We are two part-time academics. Ellen teaches in the English department and Jim in the IT program at George Mason University.

Late summer: The Woman Within, Orlandos, & a ballad · 14 August 06

Dear Anne,

Late summer in Virginia has a beauty all its own. The sun doesn’t come up until after 6 am now (at the height of summer our bedroom is lit by 5); it’s down by 8:45 pm with the sky dark at 9. From 8 on the light has been receding, lengthening, with lovely shadows from red and blue hues.

Less sun, less heat is the rule in Northern Virginia. Not that it’s not summer. It’s still hot, but a different kind of heat, gentler if the air is as thick. it seeps into your skin, under it, heating the very pores. You feel your bones under the sweat-drenched nightgown when you get up. (The air-conditioning usually doesn’t run much at night). Of course it’d be unlivable without air-conditioning. I can’t work without strong air-conditioning at this point of late summer. I need my skin to be cool and detached to think.

Vegetation is so rich now: dark greens, late summer flowers, and I like the burnt out quality of the grass too. Autumnal.

This is odd coming from an old Northerner like me—I lived for over 2 years in England without central heat and after a while didn’t mind. In the SouthEast Bronx where I grew up I used to say we had many problems but excess vegetation was not one of them. I loathe mowing, never garden. The one time I tried I pulled up flowers instead of weeds and had an anaphylactic systemic allergic response to Nature. The bushes I bought hardly ever grow (they do very slowly) and never need watering.

I love the snow—from my window, in a picture, but also to walk in in Central Park.

But I’ve been living here since 1980 and have grown to love the late summer; it’s a kind of reverse of early fall in Scotland which I did once see and quite different in hue from Freilicher’s of New York City in the fading light of genuine fall.

Jane Freilicher (b. 1924), Dark Afternoon (2001)

We don’t get a fall like New York City’s until November here. Before that Indian summer will come. We’ve 5 phases of summer in Virginia: early, mid, high, late, Indian. I send along Freilicher’s because I feel in mood it’s like my own tonight.

I was going to try to talk about about women’s autobiographies, but after all I’m exhausted from 2 days of doing my syllabus, and putting it and other materials for my students to use this coming term on my site. This includes a powerful protest paper by a woman student who was born a Muslim in Sierra Leone and subjected to the terrifying "scorching" painful destruction and permanent maiming of a woman mislabelled female circumcision. I’ve been out with Caroline and Yvette to shop last week, to a film on Sunday, walked with the Admiral each night, and kept up with lists. The heat gets to me too—maybe I actually like this is what prompted my opening.

So this is just a record of a few things which have roused me as a woman reader or viewer in the past couple of days & nights.

In the dark hours of early Sunday morning, pre-dawn, say 4 am or so I started a deeply-felt moving autobiography, Ellen Glasgow’s The Woman Within. I was drawn to her letter to her literary executors which is printed as a preface:

This rough draft is the original and only copy of my autobiography. It was written in great suffering of miind and body, and the work is as true to actual experience as I have been able to make the written word …

My memoirs may not be worth publishing … But do not destroy it. I was writing for my own release of mind and heart; and I have tried to make a completely honest portrayal of an interior world, and of that one world alone.

(This reminds me of how above her description of her masectomy without anaesthesia Fanny Burney put in huge letters "Do Not Destroy!")

As Glasgow begins her book proper, it becomes evident she is trying to present her remembered experiences from childhood with as much literal accuracy as she can It’s not easy when your what you remember and is important to you is so little about the external world. In her case although her mother was a despressed woman who had 10 children, her mother was loving, supportive, sympathized with and understood her daughter’s love of imaginative play in (near) solitude, and become the central presence in her daughter’s short life. The memoir is an attempt to account for the introspective melancholy writer Glasgow became and the reclusive life she feels she has led.

It made me want to read her novels more than ever: Vein of Iron and The Sheltered Life. I am so beautifully wide-awake and alert when I get up in the pre-dawn hours. This too is my way of coping with my inability to sleep too long and the dark thoughts that can come when I lie in bed. I take no pills. Late at night I write (as I did last week); pre-dawn I get up and read.

On Saturday night starting around 10 I watched Sally Potter’s film, Orlando; it has many of the characters, the hinge-points of Woolf’s book’s story, as also much of its most striking imagery. After reading this marvelous (though evasive) novel-as-biography-and-autobiography, as well as literary criticism become literary history, the film disappointed me. It seemed a caricature of the book, with mockery of feminism where the book was feminist; ridicule of the writing life where the book seriously and playfully explored its finest joys and most sordid petty motivations; where the book critiqued women’s dress as oppressive and stimatizing, the film dressed Tilda Swinton in exquisitely pretty costumes; where the book is strongly homoerotic (with lesbian motifs and patterns), the openly sexual scene in film is sensual graphic heterosexuality which uses conventional typology. The book emerged as a kind of Corinne: about worshipping a woman. The one moment I can remember from this grotesque pageant that felt earnest was its close where Orlando, now dressed as a Virginia Woolf character, is seen pregnant, a stumbling civilian on the run through a terrifying battlefield.

