Djuna Barnes (1892-1982), the lesbian Modernist recluse, always a sideline figure, has come into something of a revival in recent years. She was a writer’s writer, influential, admired by T. S. Eliot, John Hawkes, Malcolm Lowry and William Faulkner, among others. Her novel Nightwood has been reprinted and hailed as a forgotten classic but the rest of her corpus is given vanishingly little attention. Any reader worth their salt is interested in her and Nightwood is in the upper reaches of my to-be-read pile, but my introduction to her came a couple of years back with her strange swan song, 1982’s Creatures in an Alphabet.
Artists are rarely allowed to choose their swan songs and the results of that can sometimes be extremely regrettable, especially among actors. Now and again someone will take matters alarmingly into their own hands, such as Yukio Mishima mailing The Decay of the Angel to his publisher before elaborately ending his own life. However, while a slim volume of children’s rhymes might seem inglorious and easy to ignore on the face of it, a close examination shows that Djuna’s Alphabet book is a complete fish out of water. Patterned after medieval bestiaries, on every page there is an animal, some of recognizable type (quail and donkey) while others are grotesquely malformed or as chimerical as the creature on the cover, looking as if it’s a transplant from one of Terry Gilliam’s Python skits. The book, at first glance, gives the proper appearance of children’s poems, each verse made of four short lines. The first page is exactly what you may expect from such a book, a dedicatory verse announcing God’s grand design:
The adder in the grass can hiss
The lynxes in the dark can kiss
Each otter hold his otter’s hand
For this is how the Lord has planned.
So far, so simple. Then you turn the page and are confronted with a single word: Alas!
I have never heard that Djuna left this work unfinished at her death, which makes the layout especially puzzling as she casually discounts letters A to G and goes straight to H – the Hummingbird. Thinking better of this, she then loops back around to discuss the Camel and proceeds through the alphabet in quite normal fashion from there, with another stop at H for Hippo. You may start to relax as you skim through U, V and W but are then abruptly confronted with a creature that does not exist, something I can best describe as a Spanish friar rearing up on lion’s paws. As there was nothing more to say,/The X has crossed himself away./And as there’s nothing new to prove,/He marked his exit with his love. This seems like a reasonable line to exit the book on, but rather than doing so, or proceeding all the way to Z, Djuna throws in a non sequitur on the Yak before finishing off with a phrase I can almost hear being said – slowly and sardonically: (‘Round the mulberry we go.)
With the layout defying all normality attention can be turned to the text itself. It’s quickly obvious that these poems are not so much children’s rhymes as they are in a state of mad compression. The tone ranges from the occasionally whimsical, as when comparing the springbok to popcorn, to the flippant “Tyger, Tyger!” – Who wrote that? to a deliberate anti-romanticism. Though it be loud with auguries/Of summer sun, and happy days;/Nonetheless the Blue Jay is/Lined with insect agonies. Meanwhile, her vocabulary is full of words such as “auguries” and a set of sophisticated references including a Raccoon at quadrille and a Seal compared to a portrait of Madame Recamier.
What this book is, then, is a puzzle. It is not a very grand or important puzzle anymore than it is great poetry – but it is interesting. An odd bit of marginalia to be sure, but I find it strangely touching. Many of the rhymes have a melancholy, cynical aspect and the book does reward a slow and quiet appraisal if you ever find it in your hand.
Somewhat sullen, many days,
The Walrus is a cow that neighs.
Tusked, ungainly, and windblown,
It sits on ice, and alone.