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

Poetry and a Picture: Virginia Woolf (2) · 16 October 06

Dear Harriet,

And now, followed by an appropriate picture, two disillusioned poems on how the name Virginia Woolf and legends about her are used by the heritage, tourist and film trades.

Judy Geater contributed the first:

Sub Rosa

At Sissinghurst we are meant to gasp at
the borders. No one could fail to notice the
bulging veins of clematis shinning up and over
so much powdery red brick. Who could be
unimpressed by the swags of roses, carpets of camomile,
the best Sunday manners of it all? But we came
with our vague ideas of Vita, Virginia, a friendship
under trees. Little of that left here, between
the roped-off library books, a shop exhaling pot-pourri,
scones leaning patiently on loaded plates.

We let ourselves out by the back gate, follow
the Lakeside Walk, till it collapses into nettles,
then fall down too, stretched out beneath
the cleanliness of trees, beside a scummy pool.
Water like pea soup, bright and green, on which
a single grebe is turning, leaving no wake.
Water where, weighed down with sorrows or stones,
the weed might part for you, close over your head silently.
Back in the garden the borders are busy with bees,
the air is humming with autorewinds, china and small change
chatter cosily, passion rots quietly under the rose.

by Maura Dooley

This one reminds me of Vita Sackville-West’s poetry. She was a consummate gardener, and is forever associated with Knole. Here are letters to Woolf and Violet Trefusis: Isle of Lesbos. And books.

I found the second in an issue of the LRB; it seems prompted by the sight of the film crew shooting Daldry & Hare’s The Hours, a film adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel rewrite of Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway:

The Hours

Big blocks of ice—clear cornerstones
chug down a turning belt

toward the blades of a wicked,
spinning fan; rotary din
of a thousand skates and then

powder flies out in a roaring
firehose spray of diamond dust,
and the films crew obscures

the well-used Manhattan snow
with a replica of snow.


Trailers along the edge of the Square,
arc lamps, the tangled cables
of a technical art, and our park’s

a version of itself. We walk here
daily, my old dogs and I glad
for the open rectangle of air

held in its frame of towers,
their heads held still and hgh
to catch the dog run’s rich,

acidic atmosphere, whitened faces
theirs and mine lifted toward grey
branches veining the variable sky.

today we’re stopped at the rim:
one guy’s assigned the task
of protecting the pristine field

a woman will traverse
after countless details are worried
into place—at a careful angle,

headed towards West Fourth,
They’re filming The Hours,
Michael’s novel, a sort of refraction

of Mrs Dalloway. Both books
transpire on a single June day;
that’s the verb; these books do

breathe an air all attention,
as if their substance
were a gaze entirely open

to experience, eager to know
They believe the deepest pleasure
is seeing and saying how

we see, even when we’re floored
by spring’s sharp grief, or a steady
approaching wave of darkness.

In the movie version, it’s winter;
they’re aiming for a holiday release,
and so much hasten onwards.

Someone calls out Background!
and hired New Yorkers begin
to pass behind the perfect field,

a little self-conscious, skaters
and shoppers to slow to convince
so they try it again, Clarissa passing

the sandblasted arch
bound in its ring of chainlink,
monument glowing grey against the grey.

A little less snow in the world to love.

Taxi on Bleeker, dim afternon, after
a bright one’s passing, after the hours
in stations and trains, blur of the meadows

through dull windows, fitful sleep,
heading home, and now the darkness inside
the cab deeper than anything a winter afternon

could tender. Nothing stays, the self
has no power over time, we’re stuck
in a clot of traffic, then this: a florist shop,

where something else stood yesterday,
what was it? Do things give way that fast?
PARADISE FLOWERS, arced in gold

on the window glass, racks and rows
of blooms, and an odd opennes on the sidewalk,
and—look, the telltale script of cables

inking the street, trailers near, and Martian lamps,
and a lone figure in a khaki coat poised
with a clutch of blooms while they check

her aspect through the lens: Clarissa,
buying the flowers herself.
I take it personally. As if,

no matter what, this emblem persists:
a woman who went to buy flowers, years ago,
in a novel, and was entered

by the world. Then, in another novel,
her double chose blooms of her own
while the blessed indifferent life

of the street pierced her, and now
here she is, blazing in a dim trench
of February, the present an image

reduced through a lens, a smaller version
of a room in whch love resided.
though they continue, shadow and replica,

copy and reply—adapated, reduced,
reframed: beautiful versions – a paper cone of asters,
godlen dog nipping at a glove—fleeting,

and no more false than they are true.

by Mark Doty

Doty is a gay poet who has written of a memoir about the devastation of AIDS; his interests resemble those of Woolf aesthetically. Here is an essay on Doty: Strange Paradise. Just one passage:

"his earlier work allows us to see Doty establishing his characteristic themes: ­beauty ,mutability, aesthetic invention­and exploring his admiration for other poets and artists, such as
turn-of-the-century Alexandrian homosexual poet, C. P. Cavafy."

Marguerite Yourcenar loved Cavafy and has translated some of
the verse too. Lots of connections here. Woolf might say Yourcenar betrayed her femaleness in her novels with their male narrative and adventure-structures.

When I came across the following image in Elsa Fine Honig’s Women and Art, I was really struck by it. Though I had trouble remembering where I saw it and finding information about Werefkin, I kept at it until I managed to remember and find out about her:

Marianne Von Werefkin (1860-1938), Sunday Afternoon in Spring (1910)

Of the Honig writes: it evokes "loneliness and anxiety;" seen in color

"The large green expanses of grass, sinuous blue river and band of red buildings in the background, contrast with the black, white and grey silhouettes of the anonymous strollers. The artist seems more at peace with herself in this painting."

Werefkin left extensive diaries in French (Lettres a un Inconnu, 1905). They tell of her experiences in art cliques, life with her husband (whom as we recall she left), and probably the trauma over having a child with him too. She admired Gaugin, Van Gogh, and the French Fauves; she painted and trained with a Russian painter who painted with Matisse. Each of her paintings seems cover central aspects of modern life as we see it in the social worlds we move in: I’ve seen an arresting one of people in a sidewalk cafe, this one of people at rest on a Sunday afternoon (clearly after a week’s work and patterning themselves in consolation), the one of the little girls "a la Madeline" disciplined at school into two straight lines, Autunno Scuola), of an old hobbled bent woman with a lantern in the country; one of people in a sort of Toulouse-Lautrec scene with women overdressed and oversexy (wigs, fancy dresses, lots of jewellry and men in counterpart garments); and one of nature now all red (man stands in a park by a tree); and finally a landscape transformed into industrial shapes, which anticipate Georgia O’Keefe’s large feminine imagery. Famous ones online include The Great Road; The Cart Driver and The Washerwomen.

Werefkin’s art is a fitting framing for Woolf’s.


Posted by: Ellen

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