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 This new volume, which includes a substantial number of previously unpublished poems, gives her poetry the chance to free itself from the legend.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

If we read the last line not as a dismissal of the world beyond the windowpane but as anxiousness and curiosity about it, it becomes a different poem – more of a strained confessional than superior musings from a luxury liner. Cunard’s father, Sir Bache Cunard, was heir to the Cunard shipping company and its fortune. Her mother was an American heiress, Maud Burke. Nancy was an only child, and when her parents separated she moved with her mother to London, where Lady Emerald Cunard, as Maud later styled herself, became a leading literary socialite. It is one thing to be bored by steamers and convoys and trains; another to be bored because one’s father owns them.

What things ‘mean to’ Cunard is the question that becomes her life’s work, haunting her poetry as much as her politics: she wants to touch what she only sees through glass. In ‘The Last of Pierrot’ a few pages earlier, she describes Pierrot trying, with ‘love’s glass knife’, to ‘draw life-blood from out his painted heart/Forgetting that its texture is but paper’. The glass knife might be the nib of the pen trying to cut through, or cut into authentic expression, and finding only surface where it seeks depth. Cunard’s Pierrots are part of the period décor of the time: a fin-de-siècle poetic hand-me-down who got a second wind in the new century – most radically in Langston Hughes’s ‘A Black Pierrot’ of 1923. In another poem from her first book, ‘Poor-Streets’, Cunard writes, ‘They shall not know the tuneful words of love/Nor the impatience of imagination,’ and a few lines later: ‘Winter is your season/And all your meaning, suburbs!’ These are not good lines, either as poetry or as social commentary, caught as they are between portentous Edwardianism and finisecular languor. But they are expressive of something in Cunard – an attempt to cross distances, chasms of social and economic experience – and her poems often seem tortured by their inability to get at something: an emotion, an insight, a fullness of being or doing.

Clockwise from top left, Nancy Cunard photographed by Man Ray in 1925, with Taylor Gordon in her lithography workshop in Paris, in Harlem c.1932, in Paris (1926), with Langston Hughes in Paris (1936).
Clockwise from top left, Nancy Cunard photographed by Man Ray in 1925, with Taylor Gordon in her lithography workshop in Paris, in Harlem c.1932, in Paris (1926), with Langston Hughes in Paris (1936).

Cunard’s early work is derivative. This is not as bad as it sounds, because she was writing at a time when there were several quite original ways of being derivative, and a lot of good material from which to derive. Anyway, everyone else was deriving too. Eliot’s famous borrowing/stealing distinction is all about that, and is less a witticism than a serious comment, in Wildean camouflage, about literary repurposing and how and why it’s done: the borrower merely returns what they borrowed, but the proper thief keeps it, or sells it on, or both. ‘Selling on’ in this context might mean giving a new life to something, or finding a new public for it, or being a sort of cultural ‘fence’ – what the French call a passeur – but either way, in Eliot’s thieving metaphor, the point is not where the stuff comes from but where it goes. It is less a matter, as generally reported, of the thief’s brazenness, than of the stolen goods’ destination and direction of travel. The defining presence in Cunard’s Outlaws and Sublunary (her second book, 1923) is Prufrock. We see him not just in tone and sensibility (the Laforguian ‘The strange effects of afternoons! Hours interminable, melting like honey-drops/in an assemblage of friends’, from ‘Voyages North’), but in verbatim fragments, such as ‘I’ll tell you how the women come and go …’ (‘Ballad of 5 Rue de l’Etoile’). It must have been strange for Eliot, who knew Cunard well, to see his own stolen goods stolen – the sampler sampled. But in any case, Prufrock was a coagulation of something already in the collective bloodstream, and our sense of Eliot’s personal ownership of the Prufrock ‘brand’ is very different today from what it must have been at the time.

In New Bearings in English Poetry, Leavis dismissed Cunard’s Parallax, published in 1925 by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press, as ‘simple imitation’ of The Waste Land. This seems wrong as well as unjust. Since Leavis could be wrong and just, and also right and unjust, it is a distinction worth making: Parallax certainly has plenty of Eliotic riffs (‘By the Embankment I counted the grey gulls/Nailed to the wind above a distorted tide … In Battersea I drifted, acquiescent’ etc), but there is nothing hidden or disguised about its borrowings. On the contrary, it’s as if Cunard makes them as obvious as possible – almost to the point of questioning what originality might mean in a literary moment so saturated with models. It’s not just that the past weighs heavy, it’s that the present feels too light to bear it. One of Cunard’s wordplays in Parallax is the slippage between ‘prism’ and ‘prison’, the suggestion, as I understand it, being that the modern or modernist sensibility is both trapped inside itself and endlessly divided from itself – a sort of prismatic solipsism. That, at any rate seems to be the thread in this section of the poem:

One for another
          I have changed my prisons;
Held fast, as the flame stands, locked in the prism –
And at one end I see
Beauty of other times, mirage of old beauty
Down a long road, clear of the strands and patches of
           associations,
Keen, resurrected, very clear –
 – And, at one side
 The symbol of the vacant crossroads

