‘First/Bunny died, then John Latouche,/then Jackson Pollock,’ Frank O’Hara reflects during a post-prandial stroll around midtown Manhattan in ‘A Step away from Them’, written in August 1956. Everyone knew Jackson Pollock and the lyricist John Latouche, but only insiders to the avant-garde coteries in which O’Hara moved would have known who Bunny was – especially since she published under the name V.R. Lang.

Lang and O’Hara’s friendship, which included daily meetings in cafés or, after O’Hara graduated from Harvard, lengthy morning telephone calls, began in 1947, when they were introduced at a cocktail party in Cambridge, Massachusetts. In a brief memoir published in the Village Voice the year after Lang died of Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the age of 32, O’Hara recalled his first impressions of her: ‘She was sitting in a corner, sulking and biting her lower lip – long blonde hair, brown eyes. Roman-striped skirt. As if it were a movie, she was glamorous and aloof. The girl I was talking to said: “That’s Bunny Lang. I’d like to give her a good slap.”’ If Lang’s truncated life ever was made into a movie, this scene might open it.

As Rosa Campbell points out in her introduction to The Miraculous Season, a new and expanded selection of Lang’s poems (Carcanet, £16.99), she has long ‘languished in the margins of American literary history; a footnote to the rise and rise of the New York School of poets’. Like many readers, I was first alerted to Lang’s work by O’Hara’s numerous references to her in his poems: references that range from exuberant figurations of her as an exotic ‘jungle queen’ to allotting her the role of chosen soulmate, ‘friend to my angels’. About a decade after it was published in 1975 I acquired a second-hand copy of V.R. Lang: Poems & Plays, with a Memoir by Alison Lurie. The cover sports a black and white photograph of Lang looking soulful in a harlequin costume – a picture presumably taken during one of her performances for the Poets’ Theatre of Cambridge.

Lurie’s memoir recreates the fervent excitement around the activities of this avant-garde theatrical troupe, of which the presiding spirits were Lang and Molly Howe (mother of the poets Susan and Fanny Howe), who had trained at the Abbey Theatre in the 1920s and had been directed by Yeats. Other founding members included O’Hara, John Ashbery, Edward Gorey and Donald Hall, all recent Harvard graduates in their early twenties, as well as those like Lurie living in and around Cambridge. Older, established poets, such as Richard Wilbur and Richard Eberhart, added gravitas to the enterprise. ‘The emotional temperature of the Poets’ Theatre in the early days,’ Lurie writes, ‘was high, for most of the younger writers and their friends were in love with Bunny and with each other. There were secrets, confidences, collaborations, poems and dramas à clef passed from hand to hand, public quarrels and reconciliations, and the best scenes were not always played on stage.’ Their first production, in 1951, was a set of one-act plays including O’Hara’s Try! Try!, a three-hander in which Ashbery played one of the leading men, John, and Lang played the leading woman, Violet. Apparently putting it on only cost a dollar – the price of a window shade for the set. Gorey, who did many of the backdrops for their productions, wittily summed up the approach necessitated by their limited finances: the ‘Theatre of Poverty’.

Violet Ranney Lang was born in Boston in 1924. The youngest of six daughters, she grew up in a four-storey brownstone overlooking the Charles River. Her family might be classified as somewhat beleaguered Boston Brahmin, genteel but no longer rich. Her mother died in 1949, by which time all five of her older sisters had married, leaving Bunny and her father, a classical musician, to share the cavernous house, though he seems rarely to have ventured down from the upper floors. Her scorn for academics probably derived from an unhappy spell at the University of Chicago, from which she dropped out. Although a life in the elite circles through which her mother had moved might have been secured by an astute marriage – Lang had been ‘presented to society’ as a debutante in 1941 – she opted for bohemia instead, taking a series of temporary jobs that included performing as a chorus girl at the Old Howard, a Boston burlesque theatre. She often came up with a Firbankian explanation for these casual employments: her spell at the Old Howard, for instance, was prompted by an unpaid bill for two Dior dresses.

