pronoun appears to be the object of a simple game – a play on words – and that is the usual interpretation of this poem. But when one takes the words of Juana Inés at face value, a whole hidden universe of deeper meaning tends to be missed.  This poem is really about the paradox of the ‘enslaved’ heart. The deepest truths are to found in paradox, and Juana Inés’s life was a master-class on the subject of paradoxical truth.

A heart that is given can never be enslaved. If it is refused, it may be freed by default. If it is taken, it becomes the possessor of its recipient. The one possessing it is engaged in a relation to the core of another, and this connection is one which binds both. The master is only a master if he or she possesses the slave. Therefore the status of ownership devolves on what is owned.  That which is owned becomes the definer. This is the subtle logic of relationships – call it metaphysical if you like, but it cannot be avoided.

In her servile situation as a nun, Juana Inés always had an eye on freedom. Her internal identity was  fixed neither by status nor by role,  both of which were in the end mere compromises and expediencies.  Though she may just as well as have been called a slave as a nun, neither was ever her true identity. She was in fact a lover and a poet.

But a master on the other hand depends on his or her possession of the slave, and the riches  the slave produces. As far as human relationships go, there is not much difference between a slave, or an employee, or an ordinary citizen living under the control of the state, for they exist in a contractual relationship with those they enrich. Though we may recoil in horror at this statement, it is one of of extreme banality.

The person whose own heart is her possession, ungiven and unsurrendered, owns an artifact of questionable worth. All joys accruing to such a person must be self-generated. Never could there be the joy of being possessed by love – which is as far from slavery as one can get, because such possession can truthfully be thought to be the highest  form of union. This is the central truth to which which all mystics fervently attest.

Juana Inés knew this profound truth. In giving herself away entirely she found the core of her genuine self. She loved with an astute recklessness, free of all self- serving evasions. She found the greatest wisdom in loving unwisely, and the greatest freedom in letting her heart be captured.

Death comes to all of us in the end and the claim made over us by oblivion is the final enslavement. It may be a matter of pride to us that we die free and unenslaved by love – masters of our own life and fate, and unbeholden to anyone. To be self-sufficient and not dependent on another for our personal happiness may be a worthy goal to strive for, and a safer one than rolling the dice on love – but what would the world be like if this was the choice made by people like Sappho and Petrarch and Catullus and Juana Inés, who found the greatest wisdom and beauty in loving unwisely, and never counting the cost?

I think it would be a much dimmer and darker place, and one I would not at all prefer to the one they left us as a result of their profligate choices.

 

*Translations Dia Tsung.

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These love- letters  – from women such as Emily Dickinson and Virginia Woolf –  represent a legacy of our lesbian past which does not receive very much prominence. So much correspondence of this type simply does not survive, because of its private and ephemeral nature. Letters are lost, destroyed, and frequently ignored by publishers, even when the writers are famous women.

These few examples serve to show the variety and the intensity of feeling these women felt for each other. Times may change, and the hand-written love letter may go the way of the Dodo – and who knows, even the love -letter itself – but we can hope that they will not disappear entirely, and that the originals of these missives survive safely in someone’s archive.

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Etta James: So long Etta!

Etta James (January 25 1938 – January 21 2012)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

There are no words to describe the legacy of Etta James. Her music was powerfully touching and affecting – and it came out her her with the full force of her body and soul. Her voice, her musicality, her spirit and her raw emotion gave her songs an unforgettable edge – an immediacy  that stained the memory with their imprint. I remember listening to her songs on the radio in my apartment,  and being transported to whatever world she created in that instant in my life – stopping a conversation or lighting a cigarette to go into that place in my head where the lyrics could take hold of me and take me out of my day. I remember  nights in the ’80’s –  around closing time in a lesbian bar  – I think it was Freddie’s  –  here in Denver, when sometimes the D.J  would knock off  a little early, and someone would put some quarters in the jukebox  and  the old songs would bring a new group of dancers who would  move onto the floor and slow dance to those songs –  “My Dearest Darling”, “At Last”,   ” A Sunday Kind of Love”   – and this voice could make you long fiercely for the kind of love she sang about. I remember some of those faces caught  in a slant of  dim light – young and (to us 20 somethings and thirty somethings) old, women in each others’ embrace, just dancing, and the nostalgia and memories that would fill the air was something palpably felt.  So Goodbye and Goodnight Miss Etta – you were a part of my life then, and you will always be. Just keep on singing wherever you are.

 

Here is a  rather large selection – because it was so hard to choose – from a time that was.

 

At Last

A Sunday Kind of Love

My Dearest Darling

Teach Me Tonight

Don’t Cry Baby

If I Can’t Have You

Anything to Say Your’e Mine

Trust in me

Embraceable You

Body and Soul

The Very Thought of You

I Don’t Stand the Ghost of a Chance with You

How Deep is the Ocean

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Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (January 27 1756 – December 5 1791)

Lately a riotous group of ideas has been playing inside my head like a bunch of devilishly exuberant and unruly children, and like a distracted parent I feel I must push them out the door, even if they will then have to play barefoot in the street. I cannot hold on to them  long enough to get them fully dressed and shod, but must have a little quiet in the house in order to sit down at my computer for a few undistracted moments  in order to think about demons, gender-multiplicity, the failure of the divine, hearing voices, the paradise of the autocrat, sacred spaces, the repair of the soul, operatic divas and the voices of writers, and to figure out where and how on earth could all these ideas be brought together?

To begin at the beginning, I think I might have to excuse God for his terrible mistakes. The children’s behaviour reminds me that he was young and ignorant, and his egomaniacal temperament did not help him in the least when it came to rescuing himself  – let alone everyone else – from error. Ignorance of his own origins (the mistake of an over-indulgent mother) made a monster out of him. So his experiment with creation was doomed from the very beginning.  His maladroit manipulations threw hell and heaven and earth into a roiling mess, where freedom and leisure and joy came to be admixed with censure and punishment and guilt. Such an important enterprise  as creation should never have been entrusted to a clumsy and not-too- bright child – especially one whose eyes were set too close together, and who drooled and was given to tantrums, but even the Goddess makes the occasional error in judgement. This is a good thing, because we human beings need look no further in seeking a reason to be kind to ourselves with regard to our own mistakes.

Kings – who began their careers the children of divine queens, were to become god’s representatives on earth, and some of them mirrored their

Pietro Metastasio (January 3 1698 – April 12 1782)

defective creator to a remarkable degree, but occasionally  the goddess had a worthy grandson who exemplified the complex virtues I am certain were originally intended to be possessed by our human rulers.  God began his misadventure by making paradise unsafe. He made some foolish and short-sighted conditions, and when things began to go pear-shaped, he compounded his initial errors several times over. Then, in a fit of childish distemper he evicted his created companions, and sent them off to keep company with the devil. Now, the devil, as we know, is quite the antithesis of God, and as the Bible notes, is extremely subtle.  He could – and did – embody himself  as both serpent and apple, so the end-game and  the first move happened in the same moment. God – to his eternal detriment,  is a god of exclusion, but the devil  – or rather his minions, our individual demons, are creatures of accommodation: that is to say, they must by all accounts be accommodated.  If this talented troupe is welcomed to the table which hath been prepared before us, in the presence of all who might wish to observe, and the cups run over, and if they are suitably and properly propitiated, everything in the earthly garden will be made lovely: if not, everyone suffers.

An enlightened despot, a benevolent dictator, an autocrat of rare sensibility  – however one would wish to define him –  is the one whom the Goddess should have  put in charge in the first place. Such a person would have been vastly more qualified to deal with our demon-ridden souls, and infinitely more suited to do good than a rodent-eyed presiding deity.

Franz Xavier Süssmeyr (1776 – September 18 1803)

But where might such a gem be found? Not in paradise certainly – that unaccommodating and dangerous place – that stage with the rotten floor-boards, where the monster is given to strolling in the evening….
No – the place to look for him would be on the operatic stage – and in particular in that amazing opera La clemenza di Tito.

Opera is the place where the imperfect is perfectly staged , where all the angels – fallen and otherwise, and all the demons – redeemed or otherwise – are given their voices. They are relieved of the constraint to silence, and are allowed, encouraged – and even compelled – to sing.  Not just their voices, but their many genders are relieved of all imprisoning trammels. The full authentic range of dæmonic splendour can be unleashed and relished in full view, and the audience pays for the privilege of being a docile witness , being by convention permitted to respond only at certain times, and in certain ways.

The stage then is a sacred space – life and death are treated according to the requirements of well-designed plots: punishments and rewards are meted out according to a complex but pleasing calculus. There is a “fearful symmetry” to be found here, and occasionally a pleasing and satisfying one, where the demons find that to be known is to be loved – and to be accepted and forgiven. What more could we ask for? Mozart has given freely of  his musical riches in a wonderful score, and the combined talents of three or more librettists have given us  poetry, and drama. All this bounty is brought stunningly to life in one production which probably stands head and shoulders above all the others – the 2003 Salzburg staging featuring Michael Schade, Vesselina Kasarova, Dorothea Röschmann, (who might be recognised  as the daughter in the clip with Diana Damrau who sings “Der Hölle Rache” elsewhere on this blog)  Barbara Bonney and  Elina Garanča – referred to as ‘The dream team’.

Love, hate, enmity, ambition, invidiousness, weakness, shame, regret, treachery, and acts of  arson, treason attempted murder and reckless endangerment are followed by clemency shaded strongly towards forgiveness . All the demons of troublesome and mismanaged  human impulses are all given a significant part to play in this thrilling drama. In my view hell is the place where the demons have not been welcomed, accepted and suitably propitiated, therefore this particular production finds the lot of them happy in their operatic heaven. This is a place where they can hold suspenseful and beautiful sway.  This is where errors and miscalculations are not only forgiven, but redeemed. Aside from the intricacies of the plot, a few arias command our undivided attention. The first is an operatic rarity, a mezzo-mezzo aria. Here we have a mind-boggling confection set forth for our delectation. Vesselina Kasarova (Sesto) and Elina Garanča (Annio) celebrate their friendship in the all too brief aria

Deh, prendi un dolce amplesso (mio amico fedel)  –  Oh take a sweet embrace, my faithful friend.

Here we have two ostensibly straight women in the roles of two straight men, displaying in appearance the vision of butch-lesbian beauty personified, and dramatising the shadows of two gay boys! The multiplicity of gender expressions witnessed here dazzles the eye and tickles the brain. The mind boggles at having to absorb the fluid chiaroscuro of so many shades of gender in less than two minutes. The two mezzos are in on whatever they have decided to act or enact – and we the stunned spectators are left helpless, immobilised, speechless, and silent. This is theatre at its very best.

