Charlotte Mew

The district of Bloomsbury in London is a storied one, around the beginning of the century. It was the home of Vanessa Bell, from which came the famed 'Bloomsbury Group' that included her sister Virginia Woolf (who also spent time living in Bloomsbury) and many other of the leading lights of the day. J.M. Barrie lived there when he arrived in London (the home where he lived, supposedly, is the model of the home in the old Disney Peter Pan film). William Butler Yeats made Bloomsbury his London home. Dorothy Sayers spent the greater part of the 1920's there. It is, even now, the home of the British Museum, as well. It is strangely fitting, then, that in 1869, when Karl Marx would have been studying the workings of Capitalism and the transformations of the Industrial Revolution in the British Museum reading Room, that in this same neighborhood, the poetess Charlotte Mew was born. Charlotte Mew was the daughter of Frederick Mew, an architect (the trade runs deep in her blood, her grandfather and several other relatives shared the calling), who, later, died without leaving enough money for his family. Four of the Mew children lived into adulthood. Mew's brother and one of her sister's were admitted into institutions early in their grown years. Mew herself, and her remaining sister, Anne, made a pact with each other never to marry, for fear of passing insanity down to their children. It was, thus, outside of the confines of the traditional Victorian family and in somewhat straitened circumstances that Mew spent her adulthood. Mew, in many ways, is a British Emily Dickinson. In the same way as Dickinson, Mew wrote poetry that was, frankly, unclassifiable and incomprehensible in it's time, from a position of relative solitude. She formed intense friendships with several women (most notably, it seems, her sister and Emma Hardy, the wife of author and poet Thomas Hardy), and otherwise lived a life of almost pathological privacy, actively working to make sure there was as little biographical information on her as possible at her death. And more than anything else, like Emily Dickinson, she was a poet with a startling, powerful vision of what it is to be alive:
The Peddler

Lend me, a little while, the key
That locks your heavy heart, and I'll give you back--
Rarer than books and ribbons and beads bright to see,
This little Key of Dreams out of my pack.

The road, the road, beyond men's bolted doors,
There shall I walk and you go free of me,
For yours lies North across the moors,
And mine lies South. To what seas?

How if we stopped and let our solemn selves go by,
While my gay ghost caught and kissed yours, as ghosts don't do,
And by the wayside, this forgotten you and I
Sat, and were twenty-two?
Give me the key that locks your tired eyes,
And I will lend you this one from my pack,
Brighter than colored beads and painted books that make men wise:
Take it. No, give it back!

Mew lived in a strange, transitional sort of poetry, halfway between the Victorians and the Modernists, and at the same time neither of these two things. Her poetry almost feels the prophetic echoes of a future, in the same way that you feel the coming echoes of the Romantics in a poet like William Blake.

Her main publication was 'The Farmer's Bride', at first a very short collection of poetry, but later expanded to include several other pieces (the version on Gutenberg is the short one, I'm afraid, though if you want to listen to them, the long version is on librivox in audio form, and read quite well). The book was never extraordinarily popular, but drew praise from many luminaries of the day. Thomas Hardy considered her the best female poet of her age, and Virginia Woolf called her "very good and quite unlike anyone else" (which, from Virginia Woolf, is high praise). She got a small government pension and lived frugally, putting out several other poems over her life.

No shadow of you on any bright road again,
And at the darkening end of this--what voice? whose kiss? As if you'd say!
It is not I who have walked with you, it will not be I who take away
Peace, peace, my little handful of the gleaner's grain
From your reaped fields at the shut of day.

Peace! Would you not rather die
Reeling,--with all the cannons at your ear?
So, at least, would I,
And I may not be here
To-night, to-morrow morning or next year.
Still I will let you keep your life a little while,
See dear?
I have made you smile.

