Wednesday, May 8, 2013

It's been close to a year since I've given you a Milly Jourdain poem. Not long ago a British journal called The Reader published my "review" of her collection Unfulfilment, and one of these days I'll post that review on the archive site. But today I'll stick with her work.

Life and Light

Milly Jourdain

The twittering of swallows in the air--
The faintly distant hum of crowded life--
The rain drops on the petal of a rose--
The fresh juice of a pale and fragrant pear,
Make up the sweet taste of this friendly life.

But when my eyes are blurred with mist and pain
And only through the choking gloom there sound
The crying needs of this poor maddened self,
Stumbling alone among the unseen rocks,
Then let me see a little of that light
Which I have seen in those remembered days.

In a Garden

Milly Jourdain

The air is dry and dead,
The swallows flying low,
When from the church beyond the wall
A bell sounds thin and slow.

Another man has died,
And lies beneath the grass.
He feels no more the heat and cold,
As changing seasons pass.

On this dead sultry day
I wish the sun would shine
On plums and pear-trees by the wall,
But that the grave were mine.

The two poems appear in this order in the collection. Once again, they seem to encapsulate Jourdain's uneasy willingness to depend on herself as a poet. When I read "Light and Life," I feel as if the poet is saying to herself, "I'm looking at my misery and remembering good things and writing down what I think I ought to be feeling because I kind of do feel it but I'm also intellectualizing and standing outside the feeling." The poem's details aren't uniformly clean and sharp, though "poor maddened self" and "stumbling alone" do work to reach beyond the ladylike "rain drops on the petal of a rose." But she doesn't do enough work to synthesize the memory and the actuality. It feels like the poem she thought she ought to write rather than the poem that only she could write.

"In a Garden" is better. The poet pulls me into the immediacy of this cemetery, the immediacy of her despair. It is constructed in simple sentences and mostly with plain nouns, and the cadence reminds me of one of those ballads in which everything goes wrong. I could sing this song. "On this dead sultry day" is a surprise and a shiver. I like this poem.

I bet you all have completely different reactions, however, which is good.


Dawn Potter said...

Following is my friend David's email comment, which I wanted to share with those of you (Ruth?) who've been interested in this long, slow Milly Jourdain project.

Thanks, your commentary as usual made me think. For what it’s worth:
Didn’t like the first verse of “Light and Life” (although I wasn’t averse to the “ladylike” “raindrops on the petal of a rose”, sound reminded me of Pound’s “petals on a wet black bough”). Its best two lines (are they the most important?) are “The crying needs of this poor maddened self, / Stumbling alone among the unseen rocks” (“I have carried my head around like a lamp / looking for light among the broken stones” – Canadian poet Robert Bringhurst), which sound truer both to her time and ours. “In a Garden” is trying for territory that Housman travelled much better. Okay, fair enough, probably cruel to gauge her against Housman, but with the exception of the last two lines somehow she just doesn’t reach the depth that’d produce the effect I’m betting she was hoping for.
Way it seemed to me, anyway. I do like the way you imagine and offer up what she’s saying to herself. Again, you must be a heckuva teacher, Dawn.

Ruth said...

"The faintly distant hum of crowded life--" and "The crying needs of this poor maddened self,
Stumbling alone among the unseen rocks," are my favorites for
Life and Light. I like how this feels as though she does let herself write with some abandon.
I can hear the last verse of In The Garden as one of "my" plaintive, slightly Celtic ballads

Nice to read some more of the
Milly Jourdain project.

and this is more fun than the typing I should be doing for 1 of my 5th graders!!!

Carlene said...

Jumping in now....
"In the Garden" recollects, for me, the melancholy of the speaker in Gray's "Elegy Written in a Country Churchyard" even to the extent of similar words and phrases.

I find this interesting. Would Jourdain have been a reader of/influenced by Gray? Or is this a thematic connection that is accidental, only left here for us to ponder by the Poetry Gods?

Christopher said...

I try so hard to feel the lady-like lack of confidence you detect in the first poem, Dawn. I lived for decades beside precisely the same sort of kitchen garden Milly Jourdain is describing, and I don't feel the imagery is particularly literary at all. This is a rose culture such as we just don't know in New England, for example, and rain drops really do stand just like that on the plush petals of roses -- she wouldn't have had to copy this from a book, I mean, it didn't need to be a cop-out because it was familiar (beautiful word in the context of suffering). And the pears espaliered on English brick walls? "The fresh juice of a pale and fragrant pear" is spot on for anyone who has lived like that -- and "the sweet taste of this friendly life" makes me homesick too, makes me feel even older!

And what a contrast to the complexities of the "blurred" pain etc. in the 2nd stanza. The innocence, simplicity, and bell-like clarity of the language as well as the imagery in the first stanza are archetypal, for sure, but that doesn't mean Millay Jourdain was somehow not quite sure of herself as a writer. It might have been precisely what she meant -- it's a "remembered" light for such a sufferer, after all, even if it's still right there.