One of the interesting aspects to me of such roles and spectacles, is that once a woman plays such a part, regardless of the requirements of the script, once I have  recognised and registered a lesbian ‘visual’, she then occupies a particular psychic space within me. The fusion is effortless and unstoppable, and it takes over the space of the whole opera, and extends beyond it. Whenever I see either Kasarova or Garanča in another role, my mind obeys the law of a light-suffused eye and superimposes a ghost upon my actual vision, the ghost of the shadow of these retained images.

Ah perdona il primo affetto

The 2003 Salzburg production of this wonderful opera takes a position of openness and celebration towards the frissons created by a profusion of gender ambiguities. At the same time, it does so with a certain degree of wryness or slyness, under cover of of plot conventions which require us to believe we are seeing men (though played by women) who sound and look like lesbians. No matter what we believe about what the roles and genders are intended to represent, subliminally we absorb and recognise and intuit the subtext of a lesbian continuum which gaily runs all the way from male to female. Divas like Brigitte Fassbaender bring something even more to the parts they play, (Prince Orlovsky in Die Fledermaus  and Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier) which is to say, their authentic lesbian natures.  The voice of a woman issuing from the figure of a man can only mean one thing to me – and that is ‘lesbian’, but this was not always so.  In Mozart’s time, these parts were played by castrati.

In this next clip, “Parto ma tu ben mio”  (in  a different production – and perhaps a more introspective interpretation) when Kasarova sings “guarda mi – guarda mi” – “look at me – look at me” – I feel I know what is implied here – and those chest notes – which seem to fly directly out from the heart – express all the complexities of the ideas I keep trying to express.

The castrato is an unbelievably elaborate construct: that of  gender and sexuality, and a birthright given – or taken – in exchange for a voice. Such is the importance of The Operatic Voice. I sometimes think that our voices are the most demanding parts of us – clamouring louder than our hearts and souls ever could. They demand to be heard, to be attended to – they function as the most complete stand-ins of our authenticity – our aspirations, our characters, our very selves. The registers and timbres and ranges of our voices  spill into everything we do – how we communicate, how we express ourselves, how we are heard, and how we are perceived. Even the way we read – and certainly how we write – possesses a voice.   But the one important aspect of our voice – or voices – is that our demons possess a chorus of voices as well.

Come ti piace imponi

Most of us constrain the voices of our our concealed demons to a decorous public silence – or the occasional sotto voce, if what is said can be made to sound socially acceptable and politic.  The demons have to be kept secret. Unseen they may be able to reconcile themselves to the fact that they are indeed truly unloved and unwanted.  But the problems of course begin in earnest once they are seen –  because to remain unloved, after one has been seen, is to be truly disowned and rejected.

The castrati of past centuries succumbed to a physical neutering in order to develop a voice which was at once sweet and powerful, and I for one, am reminded of this when I hear a strong mezzo voice. Euripides observed that all women are exiles. Certainly this was so in his time, when women had to leave their parental homes in order to live with their husbands, but the same could be claimed of  lesbians who have to inhabit an overwhelmingly heterosexual world.  Their true natures must frequently be hidden or disguised, and a kind of neutered self be made to take its place, which is  in effect, to live in exile from the self.  When a mezzo plays a trouser role – these ambiguous parts requiring powerful voices –  she is paying tribute to both these classes of people.  She slips into the indeterminacy of maleness and femaleness and expresses this pivotal point in the gender continuum with the beauty of her nuanced and powerful voice.  Thus, in certain situations, exile itself becomes a refuge, because it has been given a voice, and an expression.

Parto ma tu ben mio

I am beginning to suppose that this ‘giving of voice’ may be one of the reasons that the mirroring of lesbian expression in trouser roles is such a charged and potent spectacle for lesbians. Certainly I think this is true for the way in which some gay men (of the operatic persuasion!) feel about the great sopranos – divas like Maria Callas and Renata Tebaldi.  But the success of the voice alone might not – and frequently does not – bring along with a guarantee of happiness. Nevertheless, the imperative cannot be dispensed with or ignored, or cast aside without incurring immense and disastrous losses of integrity and authenticity.

The mysteries and secrets of the lesbian voice extend far beyond the sphere of opera – and even of music in general, into the heart of writing itself. One of the most fascinating of authorial voices for me is that of Willa Cather. Cather was fascinated with the Swedish singer Olive Fremstad, and wrote a book The Song of the Lark in which her own and Fremstad’s voice were intertwined in the single character of Thea Kronberg (we cannot fail to note the twin echoes of divinity and royalty in this diva’s name)  so much so that Fremstad admitted to not knowing where her character ended and Cather’s began.

As Cather got older, her voice – or so it seems to me – became more and more disguised and other-directed and  more removed from herself.  Death comes for the Archbishop, said to be her greatest work,  is about the deep relationship between two celibate Roman Catholic priests. The voice has become asexual, and other-sexual, and for me it has lost its natural timbre and become sterile and  uninteresting. And this might lead to another parallel concerning the life of ‘the voice’  – which is – that like all finite things given over to frequent use, it may be used up. It is a profound tragedy that a singer who over a lifetimes devotion  dedicated to mastering her profession,  may find that at the very pinnacle of  her life as a singer, that the treasure she had acquired, the wealth of wisdom about the glories and subtleties her art, that they can no longer be applied, because the voice itself – her instrument – is no longer perfect. There are no immortal voices.

The love of Cather’s life was Isabelle McClung in whose paternal house Cather had a ‘writing room’ and where she lived for many years, sharing a bedroom with McClung. In 1915 Cather received a job offer of sorts in Germany, and she and McClung planned to go there together. However McClung’s father vetoed the trip, and instead Cather took off to the Southwest with her friend  Edith Lewis.  When her father died later the same year, McClung became heir to his fortune, and, probably stung by Cather’s apparent betrayal, she married the violinist Jan Hambourg. Cather lost her ‘writing room’ in the McClung home, not because it was denied her – it was not.  I speculate that it was probably the change in their respective relationships which made a resumption of the old status quo impossible. Perhaps she was no longer able to tolerate being there. When McClung died in 1938, bundles of letters Cather had written to her were returned, whereupon Cather systematically burned them all.

Though Lewis and Cather went on to have a long relationship (they lived together until Cather’s death in 1947.) it would seem that something in Cather’s voice went silent as well. She lost McClung to marriage, and then to death, and it seems to me she began to fall back more upon that old lesbian trick of ventriloquism. Though Cather cared passionately about her individual characters’ places in their landscapes, I think she had lost her own – which was not to be found  in any geographical location, but elsewhere – in another place, another stage, with sympathetic acoustics, and an audience who could hear her honest intonations.  Cather remarked that “The dead might as well try to speak to the living as the old to the young” – but she might as well have added  “as a lesbian might to a straight world.”

One of the most important qualities needed in order to be a great soprano or a great mezzo, is, I think, a certain emotional accessibility – or even vulnerability – to have a heart which is visibly amenable or willing or ready or able to be touched. This is a quality that must come through if anything of the pathos or drama or humanity of a character is to be convincingly conveyed. ‘The voice’ is nearly everything, but it is not everything. There has to be an integration of all the human parts which support the voice – and a basic understanding – and acceptance of our own humanity.

Clemency – this is the grace of Tito – not a perfect person by any means, not very intelligent, and not very rational, but a good and moral human being with a good heart. Why he was ready to throw Sesto (the mere cat’s paw) to the lions and not Vitellia (the chief instigator) I cannot tell, but I am glad all were saved in the end, and forgiven their various sins and misdemeanours. It is clemency which is needed in the process of integration. Mistakes must be recognised, examined, understood and then repaired. In order for that to be achieved one has to embark upon a lifelong endeavor – to save and claim and reclaim all the scattered bits – the secret parts, the hidden aspirations, and all the supporting chorus  – no matter how disorderly – of our demon allies. They must be accepted, and even loved. They cannot be blamed for being immature, for being demanding, and above all for being the children that  some of them are.
And that is when the real performance can begin.

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Juana Inés Asbaje, The Phoenix of Mexico, was no ordinary woman. She was a poet of extraordinary depth and brilliance, but she was also a Muse, and furthermore a Muse who used her voice exactly as such. Both voices, those of poet and Muse, were true and authentic.  As a poet she wrote gallantly and nakedly, as only true poets can, with elegance and high Baroque style, but never substituting style for substance, and when she wrote as a Muse, her poems were addressed to men of the viceregal court, chiding them, teasing, ridiculing or indulging as the fancy took her, but never opening or exposing her heart. As a poet all her poems were addressed to a personal muse, and these astounding works are saturated with her ink, her tears, and her heart’s-blood.  Their structure is beautiful and elegant, and they are so skilfully and remarkably  compressed as to defy translation.  Such a woman comes along but once or so in a thousand years, and according to Robert Graves, himself one of the handful of  genuine poets to ever exist, the hallmarks of such extraordinary women are are beauty, learning, and loneliness. Juana possessed the latter two it is certain, but that she also possessed the first can be inferred from the words of her contemporaries, and even to some degree from her existing portraits.

Juana, like that other Catholic poet St. John of the Cross, lived in the menacing shadow of the church, which at that time owned the greater part of Mexico. She was a nun, and as such lived under the baneful curse of ecclesiastical authourity.  Although she was a much better poet than St John, and much more learned than either  St. John or St. Teresa, she loved women, and her genuine concern was humanistic rather than religious or mystical. Nevertheless, in her hands, the distinction between human and divine shimmered and blurred, as she endowed her human loves with attributes which  serve to show them in a light which even to us seems gloriously divine.

Even as she wrote plenty of material to amuse the viceregal court,which was doubtless enlivened by her presence, and later to appease and placate the church, she never ever fell prey to the paradigm resorted to by John and Teresa: she never wrote any swooning love poems addressed to a male muse. The poems that she did address to men are wry and ironic and indulgent or instructive:  They are never written in passionate surrender.

When speaking of Juana Inés de la Cruz, whom I prefer to think of as Juana Inés Asbaje, the name she possessed at birth,  it is easy and natural to slip into superlatives. ‘Highest’, ‘loftiest’, ‘most brilliant’, ‘most profound’, ‘nonpareil’ – these are the  terms, which come to mind. They  aptly describe both the writer and her writing. She was also a classicist, Latinist, intellectual, philosopher, dialectician, feminist, philologist, logician – and a Poet.

Most of us today know poetry only in its most debased form, so to come across this genuine exponent of resplendent and authentic Muse poetry can be an almost disorienting experience.  To read  the poetry of Juana Inés Asbaje in the original Spanish is an unparalleled experience, as rewarding as it is difficult. She has been made and remade in the hands of many translators, who have focused her through their individual lenses, some pure, and others full of unforgivable distortions, but even in the worst of these, her light is never occluded.

Juana Inés Asbaje appears to have burst upon the stage of history fully formed like Athena from the head of Zeus, and though there no poets among infant prodigies, (or vice versa)  Juana’s precocious genius made her a poet at a very young age, perhaps in her mid teens.

