Sunday, July 26, 2015

`I Loved My Aunt'

Stevie Smith recognized that much of life is consumed with giving and receiving casual, low-grade hurts. They color our days. Some are almost benign, reminding us to preserve our self-respect. Some are cold-blooded, spawning, with time, murder and suicide. Lock two humans in a room and someone’s ego will start agitating. A friend reminds me of Smith’s “Pad, pad” (Harold’s Leap, 1950): 

“I always remember your beautiful flowers
And the beautiful kimono you wore
When you sat on the couch
With that tigerish crouch
And told me you loved me no more.

“What I cannot remember is how I felt when you were unkind
All I know is, if you were unkind now I should not mind.
Ah me, the power to feel exaggerated, angry and sad
The years have taken from me. Softly I go now, pad pad.”

The first stanza is almost a limerick. For three and a half lines, until “tigerish crouch,” we expect greeting-card sentiments. Then comes the “Dear John.” The speaker, evidently a man, hath no fury. He is a little man, defeated, resigned, some might say a wimp. The drawing that accompanies the poem makes this explicit. The woman, seated on a couch, is dressed like a flapper. She’s smiling and looks ready for the next dance. The man, drawn in profile and only from the chest up, looks stricken. His mustache sags. His appearance almost justifies her ruthlessness. She’s having a grand time at his expense. Smith was no sentimentalist when it came to love, romance, friendship and other human relations. In the preceding poem, “Le Singe Qui Swing (To the tune of Green-sleeves)” and the accompanying drawing, the title creature stands on a swing hanging from a branch. He is male. His tormentor, again, is female and smiling, hanging out a window. The second stanza belies the drawing: 

“Oh ho the swinging ape,
The happy peaceful animal,
Oh ho the swinging ape,
I love to see him gambol.” 

In the poem after “Pad, pad,” “The Broken Friendship,” both characters are female. Here we have a nursery rhyme devoted to human hurt and desolation – Smith’s defining dissonance: 

“Jolie Bear is gone away
Easter Ross’s heart is broke,
Everything went out of her
When Jolie never spoke.” 

Smith’s persona was girlish, whimsical and faux-na├»ve. In her own way she was “tigerish” – not predatory but cunning. Near the end of her life, Smith told Neville Braybrooke: “People think because I never married, I know nothing about the emotions. When I am dead you must put them right. I loved my aunt.”

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