The Poets’ Theatre staged pieces by Samuel Beckett (who was a childhood friend of Molly Howe’s), Paul Goodman, James Merrill, Ted Hughes and Kenneth Koch, as well as numerous Noh plays and classics such as The Changeling, in which Lang took the role of the bawdy chambermaid. In 1952 and 1954 respectively, the troupe performed Lang’s own two verse plays, Fire Exit and I Too Have Lived in Arcadia.

Perhaps inspired by Jean Cocteau’s Orphée of 1950, in which he defines being a poet as ‘écrire sans être écrivain’, Fire Exit refashions the myth of Orpheus and Eurydice into a tale of ruptured love played out between an orphaned daughter brought up by circus performers and a ruthless foreign-born musical genius, who wants to compose without being a composer. The corporate music industry is in part responsible for the collapse of their marriage, while the hell from which Orpheus attempts to rescue Eurydice is a burlesque house in Union City, New Jersey, where Lang’s heroine has found work as a stripper. It’s an uneven play, with many longueurs, and not a patch on I Too Have Lived in Arcadia, in which Lang’s poetic and narrative gifts dovetail with hallucinatory clarity. Written in the aftermath of her affair with the Abstract Expressionist painter Michael Goldberg, it is also the anatomy of a failed relationship, unravelling painfully over ten scenes of exquisitely eloquent monologues and skilfully charged interchanges between a triangle of characters with pastoral names: Damon, Chloris and Phoebe. There’s also Phoebe’s poodle, Georges, whose interjections are mainly snippets of jazz slang in French.

The Arcadia of the title is an island off the coast of Newfoundland, on which Damon and Chloris, young anarchists from New York, have settled to breed goats and escape the pressures of city life, casting off their birth names, Aleph and Beth. Much of their conversation in the opening scenes revolves around dinosaurs and evolution, on which Chloris is an expert. Their Darwinian eclogue is shattered by the arrival of Phoebe, one of Damon’s old flames, who remorselessly prises her former lover away from Chloris, reminding him of his artistic ambitions and promise, of how he had been hailed as ‘progressive – insolent,/Bold, ironic, clever, new’ – all adjectives one might apply to the best of Lang’s own work. As Damon slips from Phoebe’s clutches, her primeval lore becomes a vector for the agonising extinction of her hopes:

                                          The Brontosaurus
Stand and watch, their pale, already weedy eyes
Are hurting them, and their unmanageable crusted limbs.
They pray for conservation, while the great, winged monsters
Twitch and molt, unbalanced and resentful, in the primal trees
Which can no longer bear their weight, or hold them. In the quiet,
The fungus creeps out of the forest, for its time has come.

W.H. Auden was the strongest influence on Lang’s poetic development, and the verse of I Too Have Lived in Arcadia is as supple, resourceful and inventive as that of Auden and Isherwood’s poetic dramas of the 1930s. The dog Georges, with his taunting exclamations – ‘C’est fabuleux, Ho-ho’; ‘Maboule’; ‘C’est ça’ (when Phoebe’s triumph is assured) – seems a direct reference to The Dog beneath the Skin (1935). Lang evolves, as Auden and Isherwood had done, a language that is at once poetic and idiomatic, and in which the absurd and serious, the tragic and farcical, are allowed to co-exist. Like the Orpheus of Fire Exit, Damon is exposed as an egotist unable to resist the siren calls of his ambition, leaving Phoebe to lament her fate in appropriately primordial terms:

                                          Picking our way
Past obsolete, exanimate compass points,
Past human artefacts – the clocks, chronometers,
Sprawled over all the frozen forest –
Past our ancestral bones and scales, we’ll come.
It will be time.
And North North North, we’ll point for home.

The elegiac undertow of these final lines suggests not only the end of her affair with Goldberg, but the progression of her cancer, for which she had been hospitalised the year before.