During the sixteen seventies, around the time when Juana was writing her most passionate poetry, Spanish literary practices lagged about a century behind those of Europe, and this might account for the Shakespearean echo in some of her writing. She was no mean dramatist, but her poetry is sharply distinguished from her dramatic and other works because of its stinging, piercing quality. Each line possesses both a sharpened edge and a point, as did the rapiers of Toledo steel, which subjugated Mexico and made it a Spanish colony. Her poems are intended to draw blood: they too are devastatingly effective weapons of conquest.

Juana was a sui generis, and an autodidact and a woman of antinomian wit. She rejected the roles imposed by society on the women of her time – matrimony, domesticity and motherhood – and chose instead her own vocation as a nun, preferring to live in the company of books over the company of men. She even rejected the definition of ‘woman’ with all its demeaning connotations, identifying herself instead with the sexual neutrality of her soul.

True poets share an essential quality of the quantum universe, that of non-locality, which makes them seem to be at once a part of the physical world and of its invisible counterpart, and so they are able to genuinely evoke and invoke and manifest the rare phenomena which creation places between these two positions. Poetry can only issue from a deeply divided soul which is acutely aware of its duality; true poetry reveals the core of its being at the bottom of the chasm. Since nothing divides a soul as effectively as love, all true poets are subject to this law – the law of  a love divided  soul – from which true poetry emerges in its authentic splendour.

Poetry must spring out of an unending effort to reconcile the irreconcilable parts of the human heart: the part which one may attempt to claim as one’s own, and the part which has been claimed by another. Juana’s poems dance across this rift between the two in an exhalation of beauty. They resolve scores of opposites: they articulate the language of a woman’s soul together with a virility reminiscent of Catullus but with none of his harshness.  I think Juana’s poem “Yo no puede tenerte ni dejarte” echoes Catullus’ famous “Odi et amo quare faciam fortuit requiris – Nescio sed fieri, sentio et excrucior” Indeed she shares with Catullus an abiding concern with the personal and the personal muse, and the contents of her heart spill out into her poems with an aching grace.

Her poems bridge the profound and uneasy divide between the fiery sparks of an adamantine intellect, and the liquid, hidden beauty known only to accomplished mystics. She writes as a soul encased in flesh, loving both and rejecting neither. Therefore she was compelled to love with all her heart and all her soul, in complete surrender and obedience to the Muse, in a powerful amalgam of agony and grace.

It is easy to be sidetracked by Juana’s glittering intellect, but one is drawn irresistibly to her love poetry. Because we so seldom find the deepest truths to be one-sided, the greatest of them tend to be more expressible in terms of paradox. The great felicity of Muse poetry is that it encases paradox, (which after all is but a mental and cognitive construct), and transforms it into a form and language that the psyche immediately apprehends.

The love spoken of in these poems is a wounded love which digs into its own flesh in order to find words and language: it is a love which is reckless, acute, defiant and surrendered. But we know very little of the character of the women on whom Juana lavished – or perhaps squandered – her devotion, other than that they were both married to members of the viceregal court.

One thinks that if these mannered noble women, the denizens of high society who were the object of Juana’s ardour, were to have departed so far from the dictates of courtly propriety as to have hurled a wine-cup at her (as did the mistress of Propertius, at him), she would have responded with the same wry sparking grace and amplitude of temperament which inspired his “ Odi ego quas numquam pungent sospira somnos – Semper in irrata pallidus esse velim”. – Which has been translated to mean “Detestable to me ever is a night un-pierced by sighs – May I ever the be the pale lover of an angry mistress”.

One could conclude that some of Juana Inés Asbaje’s poems suggest a wry and cynical perspective on love, – but the kernel of truth these poems enclose is undeniable. I am thinking now of the poem about Jealousy and Absence…. In the estimation of a Muse-dedicated poet, absence is a more unbearable burden than jealousy. In the dynamic of the Muse mythos, She is free to confer her favours when and wheresoever she pleases. The lover/poet must in good grace accept these apparent caprices because the process into which a poet is drawn as a contender is a triad and not a dyad, but more importantly it is, like everything else in the universe, cyclical, and rejection and acceptance each take their appointed turn in this poetic cycle. In such situations ambivalences of thought may prevail, but never an ambivalence of devotion.

There is never any depth of emotion expressed or evinced in the ‘romantic’ poems that involve male subjects. Asbaje only ‘loves’ the man who hates her, as she ‘hates’ the man who ‘loves’ her. Neither circumstance permits any romantic fulfillment, and neither of these hates and loves, when compared to her Muse directed poems, are to be taken at all seriously.

Juana Inés Asbaje’s  poems of ‘Love in Absence’ clearly assert that the worth  of one is not diminished by the other. Asbaje lived in an environment – the cloistered life of convent – which she had chosen in part of a devil’s bargain. Neither the court where she spent her adolescence nor the convent where she spent her adulthood was free of pernicious politics or the foetid breath of the Spanish Inquisition. She would have to tread carefully in either place, but the convent offered the greater stability, and it was a place – at least for a time, where she could keep her books and scientific instruments, and where she had a place to write.

This meant that contact with her two beloveds the two vicereins. Her first love was the vicereine, the Marquise of Mancera (Leonor Carreto addressed  in Asbaje’s poems as ‘Laura’, perhaps as a nod to Francesco Petrarch).Her second love Asbaje revealed only after the woman’s death:  the vicereine, Marquise de la Laguna, Maria Luisa, Countess of Paredes (addressed in Asbaje’s poems as ‘Lysis’ or ‘Phyllis’). Both these intense loves were, in the end hopeless, not in the sense that they were without hope, but in the sense that they were blighted –‘Laura’ by separation when the vicereine later returned to Spain, and ‘Lysis’ by death. This was love with no expectation of winning, and borne in full acknowledgement of that fact. It was as if Asbaje had slit her purse and let its treasure escape, or like the Roman notables who, when condemned in a different fashion, matter- of- factly opened their veins and drained themselves of life. This was a nun, who nevertheless experienced mature and intense passion of the sort that dissolves the self.

Asbaje never complained that love always comes with a price. Unlike Sir Tomas Wyatt (They Flee from Me Who Sometime Did Me Seek), she never whimpered,  whined or complained. She knew well that the Muse cannot offer constant love, because in a very deep sense she is nature itself, and like the moon which symbolises her, she is constantly changing, and bringing change and movement in her wake.

Whether these high-born  beloveds, the vicereines, who elicited such avid unquenchable longing and on whom these poems and sentiments were pinned, were trivial and unworthy, we cannot know. They were beautiful certainly, and accomplished, and they must have offered some form of encouragement, but accompanying that encouragement was deception and coquetry, and the awareness of the power that women gain, who are the beloveds of dedicated lovers. Asbaje was both an open book and an enigma; a nun and a lover, a women of sumptuous intellect in a time when even most men were illiterate. She was both humble and audacious, acquiescing to the narrow- minded strictures of the church while actively rebelling against it.

Asbaje was capable of a of a brilliant sleight- of hand which permitted her to enlarge on a secular – and personal – subject while appearing to discuss a spiritual one. It is clear that a poem such as “Traigo commigo un cuidado” on the difficulty of loving an invisible God was not by any means à propos solely to its nominal subject, but it served, for it was too subtle for the vaunted clerical intellects to detect her trinity of feminist, humanist and sapphic heresy.

Even as she deferred to the authority of the men who ruled her society, she was outspokenly and deeply critical of their hypocrisy and misogyny as is evidenced in her devastating satire “Hombres necios que acusáis a la mujer sin razon”. – ‘You foolish men who accuse women without justification’ This satirical tour de force is a true reflection of her mordant wit, and great temerity: wit wherewith she excoriated ignorant men, it was unequaled for centuries both before and after her.

If ever an instance was required to reveal the sheer ignorance, vileness and misogynism of the Catholic Church, it may be found in the manner in which the voice of Asbaje was silenced. When her noble protectors were recalled to Spain, the draconian archbishop of Pueblo swooped down upon her with all the zeal of a predator which has singled out its chosen prey. She was not subjected to the sadistic torments of the rack or the strappado, but she may as well have been. When I think of this monster, Goya’s Los Caprichos  comes  to mind. “The Devout Profession”, “O What a Golden Beak”, “Swallow it Dog!” and “Nothing Could be Done About It” – The church of that time, with all its diabolical minions. This  precious miracle of humanity, was forced to sell all the books in her library, her scientific instruments, and give the proceeds to charity. She was compelled to cease writing, and so her vocation as a writer, thinker and poet were brought to an asphyxiated end.

I cannot help in myself an impulse to compare Asbaje’s disillusionment with that of the famous Italian ‘Poet of Disillusionment’ Giacomo Leopardi. Leopardi, despite his famous poetic offerings to women, was not a Muse Poet. Both Asbaje and Leopardi were dedicated to ‘La Donna Non Si Trova’ – Leopardi’s term for his Muse, meaning’ The woman who cannot be found (attained)’ – but what an unbridegable difference in attitude separates the virile Asbaje from the effete Leopardi!

When it came to love Juana Inés Asbaje spared herself nothing, and made no attempt to defend herself. She went on cutting and re-cutting her heart open, never seeking to assuage its pain. She was aware of her divided soul, and her contradictions, but at the same time she possessed a species of wholeness that few people can hope to attain. She had the literary equivalent of perfect pitch, and speaks to us still, by means of the most eloquent use of her silence.

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

En que da moral censura a una rosa,
y en ella a sus semejantes.

 

Rosa divina que en gentil cultura
eres, con tu fragante sutileza,
magisterio purpúreo en la belleza,
enseñanza nevada a la hermosura;
amago de la humana arquitectura,
ejemplo de la vana gentileza,
en cuyo sér unió naturaleza
la cuna alegre y triste sepultura:

¡  cuán altiva en tu pompa, presumida,
soberbia, el riesgo de morir desdeñas,
y luego desmayada y encogida

de tu caduco sér das mustias señas,
con que con docta muerte y necia vida,
viviendo engañas y muriendo enseñas!

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

 

 

 

 

In which she gives a rose a  moral censure,
and through her, to those she resembles.

 

Divine rose, in your gracious and tender blossom,
You are with your most fragrant subtleties,
Bestower of  enroyalled instructions on beauty
Pure as the snow, you teach of loveliness.

 

Likeness of human form and structure,
Exemplar of  all the vain gentility
Wherein nature is to be found uniting
Both the happy cradle and the lamented grave.

 

What loftiness there is in your presumption!
And prideful scorn at the mere hint of death’s suggestion.
Yet no sooner than you shrink back in consternation

 

Of that incipient state, with fainting and withered innuendo,
Of your erudite death and fatuous life, than you signal
You lived deceiving, but in your death enlighten!