Though Cunard didn’t write the best modernist long poem, she may at least be in with a chance in the ‘Best Modernist Title’ category. The parallax effect is defined by Thomas Browne in the poem’s epigraph: ‘Many things are known as some are seen, that is by Paralaxis, or at some distance from their true and proper being.’ As an optical metaphor, ‘paralaxis’ has huge potential for the poet interested in the relationship between past and present, but also between the various different pasts and presents available to her, and what perspective they can be viewed from. In this extract of Parallax, Cunard is looking, on the one hand, at a ‘mirage of old beauty’ and, on the other, at ‘the symbol of the vacant crossroads’. The feeling is of being beset and surrounded by images and reflections, of never seeing true, or face-on, or directly, and of being at once weighed down and endlessly drifting across surfaces. The prism is not so far from the glass of the train window, or the prison from the Pullman carriage in ‘Mood’. But for all its broken musicality and imagistic power, today’s reader will feel they’ve heard a great deal of Parallax before. The décor and the diction will be especially familiar, but it remains a serious and achieved poem in dialogue with the techniques and preoccupations of its time.

Leavis complained that poets had become ‘laboriously and eclectically parasitic upon the various phases of Mr Eliot’s poetry’, but the idea (patrilineal) of Eliot’s ‘copyright’ is one that has specifically hung over modernist women. The most notable case is that of Hope Mirrlees, whose long poem Paris appeared from the Hogarth Press in 1920, more than two years before the American edition of The Waste Land and three years before the British one (also from the Hogarth Press). Despite this, Paris is frequently read as coming after, in all senses of the word, Eliot’s poem. Cunard doesn’t have Mirrlees’s originality of vision (or indeed that of her friend Mina Loy), but one of the characteristics of her work is its honesty, its lack of literary guile. This quality of Cunard’s becomes increasingly clear in her later work, and notably in the poetry of the late 1930s and 1940s.

Two months before she died in March 1965, Cunard wrote an elegy for Eliot, who had died a few weeks earlier. Published here for the first time, ‘Letter’ is intimate and in parts passionate, mentioning a ‘tryst’ in 1922. It is also a revealing account of Eliot’s influence on his contemporaries, with Cunard slipping into and out of Eliotic language, unable to settle on whether to speak to him from inside or outside his own voice. In his ‘Tomb of Charles Baudelaire’, Mallarmé called his predecessor a ‘poison tutélaire/Toujours à respirer si nous en périssons’ (‘a tutelary poison/we breathe always though we die of it’). It’s a neat way of imagining the powerful poet as the air we breathe, but also an intoxicating, deadly gas. Figures like Cunard help us expand our sense of modernism and to repeople it with writers who wrote with enough sincerity, invention and commitment to retain a claim on our attention.

Cunard’s poem for Eliot begins:

It’s eliot now who’s dead – says the
            lunch-time Radio here,
      half-heard because of the usual clatter
    of forks on plates,
    The interruptive chatter …

It’s the most Prufrockian way for Eliot to go: news of his death overheard at lunch amid a tinkle of cutlery and small talk. Cunard’s Eliot is stalled there, somewhere on the Prufrock-Waste Land continuum. As she nears the end of her poem she realises she hasn’t mentioned anything of his post-1922 work, and scrambles to remember and cram it in. The result is a moment of winning bathos: ‘Straw Men [sic], as well. With, also, your Gerontion’. It’s a disarming line, and the reader likes her all the more for it.

In 1920, Cunard moved to Paris and quickly forged links with the artists and writers of the French avant-garde, as well as the city’s English-speaking expatriates and Francophiles. In 1928, she set up the Hours Press, which lasted for three years and published 24 volumes, including Pound’s A Draft of XXX Cantos, John Rodker’s Collected Poems and Laura Riding’s Twenty Poems Less. The press also produced Beckett’s Whoroscope, billed as ‘Mr Samuel Beckett’s first separately published work’. Cunard and Richard Aldington had announced a competition – with a prize of £10 and publication – for ‘the best poem on TIME’. The best poem not about time might have been more of a challenge, but the young Beckett, for once letting optimism get the better of him, entered with a hastily written 98-line poem, dropped off at Cunard’s office on the competition’s last day. In a letter to Cunard from 1959, Beckett recalls that he ‘wrote first half before dinner, had a guzzle of salad and Chambertin at the Cochon de Lait, went back to the Ecole and finished it about three in the morning. Then walked down to the rue Guénégaud and put it in your box. That’s how it was and them were the days.’