In 1827, her sister Anne died. Charlotte was broken. Several years earlier, the sister in the asylum had died of tuberculosis, giving Charlotte a great fear of germs. Anne's room, at her death, was found dotted with black spots, which Charlotte felt sure were the cause of her death, though a coroner declared them to be simply soot from the London air. Charlotte grew increasingly disturbed, and several friends suggested gently that she admit herself to an asylum. She refused, but did eventually go to an asylum, where her phobia of germs grew stronger, still. In 1928, Charlotte Mew was found dead, after having drunken half a bottle of Lysol.
The Changeling:

Toll no bell for me, dear Father dear Mother,
Waste no sighs;
There are my sisters, there is my little brother
Who plays in the place called Paradise,
Your children all, your children for ever;
But I, so wild,
Your disgrace, with the queer brown face, was never,
Never, I know, but half your child...

Sometimes I wouldn't speak, you see,
Or answer when you spoke to me,
Because in the long, still dusks of Spring
You can hear the whole world whispering;
The shy green grasses making love,
The feathers grow on the dear grey dove,
The tiny heart of the redstart beat,
The patter of the squirrel's feet,
The pebbles pushing in the silver streams,
The rushes talking in their dreams,
The swish-swish of the bat's black wings,
The wild-wood bluebell's sweet ting-tings,
Humming and hammering at your ear,
Everything there is to hear
In the heart of hidden things.
But not in the midst of the nursery riot,
That's why I wanted to be quiet,
Couldn't do my sums, or sing,
Or settle down to anything.
And when, for that, I was sent upstairs
I did kneel down to say my prayers;
But the King who sits on your high church steeple
Has nothing to do with us fairy people!

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To Frieda Hughes

(Note: This poem is in response to the beautiful poem by Frieda Hughes that Ms Nymeth recently posted, which has been haunting me and reminding me of my own voyeurism, ever since. Sorry Sylia, sorry Frieda. I meant well) Ms Hughes,

I must apologize,
I am one of the cowards,
Of the vultures,
Ever gnawing at the gristle stripped bones.

I am the worm
Imbibing tender flesh.

No pride in that.

We are but humans,
We, the readers,
We are simply mechanisms,
Gnawing forward, forward
Always to the one
Who speaks without
A crankshaft in her throat.

And if the lady non-machine
Lay in the turf
We earthen wind-ups
Shake our jittered spades
We burrow through the sterile earth
To birth our maggots on
The only flesh
That can accept our eggs.

Forgive we little worms,
There's voyeurism in
Our tin-toothed cogging brains.
We mean no harm.
Someone must disconnect the bits of life
And leave behind the loamy soil
Of history digested -
In digestion, death transformed
Into fertility.


Jason Gignac

(Image from kevincollins123)

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"Creating Artifacts to Experience"

I read a very interesting article on Bobulate recently (Bobulate, btw, is a very wonderful blog that talks about beauty and design and their interaction with our lives - the author Ms Danzico is a unique genius, and if you've never read her blog, you're missing out. If you're keeping your blogroll short, drop mine and read hers - I fumble awkwardly at ideas that she presents iwth clarity of a grocery list). Anyways. I read an interesting article, talking about design, particularly in the case of Frank Lloyd Wright. Conceptually Wright designed buildings to generate a particular experience - his determination of 'perfect' home living. The houses are beautiful and well designed for that particular experience. But unfortunately, many people who actually LIVE in the houses come to dislike them. The kitchens are small and out of the way for instance, the furniture is built in usually and difficult to move. The little things that they want to be their own way simply aren't that way, aren't MEANT to be that way. The assumption in a Wright house is that the occupant should adapt to the perfect lifestyle Wright discovered for them, rather than the house adapting to the lifestyle the occupant wants.

Of course, this is an oversimplification of Wright's work, and I don't bring this up to get into an argument about architecture (a subject which I admittedly know very little about). What was interesting was the way the author described this problem - designers cannot design experiences, they can only design artifacts to be experienced. In other words, designers (and I would argue all artists) must eventually accept that they cannot force an experience on their audience, they can only give fodder that the audience generates their own experiences out of.

I, as a budding, awful writer, have struggled with this myself. When I write, the writing comes not because I have these plots float through my head, but because I have specific impressions, sensations, and internal moments that I want to communicate. My writing, thus, has a tendency to be very pedantic, sometimes even badgering, as I smash the reader over the head, INSISTING that they FEEL THIS ONE THING. Which, when I go back and read it, if I'm not feeling that one thing, is grating and a little dull. Some writers make me feel this way too, and I see the outlines of it in the reviews people put up of some of the books that they dislike (or like - it can be quite flattering to have a book tell you that what you believe is ever so clever).

