Dasein, Red Elephant.



Scorpion and Other Poems

stevie_smith.jpg

Can a poem be as simple as this? A nursery rhyme, a half-remembered phrase and pure emotional instinct. No big words and delicate meter structures. No sentimental gushing of heart torrents, only childishness and dreamy insouciance with words that are sung in a million variations of feeling. Yes, Scorpion and Other Poems is as simple as that. I've recently finished reading this extraordinary volume of poetry by Stevie Smith, published a year after her death in 1971.

Filled with hand-drawn sketches depicting girls with straw hats, boys, thin old ladies, garbled monsters with webbed hands and sad monk like figures, Scorpion and Other poems reads like an insouciant exposition on inevitable mortality and the tremendous weight it bears on the imagination. Imbued with a wonderful subtlety that cannot be fully comprehended at the first read, lines move like childhood arias with a harmony that emanates from an abyss-like silence.

You lie there, Anna,
In your grave now,
Under a snow-sky,
You lie there now.

Where have the dead gone?
Where do they live now?
Not in the grave, they say,
Then where now?

Tell me, tell me,
Is it where I may go?
Ask not, cries the holm-oak,
Weep, says snow.

Grave by a Holm-Oak

It is perhaps notable that the 32 poems in this collection were selected for publication in volume form by Stevie Smith shortly before her final illness and they represent the work she most wished to preserve of her last years.

Smith’s poetry is filled with a twilight religiosity, a detached unsentimental nostalgia for the tragic gaiety of childhood while at the same time, a defiant inquisitiveness with mortality and religion.

You say, Christianity, you say
That the Trinity is unchanging from eternity,
But then you say
At the incarnation He took
Our Manhood into the Godhead
That did not have it before,
So it must have altered it,
Having it.

Oh what do you mean, what do you mean?
You never answer our questions

So I heard the child of Europe cry,
Tearing his heart away
To be good without enchantment,
Going away bleeding.

From How do you see?

Throughout the volume, morality fables, hymns and nonsensical limerick songs flow with a freedom uninhibited by meter and rhyme, both of which are subtly developed during in the flux of its irregularity. It is almost as if one is peering over the shoulder at Smith as she writes without revision or much forethought.

In the poet’s last hours, Stevie apologies for human cruelty, raising animals and human caricatures of suffering to the level of the surreal, unleashing them in what she calls, the “sweet prairies of anarchy”. Freed from fear of death, the mind relaxes into endless imagination. So writes Smith:

I had a sweet bird
Called Hippy-Mo
But he did not wish to stay
With me, he wished to go
Hippy-Mo, Hippy-Mo

I hugged him tight, I said:
You shall not go,
You shall stay here with me
Hippy-Mo.

Then he grew tall as a house,
Hippy-Mo,
Took me in his claws and would
Not let me go, Hippy-Mo.

His eyes were black as the night
Through which we flew,
And the lightnings flashed from his eyes
As we flew through,
Hippy-Mo what are
You going to do
With me?

Hippy-Mo, Hippy-Mo,
Brought me to a sunny land,
Put me in a cage
Wherein I rage
And when I rage he holds
My hand
So tight I cannot move
From him.

Hippy-Mo
Let me go,
Do you wish me
To die?

He was so mean he did not condescend
To reply. Even
Yes or no.

Hippy-Mo

Soon to come – Part II of this review.

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Comments

  1. Nice little story : Hippy-Mo. You’re right, there’s some form of empathy towards the poem.. she placed herself within the shoes of the bird.

    | Reply Posted 11 years, 9 months ago
  2. * Nikkie Robinson says:

    Loved Hippy mo. you kind of feel his impatience. nr

    | Reply Posted 11 years, 2 months ago


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