Seen From the "L"

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The first and last of William Anderson's Djuna Barnes settings--"Seen from the L" and "Pastoral".

Djuna Barnes loved this--

"It is the timber of poetry that wears most surely, and there is no timber that has not strong roots among the clay and worms."— John Millington Synge

Barnes' "Seen From the 'L'" is very early, from a collection that she disowned--The Book of Repulsive Women.

So she stands—nude—stretching dully
Two amber combs loll through her hair
A vague molested carpet pitches
Down the dusty length of stair.
She does not see, she does not care
It’s always there.

The frail mosaic on her window
Facing starkly toward the street
Is scribbled there by tipsy sparrows—
Etched there with their rocking feet.
Is fashioned too, by every beat
Of shirt and sheet.

Sill her clothing is less risky
Than her body in its prime,
They are chain-stitched and so is she
Chain-stitched to her soul for time.
Ravelling grandly into vice
Dropping crooked into rhyme.
Slipping through the stitch of virtue,
Into crime.

Though her lips are vague as fancy
In her youth—
They bloom vivid and repulsive
As the truth.
Even vases in the making
Are uncouth.

Barnes' poetic consciousness could have been shocked into being when her father married her off at age 16 to his lover's brother. In her novel Ryder a father figure gets his comeuppance by being incarnated as a cow. Barnes takes comfort in animals.

Barnes wrote a story called, "A Boy Asks a Question of a Lady."

A boy is lamenting that his older brother is gone. His brother is lost to adolescence, (suddenly interested in girls) and the innocent rumpus of the siblings in the woods is over for good. The younger boy asks an impressive lady what this is all about. She asks, “Do you ever think of animals?….what would all this, you and I and your great troubles mean to them?…The calf is born, she lies in the sun; it dies.

That is dignity.” “Pastoral”, the last song of the cycle, is about animals. The animals steal the show, thrusting love, death & crime to the side. Barnes complicates the pastoral scene with her sneaky adjectives, and then more explicitly in the last two stanzas.


A frog leaps out across the lawn,
And crouches there - all heavy and alone,
And like a blossom, pale and over-blown,
Once more the moon turns dim against the dawn.

Crawling across the straggling panoply
Of little roses, only half in bloom,
It strides within that beamed and lofty room
Where an ebon stallion looms upon the hay.

The stillness moves, and seems to grow immense,
A shudd'ring dog starts, dragging at its chain,
Thin, dusty rats slink down within the grain,
And in the vale the first far bells commence.

Here in the dawn, with mournful doomed eyes
A cow uprises, moving out to bear
A soft-lipped calf with swarthy birth-swirled hair,
And wide wet mouth, and droll uncertainties.

The grey fowls fight for places in the sun,
The mushrooms flare, and pass like painted fans
:All the world is patient in its plans -
The seasons move forever, one on one.

Small birds lie sprawling vaguely in the heat,
And wanly pluck at shadows on their breasts,
And where the heavy grape-vine leans and rests,
White butterflies lift up their furry feet.

The wheat grows querulous with unseen cats;
A fox strides out in anger through the corn,
Bidding each acre wake and rise to mourn
Beneath its sharps and through its throaty flats.

And so it is, and will be year on year,
Time in and out of date, and still on time
A billion grapes plunge bleeding into wine
And bursting, fall like music on the ear.

The snail that marks the girth of night with slime,
The lonely adder hissing in the fern,
The lizard with its ochre eyes aburn -
Each is before, and each behind its time.

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