The BEST books, of course, are EXTREMELY subjective, and SHOULD be so. I was thinking of this after reading the very intelligent review Ms Nymeth put up recently of "The Good Man Jesus and the Scoundrel Christ." She put this very well in terms of the Bible:

The appeal of stories is of course that they’re both memorable and open to interpretation, and this allows them to illustrate more complex realities than simple definitions ever could. But this also means that absolute truths cannot really be built upon them.

This gets into the problem with most religions to me - the law is a series of strict, dogmatic standards by which things can be scientifically judged, but the stories largely deal with the exceptions to those rules. To accept the stories as evidence of the law too often leads to an exclusionist megalomania, either saying that the rules apply as long as the church leaders say so (there is, for instance, in my mind, a subtle kind of arrogance in the Papacy deigning to forgive the sins of the Beatles or to allow Galileo posthumously back into the arms of the Church), or even beyond that, as long as God says so. It is, I guess, something that is a bit dangerous to say, but I offer this as a struggle, not as an attack: it was always difficult for me not to think the God of the bible was something of a hypocrite, like a parent who teaches their children rules they themselves are unwilling to follow (in this sense God seems very human, since parents make this mistake all the time, but it undermines my desire to worship him, since it seems to me to point out his fallibility).  Either way, the problem is that the power of stories is best used to make people look at themselves and others and society and the universe, not to tell them what they would see if they bothered to look.

But, again, at some level this is advice that goes beyond the composition of scripture and the building of houses. This can be true of any book (or work of art). The power of literature is in it's ability to draw people out of themselves and illuminate the bits of human nature that it's difficult to see on our own. But, the power of this illumination comes from us nooking ourselves into the empty places. Like a fortune teller, the great author tells enough to compel attention, then leaves the listener to fill the magic in themselves. That's the thing - there is no perfect work of art, because art requires two things - an artist and an audience, and neither of those things ever SHOULD be under the control of the artwork.

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Smell of metal, Calvin Klein,
And concentration floods her nose.
Her wrists are cramped from firing
a solder gun against her skull.

It soaks her clothes, like river-damp.
The lead and ground are both attached.
She jabs the probe, the current pulls
Across the synapse. Sparks can catch

A flame, for just a moment, yet
A flame. The indicators light,
The splice, the trap admit the flow
Of voltage for the coming night.

She closes, latches shut her skull,
She tucks away her daily tools.
She brushes up, puts on her smile -
And picks the children up from school.

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The Problem With Stories About Mine Disasters

This week, I've been hearing a lot about coal mining. Amanda recently read 'Germinal', Zola's epic story about coal mining in Second Empire France, and wrote a beautiful review of it. More than that, there has been a disaster in the coal mines here in America, that already has left several dead and wounded, and the chances don't look good for the rest of them.

Mining is actually a subject that I've been interested in for some time (I'd like to say this is because I'm a nice, humanitarian person, but unfortunately it's more selfish than that - the book-I-am-writing-but-will-never-finish draws on mining pretty heavily). From a metaphorical perspective, there is something powerful about it, something almost ressurectional in these groups of men and women descending down into the ground every day then rising up at the end, drawing their living directly from the breast of Mother Earth by main force. Before the industrial revolution, mining had an air of superstitious wickedness to it. Mining was a job in many communities for those outcast from real society, frequently even the work of slaves. And, the product? Well, Pluto and Hades were the patron gods of the riches drawn up from the earth, and the connection with Satan took a very long time to dissapear.

Of course, mining is the very lifeblood of our economy now, particularly coal mining. If it were to stop, if we were to shut down all mines our economy would quickly fall apart. Our lights would turn off, our factories would stop, all the complex, delicate web of modern civilization would dissapear.

Which makes disasters like the one this week even more painful to me. Like the image of Moloch in Fritz Lang's Metropolis, we, the 'overlanders' as it were, send human souls into the mouth of destruction, as a sacrifice to appease the gods of modern living. This is, it seems to us, unavoidable. Much like car accidents, mine accidents are simply a part of life, something tragic but that one expects will happen, simply because someone must keep the coal-fires burning. Sad, but almost banal in it's sadness. Another mine disaster, that's so unfortunate, man that'd be scary. A 5 minute byline on the news. A dramatic rescue, or a moment of sorrow when they find the bodies.

