I happened upon a poem I rather like by a writer new to me, Elma Mitchell. She is English, born in Scotland in 1919, and that’s all I knew about her until my guardian angel, Dave Lull, supplied me with everything but her blood type. Sometimes, less context means more enjoyment, and this poem wins or loses you on its merits, like a building once the scaffolding has been removed. Here is “Thoughts After Ruskin”:
“Women reminded him of lilies and roses.
Me they remind rather of blood and soap,
Armed with a warm rag, assaulting noses,
Ears, neck, mouth and all the secret places.
Armed with a sharp knife, cutting up liver,
Holding hearts to bleed under a running tap,
Gutting and stuffing, pickling and preserving,
Scalding, blanching, broiling, pulverizing,
-- All the terrible chemistry of their kitchens.
“Their distant husbands lean across mahogany
And delicately manipulate the market,
While safe at home, the tender and the gentle
Are killing tiny mice, dead snap by the neck,
Asphyxiating flies, evicting spiders,
Scrubbing, scouring aloud, disturbing cupboards,
Committing things to dustbins, twisting, wringing,
Wrists red and knuckles white and fingers puckered,
Pulpy, tepid. Steering screaming cleaners
Around the nags of furniture, they straighten
And haul out sheets from under the incontinent
And heavy old, stoop to importunate young,
Tugging, folding, tucking, zipping, buttoning,
Spooning in food, encouraging excretion,
Mopping up vomit, stabbing cloth with needles,
Contorting wool around their knitting needles,
Creating snug and comfy on their needles.
“Their huge hands! Their everywhere eyes! Their voices
Raised to convey across the hullabaloo,
Their massive thighs and breasts dispensing comfort,
Their bloody passages and hairy crannies,
Their wombs that pocket a man upside down!
“And when all’s over, off with overalls,
Quickly consulting clocks, they go upstairs,
Sit and sigh a little, brushing hair,
And somehow find, in mirrors, colours, odours,
Their essences of lilies and of roses.”
What first attracted me was the mention of Ruskin in the title. I love so much of his work but acknowledge that, sexually speaking, he was a world-class weirdo. His biographer, Tim Hilton, flatly identifies him as a pedophile, and his unconsummated marriage was scuttled by his apparent inability to accept that women, unlike marble statues, have pubic hair. In other words, early in the 21st century, Ruskin is an easy target for any pipsqueak armed with an ideology set on full auto, though such an approach doesn’t come close to explaining why Praeterita and Fors Clavigera, among others, are such beguiling works of art.
Had I found Mitchell’s poem in an anthology of feminist poetry, or even women’s poetry – though I’m unlikely ever to open such ghettoized volumes – I probably would have passed. Context can be important, and Mitchell’s poem is good enough to transcend the familiar context of angry female screed. I like poems containing stories, and “Thoughts After Ruskin” distills much of a life. To her credit, Mitchell renders a woman, not Woman. I also like writing that pays close attention to the details of daily life. The cumulative force of all those gerunds – 34, by my count, in a poem of 36 lines – turns a life into vigorous, ceaseless activity, most of it in the cause of serving husband and children. It’s a Homeric catalog of the home front, not Troy.
The ending is a little too pat, too eager to romanticize feminine self-esteem and turn old Ruskin on his patriarchal Victorian head. It’s the patient chronicling of a woman’s thankless life – in this, at least, she reminds me of Larkin and Alan Brownjohn -- that I like so much. Later, digging around in the midden that is Fors Clavigera, I unearthed a passage for which Mitchell’s poem serves virtually as a gloss:
“Then, for my meaning as to women’s work, what should I mean, but scrubbing furniture, dusting walls, sweeping floors, making the beds, washing up the crockery, ditto the children, and whipping them when they want it, -- mending their clothes, cooking their dinners, -- and when there are cooks more than enough, helping with the farm work, or the garden, or the dairy? Is that plain speaking enough? Have I not fifty times over, in season and out of season, dictated and insisted and asseverated and – what stronger word else there may be – that the essentially right life for all womankind is that of the Swiss Paysanne?”
He could be a condescending bastard, couldn’t he?