Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka
Melissa Bradshaw. Amy Lowell, Diva Poet. Farnham and Burlington: Ashgate, 2011
Amy Lowell was long ago thrown into the heap of amusing literary footnotes. A fat rich lesbian with a penchant for cigars, who wrote second-rate poetry in the early days of modernism. Melissa Bradshaw has pulled her out of the heap, with the deceptive ease we find in intelligent, focused, uncompromising writing. That discarded toy-minotaur, a plastic souvenir from a forgotten holiday, emerges as an extraordinary poet, cultural activist, and performer, as well as an extraordinary woman.
The shape of the book matches its multivalent subject. Bradshaw’s project is transgenereric ―as many modernist books have been―, bringing together biography, literary criticism, and cultural studies, in order to offer a full cubist portrait of Lowell: a face with three eyes and two noses, an angular dress in full colour, and resting on it a hand with eight fingers holding a book or a bird or a tin of biscuits perhaps. Bradshaw herself very briefly erupts into modernist writing once or twice, but the teasing title of the book, dodging a colon in order to create a discrete but elegant assonant couplet, brings forth a serenely bright and functional prose. Meanwhile, a sparse and considered use of criticism serves well a book full to the brim with insights (a slight effervescence of theory in her section on camp feels as distracting as a bothersome fly). The stage is now set, and a new Amy Lowell is about to step onto it, or rather, to leap out of it.
The first chapter introduces us to Lowell by dissecting her commentators’ obsession with signalling discomfort or disgust at her physical appearance. Bradshaw shows how this illegible body helped biographers, critics, enemies, and friends articulate their misogyny, class-resentment, homophobia, normative socialisation, and professional jealousy. Another chapter looks at Lowell as a populariser of the then brand-new oddity of modernist poetry, by way of a one-woman campaign conducted with the astuteness of an impresario and the boldness of a fireworks designer. Her performances of avant-garde writing, coached by her companion the actress Ada Russell, brought the inherent theatricality of lecturing and public reading to a new level ―by enlisting the sound of dropping bombs, colour-coded accessories, and the choreographed entrance of stage-hands carrying furniture. Lowell’s performances come across as remarkable achievements on their own right.
In the following two chapters, Bradshaw zooms in onto the poems themselves, cutting through two thematic joints: war and eros. Lowell’s war poetry is regularly dismissed by critics as outmoded and ineffectual. Bradshaw lays out the commitment of the poet to the war effort and her determination to turn words into bullets, and then proceeds to reappraise this ‘minor’ part of her output. Simply by treating them seriously, the poems speak back with confidence, their fluent precision an achievement in polishing, compressing, and channelling earnestness. On the opposite extreme, Lowell’s love poetry, we are reminded, has kept afloat a critical interest in her work thanks to lesbian and feminist readings, which often focus on subtext ―to the detriment of the universality of (homo)erotics, as Bradshaw underlines. Lowell’s love poetry could be seen as an example to support E. Wilson’s thesis that modernist stylistic pirouetting was prompted by a willingness to speak of sex, particularly non-normative sex, at a time of censorship. Much scholarly effort has gone into ‘decoding’ Lowell’s lesbian subtext, but, as Bradshaw matter-of-factly asserts (her counter-current ease persuasive in itself), the poet is nothing but clear in her revelling on the female body ―including her own— and its erotic possibilities.
Often in the book, Bradshaw simply lifts a point of critical consensus, turns it on its head, and says: ‘There’. And a pyramid is placed before us. For example, Lowell’s body is overbearing, self-conscious, embarrassing… ―’right back at you’, Bradshaw says. Lowell’s poetic language often seems unreal, outside experience, badly overdone… ―’look again, this is parody’, Bradshaw explains. Lowell’s entrepreneurship proves that she was money-mad mean… ―’transaction is her measure of fairness’, Bradshaw tells us. Lowell’s eccentricities, her controversies, her outspokenness, are the result of an unrestrained, self-centred personality ―’she deliberately constructed a persona which must be read through the grammar of a Diva’, Bradshaw replies, patiently.
The central argument of the book is that the role of ‘Diva’ was available to certain women of Lowell’s class, time, and background, and that Lowell seized the role and used it to structure her working life and her passionate commitment to the new literature. As Bradshaw points out, it is fatal to underestimate the success of her strategy, because she managed to popularise the type of literature that was least likely to become a best-seller. One may equally say that the politically-interested insistence on the elitism of modernism, does not in fact bear scrutiny as a general claim. Too often in modernist studies a single writer is used as the epistemological filter to ‘unpollute’ the rest. As the field develops, we must ensure that we honour the plurality of modernisms and see how the star-acts illuminate new corners, rather than submitting to their thunder. Bradshaw’s original plan was to write about Lowell as “anti-Pound”, and it is good news for all of us that she abandoned that plan, for Lowell is her own magnetic pole. So compelling is the book’s treatment of Lowell, that in fact the Pound sub-section almost feels like a detour.
The final chapter considers the influence of actor Eleonora Duse on Lowell’s understanding of herself as a person and as a writer. This is, to my mind, the grand finale to the book’s magnificent performance. The Afterword, looking at the poet’s popularity with the new generation of youtuber artist-readers, feels like an interesting footnote to be expanded elsewhere. It is in the Duse chapter that we see Bradshaw again handpicking a discarded thread in Lowell’s story, and masterfully using it to bring a more clearly visible artist before us. The remarkable Eleonora Duse, who invented a new form of naturalist theatre and became associated to a “self-sacrificing femininity”, toured the States performing in her native Italian language, and managed to have a pentecostal effect even on members of her audience who could not understand her words. Lowell, who once declared that Duse’s art had “revealed myself to myself”, wrote her first poem and found her vocation after seeing Duse. Bradshaw shows how “watching Duse perform, and being swept up in loving her, first authorized Lowell” to take up a “masculine subject position of lover in thrall to vulnerable femininity”, which inspiring her to take seriously “her erotic attraction to women as an aesthetic”.
This is an excellent book which is more than the sum of its parts, with the concerted effort resulting in a new Lowell. The book makes obvious, often in very disturbing ways, how critical perception of a writer is one with the critical construction of that writer. No matter how obvious the point is to a post-structuralist crowd, it is in examples such as the moulding of Lowell’s posthumous image that the monstrous injustices we are capable of become apparent. Bradshaw’s book, as a feminist project, is a reminder of the endless labour ahead, as well as of its many bounties. Consider the difference between Dickinson as spinster recluse, or as “Vesuvius at home”. Consider the difference between Woolf as tormented angel, or as fun-loving criminal in the ‘Dreadnought Hoax’. Now consider Lowell as a fat cigar-wielding lesbian joke, or as a universally seductive, awe-inspiringly astute, creatively exceptional, and absolutely compelling Diva.
Aintzane Legarreta Mentxaka is a writer, researcher, and teacher, currently lecturing in English, film, and Irish Studies at University College Dublin. She has published a book on the writer Kate O’Brien (Kate O’Brien and the Fiction of Identity, McFarland, 2011), a book of poetry, and over forty essays on literature and drama in a wide range of journals, in English, Spanish, and Basque. Her post-doctoral research project on ‘the modernist intermediality of Irish women writers’ was recently awarded the prestigious ‘Government of Ireland’ scholarship. Her play A Pair of New Eyes, about two forgotten historical Irish women from the nineteenth century, who were pioneers of science, technology, and art, was premiered in Dublin on 5th November.