This is made worse for me because - and understand, please, that I don't believe this is intentional - of the way we cover these stories in America, because in the way we cover a mine disaster, one begins to see the outlines of the way that we protect ourselves from the horror of the system surrounding them. This morning on NPR, for instance, the story came on that they're still looking for these miners. A byline comes up about the awful safety record of the miners, and then a long description of a meeting 2 weeks ago of industry professionals, union leaders, and journalists, where they more or less celebrated how safe mining has become, how last year was the safest year ever of mining in America. The pathos of this was fully explored, the feeling that, yes, these people were sincere, EVERYBODY figured that disasters like happened at the Sago mine in Utah a few years ago were behind us as a country. Everyone was shocked when they heard the news. Everyone, of course, being those that were flown to Washington to drink and celebrate how damned nice we all are for trying to make sure miners don't get killed. The mining industry journalist they spoke to was devastated by the news, shocked.

How shocked can the owners have been? The owners who kept sending down miners into a mine so hopped up with coal dust and methane gas that they had more than citation per day last year. They were fined $900,000 last year for violations of safety codes. Of course, the problem is, that it is economically viable to run a mine fast and loose on safety rules, and just pay those fines. Safety, they say, takes time. Safety is important, but must be balanced with productivity. The company is only trying to stay competitive in a difficult market. The company is doing nothing that is too far out of band for the industry, and they've vastly improved over the last few years.

And the painful thing is (and again, I know there are reasons for this), I listened to a lot of running time talking to these mining experts, and how sometimes circumstances come together in unforeseen ways (yeah, I loved that one - see, yeah, methane + coal dust + oxygen + spark = boom. There, now you can 'foresee' it next time, jerks), and how they just don't understand how this could happen, and they're heartbroken. But then, there is only a few minutes, where they apologize for not notifying the families of the dead that they found the bodies of their loved ones. There is just a few minutes listening to mining families say 'yeah, well, we send him down every day knowing he might not come back up, but you just sort of have to get used to that. That's how it is, he's a miner.' The story on our nightly news yesterday shows these vague, indistinct images, taken from a helicopter, of a lot of people milling around a hole in the ground with machines. The horror, in all this, is that we were surprised, the story seems to say, that we really meant well, but it just didn't work out.

That's not the horror at all. This isn't a story about how good intentions go awry. It's a story about what happens when a spark hits fire and instantaneously entombs the living souls of men we take advantage of in order to have our lights turn on in the morning. It's a story about horror and isolation and the endless, endless dark, and desperately scrabbling for the emergency food and gas masks, and sitting under the ground waiting, waiting, for days you can't even count anymore, for hopefully someone to come for you. It's the story of sitting on the surface, watching a machine drill holes into the ground because the place where maybe, hopefully, their best guesses say, your husband, wife, son is is so full of methane that it isn't safe for rescuers to go on. It's the story of crawling around in half-collapsed passages, looking for your friends who are probably dead, calling into empty chasms, trying to hear in every creak of a pipe and echo of air  and metallic tapping some little morse code saying what you are increasingly sure isn't so, that you are not just digging up a corpse so it can be reburied somewhere else.

But there's a problem, there, and the problem is that in a mining story, there is a we and there is a them. Them is the miners, and we feel for them. We are the listeners, though, and the media speaks to our concerns, our needs, our worries. And it reflects our feelings, the vague sense of othering the incomprehensible, so that we can find a way to emerge still able to forget to turn off the light, and not feel that we've extracted the blood of some far off soul as a recompense for our carelessness. So, we talk about our story, the story of not being able to comprehend how awful it must be, the story of wondering how this happened, of not being able to comprehend how those distant someone's who must of caused this couldn't have been controlled by the regulators or congress, or whatever. And then, at the end, the story fades out over the sound of melancholy bluegrass music, the music of 'them', those poor guys far off who are dying (it's even worse when it's a Chinese mining disaster - those we hardly even notice, despite the mines powering our desire for fully stocked Walmarts). And we feel sad for them, and this sadness gratifies us, it is our sacrifice - it's all we know HOW to sacrifice.

