Four Poems by Eithne Wilkins

Spoken Through Glass

Here the big stars roll down
like tears
all down your face;
darkness that has no walls, the empty night
that fingers grope for and are lost,
is nightfall in your face.

The big stars roll,
the glittering railway-line unwinds into the constellations.

Over and under you the dark,
in you the rocking night without a foothold,
and no walls, no ceiling,

the parallels that never meet, the pulses winding out to the
stars.

Night has no end.
Light travelling from the stars is out
before you ride along it
with the black tears falling,
falling,

all fall down.

 

Passage of an August (1938)

In solitary august, like a story
he met grief’s lassie with the quartz-bright hands;
and she became his darling,
who was young, was sorry
there among the grasses blowing over pit and brands.

She walked beside him back the way he came,
into the whitening hills, and cut his throat.
Although she called him by another name,
she was no stranger, love. And none
can drive her out.

 

barbedwire

Barbed Wire (1940)

The silence, with its ragged edge of lost communication,
silence at the latter end,
is now a spiked north wind.

Last words
toss about me in the streets, waste paper
or a cigarette butt in some gutter stream
that overflows
from crumpled darkness.
“Look, I am plunged in the midst of them, a dagger
in their midst.”

and over the edge
the nightmares peer, with their tall stories
and the day’s unheard-of cry.

 

Failure

What can forgive us for
the clothes left lying and the rocking journey,
flashing poles and pylons standing into fields of air,
in flooded fields?

Something flew out of our hands,
the cup incomplete,
air of invasions and land of defeat.
There was the tree felled in another valley,
behind the flown carpet
and nothing left to remember, all to forgive.

Nothing to remember but
the windows slammed against the cold,
the helmet crushed down on the eyes.

And who, beside the darkened station lamp,
remembering, started back.


These are stark, grim poems, very much in the spirit of their time, when there was little good news and a great deal of bad, and no one knew how far away better days might be. But there is an underlying toughness and realism that reflects the attitude of a survivor, of someone who wasn’t going to give up in the face of loss. I would have included more such poems had discretion not held me back. Sadly, Eithne Wilkins never published a collection of her poems, so one has to root through the pages of long-defunct little magazines to find them.

She attended Oxford in the early 1930s, then moved to London, where she worked as a translator and reader for various publishers. Her poems began to be published in British literary journals around 1937, and in 1949, a selection of them were included in The New British Poets, a collection edited by Kenneth Rexroth and published by James Laughlin’s just-founded New Directions Press. That same year, she married the Austrian writer and translater, Ernst Kaiser. Although she worked on English translations of a number of well-regarded books, including Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, she appears to have stopped submitting her poems for publication sometime after the New Directions collection was published, and her one book, The Rose-Garden Game (1969), was a popular history about the origins of rosary beads as an accessory to Catholic worship.

from The New British Poets, edited by Kenneth Rexroth
New London, Connecticut: New Directions Press, 1949

Available on the Internet Archive: Link.

This is one in a series of neglected poems from the Internet Archive.

The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, by Helene Mullins (1970)

nb_0623On the few times I get to spend in a used bookstore, I find myself increasingly depressed at how often I can tell in a glance that there’ll be little chance of finding something I haven’t seen before. Which is, obviously, something of a natural consequence of running this site for over ten years. When this happens, I give it one last shot by heading for the poetry section.

If they have one. If they don’t, it’s time to abandon all hope.

If they do, there is a better chance of finding something hitherto unknown because by God there are a lot of skinny books of poetry that have been published over the last hundred-some years. A lot of it is pretty forgettable, as a growing stack of skinny books of poetry in my “To Donate” box attests. But there’s a good share that was doomed to neglect simply because it’s from too small a press, doesn’t include anything that got pulled into an anthology, or has some hideous design or amateur artwork that screams “Stay Away!” to all but worshippers of one of the poetic muses.