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translation Dia Tsung.

Torquato Tasso (March 11 1544 – April 25 1595)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Quel labbro, che le rose han colorito,

 

 

Molle si sporge e tumidetto in fuore,
Spinto per arte, mi cred’io, d’Amore,
A fare a i baci insidioso invito.
Amanti, alcun non sia cotanto ardito

Ch’osi appressarsi, ove tra fiore e fiore
S’asconde un angue ad attoscarvi il core,
E ‘l fiero intento io veggio, e ve l’addito.
Io, ch’ altre volte fui nelle amorose

Insidie colto, or ben lo riconosco,
E le discopro, o giovinetti, a voi;
Quasi pomi di Tantalo, le rose

Fansi all’incontro, e s’allontanan poi;s'asconde un angue
Sol resta Amor che spira fiamma e tosco.

 

 

 

 

 

Torquato Tasso

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These lips the roses have coloured,

 

Thrust out in swollen pout
Artfully polished, I do believe, by Love himself
To make insidious invitation to a kiss.
Lovers who dare approach, don’t be so bold –

There betwixt flower and flower, I see
Conceals itself a serpent, to sting the heart
And its audacious cruel intent points me
Towards another time, now passed when I in love
Encountered that cultured trap, I so well recognise,
And so to you too young folk, I point it out
As being as it were the apples of Tantalus
Fanning the flame at first sight, but further on,
All that remains of love expires in a conflagration.

Translation Dia Tsung.

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Edith Holden (September 26 1871 – March 15 1920)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

What a feast for the eyes in this sparse month – Edith Holden’s commemorative gems of Warwickshire country life of over a hundred years ago.

 

 

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Willa Cather (December 7 1873 – April 24 1947)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

It often happens that one or another of my friends stops before a red chalk drawing in my study and asks me where I ever found so lovely a creature. I have never told the story of that picture to any one, and the beautiful woman on the wall, until yesterday, in all these twenty years has spoken to no one but me. Yesterday a young painter, a countryman of mine, came to consult me on a matter of business, and upon seeing my drawing of Alexandra Ebbling, straightway forgot his errand. He examined the date upon the sketch and asked me, very earnestly, if I could tell him whether the lady were still living. When I answered him, he stepped back from the picture and said slowly:
“So long ago? She must have been very young. She was happy?”
“As to that, who can say — about any one of us?” I replied. “Out of all that is supposed to make for happiness, she had very little.”
We returned to the object of his visit, but when he bade me goodbye at the door his troubled gaze again went back to the drawing, and it was only by turning sharply about that he took his eyes away from her.
I went back to my study fire, and as the rain kept away less impetuous visitors, I had a long time in which to think of Mrs. Ebbling. I even got out the little box she gave me, which I had not opened for years, and when Mrs. Hemway brought my tea I had barely time to close the lid and defeat her disapproving gaze.
My young countryman’s perplexity, as he looked at Mrs. Ebbling, had recalled to me the delight and pain she gave me when I was of his years. I sat looking at her face and trying to see it through his eyes — freshly, as I saw it first upon the deck of the Germania, twenty years ago. Was it her loveliness, I often ask myself, or her loneliness, or her simplicity, or was it merely my own youth? Was her mystery only that of the mysterious North out of which she came? I still feel that she was very different from all the beautiful and brilliant women I have known; as the night is different from the day, or as the sea is different from the land. But this is our story, as it comes back to me.
For two years I had been studying Italian and working in the capacity of clerk to the American legation at Rome, and I was going home to secure my first consular appointment. Upon boarding my steamer at Genoa, I saw my luggage into my cabin and then started for a rapid circuit of the deck. Everything promised well. The boat was thinly peopled, even for a July crossing; the decks were roomy; the day was fine; the sea was blue; I was sure of my appointment, and, best of all, I was coming back to Italy. All these things were in my mind when I stopped sharply before a chaise longue placed sidewise near the stern. Its occupant was a woman, apparently ill, who lay with her eyes closed, and in her open arm was a chubby little red-haired girl, asleep. I can still remember that first glance at Mrs. Ebbling, and how I stopped as a wheel does when the band slips. Her splendid, vigorous body lay still and relaxed under the loose folds of her clothing, her white throat and arms and red-gold hair were drenched with sunlight. Such hair as it was: wayward as some kind of gleaming seaweed that curls and undulates with the tide. A moment gave me her face; the high cheek-bones, the thin cheeks, the gentle chin, arching back to a girlish throat, and the singular loveliness of the mouth. Even then it flashed through me that the mouth gave the whole face its peculiar beauty and distinction. It was proud and sad and tender, and strangely calm. The curve of the lips could not have been cut more cleanly with the most delicate instrument, and whatever shade of feeling passed over them seemed to partake of their exquisiteness.
But I am anticipating. While I stood stupidly staring (as if, at twenty-five, I had never before beheld a beautiful woman) the whistles broke into a hoarse scream, and the deck under us began to vibrate. The woman opened her eyes, and the little girl struggled into a sitting position, rolled out of her mother’s arm, and ran to the deck rail. After putting my chair near the stern, I went forward to see the gang-plank up and did not return until we were dragging out to sea at the end of a long tow-line.
The woman in the chaise longue was still alone. She lay there all day, looking at the sea. The little girl, Carin, played noisily about the deck. Occasionally she returned and struggled up into the chair, plunged her head, round and red as a little pumpkin, against her mother’s shoulder in an impetuous embrace, and then struggled down again with a lively flourishing of arms and legs. Her mother took such opportunities to pull up the child’s socks or to smooth the fiery little braids; her beautiful hands, rather large and very white, played about the riotous little girl with a quieting tenderness. Carin chattered away in Italian and kept asking for her father, only to be told that he was busy.
When any of the ship’s officers passed, they stopped for a word with my neighbor, and I heard the first mate address her as Mrs. Ebbling. When they spoke to her, she smiled appreciatively and answered in low, faltering Italian, but I fancied that she was glad when they passed on and left her to her fixed contemplation of the sea. Her eyes seemed to drink the color of it all day long, and after every interruption they went back to it. There was a kind of pleasure in watching her satisfaction, a kind of excitement in wondering what the water made her remember or forget. She seemed not to wish to talk to any one, but I knew I should like to hear whatever she might be thinking. One could catch some hint of her thoughts, I imagined, from the shadows that came and went across her lips, like the reflection of light clouds. She had a pile of books beside her, but she did not read, and neither could I. I gave up trying at last, and watched the sea, very conscious of her presence, almost of her thoughts. When the sun dropped low and shone in her face, I rose and asked if she would like me to move her chair. She smiled and thanked me, but said the sun was good for her. Her yellow-hazel eyes followed me for a moment and then went back to the sea.
After the first bugle sounded for dinner, a heavy man in uniform came up the deck and stood beside the chaise lounge, looking down at its two occupants with a smile of satisfied possession. The breast of his trim coat was hidden by waves of soft blond beard, as long and heavy as a woman’s hair, which blew about his face in glittering profusion. He wore a large turquoise ring upon the thick hand that he rubbed good-humoredly over the little girl’s head. To her he spoke Italian, but he and his wife conversed in some Scandinavian tongue. He stood stroking his fine beard until the second bugle blew, then bent stiffly from his hips, like a soldier, and patted his wife’s hand as it lay on the arm of her chair. He hurried down the deck, taking stock of the passengers as he went, and stopped before a thin girl with frizzed hair and a lace coat, asking her a facetious question in thick English. They began to talk about Chicago and went below. Later I saw him at the head of his table in the dining room, the befrizzed Chicago lady on his left. They must have got a famous start at luncheon, for by the end of the dinner Ebbling was peeling figs for her and presenting them on the end of a fork.
The Doctor confided to me that Ebbling was the chief engineer and the dandy of the boat; but this time he would have to behave himself, for he had brought his sick wife along for the voyage. She had a bad heart valve, he added, and was in a serious way.
After dinner Ebbling disappeared, presumably to his engines, and at ten o’clock, when the stewardess came to put Mrs. Ebbling to bed, I helped her to rise from her chair, and the second mate ran up and supported her down to her cabin. About midnight I found the engineer in the card room, playing with the Doctor, an Italian naval officer, and the commodore of a Long Island yacht club. His face was even pinker than it had been at dinner, and his fine beard was full of smoke. I thought a long while about Ebbling and his wife before I went to sleep.
The next morning we tied up at Naples to take on our cargo, and I went on shore for the day. I did not, however, entirely escape the ubiquitous engineer, whom I saw lunching with the Long Island commodore at a hotel in the Santa Lucia. When I returned to the boat in the early evening, the passengers had gone down to dinner, and I found Mrs. Ebbling quite alone upon the deserted deck. I approached her and asked whether she had had a dull day. She looked up smiling and shook her head, as if her Italian had quite failed her. I saw that she was flushed with excitement, and her yellow eyes were shining like two clear topazes.
“Dull? Oh, no! I love to watch Naples from the sea, in this white heat. She has just lain there on her hillside among the vines and laughed for me all day long. I have been able to pick out many of the places I like best.”
I felt that she was really going to talk to me at last. She had turned to me frankly, as to an old acquaintance, and seemed not to be hiding from me anything of what she felt. I sat down in a glow of pleasure and excitement and asked her if she knew Naples well.
“Oh, yes! I lived there for a year after I was first married. My husband has a great many friends in Naples. But he was at sea most of the time, so I went about alone. Nothing helps one to know a city like that. I came first by sea, like this. Directly to Naples from Finmark, and I had never been South before.” Mrs. Ebbling stopped and looked over my shoulder. Then, with a quick, eager glance at me, she said abruptly: “It was like a baptism of fire. Nothing has ever been quite the same since. Imagine how this bay looked to a Finmark girl. It seemed like the overture to Italy.”
I laughed. “And then one goes up the country — song by song and wine by wine.”
Mrs. Ebbling sighed. “Ah, yes. It must be fine to follow it. I have never been away from the seaports myself. We live now in Genoa.”
The deck steward brought her tray, and I moved forward a little and stood by the rail. When I looked back, she smiled and nodded to let me know that she was not missing anything. I could feel her intentness as keenly as if she were standing beside me.
The sun had disappeared over the high ridge behind the city, and the stone pines stood black and flat against the fires of the afterglow. The lilac haze that hung over the long, lazy slopes of Vesuvius warmed with golden light, and films of blue vapor began to float down toward Baiae. The sky, the sea, and the city between them turned a shimmering violet, fading grayer as the lights began to glow like luminous pearls along the water-front, — the necklace of an irreclaimable queen. Behind me I heard a low exclamation; a slight, stifled sound, but it seemed the perfect vocalization of that weariness with which we at last let go of beauty, after we have held it until the senses are darkened. When I turned to her again, she seemed to have fallen asleep.
That night, as we were moving out to sea and the tail lights of Naples were winking across the widening stretch of black water, I helped Mrs. Ebbling to the foot of the stairway. She drew herself up from her chair with effort and leaned on me wearily. I could have carried her all night without fatigue.
“May I come and talk to you to-morrow?” I asked. She did not reply at once. “Like an old friend?” I added. She gave me her languid hand, and her mouth, set with the exertion of walking, softened altogether. “Grazie,” she murmured.
I returned to the deck and joined a group of my countrywomen, who, primed with inexhaustible information, were discussing the baseness of Renaissance art. They were intelligent and alert, and as they leaned forward in their deck chairs under the circle of light, their faces recalled to me Rembrandt’s picture of a clinical lecture. I heard them through, against my will, and then went to the stern to smoke and to see the last of the island lights. The sky had clouded over, and a soft, melancholy wind was rushing over the sea. I could not help thinking how disappointed I would be if rain should keep Mrs. Ebbling in her cabin to-morrow. My mind played constantly with her image. At one moment she was very clear and directly in front of me; the next she was far away. Whatever else I thought about, some part of my consciousness was busy with Mrs. Ebbling; hunting for her, finding her, losing her, then groping again. How was it that I was so conscious of whatever she might be feeling? that when she sat still behind me and watched the evening sky, I had had a sense of speed and change, almost of danger; and when she was tired and sighed, I had wished for night and loneliness.