There will be, now, a great deal of talk about resolving the underlying issues in mining. Talk will center on the amorphous word 'regulations', and 'stiffer penalties'. Talk is already surfacing calling these miners heroes, sacrificing themselves bravely for the greater good. But, none of this talk looks at the root issues. I am not an expert in mining, but from the outside, here is the problems that I see.

1) First and foremost, mining is a capitalist industry, and in capitalism, the only truly effective impediment to bad behaviour is the machinations of the market. And in this case, the coal industry, from a safety point of view, is more or less insulated from market effects. The market does a fine job of regulating price (assuming the presence of strong anti-trust regulation), and it has been very effective at this in terms of coal (too effective perhaps, which I'll talk about in a minute). But, the only way 'soft' issues like safety and ethics are regulated by a market are by offending the sensibilities of your customers. Well, unfortunately, you or I have no choice as to whom to buy coal from. We simply get power. Their 'customers' are big power companies, who, of course, have no control over the coal companies they will say, and therefore can't be responsible for the ethics of their suppliers. This isn't to say Adam Smith was wrong - simply Adam Smith assumed that cost/benefit could be measured. And it's pretty difficult to measure the cost of a human life. After all, the direct cost of someone in West Virginia dying, to me, the consumer, is pretty darned low, really. I have no idea how to fix this. The best solution we've come up with in the past for this sort of thing, is extremely heavy regulation - basically forcing the industry to do what we as a country think is right.

2) Coal is too cheap. It is very easy to just look at the bosses and say 'those bastards, what were they thinking?' But, the problem is, they are right in a sense - what they are doing isn't abnormal, and it would be difficult for them to be profitable on a large scale WITHOUT a 'gradual' approach to safety. They need to produce, and safety slows production. The problem is, ironically, that we demand cheap power on our side of the equation (and other countries are providing it with no particular concerns as to the safety of miners). When we demand cheap power, it must be produced cheaply. For it to be produced cheaply, there must be a plentiful, cheap supply of consumables. This pushes the market for coal down, speeding the frenzy for production, leaving less time for safety. This is what gets forgotten in debates, for instance, about renewable energy - yes renewable energy is more expensive in dollars, but that's because we don't figure the actual price of a coal-fired power plant, largely because much of the cost is immeasurable (don't even get me started on the 'cost' of pollution). If we were paying as much as we OUGHT to pay for coal-generated electricity, there would be a lot less power use, a lot fewer dead coal iners - and unfortunately a lot of angry constituents complaining to their congressmen, and a lot of people dying of heat stroke and hypothermia because they can't afford to run their heat/ac.

3) We, as citizens, are blind to the production process, and no longer have to worry about where our stuff comes from. This has been true, of course, throughout much of history, but the problem now is that, really, the mine disasters in West Virginia are only the tip of the iceberg. True, crushing, murderous poverty is now outsourced to other countries in the name of development and industrial growth, so, like I said if I we aired every dead miner in China, we'd spend a lot of time looking at dead miners (and dead industrial workers, and dead children from breathing in factory smoke, and dead rivers from being dumped into, and a whole lot of blood that goes into our happy meal toys). These things, though, are far away, now, and not our fault - it's not OUR fault, after all, that the Chinese government doesn't regulate it's industry, right? But again, this is the irony of the American position. We worked hard for years to spread the free market economy to the world, as the harbinger of freedom and opportunity. And then, when the market is unable to regulate human rights and ethics, we just shake our heads and figure those countries just aren't free enough.

Again, I don't mean this to be a diatribe. I do not know what the solution to these things is. I just don't know. I do know that in the meantime, we wake up each morning and ask human beings to get out of bed and hurl themselves into complex, devious murder machines, and then fret and feel confused when the blades draw one or two of them in and hack them to bits. Maybe, we say, maybe they just need a little thicker leather suit. Maybe they just need to be taught how to hurl themselves in properly. Maybe we need to move the blades a little so they aren't pointed directly at their vital organs. Maybe. Sure. Or maybe we need to work together to find a way to stop hurling men to their death.

