Their Mad Gallopade
- Selected Poems by Nancy Cunard
Carcanet, 304 pp, £12.99, October 2016, ISBN 978 1 78410 236 4
When male poets have dramatic, bohemian or tragic lives, it is a triumph of consistency; when they have boring ones, it is a triumph of manly compartmentalisation. The rules are different for women: their tragedy and bohemianism must occlude their writing (while also keeping it marketable), and any gift they display for normality – or, worse, happiness – must be proof of the unlivedness of their poetry, its existential insincerity.
By this reckoning, Nancy Cunard had it harder than most. She was talented, rich, generous and well connected. Though she was one of the most politically engaged writers of her generation, her politics, like her poetry, never escaped the imputation of dilettantism and modishness. She moved among literary men who eluded her (Eliot), sneered at her (Orwell) or mansplained to her (Pound, who mansplained to everyone regardless of gender). Her life was a spectacle: poet, publisher, activist, anti-fascist campaigner, champion of civil rights and racial equality, she was a modernist muse, a fashion icon, an heiress and finally a disinherited heiress. She was declared insane in 1960 and died alone and penniless in a Paris hospital in 1965 after being found walking the streets weighing 26 kilos. At the time when avant-garde art and high fashion were most closely in step with each other, Cunard – photographed by Cecil Beaton, Man Ray, Curtis Moffat, Cartier-Bresson, John Banting and others – was one of the figures in whom they converged. Gucci’s ‘Hard Deco’ line for Spring 2012 was launched in homage to ‘Louise Brooks and Nancy Cunard’. This edition of her poems chooses one of Moffat’s photographs for its cover: Cunard’s head is upside down, her chin pointing upwards and her headdress cascading down, the focus blurring and softening as it goes, until it looks like an unruly surf of platinum hair. This is Cunard as a Vorticist Mélisande, her lips parted just enough to show the teeth, and the eyes shiny and metallic.
There is plenty in the life to distract from the work, and recent efforts to bring her poetry back into view have suffered from disproportionate interest in her lovers, her money, her attire, her social status and the reverse Cinderella-arc of her fame and fortune. This new volume, which includes a substantial number of previously unpublished poems, gives her poetry the chance to free itself from the legend. It comes with an introduction by the editor, Sandeep Parmar, that is judicious and gossip-free; her clear-eyed advocacy situates Cunard’s forty-odd years of work in its busy cultural and political contexts.
Several of Cunard’s early poems appeared in the Sitwells’ yearbook Wheels, and there is more than a touch of Edith Sitwell in her first book, Outlaws, published in 1921. The poem ‘Mood’ appeared in Wheels as ‘From the Train’:
Smoke-stacks, coal-stacks, hay-stacks, slack,
Colourless, scentless, pointless, dull,
Railways, highways, roadways black,
Grantham, Birmingham, Leeds, and Hull.
What is notable here is not so much the dismissiveness – that is to be expected – as the lack of disgust with which the poem’s speaker views the scenery. Eliot’s cityscapes, for instance, have a sometimes repellent but still sensual quality that sparks the sort of alienated recoil his early poems trade on. This poem doesn’t. In fact, recoil would be a start, because it would be a version of feeling, which is a version of experience. The poem’s rhythm underscores that these industrial towns and cities are seen from a train window, and the places are chosen for metrical rather than route-map reasons: ‘Grantham, Birmingham, Leeds and Hull’. This tame, glassy-eyed commute is a machine-age poem, but not the kind Marinetti and the Futurists had in mind. Neither does it have the fine-tuned punchiness of Auden’s ‘Night Mail’, a masterclass in how to make reliability both comforting and somehow gripping. One of the reasons for the dynamism of the Auden poem is the driving verbs that power the lines along; Cunard’s poem is mostly nouns and adjectives, and remains static despite the speeds and distances it evokes. It’s not the first time that Hull has been dully rhymed with ‘dull’, and it won’t be the last, but what this poem mostly conveys – so far – is a flattening tiredness of vision and expression: the world of L.S. Lowry seen from a Pullman carriage.
It is as if the first stanza’s easy rhymes, delivered to the rhythm of railway tetrameter, are there to underline the obviousness of its speaker’s assumptions, their aristo-aesthetic off-the-peg-ness. The second stanza throws these into question:
Steamers, passengers, convoys, trains,
Merchandise travelling over the sea,
Smutty streets and factory lanes –
What can these ever mean to me?
The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.
Vol. 40 No. 4 · 22 February 2018
It is enlightening to find Patrick McGuinness treating Nancy Cunard as a serious modernist poet rather than an upper-crust dilettante with a garish life that parallels, and may have inspired, an episode of Downton Abbey (LRB, 25 January). It was through that life, with ‘plenty to distract from the work’, as McGuinness notes, that I first learned of Cunard’s existence. In particular I was struck by her obscure but direct connection with the founding of California’s most raffish city, Oakland.
