Their Mad Gallopade

Patrick McGuinness

  • 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 This new volume, which includes a substantial number of previously unpublished poems, gives her poetry the chance to free itself from the legend.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?

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