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Ash, by Malinda Lo (Buddy Review with Amanda at Zen Leaf)

Amanda and I read 'Ash' by Malinda Lo at the same time, so we did a little buddy review of it. This is the second half of that review, the first half being at her blog.

The story in Ash is pretty simple - it is a retelling of Cinderella, but one in which the 'fairy godmother' (a man in this case) is in love with Cinderella, and where instead of falling for the prince, Cinderella falls for the King's Huntress. I didn't enjoy it as much as Amanda, but it was a wonderful premise. Here's the second half of the review:


Jason: I did not notice that. You'll laugh at me, but for a minute, I thought she was going to say the prince had a boyfriend at one point :D. But, then, it's interesting because even in this world, homosexuality felt like a rare exception to the general rule, an outlier not described properly by the 'rules of the game' - but that's just an impression. What you bring up about the romance is an interesting point. I didn't feel like it was like that with her fairy lover, but I certainly did with the huntress. But that didn't bother me, or impede my feeling like they were in love. I mean, part of what makes people so well suited to each other, I think, is that they can give each other what they need, you know? True love is more than just romantic attraction, it's feeling a comfort with each other. Some people need someone to be a comforter, some people need someone who is good at appreciating them, some people need someone who makes them feel like they are at home, etc. We all have things we need, and part of the beauty of love is that we can give those things to each other. So, which characters did you feel like you related to?

Amanda: I think it's uncomfortable to think about people choosing their romantic partners based on them being mother or father figures to them. Maybe it's because I was once in one of those types of relationships, but I think that there's automatically going to be a block in such cases. I get the impression that Ash and Kaisa could not live happily ever after because Ash really has some major issues to work out in herself. And I liked that about her. I liked that that was realistic.

I'm not sure I really related to any of the characters personally. I usually don't when it comes to fairy tales. Certainly I didn't to Ash or Sidhean. I understood Ash's stepmother and stepsisters, but didn't really relate to them either. I suppose in some ways I could understand Kaisa the best, though I felt like her character was a bit underdeveloped. I do like that she was considered a high station even though she was the king's huntress. I guess I assumed, when I first heard of the hunters and huntresses, that they were similar to the king's military - upper lower class, higher than servant but not royalty. It was interesting that she had a status above Lords. That wasn't something I expected. An interesting little twist in their world.

Who did you relate most to?

Jason: I think, in fairy tales, I usually relate to situations, more than characters. But in that sense, I related to Sidhean's situation, the sort of steady descent. Particularly at the end, where you learn that he has a curse that he, frankly, earned fair and square for his actions, I understood his character. I think sometimes I have to be cursed in order to learn, that I'm too oblivious to learn things without having my eyes opened by force. And so, the feeling that for him to grow he had to decay, and to be opened into real, genuine emotions (both love and regret, and then loss), was poignant to me - though I wish the last scene with him could have been a bit more evocative. I didn't mind it fading out then in the way it did, I just felt like that was the climactic scene for him, not her, and that he is almost absent in it.

Amanda: I'd agree with you on that sentiment. That was part of the place where I wish there had been MORE to the text. I personally am not convinced that Sidhean felt any real emotions, honestly. I don't know that a curse could actually make him feel something real, or that his feelings were ever anything more than lust/greed. There's argument both ways, but I couldn't feel like he really loved her, which I guess is why part of the ending felt false/unsettled to me. I needed more in order to buy into the way the book ended, to the way the characters all resolved their fates.

But overall, I really enjoyed the book. I'm sorry you didn't like it more. :/

Jason: Yes, that's part of the frustration, for me, is I felt like I had to really work to make up my own stories in this book - a fairy tale, to me, is just the opposite, it's this sort of infinitely fertile ground, that lets your brain spring up in different ways. Here, it felt like it was explained too much for that, but then not explained enough to be a world-intensive story like historical fiction or high fantasy might be. It kind of teetered back and forth and didn't succeed as either for me. But, honestly again, I think it is probably just me. I probably wanted the book to be something it just wasn't intended to be. Thanks for reading it with me, though :).

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