Nancy’s mother, Lady Emerald Cunard, was born Maud Alice Burke in San Francisco. At the age of 18 she became the ward of a wealthy lawyer and land speculator named Horace Carpentier. He had once been keen on Maud’s mother, a divorcée and socialite; and when she remarried, he offered to look after Maud in his household in New York. Fresh out of Columbia College, Carpentier had joined the Gold Rush in 1849. Like most of the tycoons who emerged from that moment, he prospered far from the motherlode by squatting on a muddy spit of land on the eastern shore of San Francisco Bay until he could ‘negotiate’ a sale with the reluctant owner, Don Vicente Peralta. The debts Peralta had incurred defending his Mexican title to a vast rancho that covered most of the East Bay soon forced his hand. With two neighbouring squatters, Carpentier laid out streets and lots, and as the new state took shape, by various machinations got himself elected to the legislature. He won incorporation of the town – previously known as Contra Costa or Encinal – as a city, which he renamed Oakland, wangled a deed to the whole of the city’s waterfront and was elected its first mayor.
He went on to become president of the Overland Telegraph Company, which outmoded the Pony Express. He was a director of the Central Pacific Railroad and a figure in the ‘China trade’. And in 1890 he dutifully whisked his new protegée, Maud, to Europe in search of a noble suitor. She landed a prince: André Poniatowski, a French-born descendant of Polish kings.
Their engagement was announced and Poniatowski travelled to San Francisco, where he invested profitably in gold mines, railroads and electric utilities – but promptly fell for another California heiress, a member of the Crocker banking and railroad clan. Maud rebounded with aplomb. In 1895, aged 23, she married Sir Bache Cunard, the mustachioed, 43-year-old fox-hunting heir to a British steamship fortune. In London, as Lady Cunard, she became known as an unconventional and effervescent hostess of country weekends for a musico-literary crowd. She had a daughter. She became the foremost patron of the Royal Opera. She took Sir Thomas Beecham as her longtime lover. She solicited enough donations from her circle to keep James Joyce writing through the 1920s. And she promoted the liaison between her American friend Wallis Simpson and the future King Edward VIII.
Horace Carpentier, meanwhile, pursued a life of bookish seclusion. He served on Columbia’s board, and he made several significant gifts to the university, among them endowing a chair in Chinese. Maud and Nancy visited him once, in 1906, at his country home in upstate New York. He was 82 and Nancy, who was ten, was not impressed. He included neither of them in his will. Instead, he gave $1 million each (when that really meant something) to Columbia and its women’s college, Barnard, with a scholarship ‘for deserving girls, not excluding Chinese’. He left $100,000 to the University of California to purchase books and research materials on ‘the five great areas of Asiatic civilisation: China, Japan, India, Arabia and Babylonia’. He financed a home for the poor and gave a significant amount to the Tuskegee Institute in memory of its founder, Booker T. Washington. All this at a time of heightened Oriental exclusion and Jim Crow fervour – with passing bows to environmental protection, animal welfare and women’s education.
So maybe Nancy Cunard’s iconoclastic commitment to avant-garde writers, her love of jazz, her social conscience, her leftist politics and her public relationship with a black man (‘Do you mean to say that my daughter actually knows a Negro?’ sniffed Lady Emerald, severing her allowance), skipped a generation but owes something to her mother’s benefactor. It certainly bears the Oakland stripe.
All that and an estimable poet too.
David Ollier Weber
Vol. 40 No. 7 · 5 April 2018
In his long, detailed account of Nancy Cunard, David Ollier Weber refers to her mother as Lady Emerald Cunard (Letters, 22 February). It mystifies me that over and over again scholars, researchers and writers are able to unearth fascinating facts from obscure sources about people with titles yet never ever seem to do even the tiniest bit of research on those titles to get them right. Lord knows Debrett’s isn’t hard to consult. Lady Cunard could never be Lady Emerald unless she was born the daughter of an earl, a marquess or a duke. She is no more Lady Emerald than I am Lady Polly. If you marry a Viscount Blank, Lord Blank, Sir Thomas Blank, you take his surname: Lady Blank. So simple to look up and such a solecism, never mind atavistic.
Vol. 40 No. 9 · 10 May 2018
I thank Polly Devlin for her correction to my sloppy American breach of Debrett’s protocol in referring to Lady Cunard as Lady Emerald (Letters, 5 April). Frankly, I’d bet Cunard’s American crowd used just that sobriquet in behind-the-back chatter at her garden parties. But I should have done my homework, and in the spirit of modern apology, I am sorry if anything I wrote offended anyone. I now know not to refer to a Lady (unless born to the title) by her first name. In fact, it appears that when wives of gentry are addressed by title they merit no first name at all. Maybe just as well. To add to the confusion, Emerald was born Maud.
David Ollier Weber