Or, as in the case of Helene Mullins’ collection, The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969 (1970), so boring that it could easily be mistaken for a review draft. Except the one I found earlier this year was in immaculate shape, protected in Brodart, included an inscription by the author (“To Bob Adams with good wishes”), and sold for just $4. The Mirrored Walls came from a moderately well recognized publisher (Twayne) and included blurbs from John Hall Wheelock, Louis Untermeyer, and A. M. Sullivan, so it indicated that Mullins had made it under the mid-20th-century American poetry Big Top, if not quite into the center ring.

So who was Helene Mullins? Of the few online sources, the short bio sketch on the Yale Library page devoted to her papers (and those of her sister Marie McCall, who published a few novels) offers the most information. Born in New York City in 1899, she spent most of her life in the city. Married twice, began publishing poems in the early 1920s, including regular appearances in FPA’s (Franklin Pierce Adams) “Conning Tower” column in The New York World newspaper. Along with poetry, she wrote two novels early in her career — Paulus Fry: The History of an Esthete (1924), a quirky, elegant little jeux d’esprit in the vein of Carl Van Vechten and James Branch Cabell (“a flutterby-butterfly book,” one review called it), co-authored with her sister; and Convent Girl (1929). Convent Girl was an apparently autobiographical account of a girl’s life in a city convent boarding school for three years that was praised for its “clearness of vision” and “calm, well balanced prose, free of all flamboyant sentimentality and flashy brittleness, written frankly, and undoubtedly without prejudice.” She published four collections of poetry: Earthbound and Other Poems (1929); Balm in Gilead (1930); Streams from the Source (1938); and The Mirrored Walls. Married twice, she was seriously injured in an automobile accident in 1935. She spent several weeks in a coma and it took her several years to recover. She lent her support to a number of liberal, human rights, and peace causes over the years, and died in 1991.

Mullins was one of the younger women poets to come to notice in the 1920s, when Edna St. Vincent Millay and Elinor Wylie reigned, but she quickly gained a solid foothold, publishing in Scribners, Commonweal, The Atlantic Monthly, and other popular magazines. She was among the more frequent contributors of poetry to The New Yorker in its first ten years.

Irony to the Ironical

Accept from me, at least, an admiration
Not cultivated too laboriously.
Most delicate shall be the situation,
A matter of wit and wine and poetry.

You need not give me caution in exchange,
For I am self-sufficient and content.
I think that you are beautiful and strange,
And willingly I yield to sentiment.

Passionate Beyond Belief

Passionate beyond belief
Is the crisp and dying leaf.
Watch it whirl through clouds of dust,
Determined not (until it must)
To yield and be forever still.
What a brave display of will!
What a glorious, futile fight!
O gathering dark, O waiting night,
Few such do you absorb when all
The casualties of autumn fall.

I like the fact that this last little ode to death appeared alongside ads for Peek Frean biscuits, the National Horse Show, Kauffman for Riding Togs (since 1876), and Alix’ Famous Collarless Wrap from Bloomingdale’s. You can see why at least one acquaintance called her “a mix of Dorothy Parker and Edna St. Vincent Millay.” On the other hand, Mullins managed to rub Southern poet Allan Tate wrong in a big way: “I’m in favor of rejecting all verse henceforth by this piece of baggage! She’s the vulgarest, rudest wench I’ve yet graced with my presence. She also has a voice like the taste of a persimmon.”

Mullins’ basic style changed little over the years. Of her first collection, Earthbound and Other Poems, one reviewer wrote, “She is content to let the theme develop with practically no ornament; she delights in harmony but rarely employs counterpoint.” Of Balm in Gilead, another wrote that her verse “is honest, admirable, and wise”: “Constant war is being waged between her high heart and the lesson of bitter resignation she thinks we all must learn.”

A significant shift in perspective, however, can be detected in the poems found in Streams from the Source, the first collection to appear after her accident and convalescence:

She Marvels Over What They Say

It cannot last,” they said to me,
When I with Love went dancing.
“The end is always ruthlessly
And quietly advancing.”
But I knew better, being young.
And I would not endeavor
To understand a dismal tongue;
My dance would last forever.
Now that with Pain I’m lying prone,
“It cannot last,” they tell me,
And in a calm and soothing tone
Endeavor to compel me
To be assured the end will come.
But though it chafe or grieve them,
I find their comfort wearisome;
I still do not believe them.

