To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Thursday, October 9, 2008

Reconfiguring Romanticism (15): Adah Isaacs Menken, Poem with Commentary


"Repent, or I will come unto thee quickly, and will fight thee with the sword of my mouth."— Revelation ii. 16.

ASHKELON is not cut off with the remnant of a valley.
Baldness dwells not upon Gaza.The field of the valley is mine, and it is clothed in verdure.
The steepness of Baal-perazim is mine;
And the Philistines spread themselves in the valley of Rephaim.
They shall yet be delivered into my hands.
For the God of Battles has gone before me!
The sword of the mouth shall smite them to dust.
I have slept in the darkness—
But the seventh angel woke me, and giving me a sword of time, points to the blood-ribbed cloud, that lifts his reeking head above the mountain.Thus am I the prophet.I see the dawn that heralds to my waiting soul the advent of power.
Power that will unseal the thunders!
Power that will give voice to graves!
Graves of the living;
Graves of the dying;
Graves of the sinning;Graves of the loving;
Graves of despairing;
And oh! graves of the deserted!
These shall speak, each as their voices shall be loosed.
And the day is dawning.

Stand back, ye Philistines!
Practice what ye preach to me;
I heed ye not, for I know ye all.
Ye are living burning lies, and profanation to the garments which with stately steps ye sweep your marble palaces.
Your palaces of Sin, around which the damning evidence of guilt hangs like a reeking vapor.
Stand back!
I would pass up the golden road of the world.
A place in the ranks awaits me.
I know that ye are hedged on the borders of my path,
Lie and tremble, for ye well know that I hold with iron grasp the battle axe.
Creep back to your dark tents in the valley.
Slouch back to your haunts of crime.
Ye do not know me, neither do ye see me.
But the sword of the mouth is unsealed, and ye coil yourselves in slime and bitterness at my feet.
I mix your jeweled heads, and your gleaming eyes, and your hissing tongues with the dust.
My garments shall bear no mark of ye.
When I shall return this sword to the angel, your foul blood will not stain its edge.
It will glimmer with the light of truth, and the strong arm shall rest.

Stand back!
I am no Magdalene waiting to kiss the hem of your garment.
It is mid-day.
See ye not what is written on my forehead?
I am Judith!
I wait for the head of my Holofernes!
Ere the last tremble of the conscious death-agony shall have shuddered, I will show it to ye with the long black hair clinging to the glazed eyes, and the great mouth opened in search of voice, and the strong throat all hot and reeking with blood, that will thrill me with wild unspeakable joy as it courses down my bare body and dabbles my cold feet!
My sensuous soul will quake with the burden of so much bliss.
Oh, what wild passionate kisses will I draw up from that bleeding mouth!
I will strangle this pallid throat of mine on the sweet blood!
I will revel in my passion.
At midnight I will feast on it in the darkness.
For it was that which thrilled its crimson tides of reckless passion through the blue veins of my life, and made them leap up in the wild sweetness of Love and agony of Revenge!
I am starving for this feast.
Oh forget not that I am Judith!
And I know where sleeps Holofernes.

with Jeffrey C. Robinson

I have written these wild soul-poems in the stillness of midnight, and when waking to the world the next day, they were to me the deepest mystery. I could not understand them; did not know but what I ought to laugh at them; feared to publish them, and often submitted them privately to literary friends to tell me if they could see a meaning in their wild intensity. (A.I.M., from Notes on My Life, 1868)

For Menken, probably born as Adelaide McCord in Milneburg, Louisiana, or possibly Philomène Croi Théodore or Dolores Adios Los Fiertes in New Orleans, there was an ongoing play of identities: multiple versions of her birth, her parentage, her ethnicity. Her ongoing art work in that sense was an elaborate self-construction – assertively Jewish in her earlier writings, militantly feminist later on. As such the work developed a rare female violence & eroticism: “wild soul-poems” in the writing but mirrored as well in her stage presence, an actress who famously played the young male lead in an adaptation of Byron’s poem Mazeppa -- transgendered & shockingly nude (or appearing to be so in flesh-colored tights) as she made her exit from the stage, helpless & strapped astride a “fiery untamed steed.” (Thus Mark Twain’s 1863 account of it, while quoting Byron.) This was her principal & very real celebrity, which carried her across America (New York first, then San Francisco) & established her soon thereafter in London & Paris.

But her formal innovation as a poet, like that of Walt Whitman, whom she knew from the New York café scene of the early 1860s, was in the open/projective/free verse line of her later poetry. In this she need no longer be viewed as an imitator of Walt but as someone drawing like him from the Bible and Ossian (which, in her version, she makes contemporary & erotic) while driven by a very different sense of mind & body. Nor was she a recluse or an isolate – like Dickinson – but a public person moving in the company of still more public figures – Charles Dickens, to whom her first & only book was dedicated, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Algernon Charles Swinburne, George Sand, & Alexandre Dumas, with the last three of whom she was rumored to have had sexual encounters as well as friendships. Her book of largely free-verse poems, Infelicia, published shortly after her early death, caused astonishment & bewilderment, & only now may appear as what it surely was: the emergence of an unfettered woman artist & poet. In that regard her best known poem, “Judith,” covers a theme celebrated today in painters like Artemisia Gentileschi, Lavinia Fontana. & Elisabetta Sirani but seldom if ever among pre-modern women poets. Menken’s own cry of independence:

O horrible sail!
O seal of blood!
Give back my Eros!

Or in a feminist essay called Self Defence: “A woman can be strong and free only as men and nations obtain their freedom, viz.: that of showing herself capable of obtaining and holding it. He who cut the Gordian knot told the whole secret of human success – if the knot will not be unraveled, cut it!”

From Poems for the Millennium, Volume 3:The University of California Book of Romantic & Postromantic Poetry, scheduled for publication in January 2009. Earlier excerpts from Volume 3 appeared on June 11, June 18, June 24, July 6, July 13, July 21, July 29, August 7, August 16, September 7, September 22, and October 3. The bulk of her surviving work appears in Infelicia and Other Writings (Broadview Literary Texts, 2002).]

1 comment:

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