The year she set up the Hours Press, Cunard began a relationship with the African-American jazz musician Henry Crowder, whom she met in Venice, where he was playing with his band, Eddie South and his Alabamians. They lived together in Paris and coproduced Henry-Music, a book with poems by Beckett, Aldington, Cunard and others, which Crowder set to music. When she heard of Nancy’s relationship with a black man, Maud Cunard disinherited her (her father had died in 1925), and Nancy’s pamphlet Black Man and White Ladyship (1931) recounts not just her mother’s bigotry but the prurient, tittering racism of a whole stratum of British society. Crowder and Cunard went to Harlem together in 1931 and 1932, and Nancy met some of the leading black writers and thinkers of the period. She was active in promoting civil rights, and became known as a forceful anti-racism campaigner. In 1934 she brought out the anthology Negro, a historico-literary-political record of ‘the struggles and achievements, the persecutions and revolts’ of ‘the black race’, which contained contributions by, among others, Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois and Zora Neale Hurston. The book also contained Cunard’s account of the Scottsboro case.

Cunard went to Barcelona in 1936 to report on the war in Spain, filing for the Associated Negro Press and the Manchester Guardian. She was also still publishing other writers – most famously in her series Los Poetas del Mundo defienden al Pueblo Español, which included poems by Neruda, Auden (who contributed ‘Spain’) and Louis Aragon (her lover in Paris a decade before). Neruda, whom she met in 1936 and later visited in Chile, remembered her as ‘one of the most quixotic, chronic, brave, pathetic and curious people I have known’. It was while working on Los Poetas del Mundo that Cunard had the idea of asking writers to declare their allegiance: for or against the Republic. The answers appeared as a free-standing pamphlet by the Left Review, which looks, in retrospect, like an attempt to transpose the French-style intellectuel, with its engagement and manifestos and declarations of solidarity, to an English context. Cunard’s hopefulness and indomitability are admirable, and it’s hard to imagine a male poet receiving replies like this from Pound: ‘Spain is an emotional luxury to a gang of sap-headed dilettantes.’ Or this, from Orwell:

Will you please stop sending me this bloody rubbish … I am not one of your fashionable pansies like Auden or Spender, I was six months in Spain, most of the time fighting, I have a bullet-hole in me at present and I am not going to write blah about defending democracy or gallant little anybody …

Cunard was undaunted. She was also politically literate and prescient: ‘Spain is not politics but life,’ she wrote: ‘Its immediate future will affect every human who has a sense of what life and its facts mean, who has respect for himself and humanity.’

While gathering material for Poems for France, which appeared from La France libre editions, the publishing house of the Free French in London, in 1944, Cunard encountered Edward Thompson, to whom she dedicated one of her best poems, ‘Man Ship Tank Gun Plane’. Thompson (father of E.P. Thompson) was a historian and editor of the Augustan Books of Modern Poetry series, which published, among others, Walter de la Mare, W.H. Davies and Laurence Binyon. Thompson was editing Cunard’s Selected Poems, and the two worked closely on its composition. His sudden death in 1946 put an end to the project, and it was never revived. It would have helped Cunard to have a solid, discriminating Selected to shore up her reputation after the war.

‘Man Ship Tank Gun Plane’ combines the immediacy of reportage with a sense of what we might call the modernist longue durée: the past inhabiting the present that we find in Apollinaire, Pound, Eliot or Ungaretti. It opens with a powerful description of the aural effects of bombs: ‘GUNS far away – then last, closest. And ring-wise or splayed out?’ Newsreel is influential on the poetry of the 1940s, not only for the way it combines the visual with voiceover, but for enabling the poem to flit between narrative sequencing and narrative splicing. To these resources, Cunard adds a mythical overlay, with traces of the sort of language we find in Dylan Thomas and the New Apocalypse poets:

Rage rave in your high loft majestic – for
look, now the wild
          horses have it
Burst loose in the dizzy skies in their crazy
mad gallopade,
Rearing-careering – like planes, yes … can
hear them – and
          roaring-careening,
Part-sound, part-vision, part-sensed, planes
sniped in an air
          enfilade.

‘Man Ship Tank Gun Plane’ imagines a peace with ‘The secular flight of lone heron in lieu of massed iron wing … and ruins where only the long-dead sing.’ The dead and long-dead distinction is more than a play on words, while the ‘ruin’ is redeemed in peacetime as something ancient and binding rather than the ravages of aerial bombing. The poem ends with a Middle-English-infused machine-age version of swords-into-ploughshares:

Freedom into fulfilment. Then yes, to a
measure of heart’s ease,
In a room at The Rising Sun, with a drink to
all races’ increase –
The landscape no longer khakied, the man
          on the rick with the hayfork,
And the tank led out with the horse to
furrow – Piers Plowman at peace.

The postwar years found Cunard unsettled, isolated, thwarted, harried by financial problems and mentally and physically ill – though she remained determined and idealistic. That part of her life belongs to biographers, but it’s difficult not to read one of her earliest poems, ‘Lament’, as a self-epitaph in the tradition of Villon, Corbière and her fictional contemporary Hugh Selwyn Mauberley:

I am an exiled king without his crown,
A dying poet with a tattered mask,
A starving beggar who may nothing ask,
And a religion that has been cast down.