“Her lines are no longer founded on self-pity or self-preoccupation,” wrote Louis Untermeyer in The Saturday Review. “It is not an austerity so much as a gathering of intellectual forces, a translation of the fanciful in terms of the philosophic.”

Her subjects also shifted to social issues: unemployment, justice, and, with the start of World War Two, the fight against totalitarianism. “Interview with a Dictator,” for example, asks “What is it to be in power, a ruler of men/To advance beyond the humble of the earth/Who strive and suffer, and fall to rise again/Begging their fellows to recognize their worth?” These would remain a major focus of her work, at least as reflected in her last collection, The Mirrored Walls. In “How Forgive the Power of Rulers,” twenty years after “Interview,” her question remains essentially the same: “How forgive the power of rulers/waging wars with borrowed breath/of entertainers who copyright/our dramas of life and death.” (You can hear Mullins reading this and other poems, along with fellow poet Henrietta Weigel on a KPFA show from 1964 on the Internet Archive (Link).

These are not, however, the poems to remember her by. They remind me a little of the Red flag-waving poems that Genevieve Taggard wrote during her New Masses phase. You do have to give credit for hanging in with her causes, though. Rounding the corner on seventy, she still managed to feel the fire of comradeship with the Flower Power generation: “We march and sing and demonstrate./We are the rebels who extol/the equal rights that cry for peace,/the liberty which keeps man whole” (from “Hippy Song”).

Instead, if there is anything to be remembered from The Mirrored Walls, it is Mullins’ poems that deal with the personal, not the social, the intimate and not the public:

My Mother’s Final Gesture

Before she left, my mother,
trying to make it easier for us,
by slow degrees erased her identity.
Shedding the meretricious ornamentations,
the perpetual hopes, the outworn new beginnings,
she covered with the tenuity of old age
her beauty, grace, the poor remains of a gaiety
hoarded against a need that might arise.
So intent was she
on divesting herself of all familiar lineaments,
she did no heed a word of what we were saying:
that we were glad she soon would be released
from the tremors of our menaced civilization,
the fears and horrors seeping through our walls.
Barely recognizable at the end,
except to us who knew her as she was,
she slipped away
with a reassuring flutter of her hands.
We watched her go toward her unknown destination,
then turned to face our own.

Dynamic of Life

Everything changes, everything passes away,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.
The joys impatient to leave me I try to delay,
None of them pause, outlast my clumsy embrace.

New flowers bloom and new songs come into fashion,
The hair of my love is black and then it is gold.
I shrink from the touch of an unfamiliar passion,
I reject the strange and new, I cling to the old.

Everything changes, everything passes away,
Nothing will heed me, nothing remain in its place.
The warmth I will need tomorrow goes from me today,
And I lift my hands and hold them in front of my face.

I wouldn’t say that any of what I read in this neglected collection were great poems. But as someone about a block away from rounding the corner on sixty, whose mother is going gently into that good night, I will say that these two were tough to read without feeling a chill down my spine.


The Mirrored Walls and Other Poems, 1929-1969, by Helene Mullins
New York: Twayne Publishers, 1970

“To a Poet Yet Unborn,” from Collected Poems, by Abbie Huston Evans

leap

To a Poet Yet Unborn

Attempt what’s perpendicular. Scale what’s impossible.
Try the knife edge between two voids; look into both abysses.
Bring back some word of wordlessness if strength enough is in you.
Write doggedly of dizzying things; with small implacable digits
Delimit space to fit the brain, that it may bulk and be.