O’Hara recalls the way Lang would work on her poems and plays ‘in secrecy, withdrawn in the big room at the top of the old Boston house’, typing them ‘over and over, sometimes forty times, sinking into them’. Her rebellious instincts and disdain for the establishment did not preclude her submitting poems to Poetry, which accepted thirteen for publication, including a shortened version of I Too Have Lived in Arcadia. A further seven appeared in the Quarterly Review of Literature and a handful more in other magazines. Lang seems never, however, to have tried assembling a collection. When Bradley Phillips, the painter she married in a grand Boston wedding the year before she died, set about quarrying a volume from her disordered mass of manuscripts, he was confronted by all sorts of editorial dilemmas. In 1962 he privately published The Pitch, with a cover by Gorey; it included twenty of Lang’s published poems, 28 others selected from draft material, as well as her two plays. Three years earlier Lurie’s memoir had also appeared in a limited edition – it’s as if her admirers were jealous of sharing her life and work with a wider public.

Campbell has diligently sifted through the sprawling Lang archive in the Houghton Library at Harvard and discovered many previously unseen gems. Lang’s kooky creation of states of unease is typified by the opening poem in The Miraculous Season:

Darling, they have discovered Dynamite,
What do you think of that.
One day, asleep in our bed
      isolated save where our hands met
Each trying to take the blanket,
Subversive, sullen, in poor health
But safe, safe to regret
And bewail and betray and to meet
At meals with vindictive eyes
We were hopeless and we were
Shapeless but we lived with manners
And we held up our ends …

Lang’s voltas are especially weird and unnerving. One expects ‘But safe …’ in the seventh line to introduce a counterblast to the malaise diagnosed in the previous line; instead, it serves as a portal to further examples of domestic disharmony. How much comfort is to be derived from living with manners and holding up our ends remains suspiciously vague. It’s telling that in another poem, ‘Address to the Redcoats’, Lang quotes a motto of Gauguin’s: ‘Life/Being what it is, one dreams of revenge.’ She is particularly good at dramatising states of vindictiveness – and, it seems, could be imaginatively vengeful in life too. Lurie recalls that Lang once took aim at a man called Parker by printing a thousand stickers with the words ‘My name is Parker and I am a pig,’ plastering them all over his apartment door, his nearest subway station and his workplace on Madison Avenue. When Lurie asked what Parker had done to merit this campaign, Lang replied: ‘He annoyed me.’

It is not entirely clear from the opening poem whether the discovery of dynamite is a good or a bad thing. It continues:

We could remember better neighbours,
We pretended we didn’t mind
That the street where we lived had no trees
Or that our children didn’t seem to honour us
We had the cracked cup and the cracked plate
We did not enjoy what we ate
We hated our neighbours and knew them to be worthless
But that was before they discovered dynamite.
Now we will never be so happy again.

Domestic conflict leaches into a wider diagnosis of antagonism and anomie, even of Cold War anxiety, and the very concept of happiness finds itself turned inside out and upside down.

But Lang is not a bleak or dispiriting poet, and jaunty humour irradiates many of the vignettes collected here. Reworking a solemn pronouncement of T.S. Eliot’s from ‘Ash Wednesday’ (‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree’), she writes: ‘Baby, 3 black/Panthers soiling the plantain leaves at the noon of day’. Hip phrases seep into Lang’s verse, and her arcane symbols, such as the White Crow, verge on parody: ‘I waited five hundred centuries for the White Crow/I waited    IT CAME IT FLEW AWAY.’ Even the poems written towards the end of her life demonstrate her quizzical wit, her charm, her exquisite timing and charisma. Here’s the final one in the volume:

If you passed unharmed through the miraculous season,
What now when the year runs out with chattering of teeth?
The embroidery unfinished, the pile of unmailed letters,
The echo in the empty well, what can they tell you?

The spider in the grate, the empty, indifferent weather
May be a clue. But better not to know.

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