Djuna Barnes – Portraits

The subjects of some of Barnes’s most moving poetry seem somehow dimmed or crushed by life. The dead prostitute in “Six Carried Her Away,” the cabaret dancer in “To a Cabaret Dancer,” and the woman in “Twilight of the Illicit,” to name just three examples, all become drained and destroyed by time. The language evokes simultaneous themes of violence and excess. The poem, “Twilight of the Illicit,” for example, paints a picture of manufactured decline – a kind of unmaking through self-creation. Descriptions like “great ghastly loops of gold/Snared in your ears/ Your dying hair hand-beaten” stress the way the subject of the poem has artificially altered herself (19). “Snared” gives the heavy earrings the feel of a bear trap, and “dying hair hand-beaten” uses violent language to equate the use of hair products with a slow death. The organic and the artificial combine in this poem to show us a woman who has destroyed herself through physical attention, neglecting the “sweeter gifts” that might have nourished instead of drained her body (20).

“To a Cabaret Dancer” describes a woman who might at first have searched for these “sweeter gifts” but learned through her experience to be cynical and focus on more exterior pleasures. “A thousand lights had smitten her/Into this thing” suggests that outside forces have changed her from a woman into something less human and more objectified (21). Unlike in “Twilight of the Illicit,” in “To a Cabaret Dancer” we get to see a glimpse of the before-picture. We get to see that though this cabaret dancer has “found life only passion wide” and “ceased to search” – that her desires and self-hood have narrowed significantly, she was not always this way (21). She “looked between the lights and wine” (21). She believed once that something more than destructive performance was available to her.

As a reader, I’m left to wonder how much of this destruction is inevitable for these women. I find myself sinking into Barnes’s intricate descriptions of the body tied up in endless exploitation and decay. Is this a statement on the plight of women around her, that they are trapped in lives (of vice, solitude, or both) that destroy them?

I wrote this poem while thinking about these themes, and also about my own mother, who seems in many ways to be destroyed by the violence she’s experienced and witnessed over the years. She tells me that we women just have to expect violence, that we’re vulnerable, that it’s the way the world is. I don’t want to accept that, but I also want to view her (occasionally incomprehensible) behavior with compassion.

Pearls heavy round her neck & in her ears,

eyes wide, rose mouth a thin and vivid gash,

arms empty of all flowers and frightened birds –

their bloodied feathers stuck to the window glass,

their bodies bloody mounds of rising breath,

crushed by a barrier they never saw.

This woman. Gentleness. Her quavering hands

harsh with a terror elegant and raw.

-Ash

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Filed under Week 6: Stein, Barnes, Dean, Wittig

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