No one but you can help us much. Subdue what blasts. Dare do it.
Ride formlessness, word wordlessness. Be not aghast. Be poet.

from Collected Poems, by Abbie Huston Evans
Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1970

Abbie Huston Evans, Poet

Abbie Huston Evans, around 1961
Abbie Huston Evans, around 1961
Asked to name that book published in the last quarter of a century that she believed to have been the most undeservedly neglected for an American Scholar feature on “Neglected Books of the Past 25 Years,”, Louise Bogan, in one of her last letters, nominated “the poetry of Abbie Huston Evans.” Chances are few of The American Scholar’s readers recognized Evan’s name. Chances are even fewer of today’s readers would.

And chances are that Evans would have taken this in stride. Few poets have had her capacity for patience and her ability to see things from the long view.

When an eye ailment required a series of surgeries that forced her to postpone entering Radcliffe College for six years, she waited, spending endless days walking along the coast near her home in Camden, Maine. Over thirty when she graduated, she still took on the challenges of a younger woman, traveling to France to work with the Red Cross during World War One and returning to the States to work in social relief for miners in Colorado and steelworkers in Pittsburgh. By the time she joined the faculty of the Settlement Music School in Philadelphia, she was forty-one; she taught there for the next thirty years.

With a little help from Edna St. Vincent Millay, who’d been one of Evans’ Sunday school students in Camden, Harpers agreed to publish her first collection of poems, Outcrop, in 1928. Evans was 47. “Read these poems too swiftly, or only once, and your heart may still be free of them. Read them again, with care, and they will lay their hands upon you.” Evans herself acknowledged that she favored things that required long study. “For some twisted reason I/Love what many men pass by,” begins one of her early poems, “Juniper.”

She could write of “The Mountains” that “they are at best but a short-lived generation,/Such as stars must laugh at as they journey forth.” Looking at the stones in “The Stone-Wall,” she could see that, having been dug up from the earth, they were “Back to darkness sinking/At a pace too slow/for man’s eyes to mark, less/Swift than shells grow.” No wonder that when Richard Wilbur presented Evans with the Russell Loines Award for Poetry from the American Academy of Arts and Letters in 1961, he said that “her subject is nature, and it is not a nature bordered by candytuft. It is ancient, vast, mysterious, and catastrophic; it includes the polar ice-caps and ‘knittings and couplings’ of the atoms.”

Some of this tendency she owed to her father, a Welshman who emigrated to the U. S. as a young man, and who worked for years to be able to put himself through college and theological seminary, becoming a Congregational minister in his thirties. Evans was proud of her father and commemorated him in “Welsh Blood,” a poem written in her seventies.

Here my own father
Worked in the coal seam
Out of light of day,
Going in by starlight,
Coming out by starlight,
First, a child of seven.
Last, a man of twenty,
Throwing down the coal pick,
Crossed the ocean,
Found my mother,
Begot me.

Evans’ second collection, The Bright North (1938) gained little recognition when it was published in 1938, but a few other poets cherished a number of poems from the collection. Louise Bogan liked to include Evans’ “To a Forgotten Dutch Painter” in her readings, perhaps because it celebrated the same attention to fine details that was integral to Bogan’s own style:

You are a poet, for you love the thing
Itself. In twenty ways you make me know
You dote on difference little as that which sets
Berry apart from berry in the handful.

Cover of first US edition of 'Fact of Crystal'It was not until she was nearly eighty, however, that she won the Loines Award and her third collection, Fact of Crystal, was selected as winner of the National Book Award for Poetry. A slender book of just thirty-seven poems, it had taken her over twenty years to write. “Words have to ripen for me,” she once explained, and she was satisfied that two or three poems a year was a perfectly respectable rate of production.

If anything, Evans felt that haste was antithetical to good poetry. In “The Bridgehead Generation,” she cautioned her colleagues,

We are too near. In the face of what we see
Silence is better than the sound of words.
Homer himself sang not till Trojan swords
Were long since rust in an old century.

Not till the tumult dies, and under green
Lie all of us, and time has brought to birth
Poets whose frame-dust slumbers deep in earth
Can men make song of what our eyes have seen.