Though when we are young we seldom think much about it, there is now and again a golden day when we feel a sudden, arrogant pride in our youth; in the lightness of our feet and the strength of our arms, in the warm fluid that courses so surely within us; when we are conscious of something powerful and mercurial in our breasts, which comes up wave after wave and leaves us irresponsible and free. All the next morning I felt this flow of life, which continually impelled me toward Mrs. Ebbling. After the merest greeting, however, I kept away. I found it pleasant to thwart myself, to measure myself against a current that was sure to carry me with it in the end. I was content to let her watch the sea — the sea that seemed now to have come into me, warm and soft, still and strong. I played shuffleboard with the Commodore, who was anxious to keep down his figure, and ran about the deck with the stout legs of the little pumpkin-colored Carin about my neck. It was not until the child was having her afternoon nap below that I at last came up and stood beside her mother.
“You are better to-day,” I exclaimed, looking down at her white gown. She colored unreasonably, and I laughed with a familiarity which she must have accepted as the mere foolish noise of happiness, or it would have seemed impertinent.
We talked at first of a hundred trivial things, and we watched the sea. The coast of Sardinia had lain to our port for some hours and would lie there for hours to come, now advancing in rocky promontories, now retreating behind blue bays. It was the naked south coast of the island, and though our course held very near the shore, not a village or habitation was visible; there was not even a goat-herd’s hut hidden away among the low pinkish sand hills. Pinkish sand hills and yellow head-lands; with dull-colored scrubby bushes massed about their bases and following the dried water-courses. A narrow strip of beach glistened like white paint between the purple sea and the umber rocks, and the whole island lay gleaming in the yellow sunshine and translucent air. Not a wave broke on that fringe of white sand, not the shadow of a cloud played across the bare hills. In the air about us, there was no sound but that of a vessel moving rapidly through absolutely still water. She seemed like some great sea-animal, swimming silently, her head well up. The sea before us was so rich and heavy and opaque that it might have been lapis lazuli. It was the blue of legend, simply; the color that satisfies the soul like sleep.
And it was of the sea we talked, for it was the substance of Mrs. Ebbling’s story. She seemed always to have been swept along by ocean streams, warm or cold, and to have hovered about the edge of great waters. She was born and had grown up in a little fishing town on the Arctic ocean. Her father was a doctor, a widower, who lived with his daughter and who divided his time between his books and his fishing rod. Her uncle was skipper on a coasting vessel, and with him she had made many trips along the Norwegian coast. But she was always reading and thinking about the blue seas of the South.
“There was a curious old woman in our village, Dame Ericson, who had been in Italy in her youth. She had gone to Rome to study art, and had copied a great many pictures there. She was well connected, but had little money, and as she grew older and poorer she sold her pictures one by one, until there was scarcely a well-to-do family in our district that did not own one of Dame Ericson’s paintings. But she brought home many other strange things; a little orange-tree which she cherished until the day of her death, and bits of colored marble, and sea shells and pieces of coral, and a thin flask full of water from the Mediterranean. When I was a little girl she used to show me her things and tell me about the South; about the coral fishers, and the pink islands, and the smoking mountains, and the old, underground Naples. I suppose the water in her flask was like any other, but it never seemed so to me. It looked so elastic and alive, that I used to think if one unsealed the bottle something penetrating and fruitful might leap out and work an enchantment over Finmark.”
Lars Ebbling, I learned, was one of her father’s friends. She could remember him from the time when she was a little girl and he a dashing young man who used to come home from the sea and make a stir in the village. After he got his promotion to an Atlantic liner and went South, she did not see him until the summer she was twenty, when he came home to marry her. That was five years ago. The little girl, Carin, was three. From her talk, one might have supposed that Ebbling was proprietor of the Mediterranean and its adjacent lands, and could have kept her away at his pleasure. Her own rights in him she seemed not to consider.
But we wasted very little time on Lars Ebbling. We talked, like two very young persons, of arms and men, of the sea beneath us and the shores it washed. We were carried a little beyond ourselves, for we were in the presence of the things of youth that never change; fleeing past them. To-morrow they would be gone, and no effort of will or memory could bring them back again. All about us was the sea of great adventure, and below us, caught somewhere in its gleaming meshes, were the bones of nations and navies . . . . . nations and navies that gave youth its hope and made life something more than a hunger of the bowels. The unpeopled Sardinian coast unfolded gently before us, like something left over out of a world that was gone; a place that might well have had no later news since the corn ships brought the tidings of Actium.
“I shall never go to Sardinia,” said Mrs. Ebbling. “It could not possibly be as beautiful as this.”
“Neither shall I,” I replied.
As I was going down to dinner that evening, I was stopped by Lars Ebbling, freshly brushed and scented, wearing a white uniform, and polished and glistening as one of his own engines. He smiled at me with his own kind of geniality. “You have been very kind to talk to my wife,” he explained. “It is very bad for her this trip that she speaks no English. I am indebted to you.”
I told him curtly that he was mistaken, but my acrimony made no impression upon his blandness. I felt that I should certainly strike the fellow if he stood there much longer, running his blue ring up and down his beard. I should probably have hated any man who was Mrs. Ebbling’s husband, but Ebbling made me sick.

The next day I began my drawing of Mrs. Ebbling. She seemed pleased and a little puzzled when I asked her to sit for me. It occurred to me that she had always been among dull people who took her looks as a matter of course, and that she was not at all sure that she was really beautiful. I can see now her quick, confused look of pleasure. I thought very little about the drawing then, except that the making of it gave me an opportunity to study her face; to look as long as I pleased into her yellow eyes, at the noble lines of her mouth, at her splendid, vigorous hair.
“We have a yellow vine at home,” I told her, “that is very like your hair. It seems to be growing while one looks at it, and it twines and tangles about itself and throws out little tendrils in the wind.”
“Has it any name?”
“We call it love vine.”
How little a thing could disconcert her!
As for me, nothing disconcerted me. I awoke every morning with a sense of speed and joy. At night I loved to hear the swish of the water rushing by. As fast as the pistons could carry us, as fast as the water could bear us, we were going forward to something delightful; to something together. When Mrs. Ebbling told me that she and her husband would be five days in the docks in New York and then return to Genoa, I was not disturbed, for I did not believe her. I came and went, and she sat still all day, watching the water. I heard an American lady say that she watched it like one who is going to die, but even that did not frighten me: I somehow felt that she had promised me to live.
All those long blue days when I sat beside her talking about Finmark and the sea, she must have known that I loved her. I sat with my hands idle on my knees and let the tide come up in me. It carried me so swiftly that, across the narrow space of deck between us, it must have swayed her, too, a little. I had no wish to disturb or distress her. If a little, a very little of it reached her, I was satisfied. If it drew her softly, but drew her, I wanted no more. Sometimes I could see that even the light pressure of my thoughts made her paler. One still evening, after a long talk, she whispered to me, “You must go and walk now, and — don’t think about me.” She had been held too long and too closely in my thoughts, and she begged me to release her for a little while. I went out into the bow and put her far away, at the sky line, with the faintest star, and thought of her gently across the water. When I went back to her, she was asleep.
But even in those first days I had my hours of misery. Why, for instance, should she have been born in Finmark, and why should Lars Ebbling have been her only door of escape? Why should she be silently taking leave of the world at the age when I was just beginning it, having had nothing, nothing of whatever is worth while?
She never talked about taking leave of things, and yet I sometimes felt that she was counting the sunsets. One yellow afternoon, when we were gliding between the shores of Spain and Africa, she spoke of her illness for the first time. I had got some magnolias at Gibraltar, and she wore a bunch of them in her girdle and the rest lay on her lap. She held the cool leaves against her cheek and fingered the white petals. “I can never,” she remarked, “get enough of the flowers of the South. They make me breathless, just as they did at first. Because of them I should like to live a long while — almost forever.”
I leaned forward and looked at her. “We could live almost forever if we had enough courage. It’s of our lives that we die. If we had the courage to change it all, to run away to some blue coast like that over there, we could live on and on, until we were tired.”
She smiled tolerantly and looked southward through half shut eyes. “I am afraid I should never have courage enough to go behind that mountain, at least. Look at it, it looks as if it hid horrible things.”
A sea mist, blown in from the Atlantic, began to mask the impassive African coast, and above the fog, the grey mountain peak took on the angry red of the sunset. It burned sullen and threatening until the dark land drew the night about her and settled back into the sea. We watched it sink, while under us, slowly but ever increasing, we felt the throb of the Atlantic come and go, the thrill of the vast, untamed waters of that lugubrious and passionate sea. I drew Mrs. Ebbling’s wraps about her and shut the magnolias under her cloak. When I left her, she slipped me one warm, white flower.