Tilda Swinton as Orlando pregnant, fleeing a crazed battle scene at the close of the 1992 Sally Potter Orlando

The film did pick up on one motif in Woolf’s book: throughout the book there are these continual references to old women, old women rooting through the garbage of the world, during some necessary daily task, bent, broken, apparently ignored by all. And a couple of times such an image came up on Potter’s screen.

And on WWTTA, a new member introduced us to a poet & novelist I had not heard of before: here is a poem by Laura Kasischke:


I was a tower of fury and glory.
They called me Carrie.
A postman’s daughter.

The wallpaper, nautical.
The carpet, shag.
I woke in the middle of a story
about myself

without a beginning or an end.
It was nap-time, they said…

Oh, the coquelicot is a flower
which does not keep its petals
or promises very well.

My grandfather had the hand of a seabird,
and with it he clutched
the rail of his bed. Tell

your grandmother I still love her, he said. So this is death.

And the boy on the corner: DON’T WALK, the flashing
halo spelled above his head.

But the sky was a blinding cookie sheet on fire.
My mother had such blue eyes!
And my father in his blue shirts, smelling of her iron.

Some evenings over silverware and meat
my parents stared at me:

Carrie, tower
of fury and glory.
I was their only child.

And then my mother died.

The pastel soaps in the soap dish had lied.
There was a teacher poised at a blackboard holding
a piece of yellow chalk.

The teacher was death. The blackboard was the sky.

Oh, my teenage heart a little tear-drenched pillow

                 a pin-cushion without pins
                 a souvenir from a place
                 I wished I’d never been…

Oh, the coquelicot is a flower
which doesn’t keep its petals
or promises very well.
The soldiers in their bloody boots.
The defoliating breeze.

This was the nineteen-seventies.
Haunted orange, and a whole
false corpus revolved above the dance floor…

"Who cares? Who cares?" the sparrow sang to the storm…

I care, I said. My name is Carrie. I wrote
a letter to the president asking
him to end the war, and then—

One of those carnival games any child can win. It

had nothing to do with luck. Simply pick a duck—

Got a job at a convenience store.

On the radio, the cynics
sang about love in a chorus. The shadows

of burnt rubber
on a road headed north.
Feebly, those shadows
spoke feebly to me:

Get yourself a man.

So I went out and got one
with muscles and a gun.
Above the house, a black balloon
drifted slowly
toward the sun, and suddenly I wondered—

Where have they gone, those girlhood friends I loved—?

Oh, Margaret of the scarves. Oh, gentle-haired Clarisse.
Impaled somewhere on spearmint leaves?

I e-mail them, but I
don’t think they’ll e-mail me.

Another summer, and I’m stunned
to find myself attached, still, to one
of the sources of this life, but I don’t know which one…

Wisdom, beauty, lust…?

While next door, two teenage boys
speak seriously of amps
and lead guitars. But I know who they are
and what they’ve done.


I should say for me the poem has problems, particularly its naive idealism. If one wants to create a reason for staying alive and understand what is the joy of existence, it’s not in any kind of internal complicity with the social life around us or trying to change public politics.

It’s these lines when read with a sardonic accent that are the stunners:

Got a job at a convenience store.

On the radio, the cynics
sang about love in a chorus. The shadows

of burnt rubber
on a road headed north.
Feebly, those shadows
spoke feebly to me:

Get yourself a man …

And then again the poignancy and sense of loss in these lines:

Where have they gone, those girlhood friends I loved—?

... Clarisse

I e-mail them, but I
don’t think they’ll e-mail me.

At least not in the way Kasischke wishes they would.

Those of us with passionate hearts and thinking brains have all to face up to our unconquerable loneliness, to (now I paraphrase Glasgow) "immerse" ourselves "in some dark stream of identity, strong and deeper and more relentless [if we will only let ourselves go truly into it, pushing the impinging world aside] than the external movement of living."

Perhaps Glasgow is right and withdrawal means patient waiting as your vocation finds you. Hers is an autobiography of a writing woman, one of the best (insofar as it’s about how you become a writer and reader) I’ve come across thus far.

The child Glasgow conjures up despite the difference of costume is very like that of Sally Mann’s (b. 1951) of her daughter, Jessie at 9:

I talked about mothers the other day; now I’m thinking of daughters.