Cover of 'Collected Poems' by Abbie Huston EvansAnd yet she remained very much aware of the changes taking place around her. She took part in a “Poets for Peace” reading in New York City in 1967, alongside Wilbur, Arthur Miller, and Robert Lowell. When the University of Pittsburgh published her Collected Poems in 1970 as part of its Pitt Poetry Series (which is full of fine volumes of unjustly neglected poetry), it included five new poems Evans had written within the last two years. Among them was “Martian Landscape,” inspired by the signals sent back to Earth by Mariner 4 and Mars 3 spacecraft. In it, she demonstrated an understanding both of the nature of digital communication and the possibilities of finding poetry at the cutting edge of technology:

I think of the Martian landscape late delivered
To the eye of man by digits of a code
Reporting shades of grayness, darker, lighter,
In dull procession; in the end disclosing
To the rapt eye the unimagined craters.

— And I see a poem, word by word assembled
In markings down a page flash into code,
And bring in sightings of another landscape
No eye has seen before.

When Evans died at the age of 101 in 1983, no major newspaper noted her passing. Her friend, Margaret Shea, wrote of her interment, “I didn’t expect trumpets and a Bach chorale, but I had hoped for some better farewell to a great poet. One spray of flowers lay on the astro-turf; on a small disposable table behind the flowers stood a box containing her ashes…. What a ceremony for such a lively, gallant lady.”

Evans was a great lover of music. She had season tickets to the Philadelphia for decades, and sometimes quipped that half of the musicians in the Orchestra had been in one or other of her classes at the Settlement Music School. And so I want to close by reprinting a lovely and funny tribute to music from Fact of Crystal:

All Those Hymnings-up to God

All those hymnings-up to God of Bach and Cesar Franck
Cannot have been lost utterly, been arrows that went wide.
Like homing birds loosed from the hand, beating up through land fog,
Have they not circled up above, poised, and found out direction
(The old God gone, the new not yet, but back of all I AM)?

Such cryings-up confound us; I think they are not tangential,
But aimed at a center; I think that the through-road will follow their blaze.
No man has handled God, but these men have come nearest.
I trust them more than the foot rule. Bach may yet have been right.

Bernice Kenyon, Poet

Cover of Bernice Kenyon's 'Night Sky'Bernice Kenyon published just three collections of her poetry, the last over thirty years before she died. And perhaps this is because her preference for simple, concise words and phrases reached the point at which writing itself became impossible. Even in her twenties, one critic remarked that “Miss Kenyon is an artist who loves to chisel at her material until she achieve perfection.” Whatever the real reason, her work is largely forgotten now, and while I wouldn’t argue that she deserves recognition as one the greatest American poets of her time, I do find her last collection, Night Sky (1951) a quiet, humble, and moving set of meditations upon our place in the universe. Take the lines that open the book:

Night Sky

Let me lift up my glance to the night sky —
More strange than mystery, more clear and plain
Than treasured truth; so shall I hope and try
Unceasingly, and even if in vain,
To know, though I can never indeed define,
The infinite way, its symbol, and its sign.

This is a far cry from the confident tone of Kenyon’s earliest poems, collected in Songs of Unrest: 1920-1922 (1923):

Security

On old interminable strife,
On deep unrest, we build secure;
And who shall find for any life
Foundations yet more sure?

For want of basic certainty
The little structure of these days
Would go unbuilt. But wiser we:
Our tower rocks and sways

And mocks the assaulting elements
With slender strength and fragile form.
And we can laugh if its defense
Comes clattering down in storm.

Kenyon began working as a story editor at Scribner‘s magazine soon after graduating from Wellesley, and, in 1927, moved over to the magazine’s publishing house, Charles Scribner’s Sons, where she worked as an assistant to legendary editor Maxwell Perkins throughout most of Perkins’ time with the firm. Her husband, Walter Gilkyson, was nearly twenty years her elder, and the couple enjoyed a comfortable lifestyle that sometimes earned the jealousy of other writers and artists with whom they socialized. In one of her letters to Theodore Roethke, Louise Bogan wrote, “you should see her: she closely resembles a Swedish cook and she wears false furs (meow, meow) in profusion….”