From the Straits of Gibraltar we dropped into the abyss, and by morning we were rolling in the trough of a sea that drew us down and held us deep, shaking us gently back and forth until the timbers creaked, and then shooting us out on the crest of a swelling mountain. The water was bright and blue, but so cold that the breath of it penetrated one’s bones, as if the chill of the deep under-fathoms of the sea were being loosed upon us. There were not more than a dozen people upon the deck that morning, and Mrs. Ebbling was sheltered behind the stern, muffled in a sea jacket, with drops of moisture upon her long lashes and on her hair. When a shower of icy spray beat back over the deck rail, she took it gleefully.
“After all,” she insisted, “this is my own kind of water; the kind I was born in. This is first cousin to the Pole waters, and the sea we have left is only a kind of fairy tale. It’s like the burnt out volcanoes; its day is over. This is the real sea now, where the doings of the world go on.”
“It is not our reality, at any rate,” I answered.
“Oh, yes, it is! These are the waters that carry men to their work, and they will carry you to yours.”
I sat down and watched her hair grow more alive and iridescent in the moisture. “You are pleased to take an attitude,” I complained.
“No, I don’t love realities any more than another, but I admit them, all the same.”
“And who are you and I to define the realities?”
“Our minds define them clearly enough, yours and mine, everybody’s. Those are the lines we never cross, though we flee from the equator to the Pole. I have never really got out of Finmark, of course. I shall live and die in a fishing town on the Arctic ocean, and the blue seas and the pink islands are as much a dream as they ever were. All the same, I shall continue to dream them.”
The Gulf Stream gave us warm blue days again, but pale, like sad memories. The water had faded, and the thin, tepid sunshine made something tighten about one’s heart. The stars watched us coldly, and seemed always to be asking me what I was going to do. The advancing line on the chart, which at first had been mere foolishness, began to mean something, and the wind from the west brought disturbing fears and forebodings. I slept lightly, and all day I was restless and uncertain except when I was with Mrs. Ebbling. She quieted me as she did little Carin, and soothed me without saying anything, as she had done that evening at Naples when we watched the sunset. It seemed to me that every day her eyes grew more tender and her lips more calm. A kind of fortitude seemed to be gathering about her mouth, and I dreaded it. Yet when, in an involuntary glance, I put to her the question that tortured me, her eyes always met mine steadily, deep and gentle and full of reassurance. That I had my word at last, happened almost by accident.
On the second night out from shore there was the concert for the Sailors’ Orphanage, and Mrs. Ebbling dressed and went down to dinner for the first time, and sat on her husband’s right. I was not the only one who was glad to see her. Even the women were pleased. She wore a pale green gown, and she came up out of it regally white and gold. I was so proud that I blushed when any one spoke of her. After dinner she was standing by her deck-chair talking to her husband when people began to go below for the concert. She took up a long cloak and attempted to put it on. The wind blew the light thing about, and Ebbling chatted and smiled his public smile while she struggled with it. Suddenly his roving eye caught sight of the Chicago girl, who was having a similar difficulty with her draperies, and he pranced half the length of the deck to assist her. I had been watching from the rail, and when she was left alone I threw my cigar away and wrapped Mrs. Ebbling up roughly.
“Don’t go down,” I begged. “Stay up here. I want to talk to you.”
She hesitated a moment and looked at me thoughtfully. Then, with a sigh, she sat down. Every one hurried down to the saloon, and we were absolutely alone at last, behind the shelter of the stern, with the thick darkness all about us and a warm east wind rushing over the sea. I was too sore and angry to think. I leaned toward her, holding the arm of her chair with both hands, and began anywhere.
“You remember those two blue coasts out of Gibraltar? It shall be either one you choose, if you will come with me. I have not much money, but we shall get on somehow. There has got to be an end of this. We are neither one of us cowards, and this is humiliating, intolerable.”
She sat looking down at her hands, and I pulled her chair impatiently toward me.
“I felt,” she said at last, “that you were going to say something like this. You are sorry for me, and I don’t wish to be pitied. You think Ebbling neglects me, but you are mistaken. He has had his disappointments, too. He wants children and a gay, hospitable house, and he is tied to a sick woman who can not get on with people. He has more to complain of than I have, and yet he bears with me. I am grateful to him, and there is no more to be said.”
“Oh, isn’t there?” I cried, “and I?”
She laid her hand entreatingly upon my arm. “Ah, you! you! Don’t ask me to talk about that. You — ” Her fingers slipped down my coat sleeve to my hand and pressed it. I caught her two hands and held them, telling her I would never let them go.
“And you meant to leave me day after tomorrow, to say goodbye to me as you will to the other people on this boat? You meant to cut me adrift like this, with my heart on fire and all my life unspent in me?”
She sighed despondently. “I am willing to suffer — whatever I must suffer — to have had you,” she answered simply. “I was ill — and so lonely — and it came so quickly and quietly. Ah, don’t begrudge it to me! Do not leave me in bitterness. If I have been wrong, forgive me.” She bowed her head and pressed my fingers entreatingly. A warm tear splashed on my hand. It occurred to me that she bore my anger as she bore little Carin’s importunities, as she bore Ebbling. What a circle of pettiness she had about her! I fell back in my chair and my hands dropped at my side. I felt like a creature with its back broken. I asked her what she wished me to do.
“Don’t ask me,” she whispered. “There is nothing that we can do. I thought you knew that. You forget that — that I am too ill to begin my life over. Even if there were nothing else in the way, that would be enough. And that is what has made it all possible, our loving each other, I mean. If I were well, we couldn’t have had even this much. Don’t reproach me. Hasn’t it been at all pleasant to you to find me waiting for you every morning, to feel me thinking of you when you went to sleep? Every night I have watched the sea for you, as if it were mine and I had made it, and I have listened to the water rushing by you, full of sleep and youth and hope. And everything you had done or said during the day came back to me, and when I went to sleep it was only to feel you more. You see there was never any one else; I have never thought of any one in the dark but you.” She spoke pleadingly, and her voice had sunk so low that I could scarcely hear her.
“And yet you will do nothing,” I groaned. “You will dare nothing. You will give me nothing.”
“Don’t say that. When I leave you day after tomorrow, I shall have given you all my life. I can’t tell you how, but it is true. There is something in each of us that does not belong to the family or to society, not even to ourselves. Sometimes it is given in marriage, and sometimes it is given in love, but oftener it is never given at all. We have nothing to do with giving or withholding it. It is a wild thing that sings in us once and flies away and never comes back, and mine has flown to you. When one loves like that, it is enough, somehow. The other things can go if they must. That is why I can live without you, and die without you.”
I caught her hands and looked into her eyes that shone warm in the darkness. She shivered and whispered in a tone so different from any I ever heard from her before or afterward: “Do you grudge it to me? You are so young and strong, and you have everything before you. I shall have only a little while to want you in — and I could want you forever and not weary.” I kissed her hair, her cheeks, her lips, until her head fell forward on my shoulder and she put my face away with her soft, trembling fingers. She took my hand and held it close to her, in both her own. We sat silent, and the moments came and went, bringing us closer and closer, and the wind and water rushed by us, obliterating our tomorrows and all our yesterdays.
The next day Mrs. Ebbling kept her cabin, and I sat stupidly by her chair until dark, with the rugged little girl to keep me company, and an occasional nod from the engineer.
I saw Mrs. Ebbling again only for a few moments, when we were coming into the New York harbor. She wore a street dress and a hat, and these alone would have made her seem far away from me. She was very pale, and looked down when she spoke to me, as if she had been guilty of a wrong toward me. I have never been able to remember that interview without heartache and shame, but then I was too desperate to care about anything. I stood like a wooden post and let her approach me, let her speak to me, let her leave me. She came up to me as if it were a hard thing to do, and held out a little package, timidly, and her gloved hand shook as if she were afraid of me.
“I want to give you something,” she said. “You will not want it now, so I shall ask you to keep it until you hear from me. You gave me your address a long time ago, when you were making that drawing. Some day I shall write to you and ask you to open this. You must not come to tell me goodbye this morning, but I shall be watching you when you go ashore. Please don’t forget that.”
I took the little box mechanically and thanked her. I think my eyes must have filled, for she uttered an exclamation of pity, touched my sleeve quickly, and left me. It was one of those strange, low, musical exclamations which meant everything and nothing, like the one that had thrilled me that night at Naples, and it was the last sound I ever heard from her lips.
An hour later I went on shore, one of those who crowded over the gang-plank the moment it was lowered. But the next afternoon I wandered back to the docks and went on board the Germania. I asked for the engineer, and he came up in his shirt sleeves from the engine room. He was red and disheveled, angry and voluble; his bright eye had a hard glint, and I did not once see his masterful smile. When he heard my inquiry he became profane. Mrs. Ebbling had sailed for Bremen on the Hobenstauffen that morning at eleven o’clock. She had decided to return by the northern route and pay a visit to her father in Finmark. She was in no condition to travel alone, he said. He evidently smarted under her extravagance. But who, he asked, with a blow of his fist on the rail, could stand between a woman and her whim? She had always been a wilful girl, and she had a doting father behind her. When she set her head with the wind, there was no holding her; she ought to have married the Arctic Ocean. I think Ebbling was still talking when I walked away.
I spent that winter in New York. My consular appointment hung fire (indeed, I did not pursue it with much enthusiasm), and I had a good many idle hours in which to think of Mrs. Ebbling. She had never mentioned the name of her father’s village, and somehow I could never quite bring myself to go to the docks when Ebbling’s boat was in and ask for news of her. More than once I made up my mind definitely to go to Finmark and take my chance at finding her; the shipping people would know where Ebbling came from. But I never went. I have often wondered why. When my resolve was made and my courage high, when I could almost feel myself approaching her, suddenly everything crumbled under me, and I fell back as I had done that night when I dropped her hands, after telling her, only a moment before, that I would never let them go.
In the twilight of a wet March day, when the gutters were running black outside and the Square was liquefying under crusts of dirty snow, the housekeeper brought me a damp letter which bore a blurred foreign postmark. It was from Niels Nannestad, who wrote that it was his sad duty to inform me that his daughter, Alexandra Ebbling, had died on the second day of February, in the twenty-sixth year of her age. Complying with her request, he inclosed a letter which she had written some days before her death.
I at last brought myself to break the seal of the second letter. It read thus:
“My Friend: —
You may open now the little package I gave you. May I ask you to keep it? I gave it to you because there is no one else who would care about it in just that way. Ever since I left you I have been thinking what it would be like to live a lifetime caring and being cared for like that. It was not the life I was meant to live, and yet, in a way, I have been living it ever since I first knew you.
“Of course you understand now why I could not go with you. I would have spoiled your life for you. Besides that, I was ill — and I was too proud to give you the shadow of myself. I had much to give you, if you had come earlier. As it was, I was ashamed. Vanity sometimes saves us when nothing else will, and mine saved you. Thank you for everything. I hold this to my heart, where I once held your hand. Alexandra.”
The dusk had thickened into night long before I got up from my chair and took the little box from its place in my desk drawer. I opened it and lifted out a thick coil, cut from where her hair grew thickest and brightest. It was tied firmly at one end, and when it fell over my arm it curled and clung about my sleeve like a living thing set free. How it gleamed, how it still gleams in the firelight! It was warm and softly scented under my lips, and stirred under my breath like seaweed in the tide. This, and a withered magnolia flower, and two pink sea shells; nothing more. And it was all twenty years ago!

