Blog #163: Henry James and Virginia Woolf: A Poem

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Thanks to Berfrois I am now a published poet. Not only have they published “Toad Trashing,” they’ve short listed me for their poetry competition. This poetic triumph, trivial as it may seem to some, now inspires me to post a poem I recently wrote for my GLS class. Though the poem is predominantly about Virginia and Henry James, Philip Larkin, too, makes an appearance, as does John Berryman. Virginia, I’m sure, would have welcomed the conversations I set in motion.

On Seeing Henry Plain
The Turn of the Screw fevered my imagination.
Wrenched from sleep by the rattle of
A dumpster diver’s overloaded cart,
I struggled for control of unresponding
limbs, aware of a tall, dripping
shape, pale and dreadful at my bed’s head.
Not Miss Jessel, but Virginia.
*
Not Miss Jessel, but Virginia,
Not pale and dreadful, yet equally unnerving.
Frozen, tongue tied, I fiercely fought
To force tongue and lips to utterance,
When she, with disturbing calm, and clear,
Precise elocution, spoke first.
“Thoby,” she said, “The birds no longer
Sing in Greek and Edward has stopped
Swearing.” “Thoby,” she said, and I,
Mute and motionless, knew she mistook
Me for her brother. Distressed, unable
To give voice, I lay and listened.
*
“Thoby,” she repeated, “do you remember
Clara, Walter’s sister? She taught me
Greek, and Antigone, too, and we talked
Much of Walter and his books. My mind fired
On the fuel of Plato and His Platonism.
Greek was my daily bread…and a keen
Delight to me, though that didn’t stop
Me from mocking Clara slightly.
‘Slater’s Pins have no Points’ is Sapphic
Mischief. Altogether queer in some ways,
I lacked respect and appreciation
For the ways in which Clara freed me
From separate and uncongenial
Accuracies. Plato and Euripides
Helped me see how our minds
Are all threaded together even when men
Are ogres, or, like you, flee to darkness.”
*
Rigid, locked in silence, unable not
To be the Thoby of her thoughts, I couldn’t
Break the glassy surface of the spell
Which bound me to my bed, as Virginia
Spoke on, trilling brightly, with a teasing tongue.
“Huffy Henry, too, you remember him?
Courtly, worldly, sentimental, vestige
Of a vanished age, he knew how to ring–
With prim precision circling slowly round–
The ordinary with the inner strange.
*
Hardy skewered him as ‘the Polonius
Of English Prose,’ and for Wells he was
‘A leviathan retrieving pebbles.’ Well said
By both, as he did have, Hardy again,
‘A ponderous warm manner of saying
Nothing in infinite sentences.’ Well said,
Even if not altogether just or fair.
*
He had a gift—How shall I say?—subtle,
Majestic, for building large cathedrals which,
If filled with gloom and organ rumble,
Also housed small chapels and the marble
Tenderness of hand in hand, with small dogs
At the feet. Timeless shades and mysteries,
Not altogether innocent, glow strangely
In the daisies on his altar, and fever my
Imagination to lambent lily pitch.
*
Though I have mocked and gibed at close of day,
His spirit overflows material bounds.
I see him now as one who, with his rolling
Tide of prose, built houses of the spirit, life
Affirming fortresses of faith within
Whose massy rims universal truths are
Circumscribed and made particular.”
*
As she sang, Virgil voiced and vigilant
There was a lark in this Virginia,
Which helped me see, sharply outlined against
The shifting image of myself, poets past,
Present and to be. Free of the body’s bonds,
My spirit soared in calm hilarity,
As, laughing lightly, I found my way to voice.
Outside, sirens called, and quick, flashing lights
Flickered soft ruby on my bedroom walls.
The draperies and decencies of self,
Those curtains hiding personality,
Were drawn wide open, as, deep within me,
Huffy Henry was set free,

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