I’ve bought myself (dead cheap—thrown away) two more large art books filled with pictures (paintings, sculptures, other art) by women. The older more historical one one by Fine has work by 18th and 19th century women whose names I’ve never heard; the more recent overtly feminist one by Harris and Nochlin is a catalogue of an exhibit done at the Los Angeles County Museum; it’s filled with great work by known artists plus well-chosen pictures by again artists I’ve not heard of.

Women artists 1550-1950 by Ann Sutherland Harris and Linda Nochlin

Women & Art: A History of Women Painters and Sculptors from the Renaissance to the 20th Century by Elsa Honig Fine

I should have many new pictures (photographs too) for WWTTA (where I put a new picture—new to the list—by a woman up on the groupsite space each week) this coming fall. I really should return to putting pictures by women here together with bios. I’ve not begun to mine Originals: American Women Artists by Eleanor Munro whose focus is wholly on the 20th century.

Ah a letter from Tatyana. I must go read it.

Adieu my dear. I hope, Anne, you’re keeping well on that ship. I’ve written about you in parts of my coming edition of Anne Halkett :)


Posted by: Ellen

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  1. I thought I’d add the following about Kasischke from "Sidelights:"


    Laura Kasischke is an award- winning poet and novelist whose verses have been widely published in literary journals and gathered in a trio of collections: Brides, Wives, and Widows, Wild Brides, and Housekeeping in a Dream. In addition, when her first novel, the dark and violent Suspicious River, was published in 1996, it introduced Kasischke to an even wider readership. Suspicious River, narrated in the first person, tells the lurid tale of Leila Murray, a twenty-year-old married woman who works behind the desk of the Swan Motel in the small town of Suspicious River in western Michigan. For some unstated reason, Leila decides to become a prostitute and offers her favors to the motel’s clients whenever her husband is out of town on business. The night she provides her services to Gary Jensen, a charismatic stranger in town, marks the beginning of Leila’s obsession with the brutal stranger and the spiral that could lead to her death. As the story unfolds, Leila suffers flashbacks from her childhood, when her mother, a prostitute, was stabbed to death by a client, who happened to be Leila’s uncle. Leila appears to be reliving her mother’s past, moving to embrace an identical fate in a reading experience that George Stade of the New York Times Book Review likened to "driving too fast on the Pacific Coast Highway …

    Kasischke told CA: "The narrative of Suspicious River grew out of the writing of a poem, and the image which suggested the novel to me simply mushroomed until it could no longer be contained by that poem—an image of a young woman buried in red raked leaves at the side of a road. As cars blew past, the leaves rose briefly around her nude body like bloody baby-hands, then settled over her again, a grave. That was everything I needed to know in the beginning about Leila—the public violence of her life, a glimpse of her naked shame, and the season that contained her.

    "The first draft of the novel did come very quickly, and I attribute this to the season. I began writing in mid- September, and ended in October—a very dramatic time in Michigan. Color, death, fury. As I wrote, it seemed to me that Leila’s voice was part of that frantic change. An end or a beginning was approaching for her almost too quickly to record, and the trees, the gardens, the sky, the air seemed to be taking part in (or were victims of )-the same violation and disorder Leila was experiencing. Every morning before work and every night after, I felt I had to hurry to write about that experience, had to get the season into the novel before it was over, and had to reach the end of Leila’s story before she id."

    There was a film made from her book and it was unfairly unfavorably reviewed (by the usual philistine insensitive types). This is actually the least stupid of them:

    Sophie    Aug 16, 9:15am    #
  2. From Wompo:

    "I saw that film—it was very good—it depicted the underworld of prostitution and murder in small towns very well, I thought.

    The fact that the reviewer says that the Molly Parker character ‘deserves what she gets’, says more about the reviewer than the movie.

    (Also the fact that it is a British reviewer saying this about an American character in a Canadian film is ironic too…)

    Sophie    Aug 16, 4:53pm    #
  3. I thought I’d add I carried on with The Woman Within last night
    and discovered the first time Glasgow took a manuscript to a
    publisher he tried to get her to go to bed with him—very
    aggressive. When she wouldn’t, he tried to insult and bully her into
    it. When she wouldn’t, but didn’t leave the room, he tried to rape her.

    Then she fled.

    I’ve heard similar stories from young women attempting to get a job
    in other "creative" venues (say theatre) for the first time.

    The experience for Glasgow set her back for years.

    Sophie    Aug 17, 12:10am    #
  4. There was a comment from Bob thanking me for this "rich" posting, but it has been deleted by mistake :(

    Sophie    Aug 26, 2:59pm    #

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