 

 

 

Willa Sibert Cather was never one of my favourite writers. Even when I had an avid interest in reading about life in the American Midwest, and life in the Nineteenth Century, as well as the work of Lesbian writers, and even when I came across the holy three in one and one in three in the person of Cather, I was never able to warm to her, because of what I perceived as her lack of forthrightness, or not to put too fine a point on it, her lack of honesty.

All that mooning around over opera singers like Olive Fremstadt (who is fictionalised in Cather’s novel  The Song of the Lark,) and her short stories about butchy young girls  – ‘Tommy the Unsentimental” which register as loud bangs and not just blips on any lesbian-detecting device today, never convinced Cather that she should stop hiding behind the cover of literary heterosexuality and male personæ. Not even her fellow writer  – and lesbian friend – Sarah Orne Jewett could persuade her to adopt a woman’s voice. To be kind, I suppose Cather didn’t have one – at least not in public. That she might have done so in private is quite likely, but we shall never know, because she burned the letters she had in her possession, destroyed her papers, and left conditions in her will that made it impossible  for anyone to quote from the letters she sent to others. To me, all this secrecy hints very strongly of a lesbian cover-up.

Cather liked to use a male voice as her authorial persona, and to be fair to her, she would not have made a very good lesbian. The reason for this is not that she didn’t hanker after women – because her whole life was one long such hankering, but because Cather always thought of herself as a man.

Gender has turned out to be a much more complicated subject today than it was even a couple of decades ago, and many confusions are likely to emerge when we attempt to sort out the confusing tangle of gender possibilities we must deal with at this particular time in our GLBT history, but suffice it to say that if I were to follow my instincts, I would place Cather close to the end of the butch continuum.

Cather was a classic butch , and no doubt about it. Her impressive physicality, her masculine dress, cropped hair, and the fact that she clearly saw women as a different sex says it all for me.  I would even go further and say that Cather clearly possessed an unreformed transgendered mentality at a time when these concepts were quite unimaginable beyond formulations such as attributing “a man’s mind” to a woman who was thought to be more intelligent  – or more male-identified – than the average.

Now that Cather has has long since exchanged the closet for the grave, and since I am not the first one to say so, I would confidently claim her for a lesbian. If she were to rise up from her country plot in New Jersey and disagree with me, I would inform her about all the other options of gender identity that she could choose from, and bring her up to date with the fact that we non-heterosexual humans are no longer agreeable to be defined by the old dualistic simplicities of her time.

But despite the homophobic opacities behind  which Cather dissimulated her writing, she hid in plain sight. There is no denying the lesbian sensibility with which her vision enlarges the characters of her women subject in her short-story “On the Gull’s Road”. The manner in which Cather describes the deepening attachment between the two lovers and the kind of helpless enthrallment they feel does not at all resemble a heterosexual choreography. The slight, almost imperceptible manner in which they hesitantly move towards each other is something I personally recognise as being undeniably lesbian.

True, Cather adopted masculine values, and the claim that is made for her, that she wrote about women patronisingly cannot be denied – but it can be understood, and even accepted. Cather wanted to seem ‘like a man’ – and this is something I am just beginning to understand and accept – not as a defection from my side of the gender fence, but something that should always have been subsumed under an enlarged definition of the vast potential for variation that exists within the female gender.

To express it in tautological terms, a woman who wants to be like a man is  above all a woman who wants to be like a man. She is not a man manqué – but a certain type of woman. Why something so obvious should have been misconstrued so badly and for so long, is a result of the gender-blindness imposed upon our vision by the  heterosocial  insistence of two sexes and two genders.

So here is Cather, hiding her lesbianism behind the flimsiest of gossamer veils – if not in plain sight. Find me a heterosexual woman who writes about other women in the way Cather does in “The Gull’s Road”, and I will show you a lesbian.

When she writes so feelingly about Alexandra Ebbling’s  beauty, her large white hands (no one but a lesbian would write so swooningly of women’s large hands) and with such a transparent lesbian sensibility about female beauty – the lesbian æsthethic is beyond denying. The tender solicitude, the elusiveness of words, the agonised sense of paralysis that prevents overt expression – these things bespeaking a gallant, butch sensibility are not to be found in any heterosexual playbook, and  the boorish Mr. Ebbling asserts it in thundering counterpoint.

Cather even devises a language not native to either of the characters – a third language – in this case Italian, for their private conversation. As they sail down the west coast of the Italian peninsula, things come to a head in the Bay of Naples – that place of calm deceptive beauty, where to be unmindful of the unthinkable past is perhaps the best way to to retain one’s sanity.

Cather’s voice in this story is that of someone who is falling steeply in love. Except for two very slight hints of a male persona, this could be read – and I myself so did – as a lesbian story. The two hints of course were the cigar smoked by the young protagonist, and Mrs. Ebblings remark “These are waters which carry men to their work and they will carry you to your”. But they are by no means overt hints. Women can , and did work as well as men, and I am certain that not a few of them smoked cigars.

The stab that goes straight to the heart however, is the terrible resolve of Mrs. Ebbling’s refusal of the offer to more or less elope with someone who was clearly the mutual love of a lifetime. Love in impossibility, was  in the past, more often than not, the lot of lesbians. It may be difficult for us at our particular moment in present history to imagine how constricted and claustrophobic life was for  most women – and for lesbians even more –  but that was the dismal fact.

It took exceptional talent or ability or wealth, and sometimes all three, for a lesbian to carve out a life for herself and/or a partner. The reasons Mrs. Ebbling gives for not running away together seem a little thin, if they were to be applied in a heterosexual context. In a lesbian context they would not apply at all, which is why this is the pivot of the story for me.

The refusal is contrived, because the true reasons could never be made clear – and could never be adequately – that is to say – convincingly explained.  If Mrs. Ebbling knew she was not long for this world – how could she have ruined a partner’s whole ‘life’? And if she was sure her time in the world was brief, was that all the more reason to spend what was left of it with one’s true love? But for a woman to run away with another woman would have taken a resolve and a sense of purpose equal to opposing the whole weight of society’s opprobrium.  It was in fact, as is described in Andrew Marvell’s exquisite poem – and I wonder if Cather had read it, because it would have been the perfect inspiration for this story.

For those who can look at pictures of Cather, and read her work, and know of her association – and 29-year – long cohabitation with Edith Lewis – and that she used the name ‘William’ and adopted masculine dress,  the claim which is made for her by some,  that Cather did not “celebrate her lesbian desire,”  beggars my imagination. Perhaps ‘celebrate’ is too unequivocal a word, but I would assert that it is more than probable  that at the very least she ‘experienced’ it and was sustained by it.

Cather's room in Red Cloud, Nebraska

As I read this story I was struck by the feeling that something needed to be set to rights, and as I write these words, I see myself doing just that –  as if I were to walk through a neglected or forgotten cemetery and straighten out an old grave-marker which may have been displaced or fallen on its face.

I don’t know if there is is any use in it, unless the marker were to have some information as might happen to be useful to a passer by, or if my own insights about Cather’s place on the lesbian gender-continuum might retain their present emphasis for me. Not that I will ever see Cather as  anything other than a lesbian, but present formulations might, fail to fit or fall away or be replaced in time by something rather more defined. I am beginning to get a glimmer, that what was seen in Cather as being “a man’s voice” may simply have been misidentification, because there was no  precedent at that time in popular culture, for which might have led to the recognition in Cather, or anyone else, of  the voice of a  butch lesbian.

But when I think of Cather choosing to imagine the setting of this love-story in a place as far away from Red Cloud Nebraska as possible, and unfolding her secret thoughts in an atmosphere of abject longing, and in such a place as offers as languid and as prolonged an intoxication upon the heart and soul as the Bay of Naples, I am inclined to let my mind rest here awhile, and do a little re-arranging of my familiar thoughts – and to make room for some stranger ones as well. Meditation on the subject of lost and impossible loves will do wonders to soften the heart.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Andrew Marvell (March 31 1621–August 16 1678)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Definition of Love

 

My Love is of a birth as rare

As ’tis for object strange and high:

It was begotten by despair

Upon Impossibility.

Magnanimous Despair alone

Could show me so divine a thing,

Where feeble Hope could ne’r have flown

But vainly flapt its Tinsel Wing.

And yet I quickly might arrive

Where my extended Soul is fixt,

But Fate does Iron wedges drive,

And alwaies crouds it self betwixt.

For Fate with jealous Eye does see

Two perfect Loves; nor lets them close:

Their union would her ruine be,

And her Tyrannick pow’r depose.

And therefore her Decrees of Steel

Us as the distant Poles have plac’d,

(Though Loves whole World on us doth wheel)

Not by themselves to be embrac’d.

Unless the giddy Heaven fall,

And Earth some new Convulsion tear;

And, us to joyn, the World should all

Be cramp’d into a Planisphere.

As Lines so Loves oblique may well

Themselves in every Angle greet:

But ours so truly Paralel,

Though infinite can never meet.

Therefore the Love which us doth bind,

But Fate so enviously debarrs,

Is the Conjunction of the Mind,

And Opposition of the Stars.

 

By Andrew Marvell.

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DVD Dance of the Wind.

These are the only two clips I could find from this  currently unobtainable DVD. The story is about a daughter who is the student of her musician mother – and the story of how a musical tradition  comes to be  transmitted.

These are the notes which accompanied the Youtube clips:

A few excerpts from ‘Dance of the wind’ (1997), a film by Rajan Khosa.

Karuna Devi, mother of the female singer Pallavi, is at the end of her life. Karuna has been a great and celebrated singer, while her daughter Pallavi -though already succesfull- is still at the beginning of her career. When Karuna dies, Pallavi -played by the famous Indian actress Kitu Gidwani- feels she has not completed her mother’s training and still lacks a voice of her own, a voice she can maybe find by learning from the guru of her mother, an old man her mother never talked about and who might be still alive. The death of her mother deeply traumatizes Pallavi, so much that she literally loses her voice and is unable to sing for a long time. When she finally finds the guru of her mother – through a very young streetgirl who learns from him and sings marvellously – Pallavi regains her voice and from here she’ll be able to continue her career and tradition with a voice of her own.

Noted Hindustani classical singer, Shubha Mudgal composed the music, while playback was given by ‘Shweta Jhaveri’, Shanti Hirannand, and Brinda Roy Choudhuri. Other noted artists, who worked on soundtrack were, Sarangi performer, Ustad Sultan Khan, and noted flautist, Ronu Majumdar, and the film went on to win the ‘Gold Plaque for Music’ at the 1998 Chicago International Film Festival
The beautiful soundrack of the film is by Shubha Mudgal (composer here, but also a renowned raga singer). Shweta Jhaveri sings the music of Pallavi.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

These are some classical compositions in Raga Bhairavi performed  by one of my very favourite Hindustani Classical singers Shweta Javeri.