I suspect, in fact, that Kenyon’s poem, “Smiling Woman,” may have been a veiled portrait of Bogan, who often wore a Mona Lisa-like sardonic smile in her photographs:

Smiling Woman

Her personable countenance
Incites the mind devoid of laughter;
She is a smooth and supple lance
That, bent, retained some bending after.

Always the sun will flash from it,
Tracing that length that never broke —
Her lovely grace — her singing wite
That cuts a curved and cruel stroke.

The title of Songs of Unrest is unfortunate and misleading. Kenyon’s work was not the least bit radical or revolutionary, and whatever unrest she intended to convey was purely personal and psychological.

The centerpiece of her second collection, Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 (1933), is a sequence titled, “Sonnets in Protest,” but the protest has nothing to do with the political or economic conditions of her time. Instead, these are the replies of a lady “to the Poet who wishes to immortalize her in his verses”:

Write if you will, in each enduring phrase,
Of her whose cruelty has brought you sorrow;
But when the past devours a thousand days,
And you count treasure fr the hundred morrows,
You will be baffled with a wordless rage
To find your captive vanished from your cage.

I find Meridian: Poems 1923-1932 an uneasy mix of anger, love of nature, and the occasionally whimsical (e.g., two poems about cats). Her comments upon the crowd in “Sonnets Written in the Pennsylvania Station” seem almost snippy with superiority: “They do not live. There is not one is warm./There is not one who cares to give or yield/An atom’s breath.” In the hands of someone like Philip Larkin, such nastiness can sometimes rise to the level of art. But not here.

Night Sky is, by far, her best collection and perhaps the only one fully worth rediscovering. Night Sky collects around fifty poems, organized into four sections: “Of the Green Earth”; “Of Human Kind”; “Of One Love”; and “Of Several Destinies.” A rough arc is traced through this progression, from the specific and mundane to the vast and infinite. In “Sigrid’s Song” in the first section, Kenyon rejoices in the vocabulary of wildflowers (“Fire-weed, saxifrage, bee-balm and feverfew”) but recognizes that what endures is their timeless beauty: “Nothing lasts as flowers last, with simple form and savour;/Nothing shines as flowers shine, although their time be brief.”

Impermanence continues as a theme in “Of Human Kind,” with lines like “Thus are my walls gone down, and the tower crumbled./These I had hoped would last forever and longer” and “Of One Love” (“The stars have given no pledge that we should be/Forever happy as we are today”). As Gerard Previn Meyer wrote in Saturday Review, “Deeply introverted, tranquilly unified in theme, these poems express the poet’s search through time toward timelessness, through the finite toward the infinite.” In the final section, “Of Several Destinies,” each poem is a variation upon a single theme, that of acceptance of our limitations, our inability to fully grasp the vastness of time and space in which our life is just a blink:

For Silence

Since there is not, for you and me,
One instant of tranquility,
But always beating in the throat
Such clamor and such high confusion —
Let us preserve the mind remote,
And build our silence of illusion.

Think for a little of those shining
Worlds where no man has set his foot:
Where dark and daylight have no meaning —
Only as distance; where no root
Of deep disaster strikes and holds;
Where only wonderment unfolds.

Then you will find, most certainly,
That all you sought was fantasy.
The stream of life runs loud and wide,
Bearing us toward infinity.
How shall we learn to know — to ride
The noise of this our destiny?
Here rest a moment — rest you here,
Where your own thoughts are still and clear.

From an artistic standpoint, I can see weaknesses in Kenyon’s poetry. Her choice of words may, at times, be too simple, her statements too direct, to stand up under sustained study. And perhaps this is why, although she continued to write, she published no other collection before her death at 84. Her New York Times obituary suggested that she was in the process of compiling a four book, “Mortal Music,” when she died, but there is no evidence that she was working with any publisher. It’s a shame to have lost her best poems (such as “Never,” reprinted here last year), however, as they achieve a level of peace and understanding that is almost like a prayer. I have a feeling that Night Sky will have a lasting place in my nightstand, as a book I can reach for again and again to settle the day’s madness.