Shweta Javeri

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Dance of the Wind

Niranjani Narayani  – In praise of the Goddess

Devotional song (Bhajan) #1

Devotional song #2

 

 

 

Ragini Bhairavi

Bhairavi is a female Raga. This is the Hindustani version of Bhairavi. The Bhairavi of the Carnatic (South Indian)  system is a different raga.

Solfage in the Indian system is as follows.
Sa, Re, Ga, Ma, Pa Dha, Ni Sa.

My compendium of ragas which claims to provide  the Western note equivalent for Bhairavi Raga gives the scale as

C , D flat,  E flat,  F,  G,  A flat,  B flat, (or A# which on a keyboard are represented by the same note) C

However, I noticed that the harmonium player in the clip provided to demonstrate Bhairavi Raga  does not begin  his scale on a natural note.  

This of course does nothing to clear up the general confusion which appears as soon as the Indian system is described in terms of  the Western.

Sot is better,  in my view, to just think of the notes by name, and to recognise their groupings in terms of their intervals and ‘groupings’ in the ‘Pakad’.

But this is how Bhairavi  is described in the Hindustani system.

Thaat  – meaning something equivalent to genus)  –  Bhairavi

This is the sofage scale of the Hindustani Bhairavi.

As was determined earlier, the  sounds of the notes themselves vary, though their names do not!

Aaroh  (ascending scale) Sa Re Ga Ma Pa Dha Ni Sa

Avroh (descending scale)   Sa Ni Dha Pa Ma Ga Re Sa

Pakad (or Pakar,  the “signature phrase” of the raga)   Ni Re Ga Ma Pa Ma Ga Re Sa

Vaadi:   Ma

Samvaadi:   Sa

But elsewhere the vadi is given as Ga and the samvadi as Ni.

I can think of no explanation for this…..

There are also some other variations of Pakad as follows.
The commas separate the recognisable groupings of notes which appear in these variations.

g  S  r  S,  ‘n  S  g  m  P  d  P,  g  m  r  S

g  m  P d  P,  g m r S,  ‘d ‘n S,  S r g r S

Bhairavi is considered a complete (Sampoorna) raga because it uses all seven notes in both ascending (Aroh) and descending (Avroh) scales.

It is a symmetrical raga, because its ascending scale descends in the same order.

Indian music is modal and microtonal. It uses 22 microtones within the octave, and it has uncountable ragas or modes arranged under the ten major categories or ‘thaats’.

The notes in a raga might  or might not always be fixed.  In what may be a terribly confusing system to western listeners, the solfage or sargam (sargam is a contraction of  sa ri ga ma) may be retained while the ‘key’* is changed.

The resulting raga might then be referred to by its original name, or assume another identity!  In other words, a raga might retain its identity while changing its manner of expression!  So in the end, it is the  characteristics of the Pakad  (cognitive phrase) and swara sanchar (familiar note sequences)  which make a raga recognisable.

As if it couldn’t get worse, some expressions of musical virtuosity (tirobhav/ahirbhav) use ‘camouflage’ to carry the raga into a series of variations,

Goddess Saraswati - the patron of Learning and Music

before bringing in shades of other ragas,  before taking it back ‘home’.

Properly speaking, the western system of fixed-note tuning does not permit microtones – since in a piano for instance, a C sharp and a D flat will make the same sound, whereas in the Indian system they will have different frequencies, therefore though raga swaras (notes) are ascribed western  music equivalents, they might be tonally different.

Bhairavi is  technically an early morning raga but it is usually played at the end of long  evening/night recitals.  It is intended to exalt and soothe and uplift the soul, but it can also be sad.

Ragas are believed to possess mood-inducing musical potency, and are said to  have the power of ability and generating emotions and emotional archetypes. This is of course not an objective phenomenon, but one that is experienced within its cultural context. In the case of Bhairavi, it is the image of a woman who, filled with longing, awaits the arrival of her lover. So the feelings of devotion, separation and nostalgia can also be added to the list of evocations.

 

 

 

*
I use the word ‘key’ loosely here, because Indian music does not recognise key changes, and it does not have key signatures. Sargam/solfage alone is the equivalent of  ‘key’.

One possible explanation of Bhairavi raga.

 

A more extensive demonstration in the form of a devotional song…

 

 

As in Medieval music, harmony did not have a place in Indian music, but  that is beginning to change, and with it the purity of the form – however Western ears might find this fusion to their liking…..

 

 

The word Alaap refers to the open unbroken sound (with no meter or rhythmic accompaniment) used to express the ‘mood’ of a raga. It usually comes at the very beginning of a musical performance, as an explication of what is to follow.

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Juana Inés de la Cruz (November 12 1651 – April 17 1695)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Only with acute and ingenious effort could the proposition

be verified  that absence could be a worse ill than jealousy.

 

Version 1

 

The absent one provokes her jealous lover
to indulge by turn in sentiment and rage
To here suspect her of unseen offenses
And disregard the evidence of the senses.

Here furious madness finds its moderation
Discoursing even as delirium raves
And when she with ceaseless sighing is afflicted
No earthly force this sorrow can assuage.

 

 

 

 

Unquiet doubts whereby patience is resisted
Offer weak opposition to these woes
And agonies by which sleep is disrupted.

Disconsolate, then you here repine without her,
And in the final damage her absence on you imposes
Is much finer torment than jealousy could devise.

 

 

 

 

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Translation Dia Tsung

 

 

 
Version 2

 

By her absence is one’s jealousy provoked
There to sentiment, and here to helpless rage
Here it presumes hidden and unseen offenses
And relives the reality of distant senses

Though perhaps one’s furious madness can be tempered
When its delirium is moderated by discourse
And without relief sigh the unrelenting sighs
That puissant sorrow nothing can oppose

 

 

 

Here by doubts is patience oft afflicted
There by certain pain it will arouse
Here to you grief offers its sole resistance.

And without her, inconsolable and bearing
In the end the damage wrought by absence
Will  be eclipsed by  the torment caused by jealousy.

 

 

 

 

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

Translation Dia Tsung.

 

 

 

 
SÓLO CON AGUDA INGENIOSIDAD ESFUERZA EL DICTAMEN

DE QUE SEA LA AUSENCIA MAYOR MAL QUE LOS CELOS.

 

 

El ausente, el celoso, se provoca,
aquél con sentimiento, éste con ira;
presume éste la ofensa que no mira,
y siente aquél la realidad que toca.

Éste templa, tal vez, su furia loca,
cuando el discurso en su favor delira,
y sin intermisión aquél suspira
pues nada a su dolor la fuerza apoca

 

 

Éste aflige dudoso su paciencia,
y aquél padece ciertos sus desvelos:
éste al dolor opone resistencia,

aquél, sin ella, sufre desconsuelos;
y si es pena de daño, al fin, la ausencia,
luego es mayor tormento que los celos.

 

 

 

 

Juana Inés de la Cruz.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Translating the work of a genuine poet such as  Juana Inés Asbaje is always a tremendous challenge, because of the  tightly wrought perfection of her work. Her intense play of words and ideas, and the games of disputation and logic which find their way into her poems  can at times make  the translator’s job very nearly impossible.

I chose this poem because I could not find an English translation of it anywhere, and I loved it so much that I couldn’t resist the fool-hardy temptation to attempt take a stab at it.  Even after working on two different versions I still am not entirely convinced I have done a creditable job.

I took one revisionist liberty here, in the manner of the pronouns, which the original Spanish with its gendered nouns permits me to do. I know that with this poem of  Juana Inés, both Muse and poet are female, so that, to my mind made both the jealous one and the absent one female as well. Therefore I saw no need for engaging in the practice of pronoun dissimulation which many lesbians in the past have been forced to adopt.

Juana Inés  sometimes treats playful subjects seriously, and serious subjects playfully, but one thing is always true of her poems – form and substance are both brilliantly in evidence.

Since the late ’50’s a kind of rot began to find its way into the manner in which poetry was read and written and appreciated. A kind of empty technicality came to be admired and exemplified, and a certain heartlessness as well.

The ego of the poet came to take centre stage but in a way that was indirect and  horrible to contemplate. One of the greatest anti-poets of the last century, Sylvia Plath, was a masterful exponent of this genre.  While there are few personal pronouns in her poems, the Huge ‘I’ hovers over the hopeless grandeur of bleak  and ugly landscapes  of her poems.  I sometimes wonder if her suicidal impulses  were not the result of a lifetime given to offending the Muse.

While I am obviously not an admirer of Plath – I can see the essence of her poetic predicament. Heterosexual women do not have either a natural or a genuine Muse. The male muse is poetic distortion, and very few poets are able benefit from his inspiration. If they do, they are usually homosexual males like  Jacques Prévert and  Constantine Cavafy, or  poor Gerard Manley Hopkins with his clattering rhythms and his crucified saviour – the Muse’s midsummer sacrifice.

Even the male muse of St.John of the Cross has his origins in the old Caananite songs of the sacred marriage, so ancient and well established that the Hebrew compilers of the old testament could not bring themselves to exclude  even such a purely humanistic chapter of their cultural history.

True and genuine poets are exponents of an ancient art. Their work can stand up to the most rigorous scrutiny and withstand the abrasive inquiry of the touchstone, and the corrosive kiss of Acqua regia.  While meaning may be encoded – even hidden – in their poems, diligent effort can extract it whole. The sense in a true poem is unassailable, and  it contains no false logic, no lies, or mistakes of language. The etymology of all words found in true poems is apt and apposite, and  as for its emotional content, the presence of the Muse will always be felt.

Even a poem of the intellect – which has Apollo as its patron finds Juana Inés paying tribute to the Muse by stating clearly one or another of the themes which are part of the poetic cycle. Absence – when the Muse leaves the poet in order to perform her sinister offices, and the jealously which comes in its wake  – is a genuine poetic theme.

Juana Inés is free of all the detriments and defects of false poets. Her poetic technique is impeccable, and her  brilliant intellect is always placed exactly where it belongs, at the feet, and in the service of her Muse. She is a rarity; and someone like her comes along only about once in a thousand years.

When she bends her constellation of poetic talents towards elucidating a philosophical proposition, she does so not in the dry and emotionless way of a logical proof, but with images and words and phrases which show a deep insight into matters of the heart, and of its secret ways.

Her logic here in which she weighs jealousy and absence in the balance and  concludes that absence is worse, is enormously convincing. It is better, she seems to say, to endure the pangs of jealousy – to see it for what it is  – a fabrication of the mind when the heart is troubled, rather than risk a total estrangement, when,  with the beloved’s  absence, the poet’s  heart mind and senses are painfully separated from their chosen object.

Absence then, is  hererin asserted to be the more onerous of the two evils, and the more difficult to endure.

 

 
http://myhero.com/go/hero.asp?hero=CRUZ_Fredericksburg_Academy

http://www.latin-american.cam.ac.uk/culture/SorJuana/

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